I’m a double major in writing and film. This means that for the most part, you can find me submerged in far too many writing-intensive courses, drowning in a sea of words, half-formed ideas, and coffee – but I digress. My point is, between reading, writing, and watching, stories consume the vast majority of my time. Regardless of the medium, if there’s a story to be had, I’m all over it.
Storytelling is an art form. It’s a transitive experience that takes its recipients from one state of being to another. For me, the best narratives are those that speak on a personal level – stories into which I can insert myself and just escape for a while. Novels, films, personal anecdotes, illustrations, music, and even food – all of these are means of expressing emotion and thus, in my mind, fit the criteria for storytelling. Depending on the intended message, a project might be better suited to one particular medium or another, but film holds a special place in my heart. Film is special. There’s something about it that is so entirely immersive, bringing things to life in a way a single person could never manage on their own. That’s why I want to talk to you about a movie that only came to my attention recently; a movie that wholeheartedly encompasses the essence of film and what it can contribute to a story.
Tarsem Singh’s 2008 film, The Fall – you may or may not have heard of it . I find it extraordinarily vexing that, somehow, this film has slipped under the radar and has not received nearly enough recognition for what it attempts to conquer – itself. The Fall is a film about what it means to be a film (insert dramatic ‘BRWAAAM’ from the Inception soundtrack). Whereas most films want you to forget that you’re watching something on a screen, The Fall seems to actively work against this tradition, wildly pointing to cinematic qualities and how they interact with real life.
The Fall centers around the relationship between stuntman Roy Walker and a 5-year-old Romanian girl named Alexandria. Both have been hospitalized for fall-related injuries – Alexandria due to an orange grove tumble and Roy for a bridge stunt gone wrong. Roy constructs an epic tale for his hospital companion, hoping to manipulate her into bringing him enough morphine pills to commit suicide. The film weaves between fantasy and reality as Roy’s desperation and depression grow.
The Fall has received mixed reviews, some praising it for its mesmerizing beauty and others calling it a ridiculously expensive “vanity project” and “visual orgy” that opts for style over substance. But this outlook misses the point of the movie entirely. It takes issue with the absurdity of the fantasy instead of trying to see what Singh is saying through then absurdity. The Fall makes no effort to curb its fictional aspects and purposely blows them out of proportion. How else would you describe a situation in which a masked bandit, a muscular ex-slave, an Italian explosive expert, an Indian, and Charles Darwin must escape from a desert island on the back of an elephant? (no, I’m not joking - this is actually how their story begins). The ludicrous flaunting of make-believe is an homage to the tradition of suspending disbelief.
As a medium, film lends itself nicely to such a practice. Film structure – at least within the context of continuity editing – manipulates reality to create a cohesive whole. In filming a single scene, a task can span the course of days, weeks, or months, but film makes it look seamless. With editing, two individuals standing fifty feet away from one another can overcome the distance dividing them with a single step. Done properly, the audience won’t even notice the incongruities because we will be so absorbed in the narrative. The Fall purposely promotes the opposite effect, pulling us out of the narrative with wild leaps of imagination in time and space to challenge the our concept of reality.
Because Singh isn’t necessarily concerned with continuity or believability, he unchains himself visually. The Fall was shot over the course of 4 years in 28 countries (Yup. Count ‘em. 28) and used no computer generated effects. This is, without a doubt, one of the most beautiful films I have ever seen, and I think that this beauty stems from the time Singh takes to capture the quintessential characteristics of each and every location – the soul, if you will. Because there is no CGI, the visuals in The Fall have an undeniable tangibility to them. Rather than spend time on special effects, Singh works to elevate those aspects that make film so unique – the elements of movement, sound, light, and color. Combined, these elements have the ability to make a film a truly immersive experience. If anyone is searching for inspiration in the realm of mise en scéne and cinematography, look no further.
Immersion in a film is one thing, but beyond that is the idea of ‘insertion of self.’ I think everyone has that one movie or that one book that speaks to them so profoundly its almost as if it was written for him or her. We find a part of ourselves in these films and consequently insert ourselves into the story itself. The Fall encompasses that exact feeling in the way it gradually incorporates people and items from reality into the fantasy that Roy creates. Though Roy is the one telling the story, all the visual output the audience receives is from little Alexandria. We know this because the descriptions given by Roy and the picture on the screen often differ. For example, Roy speaks of Indian and his squaw but the imagery we see is of a man from India because Alexandira has no concept of a Native American. The story and characters are fluid, fitting Alexandria’s pre-existing schemas and perceptions of the world. The duality between fiction and reality is what makes film so special, and is in part what makes The Fall so special.
Love it or hate it, the artistry of The Fall is undeniable. So whether or not the idea of a movie within a movie intrigues you, the piece is utterly gorgeous and is worth watching if only for the visual experience. I personally love the film, but that’s the thing about stories – they’re subjective. I urge you to watch it and form an opinion of your own.