Thank goodness for graphic novels. For three years, acclaimed director Darren Aronofsky (Pi, Requiem for a Dream) labored over a fantastically expensive sci-fi fantasy mythology film called The Fountain. It had Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett attached, a crew of over three hundred in Australia, and a glowing script review from Moriarty on Aint-it-cool-news.com.
What it didn’t have was a budget after the financiers backed out, even refusing to fly Aronofsky back to Australia (after an emergency meeting in LA to try and save the production) to fire his own staff. He bought his own ticket, let go of the team he had assembled and, by his own accounts, got a little depressed.
But he did have the rights to produce this graphic novel. Foreseeing difficulty in financing his grandiose vision for the film, he preserved the right to put his vision on paper. This, then, is the film The Fountain (to be released Dec. 31 starring Hugh Jackman and Rachel Weisz) as he originally envisioned it.
We’ll see a slightly stripped down version when it’s released theatrically. After Aronofsky stirred himself out of depression, he remembered who he was (a low budget, indie filmmaker). He was famous for securing a bevy of $100 loans from a cadre of friends to finance his first film, Pi. So, when the monster budget version of The Fountain died, he rebirthed, re-imagined, re-wrote it into more indie-friendly waters.
You could call this graphic novel the first director’s cut to be released as a comic book. It’s a thrilling, spiritual, romantic, meditative, visionary trip. And I use the word trip specifically, because you’re not always sure where the story’s going or where it’s been. It’s not unlike riding in the backseat of the camper your parents are driving…you know you’re going to get somewhere cool, and you’re enjoying the sights out the side window, but darned if you can put it all together map-wise and figure out the exact route.
In a love story spanning time, a Spanish conquistador’s pursuit for the fountain of youth collides with a doctor husband in present day trying to save his cancer-ridden wife and a naked man hurtling through space in a futuristic bubble containing the tree of life. It combines Mayan mythology, a re-imagining of the Adam and Eve story, and a gritty medical survival tale.
The primary theme of the comic is death…how we face it and what is beyond. The cancer-afflicted wife tells her husband that death is the road to awe and that she’s at peace with going there. He’s not, though, and fights to find a cure to give him more time with her. Death is also the necessary precursor to rebirth.
Kent Williams’ lush paintings give a dreamlike, phantasmagoric sweep to Aronofsky’s script. The colors are lush in the Conquistador sequence, stripped and medical-plain in present day. The lines are loose so that the panels, words, and lines flow into and out of each other.
Aronofsky is cutting-edge when it comes to considering the spiritual in film. Pi concerned an obsessed mathematician’s pursuit for proof of the divine. It combined ancient Hebrew scriptures with Jewish mysticism, then added in Wall Street and mathematical theory. It’s a gritty, painful-in-parts, wondrous film made for less than $100,000.
Aronofsky and a small group of Gen-X filmmakers (P.T. Anderson, David Fincher, Sam Mendes) understand the relationship of death to life, and of pain to exaltation. Their search for the divine often begins in the unutterable pain of life. (Magnolia was born out of Anderson’s family suffering cancer, likewise The Fountain for Aronofsky.) Many of the more artistic films from the last decade have a preponderance of pain with only a glimmer of grace and hope. Is Aronofsky turning the corner with The Fountain? Is he daring not only to bring us the pain of death, but also the consideration of the beautiful divine?
The Christian faith is wedded to glorious visions…celestial cities, foundations made of precious jewels, messengers in white. But that faith has its root in the horrific bloodletting of Jesus on the cross. Out of those wounds, out of that deep, dark blood seeping down that wooden cross, come the visions of glory. They are not separate from each other. One does not exist without the other.
Some films made by religious believers focus on the glory without reference to the pain. But can there be divine glory without divine pain? Do we find the mind-blowing realities of heaven and contact with the Divine behind our living room couch, or does it come on the edge? The edge of life, pain, and the human experience? Aronofsky finds God in his movies. On the sometimes bleeding edge of pain and loss, rebirth comes.
Rebirth. It’s a concept Christians have preached for ages. Born again. But to be born, you must die.
Thankfully, in a culture obsessed with denying death, brave artists like Aronofsky dare to stare death in the eye, to travel to the fringes of knowledge and faith to find some evidence of something beyond us. After reading the graphic novel, I can’t wait to see the film.