The Alchemy of Storytelling in Tarsem’s The Fall

the fall lee pace

I first watched the engrossing visual spectacle that is Tarsem Singh’s flawed but terribly under-appreciated The Fall (2006) on the 3rd of this month. I loved it. I was transported by it. And yet, I never bothered to review it here. I probably never will either. But I will write about it.

Today’s topic: Storytelling as the Subject of The Fall (and What the Film has to Say About It)

For Those Who Haven’t Seen It
You should probably just watch it. If you really don’t want to, here’s some information to make things a little clearer:

The film has two main characters who meet in an LA hospital. One of the characters, Roy, is a silent film stuntman who has recently had an accident that has robbed him of the use of his legs. He is bedridden, and he is the storyteller in the film. He tells his story to a young girl named Alexandria who broke her arm while picking oranges. She is an immigrant, and English is not her first language. The film also has a narrative structure that’s not entirely unlike The Princess Bride (but where more time is afforded to the frame narrative and where the characters in the frame narrative actually shape and influence the story within the story).

Storytelling as Complicated and Collaborative (and Messy)
For all its epic, imaginative, and fantastical images, and for all it’s interest in love and tragedy, The Fall is, above all else, a film about storytelling. It’s about what stories can do and about how they come to be what they are. And one of the most important things that the film has to say about stories is this: they are not created in a vacuum. 

The story that Roy tells to Alexandria is very clearly influenced by his own circumstances and mindset. The story reflects his mood and experiences, and nearly all of the characters in it can be seen (on one level) as versions himself. As the story continues, it grows darker and, in doing so, it more clearly reflects Roy’s dwindling will to live. For instance, not long after a love interest for the bandit (who, like Roy, is also played by Lee Pace) is introduced into the story, the bandit considers killing her; as it turns out, Roy’s girl friend recently left him, and he is a man with broken heart. Near the end of the film (after Alexandria falls and hits her head), Roy is so suicidal and depressed that the characters in the story start dropping like flies. By this point in the film, Alexandria understands that Roy’s own feelings and experiences are reflected in the story, and she tries to alter it’s ending in an attempt to alter and to help Roy (more on that later). Similarly, when Roy attempts to kill himself by overdosing on morphine, a bottle of pills suddenly appears in the bandit’s hand. A few moments later, a character in the story tells the bandit that he’s “taken too many pills” and that “suicide is not the answer.” This is all to say that any boundary between Roy and his story are never very clear, and that the two cannot be fully separated from each other. 

Of course, while it is important to recognize that authors/storytellers bring a piece of themselves to the story’s that they create, it is not necessarily the most interesting claim. What is interesting is the assertion that authors cannot help but bleed into their stories—that, in telling a story, they have no choice but to reveal themselves. If one cannot tell a story without putting some of one’s self into it, then the shape of the final creation is not always entirely within the author’s control. In the film, this is most clearly seen as Roy’s story reaches it’s end. When the bandit finally meets Odious (the villain of the tale), Odious beats him up and nearly drowns him. Even as Alexandria begs Roy to let the bandit live, the character is shown refusing to fight back against Odious. As the bandit lies dying in the water,  Roy and Alexandria have the following exchange:
Roy: “He [the bandit] can’t win. That’s because our masked bandit is a coward. He never took an oath. He’s a fake. he’s a liar and a coward.
Alexandria: “You’re lying.
Roy: “No. He had his fingers crossed. He has to die.” 
Alexandria: “I don’t believe you.
Roy: “He’s dying.”
Alexandria: “Don’t kill him.
Roy: “There’s nothing left for him.
Up to this point, the bandit has never acted particularly cowardly, and viewers are given no reason to believe that he ever crossed his fingers either. Nope, the bandit has acted more or less as the hero of a story should. But it doesn’t matter. Roy thinks himself a coward and he has no will to live. And so, he kills off nearly all of his male characters and is compelled to do the same with the bandit that looks and talks just like him. Roy is crying and is terribly distraught when he says the above. Part of him clearly does not want to upset Alexandria by killing off the bandit (or himself), and yet, because of how he feels about his own life, he is driven to do so all the same.

As much as Roy’s story is a reflection of Roy himself, he is most certainly not the only one responsible for the shape that it eventually takes. Roy may provide most of the words and characters for the story, but Alexandria provides the imagination and the visuals. 

Early in the film, Tarsem does a couple of things that indicate that what audiences of The Fall see whenever Roy is telling his story is being filtered through Alexandria’s eyes/mind. Before telling his “epic” filled with “love and revenge,” Roy tells a quick story about Alexander the Great. In it, a messenger gives Alexander a note. Strangely, the note has diamonds cut out of it and is written in a child’s hand; which is to say that, it looks a great deal like the note Alexandria wrote and was trying to deliver at the beginning of the film. Then, just before beginning the “epic” that he tells for most of the film, Roy tells Alexandria to close her eyes and then asks her what she sees. “Nothing,” she says. Roy’s responds by saying, “Rub ’em. Can you see the stars?” and the film immediately cuts to an image of a starry sky so that the story can begin. With that image, Tarsem takes his viewers into Alexandria’s mind. The story as viewers receive it is the story as Alexandria understands and imagines it.

