Monday, October 28, 2013

Qiu Ju and the disenchantment of the author/reader dialectic

In 1992, after having directed two striking films (Ju Dou and Raise the Red Lantern) that set him at odds with the Chinese Government, Zhang Yimou released TheStory of Qiu Ju, an unexpectedly repentant specimen.  The film may have compromised Yimou’s relationship with his viewers, but it also seems to have subversively addressed the compromises that Yimou had to make in order to remain a filmmaker.

The nature of the relationship between an author and the reader or consumer of his work is explored by Jean Paul Sartre in his essay, What is Literature?.  In it, Sartre contends that “literary objects exist only in the concrete act of reading,” and that any meaning tied to any text is actually contained within the individual who is creating or consuming the text, and that the texts on their own are merely black squiggles on a page.  Through shared language, the author entreats the reader to “create meaning” out of the text, thus the author uses their freedom to create a text to entreat to the reader’s freedom to engage with the text and create meaning.

Sartre explains, “The writer appeals to the reader’s freedom to collaborate in the production of his work…. The work of art is a value because it is an appeal.”   The reader, freely choosing to open the text and engage with it is “asserting that the object has its source in human freedom.”  Thus the effective relationship or dialectic between an author and a reader is one of mutual respect and freedom.  Sartre felt that authors who failed to respect the freedom of the reader (citing and criticizing Pierre Drieu la Rochelle) decimated the potential for reader engagement or reader meaning-making.

So how was Zhang Yimou, who was reportedly under pressure to paint authority and government in a more positive light if he wanted to remain in his profession, to avoid becoming an irrelevant sycophant like Drieu la Rochelle?  If he felt, like Sartre, that the meaning in his films was actually constructed by the audience, then perhaps The Story of Qiu Ju is his way of entreating the audience to understand the necessary pitfalls of working within an imperfect system, and even to forgive them in him and his work.  It was, perhaps an extension of the act of faith that Sarte described: “The bad novel aims to please by flattering, whereas the good one is exigence and an act of faith.”

The film centers around the determined Qiu Ju, played by Yimou’s perennially favorite actress Gong Li.  Loosely based on the novella, The Wan Family Lawsuit, by Chen Yuan Bin, the film follows Qiu Ju, a determined country wife, as she doggedly follows every channel legally available to her in order to satisfy her need for justice, which is (to her) an apology from her village chief.  Only, Qiu Ju’s version of justice is impossible to enforce and is not even comprehended by most of the well-meaning government bureaucrats depicted in the film.  Repeatedly the courts rule that the chief must provide pecuniary retribution, which he offers with demeaning vitriol, and which Qiu Ju feels morally compelled to decline.  Ultimately she has pursued vindication to such a length that the chief is imprisoned for his crime even after Qiu Ju has forgiven him and is earnestly seeking his good favor again.  The film regularly depicts the incongruence of Qiu Ju’s enceinte rube amidst the bustle of the modern city.  Her character is clearly as much comedic as tragic, especially for a Chinese audience.  She is in many ways more of a child than an adult.

In view of the Confucian thinking that would underpin a Chinese encounter with the film, the fact that neither Qiu Ju nor the Chief seem interested in restoring harmony renders both of their approaches to the conflict as silly.  When Qiu Ju insists to her husband that she doesn’t care what others in the village think of her, rather than the admiration for integrity that an American Audience might incur, a Chinese audience would have been more likely to see her behavior as needlessly reckless, contributing to her tragicomic end as the siren wails, symbolically asking Qiu Ju, “What have you done?”

What meaning might Yimou have been hoping that his audience might make of this work?  Especially of his ambiguous ending as the film freezes, unresolved, on Qiu Ju’s face as she pursues the vehicle with the arrested chief?  It seems that perhaps Yimou was asking questions with this film about impossible situations and hoping that his audience would recognize that they were unanswerable, as Yimou found himself in an impossible situation, and felt that his work would be compromised or destroyed no matter how he chose to proceed.  Yimou continued to make films in China within the parameters of government pressure, and complied well enough to be given government commissions (including the 2008 Olympic opening ceremony). Though in interviews has consistently tried to distance himself from government influence.

