For a filmmaker so consumed with the inexorable progression of time, history, and life, the way in which we're all complex byproducts of the past and harbingers of the future, it's fitting that The Tree of Life finds Terrence Malick finally returning to the beginning, travelling back, back, back to the dawn of everything, even as he grapples with his own complicated childhood memories and the bewildering present. Though that eon-spanning journey doesn't occur from the outset, its relatively early appearance colors the entirety of this bold, mystifying, hypnotic film, laying bare the director's desire to comingle the ancient, recent, and now for a lushly poetic inquiry—at once more personal and specific than his prior work, and yet also more universal and oblique—into man's rapport with his environment, his place in the galaxy, his heart's simultaneous capacity for kindness and cruelty, and his contradictory relationship to God. It's the last of these that repeatedly takes center stage during the course of Malick's fifth magnum opus, as a title-card quote from the Book of Job intriguingly open this metaphysical investigation into suffering and forgiveness—a bibilical reference to set the stage for a drama gripped by the question of why a father, and our heavenly Father, might hurt the very ones he claims to love.
The Fountain (#1–10 of 7)
Ed Howard: Jason, you ended the first half of our conversation about Darren Aronofsky by wondering both where the director would go next after his first four films and which Aronofsky would be represented in Black Swan, his fifth feature. Throughout that exchange, we mostly divided Aronofsky's career in half, considering Pi and Requiem for a Dream as blunt, bleak rehearsals for the more fully realized explorations of thematically similar territory in The Fountain and The Wrestler. So I suppose it's appropriate that for the first half of Black Swan, I found myself thinking I was watching another Requiem for a Dream, while the second half ventured into the richer, deeper territory of Aronofsky's more recent career. It's appropriate, too, that the film itself is so concerned with halving and doubling, with mirrors and doppelgangers, built as it is around a production of the ballet Swan Lake in which the dancer Nina (Natalie Portman) is asked to play the dual role of the Swan Queen and her dark rival, the titular Black Swan.
It's a fascinating film, and especially so in the context of Aronofsky's career, because it feels like such a consolidation of everything he's been exploring and dealing with in his other work. I haven't read any reviews of Black Swan yet, but I feel pretty confident predicting that at least a few of them will call it “The Wrestler in ballet slippers,” or something similar, and they will be more or less accurate. As in The Wrestler and his other films, Aronofsky is exploring his protagonist's singleminded pursuit of her obsession, in this case Nina's pursuit of dancing perfection. As in The Wrestler, Aronofsky is recycling familiar cinematic clichés, drawing on the backstage movie's tropes of domineering mothers, neurotic stars, ambitious rivals, aging hasbeens, and predatory/sexual relationships between male directors and female performers. In working with these clichés, however, Aronofsky reinvests them with vitality and freshness through the raw intensity of his filmmaking.
Nina wants, desperately and obsessively, to be “perfect,” though the film itself eschews this purity for grime, chaos and fragmentation, mocking Nina's desire to be perfect by running her through an increasingly harrowing gauntlet of real and imagined trials and terrors. Black Swan begins in methodical, observational realism and slowly morphs, like a woman becoming a swan, into a psychological horror film, a dizzying fever dream that haunts the audience and the central character alike. I'm still wrestling with this dense film, and I'm sure we'll delve more into its substance and its connections to Aronofsky's oeuvre throughout this conversation. But one thing I'm already sure of is that I can't forget this film; it's provocative and viscerally exciting and visually compelling. I haven't totally resolved my feelings about this film or its effect on me, but I'm already sure that it has affected me.
Jason Bellamy: I first learned of Darren Aronofsky in 1998 when I stumbled upon an episode of the CBS show 48 Hours, back before the series was obsessed with mysteries. The episode in question was called “Making It,” and it chronicled the lives of various people who were, or seemed to be, on the cusp of losing their anonymity. Among those featured were author Nicholas Sparks, actor Vin Diesel and Aronofsky. Sparks, at that point, had already transitioned from modest pharmaceutical salesman to bestselling author with The Notebook, and Diesel, by the time of the show's airing, had already landed a role in Steven Spielberg's Saving Private Ryan, which would become the most talked about film of that summer. Those men had, to one degree or another, “made it.” But Darren Aronofsky's ascension seemed a little less certain. “Making It” documented Aronofsky's efforts to sell his debut feature film Pi, the creation of which had been financed through the donations of family and friends, at that year's Sundance Film Festival. And, sure enough, by the end of Sundance, and by the end of 48 Hours, Pi had a buyer. Aronofsky's film was a success. But, at least in my mind, Aronofsky hadn't quite made it. It's one thing to find a studio willing to write a check to distribute a film that's already in the can. It's another thing to get that check ahead of time, to become a contracted filmmaker.