Roy’s story is created by Alexandria (his audience) as much as it is by him (the author). People from Alexandria’s surroundings appear in the story as characters, and the fantastical almost over-the-top images that the film provides would not be possible without her particular and exceptionally active imagination. And it’s certainly not incidental that Alexandria inserts herself into the story as a character just when things are starting to go south for it’s heroes either. Roy may tell the story, but Alexandria shapes it just as much as he does. She brings it to lifeIn fact, without Alexandria and the visuals that she gives to the story, it really isn’t much of a story at all—just some scattered ideas, a very loose revenge plot, and some lifeless character sketches.

On top of that, the story isn’t the beautiful epic that it is without the mixture of Roy’s and Alexandria’s influences either. Without Alexandria’s creative imagination and without Roy’s extreme sorrow, there wouldn’t be much left of Roy’s epic at all. It’s a collaboration, even if neither of them ever consciously intended for it to be. Consider the following exchange from the film:
Alexandria: “Why are you killing everybody? Why are you making everybody die?
Roy: It’s my story.
Alexandria: Mine too.” 

According to The Fall, listeners/viewers alter the stories they are told just as they are receiving them. Just as Roy brings himself to the storytelling table, so too does Alexandria. Whether we realize it or not, we do the same with the film. No, we do not impact it as clearly or as dramatically as Alexandria does, but we do influence as we watch it all the same. All throughout the film, The Fall makes it more than apparent that if Roy were to tell the same epic to a different child, then it would not turn out the same way; if Alexandria were replaced with another child, then The Fall would be an entirely different film. Similarly, The Fall as viewed by (and filtered through) me will never quite be the same the The Fall as viewed by you, your friends, or anyone else. Storytelling is a strange, magical, and somewhat difficult-to-understand thing, and The Fall embraces that wholeheartedly. 

Before I end this section, allow me to say a bit about the messiness (and even the underdevelopment) of Roy’s story. Stunning fantasy visuals aside, perhaps the most important way in which The Fall sets itself apart from other movies is the way in which it deliberately gives viewers the sense that a great deal of what they are seeing is being made up on the spot. The story that comprises much of The Fall does not leave one with the impression that it was well thought out ahead of time (oit was by the screenwriters, not by Roy). And while the incredible narrative looseness of Roy’s story may (understandably) frustrate (and even disorient) some viewers, it also serves an important purpose.

In fact, this aspect of the film is crucial to the the experience that it is trying to create for its viewers— the experience of being an awe-struck child who is listening to a loved one tell an unpredictable and magical story off the cuff. By presenting a story that Roy apparently makes up as he goes, The Fall works to give its viewers the sense that they are hearing a story that is being told for the first time, that has not existed before this moment, and that is all the more wonderful for it.
Watch The Fall now.

Storytelling as Symbolic 
The Fall is a film that asks viewers to pay more attention than usual to its visual details; given the film’s powerful and overarching interest in the process and the magic of storytelling, such is hardly surprising. Stories have the special ability to operate on a symbolic level (either instead of or in addition to a more literal one). And so, in it’s exploration and glorification of storytelling, The Fall repeatedly goes out of its way make use of the symbolic and to demonstrate it’s creative and meaning-making power.

The Fall is not unique in its use of visual symbols, but it does use them much more heavily than most films. If you were too caught up in the film’s visual spectacle the first time around and did not notice the way in which many of it’s recurring images (including butterflies, oranges, and teeth) can be read symbolically, just go back and watch it again.

For instance, the “Americana Exotica” butterfly that the Darwin (who is one of the characters in Roy’s story) so desperately wants to find seems to be a reflection of Alexandria. Roy may not know it when his story begins, but by the end of it, it is very clear that she is exactly what he needs. Motivated by love, Alexandria refuses to allow Roy to kill off the bandit at the end of this tale; in doing so, Alexandria also convinces Roy not to take his own life. In addition to being just the thing that Roy needs, Alexandria is also the one who suggests to Roy that the last animal that Darwin needs to find is a butterfly. This, paired with the fact that Alexandria only meets Roy after her note for Evelyn flutters in through Roy’s window like a butterfly further suggests that there is a connection between the numerous butterflies in Roy’s story and between the positive effects that Alexandria herself has on him. 

I’m not going to bother trying to decode all of the possible symbols of the film. To do so would not accomplish much. After all, what I personally make of certain symbolic signifiers in the film matters less than the fact that they are there to be interpreted at all. As with The Fall and the story it tells more generally, the way in which I understand the film’s symbols probably won’t be the same as the way in which someone else does. But that’s OK. The Fall does not strike me as a film concerned with getting all of it’s viewers to interpret it in a uniform manner (if that was Tarsem’s goal, critical reception of the film would say that he has failed); rather what matters to the film is that we do not ignore it’s symbolic elements. For, to understand a story on the literal level only is to greatly limit its potential. 

That the film is more interested in the act of interpretation than it is in imposing one clear-cut message on it’s audiences can be seen in a number of it’s scenes. Perhaps the most obvious of these in the one in which Roy asks Alexandria whether or not she can read English. He shows her a piece of paper with “MORPHINE” written on it.  Because of the way that the final letter is written, Alexandria misreads it as “MORPHIN3.” She recognizes the visual symbols in front of her as such, but she does not interpret them quite as Roy intends.