The film itself seems to be a disclosure of the necessity for recognition of limits and for compromise – for working within the constraints of an imperfect system in order to work at all.  The film very mindfully portrayed every individual except Qiu Ju, the chief, and the city taxi driver as gracious and amenable.  The only conflicts that were allowed to surface in the film were between Qiu Ju and the chief (technically this involved Qiu Ju’s husband, but he was prepared to let it rest long before Qiu Ju was), and between Qiu Ju, her sister-in-law Meizi, and the city taxi driver.  The conflict with the taxi driver plays out like the other, larger conflict in miniature.  For his petty misconduct, Meizi chases him into the unknown, subjecting her family (Qiu Ju) to angst, and her efforts prove fruitless – more harm than good is done. 

By representing Qiu Ju’s futile, sometimes bull-headed attempts, Yimou is clearly crafting some meaning.  Whether Qiu Ju’s zeal is intended to be symbolic of Yimou’s own in his past is essentially an opportunity for guided or “directed creation.”  The viewer can finish what Yimou has begun – but whether they draw a line connecting Qiu Ju with Yimou’s earlier films depends on what information the viewer brings with them to their viewing. 

Existing government systems did not allow Qiu Ju to pursue or achieve her definition of justice, and when she worked within those systems, the result was a disappointment, but she was still willing to persist.  Is Yimou asking whether it will prove a similar disappointment if he seeks after artistic freedom in a similarly non-ideal system?  He interestingly asks the question without answering it, allowing the audience their own creation of answer and meaning. 

Sartre claimed that a “literary object has no other substance than the reader’s subjectivity.”  Citing Raskolnikov’s hatred of the police magistrate who questions him in Tolstoy’s Crime and Punishment he claims, “Raskolnikov’s [hatred of the magistrate] is my hatred which has been solicited and wheedled out of my by signs, and the police magistrate himself would not exist without the hatred I have for him via Raskolnikov.  That is what animates him, it is his very flesh.”  We see this authorized existence and fleshing out of the chief morph before our eyes as Qiu Ju experiences a vulnerable crisis and is rescued by the Chief’s efforts.  Prior to that point, the chief is only ever represented (by presence in a scene or by description of other characters) as being stubborn and prideful.  Suddenly his character becomes infinitely more complex by doing something out of character.  Viewers are invited to forgive the chief along with Qiu Ju.  At this point harmony is restored, except for the avalanche Qiu Ju’s previous, rather naïve legal actions set in motion.  The chief is arrested and harmony is obliterated, and Qiu Ju’s “what have I done?” face becomes the film’s signature moment. 

It is possible that this film is an entreaty (to the freedom of the viewer) to consider the complexity and imperfections of the systems under which they and Yimou alike strive to function and create.  The film carefully points no antagonistic fingers.  Everyone is likeable and agreeable (to Qiu Ju) by the end of the film, and what remain are mistakes, not sins.  It may be that Yimou was hoping to invite his viewers to apply a similar compassionate judgment to both his past and future work as he endeavored to change gears and comply with government pressure.

Monday, October 21, 2013

The individual in The Crowd: a lens on mass culture

King Vidor’s 1928 exploration of the common man, The Crowd, proves an interesting contrast to most cinema of its time.  Rather than continuing in the tradition of sharing yet another successful Cinderella-story of an individual rising above the crowd, it elected to turn that ideology on it’s head and deal with the reality that “the crowd” is simply a massive conglomeration of individuals all playing the game of trying to rise above “the crowd.”  Inevitably in such a system most of them fail, and Vidor elected to explore that majority rather than the successful few whose stories seem designed to keep the masses motivated to play the game.

In the film, John Sims’ life and personality begin with ardent idealism.  His late father expected great things from him, and all his bright-eyed self wants is “an opportunity.”  An opportunity to do what exactly?  Not to become a ubiquitous part of the crowds of New York City, but rather to somehow rise above the crowds and become “somebody special.”  Because in the Capitalist consumerist society that Vidor explores, the two are considered mutually exclusive.

But John never actually gets “an opportunity.”  Every semblance of good fortune or talent that befalls him is immediately followed by greater tragedy. Sims is a dreamer, but one without the talent or breaks needed to get ahead. And that’s Vidor’s point: that ambition alone doesn’t cut it. John Sims represents people who have ambition, but less luck, talent, or connections; those who never make it.

