Thoughts On: The Fountain
A man in three different timelines, past, present and future, loses his wife.
This is a picture I respect, but only like so much. I love its design both on screen and in the script. Aronofsky puts to film an astonishing visual narrative that is irrefutably something we don’t see too often. Moreover, from the script we see a phenomenal approach to telling this rather simple story, to putting across a message of love, sacrifice and pain we’ve seen so many times…
I could provide a plethora more films, but, what matters is that The Fountain is something special – and that’s what I’ll be talking about in a moment. First, I have to say that it is definitely one of Aronofsky lesser films, coming a few rungs above Noah. This comes down to the characterisation and how it fails to coherently translate the thematic ideas of the complex visuals and story design. In such, I mean to suggest that the relationship between Jackman’s and Weisz’s characters do not demonstrate a palpable love, one that stands in reason of the giant romantic strokes the film splays across screen. In such, I see a pretension in the character work, which is a shame, because I fully comprehend the weight and intention of this film, it’s just not put forward by the writing of these characters nor the acting put forth by Jackman and Weisz. In this critique, I sense an opposing argument for the character work here, a suggestion that they do communicate a strong bond – but, ultimately, it’s just one I don’t sense. Each of the films above may be examples to you of great romantic character work from my perspective, examples that unfortunately blow the characters and performances here out of the water. That said, I leave the point of criticism as openly subjective – just my opinion.
Intro over, let’s get into the meat of this film and what it stands for to me. As in a few of Aronofsky’s films (Noah and Pi most prominently) there are theological themes present here. These elements are latched onto the awe-inspiring imagery, most obviously, the tree:
In this appeal to religious ideas, I see no weight in this film as one with much to say, instead one that points a finger elsewhere as the source of its ideas. The most poignant aspects of this movie that supersede the religious themes are instead found in the romantic themes of love as well as the structuring of the story. As mentioned, this is essentially the same story told three times over; a man loses his wife (as represented by the queen and the solider’s appointed task) in the 16th century, a man loses his wife in modern times to cancer, and a man mourns/loses his wife (as represented by a tree that provides life, meaning and so on) in the 26th century. The basic and very direct thing we’re being told of is then quite simply that this man loves his wife…
This is the only extent to which the film’s narrative really needs to be outlined. A man loves his wife. There is more to be said when we reach the end, when we are hit with themes of resolution, of a strength to move on, but the former is what we’ll stick with for this talk. To expand on this notion of love, the film, with great profundity and dexterity, illustrates the bond between these two characters on an introspective, physical and prospective scale. The introspective means of talking of love is through the past. Tom reads Izzi’s book simultaneously taking the same emotional journey he does with her as she deteriorates before him by seeing himself in the soldier. The physical means of putting across this idea of love is through the present, through Tom doing anything he can to save his wife. The last prospective means is in the futuristic sequences where Izzi is a memory or mere symbol. What this trichotomy illustrates is how Tom’s perspective is coping with the singular idea of losing his wife. In each sequence he sees himself as failing, he sees himself on a journey, one that may be futile or impossible, to save Izzi. With the end comes her death and with that an affirmation that it is her life being lost, that it is not his burden to save her.
It’s this intricacy demonstrated through the structuring of the film that is the most expressive aspect of this movie and it essentially deals with the crucial concept of self-centricness. This is something often perceived as antithetical to the idea of romance. Romance is often portrayed as giving, as loving, as being the polar opposite of selfishness. This is a deeply faulted way of looking at human emotion. This is what Tom learns. In the start of the narrative Tom perceives love as doing whatever you can for the unit that is a couple, through his journeys toward saving his wife, he learns that it is only himself that wants to keep her from death. In this, he learns of his selfish grip on her. Now, it’s here where semantic discourse is imperative. I am not saying that Tom being selfish is a negative thing. I am actually saying that love itself is a selfish emotion/thought/act, I am saying that Tom realising this gives him control over how he applies this concept of loving. He interprets the feelings he holds, the will-shattering misery he is consumed by when watching his wife decay before him, as incentive to stop the decay, to keep her by his side so he can at least try to help. When he’s able to begin to forgive himself, he essentially learns that he is not in control of what happens to her, that his love is a means of keeping himself happy via another person (that also keeps herself happy through him). In recognising this he sees that by keeping her in pain, in the existential suspension of near-death, he is not only hurting her, but himself also. This is why he has to let go. The preciousness of this realisation is thus echoed through the different eras and bodies to suggest that his entire perspective has to change. It’s not just his view of the present situation that must change, but his perception of the past and what is to come from the future. He essentially learns of his own protagonist-ship (I know, a made up word) as a human, not as a changing mindset. To clarify, he recognises that he was always self-centric in his relationship with Izzi; when they were getting along, when she fell ill, everything before, in the present, and will be ten, twenty or thirty years down the line. He will always love his wife, he will always love her in the same manner – self-centrically.
Why is this such an important realisation? It’s an important realisation because it clarifies what humanity is on deeply existential terms that you almost never see put in the public eye in a direct, honest and tangible manner. Everything people do is for ourselves, is to continue the spark of life in our bodies burning on. This is a concept I’ve touched on a plethora of times on the blog, but I will digress again for the umpteenth time. We love as to say that we need someone, so that we can establish an exchange of emotion and communication between ourselves as to facilitate a chemical rush in our bodies. Loving someone is all about using them as a means of getting your brain to slip you a dose of good feelings. The same may be said about almost all social conceptions. This is all about building upon the platform of survival we establish by eating, drinking, sleeping, reproducing and staying safe. We love and perform a plethora of other social acts so that we aren’t merely surviving, but living with a higher ‘quality of life’ – one dictated by how much we’re slipped doses of good feelings, and of the quality of those chemical rushes.
