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9x9x9 day 4: The Fountain–what if you could live forever?

I don’t remember when I saw the trailer for the first time. I know what theater I was at: Edwards 22 Ontario (California, not Canada). I remember blown away and excited.

I then remember when the second trailer came and it had been downgraded to a PG-13 to an R[1]. I immediately though, “Oh no, the Man has destroyed Aronofsky’s vision” which, after Requiem for a dream I thought was impossible. That was an unflinching film that dealt with drug addiction.

Now he was flinching on what seemed unflinchable topics: love and death.

Plus, Wolverine was the male lead. So that didn’t sit well with me either.

The final nail that made me more leery than excited was that the movie was only 90 minutes long. Why was this? Because this is a movie where Aronofsky has stuffed everything about life, across 1000 years, and that alone seems like more subject matter than 90 minutes can handle.

Needless to say, and luckily, I was completely blown away. This is a movie that uses its running time in fascinating ways.

This story is spaced across 1,000 years, and posited as parallel love stories in 1500, 2000, and 2500, all with the same characters played by the same actors.

In 1500, Hugh Jackman is a conquistador and Rachel Weisz is the Queen of Spain. In 2000, she’s dying of cancer, and he’s trying to find the cure. In 2500, she’s… a tree and a disembodied voice, and I think he’s a Buddhist flying through space in a bubble trying to reach the Mayan afterlife.

You could interpret this film a lot of different ways, but, for me, this is how it works:

1500 is the book that Weisz is writing. It represents her way of understanding why present day Hugh Jackman is spending so much time at the lab trying to find a cure. He’s scaling the earth, trying to find a cure for cancer. The cancer in this story is both death and the Inquisition.

2000 is the anchor of the story that everything swirls around.

2500 is the final chapter of the book after Weisz commands Jackman to “Finish It.” See, this is him basically writing her a eulogy, telling her that this is how far he would go to find a cure. He would take the tree and his memories to Xibalba to be with her again. He would do whatever it takes to be with her forever. But, at the same time, the tree that will grow and his memories will remain forever, even after she is gone.

The future is the hardest one to parse together, symbolically. See, the biggest key to me that it’s fake is that Jackman has his wedding ring back that had gone missing earlier in the film.

But then there’s the fact that he may’ve just discovered both the tree of life and the cure for dying thereby hypothetically enabling him to live long enough to get him to Xibalba. So, it’s open for interpretation.

Cohering these three stories are both the two lead actors who play a part in each one as well as amazing parallel cinematography by Matthew Libatique, who has worked with Aronofsky all all his films to date (and Iron Man 2!). There is this amazing shot that you see in the trailers of things passing under the camera, starting right side up and ending upside down. This shot is used with Jackman on Horseback, Jackman in a car, and Jackman in a bubble. These are his ways of getting to and from her. There are the shots of the hair on the Rachel Weisz’s neck billowing as Jackman speaks close to her skin, then doing the same when she is a tree, with the follicles on the bark standing on end, signifying her life.

This movie divides a great number of people along lines of “it’s bloated, pretentious, and terrible,” and “It’s insightful, beautiful, and heart-wrenching.”

I understand the former group’s lament. The film can seem pretentious, but most films that attempt to stuff everything a young filmmaker knows can come off that way. Just be glad it’s only 90 minutes long.

This line, though, seems to be created around a lot of great films, though–with few exceptions: like Godfather and Citizen Kane[2]. But then there are films that are considered genius to selected groups. Movies like Brazil that are fascinating but also a base-level clusterfuck; or movies like Blue Velvet that disgust far too many people to ever garner unilateral acclaim.[3] This movie, hopefully, will fall into the category of divisive classics.

Every time I’ve seen this movie, I’ve cried. This is a film that builds up your hopes, then tears them apart, then gets really fucking weird.

I like that.

 


 

[1] Look, I understand that the MPAA is an organization built arbitrariness, but this usually means something when it’s downgraded like this. Like, there was one little thing and they thought it was better to take out the “smoking pole” joke and make more money over going with the “smoking pole” joke. Or violence, or whatever whatever. Downwards means more than upwards is what I’m getting at.
[2]You could say Casablanca, though I won’t because I’m the one person in the world who didn’t like it. Blame the Mormon girl that broke my heart in High School.

[3] Something that worries me, while we’re on the subject: That Crash and Slumdog Millionaire, two of the worst I’ve films I’ve seen in a long time, will fall into this category. Those movies are goddamned terrible and I really hope that future critics don’t retroject a unilateral acclaim in these films just because they won the most overrated award in history. Give me a fucking break.

Top Ten American Directors, 1990-Present

I had to write this one for a class too. I only turned in 1-5.

