The Fountain

“Therefore, the Lord God banished Adam and Eve
from the Garden of Eden and placed a
flaming sword to protect the tree of life.”
– Genesis 3:24

(from the opening frames of The Fountain)

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It may not be a mortal wound to the body. Nevertheless, it threatens to bring death in its wake. For Tom’s wife is dying, or maybe she’s already dead: no matter how hard he tries, or where he looks, he cannot find his wedding ring. Caught in the unimaginable torment of a life without his Beloved, he compensates for her absence, stabbing ink into skin. A tribute to the love he has lost, and a feeble grasp at the kind of permanence life was unable to provide. Soon, this single band will multiply, spreading across his limbs, giving witness to the passage of time like an ancient tree, less a measure of his loss than a sign of the fire that consumes him, leaving him capable of only one thing: repetition, until eternity. Confronted by a gaping void and incapable of consolation. Paralyzed in the face of death.

This is the “heart” of The Fountain, a film that left most critics baffled, if not angry, even as they admired the stunning visual and aural feast laid out before them. A story of a woman’s embrace of the hereafter, and her husband’s inability to match her courageousness in the face of extinction.

The three “timelines” of the film are but narrative devices that provide a panoramic view of this awful struggle. They also hint at the promise of what is to come. Hence, despite speculation about which of these times is real and which are imaginary, the simple truth is this: none are real, for the “real” has already passed, and what we are witness to in its stead is a meditation on the painful process of discovery when faced with the Impossible. The different incarnations of this man – Tom, Tomas, Tommy – are nothing but versions of Thomas (“the twin”) attempting to wrench sense from the pit of meaningless, battling the demons of the inchoate.

The Fountain of Youth

As the film opens, we see Tomas kneeling in front of a makeshift shrine built in honor of Queen Isabel, recalling the sacred mission she had entrusted to him. As he prepares for battle, he allows himself to touch the ring he carries with him, a physical reminder – from Her – of the consecrated task that awaits him. Making the sign of the cross, he speaks the words that signal his resolve and his commitment: “Let us finish it.”

.

We may call this “mythical time.” It is the story given to Tom by his wife as she lay dying, the novel on which she had been working but which remained incomplete. She had told him his job was to give it an ending, the closing chapter it still lacked. Her final request, so to speak. This charge would give him much grief, for the ending would continue to elude him. But even as her life was slowly being siphoned from the world they shared, she would counsel him against his uncertainty and the danger of becoming overwhelmed by fear: he would know how the story ends. His desperate and frantic search for that which remained beyond his grasp would come to be the source of an inside joke, one that would take him years to fully understand. For in the days immediately preceding her death, she would tease him, lovingly and tauntingly, as my conquistador, her words’ breath carrying an embrace as well as the sting of recognition. Of what he was unwilling – and, hence, unable – to see.

This is the “conquerer” that we find roaming the forests of the New World, his voyage of discovery fueled by a search of that which would bring eternal life, motivated less by an interest in endings than in the possibility of prolonging the present. However, despite his superior weaponry, this Thomas – Tomas the Conquistador – is ambushed and captured by Mayan warriors who throw him to the ground at the base of a temple, his captors indicating that he is expected to mount the staircase he finds before him, seemingly built to provide mere mortals access to the heavenly beyond.

To his death, perhaps? Is he to be sacrificed there?

Upon reaching the summit, he is greeted by the silhouette of an ornamented figure, a man we can only presume to be the high priest of this monument to the gods and keeper of the sacred knowledge of his people. But rather than being treated to an exotic display or a halting exchange of mutual respect, Tomas slowly begins to realize that this man has something else in store. Something more sinister. The priest’s headdress resembles a bird of prey and around his neck hangs a garland of skulls. As he approaches the Conquistador, he will speak in a strange tongue (translated for our benefit).

First Father sacrificed himself for the tree of life.
Enter and join his fate.
Death is the road to awe.

Before Tomas can brace himself and prepare for an armed confrontation, he finds that he has been struck. Stabbed by what would appear to be a flaming sword.

Time that Falls

A strangled cry. A startled face. As if roused from a nightmare …

Draped in the dark of night and shorn of all hair, Tom floats in mid-air, surrounded by the cosmos and sealed within a bubble ascending to a place unseen. A dying tree dominates this hermetic world, an altar (and stand-in) for the dead. The tree also serves as his only source of nourishment, even as he realizes how this can only sap it of its remaining life. But he cannot help himself. He cannot refrain from these feedings, taunted as he is by visions – of Her – that delight and torment. Snippets of time, echoes from another place. The sounds of laughter, the brush of skin. And moments of regret.

It is this with which he struggles, the knot of memories that have left him bound to another. Dwarfed – and entranced – by that which has already passed, he is consumed by what exists only in his imagination. It is a torment that draws upon and nourishes a vision of happiness, a version of himself he is unable and unwilling to relinquish: a man in possession of a loving wife.

But this is no mere escapist fantasy, for he is haunted by the one he mourns. His visions of her cannot be controlled. They intrude, even as he grieves over her absence, reminders of what has been left unfinished. Shouting at the apparitions will not make them disappear; neither will a turned back banish them to the place from whence they came. Like a recurring nightmare, they will not go away.

