Visual force 

Despite artsy annoyances, The Fall rises

I can tell you a couple things for sure. Director Tarsem—formerly music video director Tarsem Singh, now just Tarsem—knows his way around production design and a color palette; his new movie, The Fall, defies easy categorizing; and it felt worthwhile in spite of the fact that I didn’t particularly want to see it. After a long hot weekend of lugging kids from one mob scene to the next, I wasn’t in the mood for any kind of arty-fartyness.

The preview for the movie makes it look radioactively arty-farty. And it is, but nowhere near as  annoyingly as I was expecting. The opening monochrome sequence is beautiful, period, although the cloying presence of Beethoven’s Seventh portends a likely trend toward the ponderous. Then comes the fairy-tale framing device of Los Angeles “once upon a time,” but roughly 1915 or so, and leisurely introductions to Alexandria (Catinca Untaru), a Gypsy girl hospitalized for a broken arm sustained in a fall from an orange tree, and Roy (Lee Pace), a comic actor in the flickers with legs paralyzed from a botched stunt. Surehandedness of color scheme is guaranteed by early shots of dark wood furnishings and cream and teal hospital walls.

Disease and the hospital’s stricken adults are scary to Alexandria, who copes through small monkeyshines and comforting routines like gathering tokens for her cigar box of favorite things. Roy starts telling her a story to keep her occupied, and The Fall embarks on its parallel track recounting the exploits of a very strange group of adventurers: a freed slave in a horned helmet, an Italian explosives expert, Charles Darwin, a stoical Indian and a dashing Spanish bandit (also played by Pace) who has evidently been helping himself to Adam Ant’s wardrobe. They are joined by a dreadlocked mystic who emerges from the charred trunk of a spontaneously combusted tree. All have sworn vengeance against the nefarious Governor Odious, who has wronged each of them with fell deeds including manslaughter and the killing of rare butterflies. Roy’s improvised picaresque starts on a Fijian lagoon and progresses to staggeringly scenic locations in Spain, Italy, India and the Middle East. If the movie seems to have pacing problems, they can be chalked up to our eagerness to leave our invalids and get back to the less bedridden story.

Both story and story-within-the-story reminded me pleasantly of other things: old Republic serials like The Lone Ranger that used to screen before the feature, always ending on a cliffhanger (I myself saw one a week growing up with dollar PTA matinees at the Crossroads Twin in Billings); the BBC miniseries of The Singing Detective, far superior to the muddled Robert Downey Jr. movie version, for its hospital setting and story as mental fugue; and, more than anything, “The Laughing Man,” J.D. Salinger’s gloss on the Victor Hugo novel recounted in installments at the weekly meeting of a club for boys. Like The Singing Detective’s bedridden crime novelist, Roy spins his story using hospital characters for inspiration: An ice delivery man becomes the formidable former slave, a doctor becomes Alexander the Great, a visitor becomes the bomb-chucking Italian.

The story is similar to Salinger’s in that both tales are the distracted ramblings of men with woman troubles, and it’s the perfect vehicle for Tarsem (whose last feature was 2000’s mind-of-a-killer fantasia The Cell) because plots in his movies serve only as agreeably flimsy pretext for spinning webs of stunning imagery anyway.

The Fall claims to use no computer-generated imagery—an assertion which must be treated with caution, as there are certain kinds of digital fiddling that don’t technically qualify as CGI, but looks to be mostly sound: eye-swimming visuals like a wall of interlocking staircases come to life with real people and no apparent trickery beyond the clever Tarsem’s undeniably keen eye for a striking visual. No dearth of scenic locations, either: Tarsem spent four years and a lot of his own money shooting in nearly 30 countries.

The Fall is unlike anything else you’ve seen, which might be reason enough to see it. It has problems with its pacing, as mentioned, and the dialogue requires work to follow with the Wilma’s muffled sound system, Alexandria’s strong accent and Tarsem’s Altman-like tendency toward overhead chatter in place of actual dialogue. I liked it, despite my peevish mood and general dislike for empty formalism, self-indulgent “visuals” directors, the new orientalism of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon worshippers, dog’s-breakfasts of stylish anachronism and the sentimental plague of magical realism that has infected movies from Mexico to the Maritime Provinces. Above all I can’t brook preciousness, so it’s saying something that I dislike all these isms and nesses and still liked The Fall, which has at least a little of all of them.

Now, whether you’d like it—that I can’t tell you. Lots of people loitered in front of the theater afterwards trying to work out their feelings before parting ways, which is always a good thing. I recommend it heartily to fans of my aforementioned pet peeves, but don’t blame me if it doesn’t live up to expectations shaped by those parameters. It really is its own strange animal.
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