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Film books are the ultimate director’s cut

Vertigo Comics, a division of DC and home of Superman and Batman, arranged to produce the graphic novelization of Darren Aronofsky’s The Fountain, a difficult project, especially for a studio backing an independent director working on only his third feature. The production was officially shut down for a time, and Aronofsky points out in the book’s afterward that he “wanted to make sure that all the hard work that the team would do would eventually find an audience.”

Vertigo paired Aronofsky with Kent Williams, an award-winning painter (Havok/Wolverine: Meltdown) who “got” the idea of the story and signed on.

Aronofsky had to scale things back to get The Fountain off the ground a second time — in effect, make a more than slight return to his low-budget indie roots to create a science-fiction fantasy world for a fraction of the cost.

But the graphic novel format provided far greater flexibility. And not just the look and feel of the images but also the story itself could contain all of the original elements that Aronofsky had researched during the narrative’s development.

The changes are clearest in the early sections of the story, chronologically speaking, in the 16th-century Spain, a conquistador seeks to secure the rule of his Queen in the face of opposition from an Inquisition and a power struggle over the rights to the mythic Tree of Life possibly located in the New World.

The battles waged on the page between the Queen’s guards and the forces of the Church, as well as the conflicts against the Mayan army, achieve an epic, painterly scale.

Williams’ strokes are dark and moody in the later portions of the story as the more intimate dynamic between the latter-day researcher Thomas attempts to find a cure for his terminally ill wife. Later, centuries in the future, Thomas travels the cosmos toward the dying star he hopes will bring his wife and queen back to him for all time.

There are subtle details in the brush strokes that define each period of the story, much the same way Aronofsky lays the groundwork in his script. This marriage of picture and narrative goes further than his film alone, even the initial aborted big-screen version with an accompanying blockbuster budget, because the page allows the reader’s imagination to join in the creative process. Film sometimes does too much work, stripping away meaning and interpretation, especially on an emotional level.

Not content with the graphic novel, Aronofsky offers a second, extra cut of the material with publisher Rizzoli’s coffee-table photo-journal of The Fountain. This visual feast presents the barest essence of the movie through a collection of film stills. It is even more impressionistic than Williams’ paintings in the graphic novel and less interested in conveying the hard plot points of the story. The photos capture the soul of the project, although the lovely bound volume also includes a copy of the film’s script.

Yet the photos stand alone as purely artistic flashpoints: A bald Hugh Jackman (Tomas/Thomas Creo) in full yoga pose against the infinite black backdrop of space; the startling black-and-white progression of Rachel Weisz (Queen Isadora/Izzi) as she succumbs to a seizure while Jackman races to catch her descent; the image of the darkened theater where priests gather to receive word of the Spanish Queen’s heresy from the Grand Inquisitor is quiet, stately and grave. All are beautiful documents of the world Aronofsky was able to bring to life, full of grand intimacy.

In contrast, Taschen has released a stunning collection of photos based on Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu’s Babel, but the subject is less clear than with the Rizzoli book.

Babel forgoes the standard selection of stills from the movie, instead offering shots from four top photographers (Mary Ellen Mark, Patrick Bard, Graciela Iturbide and Miguel Rio Branco) who traveled with Inarritu and his crew around the world during the filming. This powerful document sheds additional light on the subject and speaks to the cultural diversity they encountered by translating the language of life into a universal visual code.

But the photos from Babel go even further. They break down the artifice of filmmaking and create living memories that transcend simple notions of fiction and non-fiction.

Mark and Bard captured Morocco in not only the landscape but also the faces of the actors, both professionals and amateurs. Images of Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett, in character, feel as real as those of the Moroccans playing extras who were likely unaware or unfamiliar with the notion that they were “playing” roles at all, much the shots of the wedding sets in Mexico with bands and attendants co-mingling with the film crew. And in Japan, the neon lights of the city at night and the club interiors transport us into the silent world of that story’s deaf-mute character.

In each of the three international locations (Morocco, Mexico and Japan), the photos are accompanied by stories from Inarritu, his comments on the places, faces and customs that became part of Babel. The sum of these images showcase the worlds of the stories and the world of film, the culture and community that forms and has a life all its own.

These cuts — the two distinctly different versions of The Fountain and the still testimony from Babel — require more active participation from their audiences than their movie counterparts. They are not content to entertain; they engage the hearts and minds through the eyes. They are the un-shuttered windows into the souls of Aronofsky and Inarritu. How can we not look inside? (tt stern-enzi)