The Fall (U.S./U.K./etc., 2006) * * * *
I don't get it.
Oh, I get Tarsem's ravishing new motion picture, The Fall. That I get. And love. What I don't get is why the film played once in 2006, at the Toronto Film Festival, a handful of festivals in 2007, and is only finally getting a U.S. art house run the summer of 2008. I also don't get how any film critic in the world could dismiss a film of such originality, wit, and intelligence--all that and it's a film that celebrates filmmaking, to boot. I would posit that any critic who dislikes The Fall should hand in their credentials at the front desk on their way out.
Griping aside, I am still awash in the glow of this film I saw tonight, which accomplishes a rare feat: it is a production of enormous spectacle which also has a rich emotional depth. It is the reason cinema was invented. I don't mean this in the most hyperbolic sense. I don't mean that The Fall is the apex of the art, or that it stands among the greatest films ever made. (It is easily the best film I've seen so far in 2008.) I mean that because it is the sort of story which could only be told cinematically, and because its strengths are almost impossible to describe without directing the reader to go and see for himself, the film seems to represent the most elusive, magical element of the cinema-going experience. And it's a full-course meal.
The story is paper-thin as it reads in a review. After a near-fatal accident (the titular "fall") filming a stunt scene for a silent-movie comedy, the Buster Keaton-like actor Roy Walker (Lee Pace) becomes bedridden in a hospital; his heart has been broken by a girl, and he's trying to end it all. Key to his suicidal plan is tricking a five-year child, Alexandria (Catinca Untaru), into stealing some morphine so that he can overdose. He begins telling her a story about her father, which she visualizes (for us) in a manner that calls to mind The Little Prince, or tales from the Arabian Nights, or anecdotes from The Manuscript Found in Saragossa, or something out of Rudyard Kipling.
If I can just pause to point out: this is a movie made in 2008, and it's referencing the literature I cited above. This is significant to me because, in 2008, to be successfully marketed to Americans a movie must either be a mainstream Hollywood special effects blockbuster (preferably about a superhero, or based on a toy or TV show, or a sequel to something), or it must be sold to the art houses as a serious-minded award contender. The Fall is neither. The Fall is for people who wouldn't mind, before they go to bed tonight, reading a chapter from an H. Rider Haggard novel or an article in the latest National Geographic, or maybe watching an old movie like Fritz Lang's The Indian Tomb or The Thief of Bagdad (either one). If my name-dropping is putting images in your head, I want you to take those images and ideas and dunk them into an aquarium filled with fluorescent-blue water, with wondrous little toy props resting among the bright-green pebbles, so that everything seems transformed into pop art with a surrealist's touch. Indeed, Tarsem invokes Dali at least once in the film, as a man's face transforms into a desert landscape that somehow, through a play of shadows and rocks, retains his image--free of special effects, as most of the film is. He also invokes M.C. Escher (with a labyrinthine palace of staircases which is, also, very real). For filmmakers, his influences range from Alejandro Jodorowsky (when one fictional character dies, birds escape from his mouth) to the Brothers Quay (quite out of nowhere and late in the film comes a snappy little stop-motion sequence). Yet it's telling that to compare his style to anyone else, you have to name those at the extreme edges of the list (Herzog is another); that's because Tarsem is uncompromising, and delivers, with every shot, not just a polished mise-en-scene but an original idea over which he obviously labored. When I go to the movies, just as when I read novels, I crave imagination. Tarsem has it in abundance.
I'll admit I was not completely bowled over by Tarsem's first film, The Cell (2000), which was also visually impeccable but a bit too self-serious and stifling. But The Fall, for all its serious themes (suicide, depression), is rescued by young Untaro's convincing, endearingly funny performance, and by a razor-sharp wit in the extended fantasy sequences. (One of the bandit heroes of Roy Walker's story is Charles Darwin, who has a pet monkey that helps him catch butterflies, and who at one point nobly proclaims to his assailants, "Shoot, you animals! They'll pay you well for Darwin's hide!" The "fictional" thread to the story is, of course, why you're paying to see this on the big screen, and now I'm compelled to mention that every location in this film, no matter how fantastic it appears, really exists. You could not build sets this large, nor make CG this tactile. Tarsem, carting a camera and a small crew to the far corners of the Earth, has made a travelogue for an alien planet that just hasn't been filmed very much before. How fitting that I saw this on the same day that the news was running photos from a lost tribe in Brazil, never having contacted "civilization," bodies painted red, aiming their bows up at the aircraft snapping their photo. Well, I bet they've met Tarsem.
It's not just that The Fall is a wonderful and one-of-a-kind film, which it is. For everything Tarsem went through to get this movie made, he should be hailed just as Peter Jackson was a few years back: he financed the film out-of-pocket, shot it in scattered locations across the globe, and wrangled a performance from Untaru that is one of the rare child performances wholly deserving of an Oscar, a performance which roots all of the spectacle and fantasia onto a human and emotional plane. What is happening?
What is happening is that audiences will respond as the press hasn't. See this film on the big screen now, before it quickly vanishes; in a few years, when The Fall is a revered cult film, you'll be able to brag to your friends that you saw it how it was meant to be seen. Plus, unlike everything else playing in the cinemas this weekend, you have never seen this film before.