What THE FALL Has to Say About Storytelling

Tarsem Singh’s The Fall had a lot of buzz among movie critics when it was first released; while it never really caught the mainstream market’s attention, it seemed to be a bit harder to ignore for critics.  The movie is a long spectacle that tries to be everything and seems to be nothing all at once.  There was no true consensus among film critics, with some writing it off as pretentious or overwrought, and most praising it for its sheer ambition.  Roger Ebert went on to say: “You might want to see for no other reason than because it exists. There will never be another like it.”  Other critics, less enamored with The Fall criticized the movie for its sheer ambition, with quotes like this from the LA Times’ Mark Olsen: “There is never a sense that The Fall exists for any reason besides simply being something nice to look at.”  Maybe it was the lavish set-pieces and stunning spectacle that director Tarsem Singh brings to the movie that distracts viewers from it, but it seems that this movie’s themes have gone grossly overlooked.  Yes, this movie has an extraordinarily shiny wrapper, but the candy inside isn’t just empty calories.

The Fall exists within a framed narrative — the movie takes place in a 1920’s hospital in Hollywood, California.  A young girl (Alexandria) with a broken arm meets a hospitalized (and newly disabled) actor named Roy Walker.  The two start a friendship of sorts: Roy tells Alexandria stories, and she provides him company.  After a few encounters, Roy tries to use Alexandria to steal morphine, first through trickery and then through the story he tells her.  The Fall takes place between these two realms: the hospital and the imagined story.  As Roy tells his story, the movie shows the story being played out through Alexandria’s imagination.  One of the biggest criticisms of The Fall is that this story-within-a-story serves primarily as a vehicle for action set pieces, wild costumes, and exotic locales; this is only half true.  On the face of it, this story is pretty shallow: five adventurers seek revenge for an evil governor (all for different reasons), and together they cross deserts, oceans, and cities to see to it that the governor pays for his crimes.

Now, the story as we see it is created from two dynamic forces: Roy and Alexandria.  Roy tells the story, and he inserts parts of his own experiences into the the tale: the evil governor has stolen away the main character’s lover, and for this reason, he must kill him.  As Alexandria listens to the story, the story shapes itself around her own experiences.  Many of the characters that we see in reality appear again in the story: a hospital orderly doubles as Darwin; the man who delivers the ice in an early scene doubles as ex-slave Otta Benga; and after a while, Roy becomes a character as well — the red bandit.  On the face of it, this is a cute storytelling trick, but it actually says a lot about the true nature of storytelling.   Roy tells this story exclusively — he is making it up as he goes for the most part, and even so, he isn’t the only one actually creating the story.  All Roy can do is put the story out there, but it is the listener (or viewer, or audience) that must play along.  Alexandria (without making a conscious effort to do it) integrates her own experiences into the story, and the story changes because of it.  Storytelling is a two-way street; a cooperative effort.

Roy eventually uses the story as a lure to trick Alexandria to do his bidding for him.  There are moments where he stops narrating until Alexandria completes a task for him.  While this happens, Alexandria becomes a character in the story.  At this point, not only is she able to influence the story by imagining it, she now has personal stake in it by becoming a character in it.  She is literally transported to these places with these adventurers, and she relates to them, feels with them, and struggles with them.

As Roy realizes that he has selfishly endangered a little girl for (arguably) petty reasons, he refuses to continue the story.  After Alexandria, lying on a table wrapped in gauze, begs him to continue, Roy gives in and continues.  As he does, he begins to kill off the characters — it first starts with Darwin, and soon, other characters meet their demise.    The next point between Roy and Alexandria summarizes The Fall perfectly: the masked bandit drags Alexandria’s character to their final encounter, where they will both surely die.  Alexandria “why are you killing everybody?  Why are you making everybody die?” Roy cries “it’s my story!” and Alexandria shouts “it’s mine too!”   In the final battle between the masked bandit and governor Odious, the protagonist gives up and allows himself to be drowned.  After Alexandria begs Roy not to die, Roy changes the story to a happier ending.  This ending is important because it says something about storytellers:  not only is the act of telling a story a cooperative event, but the storyteller holds some responsibility to the audience.  Roy is self-destructive, and while he doesn’t want to cause others pain, by destroying himself (and his character in the story), he causes pain to his audience.

There’s an additional element to The Fall that concerns the nature of storytelling.  Most of the interactions between Roy and Alexandria are improvised.  On the set, the actress playing Alexandria (Catinca Untaru) didn’t know that Roy Walker (played by Lee Pace) was actually able-bodied.  Much of the dialog and interplay between them are not scripted in any way.  Why is that important?  It’s set that way so that the story is as unbiased as possible.  Similar to the movie’s themes, if the director were to force a script on the actors, there’s so much baggage that comes with personal experience to these things that the portrayal between the two characters would cease to be as genuinely affectionate as it is.  Roy and Alexandria are so believable because there’s no forced narrative.

The Fall is a masterpiece.  It’s a movie with living, breathing characters, memorable imagery, and themes that speak to universal truths of cinema.  Most critics seemed to be too captivated with the imagery to look beneath the colorful exterior where the true heart of the story lies.  Much like Christopher Nolan’s Inception, it’s a movie that is so beautiful to look at that people seem to let the subtext go unnoticed; it’s not just a movie about making movies — it’s a movie about storytelling of all forms.   Tarsem Singh would go on to make more accessible movies for mainstream audiences (Immortals and Mirror Mirror), and it seems unlikely that he would be able to gather a budget to fund a passion project like this again.  Roger Ebert was spot on — there will never be another movie like The Fall again.

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