Top Ten Best American Directors, 1990-Today

 

There have been plenty of lists to dictate who the best directors of all time are. The likes of Orson Welles or Jean Luc Godard consistently made the list, along with many others.

However, not much has been said about the current state of cinema in the way of artistic integrity. Much seems to have been said about the evolving state of the box office or viewing habits as a result the new Blu-Ray technology, but little is often said about what great movies are being released today.

The criterion for this list is that the directors did not begin directing feature films before 1990. If a director had projects in which he was used in a different role before that date, or wasn’t making feature films as a director, I still consider them for the list. This allowed me to include the likes of Quentin Tarantino who penned two feature films in the late 80’s (True Romance and Natural Born Killers before making his directorial debut with Reservoir Dogs in 1992.

Let’s get down to it.

 

10.            Michael Bay  (Bad Boys, The Rock, Pearl Harbor, Bad Boys II, The Island, Transformers) – Don’t give me crap about this choice. I put him on this list because he has set a new precedent for action films. No, his films cannot be described as high art—or even medium art most of the time—but he has become the benchmark for whether or not an action film is good or even decent. He sets up and films explosions better than anyone in the business.  He tosses away pretense and gives the audience pure spectacle. According to a reviewer on “Aint it Cool News” by the pseudonym of Mr. Beaks, “Bad Boys II is the ultimate achievement in empty spectacle; an unabashedly brainless thrill ride that cleverly announces its intentions with an opening credit montage of Ecstasy tablets rolling off an assembly line. This is a summer cinematic narcotic refreshingly bereft of pretension and aimed directly at the pleasure center; a perfect complement to the deadly serious philosophizing of THE MATRIX franchise that focuses solely on sensory overload, not stopping until it collapses in exhaustion at the finish line with a brilliantly improbable finale that ups the ante just as the film seems to be wrapping up.”

Michael Bay doesn’t just make an action film, he empties it of its story and its character development, and creates something that lacks between explosions and excels during them. That may not be a good thing, but damn is it an enjoyable one that has become the new modus operandi for the genre.

 

9.            Michael Moore (Roger and Me [December of 1989 is close enough to 1990 for me], Canadian Bacon, The Big One, Bowling for Columbine, Fahrenheit 911, Sicko) –

Aside from his attempted foray into directing comedy with Canadian Bacon, Michael Moore has been a thorough and conniving documentarian. When I was in video production in High School, we analyzed the techniques of his films. For example, one things that he does is that he poses a question via voiceover and then shows clips of people simply saying yes.

Does it take this out of context? Most of the time, yes. But is it effective? All of the time, hell yes.

And it makes sense that he would do this given that, to be a successful documentarian, you have to be able to convince your audience of your point of view across the runtime of your film. And sometimes, the only way to do this is to sometimes twist the truth just a little bit.

It doesn’t matter that his Fahrenheit 911 didn’t convince the American people to not re-elect George W. Bush, what does matter about this film and all of his other films, is that he was able to get people talking and wondering about such issues. This is usually where convincing comes from—the after-the-movie discussions that eventually breed grassroots dissent either over the internet or the phone.

 

8.            Kevin Smith –

Honestly, I don’t like Kevin Smith. I think he’s a one trick pony (and, usually, that one trick is people talking about girls fucking ponies) who can write smart and tight dialogue but honestly cannot direct worth a damn.

I had been trying to pin down why I didn’t enjoy his films until earlier this week when I was discussing this with a friend of mine and we got on the subject of the acting and it became clear to me that Kevin Smith just eats it as a director.

So the hell is he here? Because he set a new precedent with Clerks in indie filmmaking by doing it all by his lonesome. He used the place he worked at as the set, he maxed out his credit cards, and he got a discount on film by saying he was a student. Essentially, he did what Melvin Van Peebles did with “Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song”: he taught a brand new generation of directors that lying, cheating, and stealing can turn your screenplay into a film if you have the wit and the ethical depravity (who am I kidding, we  all do at heart).

 

7.            Judd Apatow (The 40 Year Old Virgin, Knocked Up)

I honestly feel like comedy has never gotten very much attention even though it’s been known that, “If you want to tell people the truth, make them laugh, otherwise they’ll kill you.” Oscar Wilde said that and he is never known much for comedy, but Apatow is.

I really think that his films portray just as much tragedy and sadness as Baumbach’s except that they are swathed in raunch and circumstance. Take, for instance, his directorial debut film of the 40 Year Old Virgin: it is damnable that a man has gone 40 years of his life so shy agoraphobic that he hasn’t been able to sustain a romantic relationship. He stays home most nights either repainting WarHammer figurines or watching the TV show Survivor with his elderly next door neighbors.

