Monday, September 15, 2008

Review of The Fall (2006)

Like most cinephiles, I fancy that I have a pretty good network for finding out about the best films. We all have our favorite sources, be they friends, reviewers, websites, blogs, books, movie channels, theaters, film festivals or whatever. With newly released films, its often just as important to learn how to avoid bad advice and obnoxious trailers. Yet sometimes our personal systems fail, something which happened to me recently when an internet popup ad was the unlikely informant for guiding me to the best recent film I’ve seen this year.

I say recent, because Tarsem Singh’s “The Fall” was actually finished in 2006, though it didn’t see a national theatrical release until 2008. Along with the poor distribution it was given, limping marketing and poor reviews have dogged it. I don’t usually write about films while they are still technically in theaters, but I must rise to the defense of “The Fall.” I feel strongly that it is a masterpiece.

Alexandria (Catinca Untaru) is the curious child of Hispanic orange-pickers in California (circa 1920), who has landed in a hospital after falling from a tree. There she meets Roy Walker (Lee Pace), a Hollywood stuntman who has recently paralyzed his legs in a fall of his own. Alexandria takes to the man after he enchants her with a whimsical epic that consumes her fertile imagination. Yet Walker’s fantastic tale is woven with his own agenda and to get past each cliffhanger Alexandria must help Walker steal enough morphine to seal his suicide.

While the frame story might seem dark and a little disturbing, it’s infused with warmth and wonder by Untaru, who gives a brilliant performance despite being nine years old and not speaking English (she learned as shooting progressed). What give the film its staggering beauty and – less often mentioned – its depth, is Walker’s tale. In it, six disparate adventures (a slave, a sapper, an Indian, a mystic, a masked bandit and Charles Darwin) seek revenge on the nefarious governor Odious. They must undergo a great deal of travel and tragedy before they can face him.

Tarsem Singh was already known as a visual virtuoso for his music video work and his flawed debut “The Cell” (2000), which may arguably deserve its fast fade into obscurity (I’m personally a bit fond of it), but, if nothing else, showed off a great deal of potential. With “The Fall,” Tarsem has made one of the most lush, sumptuous films ever made. It is even more impressive since it is purportedly made without CG, though post-production color work was clearly done. The film has the feel of a Guillermo del Toro fantasy graced with Sergei Parajanov’s talent for appropriating cultural details and Dario Argento panache for enriched colors and aggressive location scouting.

[Images: That’s Charles Darwin in his ridiculous red, white and red fur coat visible in the first three screenshots.]

The film makes no apologies for its ostentatious presentation; an audacious all-out bid for striking beauty that made many critics uncomfortable. It opens with a black-and-white credit sequence of exquisite slow-motion tracking shots whose meaning will not be clear until later in the film. The shots are in an elegant industrial tableau style not quite in keeping with the rest of the film, yet the dreamlike contrast only helps, making the difference between reality and fantasy into a matter of mood.

There’s another standout sequence later in the film in which a troubled dream is submerged in bizarre imagery combining real actors, stage backdrops and stop-motion surgery. Katie noted (and I second) that both the opening credits and dream sequence, if they were presented as standalone shorts, would be amongst her favorites.

Other mesmerizing moments include a sea journey via swimming elephant, a human map performed as a ritual and a chain of death sequences that combine fable, farce and tragedy. These sequences demonstrate a daring creativity and eclecticism that I can’t resists (Terry Gilliam and Jean-Pierre Juenet come to mind), and they work so well for the film that claims of pretentiousness or inconsistency would be petty.

The cumulative impact of the cinematography, camerawork, set dressing, location finding and costume design is so delirious it feels drunk with color and grandeur. Thus it is perhaps not too surprising that one of the main complaints is that story doesn’t live up to the presentation. I disagree, though with imagery this magnificent I’m not sure I’d care if it were true.

Still, I think the accusations that the film is merely shallow excuses for pretty pictures is little more than a snap reaction blinded by the overwhelming visuals. It’s not an uncommon response, motivated by the gut instinct that excellence in one area is necessarily balanced by a lack elsewhere. Does one often, for instance, see a gorgeous blonde and assume they have a PhD?

I happened to really like Tarsem’s storytelling. The nested tale featuring a child’s imagination where reality and fantasy blur and interchange has been done before in “The Wizard of Oz,” “The Princess Bride,” “The Neverending Story,” and “Pan’s Labyrinth” to name just a few. What Tarsem adds to the tradition is a sense that all stories have an agenda, and not necessarily one as noble as a moral. He reveals how they can manipulate and be manipulated to serve the purposes of the teller (how well modern audiences know the double-edged power of the cliffhanger as we sit through commercials!) and even the listener (at one point Alexandria slips into the story to save her beloved hero).

There’s a certain brazenness today in suggesting that it’s OK for stories to be flexible; that the facts can be changed and previous events edited without invalidating the emotional core and underlying truths. To me, this giddy irreverence for “The Epic” is what deflates any bulges of pretentions. It gives a little room for humor, as when Walker retroactively claims that the masked bandit had his fingers crossed behind his back when he swore a blood oath vendetta over his brother’s corpse.

Tarsem makes it clear that he is not exposing the magnificent heights and exploitative depths of just any brand of storytelling (the novel, for instance), but that he is thinking specifically about cinema. The main character’s former position as a stuntman is, itself, a job that distorts the border between truth and fiction. It addresses the lie we see (that a famous celebrity is performing a death defying feat) and the truth that is hidden (that an underpaid unknown actually executed the act). One can see why Tarsem would choose to minimize the greater lie: that no one did the stunt because computer effects faked it. “The Fall” suggests that the fiction and reality are dependent on each other for their magic.

