Friday, June 6, 2008

The Fall (2008)

The Fall, directed by Tarsem (The Cell), is, it seems, the most divisive film of the year. It is currently resting at Rotten Tomatoes with a 52%, it has inspired the greatest panoply of critical reactions and it has stirred many while leaving many others completely cold. How does one view such a work but through the most subjective of interpretations? If there is no widespread consensus, why bother even attempting to conform one's own opinion? (Not that it should be a necessity to do so even when there is a widespread consensus; one should always stick to one's guns, even when facing the world in opposition.)

The Fall stars Lee Pace as Roy, a Hollywood stuntman in a Los Angeles hospital, around 1915, whose legs are paralyzed after performing a reckless stunt for a movie. Now, physically and emotionally crippled (he has lost his beloved to another man) he desires nothing so much as killing himself with a bottle's worth of morphine pills and being unable to get out of bed his instrument in committing suicide is a sweet, innocent little girl named Alexandria (Catinca Untaru), sharing the same hospital with a broken arm. How does he decide to utilize this girl? Telling her a fantastic story, an epic fairytale, and using the almost inevitable stoppages in the story's telling as an inducement for her to do as he wishes: extract a bottle of morphine pills with which he can "go to sleep."

If filmmaking were public service, like being a policeman, Tarsem would have gone above and beyond the call of duty with The Fall. As Roy verbally tells the story, Tarsem's camera, which found itself in over a dozen different countries around the world, catches spectacularly beautiful vistas, marrying gorgeously enrapturing imagery with a kind of pure, perhaps silent movie-inspired (since the film is partly about silent movies, and the stunts done in their service) basic storytelling. The film manipulates the viewer in a more archly cinematic fashion than the vast majority of this era's films, most of which tend to reduce the beauty of imagery for the sake of greater narrative clarity. The Fall is wholly unafraid to be alive; to be both alone and representative; to be. It's both impossibly traditional and somehow monumentally futuristic in its ramifications: beyond computer generated imagery and many of the tropes of today's cinema, Tarsem's defiant work is wedded to the equally humble and grandiose proposition that there is nothing more technologically and narratively enriching as the camera suffering from nothing so much as repletion.

The Fall is a rarity, a film that does not so much function and mechanically work as it breathes, and pulsates. In terms of a three-act structure, it is imbalanced, and awkwardly paced. Yet why criticize, much less belittle, such an overwhelming sense of being? The Fall seems to represent the cliche that bedevils today's filmmaker: critics and many ardent film enthusiasts frequently bemoan the lack of individual creativity, bitterly complaining about the lack of freshness and the homogeneous nature of cinema. Yet when a film that strives for greater truth, perhaps borne from folly, emerges, it is regularly lambasted and draws mixed reactions. And Tarsem does have a pragmatic strategy tied to the peripatetic arc of his labor of love. What initially appears to be a bait-and-switch involving the physical fate of Roy at approximately the halfway point is merely the table-setting for, again, both an extremely traditional and transcending catharsis.

Pace, just recently seen as Mr. Right for Amy Adams in Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day, is singularly endowed with a natural affability that eludes the majority of the cinema's greater stars. His pained Roy, both petty and benevolent, selfish and compassionate, is a paradox that would probably fall into one camp or the other with more definitiveness, less humanistic understanding, with the majority of today's widely accepted movie stars. Late in the film, his sense of guilt is palpable and heartbreaking, knowing that his instructions and manipulations have directly led to tragedy.

The sights titillate and exercise the retina while stimulating the brain, unraveling in intellectual ratiocination, compelling the viewer to accept its motley group of fairytale heroes driven to overthrow the power of their arch-nemesis, Governor Odious, who rules the fantasy world. "Real-life" Los Angeles characters also inhabit the fantasy world, with Roy himself being the protagonist, the masked "Black Bandit," his lost girlfriend playing a treacherous princess and Governor Odious given the avatar of Roy's girlfriend's new lover. Alexandria herself enters the fantasy, as children are apt to do, when things are looking bleak. One must grin at the sight of a river-bound palace that recalls the Fritz Lang serial The Indian Tomb. Beethoven's Seventh Symphony, Second Movement was used for pretentious rationales in Irreversible but Tarsem utilizes it to encapsulate the imagery's respective beauty.

