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January 2009
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James Sallis
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Plumage from Pegasus
Off On a Tangent: F&SF Style
Kathi Maio
Lucius Shepard
Gregory Benford
Pat Murphy & Paul Doherty
Jerry Oltion
Coming Attractions
F&SF Bibliography: 1949-1999
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by Kathi Maio

Pride Goeth Before The Fall

I MUST admit I find the increasingly common show-biz practice of identifying one's self by a one-word name dreadfully pretentious. I'll give a pass to old time Mexican actor Cantinflas and his career-long clown persona. But with modern performers like Madonna and even directors like McG—who actually feels the need to abbreviate his one-word name—it seems to simply be a matter of arrogant branding. Coke. Madonna. Brands you know and love. (Or hate, as the case may be.)

It is perhaps understandable, then, that a director whose greatest wealth and recognition has come from making commercials for brands like Coke, Nike, Smirnoff, and Lexus—one word name recognition for all—should take the same route. Tarsem (formerly known as Tarsem Singh, and before that as Tarsem Singh Dhandwar) also achieved early success in the music video field. His fresh-out-of-film-school REM video for "Losing My Religion" brought him fame, lucrative employment, and also set his style—possibly for life. To wit, mix an obscure storyline in dark shadowy tones with flashes of archetypal figures wearing showy costumes in artsy, colorful settings.

Splashes of color and obscure but eye-arresting visuals do work well in advertisements (where you have only a minute to sell and brand-imprint your audience) and music videos (where you have a more expansive two and a half minutes to do the same), but shock-and-awe shill games do not completely serve the filmmaker's craft, which should always bring art, commerce, and performance to the service of an actual narrative.

That last bit is the part Tarsem has struggled over during his transition to feature film director. His first full-length movie was the serial killer extravaganza, The Cell (2000), in which the pulchritudinous Jennifer Lopez incongruously portrays a social worker turned therapist who uses a space-age laboratory (and a red-ridged bat suit with super breast definition!) to enter the unconscious states of comatose boys and men. In the case of her first patient, it is to help a tormented young son of a wealthy couple come out of his coma. In the case of Carl Stargher (Vincent D'Onofrio), she attempts to penetrate the mind of a man who tortures, drowns, and bleaches—yeah, you heard me right—young women, to assist an FBI team (even more incongruously led by Vince Vaughn) in locating the unconscious killer's last victim before she actually perishes.

The concept is predictable and dopey, and the science is ludicrous, but the costumes and dreamscape settings are so arresting that they almost make you forget the stupidity playing out before you. Since most of the action occurs in the nightmarish landscape of Stargher's damaged brain, viewers are presented with scene after scene of surrealistic nastiness. The settings are either stark or baroque or American gothic, and the outfits are to die for. It's Silence of the Lambs meets Project Runway. J-Lo gets to dress up as everything from a Scarlet Virgin of Guadalupe to a possessed temptress in see-through black lace and red S&M collar.

In many ways, The Cell was the perfect movie for modern audiences with their short attention spans and desire to be constantly over-stimulated. Therefore, some viewers were enthralled and delighted by the spectacle. I, myself, was both impressed and appalled by the film. And I thought, "If this filmmaker can ever put his extravagant visual sense to good use within a real story, he will really have something to offer."

Therefore, even though I was more than a bit dubious, I was also hopeful as I approached the second feature film of Tarsem; he, now, of one name. The movie is one the director claims to have been prepping for and making his entire career. It seems that many years ago, as a student, he saw a 1981 Bulgarian film, written by Valeri Petrov and directed by Zako Heskija, called Yo Ho Ho. In the original, a hospitalized and crippled young man befriends a young boy and weaves a marvelous fairy tale for him, hoping to manipulate the lad into acquiring for him the means of suicide. In the end, the friendship between the two is so heartfelt and genuine that the man rejects suicide and decides to embrace life again.

