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Sunday, June 15, 2008

Falling Short (The Fall)

A Hollywood fairy tale

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Ten years ago I described Tarsem’s feature debut as a director, The Cell, as an example of an emerging cinema whose impressions were visual more than verbal and whose visuals were achieved in part by quick montages of images. That Tarsem made his mark with the R.E.M. video “Losing My Religion,” as well as sneaker and soft drink ads, was held against him by critics who resisted the kinetic, jump cutting visual language of the MTV generation.

The 10 years between The Cell and Tarsem’s return to big screens, The Fall, has given me time to reconsider. I don’t think I was entirely wrong about the potential of the MTV generation of filmmakers but I’m not sure that the potential has often been met. The Fall is a case in point. At times visually dazzling, The Fall misses the mark because its promising story potential is infuriatingly unfulfilled by a director who seems to prize idiosyncrasy over all else. Just being wiggy can work for a four-minute music video but not for a two-hour movie.

Like the opening leaf from a fairytale, The Fall starts with a title reading “Los Angeles Long Long Ago.” Sure enough, there is a child and a storyteller; the former is a five-year-old Romanian girl whose English should be assisted by subtitles and the latter is a Hollywood stuntman. The time is the 1910s judging by the clanking motorcars and by the stuntman’s movie. The setting is a Roman Catholic hospital, the denominational reference serving only to make the visual iconography more colorful. A hospital run by Methodists or atheists would be a dull looking place by contrast.

The girl broke her arm while harvesting oranges from nearby groves with her family and the stuntman broke his leg falling from a railroad bridge during the filming of a Western melodrama. He tells her a rambling story complete with cliffhangers, sending her to the dispensary to sneak him morphine before continuing his ad-libbed tale. The stuntman has a broken heart as well as a broken leg. The star of his movie has taken his girl, the movie’s co-star. The stuntman’s will to live has weakened.

The story is where The Fall’s limitations become painful. It’s plain stupid but worse still, dull and unengaging—a mishmash of intentionally ironic clichs (enclosed by 10-foot “quotation marks”) about a band of eccentrically-garbed heroes seeking to overthrow the dastardly Governor Odious and rescue the damsel in distress. The only stimulation is provided by the morphing backdrops and visuals, including mud-caked aborigines in a choreographed dance, a tattoo mapping itself across a human body, a great hulking wagon whose wheels are turned by slaves on circular treadmills, and architecture drawing from the Hagia Sophia, the Taj Mahal and M.C. Escher. Tarsem sometimes composes colors in horizontal strips like Marc Rothko in motion.

Perhaps the single best scene comes near the end when we finally see part of the flickering Western that led to the stuntman’s accident. It’s a brilliant recreation on gritty black and white stock, accompanied by a solo violinist heightening the action with variations on Wagner.

As in Dorothy’s dream from The Wizard of Oz, the stuntman’s story absorbs people and situations from the protagonists’ reality. The Hollywood star that stole the stuntman’s girl is a dead ringer for Governor Odious. The mildly interesting twist is the collaboration that develops between the storyteller and the little Romanian girl, who like a typical Hollywood audience demands a happy ending. In this case, the ending could mean life or death for the teller, assuming that life follows art.

The Fall opens May 30 at the Downer Theatre.
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