Thursday, May 13, 2010

The Fall (2008) — Paint me a story, Singh me a dream

Some movies just ask to be watched more than once. This is, after all, a visual medium that moves, often way too quickly, at 24 frames per second. Sometimes you finish a movie and immediately want to sit still for it again, to observe its story from new angles, or grasp subtleties that buzzed by the first time, or simply to savor the splendor of its robust visuals.

That's how I felt about The Fall, which I have on Blu-ray and wave in front of my friends in moments of "you just have to see this" annoyance impulse. For me, this insanely ambitious, critically polarizing film is a jewel box, one I enjoy opening to discover something new every time.

And yes, it makes me want to go crazy with the screen shots. So I like pretty pictures.

Directed and co-written by Tarsem Singh (aka just Tarsem), The Fall is ostensibly a subdued character melodrama between Roy, a Hollywood stuntman (Lee Pace) during the heyday of silent movies, and Alexandria, a curious and precocious little migrant farm girl (Romanian charmer Catinca Untaru). Roy is lovesick and, not coincidentally, depressed and suicidal. You see, he's paralyzed after a foolhardy film stunt gone wrong. The stunt was meant to impress the woman he loves, but now she's off with the leading man while he's in the hospital, his back broken.

That's where he meets Alexandria, who assertively befriends him. To coax her into stealing for him a lethal overdose of morphine, Roy spins "an epic tale of love and revenge" starring brave and colorful bandits, adventurers, and eccentrics. Each man — a mystic who erupts out of a flaming tree trunk, a cigar-smoking demolitions expert, a fanciful Charles Darwin, and so on — has his own sorrowful grudge against the boo-hiss villain, Governor Odious. They band together to take bloody vengeance on their common enemy, and rescue a princess to boot.

For much of the film we see Roy's fairy-tale saga through the girl's eyes and naiveté. As the exotic fantasy world unfolds, shaped and embellished by the wide-eyed child, the thin membrane between the reality and the fantasy becomes more and more porous. Roy's story mirrors his own real-life suffering at the loss of his legs and especially the woman he loved.

And Oz-like, the events and individuals Alexandria experiences in the hospital — the orderly, the patients, the pretty nurse, the delivery man, the movie star who stole Roy's beloved — populate her version of the mythic quest. To her, brokenhearted Roy naturally inhabits the fellowship's leader, the heroic but tragically sad Black Bandit. Some of Alexandria's embellishments are delightful: When Roy tells her of an "Indian" with his "squaw" and "wigwam," Alexandria — who knows little English and has never seen a cowboy movie in her life — imagines a turbaned Sikh with a scimitar and a palatial gold "wigwam."

It turns out that Alexandria has a real-world backstory of her own, one involving the event that broke her arm and destroyed her family. That gets unveiled in the telling as well.

Meanwhile, Tarsem's startling visual style bursts and splashes with primary colors and dazzling alien dreamscapes — all real, all filmed without CGI in Tahiti, South Africa, Jodhpur, Udaipur, and a dozen more countries over several years. Via Colin Watkinson's cinematography, we get breathtaking compositions of deserts and palaces and vast blue cities. Even his transitions can bend toward the Daliesque — a blue butterfly into an island in the middle of the sea, a spilled cup of coffee into a pool of blood, a villain's features into the elements of an environmental setting. There's the labyrinthine well that defies architectural geometry like a cathedral-sized Escher painting. Birds fly from the mystic's mouth when he's beaten. Charles Darwin (aided by his "brilliant colleague," an intelligent monkey named Wallace) devises an escape via a swimming elephant.

As in his visually sumptuous previous film, the psychedelic serial-killer pop snoozer The Cell, Tarsem displays a bold and imaginative eye. However, unlike The Cell, which seemed produced via a Hollywood conference call and works best on DVD when the language is switched to Thai, this time you get a sense that this is his film, his vision passionately expressed, his story to tell.

Will Lasky at Slant's The House Next Door puts his finger on a number of good points re Tarsem's "transgressive" hyper-realized stylizations and how the film
"...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."
That The Fall is "presented by" its two best-known producers, David Fincher (Fight Club) and Spike Jonze (Being John Malkovich), tells you plenty about where Tarsem's singular vision lies on the cinematic storytelling spectrum.

And The Fall is all about storytelling — its power, its ability to effect and heal us as well as entertain and distract us. It's Tarsem's obvious love of both myth-making and movie-making that lifts The Fall a good deal higher than just the sum of its gorgeous glossy-coffee-table-book "art-house film" imagery.