As John Sims accumulates these experiences, they change and shape his ideology and perception of reality.  Marx insisted this is how men’s perception of reality is formed, [1] that “the nature of individuals depends on material conditions determining their production.”  Meaning that the economic system and pressures that an individual experienced would be the primary factor in determining their belief system and world view.

The Crowd remains an unusual Hollywood film for its unglamorous portrayal of everyday life.  It incorporated some [German] expressionistic style, but it also crafted a realism not familiar to American Cinema. The first appearance of a toilet in an American narrative film, shown as evidence of John and Mary’s cramped Murphy apartment, was rather scandalous.  The film persisted in a slow, deliberate downward spiral, showing increased weakness, cynicism and dysfunction in the profoundly human protagonist.

Despite John’s initial self-evaluation that he is something special, the film makes repeated vignettes showing that John and Mary Sims, and their family’s story is only one uniform portion of a much larger “crowd” of individuals.  The film actually opens with the first instance, the crowd passing the Sims’ home on the day John was born, oblivious to what is going on inside.   The second instance is shortly thereafter, when a crowd forms upon the arrival of an ambulance at the Sims home, and John is called forth from the crowd and informed of his father’s fate.

The film continues to place John within crowds in distinct and artistic shots throughout the film.  The shot establishing John at his desk in his office is legendary, and comparable establishing shots involving a moving camera are used to show Mary in the maternity ward, and the Sims family on the beach. 

Vidor said of that sequence, “I wanted to pick out one floor of a tall building, and one office, one window, and one desk and one man.  But how do you go up to the 22nd floor, in those days before zoom lenses and before booms?  We built the building lying down on the stage, and then with a bridgework for the perambulator, [the] camera could go up the building, and then when we tilted it down to that floor, we zoomed close to the window. We then went to a shot that was shot on a big empty stage with 200 desks, and 200 men sitting at the desks. Then [using an overhead rigging originally intended for lighting] we tracked across the room and settled on one man. “[2] The artistic triumph of the film is the perspective afforded by such pioneering shots.

Vidor cast an unknown actor, a movie extra, James Murray, as John Sims.  The symbolism of this decision is apparent and appropriate, as casting one of the minority who have already succeeded to play the guy who never does succeed within the Capitalist system would create a narrative with excess baggage and a conflict of interest.  Though Vidor could not have predicted how prophetic this role would be.  Vidor’s wife, Eleanor Boardman, was cast as John’s wife, Mary Sims.

In the scenes depicting their courtship, they are both clearly sold on the competitive nature of Capitalism.  They are both “snobs” regarding the crowd.  They each see themselves as superior in potential to the swarms of other human beings around them (many of whom show signs of being resigned to their fate.) These two characters  are both too traditional to thoroughly embrace the new morality of the 20’s (John “needs to study” and Mary has faked a bob-haircut), and the title cards depicting their conversation on their date are utterly unimpressive.  They are neither of them especially witty or bright.  Yet the sincerity of their expression is remarkable, and the scene abstains from being parodical.

Vidor’s ability to walk that line, to point out folly without guile, is key to the tone of this film.  He creates a protagonist who is at once absolutely typical and utterly convinced of his own atypicality (which, according to the underlying momentum of the film, is what makes him absolutely typical). John Sims is both victim and beneficiary of the American Dream.  The film consistently puts Sims’ character in his place – by portraying this idea that John Sims’ belief in his own “atypicality” was what “made him typical” – just another face in the crowd.  

This is most poigniantly illustrated by the contrast between John's contempt of the man juggling on the street, dressed as a clown.  As he spots the man, his title card reads, "I bet his father thought he would be President," which is clearly reminiscent of the expectations we saw John's own father express for him.  It becomes a natural arc of maturation and acceptance when John finds himself in those very shoes toward the end of the film. 

The oppression of the metropolitan crowd toward John’s character begins as soon as the first scene showing John working at his desk.   The dominance of intellectualism and reckoning in a city environment, as described by Simmel,[3] becomes an overbearing force of nature as the film progresses.  The more John insists on the atypicality of himself and his family, the more “the crowd”, which he sees as the “other” seems to tyrannize him.  The secret to the film, however, is that the crowd is not the other.  John is a typical member of that crowd, as consistent sweeping, zooming, panning stylized shots remind us.

