This week, Aaron brought us a long short paired with a short-ish feature (though deceptively so – for a 90-minute film it sure feels like two and a half hours).
The coincidentally-named Victor Frankenstein, child star of the film, loves his dog Sparky. So he sure feels like a real idiot when he throws a ball out into the street and gets his little buddy run over. But the next school day’s science lesson featuring electrical impulses twitching a dead frog’s legs gives Victor an idea.
With the brilliance that only a ten-year-old can exhibit, Victor successfully reanimates Sparky. Despite his best efforts to hide his freak-of-nature best friend from the world, Sparky’s desire to continue roaming the neighborhood leads to his being outed.
After thoroughly scaring the neighbors, the witch hunt for Sparky is on. But when the torch-and-pitchfork mob accidentally sets alight the abandoned mini-golf windmill that Victor and Sparky are hiding in, Sparky sacrifices his undeath to save Victor’s life. This selfless act gives the mob a change of heart, and they chain together their car batteries to jump start Sparky yet again for the happy ending.
In a way, the feature film deals with the same theme, but in a very different way. That feature was Darren Aronofsky‘s 2006 film The Fountain, and make no mistake, it’s a thinking movie. The whole thing is comprised of three different timelines (past, present, future) featuring essentially the same characters and having some transparently shared symbolism.
And by that, I don’t really mean “the circle”. I’ll admit, this film is obsessed with circles. Rings, globes, decorations, nebulae, zooming in on circles, zooming out on circles…we get it. But even if you want to use the “no beginning/no ending” thing as a symbol, it’s been done. And there are tons of circles all over everywhere. Sometimes you should just let a cigar be a cigar. But there are at least two significant and non-trivial symbols that pervade the film. One is the concept of Xibalba, the Mayan underworld which is translated into a fictional nebula containing an imminent supernova in the present and future timelines. The other is the so-called Tree of Life (presumably the one from Eden), which features so heavily in all three timelines that this film, and not Aaron’s prior presentation, deserves the title “The Tree of Life”.
In the present timeline, Tommy is a cancer researcher who works exclusively at night in dark and dreadfully lit rooms. Just like real science, except we tend to turn the lights on. There’s really no doubt that Tommy is a tireless and fanatical scientist.
So much so that he refuses to step away from his work to take a walk with his wife Izzy in the first snow. You’d think this was a callous move, and you’d be right, but Tommy justifies it using the fact that Izzy is dying of a brain tumor, and he’s damn well trying to cure it, and pronto.
While she’s busy dying, Izzy is writing a manuscript, which she eventually gets Tommy to read.
We get to see the manuscript imagined on the screen, wherein the historical Queen Isabella (get it?) has sent Conquistador Tomás on a mission to the Mayan empire to find the Tree of Life. Not the Fountain of Youth. But you can kind of see where the movie got confused about what it was about.
Also interleaved amidst the Tommy-the-scientist story and the Tomás-the-conquistador story is a bit less-explicable Tom-the-bald-future-dude story. Here, Tom is encapsulated in a 100-foot bubble with a tree (yes, the Tree of Life) and zooming towards the immnent supernova in Xibalba. It’s a bit weird, but I think I can explain it in the end.
You see, while Tommy is in the middle of a humungous breakthrough using a chemical isolated from the bark of a mysterious tree in South America (a breakthrough which it is implied could potentially bring about immortality), Izzy goes and dies of her cancer, leaving her manuscript unfinished and asking Tommy to complete it.
Tommy completes the story with the Conquistador succeeding in his quest for the Tree of Life, and then drinking greedily of its sap, only to be killed by violent infloration (by which I mean the botanical equivalent of immolation). Kind of grim. But Tommy does regret the whole “can’t go on a walk with you, gotta not save your life instead” bit now that Izzy’s gone.
And this is where I believe the future storyline really follows from. You see, Izzy had reconciled herself to the idea of her death but at this point Tommy has not. So he imagines himself making his way, along with his immortality-giving Tree of Life, to be more literally immolated in the supernova of Xibalba. It is through this imagined journey (his own, and not Izzy’s, which he somewhat destroyed in his bitter ending) that Tommy is able to find his peace with Izzy’s death, not surprisingly through a virtual reliving of the day he refused to go for a walk with Izzy in the first snow of the winter. Death makes sense only if you make the most of what life you are given.
The Fountain is one of those movies that is much better the second time than the first. The first time it’s a bit disorienting, and I think there’s too much temptation to make all of the timelines meet up in some sort of physical way. You’re looking for how Tomás and Isabella are reborn as Tommy and Izzy; you’re looking for how Tommy has become the immortal space traveler Tom. I think the second time you realize that these answers not only aren’t coming, but probably aren’t intended to exist at all. When you view the film as a treatment of a theme, and not as a puzzle, the theme is much better able to sink in. So in the end, I don’t even care how Aronofsky would explain “future Tom”. On a second viewing, I realize it doesn’t matter. It’s all about life making peace with death, and all of the timelines, real or imagined, are a part of that process.