You And I, We’re Gonna Live Forever: The Fountain and The Tree of Life

Originally, The Fountain was supposed to be a Brad Pitt project. It nearly died when he jumped ship; as it happens, he left in order to make another version of the same movie — a few short years later — with Terrence Malick.

It’s not surprising Pitt was a source for one film, the star of the other. They’re both essentially about the same thing — that is, both present a mystical vision of a unified cosmos, link that vision to female characters, and set this holistic feminine All (symbolized in part by the Biblical Tree of Life) in opposition to masculine cruelty and grief.

Both films are undeniably poignant; we are starved, as moviegoers, for the kind of gentle wonder they intermittently achieve. They are perfect films to project, silently, onto one brick wall at a hipster lounge. As stories, though, they are disasters. The saddest thing about them is that they attempt to solve Oedipal crises without symbolically or dramatically representing maturity: these films take refuge from real crisis, hiding behind entire symbolic galaxies of nostalgic, romantic, and religious imagery. By the time the fable is complete, there is hardly air left for us, the audience, to breathe.

I’m not suggesting that these films are, necessarily, responding to the objective reality of the Oedipal crisis. They are themselves Freudian, even if their infantile fantasies and paeans to “spirituality” would have horrified Freud.

Malick’s film is the less complicated of the two. The crisis in The Tree of Life is the child’s identification with his battered mother, and his hatred for his abusive father. He does not want to “grow up” and become an agent of violence. He would rather dream about dinosaurs, and toy with the possibility of dressing up as his mother. When the boy does allow himself to be violent, as part of the gang of bullies, he experiences agonizing shame afterward. This is both because he is disobeying his father, and because he is becoming his father.

Nothing gets resolved; the disjointed structure of The Tree of Life, similar to that of The Fountain, is all the proof we need. These are not “avant-garde” films or Deleuzian multiverses, although they (intentionally) suggest both through fragments and montages. In The Tree of Life, for example, the two dominant storylines (the family, as seen by the boy, and the cosmos) are intercut with a third storyline, in which Sean Penn walks aimlessly around in empty, alienating glass towers. Penn is the tragic adult version of the child narrator. He is the man who, in seeking to avoid violence at all costs, has detonated a neutron bomb. Everything around him is sterile and dead; he aches and cannot find peace, except for moments at a time, when he manages to mask the whitespace of his life with the reveries that constitute the bulk of the film. The fragments are of a piece with the film’s content, but not because they are divine revelations or triumphs of consciousness unbound. They symbolize the wreckage of one man’s personality.

In The Fountain, on the other hand, the father is mostly absent. (There are, in fact, almost no characters in the film besides the two lovers.) Mostly absent, though, is not entirely absent: the father appears as the angry Mayan priest, guarding the Tree of Life, and as the Grand Inquisitor ordering the death of the Spanish Queen. Most interestingly, the father and the mother merge in the figure of the lab supervisor (Ellen Burstyn), who is alternately angry and gentle with Tommy Creo.

Each father is a castrating figure. The lab supervisor warns Tommy (right at the beginning of the film) that she will have to shut down his research. The Mayan priest mortally wounds Tommy, exposing his vulnerability by piercing the side of his body. The Grand Inquisitor threatens to separate Tommy from his queen. All in all, we seem to be dealing here not with a story about the inevitability and profundity of death, but rather with a story about a boy who has lost (or never knew) his father, and who cannot bear to give up absolute intimacy with his mother. The violence of the father is not real violence, as it was in Malick’s film; instead, it is the pain of not having a father.

The mother is not necessarily a “bad” mother, but for her to have a separate existence at all is unbearable. Notice the disguised signs of rage in the various interwoven stories: the mother in the lab threatens to shut down Tommy’s project, and wants him “to go home for a few days.” (She is, in fact, trying to send him out of the lab, which is an incestuous, festering womb, in which identical cells embrace “like lovers”). Nor is this the only sign of the mother’s hidden flaws. The test subject, a monkey named Donovan, is hideous, a little demon of naked flesh and bestial fury. Yet the movie makes it absolutely clear that the fate of the saintly Izzi depends on whether Donovan lives or dies. We are pushed right up close to Donovan’s frightening body, but the scientists in the lab croon over him, as if he is their child. The brain tumor, which is invisible in Izzi, is extremely visible on Donovan. It is a disgusting open wound. By the same token, Izzi’s capacity for caprice and irritation is projected entirely onto the monkey, and becomes “invisible” in her.

Even the two scenes that seem most overtly romantic between Dr. Creo and his wife — the bath scene and the snow scene — have disturbing undertones. In these scenes, what appears to be sensuality and spontaneity, respectively, are actually effects of Izzi not being able to feel. “You weren’t uncomfortable in the snow because you couldn’t feel the cold!” Tommy yells angrily, after he sees that Izzi doesn’t wince at the touch of a hot sponge. She admits that he is right, and tells him it has been that way “for some time,” even if he’s been able to repress that fact until now. This lack of feeling is, of course, both the sign of the cancer, and a guise for Tommy’s anger at being abandoned by his “unfeeling” mother. (Tommy guiltily assumes this action by playing the role of the workaholic Doctor. In reality, when Izzi runs off into the snow, he experiences it as her leaving him, and he keeps returning to the scene until he can “get it right” by chasing after her.)

