When I was in graduate school I took a writing class in which we were assigned to read The English Patient by Micheal Ondaatje. The book is about many things, but the story is driven by morphine; those who are addicted to it and the nurse that dispenses it to them. The story spills out like an addict's fever dream complete with vivid memories and strange meanderings that may or may not be real. I loved the book although in retrospect I'm glad it was assigned to me to read. It demanded patience to get through which I might not have taken otherwise. You can no more rush the book than you can a heroin addict.
So I was surprised and intrigued when I heard that Anthony Minghella was adapting the book for the big screen. How would he translate this tangled web of memory, dreams, and drug addiction to the big screen? The answer was to very delicately pick out the tragic love story woven through the book and place it front and center. It was certainly beautiful and well done, but it was not even close to the same experience as the book. The result was also, interestingly enough, a film that 100% of my male acquaintances consider the most horrifying, time-stopping, hellish chick flick experience of their lives. It is the hellish chick flick experience by which all others are judged. So how was Atonement? Well, it was harsh, but it was no English Patient!
I caught myself thinking of The English Patient while watching The Fall, namely what director Tarsem Singh might have done with that material. One thing of which I am certain is that the result would have made 100% of my male friends a whole lot happier. Ultimately though, I'm very glad that Tarsem chose to make this movie, which is his very own fervid web of memory, dreams, and drug addiction, brought to you straight up, just the way he wanted. Singh spent four years and millions of his own money to produce, write, and direct a film which Roger Ebert says is "so audacious that when Variety calls it a 'vanity project' you can only admire the man vain enough to make it."
The Fall is set in the 1920s in a Southern California hospital. Alexandria is a young girl convalescing from a fall which has broken her arm, but not her curiosity, or her ability to scurry around the wards of the hospital unnoticed. She is the child of migrant workers with at least a few tragedies in her background, and it becomes apparent that at least a few of the doctors and nurses are conspiring to keep her safely tucked away in the hospital, rather than let her go back to her family toiling in the orange groves. Freed to explore by their kind neglect, she meets Roy, a stunt man recovering from a back injury and other pains more profound.
Roy, played by Lee Pace, a familiar face from the delightfully trippy TV show Pushing Daisies, is glad to have Alexandria as a distraction from his condition, and begins to weave a story for her entertainment. Roy also quickly realizes that he has discovered a handy tool in the resourceful Alexandria, and he starts to manipulate her to steal morphine for him. Roy doesn't want to forget the circumstances that brought him there, an accident during a movie shoot, or the deeper injury caused by the loss of his true love into the arms of a Valentino-like movie star. Roy wants to die.
The interactions between Roy and Alexandria, both within and outside of the story he tells, are audacious and lovely. While Roy spins the story we see Alexandria's imagination paint it and, when necessary, make changes. Their rapport is established upon first meeting when Alexandria, struggling to learn English, asks Roy a mangled question about his visiting friend, a fellow stunt man who is missing a leg. Roy begins to tell her a story about buccaneers. What are those? Alexandria interrupts. They're pirates Roy answers. No, I don't like pirates, insists Alexandria. But you just asked me about pirates, says an exasperated Roy. No, Alexandria insists, she just wanted to know if his friend was a pirate, because of his peg leg.
As Alexandria's questions and imagination shape the adventure we watch characters morph and evolve. Roy includes in his story an "Indian" with a squaw and tepee. Alexandria, who is learning English, does not understand any of these concepts, although she does know an Indian, from India, who worked with her family picking oranges. Thus Roy's Indian, entirely unbeknown to him, becomes a fierce and Technicolor Indian warrior complete with turban and scimitar. One of the most delightful examples of Alexandria's influence on the story is shown in this clip where no one seems more surprised than Roy to discover the mysterious princess the hero has been pursuing is the lovely Nurse Evelyn, Alexandria's favorite caretaker.
Catinca Untaru, the young Romanian actress who inhabits the role of Alexandria, gives the most realistic portrayal (I can't bring myself to call it a performance) of a child that I have seen since Victoire Thivisol in the French film Ponette. I found myself wondering how Singh evoked such a naturalistic performance. Comparing Untaru's performance in this to a performance like Abigail Breslin's in Little Miss Sunshine it becomes so clear how rare it is to see a child behaving in every way like a child on screen, rather than an adorable moppet.
The Fall feels like a gift of a movie for which we should all send Tarsem Singh a thank you note. It is so lovely, and so bold. It is utterly original while feeling as if it fills a hole our collective unconscious needed filling. It is a film that would not have been made by a studio or rather, it is a movie a studio would fund and then immediately demand crippling changes. Why do you need to film this scene in Tunisia when we have a perfectly fine desert between here and Las Vegas? Why don't the characters go to Vegas? How about we make the little girl a teenager, played by Miley Cirus? You know what this film really needs? Brad Pitt.
Singh obviously had enough insider experience to know he didn't want to make that movie. Instead he spent his own money. He traveled accross the globe. He told the story he wanted to tell which it turns out was a story well worth telling. Can you call something like this a "vanity project"? Is a vanity project defined by its birth or its outcome? All great artists believe they have something to share with the world, whether the world knows it or not. Unfortunately, so do alot of really bad artists. Based on the result of this "vanity project", though, I would have to say that Tarsem has redeemed the concept for a while, or at least until Oliver Stone's W comes out, at which point the vanity project will no doubt once again be stained with self-absorbed badness. Thank God we can all go watch The Fall again instead.Powered by Sidelines