The instinct for storytelling is deeply seeded, awakening in mediums as varied as painting, sculpture, music, dance, literature, and film. They share movements; like symphonies weaving notes, impasto on canvas, recurring lyrics, themes transcend materials because they meet our insides on the interlocking parts. We know storytelling because we are storytellers. The Fall is a story tailor-made for its medium, told by a man and seen through the eyes of a child. Their common instinct binds it, and director Tarsem Singh realizes their shared imagery in spectacle that serves its imagination.
The most astonishing aspect of The Fall is its visual versatility. A vanity project in earnest, Tarsem filmed on over 20 locations all over the world, shooting between commercial projects over the course of 4 years. The wealth of cultures presented is staggering. And yet the best moments take place in just one location, the simple country hospital where Roy (Lee Pace) and Alexandria (Cantinca Untaru) meet, and where the movie truly exists.
At its bottom, basic level, The Fall is about a short friendship between a little immigrant girl and a one-time stuntman in a Los Angeles hospital at the turn of the century. Alexandria has fallen picking oranges and broken her arm, and Roy has fallen from a horse and will likely never walk again. Both have fallen, and have more falls in store. The theme of falling replays, poetically and literally, its central and most powerful metaphor embodied by Roy himself, who cannot endure his handicap.
He tells Alexandria a story of six brave warriors on a quest to revenge themselves on the evil Governor Odious. The story is no more than a trick to get Alexandria to steal for him – yet she loves his story and his attention, and she accepts his secret missions.
I have stated before that animation is the truest approximation of dreams where art is concerned. Tarsem as a director has sought to break that boundary with each of his films. Though The Cell and Immortals featured all of the panache Tarsem is known for (and the films are undeniably gorgeous), both suffer from lackluster scripts. Tarsem’s visual acuity favors sets over actors, which makes for stunning compositions but empty concerns. The Fall consciously exploits this fault by combining the wide open spaces and archetypes he loves with the connection and sincerity of a real story – in this case the relationship between Roy and Alexandria.
The exotica is all in Alexandria’s head, and as a 5-year-old it is a mishmash of structures, simplistic and devoid of other inhabitants. The Indian brave Roy describes to her becomes a Sikh warrior, despite the fact that his squaw is Hindi and his teepee is a temple. So, too, are details carried over from her acquaintances in the hospital, things she likes, things she sees. Like Dorothy’s new friends in Oz, the characters are reflections of the real world, but they are created by the synthesis of her eyes and Roy’s words, their combined influences ruining a linear story, but wonderfully wrecking it, hopelessly entangling it in their truths and misunderstandings.
A professional actress may have turned Alexandria into something precious. Untaru spoke little English when filming began and had to be cajoled and tricked into acting. It is especially clear in her private moments with Roy that the girl’s twitches and nose itches, sneezes, yawns, and mumbles, are completely real. It is itself a little story nested in this story of story. Driving her onscreen partners crazy does not make the film better, but it boggles with its spontaneity and then confounds expectation. Matched with Lee Pace, who nails every wounded moment, the two are magic together.
The swashbuckler he tells Alexandria is flimsy at best, relying on its spectacle over narrative. And unfortunately, this wastes much of the fantasy. Because several of the locales prevented extensive filming, often the characters are simply there, with nothing to do but inhabit the screen. I believe The Fall failed to find an audience because it was too true to the act of storytelling. We inhabit it and enjoy its journey vicariously, but had the fantasy been a captivating tale, it would today be recognized as a triumph, not an obscure offering from a flamboyant music video director.
It is essentially a flicker, like the early cinema Roy’s stuntwork would have animated, a discreet silent film. Its meditation on what manhood means is surprising, its unvoiced connections are deep, that it comes from a place of real pain (the director’s longtime girlfriend had left him suddenly for another man) is evident.
Tarsem has yet to be recognized as a revolutionary filmmaker, with reason: His efforts to date still place some distance between the viewer and his canvas. Even in The Fall’s sweetest moments there is an essential held at arm’s length. But the craftsmanship is unparalleled. It is like a synthetic flower hand made in hidden temples around the world. Why go to all that effort if we cannot smell it? Beauty is its own reward and its own downfall.
Somewhat based on the film Yo Ho Ho written by Valeri Petrov and directed by Zako Heskia
The Fall (2006)
Directed by Tarsem Singh
*The R rating for this film is a crock. There is very little blood and the action hardly merits scandal.
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