In 2006, a fiery debate was waged between ATA blogger Joe Pudas and guest blogger Eric Schmidt about the artistic merits of Darren Aronofsky’s sci-fi epic “The Fountain”. This debate was originally published in the UW-Madison student paper, but we thought you folks here at ATA might want to read it too. As a side note, Joe says he doesn’t agree with all his reasons anymore, but he still concludes it is a excellent film. Enjoy!
Eric R. Schmidt: Thanks for agreeing to this discussion. Having appreciated your work in the past, I was disappointed to see Darren Aronofsky’s “The Fountain” on your Top 10 list for 2006. Did you see the same movie I did? “The Fountain” is an absolute fraud as a philosophical tract. A movie about life and death should say something meaningful about life and death: “The Fountain” ultimately concludes that a lot of people wish they could live forever, and some have tried to.
Thanks, but I already knew that. And it gets worse: Aronofsky’s imagery is incoherent and self-impressed. There’s never a sense of awe. The result looks like a $35-million film adaptation of the worst poetry slam you’ve ever attended.
Joe Pudas: Eric, “The Fountain” would’ve made my Top 10 list any year. Now, while I recommend it wholeheartedly, I understand why it is such a divisive film—it is a simple love story rife with tantalizing ambiguities, within a puzzling, unconventional narrative—but I feel your assessment is a gross oversimplification. This is a film that, as abstract and bewildering as it may seem, is a truly profound meditation on life and love. True love is everlasting, but human life is inevitably transient, and “The Fountain” is a tragedy about a man who wastes his limited time pursuing a futile goal instead of spending it with the one person who drove his quest in the first place. And for my dollar, the imagery was absolutely breathtaking.
ES: Joe, anything can be called a “truly profound meditation on life and love” by your standard—”Mrs. Doubtfire,” “The Matrix,” you name it. “The Fountain” is simply a hyper-stylized science-fiction movie that pretends to have deep philosophical priorities. Any movie could have been about a man whose rush to save his dying wife robs him of their final moments together. That’s a chilling, heartbreaking idea. But the key dramatic moments in “The Fountain”—the present-day plot with Tom and Izzy—are juxtaposed with Aronofsky’s two other distracting “parallel plots” (read: “special effects bonanzas”). Whatever human story “The Fountain” contains is compromised to make room for 26th-century Hugh Jackman’s bubble voyage through the cosmos. If Aronofsky had intended to remove every ounce of humanist credibility from his film, he couldn’t have done better than with Mr. Jackman’s magic bubble.
JP: Now you’re really pushing my buttons, Eric. “Mrs. Doubtfire” and “The Matrix” (and just about any other movie or story) contain themes dealing with “life and love”—after all, they’re as universal as you can get—but “The Fountain” is a film that dares to tackle them head-on. Specifically, Aronofsky shows us how fictional myth and science—and the merging of the two, science fiction—all offer different interpretations on these big questions.
I believe the conquistador segment represents Izzy’s pessimistic perspective, which ends in death, and the 26th-century segment is Tommy’s optimistic, spiritual viewpoint, which looks hopefully at death as a new beginning. Without these “distracting special effects bonanzas,” the central story would be robbed of its meaning to exist as a particularly well-acted “pretty dying chick” movie (“Sweet November,” “Autumn in New York” and so forth). In other words, they do not depersonalize or compromise the human story; rather, they complement each other beautifully and converge in an exhilarating whirlwind of a climax.
ES: If (as you say) the myth and science aspects of “The Fountain” represent different levels of consciousness, then my criticism is perhaps unfounded. But unfortunately, press packets for “The Fountain” clarified that indeed Hugh Jackman is traveling in a futuristic, transparent bubble-like spacecraft for much of the film. For me, that’s about as depressing as Richard Kelly telling reporters that “Donnie Darko” is just a movie about time travel after all. (That a dying tree got into Jackman’s bubble is, I suppose, one of those “tantalizing ambiguities” you wrote about earlier.)
I’ll grant that “The Fountain” is probably better than chick flicks like “Sweet November.” It’s at least more ambitious. But you’ve erected a slippery slope for cinema here: You seem to say that even the dullest clichAcs (“pretty dying chick,” etc.) are instantly excusable with a little genre-extension and a few clever abstract gestures. By that standard, ominous music and pseudo-Zen atmosphere can turn any unoriginal idea into a masterpiece. I remain unimpressed.
JP: I’m going to address your last comment first: Clint Mansell’s “ominous music” you dismiss is the most lovely, moving score for any film in a long time and the fact that it didn’t at least earn a nomination is the most egregious Academy snub this year. As for what the press packet said, honestly, I don’t give a rat’s ass. Not for a second. For me, one of the joys of “The Fountain” is its open-endedness, and whatever studio-sanctioned, “official” interpretation you cite means nothing. It’s irrelevant and it doesn’t bolster or hinder your point.
Maybe Jackman is the same man in each in a figurative sense, maybe bald Jackman is literally the same man as Dr. Jackman, maybe the past and future exist only on a possibly linked fictional plane—either way, no answer is correct or completely authentic—it’s left to the viewer. So, it looks like this mere “hyper-stylized science-fiction movie that pretends to have deep philosophical priorities” might provoke a tad more reflection than you initially thought.