From his birth, John Sims IS a member of the crowd. That is to say, he’s a participant in the society(and it's ideology and economic system)that he’s born into. It’s in thinking that he is above the crowd that John manifests the particular mass-mind that Vidor disects. 

That “mass-mind” is notably similar to the cosmopolitan tendencies toward antipathy and a blasé attitude that were described by Simmel as the result of sensory overstimulation in urban environments.  John clearly exhibits these traits himself early in the film, (especially on the bus home from Coney Island), but as the film progresses these traits in the crowd around him, and his own inability to maintain them in his grief and struggles, put him irreconcilably out-of-step with the crowd.  John then goes from perceiving himself as atypical from the crowd in a desirable way, to perceiving himself as atypical from the crowd in an undesirable way.  In the tragic scene at the heart of the film, where John's daughter is hit by a car John realizes, just how relentlessly kinetic the crowd can be. The crowd that witnesses the accident is affected by the tragedy, but as a policeman later tells John “the world can’t stop because your baby is sick.” The crowd moves along with its bustle even before the little girl draws her last breath. John is powerless to stop them. 

The death of John’s daughter turns his already tentative ability to function within the competitive parameters of the Capitalistic metropolis on its ear.  There is no room in that rat race for his despair, and John’s grieving is seen as outside the acceptable norm. The intertitle describes this incongruity, “The crowd laughs with you always… but it will cry with you for only a day.”  As John’s grief obliterates his ability to function within professional confines he was already struggling with, the intertitles continue: "We do not know how big the crowd is, and what opposition it is...until we get out of step with it."

Marx proposed that “All change results from the constant conflicts arising from oppositions inherent in ideas, movement, and events.”  Certainly the change in John Sims comes about because of the oppositions inhererent in the Capitalistic American Dream.  If everybody is somebody special, then nobody is.  As John begins to grasp his own utter replaceability, and his true place as a typical face in “the crowd,” he is first desperately depressed (suicidal), and finally consigned.  Vidor worked consistently against the “nagging wife” stereotype by showing Mary’s character to be much more adaptable and able to mature, even as she dealt with John’s nagging, narcissism, and self-doubt.

John’s character fleshes out the need that Simmel described in metropolitan dwellers to stress the particularity, incomparability, and unique identity of their individual selves.  As his ability to perceive himself as needed or irreplaceable evaporates, he is driven to desperate depression.  Vidor very carefully did not save John’s character from suicide by showing him that he was needed, only that he was wanted, and liked (by his son, and ultimately by his wife).  The crux of the film lies in John Sims deciding that this is enough.  That his small, typical, pedantic life is worth living.  

Ultimately John finds solace in becoming a member of the crowd, rather than trying to rise above it(or to the top of it).  He willingly becomes the very thing he shunned earlier in the film, a poor sap in the crowd, a juggling clown.

The ominous final shot, illustrating John Sim’s content resignation to his place as just one typical story among countless others, was foreboding of the stock market crash that came the following year in  October 1929.  As the Great Depression descended, surely countless people found themselves living John Sims’ tragedy.  Unfortunately, one of them was James Murray, the actor who had played John Sims.

Barry Grey elucidates, “Eight years after The Crowd, Murray’s body was found floating in New York’s East River. His career had collapsed – never gained traction, really – and he’d succumbed to alcoholism. Vidor had tried to help. Even hired the down-and-out Murray for Our Daily Bread and told him to clean up. But Murray could not, would not be saved and ultimately jumped to his death in a macabre echo of The Crowd. Sadly, there was no sweet-faced boy to take his hand at the last moment -- a poignant reminder that life doesn’t cooperate when we need it most to imitate art.[4]

Murray’s death, and the economic crisis that followed so closely on the heels of the film, make it an eerily prophetic look at the “inherent oppositions” within a Capitalist model that values competitive success, and encourages “the crowd” to despise “the crowd.”

[1] Karl Marx, “The German Ideology” 1846 (pub. 1932)
[3] Georg Simmel, “The Metropolis and Mental Life” 1903.

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Romantic inclinations of Die Nibelungen

Fritz Lang’s 1924 film, Siegfried, the first half of his ambitious Die Nibelungen, used all kinds of romantic mechanisms to evoke perfection in its tragedy.  Interestingly, this provocative use of sumptuous imagery and thematic melancholy was in turn used to create an expressionistic, self-aware effect in its catharsis.

