Rich and useless

Some kinds of artistic ostentation possess a breadth of scale and insularity of purpose that have everything to do with privilege. Matthew Barney is responsible for some enormously pretentious cinematic objects, but even he hasn’t dreamt as self-indulgently big as the mono-monikered Tarsem (birth name: Tarsem Singh) does with The Fall. Shot in 20 countries — from Chile to Fiji to Namibia to Romania to all over his native India, plus plain old Hollywood — it’s perhaps the ultimate "Why? Because I can" movie, sumptuous and useless to equal degrees.

The film’s story (inspired by an obscure 1981 Bulgarian children’s film called Yo ho ho, something the filmmakers haven’t gone out of their way to acknowledge) is a haphazard clothesline on which to hang two hours of pictures. Collected in a coffee-table book, these images might suggest that The Fall is the greatest surreal epic ever — an update of Alejandro Jodorowsky’s 1973 magnum opus The Holy Mountain.

Actually watching the thing, however, is a different experience.

You might remember — or might still be trying to forget — Tarsem as the director of 2000’s J-Lo vehicle The Cell, an odious serial killer tale tricked out in the biggest wholesale cribbing of Art History 101 imagery since the more enjoyable Altered States (1980). He also directed numerous TV commercials and music videos (most notably REM’s 1991 "Losing My Religion"), two forms of media that suit his empty pictorial flash. The Fall is like an endless high-concept shoot of extravagant fashions no one could ever really wear, presented against backdrops few could ever visit — unless, like this movie’s director, they’re the kind of global citizen who (according to biographical notes) "lives in London, Italy, Los Angeles, and India."

If The Fall‘s exotica had something, anything — a heart, a point, some philosophical intent — behind it, Tarsem’s movie wouldn’t end up seeming like such monumental upscale baloney. But this director has no feel for pacing, actors, or tone; he wobbles from labored whimsy to maudlin realms before abruptly opting for nasty violence.

Just who is The Fall‘s cold pageant-cum-travelogue for? People who wish they had Tarsem’s life, I guess. Perhaps this is his way of sharing it with the proles. Isn’t that generous.


Opens Fri/30 at Bay Area theaters