Singh built his reputation directing high-end commercials for companies such as Smirnoff, Coke, Pepsi, Levis and Nike, and by making music videos for bands such as REM. In those short, non-linear, non-traditional narrative formats, Singh didn't need compelling content just eye-catching images that could sell a product or a song. In retrospect, The Cell feels like his transition project, a work designed to move Singh from commercials to features. But Singh has taken nearly a decade to make his second feature. This time, though, he planned from the start to maintain more control over the project by producing it with his brother.
The idea for The Fall actually came from another film, the1981 Bulgarian film Yo Ho Ho , written by Valeri Petrov and directed by Zako Heskija. That film concerned an actor hospitalized with a broken back who befriends a10-year-old boy, also a patient in the hospital. The goal of the friendship, though, is to get the boy to provide the actor with poison so he can commit suicide. But as the film progresses, the friendship changes the man's plan.
In the press notes, Singh says that what intrigued him was the way the actor uses storytelling to manipulate the child, and how that reflects the role of the creative artist working in a commercial medium: "When you pitch a story to a Hollywood studio, you're never telling the story you want to tell them; you're telling them the story you think they want to hear. You're trying to keep their interest and you're watching their reactions. If they start to look at their watch, you'll add more action or sex. This is what storytelling was about before the written language. It's like the difference between listening to a pre-programmed soundtrack or a DJ. The DJ will switch the timing, change the pace and the mood of the music, according to response of the crowd."
So Singh wanted a story in which the central character was a storyteller carefully gearing his tale to a very particular audience. So Singh secured the rights to the Bulgarian film and then tweaked the basic concept. The Fall opens with a black and white, slow motion, silent prologue underscored by Beethoven's 7th. It is not entirely clear what's happening but there is a sense of anticipation and concern as people watch a train high up on a bridge. From what we gather there has been some kind of accident. We eventually learn that Roy Walker ( Pushing Daisies' Lee Pace) was an actor/stuntman who attempted a difficult stunt and broke his back. He's now in a hospital in the outskirts of Los Angeles around 1915. Roy's also recovering from what seems a more serious injury - a broken heart. That's where little Alexandria (Catinca Untaru) comes in. She's also a patient and has a broken arm. She's intrigued by Roy who tempts her with an exotic story of love and revenge. His epic tale, doled out in installments like a Saturday morning serial, involves five mythic heroes led by the Black Bandit (also played by Pace). Alexandria draws on people she knows in order to visualize her story much in the same way that Dorothy looked to people on the farm as she imagined the Tin Man, Scarecrow and Lion in The Wizard of Oz . But as in Yo Ho Ho, the story proves to be a device to get the young child to steal a lethal dose of medicine for a planned suicide.
There's a playfulness in the storytelling as Roy's tale involves people around the hospital - a nurse at the hospital (Justine Waddell), a one-legged actor (Robin Smith), the ice deliveryman (Marcus Wesley), and a local orange picker (Jeetu Verma) - and as the disjointed tale is embellished by Alexandria's overactive imagination. The film serves up an odd contrast - Singh's grandiose, heavily designed images, and the simple playfulness of a child. In many ways, Singh's film has an overly produced pretentiousness to it. It's quite appropriate that one of the promotional items for the film is an oversized coffee table book of the carefully constructed images from the film. And in a sense The Fall is a coffee table book film, full of lush images to ogle at and admire. Helpin Singh achieve these images are cinematographer Colin Watkinson, production designer Ged Clarke, art director Lisa Hart, and costume designer Eiko Ishioka. With the exception of the Oscar-winning Ishioka, all are relatively untested in terms of a project of this scope. But together they deliver images such as the Labyrinth of Despair, which looks like an enormous Escher painting (if you want to draw on artistic references) or live version of the Mario video game (if you want something more contemporary as a touchstone). There's also a blue butterfly that slowly transforms into an island in the middle of the ocean, and a man who spews birds from his mouth when he's beaten. Startling and vivid images but also ones that feel staged for deliberate effect.
The Labyrinth of Despair (Roadhouse Pictures)
But what saves the film from complete stuffiness if the refreshing presence of the young child. Alexandria's perspective tweaks the Vogue layout look of the film and revitalizes it. So an elegant princess in an exotic costume may look like she just stepped out of a fashion magazine, but the stiffness of the scene is undercut by the fact that the lovely lady is squirming and holding her knees tightly together because Alexandria, who's listening to the story, has to pee desperately and won't let Roy stop so she can go to the bathroom. Similarly, Roy keeps describing an Indian with his squaw and wigwam, but Alexandria has imagined Sikh from India. The way Alexandria filters the story brings a much-needed dose of humor and lightness to the film.
The princess and the pee (Roadhouse Pictures)
The film's striking visuals are both a strength and a crutch. There is no denying the visual splendor of the film, which was shot in some 18 different countries. There are locations that seem to have been found on distant planets, and sets that are of breathtaking scale. Add to this a bold use of color and costumes that seem to be works of art in themselves and you have what could be described as gourmet eye candy for the art house crowd. But with so much emphasis on spectacular images, the film can feel like a static picture book. Singh hasn't quite mastered the balance between his visual storytelling and creating compelling narrative content. He succeeds here far better here than he did in The Cell but you still feel that he's willing to sacrifice his story for a good photo opp.
The acting, as with the story, is subservient to the image. These actors are mainly cast for how they will look in the frame rather than based on acting skills. So everyone looks their part but people like Waddell come across as stilted when delivering lines. Little Untaru stumbles through lines yet remains endearing in an awkward, non-Hollywood way. A late tearful scene between Untaru and Pace, however, tries to wring too much unearned emotion from the story and nearly derails the whole film and its tenuous magic.
The film ends as it began with silent, black and white images. In some ways, Singh seems most at home in these scenes without language and seems more adept at creating emotions that sweep us up without language to get in the way. In the end, the film feels like an homage to the silent film stars that risked life and limb to create images that dazzled and awed us. Singh is not as skilled as some of those silent movie geniuses but he at least reminds us of how images alone can enthrall us.
The Fall (rated R) frequently borders on pretension but employs enough playfulness to entertain us. And sometimes it's a treat to watch a film in which individual images look good enough to frame and hang on a wall.
Companion viewing: The Cell, Yo Ho Ho, Soldier's Girl (TV Movie), The Wizard of Oz