Obviously, if this film were made as a drama, it would break your heart. But, instead, it is taken as humorous and it runs with this as a gag instead of as a fault for him.

And, in Knocked Up, we are confronted with the all-too-real possibility of a one-night-stand leading to a pregnancy that neither party wants to deal with or abort.

His films deal with real situations in hyper-comical ways instead of dealing with comical situations in comical ways (like modern comedies like Zoolander or Balls of Fury or Napoleon Dynamite). The realism of his films lends itself to an undertone of subtle sadness.

 

6.            John Lasseter (Toy Story 1 & 2, A Bug’s Life)

Whenever I reflect on the successes of John Lasseter, I wonder what it’s like to see the effects of your innovations on an entire genre of filmmaking.

Before Lasseter got the crazy idea to animate a film completely on computers, the genre was beginning to sag because animating by hand is expensive and time-consuming. Computer technology was beginning to be used for special effects by the beginning of the 90’s, but no one expected it to be something that could be visually engaging.

With 1995’s Toy Story, Lasseter proved the opposite: a film made wholly through computer animation could be visually engaging as well as one hell of a film.

It’s not just that Lasseter’s films are revolutionary for their animation innovations, it’s also that they are done with such heart and such passion that it flows through every cell and every animation.

 

5.             Noah Baumbach (Kicking and Screaming, Mr. Jealousy, The Squid and The Whale, Margot at the Wedding)

Although Baumbach hasn’t done very much to reinvent or reinvigorate a genre,

he has, according to Kevin Mattson of Dissent Magazine in their Summer 2006 issue, he has begun to brought back Susan Sontag’s idea of filmic directness that “that entirely frees us from the itch to interpret.”

His films are emotionally raw. Everything that happens on screen lingers within your soul.

Dealing with familial dissension and existential quandaries he has released movies that make you forget the actors and remember the characters. In his 2007 film Margot at the Wedding, Jack Black plays a character who is a pitiful excuse for a man who wants to sit around and play guitar. When something is revealed later in the film and he is chased down a hill and onto the beach, you can really see the characters true colors: running away and crying and apologizing profusely like a small child.

The movies he makes are wildly visceral, focusing on a small amount of time in which the main characters are honestly suffering and, in an age in which films are given to irony and jadedness, it is a refreshing film even though it will, along with his other films, ultimately breaks your heart.

 

4.            Quentin Tarantino (Reservoir Dogs, Pulp Fiction, Jackie Brown, Kill Bill, Death Proof) –

By waking up a generation of film goers by shocking the hell out of them with Reservoir Dogs, Quentin Tarantino reinvigorated a generation of jaded watchers with eyes glazed over.

And it’s an amazing film in the way that an adolescent film lover will watch it at 15 or 16, right around the time that one becomes jaded towards children’s films and typical Hollywood fare (and the whole world in general), and suddenly capture the movie-bug. It did it for kids in 1992, and it did it for me during my Junior Year of High School.

I was sick and tired of seeing movies at that point. I knew they were something I loved, but I just hated everything about the typical fare that one gets at the multiplexes or at Blockbuster. I wanted something more.

Based on someone’s recommendation, I discovered this film and, honestly, it was much like discovering masturbation: I thought I was the only one who knew about its glories and its heights and I wanted to tell every other male my age about it.

As a result I woke up the friends around me to better films as we began our journey into adulthood.

But, here’s the thing about Tarantino: he seems to work better under some kind of limitation—under some sort of reign. This is evident during his two greatest works of Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction (which is considered by some to be the Citizen Kane of that Generation) because he was constantly hounded by producers to see a return.

And when they got their return by way of Pulp Fiction being nominated for Best Picture at the Academy Awards (it lost to Forrest Gump, because what movie wouldn’t lose to Forrest Gump?), he was essentially given a blank check for the rest of the movies. He was allowed to go about and make the most bombastic and utterly disastrous films around.

Take Jackie Brown for instance: it’s a 2 and a half hour film lead by Pam Grier who Tarantino had a crush on as a child. He seemed to have disregarded the fact that she really can’t act.

Or Kill Bill, a four hour movie split into two films that Tarantino has yet to re-release as one film. It’s simply four hours of homage to all his favorite kung fu and western films. He even goes so far as to cast David Carradine, a perennially B-rate kung fu star, as the titular Bill.

Or his most recent picture, Death Proof, which was packaged in theaters as a double bill with Richard Rodriguez’s Planet Terror: it, again, is pure homage. After Pulp Fiction, it seems like he’s run out of original ideas.

