Sunday, October 15, 2006

A Saturday Afternoon Double Feature

There are several reasons why, in spite of the fact that I don't consider myself to be a fan of either Darren Aronofsky or Richard Linklater (or, for that matter, Philip K. Dick)*, I made the schlep up to Haifa yesterday afternoon to catch festival screenings of their latest films. For one thing, there's the fact that both films had incredibly cool trailers, or the fact that one of them has already been buried by its Israeli distributer and the other is likely to, which means that yesterday was probably my only chance to view these films in a movie theatre (over at his blog, Israeli film critic Yair Raveh has been collating a list of films purchased for distribution in Israel and then forgotten by their distributors. It's a terrifying collection, and includes such embarrassing oversights as Donnie Darko, Garden State, and Hotel Rwanda). But the most important reason for making time to see A Scanner Darkly and The Fountain was powerfully brought home to me only an hour after I'd finished viewing the latter. My friend Hagay, who accompanied me to both films, and a friend of his, tried very earnestly to convince me that neither film--the former of which takes place in the near future and features chameleon suits, omnipresent surveillance, and a drug so powerful that it can permanently distort the user's perception of reality; the latter of which takes place at least in part in the distant future and features a space voyage--aren't science fiction.

Few SF fans will be shocked to discover that the genre's cinematic definition is a great deal more conservative and constrained than its literary equivalent. Science fiction, for movie-goers and -makers, more often than not means spaceships, lasers, aliens, and, most importantly, gunfights. There can and have been some very fine and thoughtful films made within that subset of the genre, but a fan looking for slightly different, more subdued fare will wait a long time between offerings. It was precisely this hunger that brought me to Haifa yesterday, and as it turns out, Scanner and Fountain have more in common than just being atypical instances of a heavily streamlined genre. They both have a unique visual sensibility, are both best appreciated for their emotional ambience and not their plot, and can both be more comfortably described as interesting rather than successful.

Like its protagonist, Bob Arctor (Keanu Reeves), an undercover policeman whose pretense of being a drug addict is swiftly becoming a reality, A Scanner Darkly suffers from a split personality. On the one hand, it is a near-future dystopia about a nation at war with itself. In a desperate attempt to curb the proliferation of the dangerous drug Substance D, America has become a police state. Citizens are placed under constant surveillance and dissenters are snatched off the streets by shock troops in unmarked vans. A megacorporation called New Path offers a putative cure for addiction to Substance D, but it whisks its patients away to the one spot in America not under surveillance, and to an unknown fate. When interacting with his fellow policemen, Bob must wear a chameleon suit to hide his identity, with the bleakly humorous result that he is tasked with surveilling himself as a potential drug dealer.

When it moves away from Bob's professional life, A Scanner Darkly becomes an almost plotless study of the character's downward spiral. Along with fellow addicts Barris, Luckman and Freck (Robert Downey Jr., Woody Harrelson, Rory Cochrane) and girlfriend Donna (Winona Ryder), Bob performs the standard stoner rituals--sitting around for hours musing about nothing, indulging in paranoid delusions, coming up with insane schemes that go nowhere, and denying that they have a problem. As the film progresses, Bob begins to suffer the effects of prolonged exposure to Substance D. He becomes disassociated from himself, and ultimately loses both of his identities.

Apart from being the first instance in 24 years of a work by Philip K. Dick being adapted into something other than an action film, A Scanner Darkly is probably best known for utilizing a rotoscoping animating technique, in which animation is superimposed over live film**. The effect is nothing short of stunning, and serves to both alienate us from Bob, who is something other than three-dimensionally, naturalistically human, and put us inside his head, in which the familiar has become slightly alien. Although some reviewers have taken the animating process to task for smoothing away the nuances of the actors' expressions, I think the film's overall texture more than makes up for this sacrifice. Of particular note are the chameleon suits worn by Bob and the other policemen, which project a constantly shifting image made up of the body parts of different men, women, and children. Both creepy and beautiful, the chameleon suits are a perfect visual expression of Bob's alienation and his increasing loss of self--by being everybody, he becomes a nobody, cut off from humanity by a thin but impermeable membrane.

Probably the toughest part of adapting A Scanner Darkly to the screen was the need to maintain a balance between tragedy and farce. There's very little that isn't funny--albeit a very dark kind of funny--about the notion of policemen so secret that they unknowingly spy on one other (was Dick reading G.K. Chesterton, I wonder?), and the interactions between Bob and his friends are also nothing short of ridiculous. It is to Linklater's credit, therefore, that he manages to infuse the film with a tragic undertone. We can laugh when Luckman, in the throes of a paranoid fantasy about invaders in his unattended house, asks, "What if they come in through the back door or the bathroom window like that infamous Beatles song?", but we will do so uncomfortably and in the knowledge that what we're actually watching is the criminal waste of minds and, ultimately, lives. Even more impressive than this transition from amusement to disgust, however, is the one that takes place later in the film, when our distaste for the characters turns to pity. The film ends with a coda by Dick, in which he dedicates the work (the book, I assume) to friends of his who were punished all too severely for their mistakes, and we can only nod in sympathy.

