The buzz at the festival today was steeped in tragedy, yet somehow (and of course), a day in the cinema gave me some respite from the news of the world. As any New Yorker waking up on September 11, my first thought as I opened my eyes was for my fiancée and the hope that I would hear no news. Despite the constant and public memorialization of 9/11, I consider the day to be highly personal and specific; a private anniversary best spent with memories, my own thoughts. This morning, I took a minute before rising from bed, remembered, and dragged myself into the shower and toward the day.
I soon understood that another tragedy had taken center stage among festival attendess in Toronto. Stepping into my first screening of the day and nursing a mild hangover after last night’s terrific About A Son party (thanks Jared! I got home at 4:00am), I heard about the triple homicide at the Delta-Chelsea Hotel that rocked the festival today. The murder (or murder-suicide) took place late last night right next door to some industry delegates, so there were a lot of rattled nerves today as police continue to investigate. (UPDATE: The vicitims appear to have been German tourists)
With frayed nerves and a lot on my mind, I ducked into the first screening of the day…
The Fountain by Darren Aronofsky
I have been following Darren Aronofsky’s The Fountain since pre-production in Australia was scrapped years ago when Brad Pitt pulled out of the film in order to take the lead in Troy. Having seen the film today, and having closely follwed the critical divide it has inspired, I was excited to settle in and make up my own mind. The three word review? I loved it. I don’t understand what critics are taking exception to in the film, other than its obvious (and necessary) seriousness about its ideas, structure and philosophy. Which is another way of saying that a movie with some interesting ideas about life and death, which simultaneously echoes Love Story, 2001: A Space Odyssey and Aguirre: Wrath of God probably shouldn’t work, but it really does. Unlike the trailer, which seems to claim some sort of love-story-through-the-ages/reincarnation narrative, the film’s formal structure is not so much a time-twisting mind-fuck as a very clear, easily understood and (here’s the most important part) deeply felt look at love and loss. This is not a difficult movie to understand and Aronofsky should be congratulated for taking chances with this highly inventive material and bringing his rhythmic, geometric visual and narrative style to an altogether new place.
The story is simple; A medical researcher named Tommy (Hugh Jackman) is working on a cure for brain cancer when his wife Izzy (Rachel Weisz) is diagnosed with the disease. As Tommy races against time and uncovers a possible cure from the bark of a tree found in Honduras, Izzy has been working on a novel about the search for the Mayan Tree of Life by a Spanish conquistador (also played by Jackman). The novel’s tale parallels Tommy’s own search for a cure for Izzy and both stories cut to the future where Tommy, having discovered the key to immortality, travels in outer space to return the Tree of Life to the Mayan underworld and bring a proper ending to Izzy’s unfinished novel. It may sound complicated and silly, and it might have been, but the film’s insistence on taking itself seriously saves it; There are no winks to the audience, no flinches, and not a single tinge of irony to be found. On the other hand, the film does suffer from a lack of levity; the race for a cure, the quest for the Tree and the space travel are all dependent upon Jackman’s clenched jaw and his overwhelming sense of personal loss, and Aronofsky, never known for a Lubtisch-like touch to begin with (he may be the master’s antithesis), never relents. Whereas Requiem For A Dream began in the deep end and descended from there into the darkest possible waters, The Fountain stays in cruise control, delivering its bumps and bruises with an evenhanded precision. That is, until the film’s final minutes, when death comes calling and Aronofsky transcends.
Love and Death: Hugh Jackman and Rachel Weisz in Darren Aronofsky’s The Fountain
I have been thinking about mortality quite a bit lately; Reading Michel Houellebecq’s great new(ish) novel The Possibility of an Island recently (which deals with cloning, death and eternal life in ways that resonate deeply with The Fountain), I came across a passage that one of the characters in the novel attributes to Baudelaire’s poem The Death of The Poor, and watching the film today (and having the criticism of it bouncing around in my head), I was reminded of the poem again (the translation is in the Houellebecq);
“Death, alas! consoles and brings to life;
The end of it all, the solitary hope;
We, drunk on death’s elixir, face the strife,
Take heart, and climb till dusk the weary slope.
All through the storm, the frost, and the snow,
Death on the black horizon pulses clear;
Death is the famous inn that we all know,
Where we can rest and sleep and have good cheer.”
Reading Ray Bennett’s review in The Hollywood Reporter, I was shocked to discover the following phrase which gets the film absolutely, perfectly wrong;
“Early in ‘The Fountain,’ writer-director Darren Aronofsky’s flatulent dissertation on the benefits of dying, someone says, ‘Death is the path to awe.’ Aw, shucks, isn’t that what suicide bombers are led to believe?”
Cute turn-of-phrase, but wrong; It the inevitability of death and the need for us to embrace our own mortality that Aronofsky is advocating and he seems right in line with Baudelaire. Human mortality, usually so deeply disregarded by on-screen violence, is finally engaged in an interesting way, and the best the press can do is take cheap shots comparing the film’s message to that of terrorists? Wow. In reality, I think if the film can find an audience, it can do very well, especially among women; Lots of women I spoke to coming out of the screening were deeply moved by the film, as was I, and the love story at the film’s center is an engrossing tragedy that could do terrific business. Give the film a chance and make up your own mind.
I Don’t Want To Sleep Alone by Tsai Ming-Liang
Walking into the screening tonight, a chance encounter; I stood face to face with Tsai Ming-Liang, alone in the hallway. I greeted Tsai with a handshake and spoke a few brief pleasantries before we headed in opposite directions, but one of the great benefits of attending a film festival are these lovely little meetings with destiny. Soon after the handshake, I settled into my seat and Tsai took the stage, recounting the story of a dream that a Chinese philosopher once had; Waking from a dream of being a butterfly, the philosopher wondered if, somewhere in the universe, there were a butterfly dreaming of being the philosopher. Of course, the tale made a resonant point in regards to Tsai’s beautiful new film I Don’t Want To Skeep Alone; That our dreams and desires are projected into the world and, in many cases, become real. In the film, Tsai’s longtime collaborator Lee Kang-sheng plays two roles; that of a comatose patient being cared for by two women and his doppëlganger, a homeless man recovering from a savage beating who is cared for by a stranger. The film is a love quintangle between the homeless man, the two female care-givers, the young man who rescues and cares for the homeless man, and the comatose man himself, and it is the complex relationship between the narrative world and the dream world of the comatose man that drives the story.
Butterfly Kisses: Lee Kang-sheng in Tsai Ming-liang’s I Don’t Want To Sleep Alone
Unlike most of Tsai’s recent films, I Don’t Want To Sleep Alone is shot almost entirely in the darkness required by the film’s thematic concerns with sleeping and dreaming, and when coupled with Tsai’s signature long takes where action happens at an almost silent pace, the film is almost a lullaby in and of itself. Which is not to say that the movie is slow, but that it may be one of Tsai’s most difficult films because it takes us quite a while to find the film’s rhythm. However, once the connections between the characters is clarified (or understood) and the trick of rhyming Lee Kang-sheng with himself is pieced together in the narrative, feeling and a true connection with the piece begins to gel. Patience with the movie pays off, but it is an absolute necessity. Like The Fountain, there is no real trick here; Tsai makes his story clear by the time the final reel closes with a wondeful, etherial image of a bed floating on water. There are lovely light touches, some typically graphic love scenes and beautiful music throughout the film and once audiences find their way into I Don’t Want To Sleep Alone, these delights on enhance the already engaging story.
Long day ahead tomorrow, so it is off to sleep. Alone. Ha.