– “The Best of the Decade Project” is an ongoing series of essays written by Match Cuts and The Filmist concerning the finest films of the last ten years.
So, an Indian, an ex-slave, an Italian, a masked bandit and Charles Darwin (and his monkey) all walk into a bar …
Tarsem Singh is an interesting fellow – having made his own personal fortune directing several music videos in the nineties, in particular, that seem to be remembered to this day for bringing post-modernism and surrealism into the mix – most famously, the one he did for REM’s “Losing My Religion,” in 1991 – and then deciding to make honest-to-goodness films only after the fact. His first film, The Cell, seemed to strike a cord with critics and so on because of it’s Salvador Dali-esque imagery, and constant visual imagination, despite the relatively standard police procedural that formed the story’s backbone. Still, it seems like, with that film, he was merely testing the waters, and getting a feel for the form as a whole, and how his style might work within it. I say this retrospectively because of his sophomore film, The Fall – filmed over a period of something like seventeen years in twenty countries, this is a film that stands as Tarsem’s own labour of love to cinema and storytelling, and a tribute to silent films and film history. And, perhaps more than any other film in these last ten years, this is one that defines the phrase ‘near hallucinatory intensity.’
The film begins with a slow, black-and-white montage under Ludwig Van Beethoven’s Symphony #7, which is reused a few times throughout the film – it’s a collection of faces in the midst of reaction at something off screen, some of which will become familiar to us later, and other ostensibly separate images. It’s only later in the sequence that our view widens, and the whole incident is revealed – a horse, and it’s rider have fallen off a set of train tracks. The rider is stuntman Roy Walker – and, though it seems like an accident right now, it’s revealed later on that he’d spotted his girlfriend chatting up the lead actor just across the way, and decided he’d to try to impress her with a mind-boggling jump into the water. It doesn’t seem to work, and he ends up laid in a hospital bed – which is where he meets Alexandria, played astoundingly by newcomer Catinca Untaru, a little girl with a broken arm. Slowly, the two of them begin to endear themselves to each other, and Roy begins to tell her a story – of Alexander the Great, and his wisdom in all matters, but especially in water. After being told that what’s led to his army’s downfall is their greed for water, he makes a tough but logical decision, pouring out the last helmetful onto the sand —
“–why?” Alexandria asks. She finds the story boring – and so, Roy begins to craft another. And, this one catches her attention far more successfully. It’s a fable, a high-flying fairy-tale of revenge writ in the bright colours of Alexandria’s imagination. And, like most stories, it reflects the causes of the ones who’ve created it, and the ones who’re listening to it. Roy’s story is one that seems to encompass the lot – for both of them, the story serves to distract the both of them from their present situation in the hospital, from their boredom and pain. And in response, the story seems to demonstrate high and colourful romanticism, and – at first – pure spectacle to counter the two of them. But, as is revealed later, it also serves as a form of deception on Roy’s part, but I’ll mention that again later on. Weirdly, one of the common criticisms that was going around at the time of the film’s release was that the story for this tale was “nonsensical,” and it most certainly is, but it seems like that’s precisely the point. This is a story being told live, from one person to another, on a whim. And, it’s a story that moves and evolves based on the minds and interventions of its two participants. It’s not the focus of the film, by itself – but, the evolution of the relationship between the two characters inside the fantasy and out, which is conveyed through the fantasy.
And, it’s in this fantasy-world that we’re presented with what Roger Ebert, in his review for the film, called “new images”: these are things we haven’t seen before, most certainly. A map crawls over a twitching man’s naked body as a crowd of natives directs the flow of the ink with dance and chant, elephants dancing in shallow waters, a man falls back on a table of arrowheads. Constantly, Tarsem places emphasis on the tableau, and patterns – the travellers pitched against the grandeur of the environments they’re in, faces moving in and out and transitioning into the white and sandy landscape. And, some of these images and so indelible that you’re struck down at their appearance – The red of the blood crawling up the hundred-odd-foot sheet, the twirling dancers encircling the travellers at the Bandit’s wedding – to another, who seems eerily similar to the female hospital orderly who’s made Roy her business, of sorts; “he knew she was the one for him,” he tells Alexandria.
