Saturday, December 27, 2008

The Fall

Tarsem Singh's The Fall (2006) is a film both enchanting and sad. Like "The Arabian Nights," it tells a story within a story, but that's where the similarities end. The frame story, set in a Los Angeles hospital during the era of silent film, is about a delightful little girl, Alexandria (Catinca Untaru), who broke her arm when she fell while picking oranges. She befriends a Hollywood stuntman, Roy Walker (Lee Pace), who's paralyzed from the waist down. He begins to tell her a story about five mythical heroes who, for various reasons, want revenge against the evil Governor Odious. Once he gains her trust, he asks her to steal some morphine for him, he tells her, so he can sleep. Alexandria comes to identify with him as a father figure, but he's a decidedly flawed and ambiguous one.

The film isn't as grim as I'm making it sound. In various ways, the film playfully reminds us that the story Roy tells Alexandria is all in her imagination. When Alexander the Great (Kim Uylenbroek) receives a message, it's written on the same paper Alexandria uses to send a note to one of the hospital's nurses, Sister Evelyn (Justine Waddell), and the masks worn by Governor Odious' soldiers are the same as the one worn by the man who operates the hospital's x-ray machine. At first, one of the story's heroes, the Blue Bandit (Pace), has an Eastern European accent, like Alexandria's father, until Alexandria decides the Blue Bandit should have an American accent, like Roy. Although Roy clearly means one character, referred to only as the Indian (Jeetu Verma), to be a Native American, describing his wife as a beautiful "squaw," Alexandria pictures him as an East Indian with a long beard and turban. It's unlikely that a little girl listening to Roy's story would picture (just to name one example) one scene happening in front of the Taj Mahal, since it has nothing to do with the story, but that's missing the point; the film's imagery--vast desert landscapes, flamboyant costumes by Japanese designer Eiko Ishioka, shirtless musclemen--is self consciously mythic.

Why did the film get such lousy reviews? Michael Joshua Rowin of indieWire finds it too ostentatious in its "immodest scale and melodramatic excess." Is it my imagination or are reviewers resistant to films of ambition? In a poll of U.S. reviewers published by Film Comment, Kelly Reichardt's Wendy and Lucy was voted the best film released there in 2008. It's a good film, very modest, but there's not a world of difference between the plot of Reichardt's film and a Trudeau-era social realist downer like Don Shebib's Goin' Down the Road (1971). (Nor, for that matter, is Reichardt any more formally adventurous.) Would The Fall be a better movie if Singh had learned a little modesty? Reichardt's film is about a woman in a blue hoodie standing in a parking lot--and like a parking lot, the film does what it's supposed to do. Personally, I prefer movies like the Taj Mahal: grand, ambitious and spectacularly immodest.

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