Siegfried had a number of factors synergizing to drive its romantic elements toward a fever pitch.  It was produced (by either Decla Bioskop AG or UFA, (?)) at a time when spectacle trumped financial obstacles in German cinema.  Despite the hyperinflation characteristic of the Weimar era, Lang was on a long leash for artistic license and expense.  The film is also colored with romanticism from the political enthusiasms of screenwriter Thea von Harbou, whom most accounts agree was party to the ardent nationalism of the era. Lang’s own obsession with the anatomy of myth (he careful crafted the elaborate, often idealized myths surrounding his own life story) creates a generous background for a polysemous, modern, deconstructionist story.

Die Nibelungen was based directly on the epic poem  Nibelungenlied, which dates back to around 1200 A.D. (Though Wagner’s Der Ring Des Nibelungen (1876) was also based on this text, it appears that Lang and von Harbou both adamantly maintained that the films were minimally influenced by it.)  Interestingly, just as Shelley claimed that the “Epic Poets’ creations bore a defined and intelligible relation to the knowledge, sentiment, religion, and politics of their age,” The films of Die Nibelungen are also marked with the signs of the intense moment in history in which they were forged. 

The Weimar Republic claims a brief and often overlooked portion of European History.  Formed in the aftermath of World War I, the new government was almost immediately disliked by many German citizens for accepting the terms of the Treaty of Versailles.  These terms placed an implacable financial burden on the German people that ultimately lead to hyperinflation.  Within a matter of months the exchange rate plummeted from 6.7 marks on the dollar at the end of 1919 to 800 marks on the dollar at the end of 1922, to over 4 billion marks on the dollar at the end of 1923. To say spirits were low is an understatement.

Remarkably, many of the arts and sciences appear to have thrived in this kiln.  Efforts to raise the spirits of the German public became an imperative, and films of an epic, heroic nature were far more popular with the public than the dark and formalistic forays of German Expressionism.  With that in mind, Lang appears to have created a film that would appeal to and indulge the public demand for heroic mythos, but also to have severe and unmistakable modern elements, both in style and in narrative form.

The hero he brings to the table is the unmistakably Aryan Siegfried.  On the one hand he seems to represent Shelley’s ideal of poetry, that it show the best and most beautiful moments of the best and most beautiful people.  His character is distinctly made out, by contrast to every other character on screen, to be the best and most beautiful.  There is very little contrast in his character, in his moods or mannerisms, or even in the visuals of his personae.  He is all light all the time, and not until the hunt that spells his demise does he ever wear a costume with significant contrast in dark to light.  (And even then he shows far less contrast than any other character.)  Stylistically and thematically there is no darkness to his character.  Still, he could be described in the same terms as Shelley’s own poetry, “Dreamy, arrogant, self absorbed and irresponsible.”

As Lang devoted his film “to the German people,” he created a hero that, while embodying classical ideals and romantic ideals of youth, vigor, and primitivism, also endowed him with Christian idealism and a distinct correlation with St George (the dragon slayer). Such a romantic hero, according to Shelley, would “inculcate virtue” as readers would admire and emulate his virtues.  But Siegfried is also the least interesting character in the film.  His innocence is repeatedly portrayed as naiveté and his mortal weakness is prominently exposited early in the film.  If “poetry kindles the sympathetic imagination [and] allows us to find ourselves in another’s place,” then Lang appears not to have wanted his audience to identify too closely with this hero.

But framing him as a hero, and as the highest moral character in the film, creates a Romantic type of morality that is again reminiscent of Shelley.  “The great secret of morals is Love: going out of our own nature, identifying ourselves with the beautiful which exists in thought, action, or person not our own.”
Siegfried, caught up in feeling, threatens the primitive man describing Kriemhild, “Show me the way to Worms, or you will lose your life!”  Such a volatile, compulsive behavior can only be moral within the lens of Romanticism.  And Siegfried goes on to embody a Romantic ideal, beating foes by being impetuous and not particularly cunning.

