The Fall (2006)


Today’s cinema adventure: The Fall, a 2006 film, directed by Tarsem Singh, about a suicidal young man who unfolds an elaborate adventure tale for a little immigrant girl as they recover from injuries in a 1920s-era Los Angeles hospital.  Filmed over the course of four years at locations throughout the world, it was a deeply personal labor of love for its director, largely financed at his own expense.  It was initially released only on the film festival circuit, but, championed by filmmakers Spike Jonez and David Fincher, it was given widespread distribution in 2008, receiving widely mixed reviews; some critics found it a visually interesting bore while others placed it on their best-of-the-year lists, but the consensus was, by and large, mostly favorable, and the film was a moderate box office success.

Based on a 1981 Bulgarian film entitled Yo Ho Ho, The Fall interweaves its main narrative with epic scenes of sweeping fantasy described in the story told by its broken adult protagonist, Roy, a novice movie stunt man whose spine has been damaged in a fall during his first film shoot.  Deeply depressed, he has lost the will to live, but his morose state of mind has less to do with his injury than with the loss of the woman he loves to the movie star for whom he was doubling.  Recovering in the same hospital is Alexandria, a precocious Romanian child whose arm was broken in a fall while picking oranges with her immigrant family; curious and imaginative; she has taken to wandering the corridors and grounds, becoming a favorite among the other patients and the staff, who treat her as something of a mascot.  When she befriends Roy, he begins to entertain her with a fabulous tale of adventure and revenge, in which a masked bandit and his heroic comrades seek revenge against an evil prince for the wrongs he has done them; it becomes clear that his story is shaped as he goes by his own real-life situation, and that his ulterior motive is to use the continuing saga as a means to coerce his young companion into stealing morphine from the hospital’s dispensary in order to facilitate his intended suicide.  As the events of both stories unfold, little Alexandria exerts her own influence, inserting herself into the fantasy and affecting its outcome even as she begins to work her way into Roy’s broken heart.  Eventually, the imaginary epic becomes a vehicle for her desperate efforts to keep Roy’s hope alive- as well as her own.

Tarsem’s screenplay, co-authored with Dan Gilroy and Nico Soultanakis, is geared towards revealing the triangulated relationship between reality, imagination, and the unconscious mind; but it is the relationship between its two protagonists that dominates the film, despite the resplendent spectacle of the fantasy sequences in which their shared psychodrama plays out.  This is not a negative criticism; on the contrary, the surreal, stream-of-consciousness yarn woven by the convalescent pair is meant to serve as illumination for the real-life process of their psychic healing, not the other way around, and it is a testament of the director’s dedication to his vision that The Fall does not make the fatal error of overwhelming its humanity by emphasizing the adventure plot over the drama which is the true center of the film.  That said, one can’t help wishing at times that a bit more effort had been made to forge a stronger coherence into the fantastical subplot, which is as all-over-the-map in its storyline as it is in its pan-geographical setting; but part of the film’s conceit is that the story morphs to suit the changing emotional needs of Roy and Alexandria, replicating the spontaneity and whimsy of a game of make believe, and though it may cause some frustration in viewers attuned to logical, linear storytelling, its structural malleability is in keeping with the larger purpose at hand.

The changing dynamics of this fantasy narrative yield numerous interesting subtleties.  We see, for example, that its visual manifestation is shaped by little Alexandria through the discrepancies between what Roy describes and what we see, reflecting her different cultural understanding- the bandits and Indians with which he fills his tale are depicted through the lens of her Eastern European, Ottoman-influenced imagination rather than the Hollywood-Western milieu he clearly intends; and the characters populating the adventure are portrayed by those surrounding the little girl in her real life (nurses, orderlies, visitors to the hospital), reflecting her associations and assumptions about them and what they represent for her.  Such clever and thoughtful touches do much to establish the elaborate meta-drama as a stage for the interaction of the two characters’ unconscious minds, as well as providing the source for a considerable amount of humor and even some subtle social commentary.

On a more obvious level, of course, it is these remarkable fantasy sequences that give The Fall its most distinctive quality- the breathtaking visual opulence that is made all the more astonishing by the knowledge that no special effects or computer enhancements were used.  Exotic, spectacular locations across the globe were used to create a surreal world of wonder; we are transported to Moorish palaces, ancient ruins, sparkling reefs, lush forests, otherworldly desertscapes, and monumental structures both well-known and unfamiliar, all beautifully photographed and magnificently showcased by Tarsem and cinematographer Colin Watkinson.  The characters are bedecked in the lavish costumes of Eiko Ishioka, which conjure a timelessly mythic quality made somehow more magical by their authenticity and their exquisite detail; and the larger-than-life majesty of these segments is undercut throughout with a playful spirit that keeps them fun and relieves the comparatively somber mood of the hospital environment in which the rest of the film is set.