 

3.            Darren Aronofsky (Pi, Requiem for a Dream, The Fountain) –

With a flare for the visual, Darren Aronofsky has created visceral and emotional films much like Noah Baumbach except with a style that beckons one to constantly pay attention.

Take for example his film Requiem for a Dream where he uses half-second close ups of eyes dilating and mouths gasping cuts to show people taking heroine as opposed to simply showing them shooting up. He gives his film a look all his own by casting off norms and pointing his films in a surreal direction.

With The Fountain, he took his stylized approach to a whole new level. The story spans a thousand years and tells three parallel loves stories: one of a conquistador searching for the tree of life for his queen, one of a present-day doctor trying to find a cure for cancer that may have been found in the bark of a tree in South America, and a man in the future with the tree of life floating through a bubble trying to get to the Mayan afterlife. Obviously, the idea is the question of “What if you could live forever?”

I can’t understand why critics responded the way they did to the film. I mean, sure, it can be a bit convoluted at times but it is also one of the most beautiful films ever produced. It stands alone as a film that can both visually keep me in awe and make me cry every time I watch it.

 

2.            Wes Anderson (Bottle Rocket, The Royal Tenenbaums, Rushmore, The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou, The Darjeeling Limited)

A post-modern filmmaker to the end, his films are swathed in the irony that was discussed in the Baumbach portion.

They are antitheses even though they often work together. Where Baumbach’s films go out of their way to show pain and to show hurt, Anderson’s go out of their way to avoid such feelings or to confront them in a deadpan and stylized way.

All his characters are jaded by life and are only willing to show their true colors some of the time.

In his films, you really have to watch the eyes because they are usually the only portion of the face allowed to show emotion. The rest of the face is flat with exhaustion from the hyperbolic situations they are thrust in. Everything in Anderson’s movies is amped up with style and flare except for the acting which comes across as apathetic.

This mix causes the viewer to be constantly taken away with the film to its strangest places—be it India or the bottom of the ocean.

 

1.            Paul Thomas Anderson (Sydney [or Hard Eight], Boogie Nights, Magnolia, Punch Drunk Love, There Will be Blood)

PT Anderson, to me, is the greatest director to come out of the 90’s and today. He has been able to create epic films out of some of the most esoteric topics like 70’s porn or oilmen of the early 20th century.

Yet he has also been able to make films that deal with being lovelorn and angry as well as dealing with tragedy and death of the soul and the body.

And he has done it all with a flare and with imagination. He doesn’t go so far towards the Anderson side of quirk and smarminess nor does he go the entire other way of Baumbach by constantly showing heartwrenching emotion. Instead, he sways around in the middle, choosing to go either way as he chooses.

A lot of my affection for his films goes beyond words. You simply have to see Magnolia to understand what pendulum shifts I am talking about. The movie is about six people in the San Fernando Valley losing themselves in sadness which fulfills the Baumbach esthetic. And yet, there is something unreal about the world be it frogs falling from the sky or a character having success through a series of inspirational series about dating with the tagline “No Pussy has Nine Lives,” and this fulfills the Wes Anderson esthetic.

The film sits happily in the middle, allowing humor to shine through at the right times to give a break from some of the sadness, or allowing pure emotion to shine through when it needs to as well.

On top of all this, PT Anderson is one of hell of a director just based on his Academy Award Nomination track record: three of his five films have had one or more actors nominated for awards (Burt Reynolds and Julianne Moore in Boogie Nights; Tom Cruise in Magnolia; and Daniel Day-Lewis won for his role in There Will be Blood).

So there you have it. My top five American Directors of the past 18 years. To see directors numbered six through ten, check out http://filmicpulp.wordpress.com.

 

My Top Directors: Darren Aronofsky

In Kurt Vonnegut’s A Man without a Country (read this fucking book, by the way), he uses this chart to explain the subject matter of Kafka’s work:

The basic premise of this chart is as such: From the beginning to the end of the story, you have periods of good fortune and periods of ill fortune (as noted by the vertical column). However, as this graph accurately states, in a story by Franz Kafka, the protagonist starts out in a shit situation and it proceeds to get infinitely worse.

And the director who I think has carried this most brilliantly over into film with his first three movies is Darren Aronofsky. In Pi, you have a guy who’s crazy about the challenge of figuring out the patterns of our irrational lives, but his life is easily in the shitter and he’s tormented by genius. Eventually, he goes for gold: he drills a hole in his head as the only way he can see to alleviate his headaches.