Ultimately Siegfried’s exploits are the preliminary upswing of a melancholy plot arc.  From the moment Siegfried first arrives at Worms, the film firmly embraces an attraction to impossible situations.  This pattern of attraction functions to create the suggestive undercurrent that Poe requires of poetry in The Philosophy of Composition. This undercurrent of trouble looming is tremendous at creating the tension that rendered tragedy the zeitgeist of Romantic form.

It is worth noting that the audience that Lang had in mind for his film, was already loosely familiar with its source text.  They would have anticipated the death of Siegfried from the title sequence. Nibelungenlied was very much planted in the folk-culture of Germany.  However as a text the original epic poem began, ended, and centered around Kriemhild.  Lang’s decision to begin his text with Siegfried as the clear center shows a generosity toward the romantic idealism displayed in that character.  (Kriemhild doesn’t really pick up the pace as a central character until Siegfried’s death, which pace she pushes to a fever pitch in Kriemhild’s Revenge.)

Lang’s Niebelungen films are formatted much like an epic poem, broken into episodes, and Siegfried’s character is even initially introduced to Kriemheld through a ballad.  This parallel to poetic form shows Lang’s attentiveness to form, and the self-aware nature of the film itself, which picks up complexity as the moral order of the remaining characters hits the fan.

Lang plays out every scene with an unhurried intensity that allows for full exploration of characters’ actions and reactions. By investing in such detailed scenes Lang “makes the familiar unfamiliar.” Elaborating what could have been more concise scenes in order to dwell on experience and effect between characters creates an intensely poetic undercurrent to what might otherwise be an abyss of a plot. To again quote Shelley, this measured intentionality “strips the veil of familiarity from the world, and lays bare the naked and sleeping beauty which is the spirit of its forms.”

Given this level of intentional approach to the development of character and relationships, is seems Lang was not unaware that his more complicated characters were more interesting than the tragic hero.  The intended effect was perhaps similar to Shelley’s estimation of Milton – saying “his poetry was superior and authentic because there was no superiority of his god over his devil.” So by creating a simple tragic hero, Lang could achieve Shelley’s ideal of melancholy in his demise. “Even in the desire and regret [he leaves], there cannot be but pleasure.”

Lang’s artistic decisions in this film seem bent on dwelling on aesthetic detail, special effects, and elaborate sets.  That he managed to indulge in such aesthetics, at a time of such economic turmoil, is telling. The novelty of special effects in film fantasy opened up access to resources at an otherwise dire time.  That Lang managed to create an actual manmade rainbow to film, or to design and have built a 60 foot long wooden dragon-puppet, at a time when workers and extras had to literally be paid with wheelbarrows full of cash is remarkable.  It indicates that not only were these sensory details important to Lang, and important to the tone and form of the film, they were important to the contemporary audience as well.

The impressive images of Worms, with its elevated battlements and atmosphere of power seems like a “bastion of all humans can achieve.”Such motifs not only look impressive, but also create tremendous meaning regarding the systems in which this narrative is progressing.  Systems of power, tradition, moral codes, and of the valuation of beauty. The deconstruction of this system and its moral code becomes a prominent theme in Kriemhild’s Revenge, but it is also present in Gunther’s perpetual state of dilemma.

To an extent, in this realm of melodramatic character development, beauty and virtue are synonymous.  Margarete Schön, as Kriemhild, is credited with having done “some of the most operatic eye-acting in the history of silent cinema.1 The depiction of her character as beautiful seems to be largely based on qualities of peacefulness, deference, and ethereality.  All of which qualities she turns on their head by the bloody end of Die Nibelungen.  There is also a perverse delight in Brunhild’s dysfunctionality.  Her highly affected discontent is like a celebrity train wreck and we just can’t turn away.  She is so over the top that, to quote Poe again, we would “cover up our attraction to the image by seeming only to lament it.”

The loss of Siegfried acts as a cataclysmic loss of youth, beauty, and innocence.  The entire possibility of moral order disintegrates with his death.  At this point, the melancholy of the film quickly passes by the tragic ideal of Romanticism and takes on a much darker, more complex and calculated edge.  Rather than dwelling on the poetic image of Kriemhild mourning her lover, we quickly pass over into the realm of vengeance and loyalties.

Ultimately, Lang’s project carries far more semiotic weight than being an exploration of Romantic ideals.  But he used that exploration and those ideals to create a narrative that explores a number of the difficulties and nuances of moral and economic order that were terribly relevant to Lang and to “The People of Germany,” to whom he devoted the film.