Despite its inherent goofiness and its rambling inconsistency, the tale of the Blue Bandit manages to build an emotional weight as it reaches its climax; and though its characters’ fates are rendered irrelevant by the knowledge that they are wholly imaginary, they are nevertheless granted significance because we have come to care about the pair of storytellers who have created them.  It is in those less-rousing hospital scenes that the movie makes the emotional connection necessary to fuel both plots.  It succeeds in doing so largely because of the remarkable chemistry between its two leading players, Lee Pace and Catinca Untaru.  Tarsem cleverly sculpted this crucial element by shooting their segments in sequence, allowing the relationship between the two actors to develop naturally and taking care to keep the intrusiveness of his camera at a minimum- several scenes were filmed through a hole in the curtain surrounding the bed in which Pace’s character is confined, in order to preserve the feeling of intimacy- as well as allowing young Untaru (along with most of the crew) to continue in her initial belief that Pace was actually paraplegic.  In addition, much of their dialogue was unscripted, permitting the girl to use her natural expression; this not only results in a truly genuine performance from the little star, capturing her infectious real-life personality onscreen, but actually bore influence on the film’s scenario, with the director adapting certain elements of the story in response to spontaneous developments that took place in front of the camera.  This organic, delicate approach certainly paid off: the result is one of the most endearing, believable child performances ever put on film, and a magical, touching onscreen relationship that informs everything else that happens in The Fall.  Due credit goes to Pace, as well, who gives us a heart-rending portrayal of a young man crippled by morbid despair even as he manages to hold up his end of the connection with his juvenile co-star, not to mention the considerable task of embodying the fanciful hero of his fabricated saga.

Though the two central performers play an enormous part in making The Fall appealing, the real star is director Tarsem.  Having established himself as a talented film craftsman in the field of commercials and music videos (including the multi-award-winning video for REM’s “Losing My Religion”), he made his feature debut with the stylish 2000 thriller, The Cell, which was sufficiently successful to gain him the clout- and the finances- to make this highly personal film.  Choosing to pay for the bulk of it himself in order to forgo the necessity for compromising his vision to meet the demands of backers, the end result of his dedication is a visually stunning piece of filmmaking, laden with magnificent scenery, brilliantly composed frames, a dazzling array of color and light, and threaded through with an obvious reverence for the cinematic medium itself; continually incorporating elements of optical illusion and perceptual trickery (with numerous clear nods to the art of Salvador Dalì), he reminds us of the illusory nature of existence and celebrates the simple magic with which our lives can be enriched- not just on the big screen, but within our own imaginations.  He also proves that his ability is more than merely technical with his savvy handling of the actors and his wise approach of allowing their own artistry to make its contribution to his film, infusing it with an vibrant honesty that makes it much more than so many of the hollow, soulless spectacles foisted upon us in our neighborhood multiplexes today.

The most pertinent question, of course, is the same with The Fall as it is with any other move: is it sufficiently engaging to sustain interest for its two-hour running time?  Many critics- and other viewers- did not think so; doubtless those who were bored were expecting a comfortably predictable adventure fantasy, along the lines of The Princess Bride, with enough artsy quirkiness thrown in to appeal to the highbrow set.  If so, it is no wonder they were disappointed.  Tarsem’s film defies expectation, choosing instead to tell its own, bittersweet little story in a highly unorthodox style; it is a movie about the heart, the mind, and the imagination, and its characters are not the catch-phrase-spouting adventurers that populate standard blockbuster fare, nor is its action the main focus of attention.  Indeed, the movie’s formula is almost an inversion of the norm, with the action and adventure sublimated to serving the needs of the characters’ psychological journeys rather than vice-versa.  Such a switch doesn’t make for heart-pounding, adrenaline pumping excitement, and any viewer looking for such thrills is better off looking elsewhere; but if you’re looking for a rare and unique, highly affecting, thought-provoking experience that shines with the sheer joy of filmmaking as an art- as opposed to a cash cow- then you can’t ask for better than The Fall.



Santa Sangre (1989)


Today’s cinema adventure: Santa Sangre, the surreal 1989 horror fantasy by director Alejandro Jodorowsky, about a young man, raised in a circus, who is dominated by his puritanical mother and driven by her to exact revenge for the sinful impurity which led to her brutal dismemberment.  Hallucinatory, disturbing, and gruesome, it received only limited release in the U.S. despite its director’s status as a revered avant-garde legend and the enthusiastic reception of critics, but quickly became a cult classic and has since been made widely available for home viewing.  Hailed by many as a masterpiece, it’s a bizarre visual feast, pervaded by a garish carnival atmosphere and a sense of sickly wonder, which offers the guilty thrills of Grand Guignol horror alongside religious, psychosexual, and social themes, providing an unforgettably nightmarish cinematic journey through the arcane and the unspeakable.

