The weight of a vision
How much clout do visuals have in dictating the quality of a film? It’s something I’ve often wondered, and no film has given me more cause to wonder it than Tarsem’s “The Fall.”
The film’s entire point is to have visuals. The story doesn’t just serve the sights; it’s an excuse for them, a barely-visible thread keeping the film from being the most incredible slideshow ever produced.
That’s not a criticism. “The Fall” is one of the most visually splendid films I’ve ever seen. In a time when gloss and glitter are unduly praised for their splendor, “The Fall” calls to attention how much work goes into its shots.
Look at the much celebrated wedding scene, for example.
It’s probably the first film to make the 360 shot feel organic, what with all those Whirling Dervishes. Each wide-view shot looks more like a painting than what we’re used to from movie shots today. Each shadow is deliberate and beautiful, any random still capable of being a promotional image.
But the part that really gets me is the last shot. More than that, it’s the rest of the scene that we don’t see that astonished me when I watched this movie. Having the priest’s face suddenly morph into the desert is a striking visual. In the rest of the shot, we see the camera turn, and every aspect of the “face” is there, stretched out across the desert. It’s here where you start to think “Good lord, they actually had to plot this entire thing out to look like that actor’s face.” Is it pretentious? Of course! I’d be disappointed if it wasn’t, because only a filmmaker convinced of his own abilities could pull off a film like this. Quentin Tarantino’s films have the same appeal. Criticizing them as masturbatory is missing the point; a less indulgent director would never think to make a film as referential, and therefore as fun, as “Kill Bill”, or as willing to rewrite history as “Inglourious Bastards.”
This scene does the same thing, when Tarsem makes sure that we know that he built that damn huge sheet with red paint in the middle of the desert, and we deserve one last shot of how pretty it looks from far away.
It’s Tarsem breaking the 4th wall, adding a little wrinkle to let you know that, yeah, he worked damn hard to make this film look good and don’t you forget it. Most of the scenes do this on their own. My favorite shot of the entire film comes near the beginning, when Lee Pace is telling a story about Alexander the Great.
It’s that wonderful 1-2-3 that takes place 30 seconds in. First we see giant hills of sand, with the human characters barely pinpricks. Then a sudden close up of the rider, followed by a beautifully framed mid-shot, where the hill is no longer visible as anything but a giant backdrop. The shots are nothing but aesthetically pleasing and kind of playful, screwing around by combining extreme shots with more typical ones, all without screwing with the visual direction. No need for swirling, shaky cameras or gratuitous CGI when three well-placed cameras, spaced apart, all looking at one subject will do just fine.
As you can see, I can talk for hours about “The Fall” without even approaching its story. I wouldn’t want filmmakers in general to bank on visuals being the entire point, only because I doubt most of them have the skill to do so and still make their films interesting. But movies like “The Fall” show how, in a medium with so many elements, use of one element to perfection can not only mask deficiencies. It can be the entire point in the first place.