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Navel Gazing with Burns and Dignan: The Fountain, For Your Consideration, & Happy Feet

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Navel Gazing with Burns and Dignan: The Fountain, For Your Consideration, & Happy Feet

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.

Darren Aronofsky’s The Fountain, which is perhaps the trippiest, most psychotropic, big-budget extravaganza since the Johnson administration is both impossible to dismiss outright and, unfortunately, equally difficult to take seriously. Coming six years after the filmmaker’s Requiem for a Dream, which—depending on who you’re talking to—either established Aronofsky as a pariah or a wunderkind, The Fountain has traveled a notoriously difficult path to make it onto screens in time for turkey day. As a result, I can’t help but wonder how much my admiration for the director’s past work and the sheer bravado of getting Time Warner to release something so doggedly personal and impenetrable is shading my feelings towards the film. Certainly the film has difficulty standing on its own merits. Set predominantly in the present where Jackman’s brain surgeon buries himself in his research to save/avoid dealing with his dying wife (Aronofsky squeeze Rachel Weisz), the film’s high-concept storylines set in 16th-century Central America and an indeterminate future feel woven in simply to expand upon the paper-thin characters. Employing something of a Junior High Goth’s concept of both love and death, the film can be distilled down to “embrace the inevitability of your own demise and appreciate the time you have,” which has been covered a time or two previously without the benefit of Mayan temples and exploding nebulas.

Aronofsky’s aesthetic dynamics are still on display, specifically his use of repetition to bridge the three stories and a score by Clint Mansell that builds to a near Wagner-ian furor, but the heart of the film is the relationship between a husband and wife—two characters with roughly one-and-a-half personality traits each whose every line of dialogue can be tied directly into the film’s overarching themes of death and rebirth. The director got away with using ciphers in Requiem because the subject was blunt and universal enough (drugs are really, really bad) that character dimension wasn’t a large prerequisite. But in approaching something as intimate as this, simply alternating between obsession and resignation doesn’t allow for the same sort of empathy by proxy. I doubt you’ll see a more straight-faced, ambitious or earnest film this year, but ultimately the film works itself into such a frenzy to say very little. So Sean, as someone who’s gone on record as loathing Aronofsky, what’s your take?

Sean Burns: Holiday Greetings returned, Mr. Dignan. You might be 3000 miles away, but rest assured, everything’s still exactly the same out here on the East Coast. I feel bloated and hung-over, most of my family seems to be angry with me for reasons I (perhaps fortunately) cannot quite recall, and working at a movie theater on Black Friday is a surefire way to sap even the most generous soul of any hope regarding the future of humanity itself. (I dearly look forward to seeing Children of Men this week, just so I may cheer on our inevitable extinction.) As for The Fountain, let me be polite for a change and say that I find it slightly less difficult to dismiss than you do. I’ll agree that it’s indeed a miracle Darren Aronofsky somehow got a major studio to fund such an audience unfriendly, unsatisfying, undisciplined, self-indulgent wank-off, but on the other hand, you can say the same thing about a lot of bad art, including our new favorite whipping boy Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip.

You’ve called me out as an Aronofsky hater from way on back, so I guess that gives me license to recycle our usual Requiem argument, which I believe holds true once more for The Fountain. There’s a very off-putting, posturing arrogance to this still-young filmmaker’s work. He strikes me as having no real interest whatsoever in creating compelling characters or telling actual stories, instead working backwards from shallow, over-arching sophomoric “concepts”, all of which are locked long beforehand into rigid geometric camera techniques (watch those cuneiform tracking shots in this outing) and overly-diagrammatic, repetitious editing patterns that all add up to… well they all… umm, okay fuck it—your guess is as good as mine.

As you noted, “drugs are really, really bad” and if that’s enough reason to make any sentient being sit there for two hours enduring the endless, blunt-force trauma of Requiem for a Dream then I’ll see you one Kids and even raise you a Thirteen, as far as bullshit, empty alarmist cautionary tales go. The Fountain is indeed a very silly, spazzy film and I think we’re all cutting it a little too much slack just because it’s so weird and strange when going about its particular silly badness. This is an exquisitely awful movie: It is not so much a story as it is a premise, with Hugh Jackman fighting against Death and getting nowhere in multiple centuries, and the more Aronofsky pounds away on that same one note the less convinced I am that Jackman can actually act his way out of a paper bag—particularly when he’s bald and levitating.

