"What’s a mandala?"
"They’re the Buddhist designs that are always circles filled with things, the circle representing the void and the things illusion, see. You sometimes see mandalas painted over a Bodhisattva’s head and can tell his history from studying it."
Jack Kerouac, The Dharma Bums
So I finally got round to seeing Darren Aronofsky’s The Fountain, and I really liked it. It was probably being shown on Film4 because Cloud Atlas is being released in cinemas here this week, with similar time-jumping plot style and opportunities for lavish imagery. I’ve read the David Mitchell book and, although less intricately woven, overall I think it’s more complicated (or at least complex) than the plot of The Fountain - if you understand it, that is. Roger Ebert has laid it out pretty straightforwardly:
"Is the film a success? Not for most people, no. I imagine they don’t realize, for one thing, that it all takes place in the present and there is only one “real” Hugh Jackman character, Tommy. The conquistador named Tomas is the hero of the novel his wife Izzi (Rachel Weisz) is writing, and the spaceman named Tom Creo is the hero of that novel’s final chapter, which Tommy writes after his deathbed promise to his wife."
See? Simple. Where The Fountain seems to have gone wrong, however, is that by not clearly laying out the (fairly simple) mechanism of its own story, it focussed attention onto the weaknesses of the philosophy expressed within, rather than allowing for a more immersive experience. I can see why Aronofsky didn’t want to do that, though: The Fountain is not a film about a man who reads his dying wife’s book and writes a concluding chapter, it is the story of that book imagined as part-real, part-fantasy whole. And it suffers for that - as a more detailed commentary points out,
"… small details like the hairs on the tree mimicking the hairs on Izzy’s neck when Tom 1 [the ‘real’ character] whispered to her in her sleep scream of the somewhat overly sentimental writings of a non-author scientist trying to finish his wife’s book."
To blame the jejune characteristics of an artwork on the (somewhat ‘hidden’) fiction-within-a-fiction elements is a bit of a self-referential copout. I understand why making the central conceit explicit would detract from what the film was really trying to say, but even though I’d more or less guessed it early on - that the dude floating through space in a giant bubble was, well, a fictional construct - in the deluge of imagery and themes thereafter my earlier realisation got a little lost. Which is itself perfectly Buddhist, but not perhaps great film-making (unless it’s a ‘well I’ll leave it up to you to decide what’s happening’ narrative, which is just irritating).
And as for the Buddhist themes, there’s a good critical take on them here - basically pointing out that, as is a problem with a lot of part-adaptations, the film remains in thrall to Western and Hollywood notions of grief and death. I don’t wholly agree with that, or see it wholly as a negative criticism - if Aronofsky’s intent, as he publicly stated, was to make a film about coming to terms with grief, then it’s true to its (Western) source and making it into a Buddhist film about self-abnegation and enlightenment would be false (although I suppose how then to justify using the imagery?). Certainly elements of the different mythos at work are contradictory, like the Mayan self-sacrifice and the Christian pursuit of eternal life - though notably that is denounced as heresy, by the gloriously cruel Inquisitor - which in a sense all figure as part of one man’s psychologically tortured attempt at philosophical syncretism.
Rational sceptics feature too, in the jungle and the operating theatre, and the dogged pursuit of a miracle cure feels like an emotional cliché - but thinking back to Pi and Requiem for a Dream, Aronofsky’s films are about largely irrationally (and mystically) driven people, not naturalistic portraits of otherwise ordinary individuals. There is an inherent hyperrealism to his portrayal of the depths human suffering and knowledge (Buddhistically speaking, the same thing) push people to: The Fountain is the same applied to the human imagination and religious spirit; a kind of hyperfantasy, if you will. I may not agree with the conclusion (that “death is the road to awe” - surely, life is?) but I enjoyed the trip.
I expect to feel a similar way with Cloud Atlas, at least based on reading the book. David Mitchell is a skilful writer, but as far as themes go they - or rather, it - became pretty obvious and didactic as the story unfolded. Probably I find it harder to disagree with his liberal-humanist outlook, as it is essentially my own, but as a fiction retelling of world history the grandiosity and bluntness of the book irked me slightly. The closing chapter, which doubtless features as a speech somewhere in the film, is a moving tour-de-force of literary polemic for the current age; but it really doesn’t have much to say that’s original, even if it says it in a mock-18th century voice:
"… one fine day, a purely predatory world shall consume itself. Yes, the devil shall take the hindmost until the foremost is the hindmost. In an individual, selfishness uglifies the soul; for the human species, selfishness is extinction. “
So to criticise The Fountain for intellectual vacuousness and narrative confusion, or at least complexity, would seem to likely apply to a film of Cloud Atlas. Perhaps it will be saved by its compelling individual narratives and the intelligibility of its overarching theme - that where the strong control the weak, humanity suffers (but like the Western attitude to grief, it is a viewpoint held contrary to the existence we have, in this case, chosen for ourselves under capitalism.) Personally, I think I still prefer the individual meditations of The Fountain to the didactics of Cloud Atlas, although its personal moments of reflection surpass the end result of the former.
Of course, the real attraction of The Fountain probably remains its visuals - based mostly around macro photography and fluid dynamics rather than CGI, to fit within a lower budget - and the Clint Mansell score with the Kronos Quartet and Mogwai - familiar from his earlier movies, and I in fact downloaded and listened to it long before seeing the film (lending an extra frisson to its reincarnation and time-shifting elements) with it reminding me a lot of Grails’ Eastern-themed post-rock.