by Lucius Shepard
November 28, 2006
Generally speaking, American movies these days are less records of a time, a reading taken on the public humor, a register of the emotional temperature of the nation at a particular moment, than they are appeasements designed to comfort an audience, to assuage its appetite for truth, beauty, etc., by offering the celluloid equivalent of a doggie treat. Take, for instance, the latest Denzel Washington vehicle, Déjà Vu. You might think that a motion picture that cites Katrina, 9-11, and Oklahoma City, and begins with a horrific act of terrorism, would scarcely typify this kind of filmic stroking, but it most assuredly does. The destruction of the New Orleans ferry, the Sen. Alvin T. Stumpf, with which the film opens, is rendered with a loving pyrotechnic splendor that makes it plain that Hollywood has overcome its stated reluctance to depict the mass murder of Americans, more than five hundred of them in this instance. . . and not only have they overcome it, but they have chosen to portray it with a relish previously reserved for the climactic scenes of James Bond movies wherein the villain is reduced to a scatter of dark atoms. As the flames billow upward, as the burning bodies of sailors, small children, and pretty moms pinwheel into the Mississippi, one expects to hear a coloratura soprano in full throat backed by the inspirational stylings of the Welch Men’s Choir, celebrating the event in glorious song, and the reaction provoked is not revulsion, but more on the order of Zowie!, that blew up real good.
Into the resultant carnage of bloody bandages and scorched dolls and body bags like black fruit comes ATF Agent Doug Carlin (Washington), a man, we are told, of extraordinary competence, capable of discerning clues in a crime scene that others might overlook. One such clue is the corpse of a beautiful young woman, Clare Kuchever (Paula Patton), her remains mixed in with the victims of the explosion, but who apparently died some time previous to the terrorist act. Carlin is offered the chance to join a special FBI unit bent on solving the crime. Though the Federal Government proved incapable of busing Katrina victims out of the Superdome in a timely fashion, we are supposed to accept that they have been able, in short order, to mount a massive and highly technical operation that allows them to look back in time four and a half days. Some suspensions of disbelief are nigh on impossible to manage.
Déjà Vu is a chase picture, and, as long as you keep munching your popcorn and don’t care too much that the premise of time travel (or viewing the past) is presented as though it were the byproduct of an eyes-closed wish and a magic bean, the initial two-thirds of the film make for a fairly serviceable thriller. As Carlin tumbles to the fact that the unit is, indeed, looking into the past (via a wormhole, of course—“wormhole” being techspeak for magic bean), he becomes increasingly taken with Clare, as obsessed with saving her as he is with solving the crime. There are some clever moments along the way, most notably a car chase in which Carlin, equipped with a helmet device that allows him to see with one eye into the past, follows a car driven by the terrorist (a Timothy McVeigh-like Jim Caveziel whose motives are left unplumbed, though it’s clear he thinks the government sucks) four nights previously while dealing with the perils of rush-hour traffic in the here-and-now. Director Tony Scott (Top Gun, Domino), a man who never met a jump-cut he didn’t like, here demonstrates admirable restraint in his use of MTV techniques, but this relative economy of style is more than compensated for by the excesses of the script, which—during the third act—leaps from implausibility to the purely risible in the service of providing us with a happy ending. Despite the effulgence of the explosion that begins the picture, the larger issues of a world held hostage by fear are muted by the film’s plot twists and techno-prattle. What are a few lives more or less, Déjà Vu seems to be saying, so long as Denzel winds up with the girl.
If Déjà Vu represents a basic staple of the American film industry, the standard-issue thriller with a feel-good message (in this case, terrorism can be defeated by technology. . . Hmm. Hasn’t that been tried?) that follows the Syd Fields script model with a new element introduced every eight to ten minutes, there are a number of recent genre films that have broken the mold, their way led by David Lynch's Inland Empire, a film about filmmaking that is either so indulgent or so adventurous (with Lynch, as always, it’s difficult to judge) that the auteur has been forced to distribute it himself. But perhaps the most anticipated non-blockbuster genre picture of the season is Darren Aronofsky’s The Fountain, his first film in six years.
During those six years, Aronofsky has acquired the reputation of being something of a promiscuous developer. His name has been attached to such properties as Batman Begins, Frank Miller’s Ronin, Alan Moore’s Watchmen, and Theodore Rozak’s exemplary thriller, Flicker. (He is, in fact, still attached to Flicker, and, hopefully, he will get the picture made, because it will take someone with Aronofsky’s imagination to mount a film whose materials include a creepy 1940’s cult director, Max Castle, and the invention of the motion picture by the Knights Templar in the 15th century.) Why then, when offered so many A-list projects, he chose to go with a less prestigious project remains a matter for conjecture. . . though to be fair, The Fountain was intended as an A-list project but lost half of its budget when Brad Pitt, who had signed on to star, decided (according to some) that one of the locations didn’t suit his tanning requirements and dropped out.