Weisz just doesn’t register—it’s one of those roles where you can tell the filmmaker is in love with her and thus thinks you are too. (Call this the “Ed Burns Casts His Girlfriends Syndrome.”) But her “hey whaddaya know” American accent is disastrous, and she simply doesn’t have enough presence to fill in the many, many blanks. Jackman is even emptier—it’s tough even to tell that the longhaired swarthy conquistador is the same actor as the floating bald-headed Buddha guy, and that’s not a compliment. So what exactly are we supposed to take away from all this? The overarching message struck me as the same banal Hollywood formula pieties we already fought over in Stranger Than Fiction. Like all three Darren Aronofsky movies I have seen thus far, everything onscreen—most especially the characters and their unfortunate situations—remain a distant second to the formal (cough) innovations and achievements of one Darren Aronofsky. He earned his rep quick-cut conning a generation that never heard of Bob Fosse, and now he’s gone and made his own Solaris For Dummies. Nice to see nobody’s buying it anymore.

AD: There are dozens of reasons people might be cutting The Fountain some slack: It could be a response to the immature catcalls at Venice or that the mainstream press has by and large hammered the film as pretentious and dull. I also think there’s something of a “Led Zeppelin’s lyrics” type of response where it’s perceived that anything this mystical and ethereal must have something important to say deep down, so better to show restraint now than look out-of-touch down the road. But personally, I’m pleased simply by the idea of this film fighting for theater space with The Santa Clause 3 and I still want to encourage this sort of filmmaking-without-a-net even if The Fountain largely falls on its face.

We’ve butted heads over the relative merits of Aronofsky seemingly hundreds of times and this is the first time I find myself inching over to your side of the aisle vis-a-vis how little the man has to say and the energy he expels in saying it (although I’ll still doggedly defend Requiem as one of the most effective pieces of subjective filmmaking I’ve ever seen). The Bob Fosse accusation is more a slam directed at cineastes who’ve let him slip into semi-obscurity than a slight against Aronofsky though. Considering half the people who visit this site are De Palma fanatics (you and I included) and the guy never met a Hitchcock set-piece he didn’t pilfer wholesale, obviously what differentiates something as a rip-off versus an homage remains frustratingly elusive.

But back to The Fountain for a moment. If you look at every film Aronofsky has made, they all seem to address obsessive-compulsive (even when chemically enhanced) behavior and self-destruction, two conceits that don’t lend themselves well to sentimentality and swooning romanticism. Much as Jackman’s brain surgeon is trying to apply rigid, precision to solving his wife’s sickness, I think the film itself is too caught up in its own head-space to work either as a romance that spans time or as a tragedy. We enter Tommy and Izzy’s story after their tracks have diverged and we never get a sense of the great love that’s dying with her (the film’s attempt to bridge this gap comes in the form of Chris Nolan-style flashes of a vital Weisz running through their apartment); the film is so thematically focused that heartfelt conversations between the two invariably descend into lectures on Mayan folklore and astronomy. The film can’t conceive of these two characters as anything other than chess pieces moving around the board to make some cosmic point when what they need to be is human beings at their most vulnerable.

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SB: Speaking of people with nothing to say, the new Christopher Guest movie, For Your Consideration, is truly awful. I’ve felt like the Guest troupe has been running on fumes for a while now, but this picture announces some sort of dark, nasty rock bottom. It’s a snide little piece of mockery, one completely devoid of the humanity and specificity we saw in This Is Spinal Tap or Waiting For Guffman.

Catherine O’Hara stars as a has-been actress starring alongside never-was, hot-dog spokesman Harry Shearer in a dreadful looking indie called Home for Purim. (If that title makes you smile then you’re in good hands here, as Guest seems to feel that Jewishness is, in and of itself, inherently hilarious.) When some random website predicts an Oscar-nomination for O’Hara, the hype machine takes over and this entire production spirals out of control.

Andrew, as you actually work in Hollywood, so I’ll leave it to you to recount the thousands of ways this picture misses some very broad, very easy targets. Instead I’d like to stay with how sour the movie is, and how sad it made me feel. I’ve had mixed feelings about a lot of the Guest company’s previous films, but I was still always rooting for his hapless, medium-talent characters until now. The folks in For Your Consideration are all empty, selfish assholes, and they deserve every bad break that comes their way. The very hint of awards recognition makes them completely insufferable and the film seems deliberately fixated on reveling in their every last ugly-close-up squirm when things don’t work out according to plan. All these years after Guffman, Guest has finally made the movie his detractors wrongly accused him of making at the time: poking fun at nobodies for the awful crime of having dreams. It’s telling that once The Office and Curb Your Enthusiasm started to beat Christopher Guest at his own game, the best he could come up with in response is an 86-minute episode of The Comeback.

AD: Truly a mean-spirited, ugly little film. Not always a bad thing when it comes to comedy, but laziness certainly is. There is a sad little year-round cottage industry dedicated to tracking a film’s Oscar chances from the moment a film is conceived (to wit: Dave Poland over at Movie City News has been crowing about Dreamgirls being a lock to win best picture since Eddie Murphy was cast last January), with quality largely removed from the equation. But Guest really has nothing to say about that, nor the long precession of meaningless kudos-fests that precede the Academy Awards, nor the hundreds of other asinine peculiarities that legitimately exist in the putrid dog and pony show that is Oscar season. Instead this is another go-around with his ever-expanding troop of oblivious losers who improv themselves into a lather hitting the same off-key note over and over again.

