History, fantasy, reality, destiny. There are more similarities between these realms than there are differences.
The Fountain (2006) situates one man, Tommy Creo (Hugh Jackman) in and between these stories. As an experimental medicine scientist, Tommy struggles to find a cure to save his wife Izzi (Rachel Weiss) from her terminal cancer. Before her death, she hopes to complete her novel : a story about the search of a Spanish conquistador for the Tree of Life: a quest that he hopes will save the Spanish Empire from destruction at the hands of its enemies.
While testing on monkeys in his lab, Tommy discovers a substance from a piece of South American tree bark that seems to reverse ageing. However, despite his hopes, at first it appears to not affect cancer cells. Meanwhile Izzi’s health fades rapidly, moving closer and closer to death, while accepting her fate with remarkable composure. In her hospital bed, she asks Tommy to finish the final chapter of her book.
In an earlier scene, Tommy finds Izzi sitting outside with a telescope, pointing up to a nebula: a cloud of dust where, she tells him, the ancient Mayans believed dead souls go to be reborn. In a future reality, we see Tom, who in a bubble-shaped enclosure travels to this nebula with a tree that seems to contain the life of his wife. He tells her that they’re almost there: if they can reach the nebula in time, she could be saved.
The three narrative frames of The Fountain are woven together, emphasising the power of history and fantasy in forming our myths and hopes about death and life beyond it. Into each of these frames, Aronofsky writes a number of different mythological structures: the Christian story of the Tree of Life in the Garden of Eden, the Mayan myths of blood sacrifice and life, a meditative practise and the scientific search for truth. The synthesis points to something within each: something in common that lies behind all forms of human belief and scepticism.
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Helen (my wife) and I watched this film together, and both felt quite differently about it (as is often the case). She has a brilliant scientific mind, and I’m an English Literature graduate: our personalities also cause us to look at similar things from different perspectives. Where Helen saw the victory of the film’s finale at the nebula (a representation of the sublime if ever I saw it), I was left with a sense of the sadness of the film: that all mythologies, including the one constructed by Aronofsky in this film, are inadequate for the part of us that desires individual immortality and the persistence of consciousness.
After making love, Izzi tells Tommy that she wants them to be ‘together forever’. This longing, Mormons believe, is something natural and essential to all people, and uniquely provided for in LDS theology. Helen and I have been ‘sealed’ to each other and to our families in a uniquely legalistic ceremony that promises to secure the substance of the desires that The Fountain expresses.
I can’t imagine how I will feel when the time comes for me to face being parted from the love of my life. I’ve only spent less than 5 years with Helen, but I don’t want to even consider how I could face day after day without her. I also acknowledge the eventual moment (less frightening for me: but more incomprehensible) when my consciousness will fade out. I will cease to be, at least, in the form I now understand. The chemicals that make up my body will live on in trees and animals and the air: but I will probably not know it. Helen will be part of this same beautiful earth, but we will be unaware when the atoms that once formed the muscles of our hearts, by some chance, find themselves briefly blooming in the petals of the same flower, or even, through a chain of transfers, coincide within the miracle of a new human foetus. I understand that the vast majority of me will remain after death: but I admit that I’m rather attached to the fragile chemical and electrical signals that flit in my brain, which I call ‘consciousness’.
I’d like to hear from the readers of ‘Rogue Cinema’: how did you feel about the beautiful puzzle of The Fountain? How much recompense can mythology – or even the scientific comforts of persistence of the body – provide in the face of human yearning? Also: if my readers would be happy to share their feelings about the LDS theology of eternal marriage or their ongoing personal experience of the ‘sealing power’: I’d love to hear from you.
These stories are real. Aronofsky eschewed CGI in The Fountain in favour of extreme photography (for example, macro shots of bacteria and water) to show us a mythology in real things, and I consider much of religious mythology to be the same. Not literally, but metaphorically, the LDS stories about death and love speak truth. If they didn’t, we wouldn’t ever find them comforting. In the face of the darkness of the unknown after death, Izzi writes a historical novel, and Tommy uses his brilliance to try to create a previously-unknown chemical. I, too, write: and admire, in all forms, the human spirit that walks on into the blackness, as an act of defiance and creation.