I begin with that story because today, 12 years later, Aronofsky has certainly “made it,” and yet he remains somewhat anonymous and/or indistinct. Perhaps his upcoming film, Black Swan, which we'll cover in the second part of this conversation, will change that. But at the moment I wonder if Aronofsky's name means anything to the average moviegoer, the kind of person who makes it to the theater about four times a year, perhaps to see a pair of blockbusters and a pair of Best Picture nominees. Between Pi and Black Swan, Aronofsky has directed just three films—Requiem for a Dream (2000), The Fountain (2006) and The Wrestler (2008)—so perhaps it's Aronofsky's modest output that keeps him somewhat overlooked. Or maybe Aronofsky's films, though far from inaccessible or alienating, aren't mainstream enough to make him a household name. (X-Men Origins: Wolverine 2 might change that.) But I suspect that the main reason Aronofsky isn't better known among average moviegoers is due to his lack of a specific reputation or legend among film buffs. Requiem for a Dream, The Fountain and The Wrestler are each, to some degree or another, controversial films, but Aronofsky himself isn't a polarizing figure. His name doesn't spark an immediate opinion among cinephiles in the fashion of Christopher Nolan, M. Night Shyamalan or Alfonso Cuarón, to name some filmmakers who have been releasing movies for roughly the same amount of time.
Though it looks like a highly polished, quasi-avant-garde bit of speculative fiction, contemporary French sci-fi flick Eden Log is really a far-flung descendant of the Heavy Metal comics of the '70s and '80s. That infamous omnibus series, which reached a peak of popularity after the theatrical release of a schlocky 1981 animated movie, trafficked (then and now) in power fantasies for stoners, loners and mongoloids of all sizes. The comics privilege the primitive man's basest urges, lament society's fallen state, revel in wanton destruction and feature a wealth of gratuitous cheesecake and nudity. Eden Log has got all that and a grungy, micro-budget look to boot. Director Franck Vestiel and co-writer Pierre Bordage film their Cro-Magnon sci-fi saga with lots of expressionistic front-lit images of an amnesiac explorer (Clovis Cornillac) as he navigates pitch-black caverns to find out who and where he is. It's too arty to look like Heavy Metal, but at heart, it's all about beasts, men and spreading the seed of macho chaos.
Ed Howard: You selected Steven Soderbergh's Solaris as the film from the last few years you believe to be unfairly overlooked, and it's not hard to see why you chose it. There are few types of films that are more often overlooked and forgotten, en masse, than the amorphous category of the “remake.” Fairly or unfairly, critics tend to be inherently skeptical of remake projects, even if audiences flock to genre remakes like The Texas Chainsaw Massacre or the “reboots” of franchises like Friday the 13th and Halloween. In Soderbergh's case, his film couldn't even be called a commercial success; it was more or less a flop whose memory has almost completely faded from the popular imagination in just a few short years. When Soderbergh's film came out in 2002, I skipped over it for the same reason that I suspect a lot of other people did: by all appearances, it was yet another Hollywood “updating” of a classic film from years before, a film that if you ask me didn't really need to be revisited. Andrei Tarkovsky's 1972 Solaris is a classic of the science fiction genre, as well-loved and admired among art-cinema fans as Stanley Kubrick's more popularly known 2001: A Space Odyssey, to which Tarkovsky was directly responding in making his own film. Moreover, the 1961 novel of the same name by Stanislaw Lem is also a classic, one of the greatest works of sci-fi literature (and a personal favorite of mine). Soderbergh was stepping into tremendous shoes by attempting to tell this story, and I'm sure he realized that this film would inevitably be compared to its predecessors, making it difficult to evaluate on its own terms.
The question then becomes: on its own terms, what is Soderbergh's Solaris? What was his rationale for revisiting a classic story? What does he bring to the film to make it his own? Does this new Solaris deserve its current obscurity or should it be remembered simultaneously with its predecessors (or even elevated above them)? I have my own opinions on these questions, but for now I'm interested to know what you think. Does what I've described gibe with your own reasons for picking this film? And why do you think Soderbergh's Solaris deserves a second look?
Andrew Dignan: Hey Sean, how was your Thanksgiving? Even though I'm 3000 miles away from my family, I find the holiday still moves along with the same ebb and flow, encompassing the same old routines. The turkey's always dried out. The Detroit Lions always get blown away. The Black Friday sales seem a whole lot better when you're not fighting with a fat soccer mom for the last X-Box 360 (by the by—fat soccer mom: 1, Andrew: 0). And of course the studios release a slate of cuddly holiday films sure to be kicking around the mall movie theaters through the Christmas season. You know, like the one where a bald Hugh Jackman hurtles through the galaxy in a giant bubble doing yoga in-between snacking on tree bark.
Part sci-fi head trip, part swoony romance and part pop-philosophical manifesto, The Fountain is a gusher of poetic imagery, extravagant yet controlled. Hugh Jackman plays three incarnations of a hero: a conquistador trying to find the Fountain of Youth, a present-day cancer researcher who's in denial over his wife's impending death, and a 26th century astronaut piloting a translucent starship into a disintegrating nebula believed to be the gateway to the afterlife. But because the tales are not merely intercut, but densely interwoven—with images from one section being quoted, alluded to or expanded upon in another—The Fountain feels less like an anthology of thematically similar short stories than variations of the same narrative developed on parallel planes. When the movie cuts away from one period, you feel as though the story is still moving forward even though you're not there to see it. Every scene—indeed, every shot—has been composed, designed, blocked and lit for maximum aesthetic oomph. You can envision the storyboards pinned on a production office wall, each drawing accompanied by a typewritten sheet explaining why every creative touch, however seemingly small, is integral to the film's vision.