Tarsem liked the way that narrative within a narrative played out and how well it illustrated the interactive and collaborative nature of storytelling, with both the teller and the listener contributing to and transforming the plotline.

Yo Ho Ho sounds like a charming movie. Perhaps I'll get to see it someday. But stories within stories are certainly nothing new. (The Princess Bride is one most fantasy fans know and love.) Nor is the concept of the teller's ulterior motive. Shahrazad (Scheherazade) spun tales to beguile the royal bridegroom intent on cutting off her head. Spinning fantasies to get suicide drugs pales in comparison to that.

Still, Tarsem seems to have had this basic plot in mind over seventeen years of scouting locations while helming exotic advertisement or video shoots. And all the while he collected striking locales, bizarre vignettes, and scenic wonders he hoped to put together in his dream movie project. Since he planned on shooting his uninsurable movie over several years and numerous continents, using an unknown cast and no screenplay—despite three credited writers, including Tarsem—to speak of, it is not surprising that the movie ended up as a self-funded "indie" (read: "vanity") project.

Over four years, he would fly his cast and crew out at the end of commercial jobs to capture a place or a scene in his elaborate story within the story. This was after a twelve-week shoot in a South African hospital (substituting for a 1915 Los Angeles institution) to capture the framing tale.

In the set-up, we are introduced to a depressed, paralyzed young man, Roy (Lee Pace), an actor in early Hollywood, now hospitalized and heart-broken after a stunt goes very wrong and his starlet girlfriend leaves him for the leading man. Roy meets, befriends, and weaves an epic adventure for a young Romanian immigrant girl, Alexandria (Catinca Untaru), who like him, took a fall. In her case, she fell from a ladder in the orange groves where she toiled with her mother and sister and broke her arm.

The "real-life" story is not without its charms. Lee Pace, although largely unknown at the time he started the movie (but now the star of ABC's quirky fantasy series, Pushing Daisies), is a wonderful actor with a timeless look suitable to both period pieces (like last spring's Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day) and the most challenging of modern roles (like the transgendered Calpernia in 2003's Soldier's Girl).

In Tarsem's film he needs to play both the self-pitying yet sympathetic story-teller and the dashing hero of the epic, the Black Bandit. He does the former with morose sensitivity and the latter with rakish, silent-film-like elegance. Pace also does a lovely job in helping to guide the artless performance of his co-star, Catinca Untaru, a young girl with supposedly no acting experience and even less English when she was hired for the film.

The naturalness of young Untaru's performance is no accident, it seems. The director shot the hospital scenes, in sequence, at the very beginning of work on the film. And he freely admits that his aim was to achieve a performance as realistic and haunting as that of tiny Victoire Thivisol in the 1996 French drama, Ponette.

He achieved this, to my mind, by being a liar and a scoundrel. To create the kind of naturalism he wanted from the girl, she was informed that her role was actually in a documentary, and her interaction with co-star Pace was with an actual disabled performer. (And to make sure she stayed in the dark, the paralysis lie was actually told to the entire cast and crew!) In addition, Tarsem used limited cameras and put them behind curtains and outside windows in the early hospital scenes, to keep the movie-making hidden from the girl. In short, he wanted to trick the tyke, with her limited language skills, into giving the unstudied performance of her life.

Such arrogant manipulation seems unnecessary, and wanders into the realm of sadistic when you see scenes, late in the movie, in which a drunken and suicidal "Roy" seems intent on killing himself and every character in his fairy tale, to the obvious distress of little "Alexandria." It's probably easier to get away with child cruelty using a foreign moppet in a foreign country, but that doesn't make it right. However, I do think this backstory of the film's process tells us something about the god complex Tarsem exhibits as an "auteur."

And if you need any further proof, all you need to do is descend into the story within the story that Roy expounds for his little friend. It is a showy and overblown affair, more spectacular than any fairy tale, dime novel, or film anyone in 1915 would ever be likely to dream up, even in a morphine-induced hallucination.

