Watching Tarsem Singh’s The Fall made me hate Guillermo del Toro all the more for consistently locking me within plot-driven, petty geek-boxes of marketable fantasy.
In contradistinction, Tarsem documents a visual universe that seems flung together and bereft of the structural, tonal gravitas and authorial control that Oscar loves. Even though no CGI was used during the film’s production, the Dali-like dreamscapes Tarsem gathered from the natural world appear hyper-real and, consequently, post-produced and phony. (Corporate gloss, per the suggestion of New York Times film critic Nathan Lee.) Perhaps we have become so used to digital facsimile that the real world seems like just another Sprint commercial. Or is it more a question of puritanically lumping art and pop into separate categories: art must remain sanctified and dull while pop is now an occasion where good taste is gently set aside in favor of cathartic animal release. There is something transgressive about The Fall, about how it blurs the categories of pop and art. It is an innovation with something important to say about what film-making can be when unshackled from the standardized gradients that drive and determine mainstream success.
Tarsem’s transgressive visual statement revolves around two layers of fiction. A convalescent, lovesick, suicidal stuntman, Roy Walker (Lee Pace), fabricates a story for an adorable little Romanian girl, Alexandra (Catinca Untaru). A hodgepodge of characters emerge from Roy’s imagination and their interactions are driven by Alexandra’s fascination as an audience. Among others, there is the Black Bandit (Roy’s fictional counterpart, also played by Pace), an escaped African slave, an Italian demolition expert (redolent of A Fistful of Dynamite), and none other than Charles Darwin himself, clad in a peacock jacket and bowler hat. They are all out for revenge against Baron Odious. The Baron has, among other foul deeds, stolen the Black Bandit’s girlfriend, a Caucasian geisha-siren bridging the divide between the real and the fictive.
The crux of the fairytale within the tale is its colorful, improvised nature as opposed to a conventional veneer of narrative seamlessness and authorial control. It equally lacks the dramatic, tonal gloom we see lauded again and again in movies, relying instead on bright colors (greens, reds, and blues) that leap out of desert landscapes. Nor is there a Danny Elfman score maniacally propelling us through worlds of wonder.
Roy’s tale is arbitrarily constructed and unfurled both for the audience (Alexandra), for the storyteller, and probably for Tarsem himself who relied on Untaru’s adorable, lost-in-translation diction and imagination as a guide to the story within the story. In fact, it is Roy who is the primary recipient of his own story’s cathartic effects. Consequently, The Fall emerges as something unplanned and unbound, with transformational powers stemming from the warp-bubble it creates in which art affects reality. Certainly we have seen such a mechanism before, and it can translate into glaring pretentiousness. Yet it can also produce works in the modern tradition of Fellini or Borges: art about storytelling, about the artist’s own joyful gusto or automatic need to create.
Tarsem’s lust for natural imagery seems less the progeny of American cinema, where a tightly woven, character-driven plot has always been king, and more an heir to a lower-budget continental tradition. Perhaps I feel this way because I just haven’t seen a beautiful, image-driven American film in the theaters for so long. Experiencing The Fall, therefore, reminded me of my full-body baptism in Soviet-era cinema where intact attention spans allowed for the creation of dirge-like panegyrics to the beauty of cityscapes, villages, rundown Krushchev-era apartment blocks and to the geography of the faces inhabiting these varied microcosms. There is room within natural imagery for audiences to cast their own psyches onto the artist’s canvas, to harvest an intimate experience, something that simply doesn’t exist when we are the victims of some novelty narrative relentlessly building toward a stunning finale. The Fall possesses this breathing room, creating reflexivity in which one not only experiences flashing lights and sounds, but where one is also acutely aware of the experience itself as something both viscerally and intellectually enjoyed.
Yet unlike the visual cinema of Eastern Europe, Tarsem’s film is accelerated in the manner of the contemporary music video. Action is constant and shifting, whether we are witnessing swimming elephants or the embedded rituals of a Cambodian tribe. Meanwhile, the fairytale is burnished by bold-faced self-sarcasm and playfulness reminiscent of other Spike Jonze co-productions: “That’s a great idea, Charles Darwin!” the Black Bandit exclaims. Darwin himself receives all of his ideas from the monkey he carries around with him in a sack. Ultimately, Baron Odious’s destruction is like Blanche DuBois’s ideal death by contaminated grape—light and stylized, sun-kissed, rebuking the self-delighted macabre popularized by Tarantino and the Coens, yet also existing within that very same violent Hollywood neighborhood.
There are abundant humorous nuances here that defy the film’s critical characterization as mere corporate gloss. Yet how does such an interpretation emerge? Perhaps the answer lies in the film’s anomalous nature. It is an image-driven artwork, yet it doesn’t behave in the way we expect an art film to behave. Consequently, it somewhat tragically exists apart, a film without a category, possessing neither the born-of-slowness mystery of a Kieślowski creation, nor the blistering authorial control of the Coens, nor Terry Gilliam’s delightful, homemade props. The resulting experience is unique and thrilling. We are never implicitly told how to feel, when to applaud, or what moments to relish. Consequently, The Fall takes its place among an elite category of cinema: a careful artwork that doesn’t advertise its own gravitas. Perhaps that’s the definition of a cult classic.
Will Lasky is a freelance journalist who writes on culture, travel, and business. He blogs at Mike Tyson Vodka and has contributed to 24LiesaSecond.