I first watched the fountain on April 2007. I was impressed and pleased to see a film with such spiritual depth being actually produced in our shallow contemporary culture. I would like to give my opinion about it and suggest a humble interpretation. I by no means claim my understanding of this film exclusive or perfect. The fountain is a myth and myths have never-ending interpretations from different angles and perspectives.
I believe that one of the most disturbing factors in this film is its constant shifts between three apparently separate storylines, one coming from the past, another in the present and a future storyline. In my understanding, I see that the central story is the one at present time. The allegedly past and future stories are purely fictional, as it will be shortly revealed.
The central story is about a researcher, a Tommy, whose wife, Izzi, suffers from brain cancer and is threatened by death at any time.
Tommy is trying his best to save the life of his wife through studying brain tumors in monkeys. In this process, he has to stay away from his wife in her last days. He doesn’t accompany her when she asks him to walk with her in the snow. Their daily life is often interrupted by his research crew as he has to leave her to go to his research center. It is paradoxical that Tommy wants Izzi to live when he doesn’t spend time with her when she is already alive.
Izzi is upset that he has to stay away from her and she develops a spiritual consciousness of her own. We find her reaching spiritual enlightenment through a deep transforming mystical experience, and as a result of that, she suddenly loses all her fear of death.
It is well known that people who experience mystical transformation are less prone to fear death. Alfred Tennyson, deeply absorbed in a spiritual consciousness, wrote that death is ‘an almost laughable impossibility’(1). We hear the spiritually comforted Izzi telling Tommy that she ‘was full’ and that she is ‘not afraid anymore’, an incredibly common feeling of comfort and contentment felt by mystics. Tommy doesn’t understand her, replying that she doesn’t have to be afraid because he is going to save her life.
The marriage of Tommy and Izzi is growing thin with Izzi evolving a deep mystical consciousness while Tommy is still far from such a holistic vision. This ever-growing distance between the two is symbolized by the loss of Tommy’s wedding ring. Marriage, according to the fountain, is a deep spiritual unity that goes far beyond mere carnal bonding. The gospel of Phillip says that marriage ‘is not fleshly but pure. It belongs not to desire but to will. It belongs not to the darkness or the night but to the day and the light.’(2)
Now the sage wife is trying to put her husband on the road to illumination. She is using a very conventional way that has been used by every initiatory mystery religion, myth.The conquistador
The myth the wife wrote was about the age of conquistadors in Spain. A queen threatened by the inquisitors asks her conquistador to go to South America and fetch immortality from a legendary tree of life. The queen is asking her lover to ‘free Spain’.
After many adventures and a rebellion from the crew, the conquistador stands in front of the Mayan priest who stands as the last gatekeeper to the tree. At this point the pages are blank, Tommy must write the last chapter by himself, he must finish it. Izzi just set the mythological frame for her husband and left him to figure out how to finish it.
No body can finish another’s spiritual quest on his behalf. A good master can only put you on the road to enlightenment by koans, myths or meditative disciplines. At a certain point, however, the master must abandon you. You must be abandoned in the very last test. The ultimate phase of enlightenment is purely personal.
This is symbolized in myths with the hero’s best friend dying just when the hero is about to enter the center of a labyrinth or when he is about to fight the last dragon. Understanding this myth-writing rule can shed light on Jesus’ ‘Eli Eli lama sabachthani’ (3) when he was on the cross.A spiritual elevator
The third ‘story’ in the film depicts Tommy in a sphere with a tree. He is traveling, ascending in the cosmos. I’d be bold enough to assume that it is in his own microcosm that the doctor is traveling. The concept of a microcosm has never been alien to mystics. Origen, an extremely influential early church father wrote that ‘Thou art a second world in miniature, the sun and moon are within thee, and also the stars.’ (4)
In this internal spiritual journey we find Tommy attached to the tree that symbolizes his wife, with fine hairs growing from both. He is unable to do without this tree. He is practicing meditation and yoga. He is frequently depicted eating parts of the tree bark with sanctity worthy of the Eucharist. And he is mixing materials together to tattoo himself in a pot that reminds me of the greater work of alchemical transformation.
This tree, I believe, symbolizes his shallow attachment to his wife personally without realizing that ‘something more’ that he should be focusing on. His wife keeps on appearing to him, she is his syzygy, his Sophia, his guardian angel. She keeps on asking him to ‘finish it’ in a mantra-like fashion.
Before moving to the next point I would like to contemplate on the reason this internal journey is formulated in a future time. The only satisfying answer I have is that the director wants us to realize that accepting death through gnosis is an ethic of the man to come. This can be seen in Gerald Heard’s ‘The Five Ages of Man’ where he speaks about the future ‘leptoid man’ who is anticipated to be spiritually and morally superior to contemporary people.
