Thursday, March 12, 2009

Beauty at Every Point

The Fall, Written by Dan Gilroy, Nico Soultanakis, and Tarsem Singh, Directed by Tarsem Singh, Starring Cantica Untaru and Lee Pace, Absolute Entertainment, 2006

Shelved for two years for whatever reason, Tarsem Singh’s second film, The Fall, is one of the most amazing visual treats you will see any time soon. Most remarkably, in this age of digital image manipulation, the film is nearly one hundred percent CGI free. (There is one scene near the end involving birds that was definitely digitized, but that’s the only one.)

Instead, relying on beautiful sets, lavish costumes, simply gorgeous outdoor cinematography, and pure art, the filmmakers have managed to produce something amazing. All I had seen prior to this film was the rather obscure trailer, which doesn’t quite manage to make the film comprehensible (nothing really quite does until you see it), but that teaspoon of beauty was enough to make me hunt this picture down once it was out on DVD.

Now with your typical CGI laden films that tend to get big promotion and summer box office hype, that no amount of hours and dollars are spared prettifying, there’s still this artificiality. Yes, computer graphics have advanced to the point where a character like Gollum was fascinating, sympathetic, almost Oscar-worthy in its animated format, but there still remains a kind of hokiness about them. While there are no more zippers in special effects (unless you’re talking a Troma picture), the image-flatness that they haven’t yet managed to do away with still prods you out of the film if you’re the observant type.

If anything jars you out of yourself in watching The Fall it’s a kind of painterly beauty you all too rarely get in a film anymore. Take any still out of Citizen Kane with its deep focus, its unconventional camera work, and it’s like looking at a black and white realist painter’s vision of the world. Every once in a while, a film comes along like this that is simply such a treat to the eyes that words reach their limits then fall short. The list of stunningly beautiful films, despite the medium's visual nature, is not nearly as long as it should be.

But it would only be a pretty picture, or a series of pretty pictures, were it not for the riveting stories that the film tells. Cowboy film stuntman Roy Walker (Lee Pace) is in the hospital in 1920s Los Angeles after an accident on the set has left him quite likely paralyzed from the waist down. He is found in his bed by a bored, imaginative five year old Alexandria (Catinca Untaru). Her family having fled strife in India, she and her mother and her siblings have settled in Los Angeles where they work picking oranges. It is a fall, likewise, that has landed her in the hospital, breaking her arm.

After a brief conversation, these two lonely souls come together as Roy begins to tell Alexandria a wild, rambling adventure story about five heroes who have come together for one common purpose: to kill the Spanish Governor Odious. Roy populates his story with a variety of melodramatic film and fiction types: the ex-slave named Otta Benga, an Italian explosives expert named Luigi, Charles Darwin (accompanied by the slyly named monkey sidekick Wallace), a mystic who carries every bird in the world in his stomach, an Indian (in Roy’s version, the Native American type, while in Alexandria’s reimagining a sub-Continental with beard and Punjabi dress), and their leader, the masked Blue Bandit.

At first, it is hard to determine Roy’s motivation in telling this story. He is transparently plotting something, but his story seems to both mislead and reveal at the same time. I’d give away more of the plot were I to summarize much beyond this initial set up, and I’d hate to give away some of the film’s more important revelations. Part of the wonderful aspect of the film comes from how various elements of the hospital including staff and assorted other visitors and associated persons find their way into Alexandria’s visualizations of Roy’s story. The tall, black ice-delivery man becomes the vengeful Otta Benga while Alexandria’s absent father moves in and out of character.

The film manages to catch at its characters’ psychologies in very poignant and telling fashion. In one scene where Roy asks Alexandria about her life back in India, she tells him that her home was burnt down. When he asks her who did it, her reply “Angry people,” contains within it the maximum of a child’s understanding, yet her delivery suggests that there is more to the story that she’s unprepared to relive. And in the early stagesof Roy’s telling of the adventure tale, we get a hint of the downward spiral that will consume him as time progresses. While the story also develops, Alexandria’s powers of observation and her psychological acumen are shown to be far more advanced than one would give credit to a five year old. Her casting of Governor Odious cuts right to the heart of Roy’s story with scary precision.

I’d say it’s a rare film that can make me cry, but that’s not entirely true. Hell, I can be made to cry at Hallmark card commercials around the holidays. But it’s a rare film that can make me cry with real feeling, to ache for the characters, to share their inner turmoil, their conflicts, their agonizing pains. The film’s horribly excruciating climax, a tear filled battle between five year old and self-pitying drunken adult is probably one of the most moving arguments I’ve seen on film in literally years. I was sobbing when it was through.

It’s a marriage you don’t often see in a film, when a piece of transcendent visual beauty is married to a couple of psychological portraits that really plumb human depths. Too often the one is sacrificed to the other. Here, in The Fall, you have your cake and you eat it too.


Dave said...

Rented this last night. What a good flick. I can't even imagine what it would look like in HD. It looks spectacular enough in normal resolution.
Good story too. The little girl (Alexandria) was F'in adorable.

Andrea said...

"The Fall, is one of the most amazing visual treats.."