Sunday, 5 September 2010

The Fountain - A call to discussion

In their essay Notes on Metamodernism, Timotheus Vermeulen and Robin van den Akker discuss the way in which metamodernism seems to be characterized by oscillation. As part of their deliberations on the concept of the metamodern, they invoke the words of German thinker Eric Voegelin to help explain the nature of this oscillation:

Existence has the structure of the In-Between, of the Platonic metaxy, and if anything is constant in the history of mankind it is the language of tension between life and death, immortality and mortality, perfection and imperfection, time and timelessness, between order and disorder, truth and untruth, sense and senselessness of existence; between amor Dei and amor sui, l’ame ouverte and l’ame close; …’[1]

In this post, I would like to initiate a discussion of Darren Aronofsky’s 2006 film The Fountain as a metamodern text visually articulating various kinds of oscillations concerning the experience of our mortality. Conceived as a ‘metaphysical post-Matrix-Science-Fiction-Film’[2], The Fountain formulates a central concern that has been a ‘constant in the history of mankind’, namely the meaning of our existence. Ultimately, the film seems to suggest that the journey from life into death is what constitutes humanity. However, this journey is not one with a clear beginning and an end. In stead, the acceptance of our mortality allows us to experience this transition in a metaphysical sense. Life and death becomes an oscillation, rather than a simple beginning with an end. In my view, this challenging film overtly visualizes the formation of the ‘In-Between’, which Voegelin speaks of, in that it structurally oscillates between three distinct narrative lines.

Firstly, a scientist (Tommy Creo), searches desperately for a cure in order to save his beloved wife Izzi from the inevitable effects of terminal cancer. His drive escalates into a bitter obsession that seeks to perfect our one true imperfection – our mortality. To him death is merely a disease in need of a cure.

The second narrative string flows from the pages of Izzi’s novel, telling the story of a conquistador’s quest to find eternal life. Believing the tree of life to be hidden in the jungles of South America, he leaves Spain in search of the holly sap. His journey however brings him face to face with the skepticism of his men, who believe their quest to be completely senseless.

The last strand exists on a different plain of consciousness. A man with tattooed arms and a shaved head silently flows through time and space. His only interaction is with a withering tree and a mystical female figure asking him to ‘finish it’. When he finally agrees, he breaks out of his uterus-like sphere to be swallowed by the atmosphere. In a final explosion of this strange cosmos the man finds himself reborn.

Our existence is thereby given a metaphysical meaning, which allows all three narrative strands to end with the acceptance of death as the continuation of life. The film is thus characterized by a visual and structural oscillation between the concepts of life and death.

As an initial post on the film, I would like to invite readers to contribute to the reading of this film within the context of metamodernism. In my opinion, this film is a profound example of the complexity of current filmic texts that venture beyond the confines of modernism and postmodernism to reenter the metaphysical. It illustrates an artistic return to more encompassing questions that seek to determine the nature of our experience of existence.

[1] E. Voegelin, ‘Equivalences of Experience and Symbolization in History, E. Sandoz (ed.), The Collected Works of Eric Voegelin, vol. 12 (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1989), pp. 119-120.
[2] Scheiber, Roman, ‘Quell der Erkentnis’, in Ray, Vol. 4, no. 7, pp. 9-14


  1. I'd love to join the discussion here but it has been a fair old while since I saw the film, therefore I don't think I would be able to, especially on any metamodern qualities that spring to mind. My strongest memory of it is that it had a very enchanting dreamlike quality to it; captivating but sent you into a really transfixed state. This is much the same experience I had with Soderbergh's Solaris (also been written about due to its postmodern qualities) and Nicolas Winding Refn's recent Valhalla Rising

  2. Yes, I had the same feeling about the film ... a real dreamlike quality. In fact, there are a number of shots depicting characters falling asleep, asleep or waking up (which again connects to the idea of life, death, rebirth). I also felt that the quality of the dream changes dramatically depending on the character, which are being focused on. The Jackman character always seems to be surrounded by a nightmarish tone, while Izzi is depicted in a more optimistic light. I have not seen Solaris in a while, but I can remember feeling the same as well. Interesting, that both films revert to space in order to communicate this quality.