The apex of conflict
Izzi dies just as Tommy finds a cure for the disease in a pathetic clichéd scene that should have never been put in the film.
Tommy is now at home, alone. Weeping over his recently deceased wife, Tommy proceeds to perform one of the very best scenes of the film. We find him weeping when he can’t find his wedding ring. He pricks himself, mixes his blood with ink and painfully tattoos a dark wedding ring around his finger. Self-mortification is not the way to enlightenment. But it sheds light on human nature. We hate to sit unable to solve a tremendous problem. We tend to inflict pain upon ourselves lest we not feel guilty of passivity. As if we know that this world never lets us get what we want unless we pass through pain, so we inflict pointless pain upon ourselves so that sadistic nature would be satisfied and grant us what we want the most.The solution
Tommy proceeds to finally ‘finish it’. What exactly triggers the solution is unclear, and I believe this to be a weak point in the film, unless the director adopts the concept of ‘sudden enlightenment’ common in Mahayana Buddhism. Tommy is brought into gnosis. He realizes the spiritual height of his wife and proceeds to complete the myth.
The conquistador reaches the tree of life. The Mayan guardian realizes that the writer, not the conquistador, is the ‘first father’ and lets him in; every enlightened one is a first father, a Buddha. The conquistador heals his wounds with the latex of the tree and proceeds to drink this latex to become immortal.
The conquistador sees the innermost nature of all things, the tao or Brahman or monad or whatever we wish to call it, represented by a sphere of light. He tries to wear the ring but he fails. He becomes aware of his fallacy; no mortal body can act as a chalice for the immortal. This primordial most sacred bubbling spring is too dear to be contained in a body, ‘No one may see me and live’. (5) It is active creation. It tears the flesh of the conquistador overwhelming him with ever-growing branches of life. The conquistador dies.
Now Tommy proceeds to ‘free Spain’, to free himself from ignorance that begets torment. He is now enlightened, thus is fully able to unite with his wife. He wears the ring and proceeds to abolish himself in the nebula, only then does the tree live again. He finished his spiritual quest. The word ‘finished’ is very common to the end of every spiritual quest. One of the last sayings of Jesus on the cross was ‘It is finished’.(6) And I have a strong conviction that I have read somewhere a quote of the Buddha under the bodhi tree saying that he did what he had to do and that he is ‘done’ or finished’.
Tommy finds Izzi asking him to take a walk with her and he abandons the lab research and joins her. (7) She gives him a seed and he puts it in her grave to watch her grow. With the inner alchemical work of he grieved Tommy perfected, the myth is fulfilled and the film is brought to an end.
The symbolical unity
To the disappointment of all those who judged the film as three irreconcilable stories inharmoniously stuck together, the film concentrates on the unity of the myth. We find the lanterns in the court of the queen looking quite similar to the stars in deep space and to lamps in Tommy’s lab. The ring is also found in all the ‘stories’ and the tree is easily recognized as Izzi with fine hairs growing out of both. Mixing elements all over the film emphasizes the unity of the stories that may look far from being related at the first glance.
I have never been a fan of conspiracy theories, but perhaps the film has some few subliminal messages as well. In the conquistador version, triangles are abundant, signifying the Christian trinity, and religious dogma. In the present version we can see a lot of squares, signifying scientific rationalism and in the future version we can see that spheres are dominant, signifying spiritual perfection.
Although I may look pretty enthusiastic about the film, I am deeply on opposite poles with its core content. The film, as far as I understood it, promotes life negation and self-denial. Enlightenment in the film is depicted as mystical dissolution, ‘fana’ as sufi mystics call it. I think this idea to be a dangerous desire to unify with the unconscious, as Jung may have put it. I believe that it is psychologically healthy to feel alive and to seek personal differentiation, Jung’s Principium Individuationis. Moreover, the film promotes unscientific ludditism, viewing scientific combating of diseases and life prolongation as irrelevant to say the least, which is pretty annoying to me, an avid transhumanist. I didn’t get exactly what the director meant by ‘death as an act of creation’. Is it just that one has to free his place for someone else to come or mere materialistic atomic recycle?
Regardless of the film’s message, it is very deep, spiritual and mythical. It is undoubtedly worth respect and multiple viewings.
Footnotes and comments
(1) A letter to Mr. B. P. Blood. Quoted by William James in The Varieties Of Religious Experience.
(2) The gospel of Phillip
(3) (Matthew 27:46, Mark 15:34)
(4) Origen, Homilies on Leviticus, 126
(5) Exodus 33:20
(6) John 19:30
(7) One may wonder if Tommy joined Izzi on the walk or abandoned her, since both scenarios are featured in the film. We must, however, remember that this film is intended to be a myth, not a historical account. Unlike linear history, a myth tends to see things from all angles and tap every beauty and extract every depth from every possible scenario.