Sunday, December 2, 2007

More Than Entertainment: The Fountain

I don’t think I’ve ever disagreed so strongly with so many movie critics over a film. Their distaste for and dismissal of Darren Aronofsky’s latest work, The Fountain, was not all that surprising, given that it’s a film that cannot be truly appreciated, let alone fully resonated with, unless one has already spent some quality time in spiritual bootcamp investigating – and not just intellectually – core issues like the nature of identity, love, being, and death, not to mention the means through which these can best be explored.

My guess is that if most of the critics who trashed The Fountain were to be presented, in all sincerity and minimal superficiality, with the question: “Who are you?” (a warmup for “What are you?”), their answer would probably be to supply their name and perhaps occupation. If pressed further, the result would likely be not more in-depth or mind-transcending responses, but rather only a turning away from or ridiculing of the question, as if it were just some sort of sophomoric navel-gazing exercise. Yet the very immaturity that they might attribute to such an enterprise simply exposes their immaturity and adult-erated take on topics that really matter.

Those who have not significantly explored their own depths – psychological, spiritual, emotional, and otherwise – are probably going to toss The Fountain into the same bin as What The Bleep Do We Know, What Dreams May Come, and other such movies (whether they liked them or not), confusing the regressively unitive and otherwise prerational elements of such films with the transrational (and transegoic) elements of The Fountain.

There is an ecstatic dimension – sometimes shatteringly, heartbreakingly beautiful – that shows up throughout The Fountain which is very different than conventional spiritual upliftment. My heart felt ripped open and raw watching it, as deep grief and an equally deep joy coursed through me, as if in fully embodied recognition of what we truly are. Instead of just providing some fascinating information (data-fodder, mystical and otherwise, for the mind) or a tasty bit of spiritualized entertainment, The Fountain provides us with a potentially transformative opportunity, through our unguarded participation in its multidimensional poetics, as well as its often epiphanous intimacy with the inherent paradoxes of Life.

Like good poetry, The Fountain doesn’t explain, but reveals. It raises profound questions, and offers something more real than answers. This may be an irritant to film critics who are busy doing time in their headquarters, but is a sublime balm, Life-affirming and succulently transcendent, to those who have begun to awaken to their true nature.

In The Fountain an edge is played that most other “spiritual” films don’t go near or even acknowledge, an edge that doesn’t console or provide spiritual robes for the conventional self, but that instead shakes it to the core before blasting it far beyond what can be imagined. This edge, lined with reality-unlocking implications, is touched, at least in its darker dimensions, by a few other films, such as Mulholland Drive, but The Fountain dares to bring deep relational love into it, without slipping into romanticism, spiritual and otherwise. The agony of love when death comes nearer than is wanted is honored as much as the bliss of love when everything lines up, even as a deeper love, a death-transcending love, is allowed to arise slowly but surely from the debris of all this, in eloquently nuanced detail and flow.

Film critics who viewed most of the offerings of so-called spiritual cinema would probably be turned off by the terminally sweet tone, simplistic patter, shadow bypassing, and one-dimensional acting that pervades many of these. But to toss such lightweight, spiritually sentimental films into the same bin as The Fountain simply indicates an inability to distinguish pop spirituality from a deeper spirituality.

And what is that deeper spirituality? First of all, it cannot be known through merely rational means, however much the rational mind presumes to know it. Film critics who are identified with or holed up in their thinking minds, unquestioningly believing themselves to be who they think they are and confusing cleverness with intelligence, can only see prerational spirituality (that is, intellectually childish, superstitious, overly ritualistic spirituality), and so lump all spirituality into the same prerational basket, much as Freud famously did with religion, labeling it with facile ease as “New Age” or as some kind of metaphysical mush or babble.

The love in The Fountain is an ever-intensifying mix of everyday love, big love, and supreme love, unburdened by the solemnly clichéd pronouncements (i.e., “we’re all one” or “we’re all connected”) and sugary excesses that often pollute spiritual cinema. The agony and the ecstasy are both very much present – and heart-rippingly easy to feel –along with a sense of tacit revelation that I found incredibly moving.

And threading through all of it is the presence of death, on many levels. Death that is fought, death that is the opposite of Life, death that is the enemy, death that is a disease, death that is but a doorway, death that serves and deepens Life, death that makes possible a deeper Life, death that enriches love and Love. There is so, so much that the protagonist (masterfully played by Hugh Jackman) is dying to see, and through him, through his struggle, his trio of apparent lifetimes, we become more intimate with what we are dying to see. And dying to be.

The Fountain invites us to die into a deeper Life – not through some kind of teaching or transmission of information, but through wholeheartedly participating in the journey of the protagonist and his wife (beautifully played by Rachel Weisz). We are then less spectators watching a movie, and more initiates in a temple of revelation. And why not? Why can’t cinema serve our awakening?

To really get into this, we have to get naked, showing up in (and as) undressed Being, allowing ourselves a second innocence, an awakened innocence that strips us of our knowledge and automated certainties and deposits us in the Open Secret of the hyperbole-transcending Mystery of our existence. If our mouth drops open, so be it; if our buttoned-up case of mistaken identity starts to give up the ghost, so be it; if we’re brought to our knees, and prayer becomes not something we do but are, so be it.

Yes, The Fountain is just a movie, but it is also that rarest of creatures, a movie that has the power to transport us not just into the mystical but through the mystical, taking us into what we never really left, but only dreamt we did. Use it as a catalyst for touching what matters most of all; I can assure you that it is clean, free of harmful additives, non-addictive, and worth revisiting.

- Contributed by Robert Augustus Masters (originally posted on his blog: December 2006)

The Integral News and Views blog aims to explore accessible and practical integral perspectives for people who are interested in getting beyond fragmented worldviews, who desire intimacy with all that they are, and who wish to help the world, themselves, and others evolve and thrive in a mutually beneficial and sustainable manner.

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