 Roy more or less ignores Alexandria’s claim that the “E” he has written is a “3” and does not bother to correct her; little does he know that her seemingly small difference in interpretation will have large consequences for him later. After reading what Roy has written, Alexandria attempts to bring him the medication with that same word written on it, just as he asked. What Roy wants is for her to bring him an entire bottle of morphine so that he can kill himself by taking all of it. Instead, she deliberately throws out most of the pills in the bottle and brings him just 3. When Roy grows angry with her for doing so, she explains her actions by saying that she brought him just 3, because that’s what he wrote. Alexandria does not understand Roy’s writing and message as he wants her do, but her interpretation also saves his life.

Just as Alexandria understands Roy’s writing differently than he intends, we are likely to understand The Fall differently than it’s creators might have wanted. According to Tarsem’s film, the story that the author tells is never quite the same one that the reader/listener/viewer walks away with, and that’s just fine. Paying attention to the visual and to the symbolic is important, but it by no means guarantees total understanding of the author/director’s original vision. It does, however, increase a story’s potential for meaning. 

Another instance in the film that demonstrates to viewers that Roy’s story is altered by Alexandria’s (mis)interpretation of it occurs when “The Indian” is introduced. With his use of words like “squaw” and “wigwam,” Roy makes it pretty clear that the character he has in mind is a Native American. But that’s not how Alexandria understands it; and so that’s not how viewers see it either. Understandably, Alexandria imagines a man from India (who happens to have the same face as a man she works with in the orange grove). This interpretative difference does not necessarily harm or improve the story, but it does change it.

The Fall is a film that is acutely aware of the fact that to tell a story is to invite a multitude of interpretations. Moreover, the film also understands this fact as something to be embraced, not feared. As each person who hears a story or who interprets some system of symbols brings themselves and their own way of understanding to the table, different possible meanings are brought to life, many of which the author himself may have never even been able to imagine. 

Storytelling as Powerful
As interested as The Fall is in the processes by which stories are created, understood, and experienced, it is just as interested in what stories have the power to do. In the film, storytelling is not an inert act by any means. According to the film, stories are also tool, and they have the ability to do just about anything—they can even save a life. 

One things that stories have the power to do in the film is control others. Roy deliberately exploits Alexandria’s interest in the story he is spinning to manipulate her. When the tension is high, he cuts the story off and refuses to resume until she does what he asks her to. At times, he may even delay finishing the story just so that he can get her to come back to him the next day. Such behavior is hardly admirable, but it does demonstrate the sort of power that comes with storytelling.

While stories are amazing and miraculous and powerful in The Fall, the film does not present them as necessarily good (or evil). They can accomplish a great deal, but what that is depends largely on the individual people involved. That said, the film does seem to see a certain inherent value in storytelling: namely, it’s ability to bring people together. Stories connect people unlike anything else. And while it is true that such connection can be manipulated for personal gain (as Roy tries to do), that it can be accomplished at all is what matters.

Over the course of the film, Alexandria (a 5-year-old Romanian immigrant who works in an orange grove) comes to understand Roy (a 20-something stuntman with legs that no longer work, a death wish, and a broken heart) on a deeply personal and emotional level. The story offers viewers and Alexandria alike some precious insight into Roy’s heart and mind. His suffering and his despair are reflected in it (even as it is altered and brought to life by Alexandria’s imagination). Somehow (almost instinctively), Alexandria picks up on this. She and Roy become quite close, and the connection that is forged between them even saves Roy’s life. 

Near the end of Roy’s story (and at a point in the film where Alexandria can be said to understand how inseparable Roy is from the story he is telling), things take a sudden and dark turn. Roy kills nearly all of the story’s characters. Alexandria knows that his efforts to kill all of the tale’s heroes are a direct result of Roy’s own desire to kill himself; and so, she demands that he stop. With tears on both of their faces, Alexandria and Roy get into an argument concerning where the story is headed and why.

Together, they struggle for the story’s ending and, in doing so, they also struggle for Roy’s life and soul. In The Fall, the stakes of the story that Alexandria and Roy create (and that viewers individually interpret and influence) are incredibly high. In the film, the ending of Roy’s story will determine whether he lives or dies. By raising the stakes and by heightening the emotional drama in this way, Tarsem is able to demonstrate both the power and the complex and alchemical nature of storytelling with great force and clarity.

A Note on the Visuals
As countless critics have noted, the The Fall is brimming with beautiful, fantastical, and stunning images, the likes of which are not often seen. Perhaps I’m reaching a bit here, but the fact that 100% of those visuals were accomplished entirely without the use of CGI strikes me as nothing short of a sort of miracle—a miracle not entirely unlike that which enables a story to give birth to world’s previously unimagined, to create characters that feel as real as anything, and to connect those who otherwise could not be connected.
Get The Fall on Blu-ray.

Until Next Time
Thank you so much for reading. Feel free to leave a comment below (or even to share this post if you like).


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