05 July 2009
Not Done with 2008 Quite Yet
WTT more or less dismissed 2008 as a terrible year in film but I have just seen a film, Tarsem's The Fall, that is, shall we say, a piece of candlelight guttering in the wind. Or, to borrow an image from the film, an elephant swimming through a tropical reef. So what if the film was made in 2006, it came out in 2008 damn it. If nothing else, Tarsem proves himself superior to McG in the one-named music video and commercial director category.
I have to take a moment to wander into autobiography and consider Tarsem's only other film, The Cell. When it released I had no clue who Tarsem was but I knew exactly who Jennifer Lopez was--2001 was the apex of my Jennifer Lopez affection. The Cell became the most hotly anticipated release in my 16 year old life because it was rated R and I would have to sneak past the authorities to get in. And I had been stopped before (note: at 16 I probably looked the same way that McLovin looked at age 12). Somehow, possibly because I looked older in my clever brim-low baseball hat disguise, or maybe because the guy selling tickets was 16 himself, I got in. And then The Cell! About which I remember exactly one scene, the one where the horse gets chopped up...
(And not even a good J Lo outfit...)
It is possible that I've forgotten the other great shots from The Cell and will similarly lose track of the tremendous visuals in The Fall. But I doubt it. The film was made over four years and shot in 18 countries, a Wong Kar Wai pace to movie making that I admire. While I wouldn't compare Tarsem to Kar Wai, it's obvious that both put a premium on unforgettable images.
In addition to the parade of lush shots, The Fall has two titanic dissolves that deserve special mention. Early in the film we are introduced to our four heroes, who are stranded on a tiny island, united in their hatred of Governor Odious. One of them, a naturalist named Charles Darwin, describes a rare specimen of butterfly that Odious killed and sent to him. We get a shot of the gorgeous blue and green butterfly fluttering then a dissolve back into an extreme long shot of the island, which turns out to be butterfly shaped. I should note that I think the film is worthwhile on the strength of Darwin's flamingo coat alone:
The other dissolve is more surprising. A close up of a priest's stony face at a wedding turns into black rock strewn steppe where the heroes are tethered and left to die. It actually takes a few moments to parse what's happened, as the temporal shift is so pronounced. Many other great visual concepts are well-executed. How about a burned man born from a tree?
Or how about a massive castle surrounded by a blue moat of houses?
On it's glittering surface, The Fall is reminiscent of Pan's Labyrinth, which I loathed. There's a girl being told and then participating in a fantastical story.
Young Alexandria bests Ofelia in Pan's Labyrinth for cuteness and humorousness, and The Fall is able to enter a world of pure fantasy without overdone metaphors about Justice and War. Where the ending of Pan's Labyrinth is inevitable and dull, there is actually a good deal of drama in The Fall as fallibility of Roy, the man telling the tale to Alexandria, intercedes in and complicates the narrative. Emotions ran so hard that I had the idea that I could possibly, maybe, even shed a tear.
A good counterpoint to The Fall is Jesse Ball's 2009 novel, The Way through Doors, which is itself a sort of variation on the classic Scheherezade situation. The book's looping narrative and syntactical inventiveness mirrors the recursive imagery (of horses, boxes, water and much more) in The Fall. We tell each other stories in order to live and Tarsem has made an indelible moving picture of one such story.