I read in this week’s Entertainment Weekly that Guest doesn’t watch award shows and hasn’t read anything about the industry in fifteen-years, a premise that’s unbelievable until you actually see For Your Consideration. Not only am I convinced of it now, I’m pretty sure he’s never stepped foot on a film set either. Rife with backstage antics that were probably howlers when Desi Arnaz marched them out back in the 50s, the film is proudly anachronistic, going for cheap giggles about how none of these people know what the Internet is, know how to use cellphones or own televisions, and then watching them squirm as they’re forced to mince about on TRL or whore themselves out on the talk show circuit. The film depicts its actors as principled babes in the wood until they become shrill harpies surrounded by sycophantic dullards. As you pointed out Sean, these are sad, over-the-hill artists whose great sin is they long for recognition after a lifetime of obscurity. Guest has made a career out of mining the failures and self-important grandeur of those on the fringe of showbiz but he’s never invited outright scorn like this before.

The Jewish thing is just craven and indicative of the film’s nature to go after the easiest target available. The jabs are delivered just softly enough that no one will really complain (lest they be seen as not having a sense of humor about themselves), but depict the religion as alien and grotesque enough that the middle of the country can work itself into gales of laughter over hearing labored Yiddish or watching a bunch of people in silly hats crank noise makers to block out Hamen’s name (my God, has that ever happened outside of Hebrew school?) You want to impress me in the year 2006? Make it Home for Ramadan.

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AD: Playing at the other end of the multiplex, to no doubt a markedly different audience, is George Miller’s Happy Feet, which has been cleaning up at the box office for the past two weekends, as cute, anthropomorphic-animal cartoons invariably do. I’m a 25-year old guy with no kids, so unless one of these animated films come with the Pixar or Aardman seal of approval I usually steer clear. But I’d been hearing a low rumble that the film was some sort of subversive masterstroke only pretending to be a kid’s flick in the same vein as Miller’s Babe 2: Beyond Thunderdome was, so I bit the bullet and endured a chorus of screaming small children to check the film out.

What I got was a shiny-new-penny of a CGI film that makes uneasy bedmates out of March of the Penguins and Moulin Rouge! while still operating under the same rusty conventions as when Dumbo flew. The film veers into terrifyingly morose territory in the final leg (I imagine it might be difficult to drag the little ones to the aquarium after this one) and contains a handful of kaleidoscopic, manic set pieces as our hoofin’ hero dives down the face of glaciers and through a series of underwater crevices, but Happy Feet feels strictly from the “plush toys and soundtrack available for purchase in the lobby” school of filmmaking.

There are no doubt cultural parallels to our outsider striving for acceptance against rigid community leaders, but Christ, you could say the same thing about Footloose and that doesn’t require you to sit through two Robin Williams ethnic voices or Brittany Murphy’s singing. Also, am I nuts or are they just making this thing up as they go along? Everyone may have complained about how creaky Cars was, but those Pixar guys know how to structure a film. Happy Feet plods along from one unmotivated adventure to the next with little dictated by character or action. Everything may work out for our feathered-friends, but I have no idea how or why.

I suppose there are worse things to subject your children to than a small cuddly bird tap dancing to Stevie Wonder (with choreography by no less than Savion Glover), but as an unaccompanied adult forced to endure accusatory glares from parents and having your seatback kicked for 90-minutes, why is this film worth seeing as opposed to one of the other dozen animated films Hugh Jackman is currently doing a voice for?

SB: Well, you seem not to have noticed that this is absolutely the weirdest goddamn thing I’ve seen in ages, and that includes The Fountain. Say what you will about George Miller as a storyteller, but as in Thunderdome and Pig in the City, the man has a knack for creating fully thought-out, exceedingly bizarre worlds, ones in which the characters don’t really stop to explain their odd customs or wacky alien syntax to the audience. Happy Feet made me wish I still smoked weed.

It’s also loaded with weird signifiers and subtexts, as the little penguin who is born different and thus can’t participate in his species mating rituals, but is a fabulous dancer (gay maybe) is ostracized by the stringent religious order and accused of causing the fish shortage by offending their God with his threatening, unnatural practices. After the little guy brings back actual empirical evidence regarding their environmental problems, the elder churchy folks still stubbornly refuse to believe him and just pray even louder and harder, thus setting up a nice critique of our current, depressing science vs. religion debate aimed at the pre-school through Kindergarten set. And yes, that aquarium sequence you mention is indeed chilling, complete with strange 2001 voices and creepy insertions of actual photography into the film’s otherwise breathtaking CGI vistas. That said, I’ll concede that the storytelling is on the shaky side. And no argument here: Robin Williams needs to go far, far away for a very, very long time.