The lead character is the Black Bandit (Pace), who joins forces with an escaped slave, Otta Benga (Marcus Wesley), an Italian anarchist and explosives expert, Luigi (Robin Smith), a mud-caked mystic (Julian Bleach), as well as naturalist Charles Darwin (Leo Bill) and his little monkey sidekick. The motley yet extravagant crew have all, for various reasons, sworn deadly vengeance against the supposedly evil (yet oddly absent, until the final scene), Governor Odious, who ends up looking exactly like the movie star (Daniel Caltagirone) who stole Roy's lady love away.

This story cross-contamination is one of the truly entertaining, yet often confusing, aspects of the fantastical epic saga. Because Alexandria is populating the story that she hears from Roy, the characters in the tale look like people she knows from the orange groves or the hospital. For example, the noble escaped slave is played by the nice ice man who delivers to the hospital. And the female lead, Princess Evelyn (Justine Waddell), takes on the guise of the nice nurse who comforts Alexandria in the night.

In a comical (but more funny-strange than funny-haha) misunderstanding, cowpoke actor Roy spins a subplot about a noble Indian brave. He is thinking about a Native American as he tells his story, of course. But Alexandria (whom we discover, very late in the movie, works in the groves with South Asian men) instead pictures a handsome man in a turban and his ill-fated "squaw" wife in a sari.

This aspect of the story is a lively one, but never particularly logical, as some of the fairytale figures are hard to spot in the "real" part of the story. (Deleted scenes at work?) And others would likely not be assigned their epic roles by the little girl. For example, the movie star who steals Roy's girl plays the evil villain, but Alexandria doesn't really know him. (Wouldn't she be more likely to cast him as, say, the cruel overseer from the farm fields?) And if this is Roy's role assignment, why is the duplicitous and very poorly developed Princess Evelyn played by a nice nurse and not his inconstant real-life lover, who can't even bother to visit him in the hospital?

Looking for internal logic in a movie like The Fall is foolishness, of course. Tarsem wants to wow his audience with spectacle, outrageous costumes (by the brilliant if overly imaginative Eiko Ishioka), and breathtaking locales. And this he does, until audience members go into sensory overload and decide they'd be happy to skip some of the razzle-dazzle in exchange for a story that flowed and made a bit of sense.

Still, who needs the Travel Channel (which always seems to do poker shows these days, anyway)? Like to see the "Blue City" of Jodhpur? Tarsem would be glad to take you there, without explaining where you are or putting this or his many other locations into any kind of narrative context. (In a strange fish tale of a tally, Tarzem began by saying he shot his film in eighteen countries, but with every interview the number grew and, last I read, it is currently at twenty-four.)

His shots of Bali, Namibia, Cambodia, India, the Czech Republic, and all the rest are arresting—sometimes beautifully and sometimes frighteningly so—but they often leave the impression of being mere eye candy, or perhaps eye Smirnoff. All the pretty scenery doesn't help the plot or the actors. If anything, the poor characters mostly seem lost in their sweeping landscapes. (Sometimes literally so, since Tarsem's extended multi-continent shoot meant that he would often have to substitute body doubles for one or more of the actors who couldn't make the latest trip.)

Story and performance be damned. You're not supposed to worry over such trifles when a four-story white drape hangs in the desolate landscape wicking up crimson blood or when you can watch an elephant swim in blue waters or several dozen whirling dervishes fill a scene with their hypnotic dance.

It's all over the top, and willfully so. In fact, The Fall is, to date, the ultimate in self-indulgent filmmaking. Michael Cimino, you are SO off the hook, dude!

When I look over this review, it sure sounds like a pan. And I guess it is. Still, a director with this much extravagant, exuberant (if ultimately empty) vision deserves to have his movie seen. My advice is, rent the DVD and play it on the largest-screen TV you can find. See what you think. You may be wowed or irritated by the full panoply of Tarsem's dream project. Chances are you will feel both emotions in great frequency and abundance.

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