December is a natural month for reflection. It’s when the wool pullover sweaters of autumn are only an itchy memory, and the cold biting wind crowds my nostrils and throat. Another year has passed. Forest creatures snuggle deep into the earth. Everything’s covered in a dust of snow except we humans, who’ll be wrapped blanket-tight on the couch indoors, eating, playing games, and watching movies. This winter, I will be watching The Fall again — a movie that moves me to tears and laughter, a movie that always leaves me a little more inspired with each screening.
I first saw Tarsem’s The Fall on a fluke. I can’t remember now how I found out about it, perhaps online. I have seen it at least six times and each viewing rewards me with a deeper understanding of the film. It has notoriously made almost every “Underrated Movie” list out there, making it one of the best kept secrets in the film world.
Tarsem is an Indian-American director, known for his work on music videos, TV commercials, and movies such as The Cell, starring Jennifer Lopez. The Fall is undoubtedly his largest achievement, as it took him seventeen years to location scout the twenty-four countries that appear as backdrops in the movie, and four years to film. He calls the film “a magic mystery tour” of the world, but I would argue that it is more a magic mystery tour of the mind and the intricacies of storytelling. It recounts the unbreakable connection a story can build between two people.
The Fall takes place at a Los Angeles hospital in the 1920s. The story centers on an injured stuntman named Roy (Lee Pace) as he narrates an epic story to a little girl with a broken arm, Alexandria (Catinca Untaru). The movie chronicles the events of five heroes (the ex-slave, the Indian, the explosive expert, the English naturalist Charles Darwin, and the Black Bandit) and their individual revenges against the notorious villain, Governor Odious. As he narrates the story, Roy forms an unlikely friendship with Alexandria. However, severely damaged by his paralyzing movie accident and his lover’s betrayal, he begins to wrestle with the idea of suicide. Cutting in and out of his story, Roy asks Alexandria to retrieve morphine from the hospital’s pharmacy. As the story unfolds, fantasy and reality blur together, and the stakes of their shared take become dire. The enigmatic title is vague enough to cover multiple interpretations of the film. The world “fall” conjures the physical downward movement which led to both Roy and Alexandria’s current injured states. We think of the archaic “fall” of man and the committing of sins. We think of the passing into a new state of being: “falling asleep” or “falling in love.” And of course the season Fall is a changeable one. Trees once full now present barren arms, while the grassy earth supports an army of fallen leaves. The Fall offers storytelling lessons valuable to all writers and artists, which is one reason I’m repeatedly drawn to its magic and wonder.
Lesson #1: Go with the flow.
The most striking piece of this film is its female lead, Catinca Untaru, who at the time of filming was an unknown six-year-old Romanian girl. She spoke very little English and often misspoke her lines, producing the most poetical lines that no writer could ever create. According to The Guardian, “Untaru was never shown the entire script and only met her fellow actors in front of the camera. As a result, her reaction and interplay are among the most naturalistic, honest and least cinematic moments ever captured on film.” Often, Untaru couldn’t understand the lines spoken by her co-actor, Lee Pace. She’d ask a question or repeat his line, giving Pace the difficult job of going with the flow and continuing the scene. And yet, these moments of improvisation are among the most touching I’ve ever seen. Tarsem chose to keep many of these scenes in the movie. His level of trust in Untaru’s ability to charm audiences is extraordinary. As you watch the film, try to pick out the scenes you think are improvised. Hint: they’re probably the ones that flutter your heartstrings the most.
Lesson #2: Refer back to a state of childlike wonder.
Alexandria is the true protagonist of the story and serves as the catalyst for the plot. Roy is the voiceover, and Alexandria is the visionary. As Roy begins to narrate his epic story to Alexandria, we are instantly transported inside of her head and view the fantasy tale with all the vibrancy, misinterpretation, and logic of a young child.
“Close your eyes,” Roy says. “What do you see?”
“Nothing,” says Alexandria.
“Rub them,” Roy advises. “Can you see the stars?”
We imagine little white spots floating on the edge of darkness behind Alexandria’s eyelids. And yet Tarsem takes us deep inside Alexandria’s imagination, and the shot transitions to a starry night sky above the five mythic heroes we’ll follow throughout the tale.
Lesson #3: Don’t be afraid to be theatrical, to play with form. Don’t be afraid to let your work mimic the psyche of your characters.
