So, I’ve been pretty sick the last few days. Thankfully, I only have strep and not the flu as well. So unable to work and unable to read, I was able to catch up on a few movies I’ve wanted to see for a while. The one that intrigued me the most after seeing it was the 2006, soma-induced, Americana neo-Buddhist, “scifi” flick The Fountain staring Hugh Jackman and Rachel Weisz. One of the things that intrigued me the most was how many similar themes this box office flop had with another title I had seen recently: Watchmen. Both of these films were actually quite visually stunning, if not outright visceral at parts, and both received mixed reviews, mostly due to their inaccessibility (a problem I find with most post-Cartesian philosophical works which often find hubris their raison d’être). Watchmen did considerably better in the theaters than The Fountain, I think due to the allegiance of the comic book crowd and the action-packed plot which forced the deeper meaning to the periphery. It is the later of these reasons that gives Watchmen a subtle-quality not present in The Fountain, which opts for a rather predictably direct approach.
The Fountain features only Jackman and Weisz, with the small remaining dialogue (less than 10%?) handled by transient characters. It is basically a mythos conjoining three separate plots:
- Scientist (Jackman) with dying wife (Weisz) is driven through sleepless nights and spousal neglect searching for a formula to eternal life and finds it just after his wife dies.
- Conquistador (Jackman) with near-to-execution queen (Weisz) searches for Tree of Life and, upon finding it, consumes its sap greedily to his own death (and presumably hers).
- Cosmic traveller (Jackman) journeys to Xibalba in an ecosphere, consuming a tree (which symbolizes Weisz) to keep him alive, killing the tree in the process moments before reaching Xibalba where the traveller becomes enlightened, burmese zazen style, and sacrifices himself to give the tree life.
The main intention of the writers is to get across the following points:
- Life is angst
- Angst is caused by fear of death
- Cessation of angst is attainable
- The path to cessation of angst is acceptance of death and enjoyment of life
If you noticed similarities to the Four Noble Truths of Buddhism, that would make you an astute reader. However, there are several departures from traditional Buddhism. First and foremost, The Fountain does not deal with suffering, but angst. In fact, shockingly, the film depicts almost no suffering. To be sure, the Scientist must have felt deep pain at the loss of his wife, yet what is portrayed on the screen is not suffering but angst at his refusal to accept death, even at her burial this still haunts him. Secondly, Samsara (rebirth, reincarnation) is depicted not as a spiritual problem to be overcome but a material reality to be revelled in. This is seen throughout the film, but most plainly in the last scene where the Scientist plants a tree above his wife’s grave. Finally, the noble eightfold path or “middle way” is replaced by the dialectic of acceptance of death and enjoyment of life.
With this the recasting of historic Buddhism into Amero-existentialism is complete. The inability of this film, and American neo-religiosity in general, to deal with the real question, the question of suffering, is I think what caused its failure to engage its viewers. While suffering is a universal phenomena, angst is the suffering of those with nothing to believe. This is the result of a privileged life which, unexamined, faces the finality of death and, refusing to admit that he has not lived the good life, redefines the good life in his own image: a life where personal relations boil down merely to one’s own enjoyment. This may be painted somewhat rose coloured for the well-to-do such as the characters in this film. Yet, what hue should be used to write the icon of one whose life consists of suffering, punctuated by few moments, if any, of reprieve? As Fr. Cantalamesa said in his 2007 Good Friday sermon: “Suffering is certainly a mystery for everyone, especially the suffering of innocent people, but without faith in God it becomes immensely more absurd, even the last hope of rescue is taken away. Atheism is a luxury that only those with privileged lives can afford.”
The Fountain fails to address universal human experience and, unsurprisingly, it provides a less than compelling answer to its predicament.
Stay tuned for notes from Watchmen and a comparison of the paradigms bolstering the arguments of each film.