The characters inside the fable are wonderfully sketched caricatures, walking the line somewhere between cartoony and mythic. The Italian bombmaker an apple-cheeked and thickly accented man chomping down on a cigar in a downy yellow coat, a play – I thought – on the stories going around at the time the story takes place in, spinning off from Sacco and Vanzetti, of Italians as wanton fire-bombers. The Indian reminds one of Captain Nemo, from Alan Moore’s The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen series of comics – eternally stern faced, with a comically large turban, and flippant with a sword. On the other hand, there’s the masked bandit – who slowly becomes Roy’s avatar in the story, is nothing if not the archetypal gunslinger character writ large. And the Mystic, who emerges from the Earth itself, at first seems very much in the same vane as a nakeder, more virile embodiment of the trees and the soil – a kind of wild Gandalf is the first impression, which is a connection made even clearer when we meet his people.
It’s here, in this free-wheeling fairy-tale world, that Tarsem weaves a broad tale of betrayal, social and personal violation, and justice – and, all of these men have been hounded from their homes or violently persecuted in some way by the unseen Governor Odious. The Indian’s wife killed herself after being kidnapped by him; the ex-slave was captured and enslaved by him; Luigi, the bomb-maker, was exiled and disengaged from his home for the power of his new bombs; and, for Charles Darwin – he seems to have sent him one of the rarest of rare butterfly species, Americana Exotica, dead in a box. These crimes – they will not stand. And, the Bandit may have the strongest cause of all – for his brother, the Blue Bandit, was gutted and strung up onto the ceiling by the governor. There’s a sense of perverse, yet whimsical, humour apparent in these scenes, as there is in much of the fantasy tale, when they all reach up to the sky and utter out the same long, overwrought scream to the heavens. These character’s individual tales of betrayal mirror Roy’s own, at the hands of his girlfriend, and the lead star of the movie – although the higher stakes of these characters make his own look minuscule in comparison, they also reflect the emotions Roy holds toward the star, and his reaction to his own betrayal that he doesn’t yet seem comfortable with – even going so far, later on, as to try and get Alexandria to steal sleeping pills for him that he might commit suicide, which eventually lands the girl on a hospital operating table.
It’s funny to contrast this to Tarsem’s previous film, 2000’s The Cell, with Jennifer Lopez and company – while constantly visually stunning while in the dream-world, Tarsem showed an awkwardness and an uncomfortable fidgitiness with the portions of his story that took place in the flesh-and-blood, which relied bitterly on that old ‘find the killer before time runs out’ chestnut made so popular in the nineties to a ‘t’. Here, there’s a stronger and far more richer correlation between the Story, the children’s fable that Roy weaves for the girl, and what’s propelling it forward on both sides – initially, the story begins as a tool of deception on Roy’s part. And, this purpose finds its way into the fairy-tale narrative, subtly. With it, comes an underlying ugliness when we’re made aware of what that purpose is – to steal pills from the hospital’s pharmacy. But, it grows, fluctuating with emotion and colour, and the intensely careful, yet lyrical, composition of a silent film. The red of the blood crawling up the hundred-odd-foot sheet, the twirling dancers encircling the travellers at the Bandit’s wedding – to another, who seems eerily similar to the female hospital orderly who’s made him her business; “he knew she was the one for him,” he tells Alexandria.