The story centers on Fenix, whom we first see as a patient in a mental institution- naked, animalistic, and uncommunicative, but beginning to emerge from his isolated state in response to the gentle coaxing of his doctor.  Through flashbacks, the origins of his traumatized state are revealed; we see his childhood as the son of a circus impresario and his aerialist wife, performing as a juvenile magician and surrounded by the extreme environment and eccentric denizens of their show-business world.  His libidinous father is enamored of his newest act, a tattooed contortionist whose abused deaf-mute daughter, Alma, has become a new companion for Fenix; his mother is also the fanatical leader of a cult dedicated to the memory of a little girl whose arms were cut off by rapists.  When the authorities close and demolish her church, and she catches her husband with his tattooed mistress, it is too much for mother to take- she attempts to punish the philanderer for his faithlessness, resulting in a tragic turn of events that leads to his death and her dismemberment, a tragedy witnessed by their horrified child.  When the film returns to the present, we see the adult Fenix gradually reawakening to his memories, culminating in his escape from the hospital and a reunion with his now-armless mother; together, they form an act in which his arms become hers- an odd symbiosis which carries over into their strange and secretive offstage life.  It gradually becomes apparent that Fenix’ limbs have become subservient to his mother’s will, and he is forced to do her bidding despite his own wishes- even when it means committing murder.  The situation becomes even more complicated with the reappearance of Alma, now grown into a beautiful woman; his feelings for her threaten to disrupt the twisted bond between mother and son, triggering a final battle of wills in which Fenix must attempt to regain control of his destiny and put an end to his mother’s vengeful reign of blood, once and for all.

This scenario may seem convoluted and illogical, but in Jodorowsky’s screenplay, co-written with Roberto Leoni and producer Claudio Argento, it all makes its own kind of sense.  It is clear from the beginning of the film, when we are first introduced to our damaged protagonist (crouching naked in a white room adorned with only a severed tree trunk, which he uses much in the way of a monkey at the zoo) that we are visiting a universe where the rules of common sense and linear thinking do not apply.  It’s a primal place, a realm of deep unconscious impulses and associations, where every occurrence seems symbolic and yet has simultaneous real-world significance.  In short, it is a dream reality, and one marked by the kind of feverish dread and sadness from which we long to awaken.  Into this soul-sick, delirious setting, the film weaves its epic tale of good and evil, complicated by deep-rooted familial bonds, contradictory moral strictures, and the personal needs of heart, body and spirit.  Along the way it mercilessly exploits our expectations and challenges our sensibilities, forcing us to endure depictions of unthinkable cruelty, incomprehensible depravity, and devastating heartbreak, so that when we are confronted with the grisly violence of murder, it seems almost a relief.  Certainly these scenes provide a kind of cathartic release for all the accumulated emotional saturation to which Jodorowsky’s film subjects us; but this does not mean that Santa Sangre condones or glorifies killing.  On the contrary, these periodic bursts of bloodshed only serve to compound the psychic despair that drenches the movie, until it seems that true evil is everywhere and all the good intentions in the world are powerless to stop it.  This, of course, is the ultimate point of Santa Sangre:  it is not enough to bewail and bemoan the workings of evil, or to regret one’s own unwilling or unknowing participation in them; the consequences may be dire, and the effort may be great, but conquering evil means taking responsibility for one’s own actions and exercising one’s free will by refusing to perform its bidding.  In a film so outwardly monstrous, the biggest shock of all may be that it is, ultimately, about the triumph of good over evil.

In support of his overriding theme, Jodorowsky has assembled a film worthy of his legendary surrealist pedigree.  He fills the screen with a progression of remarkable images, drawing heavily on the filmmakers who have influenced him- particularly Federico Fellini- but infused with his own darkly visionary sensibility.  Over the course of Santa Sangre he gives us a dancing dwarf, an elephant funeral, a pimp who gives cocaine to mentally handicapped children, naked whitewashed corpses rising from their graves, dogs and chickens feasting on human blood, a cross-dressing wrestler, and any number of other fascinating, macabre, unsettling sights and sounds; it’s an inundation of the bizarre that is so perversely gripping that looking away is simply not an option.  Jodorowsky is not merely being outrageous for the sake of shock value, however; every element, no matter how bewildering it may seem, has a concise purpose here.  The theatricality of the early scenes reminds us of the traditional view of the circus as a metaphor for life, but its larger-than-life atmosphere carries over into the film’s “real-world” setting- particularly in the nighttime streets of Mexico City, bedecked with the morbidly cartoonish imagery of Dia de los Muertos and populated with a frightening menagerie of revelers- suggests that the absurdity of life itself requires no exaggerated artistic conceit to expose its folly and decadence; the recurrence of quasi-religious iconography underpins an examination of hypocrisy in a moralistic dogma more concerned with punishment than salvation, more fixated on death than life, and more reverent of representation than of reality; and the heavy use of deep psychological themes throughout- symbolic bird imagery, the multilayered opposition of illusion to unadorned reality, the merging of sex and violence, the conflict between paternal and maternal influences- is carefully accumulated towards the director’s ultimate purpose of peeling back such complications to reveal the truth that choice, in the end, is what defines us.