The Fall is primarily about the power of storytelling. Tarsem seems to know that art seduces and counsels. Whether lowly in aspirations and driven by harsh economics, or meritoriously high and crafted with indulgent passion, it is ultimately at the service of its maker while performing an indispensable duty for those who consume it. As parents tell bedtime stories to their children so they can go to sleep, or occupy them with a movie to not be bothered by them, artists wish to impart messages that reach others, and those who make the regular journey to the cinema crave the dualistic challenge and comfort of being taken on the artist's journey.

And that is the most important dimension of The Fall. It is a marvelous visual essay in its subject matter, a powerful exhibit in its own cinematic analysis. Yet it somehow manages to not only be that. It is a celebration of art.

15 comments:

Craig Kennedy said...

My only real complaint about the fall is that I never really felt it. I kept waiting for it to come alive and move me, but it never did.

I found in the end that I admired it more than enjoyed it. Still, if I was on Rotten Tomatoes, it's be a fresh rating.

Joel said...

My biggest frustration with The Fall was the third act. I got the idea that Pace's character is a bit of a selfish rogue who was manipulating the girl into doing what he wants with his story, but I was really annoyed with how that final act developed. It seemed cold and mean-spirited and I just felt it was a weak ending overall.

But like Craig, I also felt the narrative never really opened up to me. The fantasy-story seemed to always be under-cooked and the supporting characters were fairly undeveloped. Where I wanted the richness of a Wizard of Oz or Gilliam movie

While the movie was gorgeous to look at but never really engaged me.

Alexander Coleman said...

First, thanks very much for stopping by, Joel, and commenting. I'm very glad to see you here. Hope you stop by regularly. :)

Craig and Joel, this was the most difficult review to write for me thus far, because, unlike just about everybody at LiC, I really felt this film in a kind of atavistic way, particularly in its final act, which, I guess, is the opposite experience you had with it, Joel. Somehow I was seeing the film, especially by that point, on two different layers, with Tarsem's intentions on one and the way Roy and Alexandria became entwined on the other.

I understand how the final act might be seen as cold and mean-spirited, but I think that was perhaps a sign of its success because when Roy is (SPOILER WARNING) killing off one character after another, he's feeling horribly bitter and worthless. So, in essence, it is quite cold and mean-spirited and it hurt me to see him repeatedly crush the girl like that. But I think that's when I realized the film had succeeded: rather than being invested in the specific fates of the fantasy-story characters I was invested in how the fantasy-story reflected the tumultuous arc of the Roy-Alexandria relationship.

Or, as one critical blurb at Rotten Tomatoes I was just looking at says, any cynicism I might have had was steadily broken down by the little Romanian actress. She served as a conduit, I think, to make what is an intentionally laconic (my sunny but sincere interpretation of it being "under-cooked," as you say, Joel), visually-rich fairytale matter to us.

Craig Kennedy said...

The girl was great, we all agree on that.

It sounds like Alexander you were able to get the two narratives to gel which was Tarsem's intention.

I tried. I really did, but my expectations got the better of me.

Of course, it could've been the result of seeing this movie along with several others in the same day. Sometimes I think I don't give movies an adequate chance to breathe and exist on their own by cramming in multiple viewings in a day.

Alexander Coleman said...

In that case, Craig, maybe you should give it another shot.

This is probably a film that needs some room to breathe on its own. I'd imagine if seen with another film or two in the same day, it might be kind of crushing.

It's too bad the film only lasted a mere week in Sausalito, as now I'm almost certainly going to have to wait for it to appear on DVD to see it again. Not the friendliest release.

christian said...

I'll have to see this one.

Alexander Coleman said...

Run, don't walk, Christian.

Daniel G. said...

Great review, first of all, Alexander. Your use of illuminating language is unmatched.

Like you, I was blown away by the sheer power of the film, the celluloid, the imagery. Like Craig and Joel, I was somehow as unmoved by the story as I was by Indy 4. I can't put my finger on it, really (and I've admitted elsewhere that two idiots in the theater may have prevented me from really diving in), but it prevented me from really getting shaken in the way that I wanted or expected to.

In any case, I was able to overlook the perceived lack of emotional depth because of the astounding pictures I was seeing.

Yep, this is going to be a divisive one...all year. Well I guess nobody's really coming out and saying they hated it, so maybe not.