Saturday, October 5, 2013

The Fountain - Enlightenment and Death

Darren Aronofsky’s 2006 film The Fountain is an evocative film for synthesizing Enlightenment thought.  The film thematically deals with developing an enlightened approach to death and grief, and does so with a form that requires the viewer to entertain an aesthetic experience of sorts.   More thematically than narratively, it is a film about how we process death, and the crises that the experience of grief can cull in our subconscious.

In an unapologetically nonlinear fashion, the three linked protagonists of The Fountain are each on an existential, obsessive quest to defeat Death.  Tomas the Conquistador is seeking the tree of life to save his Queen (Isabella) from death, Tommy Creo is compulsively experimenting on lab monkeys in an attempt to find a cure for his dying wife’s (Izzy’s) brain tumor, and Tom, an astronaut of sorts, is attempting to reach the dying star Xibalba to renew the dying tree of life that makes sustainable life in his biosphere possible. Ultimately the film and narrative move toward a more “enlightened” view of death and we see two of these characters die, Tomas dies (unacceptingly) even as he is immortalized in the living matter of the tree of life, and Tom the astronaut dies, (spectacularly) almost immediately after achieving an enlightened, unemotional state of mind about that inevitability.  The quest to conquer death turns out to be really a quest to come to accept death.
The Fountain, Aronofsky says, was “inspired by a series of conversations he had with Ari Handel, his former Harvard roommate, who has a PhD in neuroscience from New York University’s Center for Neural Science. In 1999, Handel and Aronofsky began to discuss the search for the Fountain of Youth and how ideas can interconnect like a Russian doll, with one fitting inside the other.” [1]  This precise compartmentalization and interrelatedness is reminiscent of Immanuel Kant’s[2] intense and nearly compulsive organization of human experience and judgment.
David Hume[3] said that no sentiment represents what is really in an object.  In the film this idea is extended beyond objects to concepts. Tommy Creo’s sentiment of death was certainly not representative of how death came to be depicted in the film. His sentiment couldn’t have been more different from his wife’s, as she approached her eminent death with a more enlightened acceptance.  The drastic difference in their behavior is reminiscent of Hume’s insistence that any two people, experiencing an object, will have different experiences or encounters with it.

In the arc of the film, Tom/Tommy/Tomas must move past the first two of Immanuel Kant’s three types of judgment.  He must overcome the agreeable/disagreeable, as exhibited by Tommy’s dismay at Izzy’s tolerance of the cold.  He must also move past concerns about good and bad, especially as they relate to dying.  Tomas being compelled to not kill the Inquisitor was a prominent example of this, but Tommy’s behavior during Izzy’s funeral also displayed a need for it.  Ultimately, these linked characters moved (either themselves or the thematic gist of the film) toward an enlightened, almost “disinterested” attitude toward death. Ultimately, the idea of death was moved from the subjective to the objective, purged of individual, interested elements.

The film attempted to maintain a relationship between the sensible and the supersensible.  Kant proposed that “pure” judgment could transcend to the supersensible through the sensible.  Certainly the film reaches and conveys supersensible inner lives of characters most effectively through the display of sensible, or sensory details in the physical interactions and environs of these characters.  The use of the sensory experience of the viewer is also used to supersensory effect.

The nonlinear editing of these stories evokes a fair amount of supersensory inference from a viewer based on contrast between the three parallel stories.  The production design, post-production effects, cinematography, and sound all combine to create an intensely sensory experience that has the potential to be an aesthetic experience for a viewer regardless of plot of theme, but which can also be a great complement to both plot and theme, depending on a viewer’s interpretation of either.
Religion, Art, and Science, each key points in Enlightenment thinking, are all acknowledged in this film, and interestingly given equal bearing.  Aronofsky said[4], In some ways, we saw science as being like a religion, and how you can become dogmatic with it, and you can forget its relationship to the larger world. And for me, that’s reflected in a critique of how in the West, with the power of modern science, we’ve become detached from a major part of our spiritual existence. Because the reality is, no matter how much we fight death and put it in the corner and make believe it doesn’t exist, we all die. And the thing that makes us human is our mortality. But I think we’ve become disconnected from our mortality by hiding the fact that it’s part of our spiritual journey. In that way, science has its blinders on for trying to create immortality. There is nothing wrong with extending life. It’s incredible that you can be 75 and active and alive. But I had a 95-year-old grandmother who they tried to resuscitate three times, breaking her ribs. And there is something wrong with that. It’s a hard line to know where to draw. But there’s this fighting to keep people alive, even people who don’t want to be alive anymore.