This idea is the fundamental starting point of a much larger philosophy of thinking. If, through our actions and intentions, humans are inescapably self-centric, then we perceive the universe as revolving around ourselves. This beautifully honest admission allows one to look at the world through a conscious veneer whereby there are few mysteries of human behaviour. This is crucial because it first and foremost allows us to understand one another; to see other people as ourselves in different shoes. This then supports a very healthy interaction between the individual’s idea of self and of the collective. It’s not about togetherness, it’s about having the tools to clear ones mind enough to see how the individual needs the collective at times – and that that’s all that matters. There wouldn’t be a stigma attached to a concept of selfish through this kind of perspective. And if you’d allow me to prognosticate with all self-aggrandisement for a moment, I see this as the singular greatest mishap of how everyone in the world perceives each other. It is seen as good to advocate ideas of love and equality, but without justification. I put forth the justification here and thereby make a call to change the conception of words such as ‘love’, ‘goodness’ and ‘equality’. These are words with an awful lot of subtext that blinds and confuses people. To ask what love is may put you in a maelstrom of philosophical though. If you asked someone to provide you with their definition of love, you’d get abstract or completely banal answers – maybe a refusal. This perspective of words such as love is what drives so much confusion into so many people. The same may be said with almost any words that can pack a huge emotional punch or are there to define such a blow. Words such as ‘happiness’, ‘fulfillment’, ‘sadness’, ‘hatred’. All of these terms say a lot to us on an emotional level, when you read them you immediately know what I’m talking about. But, they’re almost always incredibly difficult to articulate. They essentially become tantamount to colours. This is…
… red. But, what is red? This is a difficult question. One you may answer by giving a description of how it makes you feel, or maybe a physical description of its wavelength. However, because those definitions are so complex or abstract, we’re left incapable of succinctly defining what we perceive above without using the word red. This isn’t a major problem as a tiny percentage of people are colour blind. However, many people who don’t think to, or want to, take the time to sit down and define to themselves all of life’s hard questions such as what is love? are metaphorically colour blind. It is this deficit of philosophical thought that is the fundamental source of almost all actions or events you can possibly label as problematic. It’s all about communication. People don’t have the tools to talk about the same thing. The dictionary fails humanity in respect to existentials as it fails to see the human psyche as self-centric for fear of this terrible concept we stick to call selfishness. This concept, this idea, is the bane of clarity in all endeavours of human communication. It doesn’t split us apart, it refuses to let us see where we stand.
The final point I can then make is in relation to the universe around ourselves as conscious things that I can, unfortunately, no better put to you without the word human. Because we are human in this universe, we live under two crucial rules. The first is of an unfathomable unknowing and the second is of an inescapable entropy. Because we have to call ourselves human in respect to everything encapsulating consciousness, the mind, the self, all bolstered inside of our fleshy vessels, we only have the capacity to understand that we alone exist. This solipsism is essentially the product of us not being able to know other structures in this universe, let alone the universe alone, as we do ourselves. We cannot conceive of a rock, a dolphin, a breeze, as we could the person next to us. We can assume that person is not so different from ourselves in an existential respect. However, the same cannot be said for the rock, dolphin or blowing air. We don’t know of their internal makeup. This forces us into one existential puddle called ‘human’ in this universe. We are, by design of never being given any answers, alone in this reality. What’s more, the ultimate rule of the universe as perceived by a human is of entropy, is of a constant change of state towards what we would best define as destruction (something humanly incomprehensible). This leaves the human both alone in this infinite void and under constant threat of annihilation. By this I do not mean to point towards notions of aliens, asteroids or solar flares demolishing Earth. The threat is the physical movement of the universe itself. Everything changes state. This means humans die, this means species go extinct, this means the atoms in our bodies don’t want to stay in this state forever. A possibly frivolous extension of this notion is that this movement towards change exists in us, that it is something conducive to profound questions of human behaviour. As said, all we do is to survive, this is a very important idea, one capable of aiding the way all people think. But, why do we want to survive? This is something a human cannot answer because the universe has not given us these answers through our biology or physical makeup. And its here were you may insert the philosophical notion that what exist externally may exist internally also. In other words, because the universe is in a constant entropic flux of change, one towards what humans would call disaster, maybe that’s what we’re driven towards from the inside also. Nonetheless, this speculation helps no one as it is nothing we can possible control or truly perceive even on an introspective and emotional level.
With us being human in this particular way, with this view of the universe, we quite simply live in a harsh reality – one that will have us dead and for no particular reason. It is with this concept combined with ideas of survival that reality becomes romance. We blindly clutch one another out of fear, but that’s ok. It’s ok because we choose to accept it, to construct our own reality (the world around us) and cushion it with ease by understanding our own selfish desires. Such is a beautiful philosophy of living and life, one The Fountain proves an intricate testament to.
Bronson – The Existential Imprisonment
Forrest Gump – The Infinite Story
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