Alexander Coleman said...

Wow, this is my biggest oversight thus far, not seeing your comment, Daniel. Firstly, thanks very much for your kind words, I'm always happy when reviews articulate things for others (and myself).

It seems most people whose opinions I trust are left unmoved by it. I can certainly see why. It's not "involving" in the strictest sense, but as I said in previous comments, I was able to wholly appreciate Tarsem's complete vision.

I wonder if second viewings would help a lot of people out. Perhaps not. I myself am looking forward to eventually catching it on DVD...

Andrew said...

Excellent review. The fantasy story is, I think, fairly obviously intended as camp on some level. It worked for me because I believe it didn't need to be compelling on a level beyond the dazzle; the compelling drama is Roy and Alexendria's tale. One of Singh's strongest themes in the film is the function of storytelling to cast what cannot be said out loud--often because it is emotionally painful--in terms of metaphor, even blatant and openly acknowledged metaphor. If the fantasy seems a touch distant in its presentation, I came to believe it was quite deliberate. Singh is suggesting, I suspect, that stories are inherently thin masks. Like you, the final act really touched me. When Roy and Alexandria are having their tearful argument about whether all the characters in the fantasy will die, it seemed clear that what they're arguing about on one level is whether Roy will kill himself. There are other thematic elements swirling around in there, of course, but this seems to the obvious narrative function of the scene.

This reminded me, oddly enough of the recent documentary Chris & Don: A Love Story, about the life-long relationship between Chris Isherwood and Don Bachardy. The couple used fanciful stories about anthropomorphic animals to express their desires and anxieties from a more removed place. They both knew exactly what they were talking about. But the veneer of a fantasy helped them navigate the emotional pitfalls more deftly.

My own review of The Fall.

Alexander Coleman said...

Thank you, Andrew.

In all honesty, of all the reviews I have written thus far, my take on The Fall is my least favorite; I felt as though I barely scratched the film's surface, and in being so overwhelmed by it, I could only go so far in describing its impact.

I completely agree with your take, and particularly with your point that when Roy and Alexandria are arguing over his killing off of one character after another, it's truly a debate centered around whether or not he should kill himself. Your review is great.

When I see this again on Blu-ray (it definitely demands that), I will probably write more about it at Coleman's Corner.

Tyler said...

I had a hard time acknowledging Tarsem's originality throughout the film because of how obvious the parallels were between it and other movies.

The first movie that came to mind was "The Wizard of Oz", and how Tarsem was incorporating characters from reality into an outlandish fairy tale. The second more recent film that came to mind was "Pan's Labyrinth", another visually superior film, because of how there is a mixture of dark reality and elaborate fantasy to make a perfectly surreal adult fairy tale.

On a different note, I am writing a paper on this film currently on the topic of visual analysis. I was trying to recall any recurring symbolism throughout the film, and I'm coming up short. The main ones I could think of were the X-ray Man (the henchmen in the fairy tale), and the constant shots of the Crucifix. You wouldn't happen to have any insights that would help me out?

Fantastic review by the way. Great insights, including the relationship between Beethoven's Seventh Symphony and the movie's overly artsy "preamble".

Alexander Coleman said...

Thank you very much for the kind words, Tyler, and thanks for stopping by, reading and commenting.

As to your question of recurring imagery, a few stand out for me (and it's been a significant period of time now since seeing this): the long shots of the group of heroes, and there is an emphasis of vegetation and/or the absence thereof. (It turns out the one tree in the heroes' vicinity at that one pivotal moment is more than meets the eye.)

Tarsem seemed to use the "Charles Darwin" character as a kind of visual marker, with his colorful coat, which was often seen a little ahead of the rest of the heroes, as he was endlessly fascinated by his surroundings and he often (usually unwittingly) led the others around.

Tarsem made shapes out of the placement of his characters in relation to one another--such as that dance where the priest "betrays" them, and soon thereafter where they appear to be doomed in the middle of the desert.

And, most obviously, there are quite a few falls throughout the film, its most arresting single repeated image. A horse, several men and a little girl all fall at a certain time and/or place.

Thank you again for the kind words, Tyler. I hope this helps.

Tyler said...

Thank you very much, I think that blazed the trail for some good arguments. I look forward to reading more of your reviews!

Alexander Coleman said...

Well, thank you on both counts!