The Fall sets out to explore and comment on the sometimes indistinguishable divide between fantasy and reality. Some critics disapprove of the theatricality of the story, but this lacks an appreciation for the meta nature of the film. In the last third of the movie, Roy has overdosed on a full bottle of pills (that turn out to be placebos). He’s struggling to keep up with the story Alexandria begs him to continue. He’s dying, and so his lines and dialogue become more theatrical, trite, and kitschy. His brain becomes fuzzy and he relies on clichés to progress him to the story’s climax. This is another example of Alexandria’s misinterpreted imagination. As Roy uses clichéd language, we also see in Alexandria’s brain that she is reclassifying the adventure epic as a romance story. She inserts her own desire to see Roy and Nurse Evelyn kiss in the story, and forces their complementary characters, the Black Bandit and Lady Evelyn, to have a fictional relationship in her fiction.
In the director’s commentary, Tarsem refers to Hitchcock’s ticking time bomb rule of how to transform boring scenes: Show a ticking time bomb under a table to your audience. Two characters walk into the room and sit down. They are unaware of the bomb beneath them. They begin to have a banal conversation. Meanwhile, the audience is freaking out because the bomb is about to explode and the characters are talking about such trivial matters. In The Fall, the bomb is embodied by Roy, his anger, and his loss of innocence, while Alexandria represents the banal conversation, the need to get on with someone, to make a friend, to share a slice of life with another person. The ticking away of moments as Roy falls asleep provides the Hitchcockian drama that pulls the audience in.
Lesson #4: Landscape is a character. Relish in the seduction of your visual surroundings.
“The mystic was right. The stony-faced priest had betrayed him.” The words ‘stony-faced’ were quite purposeful. The camera takes in a close-up of the priest’s face, and we see his features dissolve into a desert-landscape likeness — it’s a haunting feat of cinematography that impresses on the mind long after the film has ended. Tarsem traveled to twenty-four countries to create these moments of awe. Why? Because stories move and change setting. Why not have a story about a story do so as well?
The parts of the world the characters find themselves in symbolize their fears, desires, and mindsets: the jewel-toned butterfly-shaped island, a daunting dune of orange sand, a tree on fire, a blood-soaked labyrinth, the blue city, etc. How many ways can the storyteller show emotion? Tarsem suggests as many ways as there are places to shoot a movie. That is to say: an endless amount. There’s no doubt the film is genuinely strange, much like the world itself and the human mind. It’s unique and requires your full attention.
Lesson #5: Include your own easter eggs to reward the careful reader.
Everyone in the shared story between Roy and Alexandria populates their real world, as the people Alexandria encounters in the hospital become actors in her mental visualizations. The X-ray men are the bad Spanish knights, the hospital orderly becomes Charles Darwin, the Indian man she works with in the orange groves turns into the Indian character in the story, and the one-legged stunt man is the fictional explosives expert. Even after several viewings of this film, I continue to notice characters who straddle both the fantasy and real story threads.
Alexandria is a natural storyteller. Ask any writer and they could point to a specific detail in their work which they encountered in real life and then manufactured into fiction. The mole on a teacher’s face, the park next to their grandmother’s trailer, a local bus driver, a piece of overheard dialogue, the chair in their childhood home, the color of their first car in high school. We have to experience life to be able to tell stories. Perhaps this film argues that we need to tell stories, too, in order to experience a full and enriched life.
A Synthesis of The Fall’s Lessons:
-We rely on the people and events around us to shape our stories.
-We constantly edit the stories we tell.
-Stories are not separate from life. Facts precede and foretell fiction.
-Perhaps most of all, a story is an agreement with another person. Once you’ve started a story with someone, it is no longer wholly yours. It is yours plural. You have transferred, transplanted a piece of your mind into another person’s. Stories, like love, are the most magical of gifts.
Now that I’ve written about my favorite film, I almost wonder why I’ve done it. I like having something that feels like my own little secret, as if I’ve discovered an imaginary world alongside Alexandria and Roy. The success of Tarsem’s film is that he makes viewers feel the same way, like Charles Darwin discovering a rare butterfly — an Americana Exotica. We curl our fingers around this shy beauty, this well-traveled creature, this fragile being difficult to pin down. It is ours and yet it is so much bigger than something that can be held in a hand.