Science, Religion, and Art also played important roles in creating the visual themes and motifs of the film. Aronofsky also referenced how the organic, ecosphere design for the futuristic astronaut came to embody the spherical motifs of that futuristic story. The conquistador’s realm, infused with both Christian and Mayan religion was replete with triangles, while rectangles were more prevalent in Tommy and Izzy’s reality.

There were also heavy visual motifs in the use of color (both in set/costume and in cinematography) Darker, more unenlightened attitudes toward death tended to be represented by darker, blacker motifs, but as death was explored golden colors and effects became prevalent, and the ultimate, enlightened acceptance of death was represented by bright whites (nearly universally worn by Izzy). As gorgeous as the golden visuals are, they actually seem to embody a fearful paranoia for the protagonists. There is a suggestion that this human obsession with avoiding death is utterly defeatist.

There are attempts at representing the beautiful within this film as well as attempts at representing the sublime. In a way, the film treats death as the ultimate sublime.  Certainly the repeated mantra, “Death is the road to awe,” is fully in keeping with Kant’s treatment of the sublime. Death is the ultimate unknowable, incomprehensible experience.

Toward the end of the film, the non-linearity increases as the three separate time periods begin to conflate. Aronofsky cuts between the three separate time periods in bewildering fashion, Clint Mansell’s music gets more intense as time periods blur together. A Mayan temple guardian sees a vision of Tom the astronaut, Tomas the conquistador sees the star of Xibalba as soon as he drinks of the sap of the Tree of Life, Izzy takes a seed from the newly bloomed Tree and gives it to Tommy.

Sublimity was most obviously approached at the end of this sequence.  The film built intensity steadily through quickened editing, combining previously disparate plot points, increasing the volume and tempo of the music, and even increasing the visual brightness in the scene.  It was a sensory crescendo. With interesting effectiveness, the score and editing switched to a period of silence and stillness just before the tremendously loud and sudden orchestral cue of Xibalaba’s star blowing into a supernova.

The attempt of this film at representing the beautiful, or facilitating an aesthetic transcendence are perhaps inherent in the incoherence of the film’s plot as a whole.  The form inevitably becomes as important, if not more so, than the plot.  This potential for an aesthetic experience is illustrated by this viewer response, “As disorienting as it this finale is, the formalistic grandeur is enough to wash over you and allow a sense of awe at what’s transpiring on scene. It’s so deftly directed that it ultimately doesn’t matter whether you really “understand” it or not. Just letting Mansell’s lucid tones and the evocative visuals do the work is practically all that’s needed to “get” it.”[5]
In the final scene, when Tom arrives at an enlightened view of death, he is able to say, “I’m going to die,” without any negative emotion attached.  The intensely emotional paranoia and blatant denial that the 3 protagonists have held against death are ultimately swallowed up in a detached, peaceful acceptance.  In a way, he seems to have arrived at this transcendence in a manner similar to that proscribed by Hume for achieving the “Delicacy of imagination” required for good taste.  Tom’s character appears to have had repeated, exploratory experience with the episodes of Tommy’s and Tomas’ stories.  This repeated, probing experience seems to be what ultimately enables Tom to “finish” the story.  He is finally free from prejudice about death.

Aronofsky’s insights into the nature of this enlightenment are interestingly almost contradictory to a Kantian view of enlightenment. “Search for order [immortality], and only chaos[death] will infect your life. Embrace the chaos [death], however, and the world feels like it has more order [life] than ever before.”  Telling Kant that enlightenment involves embracing chaos sounds like it would have made his head explode, rather in the manner of that sublime death of Xibalba.

[1] Interview with Darren Aronofsky,
[2] Immanuel Kant, Critique of the Power of Judgment, for which this site has a helpful summary:
[3] David Hume,  Of the Standard of Taste
[4] Interview with Darren Aronofsky,