For those who are just looking for a horror movie, Santa Sangre delivers on those terms, as well.  All of Jodorowsky’s avant-garde explorations are woven around a lurid tale of psychosis, murder, and mayhem that could easily have come from a mind like Stephen King’s.  In keeping with the film’s ironic title, much blood is spilled during the course of its story, in celebrations of gleeful gore managed with the flair of a true cinematic master; the macabre humor with which these killings are played out is worthy of Hitchcock- whose work, like Fellini’s, is echoed throughout.  Indeed, despite its serious agenda, Jodorowsky’s movie is laced with comical moments; part of the director’s style is to capitalize on the absurdity of what he shows us, eliciting laughter in the face of the strange and unfamiliar.  In a similar manner, he finds beauty in the grotesque and joy in the sorrowful, giving Santa Sangre an unexpectedly transcendent quality for such a gruesome saga.

Populating Jodorowsky’s epic is an assorted collection of personalities, some professional actors and many, clearly, not so professional.  At least a half-dozen cast members are relatives of the director, including his sons Axel and Adan, who portray Fenix as a young man and child, respectively.  Both deliver performances to do their father proud; as does the fiery Bianca Guerra as Concha, the unforgiving mother.  Also worth mentioning are Guy Stockwell as Fenix’ über-masculine, contradictory father and Thelma Tixou as his gyrating, tattooed mistress; many of the film’s remaining cast fall into the “where-did-he-find-these-people” category, conjuring memories of Tod Browning’s Freaks– another seminal influence for Jodorowsky’s vision- and providing indelibly-stamped images for the memories of any viewer.  The acting, needless to say, is not always stellar amongst these motley supporting players, though many of them do acquit themselves admirably; but even the most stilted and awkward performances contribute to the overall surrealism of the piece, an effect that is further enhanced by the obvious dubbing of some of the dialogue- a factor no doubt made necessary by Jodorowsky’s inexplicable decision to shoot his film in English, despite its Mexican setting and the fact that most of his previous work was produced in Spanish.

Santa Sangre is one of those film experiences that reminds viewers of the dazzling potential of the cinematic medium.  It transports us to a world that we have never seen, or even imagined, and opens pathways to the deepest, most private places of our psyches, making us aware on a level that erases the extraneous differences in our lives and connects us to the shared consciousness that unites us with the rest of humanity.  It manifests its own, utterly unique style while drawing from a sea of visual influences that includes not only the aforementioned filmic inspirations but such diverse sources as Frida Kahlo, the psychedelic counterculture, and the garish camp of lucha libre.  It’s a pity, though hardly a surprise, that this and Jodorowsky’s other films have remained more-or-less obscure; their edgy, unorthodox visual poetry is hardly the stuff of safe, commercial filmmaking, and the director’s long history and reputation as an iconoclastic free spirit has no doubt kept him distant from the profit-driven film industry establishment.  Nevertheless, the French-Chilean auteur maintains a large and loyal cult following throughout the world, and has enjoyed a long and remarkable career of which filmmaking is only a single facet; he is renowned as an artist, a theatrical director, an author, and a creator of comic books, as well as for his extensive work and research in the field of “psychomagic,” which has included a painstaking recreation of the classic Marseilles Tarot deck and the development of several therapeutic practices drawing on ideas from various so-called “occult” fields towards the purpose of psychological healing.  At the time of this writing, he is 83 and still active, at last report working on a film version of his autobiography, with which his stated goal is “to lose money.”  Perhaps the recent re-emergence of Santa Sangre, lovingly restored on DVD and BluRay and widely available on web-based streaming video platforms everywhere, will introduce the dark wonders of his world to a wider segment of the population and help to create a larger audience for his latest project.  At the very least, it may lead viewers to seek out and discover Jodorowsky’s other works, such as El Topo and The Holy Mountain, so that he may, at last, get the recognition he richly deserves as one of the great auteur filmmakers of our time.