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Judge Bill Gibron • Location: Tampa, FL
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Seeing the Light
December 7th, 2006 9:26AM

When did moviegoers, including those in the so-called critical class, get so stupid? When, exactly, did they decide to turn off their brains, sitting back mindlessly and demanding that everything in an entertainment be explained to them? Was it when marketing became master of the cinematic domain, when test screenings and focus groups stole creativity out of the hands of the artist? Maybe it was during the days of the high concept, when narrative didn't need to be deep or intricate - it just needed to connect instantly with an audience. Home video definitely drove a stake in the heart of cinematic intellectualism. Once everyone had access to the world's wealth of film, the backseat scholarship began, and as a result, the creation of false perception. Granted, viewing a masterpiece like 2001 on a 13" screen is not the proper way of determining Kubrick's overall approach to science fiction, yet such an aesthetic has long since become the norm. As a result, all of these factors have fooled faux cinephiles into believing they understand the nature of movies. Unfortunately, if they did, they wouldn't now be bellyaching about Darren Aronofsky's latest masterwork.

At its core, The Fountain is a film about accepting death. It's about losing someone you love and learning to cope with the pain. It's mortality as viewed through the central characters of the story, each one presenting their own position on the afterlife in ancient (Izzy) and futuristic (Tommy) terms. For our heroine, the sudden arrival of the end (in the form of an inoperable brain tumor) represents a time of reflection and peace, a chance to put all her most precious thoughts down on paper to share with the man she adores. For our hero, cancer is a pariah, a conquest to overcome, a macho measure of his manhood that will either confirm or corrupt his entire world. As portrayed by Hugh Jackman (batting a big two for two this year after Christopher Nolan's amazing The Prestige) and the radiant Rachel Weisz, Tom and Izzy are drifting apart, at cross-purposes about her oncoming mortality. He's a research scientist obsessed with saving her. She's learning to cope. He can see nothing outside his potential role as savior. She just wants attention. All throughout the story, Tom has opportunities to really connect with his wife, to make her last few months (Weeks? Days? Hours?) of life seem serene. Instead, he is Hellbent on battling her disease both as a way of saving her life, but also as a way of avoiding the issue in himself.

Jackman does a very interesting thing here, as does Aronofsky. This is not a big picture film, no matter the amazing vistas (Mayan temples, outer space) we end up visiting or the universal emotions being explored. No, both actor and director keep the movie very insular and internalized. Sets are restricted to rooms, corridors, halls, and dense jungle glens. Feelings are set within the barest of basics - happiness and sadness, success and failure. The intriguing Inquisition sequence that starts off Izzy's book (which gives the film its title) is perhaps the sole circumstance in which the world we are experiencing does not come as a direct reflection of our lover's lives. Indeed, Aronofsky seems to be using the set-up to suggest that traditional spirituality read: religion is so restrictive in its positions (post-modern or otherwise) that such an outward investigation of the afterlife is warranted. Indeed, the fictional Spanish Queen is seeking such salvation. Her conquistador tempts its fate. Similarly, our interstellar traveler puts his faith in an ancient Mayan myth. His goal seems as strange and evocative as the entire process of dying.

Yet, somehow, this is all baffling to filmgoers. They see Aronofsky jumping through time and the cosmos and consider this the narrative equivalent of Billy Pilgrim unstuck in the epoch and equally confused. But it's all so obvious, if one merely gets involved in the story. There is no "real" Mayan storyline it is the tale Izzy tells in her book. There is no space bubble traveling to Xibalba it's just part of Tommy's interpretation of how Izzy's tale should end. Between the daily struggles to deal with the disease, this couple is losing its grip, grabbing onto fantasy as a way of finding fulfillment and peace. If you simply view all the fantasy material in light of the individual's producing it, Aronofsky's purpose becomes crystal clear. Then, the depth of his designs, and all the little details that go with it, turn something internal and emotion driven into an epic of universe-like proportions. You don't need a perfect score on some Mensa movie maven test to understand this. There are no hidden signals or symbols one must decipher to draw this conclusion. If one would simply switch on their inherent intellect, they'd see the truth behind the tricks that is, that The Fountain is an astonishing, evocative experience.

9.5 out of 10

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