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Journeys of Grief and Wonder in Up and The Fountain

July 19, 2009

THIS ANALYSIS REVEALS SIGNIFICANT PLOT ELEMENTS AND THEMATIC CONTENT.

Much can and should be written about the stunning, gorgeous visual elements of both The Fountain (2006) and Up (2009). Here, the differences between the two films are noteworthy, for they sit at opposite ends of the spectrum of embracing digital technology in cinema. In making The Fountain, auteur Darren Aronofsky set a goal of minimizing computer-generated visual effects, relying on innovative in-camera techniques wherever possible. In contrast, as Pixar’s tenth feature-length film, Up is of course entirely computer-generated.

I would argue, however, that these disparate technical means lead to the same important end: moviemaking at its most beautiful and rapturous, both visually and thematically. For all the nuts-and-bolts differences between the films, their themes are strikingly similar. Perhaps because I saw them both for the first time during the same recent weekend, I experienced Up and The Fountain as twin meditations on the frailty of grief-stricken lovers and the attainment of deep understanding of mortality. The Fountain’s Tommy Creo (played by Hugh Jackman) and Up’s Carl Fredericksen (voiced by Ed Asner) both must come to terms with losing the women at the center of their lives. Their losses, and the denial and acceptance thereof, form the emotional core of these profound films.

Carl is an elderly widower who, after the death of his wife, Ellie, has retreated from the world and intends to make his remaining days an epilogue to what he sees as the real life that ended with her passing. When outside forces threaten Carl’s ability to keep his vigil in the home he and Ellie created together, he escapes and begins an unlikely adventure to South America’s Paradise Falls, the lifelong dream he and Ellie shared but never fulfilled. To an extent that threatens his ability to form new connections that would enrich his present life, Carl becomes single-minded in his commitment to make Paradise Falls the final resting place for himself and his beloved.

In The Fountain, we see Tommy’s wife, Izzi, in her last days before succumbing to a terminal brain tumor. As a cancer researcher, Tommy believes he has one last shot at finding an experimental cure for Izzi (portrayed by Rachel Weisz). He’s torn between competing, paradoxical obligations, both overwhelming in their urgency. To keep searching for a cure, he must sacrifice the precious few hours that remain for him to share with Izzi; to spend more time with Izzi while she’s alive, he risks losing his sole remaining chance to fight the disease that will otherwise take her from him far too soon.

Both Tommy and Carl cannot initially accept their wives’ deaths. Carl still talks to Ellie and treats their house as though it embodies her. Tommy refuses to believe that a cure for Izzi’s tumor is out of reach. Though we learn that Ellie and Izzi both achieved peace and were prepared for death when it inevitably arrived, Carl and Tommy fearfully cling to their love as it has always existed rather than letting themselves or their feelings evolve. Both men seek discoveries (Paradise Falls and a cure for cancer) that, we come to learn, their wives did not want at the end of their lives. By failing to understand their wives’ true dying wishes, both men must endure the anguish of losing time that could have been better spent. But this suffering leads to wisdom and grace, and the films end with each man beginning to achieve the insight he needs to begin life anew.

The Fountain and Up both remind me that life’s prismatic experiences of pleasure, pain, sadness, and elation are inextricably bound together. The deepest grief I will ever know is inherently linked to the greatest joys I will ever feel, for both emerge from the same source: the love and human connections that create every bit of the form, substance, and meaning to be found in my life.

My allotted time is mine to fill. I want to spend it in a state of wonder at truths, mysteries, and moments. In bear hugs and belly laughs. In appreciation of the hearts, minds, and convictions of my closest friends and allies. In the embrace of life rather than the fear of death.

More than any movie I’ve seen in a long time, if ever, The Fountain and Up both lead me, in tearful awe, to that level of clarity in understanding what matters and why. For me, art can accomplish nothing greater.

4 Comments
  1. July 19, 2009 10:33 pm

    Fantastic, brother. Well said, well put, and we’d all do well to adhere to your words.

  2. July 20, 2009 12:50 am

    Excellent piece, Alan, very well thought out and meaningful. I’d like to see you expand on this.

  3. Jeff permalink
    July 20, 2009 10:17 am

    Yes! Wonderfully written and you reach a high point when you say, “My allotted time is mine to fill. I want to spend it in a state of wonder at truths, mysteries, and moments. In bear hugs and belly laughs. In appreciation of the hearts, minds, and convictions of my closest friends and allies. In the embrace of life rather than the fear of death.” I think I will add this to my piece of writing for the day!

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