The “slippery slope” point you made, on the other hand, is completely unfounded. Movies like “Sweet November” are made exclusively for teen girls, who will come with hankies and their date’s balls in tow. They are disingenuous, prepackaged trash that lazily revolve around the “dullest clichAcs” for the sake of box-office receipts (read: “Love means never having to say you’re sorry. Whoa.”). By stating that I seem to imply the “dullest clichAcs are instantly excusable with a little genre-extension and a few clever abstract gestures,” you again oversimplify the complexity of “The Fountain” and yourself imply that a movie with a stock character cannot be good.
So is “Memento” just a generic movie about a guy searching for his wife’s killer dressed up with a little genre or narrative-extension? Is “L.A. Confidential” a tired genre exercise because it centers around the three most overused cop archetypes—by-the-book, brutal, corrupt—in the book? No, and “The Fountain,” which uses that stock character as an element in service of a one-of-a-kind, powerful experience, is no different.
ES: I’m certainly not saying that archetypes have no place in movies. Some of the best contemporary films have relied on them, as you note. But there’s a massive difference between “archetypes” and “dull clichAcs,” which the late Pauline Kael often alluded to. The former remain sentimental and welcome to movie-goers—the touchstones of our shared cinematic consciousness, if you will. But there are some touchstones that nobody enjoys, and “pretty dying chick” (without going any further than that) falls pretty solidly into that category.
We’re both students of Roger Ebert, Joe. Mr. Ebert’s best piece of advice to film critics is to realize that we have “subjective personal experiences” at the movies and openly admit this when criticizing film. I embrace the fact that you had a “one-of-a-kind, powerful experience” at “The Fountain.” I’m glad it delivered for you. And your confidence in your interpretation is refreshing. Maybe you have Aronofsky pinned down.
But even if you do, you’ve at best successfully interpreted a disorganized, trite mess. Trying to be profound doesn’t make a movie profound. “The Fountain” doesn’t even approach philosophical coherency, let alone profundity. Bombarding your audience with provocative images isn’t a substitute for true depth. If “2001” was stripped of its very deliberate (and traceable) statement about Man, leaving nothing but the star-and-light show, it wouldn’t be a great movie no matter how affecting “The Blue Danube” is. I don’t have a clue what “The Fountain” was trying to say. I can identify the philosophical themes of individual scenes (space-bubble notwithstanding), but I’m not convinced they come together into a coherent whole. They should.
JP: You wrote you didn’t have a clue what “The Fountain” was trying to say—does that mean it’s a trite, disorganized mess, or does it mean you gave up in trying to decipher it? Bear in mind, I’m not pulling the old elitist film critic’s “you just didn’t get it” argument, the most obnoxious defense of pretentiousness our stuffier colleagues are so fond of employing, but for me, “The Fountain” was far from an incoherent parade of provocative images. If “2001” is a meditation on technology’s relationship with the existence of Man, “The Fountain” is a rumination on love and its incompatibility with the finite existence of Man. That’s what it said to me, but that’s not necessarily what it said to you, and that’s why this extended clash was so much fun.
The one aspect we haven’t discussed is the overall effect “The Fountain” had on us. Kubrick had this to say about “2001”: “The feel of the experience is the important thing, not the ability to verbalize it. I tried to create a visual experience which directly penetrates the subconscious content of the material.” I believe that applies to “The Fountain” as well—for me, Aronofsky created something altogether unique and aggressively visceral, a startlingly personal vision ripped from his soul and imprinted on celluloid. Even I, one of this movie’s staunchest supporters, would concede that I’m not always on Aronofsky’s wavelength, but then again, I’m not going to try and pretend I’ve completely mastered “2001” either.
Pauline Kael wrote, “Art’s got to be too much or it’s not enough,” and I believe that little nugget applies to both films. It took me upwards of four viewings to crack “Mulholland Dr.,” but even when I was initially perplexed, I was in a state of blissful bewilderment. The first time I saw “The Fountain,” I honestly did not know what I felt about it. If “Mulholland Dr.” teased me with its inscrutability, “The Fountain” bludgeoned me with it, and I had to let the beast stew for a while before settling on a definitive reaction.
For me, “The Fountain” is a great film, and although it is not the staggering masterwork “2001” will always be, the two are quite similar—initially hostile reaction, innovative special effects (the gorgeous microphotography in “The Fountain” knocks me on my ass), settings reaching across space and time, you name it.
When I had the honor of interviewing Ebert, he concluded our chat with the following piece of advice: “You have to deal with the immediate experience that you had. In other words, if everybody in the world thinks a movie is bad, but you liked it, you have to concede that you liked it. You have to say, ‘I was there. Here is what I felt.’”
Everybody and their brother hated “The Fountain,” and it was one of the most spectacular flops of the year, but I connected with it, and I hope that it attracts a cult following in years to come. My tantalizing ambiguities were your maddening incoherencies. My emotional attachment to Weisz’s “pretty dying chick” (or, as Ebert’s movie glossary calls it, a victim of Ali MacGraw’s disease) archetype was your aversion to that dull clichAc being regurgitated yet again.
To answer your very first question, yes, I did see the same movie you did. I merely left with my own perception, you took away a polar opposite outlook, and we had ourselves a rowdy verbal tussle over it. And I wouldn’t have it any other way.