I am moved by follies. Artists leave themselves exposed when they go off the deep end, vulnerable to ridicule yet closer to emotional truth -- there is a feel of personal nakedness that makes pissing on a director's pet project to me akin to jeering at somebody's sallow daughter. The Fountain is Darren Aronofsky's sickly baby, complete with tumultuous pregnancy: origin as a Brad Pitt vehicle, reduced budget after studio cold-feet, delivery to festival divisiveness. People are either in awe or in stitches, I am told, and, whatever the faults, the film has the courage to offer itself frontally for the hosannas as well as the darts rather than seek the safety-net of crowd-pleasing pap. A Genesis quote segues into a glowing golden cross, then furry Hugh Jackman decked in conquistador regalia; jungle trekkers on a mission from Spain are skewered by native lances, a celestial orb glows in the sky as the hero climbs a Mayan pyramid to face a high-priest, who says "Death is the road to awe" before charging at him with a proto-flamethrower. Cut to Jackman, bald and in his jammies, orbiting through the cosmic void with the tree housing his beloved's soul. Cut (again) to Jackman as a modern-day scientific researcher whose wife (Rachel Weisz) gazes at dying nebulas and falls prey to the dreaded Ali McGraw Disease -- nothing short of a cure for death is sought as the doctor insists on the force of love and awakens to the way Things Are Connected. (Of course they are: Weisz also plays Queen Isabella and sudden intergalactic apparitions, the film's title is the same as the dying wife's book finished by futuristic Jackman, and Aronofsky stitches them together with rhyming images and associative angles.)
The transcendence of love, the mysteries of the cosmos, the visions of cinema... okay, that's The New World. The Fountain lays many plateaus below, yet its sincere transparency has some of Malick's luminous poetry, if little of his complexity. (Malick's next project, incidentally, is titled Tree of Life.) An Inquisition torturer reminds the solemnly receding camera that bodies are prisons for the soul, the climax aims for 2001 but settles for Altered States, fades to white are wantonly abused -- Aronofsky's hushed respect for his own holy absurdity rivals George Lucas's and M. Night Shyamalan's, yet the continuous sense of deeply felt discovery tempers the movie's overreaching pretentiousness, just as the director's earnest emotional confession tempers his arrogance. Such nakedness is surprising coming from Aronofsky, who always hides himself behind shock and distortion: Pi remains unwatchable to these eyes, and Requiem for a Dream is little more than 2,000 flashy segments plus Ellen Burstyn's squalid fearlessness. Style previously concealed, now it poignantly exposes -- the earlier films stroke me as film-school Mickey Mousing, The Fountain reminds me of Boorman's Exorcist sequel, Alexander, The Brown Bunny, Tideland, auteurist orphans that uncover their makers' minds and hearts and, thus, invite gales of derision. Science-fiction leaves me cold, doomed love stories devastate me, individualized expression is scarcer than ever; critics chortle, yet they marvel at Lord of the Rings installments. Is The Fountain art or masturbation? Viewers usually have their answers spoon-fed -- I here cherish my befuddlement.
By contrast, Todd Field's Little Children spells everything out for you (literally: the narrator sternly gasses on about Kate Winslet's character feeling "no sense of guilt, only a deep disorientation"), so I have no problem laughing at it. Indeed, maybe snark was the intended mode for the film's frozen-haired condescension, since Field's anthropology lesson in white, middle-class suburbia can't seem to find a tone -- pedophiliac pariah Jackie Earl Haley's dip into a public swimming pool is too blatant a Jaws spoof to miss, just as Noah Emmerich as an ex-cop with a closetful of hysterical skeletons bizarrely seems to be filling in for Will Ferrell. There's also a panties-inhaling cyber-porn addict, Jennifer Connelly morphing into Demi Moore while reading Children and Grief in bed, and the shallowest discussion of Flaubert I've heard since high school, though in the end it all comes down to Ordinary People middlebrow tastefulness. The story? Mom Winslet falls for chiseled dolt Patrick Wilson, mostly as a way to prove that, amid walls that seem blank even when decorated, she still possesses passion. Clucking hausfraus, midnight football matches and assorted American Beauty residue abounds: the mandatory scream falls to Haley, who is bound to get critical kudos just for the "daring" conception of his character, like Dylan Baker's grim-faced pederast in Happiness. (Speaking of which, Haley's mom sets up a blind date, and damned if it isn't Jane Adams who shows up.) Little Children doesn't even have the strength to work up Solondz's virulent disgust -- its antiseptic textures merely whimper "Oscar clip."
The title of Déjà Vu has been jumped on for predictable mockery by critics (can't really blame them -- this is Tony Scott), although its been-there-done-that aspect might be a filmmaker's gloved comment on his own career. A bit of self-awareness from Scott? Has the awful Domino perhaps purged his palate? In any case, the film goes (or, more specifically, swooshes, zips, zooms, stutters, etc.) the extra mile to drag in references to the director's earlier Denzel Washington flicks as well as nods to Iraq, homeland security, and post-Katrina New Orleans, where the narrative is set. Washington is an intrepid ATF agent who, after a ferry explosion decimates dozens of citizens, is clued in on the movie's gimmick, a stitch-in-time gadget, credited to satellite surveillance and heavily concealed by the FBI, which provides a peak into the past four days. The phenomena attracts such fellas as fed Val Kilmer, Adam Goldberg's techno-programmer (who evokes the device's obligatory divine dimensions), and Jim Caviezel's patriotic wacko, but the premise quickly settles into zigzagging bullets and multi-angle detonations when not trying a soggy Vertigo rehash with the doomed lovely (Paula Patton) who's caught Washington's eye. An intriguing proposal squandered on a well-oiled hack mechanism; for the political and human work of art that Déjà Vu could have been, see Washington in Demme's Manchurian Candidate remake.
Robert Altman would have wrought masterpieces out of each of these releases, and, indeed, he already had -- Quintet predates The Fountain, Short Cuts shames Little Children, The Gingerbread Man might be Déjà Vu but done by a human being instead of one of Jerry Bruckheimer's automatons. But no more: Altman (1925-2006) is gone, leaving behind as vast and rich an oeuvre as any American artist. The temptation to read A Prairie Home Companion, his swan song, as some kind of testament is great, but I never saw the great director pondering death, just pushing forward, too busy searching, creating, and living through film to make even his mortality much more than one of the many elements interacting in his sublimely teeming canvases. No other filmmaker has had so many deaths and rebirths, from McCabe & Mrs. Miller and Nashville to The Player and The Company, with all the Images and O.C. and Stiggs and Kansas City in between -- after hearing news of his borrowed heart, I thought Altman would somehow keep on going forever. I owe him my earliest cinematic memory, watching Popeye as a four-year-old in a theater in Brazil, transfixed by the screen while my mother told me what the subtitles were saying. The death of an artist is always a tragedy, especially one who understands people and understands the cinema; all I can do is thank Robert Altman, and miss him.
Reviewed November 23, 2006.