Using as its source material a graphic novel written by Aronofsky, The Fountain begins in the 16th century with a bearded conquistador, TomÁs (Hugh Jackman), ambushed in the rain forest by Mayan warriors, who drag him to a pyramid overlooking the Tree of Life, where their high priest waits to disembowel him. Which he proceeds to do, after first intoning, “Death is the path to awe,” a sentiment that inadvertently calls to mind the philosophy of militant Islamic suicide bombers. Immediately thereafter, Tomas, now bald and beardless, appears to the high priest floating in a bubble, sitting in the lotus position, and zooms up, up, and away into outer space, to a spaceship shaped like a snow globe containing a living tree that is given to murmuring and twitching the fine hair covering its bark. Here Tomas, or rather Tom Creo, a 26th century shamanic figure/space traveler, engages in various activities such as tattooing himself with a fountain pen, eating the bark of the tree, and ignoring the several apparitions of his dead wife, all the while drawing closer to the site of the Mayan underworld, the Xibalba nebula, its light wrapped around a dying star.
The main story revolves about Tommy (also Jackman, now possessed of a fine, disheveled head of hair but no beard), a present-day or near-future cancer researcher who is desperately seeking a cure for brain cancer, attempting to cure the tumor that is killing his wife, Izzi (Rachel Weisz), by experimenting on apes. He appears to be making significant progress, as a treatment involving the bark of a Central American tree has reversed the aging process in one test subject—but it may all be coming too late in the day to save Izzi. It turns out that the conquistador plotline is in actuality a novel Izzi is writing entitled The Fountain, and, as hope fades, she presents him with a copy of the book, handwritten in spectacularly neat cursive, and a bottle of ink and a fountain pen, and tells him that he must complete the novel by writing the final chapter. The book tells the story of Queen Isabel of Spain (also played by Weisz), who sends one of her conquistadors into the Guatemalan jungles to search for the Tree of Life. Tommy’s day-to-day existence parallels that of the 26th century astronaut. When he loses his wedding ring, he tattoos a new one on his ring finger; when Izzi begs him to go for a walk in the new snow, he puts her off, claiming he has too much work to do. Ultimately, it becomes clear that the astronaut’s plotline is the final chapter of the novel, finished by Tommy after Izzi’s death, and that his (the astronaut’s) death is Tommy’s fantasy about his eventual reunion with Izzi.
Since its release, reviewers have been hating on The Fountain for its vapid metaphysics and soggy romanticism, but in truth its metaphysics are no less an exercise in pop philosophy and Jungian imagery than that which informed 2001: A Space Odyssey, a picture to which it bears an architectural resemblance; and the love scenes between Jackman and Weisz are almost enough to ground the film.
Yet with this ambitious a film, a near-miss is as good as a mile. So, while in its narrative design and mise en scène, its coherent image systems and gaudy, golden-hued cinematography (courtesy of Matthew Libatique), The Fountain aspires to brilliance, it is brought down by the sketchiness of its characters—they are just too thin to be compelling. Izzi is hardly more than a type, smiling bravely and beatifically in the face of her impending death, and Jackman spends far too much time weeping and trashing rooms in his frustration. Dr. Lillian Guzetti (Ellen Burstyn), the head of the research facility, is trotted out now and again to reprimand Tommy or warn him that he’s working too hard and neglecting Izzi. The only other character to make an impression is Manny, a lab assistant, and this is because the actor, Ethan Suplee, also plays the brain-dead brother, Randy, on the TV sitcom My Name Is Earl—his presence led me (and this is entirely the fault of the viewer) to expect pratfalls and Dumb-and-Dumber-isms. In sum, your judgment of The Fountain will be limited by the extent to which you can appreciate the film in terms of what might have been.
Blood Tea and Red Strings is a stop-motion animated film that took its creator, Christiane Cesgavske, thirteen years to make, and functions as a fairy tale and a piece of outsider art in which a doll gives birth to a full-grown bluebird and sunflowers wear skull-faces. At sixty-nine minutes, the film is a bit slow, but it’s nonetheless well worth your time. No words are needed to relate this elegantly composed story, told without dialogue. The aristocratic and bitchy White Mice, the wealthiest creatures in the forest, commission the Oak Dwellers (sort of rats with beaks and piglike ears) to make them the most beautiful doll in the world. The Oak Dwellers fall in love with their Kabuki-faced creation and decide to keep it. The White Mice steal the doll and take it back to their decadent world (they live in a red chamber and play games with cards that appear to be blank, whereas the Oak Dwellers live amid the greens and golds of nature); the Oak Dwellers then set forth on a perilous journey to retrieve it. At the heart of the story lies a fable concerning race and class, but the charm of the film lies in the unfolding of its fascinating, sometimes baffling, often creepy imagery, its narrative deployment of wise frogs and human-headed spiders and carnivorous flowers. Cesgavske’s movie is a miracle of obsessive craft, an absolutely captivating and challenging film.