The film has direct references to film at both the beginning and end, but one of my favorites takes place just as Roy Walker begins to tell his first tale. Alexandria stands against a wall as the morning sunlight enters in through a keyhole, projecting an image of a horse from outside onto the wall. At first, it appears that the shadow is shaping itself to Alexandria’s imagination until the cinema-like mechanisms of the projected light are revealed. Appropriately, Alexanderia inadvertently slips the horse into her visualization of the story, as she will do many times with her whims and misinterpretations. The Indian of the story, for instance, is clearly intended by Walker to be an American Indian (he marries a squaw and lives in a wigwam), but Alexandria always sees him as an East Asian.

Though it isn’t a captivating title for bringing in newcomers, I love the way “The Fall” works on so many levels for both the plot and themes. It is a pair of falls that unite the leads and a third that provides the climax. More interpretive is the idea of the Biblical fall (visually reflected by the idyllic Eden/Apple-esque motif of oranges) and loss of innocence. This is plays out as Alexandria comes to learn of Walker’s real agenda behind telling the story.

This is where I read something into the story which I can relate to deeply: the sudden lurch as one sees the private interests behind the curtain. The turning point of knowing you’ve been manipulated. Wonder and joy, thereafter, can no longer be experienced in their purest form. But “The Fall” offers a solution I truly love. [SPOILERS] In the film’s touching epilogue, Alexandria learns to find a new pleasure in searching out Roy in the cinema: in the falls (yet one final layer of its meaning), fights and climbs of the stunts whose unsung artistry she now understands and treasures. She falls in love with stories again, but this time for the truth of their hidden craft rather than merely the fiction of their outer appearances. [End of SPOILERS]

[Image: This shot is a little hint at an upcoming Film Walrus event.]

So how come critics dismiss this movie so easily? I think a lot of them missed the message I interpreted (hey, I could be reading it wrong), but I don’t think many were bothering to interpret at all. Most saw a film that was big, bold, surreal and shameless and they were unable to reduce it to the pocketbook realism and genre limitations they were used to. Having become so sated on bland mediocrity, this outpouring of flavor and spice turned their stomachs. They came face-to-face with creativity and beauty only to pinch their nose with one hand, turn their thumb down with the other and haughtily declare that they have no use for [sneer] “pretty pictures.”

And so I cast a pox upon them. Not a flesheating disease, but the mindeating one they crave: a plague of visually-stunted overdone mediocrity. I hope these reviewers suffer through endless lugubrious art films by bored auteurs immolating themselves with minimalism. I curse them with cute indie flicks about bridging gender, cultural and generational divides. I call down a hailstorm of clockwork thrillers, raunchy comedies and soulless rom-coms. And I will get my wish, because it is their wish, too; because the Market Forces are listening to the prayers of critics who preach cinematic banality to their flocks.

[Image: Alternatively, I would accept the exile of hateful critics to the labyrinth of despair.]

That said, credit is due to those who have stood against the critical tide. Roger Ebert, one of the few great critics who is powerful enough that he doesn’t feel the need to toe the line, gave the film it’s only major perfect score. Directors Spike Jonze and David Fincher have nobly supported the film. Then, too, audiences who have caught it so far have clearly loved it, if their IMDB support is any indication. Hopefully this niche audience will be justly rewarded, perhaps with no better prize the continued career of Tarsem and other directors who share his audacity and virtuosity.

Walrus Rating: 10.0

5 comments:

Patrick said...

Is this your first 10 to be published here? I'm sure it isn't but I can't remember any others...

Walrus said...

The others that come to mind are:
Possession
A Zed and Two Noughts
Olivier, Olivier

Some that could probably be considered 10s for me:
Marketa Lazarova
El Topo
The Element of Crime
The Saragossa Manuscript
Memories of Murder
The Ear
Pan's Labyrinth

Although anything in the "Top Rated" is a must-see in my book.

Mad Dog said...

All this talk of Del Toro and Jeunet and you don't mentioned Jodorowsky once? Looking at all of the screenshots, the first thing that came to my mind was The Holy Mountain 2.

And glad to see that there may actually be something to this movie. It got such middling critical reactions that I felt compelled to believe it because it had been so long since The Cell and... it wouldn't have surprised me if he hadn't turned out a better film. But hooray! It's been added to the queue. :3

And about cursing critics with quirky indie flicks about bridging whatever... can we agree that it will be Juno 2? >:3

Walrus said...

NO. Juno is great.
I love it a gazillion times more now that I've sat through Knocked Up.

But yes, I did want to mention Jodorowsky as a point of comparison. Very simular use of vibrant, even garish, colors and enormous scale. The big difference is that the tone is lighthearted in a Juenet/del Toro way.

Kathryn said...

First, John, your Juno-hate is so misplaced. Garden State. For realz.

But also: The Fall is totally excellent. I can't wait to own it and show everyone.

The Pan's Labyrinth/Del Toro comparison is a good one.

I think it's harder to see Jodorowsky in it. The images are used in more of an idyllic fantasy (even when they are getting killed...), than the sort of repulsive excesses he goes for.

That being said, the toad/lizard battle might have fit in with The Fall.