This short documentary came with a stack of articles clipped from local papers in and around Humboldt State University all decrying the existence of a perennially hideous fountain on campus. So even before the film begins, I’m thinking: Grow up! Bad, offensive, and obscenely expensive (if not merely obscene) art is an enduring staple of the modern American campus landscape.
The film begins with a montage of genuinely beautiful fountains around the world, rendered in black & white to the classic strains of “Three Coins in the Fountain”. This footage is then rudely interrupted with bleak images of the offending fixture, and the anti-fountain rhetoric begins. A laundry list of æsthetic problems are portrayed and we begin to wonder if filmmaker Jensen Rufe is as obsessive as Jack Nicholson’s character in “As Good As It Gets” (or perhaps even the real Jack Nicholson). He refers to cracks in the cement as “headache inducing” after all.
At this point, however, Rufe makes a devastating argument. The title music is aptly chosen; at any given time there are only three or four coins in this particular fountain. Any money-grubber knows that even the dankest, murkiest water holes in fun places like Disneyland are filled with coins tossed by care-free visitors. The fact that no one wants to get so close to HSU’s fountain is damning.
The balance of the film depicts Rufe researching the history of the fountain and interviewing various campus custodians, faculty and administrators. As we follow this research the tongue-in-cheek sound cues are cleverly chosen. Anyone who stayed awake for those stale educational films in grade school KNOWS that depictions of fun learning activities are ALWAYS accompanied by jaunty snare drums.
By the time the film reaches its open ended conclusion, we are on Rufe’s side. Clearly it is morally correct to hate this fountain. We discover that water in the fountain is not recycled but drains through a hole; to where? Might the entire quad and art building not be in danger of being destroyed in a cataclysm of gradual erosion? One of Rufe’s contacts admits that the fountain is “utilitarian”. What utility is he referring to? Exactly what task is a fountain supposed to perform?
Is there hope for the future? Well, in the face of promises by the hedging campus administration, one faculty member from the art department suggests that the religious studies department could hold baptisms in an improved fountain. So if nothing else, this film illustrates the wide gulf of misunderstanding that exists between art and religion, and a giant water-wasting utilitarian baptismal fountain in the middle of the art quad can’t be helping matters.