The Fall

Here's a depressing (if fairly obvious) diagnosis: Hollywood hates fantasy films. For a heaping dose of proof, look no further than the life's work of Terry Gilliam, one of the few "major" directors around who still has the balls to attempt it, over and over, even as forces bigger than himself doom him again and again. Poor, poor Terry, who's struggles with the fantastic have inspired no less than three separate books (one each on Munchausen, Brazil and The Brothers Grimm,) all of which were deemed failures by the critical masses and wrongly held up in the industry as examples of the archetypal "crazed auteur," spending too much and bending too little, awash in as much madness as his characters.
Maybe some of that is fair, but Gilliam has been invited back enough times into the fire that both producer and director would seem to be at least somewhat content with the inferno he manages to repeatedly ignite. Gilliam's countless sagas of defeat are breathtaking, most recently culminating doubly in his failed Quixote picture (chronicled in Lost in Lamancha,) and now in the tragic death of Heath Ledger, who was to be the star of his Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus, only to die tragically before shooting was completed. And so, perhaps, it is in fact the universe that has doomed fantasy..

Still, American producers occasionally grudgingly agree to fantasy projects, selfishly (if correctly) noting that "they're expensive, and they take too long." Not surprisingly then, many of the best examples of fantasy in recent years have been imported, Pan's Labyrinth being a notable, successful example. But good as Pan is, as fantasy it is diluted and impure, infusing the story with copious moments of in-your-face realism. It's theatrical success and Oscar win would seem to indicate that American critics (and perhaps audiences) desire fantasy only when it is coupled with this realism, a correlation which, though sometimes appealing, is hardly a prerequisite for success in the genre.

Into this hexed pantheon now comes The Fall, a new project by director Tarsem (formerly Tarsem Singh,) who had last directed the now largely forgotten The Cell, a disturbing and visually inventive thriller starring Jennifer Lopez in one of her few non-cringe inducing roles. The back story of the making of The Fall is not surprising, given the genre; the director financed the film mostly himself, using money from his many commercial projects and shooting on the fly in a myriad of countries when his budget would allow it. Now, courtesy of Spike Jonze and David Fincher (two similarly hyper-visual directors,) the film receives its theatrical release. On it's surface, The Fall would seem to have much in common with Pan: in both, the wild imagination of an adventurous young girl is the genesis of the fantasy. But comparing these two films is a lesson in how to make this type of story more marketable, and why that may or may not be necessary.

The Fall mostly omits the copious realism of Pan, which (not rightly or wrongly) spends a great deal of it's running time in character development with the three leads: the Captain, his new wife Mercedes, and her daughter, the curious Ofelia. Instead, it spends no more time that is minimally necessary to introduce it's main players, then cuts quickly to the adventure, signaling that, for Tarsem, the fantasy here is the main attraction. It's two different approaches, nothing more. But it seems many critics refuse to accept this, dismissing the film as "all style and no substance." On the contrary, the film is full of ideas. So what if they're nearly all visual?

There is a troubling critical double standard that goes along with this. The Fall is criticized for it's lack of story, while being praised backhandedly for it's interesting images. Where is it written that a film must have both? More specifically, that a film is not a success if it does not do both well? Haven't other films succeeded completely with only one of these elements? No one ever calls the camera work in a Will Ferrell movie "empty," even though it is. If they call it anything at all, they call it "competent." In this case, we have a perfectly successful film with a competent story and some brilliant, inventive and beautiful camera and directorial work. Yet it's as if these images are worth nothing if they are not attached to something emotional. Some might fool themselves into thinking that Pan somehow "had more to say." But even if it did, in the end, all you're going to remember is the monster with the eyes in his hands. The Fall's real sin would have been tacking on a convoluted storyline that it couldn't pull off, and I respect and applaud it for doing simply what it clearly set out to do: deliver some pure fantasy moments. I think Tarsem is not so foolish as to believe that he is doing anything other than exactly what you see. And in The Fall, what you see is everything.

And so with this film we now perhaps find Tarsem joining the ranks of the other mad fantasy men who have come before him, alongside Gilliam and perhaps Welles and others. Those who had a expensive, difficult story to tell in their hearts, and who found a way to tell it, Hollywood and critics and all else be damned. And, despite The Fall's chilly reception and all its lack of concern for story or structure, Tarsem will be hired, again and again, by Hollywood producers looking to capture that energetic visual style and force it onto a bad story with tired ideas. And Tarsem will resist, and the film will fail, and so on. But if we see his movies, and we remember them, then he is, like Gilliam, another in an ever-growing list of lonely victors.

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