What Do You Call A Commercial That Sells Only Itself? The Fall (2008)

Posted by Charles Reece, May 23, 2008 03:08pm | Post a Comment
The opening credit sequence to Tarsem Singh's The Fall looks like a Calvin Klein ad: shot in black & white, pretty and elliptical, a dead horse is pulled out of a river with a crane attached to railroad bridge.  And, boy howdy, the critics don't much like the film!  It received a 58/100 from both Metacritic and Rotten Tomatoes.  Without exception, every negative review mentions the commercial and music video background of Tarsem (as he is credited). That's a cudgel that's been used on Ridley Scott, David Fincher and other directors coming out of the commercial video world, often with good reason.  For example, Se7en wasn't much more than an overly long Nine Inch Nails video. The problem isn't that commercial and video works lack craft or aestheticism (as they once did), but that their instrumental value as shills for products culturally diminishes any value they might otherwise have as art.  Iggy Pop once asked rhetorically what did it matter how he used his songs so long as he initially created them for himself.  Well, is it possible for anyone under 50 to watch Alain Resnais and Marguerite Duras' meditation of time and memory, Hiroshima mon amour:

Without having the experience diminished by having seen tons of Calvin Klein ads like the following?

Resnais' visual style has been corrupted -- maybe not forever, but for as long as ad agencies continue to rip him off. Thus, as long as Tarsem continues to blow his aesthetic load during the commercial breaks for Lost (its viewers being the target audience for the type of commodities his visuals sell), his films will be taken about as meaningfully as "Lust For Life" or Moby's entire oeuvre.  Still, it takes a lot of skill and knowledge to make something that looks and plays like this:

Or this:

It's just a shame that a director who's spent his time studying Tarkovsky, Parajanov and, judging by that last example, To, had to start off commodified -- pre-packaged and easily consumable.  The degree to which Tarsem's been a success at commercials and videos -- that is, left his mark on their stylistic evolutions -- is the degree to which any importation of his style to his films will make them seem ad-like.  And since The Fall was largely self-financed, Tarsem seems to be a pretty successful commercial director. That ain't a good thing for filmic art, but it's a better job than most if you can get it.

One doesn't have to be a social determinist about all of this. Tarsem's aesthetic (wide-angled, symmetrical shots of exotica in crisp black & white or saturated colors) can be separated from the commercial connotations of its originary sources.  There's nothing more intrinsically ad-like about his style than Resnais'.  Unfortunately, the present milieu often makes it easier to experiment in ads than in more traditional outlets for film and music (Nick Drake didn't find success on the radio, after all), so any filmmaker with a proclivity for formalism might be better served (make a living) by commercial video, where a premium isn't placed on plot-driven narratives.  Such a filmmaker can learn to create effects (e.g., emotive, cognitive) with his images alone, rather than having them service the mechanics of a plot (e.g., what does this image mean?).  It is, however, difficult to separate the style of such images from the way it was formerly used.  The form feels like product placement where someone forgot to insert the product.  Commercialism corrodes everything it comes into contact with.

What's most intriguing about The Fall is the way Tarsem took what his critics saw as the portentous bloat of The Cell and made the kitsch work for the story this time around.  A not particularly gifted storyteller, Roy, spins a clichéd fantasy for a little Romanian girl, Alexandria, while both are convalescing in a Los Angeles hospital in 1915 (he has a broken back and she, a broken arm). The fantasy is a less imaginative variation on the idea used by Alan Moore for League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, where a version of Zorro leads an multicultural team of specialists (including Charles Darwin) on a mission of vengeance against the nefarious Governor Odious to save the beautiful Sister Evelyn. The ostentatious visuals represent the provincially limited imaginations of Roy and Alexandria. Yeah, they're kind of empty, but that's because they're an interpretation of the story-within-a-story that's being told.  Thus, this sort of comment completely misses the point:

Tarsem seems to have remained interested only in image-making for its own ends. There is never a sense that The Fall exists for any reason besides simply being something nice to look at.  [...] For a film that wants to present itself as extravagantly dazzling, there is something thuddingly familiar and bland in its vision.  -- Marc Olsen

What's wrong with creating "something nice to look at?"  It seems implicit in Olsen's objection that commercial films have to be narrative.  But Tarsem's film does have a narrative, which all the pretty images serve.  He uses the "extravagant thud" of his images for at least two purposes: as a commentary (often ironic) on the ideas and notions of his two main characters and as a fantastic filter for the narrative realism (the main story of the relation between the storyteller and the girl).  An example of the former is how Roy's story of wigwams, peace pipes and squaws is contrasted with the images of India where a warrior loses his love at the hands of Odious. An example of the latter purpose is the central story arc:  Roy is a jilted lover who's been paralyzed by a movie stunt gone wrong and wants to die. Since he can't rise to get enough morphine to kill himself, he uses his story to con Alexandria into stealing him the medicine. Odious is the Rudy Valentino-lookalike actor who stole Roy's actress girlfriend from him. After a failed suicide attempt and Alexandria injures herself trying to get more morphine for Roy, he begins to slaughter all the heroes in his story while she lies bed-ridden and sobbing, pleading with him to save them.

The Fall reminds me of two other recent films, Pan's Labyrinth and Tideland, both of which put the big lie to the notion of fantasy as escapism -- that fantasy exists to help us run from the brutal dictates of reality. It doesn't take Lacanian psychoanalysis to understand that fantasies are often more defined by what they omit than what they depict. Tideland -- Terry Gilliam's return to form and one of the best films of recent years -- was reviled upon release because it's the most direct of the three about the relation between reality and fantasy. It  turns the reality of pedophilia, drug addiction, child abuse and death into a fantasy before your eyes by filtering it through the concepts of a little girl. For example, she falls in love with and kisses a mentally handicapped 20-something male, neither possessing the moral concept coming from adult authority that would normally prohibit such a relation. In Guillermo del Toro's Pan's Labyrinth, another little girl finds the fascism of 1940s Spain tolerable by recasting it in a fantastic struggle between good and evil. Reality catches up with her, but she goes out believing she's a princess being taken away to a magical kingdom. Similarly, when Alexandria is pleading with Roy to save the Zorro-like Red Bandit, which is Roy's stand-in, reality is making itself known. The difference between The Fall and these other two films is that, here, the little girl (and not just the audience) becomes aware of the repressed reality that's structuring the story.

Both fantasy and realism help us deal with reality by conceptually reconfiguring blunt reality in a manageable form. Both deliver reality, just in different ways: fantasy, indirectly, and realism, directly (at least, in terms of intent, but confer Paul Haggis' Crash).  It occurs to me that the viewer of Tarsem's The Fall is in a position somewhat akin to Alexandria's: trying to ignore the reality of his commercially encumbered vistas in order to enjoy his tale.  However, if one can find meaning in the neon folderol of New York and Tokyo as cinematographers often do, why not in Tarsem's slick exotica?  At least he's not selling anything this time around.

Truth through advertising.  Bruce Nauman's One Hundred Live and Die (1984)

Relevant Tags

Reality (3), Fantasy (23), The Fall (7), Summer Movies (9), Realism (8), Commodification (4), Tarsem Singh (1), Cinema Criticism (32)