Ultimately, however, A Scanner Darkly fails as a tragedy of weakness and self-destruction, and this failure can be directly attributed to the film's dystopian, SFnal half. There's something winningly honest about the wording of Dick's coda, in which he acknowledges that, however terrible and disproportionate their punishment, his fallen friends were the authors of their own fate. Within the story, however, Dick chickens out (I haven't read the book, but from what I understand Linklater's adaptation is quite faithful). The Substance D plague turns out to be the brain-child of a single organization, a relentless and deliberate attack against helpless users, and the film ends with the suggestion that this organization can be defeated, thus freeing humanity from the bane of addiction. It's a facile ending, which traps the film between two emotional modes--too simplistic and upbeat for the naturalistic tragedy of drug abuse we had been watching, but also far too bleak for a feel-good story of good triumphing over evil. The audience is cheated out of their catharsis, and the film, however impressive in its parts, turns out to be unsatisfying as a whole.

It's quite a paradigm shift to go from Linklater's flattened and almost textureless suburban settings to the rich and hyper-detailed visuals of Darren Aronofsky's The Fountain. The film's interiors--apartments, palaces, offices, museums, tents, dungeons, labs--are carefully arranged, artful even in their messiness. Its exteriors are so heavily textured that even a blanket of snow becomes an assault on the senses. Space itself, in Aronofsky's hands, is crowded with visual stimuli.

As anyone who's seen the film's trailer (and if you have, you know the film's plot and can probably guess at its ending--this isn't a film you watch for the story) knows, The Fountain tells three parallel stories, which take place in the past, the present, and the future. In the early 21st century, a scientist named Tom (Hugh Jackman) battles valiantly to find a cure for the cancer afflicting his beloved wife, Izzy (Rachel Weisz). Izzy is a novelist, whose latest story (titled The Fountain) takes place in 16th century Spain. The reign of Queen Isabella is threatened by a ruthless inquisitor, who pronounces judgments of heresy against the Queen's allies and seizes their land. She dispatches the conquistador Tomas to the jungles of South America, where the dying Mayan civilization is said to conceal the tree of life. In the future, an unnamed man who may or may not be a now immortal Tom, travels with the dying remnants of this tree towards a nebula the Mayans christened Xibalba--the home of the dead, and a source of new life.

There's a great deal of fun to be had in tracking the ways in which the three plotlines loop around and echo each other. The dagger with which Tomas travels towards his destination is echoed in the shape of the quill with which Izzy writes her novel, and the tattoo needle with which the future Tom marks the passage of time on his own skin. When he first meets Isabella, Tomas glimpses her through an intricately patterned screen. A similar pattern appears on the glass door of Izzy's hospital room. The inquisitor notes his conquests of Isabella's land by daubing blood over a map of Spain, recalling all too powerfully the progress of a tumor as it swallows up healthy tissue. The effect of these recurring elements is strongly reminiscent of self-referential, post-modern puzzle novels like David Mitchell's Cloud Atlas or Simon Ings's The Weight of Numbers, in which the reading experience becomes an active exploration. Aronofsky's use of this technique engourages us to believe that the film's disparate plotlines will eventually come together to form an overpowering, emotional crescendo.

There's no shortage of emotion to be overpowered by in The Fountain. The bulk of the film revolves around Izzy and Tom, but for all that they are our contemporaries, they are not naturalistic characters. Everything about them is operatic and larger than life: Tom's determination to find a cure for Izzy and his fear of losing her, Izzy's ever-increasing luminousness in the face of death, their love for one another. Izzy and Tom, and Isabella and Tomas, and the future Tom and the imaginary Izzy to whom he speaks, aren't characters so much as archetypes--the man the woman, the scientist and the artist, the searcher and the guide. This is the sort of artistic choice one has to be prepared for--to watch The Fountain expecting realistic characterization would make for a disastrous viewing experience--and to Aronofsky's credit he for the most part carries his audience along with him--the film teeters on the brink of overwrought melodrama, but never quite makes the plunge. We buy into the grandeur with which Aronofsky imbues his characters and their plight.

