At the moment Darren Aronovsky is riding high with “Black Swan,” his ballet movie about the dual nature of women, that old virgin/whore split with stereotypes intact and dosed up with a bit of horror. (I haven’t seen it.) But an earlier movie is “The Fountain,” a syncretistic spiritual triptych about death in three aspects: the modern scientific determination to overcome death; the Spanish Inquisition’s understanding of suffering death and damnation; and the Mayan idea of death as a resurrection/rebirth. Somehow the answer comes out Buddhist, yin/yang, two things meshing together -- the main character clasps his hands with “the woman on top.” Maybe always the best stories are the reinventions of very old ones.
All through this movie I kept thinking of H. Rider Haggard’s African novel, “She,” in which a glorious woman, when aged, can step into a shaft of fire that returns her to youth. The hero has no such magic, so he must meet her again and again through history as a sort of reincarnation. I read it in high school and can almost tell you where it was on the shelf in the stacks, not on the open shelves. Even then it was a bit of a moldy oldy, but for days and weeks I was hypnotized.
Some of our best thinkers believed that once we saw the photo of the planet taken from outer space, our religions would ALL have to make room for it and certainly I saw it tacked up behind the altar in the old Heart Butte Catholic church. It is the motif for the Whole Earth Catalog that was and is a sort of Bible for some of us. But now we’ve become ever more photographically overwhelmed by the gorgeousness of outer space in the star nurseries where we see a dance that happened millions of years ago and then again we are ravished by the echoing beauty of the inner webbing of our own bones or of sea coral or the deep filamental structure of cells. We can see the atoms in molecules which look like the stars in the galaxies. A symmetry. A map to awe.
The dark promise of wealth that was Africa has now given way to the vegetal promise of Meso-American jungles, tropical trees with magical bark -- maybe truly that second tree from the Garden of Eden, the one everyone forgets except in this movie. Give up good and evil and apples. What about the bark of the tree of eternal life?
In the “transcendent” spaceship part of the story, the man and the remnants of a tree journey together in a bubble. Any Blackfeet could recognize this as a burial tree, but it is subtly alive. When the man puts his hand near, the hairs on it, like the hairs on his lover’s nape, stir and reach. "Everything is all right," he whispers.
Netflix gave this movie 2 stars. IMDB gives it more than 7. There are a LOT of reviews. Here’s an “intellectual” quote from “warren-10 in SF”
“I would like to read Paul Schrader's review of this film. Not because he wrote the screenplay for Taxi Driver, but because he wrote a book about "Transcendental Style in Film" and "The Fountain" is certainly in this category of film-making.
“Because of Schrader's book, I've been viewing as many films by Dreyer, Ozu, and Bresson, that I can lay my hands on – especially those by Robert Bresson. There are many parallels between Aronofsky's film and Bresson, and yet their style is completely different – it's like comparing a Tintype photograph with a Van Gogh: Bresson is understated while Aronofsky is over the top.” O starry night!
Another reviewer says more simply: “It is an art film, a discussion piece, a beautiful poem about the fragility of life and the idea of forever.”
I say this is syncretistic religion, gathering up symbols we’ve all learned, giving them vivid embodiment, and coming to what might be called (WAS called) “the perennial philosophy,” -- http://www.amazon.com/Perennial-Philosophy-Aldous-Huxley/dp/0060901918 -- that everything is connected, everything is moving, nothing is ever lost -- only transformed.
One of the virtues of this movie is that it doesn’t preach all that much -- its principle is “show -- don’t tell.” So we see this male goal-oriented handsome conquerer (one of Hugh Jackman's other roles was “Wolverine.”) is so focused on saving his wife that he has no time for her. He’s a brain surgeon!! Rachel Weisz as the wife has a patient strength. (She had a child with Aronovsky, who clearly thinks a movie director is as good as a brain surgeon.) She writes, which is one way the action story is folded in. When we get to the Mayan warrior with the flaming sword who guards the tree (the Green Knight) he is more amazing than armor, but more of a Blakean event than Vesuvial. A true Green Man. So now we’re in Celtic territory.
I’m trying to give you some reference handholds. In case you’ve mislaid your Joe Campbell and someone borrowed your Mircea Eliade books, you might try this website. http://www.religionandnature.com/
The amber-streaked sepia frames are like old master paintings. I always appreciate the crew discussions of what they were doing. This movie is remarkable for the handling of light by cinematographer Matthew Libatique (from Queens, NYC) and the sets by James Chinlund, who looks like a kid with a blonde ponytail but is clearly far beyond that. These are people who work together repeatedly.
The idea here is that everything is a sort of passage, that legendary experience of dying in which one moves down a dark tunnel towards a bright light which some believe is also what it feels like to be born. Every set is a hallway, a canyon, a tunnel, a long entryway -- all bordered by lights like an airport runway. A car rushes along a road upside down, there’s a camera somersault and it goes on rightsideup. The same thing happens with a galloping horse. The light is golden, muted, speckled with candle flames or small fires, or -- in the lab hallway -- lit by successive pools of overhead light. When there is an epiphany, the screen floods with white light, usually justified realistically: the hero throws the doctor against the closed blinds which fall, letting in direct sunlight.
This is trivia from imdb.com. “Tom's last name is Creo which is Latin for "I create." Creo also means "I believe" in Spanish. Izzi Creo (the version of her name on her grave) is a close phonetic translation for "Y sí, creo," Spanish for "And yes, I do believe". What this means to me is that at last maybe we’re getting past the obsession with whether there is “god the father” and getting to “world.” With strong hints of “woman as tree.” The old UU hymnal had on its cover Yddrasill, the world tree, which leans over the spring of eternal life (okay, fountain if you must) and drops acorns into the water which are eaten by salmon who therefore become wise. (The only nut-eating fish I know of are in the South American tropics where they swim under flooded jungle.)
The circles recur and recur. In the end the man makes ink over a little fire and draws circles up his arm, echoing the circles of trees that record the years. I have a near-irresistible impulse to get a Sharpie and draw rings up my arm. Maybe I will.