“Brainwave”: Darren Aronofsky
The Rubin Museum
Once, at a Q+A following an early screening of The Fountain, Darren Aronofsky’s long-anticipated film about a tripartite Hugh Jackman questing after immortality, I asked the director what was up with all the poking. (To wit: There’s that hallucination scene in which a pen takes its sweet agonizing time poking into a swollen brain. Plus all of Requiem. And in The Fountain, too, the camera lingers unnaturally on a close-up scene of mutilation-by-sharp-thin-object.) By way of a response, the director spread his arms sarcastically, and glanced at the audience. “Hey, look, my psychoanalyst is here tonight. Why don’t you tell me? Maybe I didn’t get laid enough in high school?” Snickers all around.
“Yeah,” I responded, then, perhaps regrettably. “Maybe that’s also why a guy in your film drinks jizz from a tree”–a reference to the milky bounty Jackman sips in The Fountain. Muttering started up, and the moderator stepped in to take another question.
Three years later, in the cavernous basement of the Rubin museum, Aronofsky is sitting across the room from Patrick Grim, hardcore epistemologist and well-published philosopher of mind. The two are scheduled to discuss questions of Immortality as part of the dubious Brainwave series. Grim at least, looks ready to deliver. He’s sort of a cowboyish bohemian-academic with long hair, blinding white socks and a devilish grin: Billy Bob Thornton with a Ph.D.
And indeed, he digs right in, asking Aronofsky about the divide between Western-style immortality and Buddhist reincarnation theory–where does The Fountain stand? Aronofsky sips tea and says he wish he’d brought coffee instead. He knows they did some research on Tibetan Buddhism for the film but can’t remember what they found. Grim doesn’t let up, though, and eventually–possibly as a defensive maneuver — Aronofsky starts insisting that the film had nothing to do with spirituality or the soul. The Fountain, he says, is really just about dead matter, decomposing and recomposing. Grim seems to be at a loss. A toxic awkwardness descends. The same thing happened at the March 7th “Brainwave” with Miranda July; then, at least–for fans of July, anyway–her awkwardness was a main attraction. No such luck here. “Should we just take questions?” Aronofsky asks. “It’s my fault, I didn’t prepare.”
Grasping for a way out, the director tells a very strange anecdote about being at a party, feeling sad about guests pinning identities to each other with gazes of love, and things are suddenly moving again. Grim aggressively poses one thought experiment after another about subjectivity, time, and death; Aronofsky rolls with the metaphysical punches. The Self, he says, “either doesn’t exist, or it’s already immortal, so it doesn’t fucking matter!”
“Not quite” says the professor cheerfully, “it’s like a wave on the sea of consciousness–if you try to freeze the sea, you lose the wave!” Grim tells us that according to Socrates, one may start practicing philosophy after year 40. “Uh, makes sense,” says Aronofsky, who, at just that age now, might think about taking Grim’s words to heart.— Eli Epstein-Deutsch