An elaborate and rehearsed ritual unfolds before us, as if he’s preparing to write. Black ink is extracted from the coals of a fire, and an old-fashioned pen is readied for its work. But rather than tracing the lines of an unfinished story, the pen is turned into a weapon of pain. This instrument of remembrance, his sole companion in this floating world, connects him to the world of another, giving evidence to the sweet pain of what has passed, as much an homage to what has been lost as a monument to the overwhelming absence that is his present. Stuck between the life that was and the life that has yet to come.

Yet, even as he is absorbed in this holy rite, a familiar voice calls out to him, bringing him a message. One filled less with reassurance than a gentle reprimand:

Finish it.

Chronicle of a Death Foretold

We are not told much about the nature of his wife’s suffering – the film is about Tom learning to finish the story, after all – but this much we do know, told through the personage of Queen Isabel:

The beast runs amok in my kingdom.
He has isolated me,
and now he is sharpening his talons for one more fateful push.

Like Tomas the Conquistador, Tom the Scientist will do anything in his power to save her from this fate. Both seek to destroy the one that threatens her. For Tomas, it is the inquisitor who has set his sights on the Queen; for Tom, it’s the mysterious tumor that grows in Izzy’s brain, bringing her ever closer to death’s embrace. However, in each case, she dissuades him from such a manly (i.e., “heroic”) defense of his Beloved, convincing him to turn his attention to another, more difficult, pursuit.

Salvation lies in the jungles of New Spain. … Here, in the center, in the core of the once-great Mayan civilization, we will find a lost pyramid. No, not lost (but) hidden: The hidden pyramid of the Mayan myths.

The myths tell us of a holy pyramid, built upon the navel of the earth, the birthplace of life. A special tree sprouts there …

Remember, our own Bible confirms it. In Genesis, there are two trees in the Garden of Eden: the Tree of Knowledge and the Tree of Life. When Adam and Eve disobeyed the Lord and ate from the Tree of Knowledge, the Lord banned them from the Garden and hid the Tree of Life.

It is no wonder that Tom will struggle to finish Izzy’s story. For how can he complete a task for which he has not been trained, one for which even the best equipped laboratory cannot help? Neither does it identify a foe that the conquistador knows how to attack. Instead, the Thomas Twins are sent on a nebulous quest based on myth and rooted in the sacred. – How does one go about finding the Tree of Life? – For this awesome task, eyes must be turned away from the world of the senses, learning to trust a different form of sight.

If Tom allows himself pause, he will remember that Izzy had already pointed the way. For in the final days leading up to her death, she had quite excitedly told him about her discovery of a Mayan codex, and the words of promise the Queen was later given to speak.

That’s First Father. He’s the very first human.
– Is he dead? –
He sacrificed himself to make the world.
The Tree of Life’s bursting out of his belly.

So, what do you think?
– About? –
That idea: death as an act of creation.

Much like other spiritual traditions, this story speaks of sacrifice. First Father – specifically through his death – is the one who lays the ground for the founding of the (new) world. It is an idea that Tom the Scientist will find repellent, since his mission until now has been the preservation of life. But Izzy’s enthusiasm about this discovery will turn his world, and his life’s work, upside down … and leave him baffled, struggling against the very absence of meaning brought about by this reversal of established truth.

How can death – especially her death – be an act of creation?
And what is one to make of a tree that sprouts from the belly?

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .. . . . .
[ click on pictures for larger image ]

There are, however, parallels to this Mayan myth, ones that find their origins closer to Spain and with roots in a tradition more familiar to Queen Isabel and the Conquistador. One in particular concerns the Tree of Jesse, a popular subject for medieval Christian art. As with the story of the First Father, these portraits depict a tree sprouting from a man’s belly. While it’s not always clear whether he is merely resting, sleeping, or in the midst of meditation, his reclining figure is always overshadowed by that which emerges from the core of his being, peopled by a host of figures that can only be taken to represent a world different from – and more holy than – the one he currently inhabits.

Such creation stories, whether they be Mayan, Christian, or from another spiritual tradition, need not be reduced to quaint tales about the origins of the material world. Rather, they can be seen as stories about the emergence of the sacred, and the conditions under which it springs: from inner turmoil and the churning of oceans. What follows on the heels of torment can only be described as a blossoming, for it brings forth what, until that point, could only be imagined but not understood. A flowering – and a proliferation – that grows of its own accord, without human direction and independent of conscious intent.

The name the Mayans gave to the place of torment was Xibalba“It was their underworld, the place dead souls go to be reborn” – and it served as the necessary prelude for what was yet to come. It is the dark and “empty time” in which we initially find Tom, surrounded by the ghosts of his past.

Unbeknownst to Tom, the warbles of light that fill his vision, the circles that crop up everywhere, and the tunnels inviting passage, all of which bring him endless confusion, harken back to what was there at the beginning as he sought blessing from the Queen on bended knee. It is the invisible third, the empty space-that-separates and its capacious embrace, the mysterious elixir of life that enables the marriage of soul and spirit. It will be many years before Tom, still shrouded in the dark of night, will finally give up on his crusade and turn his attention, instead, to to what was hidden … but not lost. Finally able to recognize what had already been there, he will learn to step into what – in his previous incarnation – only seemed intent on his very extinction: the void that marked the location of the pyramid built upon the navel of the earth.

Only then will he understand the words that began the Conquistador’s journey:

Will you deliver Spain from bondage?
– Upon my honor and my life. –
Then you shall take this ring to remind you of your promise.
You shall wear it when you find Eden, and when you return, I shall be your Eve.
Together, we will live forever.

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~ by mistified on October 23, 2009.

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