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.