Unfortunately, the promised crescendo never truly materializes. At the risk of sounding flip, I have to point out that Aronofsky expends a terrific amount of energy, and demands an equally terrific emotional commitment from his audience, to express one of the minor themes of the Harry Potter books--that immortality is achieved not through the denial of death but through its acceptance, and through the transformative power of art and creation***. Even worse, he fails to convey this message convincingly. By the end of the film, the intricate interlacing of plotlines begins to unravel. The plot collapses in upon itself, leaving us only with the message. Unsupported by the story's invented cosmology, this message takes on the hue of fortune cookie wisdom--death is the path to immortality, OK, what's for desert? It's obviously unfair to criticize Aronofsky for not making a film which doubles as a spiritual eye-opener (although I'm not entirely convinced that he wasn't aiming for such an effect), but by failing to sustain the audience's emotional investment in his story, Aronofsky misses out on even the ersatz sense of revelation that can be wrought out of a well-told story (or, as I like to put it, I don't believe in Christ but I do believe in Aslan).

As I wrote at the beginning of this entry, neither The Fountain nor A Scanner Darkly are entirely successful works. Each of them, however, fails in interesting ways, and succeeds often enough in individual scenes, in certain images, and in their ability to keep me enthralled, if not entirely satisfied, to make the time and effort I took to see them worthwhile. After a long dry spell with no interesting SF films in sight--hell, no interesting films, period, in sight--yesterday afternoon's double feature made for an almost overpowering glut. If you have the opportunity, I heartily recommend both of these films--an interesting failure is sometime a more worthy object than an uninteresting success.



* Full disclosure: I've seen Aronofsky's Pi and found it ambitious but ultimately a mess. Haven't seen Requiem for a Dream or any of Linklater's films. Of Dick's novels, I've only read Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, which I liked but not enough to actively seek out more of his work.

** Which, by the way, makes the film a blow against cinematic preconceptions on two fronts--it is both an atypical SF film and an atypical animated film.

*** Yair Raveh's review of the film is in Hebrew, which unfortunately means that most of my readers won't be able to read it, but he very cleverly points out that, in spite of the obvious associations between the film's title and the mythical fountain of eternal life, the actual source of immortality in the film is a tree, not a fountain. Could the title allude, Raveh wonders, to an ink fountain, the means by which Izzy creates her own slice of immortality, the completion of which she leaves to Tom?

11 comments:

Mae Travels said...

They sound intriguing -- I have no idea if they've been shown here, but I've added them to my queue for Netflix, whenever they appear on DVD.

best... mae

benpeek said...

REQUIEM FOR A DREAM is, i thought, a very successful film. power, horrifying, and the kind of thing you watch once and never again. worth checking out. my view of PI was pretty much like yours.

Niall said...

aren't science fiction.

... so at the risk of starting an argument, what are they?

(And yes, still jealous about The Fountain.)

Abigail Nussbaum said...

at the risk of starting an argument, what are they?

Are you asking me, or the guys I was talking to?

To be perfectly honest, I'm not entirely comfortable calling The Fountain science fiction. It's SFnal in roughly the same sense that Cloud Atlas or The Weight of Numbers are - there are SFnal elements in the story, and a general SFnal feel, but the film's primary function isn't to tell an SFnal story.

That said, I can't think of a genre that suits it better.

(I don't suppose you know why the site's LJ feed is on the fritz, by the way?)

Niall said...

Are you asking me, or the guys I was talking to?

Either, both (one of them at least has been known to visit these parts, right?)

I see the comparison between Cloud Atlas and The Fountain, but there are enough sf novels with contemporary or historical segments in them that I don't have a problem calling either of these two examples sf. The dividing line for me is how important the sf elements are to the story--something like 2047 (or, from what I hear, The Blind Assassin) I wouldn't call sf, because the sf elements are contained within the main story of the book, but for Cloud Atlas I don't think the book makes sense without the sf.

The Weight of Numbers is more in a category with Pattern Recognition and Cryptonomicon and Memento for me -- works that aren't sf, but whose style and thinking is influenced by sf.

But that still leaves A Scanner Darkly. If it's not sf, what is it? I mean, it must be something, even if it's just "a film". (I'm particularly entertained by the idea that you could have a film that is not sf based on a book that is clearly sf, due to differing definitions of the genre in the two different forms of media.)

Anonymous said...

If you watch 'Before Sunrise' or 'Before Sunset' or 'School of Rock' your life will be better.

S

Abigail Nussbaum said...

The dividing line for me is how important the sf elements are to the story--something like 2047 (or, from what I hear, The Blind Assassin) I wouldn't call sf, because the sf elements are contained within the main story of the book, but for Cloud Atlas I don't think the book makes sense without the sf.