The Fall celebrates "the magic of the movies" on two levels. One level is that of the narrative itself. It's an interesting choice that Roy and other characters in the "real world" scenes are early-years (c. 1915) Hollywood professionals. The artful opening scene of a vintage steam train on a high bridge, then a man and a horse being inexplicably rescued from the water below, is shot in moody duotone slow-mo, and scored to a the second movement of Beethoven's Symphony No. 7. We don't yet know what we're being shown, and only later do we understand that the mesmerizing imagery depicts the event that sent Roy to the hospital. His career ruined along with his legs, Roy can't imagine a life other than his thrilling movie stunts, or the woman he had hoped to win.

Alexandria then becomes his willing collaborator on the fantasy tale. She keenly represents us in the movie-watching audience — any movie-watching audience — when the two-way contract between ourselves and the storyteller rises to its most expressive level. The Fall's montage finale celebrates the dash and thrills of the movies with an affection that had me both punching the air and suitably lump-in-throat. (Seeing Buster Keaton capping the film this way just gets me where I live.)

While The Fall encourages comparisons with del Toro's Pan's Labyrinth, a more apt analog would be Terry Gilliam's The Adventures of Baron Munchausen and Tideland. A less obvious but equally worthwhile comparison is to Víctor Erice's hypnotic The Spirit of the Beehive, which also touches on the hold movies have on our imaginations and was an influence on del Toro. As in Pan's Labyrinth, Munchausen, Tideland, and The Spirit of the Beehive, it's a little girl in The Fall who catalyzes the "magic" and embodies our willing role as both spectator to and participant in the filmmaker's fantasies.

The second level is all "meta." It occurs on our side of the screen as we watch Tarsem's accomplishments unfold. It's true that The Fall keeps its fantasy characters under-developed and at arm's length from us to a degree that has put off some of Tarsem's detractors. But that's part of our contract with Tarsem, and while our emotional engagement with the Black Bandit's quest is only about 35mm wide, I willingly surrendered to Tarsem's joy in his painterly vistas and vivid locations, and to the interplay between the bright fantasy and the hospital's gray, grim reality.

Moreover, I was just grateful to find a movie that not only expected me to pay attention, it assumed that I could.

As Roy, Lee Pace, the Golden Globe-nominated star of ABC's Pushing Daisies, provides a fine but hardly breakout performance. He is outstripped on that score by little Catinca Untaru, who gives one of the most naturalistic performances by a child actor I've ever seen. (There's another positive point of comparison to six-year-old Ana Torrent in The Spirit of the Beehive.)

In this disc's commentary track with Tarsem, the director explains how he developed the script largely around Catinca's improvisational choices. This included not allowing her to know that Pace was not in fact paralyzed and confined to a wheelchair, so she reacted to him with the tentativeness and growing acceptance that came naturally to her. (That production account is also explored in this lengthy interview with Tarsem at The Onion AV Club.) By giving her room to respond unscripted to scenarios he would initiate, his result was an authenticity that would have been unachievable if she'd been merely reading lines. It also infused the narrative with its necessary feeling of on-the-fly spontaneity. The little girl gives vitality to Roy's story because back on the set that's a big part of what was actually going on.

The Fall (official site) is available on both DVD and Blu-ray. The Blu-ray edition provides sparkling high-definition clarity that delivers the tactile richness and striking color of the film's visuals. Even the deep-focus vistas spanning miles present extraordinary detail and dimensionality.

The Blu-ray's audio comes as a Dolby TrueHD 5.1 track that is as pristine as the visuals. In a home theater, it surrounds us with aggressive yet well-defined action and environmental sounds.

While a comprehensive "making of" documentary would suit the film and its unusual production history very well, we don't get it here. Still, the extras on board do a fine job of taking us through the lengthy and troubled production process from the director's vision to the nitty-gritty details of shooting under strained conditions and globetrotting to exotic locations.

They start with the enjoyable and illuminating commentary track with Tarsem Singh, an enthusiastic and well-spoken scene-by-scene chronicler of the arduous production's unique difficulties and successes. Also here is a second commentary with actor Lee Pace, writer/producer Nico Soultanakis, and writer Dan Gilroy; they likewise offer an entertaining and informative listen with no significant repetition against Tarsem's track.

Two behind-the-scenes pieces — "Wanderlust" (28 minutes) and "Nostalgia" (30 minutes) — are non-narrated raw footage providing a refreshingly unpolished "you are there" insight into the process.

Music: B.B. King, Live at San Quentin
Near at hand: Elizabeth on the couch with me, also writing.