A great deal of the movie makes little to no sense unless it is viewed in this Freudian way. For example, only one of the three couples (the Doctor and his wife) possesses much reality: in the happiest version of the three, which takes place in the spaceship, Izzi is reduced to a pure vision. She is without agency or body, and available upon request. In the conquistador story, the Grand Inquisitor turns on Isabella, an absurdity that can only be understood as a paranoid fantasy. Ferdinand and Isabella were devoutly Catholic, and oppressed heretics and people of other faiths. (Of course, in this version, there is no Ferdinand.) Second, we never see any armies, nor is it explained how the Grand Inquisitor could acquire them. Third, it is not clear why the Queen becoming immortal would end a civil war, or how immortality will lead to freedom from tyranny, as the Queen insists. Finally, the Grand Inquisitor is utterly convinced of the Queen’s heresy, yet she can convince Tommy (in one short encounter!) that he is being a good Christian in seeking the Mayan sap.

I have to insist here that in this kind of dreamtime, where intensity (the Queen will die!) substitutes for logic, the symbols are working for a neurosis. The presence of Mayan symbology is simply a code for the strangeness of the unknown father, and the related strangeness of a motherless “New Spain.” In other words, The Fountain is not a legitimate exploration of Mayan spirituality, or a synthesis of Mayan and Christian mythologies. The only Mayan character in the entire film is the savage priest. All the rest of the Mayan references are pieces of personal mythology on (white) Tommy’s part, or conversations between Tommy and Izzi.

Faced with the insoluble problem of how not to grow up, Tommy finally opts for a hysterical double solution: he will kill himself, and by killing himself, he will remain a child. At the moments when he kills himself, his mother is never around to chastise him: he is alone in his spacecraft, or he is carried off to an Edenic nowhere, alone with the tree. In fact, suicide is his first independent (therefore adult) act, which is probably why the tree sap looks exactly like semen. This is, in most myths, the sort of substance one would eat: perhaps it can cure wounds, but immortality potions are psychically and mythically distinct from healing salves. Nonetheless, Tommy instead rubs the sap into his wound, curing himself and, ahem, making himself pregnant. (This uncomfortable incestuous imagery is made even more explicit by the fact that the tree is covered in sparse, quivering hair.) He goes into labor and begins to scream, as vegetation bursts from the wound and consumes his body.

It’s not precisely clear whether Tommy’s mother has really died, or whether she’s merely symbolically dead. I would tend to think the latter, since Ellen Burstyn presides at Izzi’s funeral. (Again, unless you read the film through psychoanalysis, this makes no sense: why a supervisor from work, and not a priest? Why are they suddenly getting along well, after she made it so difficult for him to find a cancer cure in time? Well, because the mother is attending her own funeral.) Regardless of which it is, Tommy’s death, or his fantasy of it, does not merely remove him from time. He regresses, moving backwards in time, until he has taken the place of “The First Man” in Mayan mythology, achieving a total (but infantile) Oedipal victory. He simultaneously ascends in his spaceship, in the lotus position. Throughout the film, this futuristic Zen Tommy has been a baby, as evidenced by his shaven head and his total isolation from everyone but Mother. Now he is not only a baby, but he is back in the womb, floating in a transparent egg, within a magical, glowing universe. All of his adult features disappear into washes of color, and the lotus position, signifying enlightenment, suggests that he has, as Orwell put it, “won the battle against himself” for once and all.

(NB: Aronofsky claimed to want the cover art and opening scenes of the movie to evoke a birth canal; having seen The Fountain, I’m quite certain he did, but not, as he must believe, because the film celebrates fertility. It does the opposite; it seals the mother up.)

These films play deliberately upon our most recent tools for understanding art. The triple story in The Fountain suggests quantum theories of parallel universes and tesseracts. The fragmentation suggests Deleuzian diversity, even though the symbols are actually too clear and numerous for this to be anything but grotesque self-indulgence. The fragmentation also seems avant-garde, even though these films aren’t at the forefront of anything. The references to evolution (in Malick) and obscure indigenous cultures (in Aronofsky) are cunning alibis for claustrophobic versions of the Real where nobody evolves, and the white man’s wound matters more than the entire Mayan civilization. “Death is the path to awe,” Izzi assures her husband, and he agrees.

They have it backwards. Awed infantilism is a path to psychic death. There is only one Tommy; he projects himself into the past and the future because he is depriving himself of both. His dark laboratory and his travels through the comet-drenched reaches of space are one and the same. Aronofsky can call it a myth if he wants to, but Tommy Creo is living a fiction.

The origin of the religious attitude can be traced back in clear outlines as far as the feeling of infantile helplessness…. I can imagine that the oceanic feeling became connected with religion later on. The ‘oneness with the universe’ which constitutes its ideational content sounds like a first attempt at a religious consolation, as though it were another way of disclaiming the danger which the ego recognizes as threatening it from the external world. [One of my friends] sees in [this oceanic feeling] a physiological basis, as it were, of much of the wisdom of mysticism. It would not be hard to find connections here with a number of obscure modifications of mental life, such as trances and ecstasies. But I am moved to exclaim in the words of Schiller’s diver:

‘. . . Es freue sich. Wer da atmet im rosigten Licht.’
“Let him rejoice who breathes here, in the roseate light!”
-Sigmund Freud, Civilization and its Discontents