(By 2047, you mean 2046, the trippy Wong Kar Wai film with the gorgeous sixties outfits, right?)

I think I probably use a similar distinction to the one you lay out here (although I remain uncomfortable with the categorization of Cloud Atlas as SF), but the problem is that with The Fountain, it's all but impossible to tell which side of the divide the film falls on. It's possible that the SFnal segments are a story-within-a-story, and it's possible that they're actually taking place. And their importance to the story is the importance you'd assign to one of the points on a triangle - by that logic, we might say that the film is historical because of the 16th century segment (which, now that I think about it, is the argument Dan made a while back against categorizing CA as SF).

It has just occurred to me that I'm arguing both sides of the argument and being aided and abetted by someone who hasn't seen the work in question. It might make more sense to adjourn this discussion until you've had a chance to form your own impressions.

As for A Scanner Darkly, I think it was a review linked to from TC that pointed out that the story's SF-ness is primarily derived from the fact that it describes a future in which nothing has changed - I think it was this similarity to our world that had my friends a bit flummoxed.

Niall said...

And their importance to the story is the importance you'd assign to one of the points on a triangle

See, you say this like it's a criticism, but it's just making me want to see the film more. Probably best to ajourn until then, though, you're right, especially since this is all something of a pedantic tangent to your original post. :)

(And yes, 2046.)

But that said, I can't resist pointing this out:

"Battlestar Galactica (Sci Fi, Fridays at 9 p.m. ET), now entering its third season, is not science fiction—or "speculative fiction" or "SF," or whatever you're supposed to call it these days. Ignore the fact that the series is a remake of a late-'70s Star Wars knockoff. Forget that its action variously unfolds on starships and on a colonized planet called New Caprica. And never mind its stunning special effects, which outclass the endearingly schlocky stuff found elsewhere on its network. Sullen, complex, and eager to obsess over grand conspiracies and intimate betrayals alike, it is TV noir."

Using similar logic, I conclude that piece isn't actually a review at all, it's nonsense.

Abigail Nussbaum said...

See, you say this like it's a criticism, but it's just making me want to see the film more.

Oh, I certainly didn't mean it as a criticism - the film is not without its failings, but the fact that I can't comfortably place it within a specific genre is surely not one of them. And you should definitely see it, if only so that we can continue this debate :-)

I just finished reading that Slate article, which pretty much encapsulates the logic by which my friends came to the conclusion that A Scanner Darkly isn't SF. Doesn't it sometimes seem as if there's only one kind of definitional argument, and we keep having it again and again?

David Golding said...

I second the recommendation of Before Sunrise and Before Sunset, and would also suggest Waking Life to see more of the animation style, philosophy, and Philip K Dick.

As for Dick himself, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep is the weakest book of his that I have read (and is not, I think, as good as Bladerunner). A Scannder Darkly is good, but check out works like The Man in the High Castle, Ubik or Valis to see what he's really capable of.

Anonymous said...

Hello,

My friend Sefi didn't see the movies we're talking about here. Our point was that in "Scanner Darkly" there is nothing which does not exist already. There are cameras on the streets, there is at least one blurring suit prototype in Japan, and the current laws in the states make it possible for Americans to be arrested without cause and sent to a "re-education camp". (Note: I'm not saying this happens to a lot, or even some people, but it CAN happen and it will not be ilegale). Does this mean the movie is not Sci-Fi? Maybe, maybe not, just because a movie HAS these things does not make it a Sci-Fi movie for me.

As for "The Fountain", I think it is a Spritual movie not unlike "What the bleep do we know." It's not as shallow but the lovely visualls can't make it that much better. I think the movie would have worked better as a comic book. (I'm thinking about "The Invisbels" by Grant Morrison, which excells this movie beyond any measure).

What would these movies be? They'd be boring movies. "Scanner Darkly" more so, in my opinion, then "The Fountain". I have seen Pi and Requiem and have read "The man in the high tower" and other works by Dick (Including "I am alive and you are dead - The worlds of Philip K. Dick" which is a terrefic bio of him). So I'm pretty sure that my dislike for the movies isn't a prejudice. It's just that unlike Abigail, who can truly find intrest in movies which are interesting in some points and fail at others, I feel that a bad movie is one that bores me.

I don't regret watching the movies, but had I been able to stop "Scanner" after an hour and move on to "The Fountain" I would have.

The quiestion of what is Sci-Fi and what is not is not an easy one to answer. For me it's not even a very important one, much like Abigail, there are stories I enjoy and stories I do not. And sometimes I like to hear people talk about stories I dislike to gain an understanding of them from their point of view:)

Cheers:

Hagay

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