In Requiem for a Dream, which actually may be his most hopeful of films because of the middle of the film that shows them actually being successful at the drug business and making plans to have a life in the future away from heroine. It centers around three drug addled friends who are so out of money and jobless that they attempt to sell heroine on the streets. Erstwhile, one the three’s mother, played brilliantly by Ellen Burstyn, finds out she’s going to be on her favorite television show. Because she wants to fit into her red dress again, she goes to the doctor who gives her diet pills. The irony of this is that the show is all about a diet program which you’d think that she would try. Instead, she descends into the uppers that make her feel young again but, in the end, have her diagnosed with a solid case of the crazies (which is a medical term).

And in his insofar Kafkan magnum opus, the Fountain, you have Hugh Jackman’s character who, even across one thousand years, never gets to be with his wife (played by Rachel Weisz) as she dies of cancer. In the present, Weisz has cancer and Jackman might have found a cure to aging which would have given her more time. In the past, the book that his wife is writing, he is a conquistador in Medieval Spain who goes into Central America at her request (she is the Queen) to find the tree of life that should stop the inquisition. If he succeeds, he would get to be her husband and King–her conquistador. But when he finds the tree, he gets greedy and drinks the sap and is immediately returned into the ground. And in the future, he is living with the tree, trying to reach the Mayan afterlife that she, in the present, talked so much about. He figures that, if he could just get across the universe, they could finally be together. But it doesn’t end up happening. The forever he wants is the forever he cannot have. It could be argued that he finally comes to terms with all of this at the end of the film when he realizes that he’s going to die, but, at the same time, it is not the forever he had wanted. He just wanted her. And, if you take the future as the final chapter of the book that Rachel Weisz’s character was writing, then it is not really and end, but the final chapter on his sorrow, and there will now only be loneliness and work in his future. So the future is nothing but a final chapter on a story that isn’t real. And what is real is the sorrow he is feeling.

All three of these movies end in a sort of devastation. Two of them ended with me weeping like a small child because of the sheer sadness of the film.

Now, in Vonnegut fashion, and to illustrate my point, I have made these charts via MS Paint:

(note: the three lines in the Fountain graphic correspond to the three storylines. The Top one being the future, the middle being the present, and the bottom one being the past.)

So there you have it. A shitty-ass graphical representation of Darren Kafkofsky.

And the best part is that he does it so deftly and so brilliantly that you can’t help but be in awe of these movies. His style and direction are both superb. The stories in each of these movies will blow you away.

And yet, it worries me that next year he will be releasing The Wrestler, a story about a retired wrestler preparing for one last bout with his archrival. If this movie ends well, it will destroy my Kafkan hypothesis but it won’t destroy me. If the movie itself sucks, it will destroy my soul.

I recommend that you go through youTube and watch some of the trailers or scenes from his movies. If you do, you’ll see some of the shattering jump cuts of Requiem and Pi that were used to both to disorient and to, in the former, get inside the head of a drug addict and, in the latter, to get inside the head of a paranoid schizophrenic. And you will see some of the most beautifully done shots across a thousand years that I have ever seen from the Fountain.

Easily, he is one of the best new talents in the industry today. And all I can hope for is more of the same from this young soon-to-be genius.

And you can bet your sweet black ass I’ll be there on opening day for the Wrestler. And then you’ll get to see the review.

oscar coverage from a bus going north

let’s talk Oscars. On the bus ride home, Kelley was sending me results since I couldn’t view the actual program. I’m glad that the Coen brothers finally won Best Director(s). It’s an award they’ve deserved for almost every movie they’ve done (except the Ladykillers. What was that shit?!)

In the Best Supporting Actor category, I thought Paul Dano was nominated for his role as Eli Sunday in There Will be Blood. But he wasn’t. And that was probably a good thing because it was already a hard enough category between Casey Affleck (one of my new favorite actors after Gone Baby Gone and The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford) and Javier Bardem. Both did a great job–I was rooting for Affleck more so than Bardem simply because of the last 45 minutes of TAOJJBTCRF truly break your heart. Affleck thought he’d be received as a celebrity. But instead it’s the opposite. He’s treated like scum because he killed a national star.

In Supporting Actress, I’m sad that Blanchett lost. She was an awesome Bob Dylan. And I love me some Bob Dylan (well, before his 80’s phase. Reaganomics even turned the music into shit!).

The Best Score award was skewed because of Greenwood using, say, thirty seconds from his previous composition (Popcorn Superhet Receiver. It’s actually pretty cool) in his score for There Will Be Blood. And that definitely was one of the best musical compositions for film I’ve heard in awhile.

But, as in previous years, at least one of my favorite films had to be completely ignored. Last year, it was The Fountain and Inland Empire. This year, it was the Darjeeling Limited.

And that’s okay because the Academy doesn’t make your opinions. You do.