And, at it’s core, The Fall is a film about the three-fold metaleptic relationship between the story, the teller and the listener. What is said, what is meant, and what is heard. Tarsem said as much in an interview with Ioncinema, where he remarked, “There’s always three incarnations of a story: the story that is being told, the listener’s interpretation and the version the listener retells in the future.” And, in the film, this is played out in various ways – the characters who appear filtered through the young girl’s mental image, like the Indian. Where Roy obviously was referring to an American, red-blooded, red-faced Indian found so often in those old serials, but Alexandria – who’s lived only in the immigrant laden regions of Southern California the whole of her short life, and has known only those from the Indian sub-regions – imagines him as a limber, athletic member of distant India. Or, the guards of general Odious – given no real description by Roy, they take on an amalgamated form that comes from Alexandria’s fear of the bulky, lead radiation suitsAnd, as the relationship develops between Roy and the girl, so too do the characters – and their quest. Slowly, the girl begins to project herself onto the story, and so does the Man, with her – in the form of the Black Bandit and his little bandito. And, following this, the recent events of his own life begin to take shape, inside the story. Subtly at first, but only at first. All of these characters are given by Alexandria faces familiar to her – the ice-cream man, the hospital orderlies – and, like most elements of this fantasy world, they all seem to have some relevance to Roy’s life as it is, although these connections aren’t made clear until later on. The plot, when it’s revealed, seems to come from the silent film Roy was working on at the time of his accident – which, when it’s played later on, reveals a startlingly different collection of visuals than what Alexandria created inside her head, although the faces remain the same.
And, after having driven the poor girl onto the hospital bed, Roy – now morose and barely able to swallow down his own remorse – begins the finale of his tale, after much pleading. But, this is different – the characters have all resigned themselves to their death, and seem to meet it in quick succession. Storming Odious’ castle, it’s just suicide, we’re told. In poetic shorthand, evocative of linguistic metaphor, doves flutter out of the Indian’s mouth, and up into the sky. Darwin stands down an army of long-bowmen at the sight of his dead monkey. The tale evolves, and it isn’t just his, anymore – at her tearful protests, the only reproach that Roy can offer up is, “it’s my story.” But, it’s “mine too!,” she says. And finally, we meet Odious – and, he’s a face we’ve seen before. It’s the lead actor of the film, haughty and cold. Just as in the flesh-and-blood, he’s usurped Roy’s woman from him, and now in the courtyard of his castle, he’s going to kill him – it doesn’t take long for Alexandria to discover on some level the connection between the two, and with this comes the realisation of what the story is heading toward, Alexandria’s pleading to let now-only the Bandit survive, to have a more optimistic destiny, reaches a fever pitch – because, it’s her Roy. Odious’ intensity, his absolute derision of Roy’s Bandit, and the Bandit’s utter apathy – all seem to coalesce in a weird frenzy of water, colour, tears and noise, and a real image of sadness on screen.
But, something gets through. Something clicks for Roy, in Alexandria’s pleading for him. The Bandit gets up – and, starts punching back. He confronts his old girlfriend – and, disregards her. The story ultimately gets a happy ending – and, The Bandit and his little bandito drive off into the sunset, leaving his old girlfriend in their wake.
At the end of the film, we see the movie Roy’s been working on, playing for the children of the hospital – and, it seems familiar. There’s an Indian, and a Masked Bandit, and even an Italian bomb-maker, although they all differ pretty wildly from what Alexandria had imagined – and, in just a few short seconds, Roy’s stunt goes by on the screen. “That’s it?” someone asks. But, down below, the story – no matter the difference in form – is having the same effect on a wider audience. Looks of amazement, looks of fright, and entanglement in the story. Not just kids, but adults as well, laid up in wheelchairs or what have ye. It’s a powerful story, it seems. The film ends on a montage of famous stunt actors, and their respective feats of daring-do, which include everything from see-sawing on the top of a car to hanging off the side of a building. Pure cinema – and, Alexandria, older now, tells us, “there’s Roy. There he is!”
They’re all Roy. Even the ones who aren’t.
Of articles on the film there are many, but one of the most dazzling is “Liberations of Mind, Spirit and Vision: The Fall, a film directed by Tarsem,” by Daniel Garrett, which can be found here.
Glenn’s pick for his #4 spot, Michael Haneke’s doubly intriguing “Time of the Wolf,” can be found here.