Thursday, November 27, 2008

Magical Realism: "The Fall"

Though it's perhaps not apparent from the short story that I posted last week, the majority of "art" that I love falls under the veil of what some would call "magical realism." This would explain my love of aesthetics in the theater, the illusions which transform something artificial into something real, or which take fantastical elements and use them to illustrate something truthful about life. My favorite creators are those who balance genre and the highbrow: for example, Gene Wolf or Neal Stephenson writing science fiction, or the classically defined magical realism of Gabriel Garcia Marquez's One Hundred Years of Solitude and Salman Rushdie's Midnight's Children. Then, of course, there are film directors like Danny Boyle (most evident in Millions, and from what I hear, Slumdog Millionaire) and Guillermo del Toro (The Devil's Backbone and Pan's Labyrinth). As is evident from this rambling paragraph, I'm not entirely sure how I'd limn the idea of "magical realism," but what I will be doing over the next few months is to try and highlight some clear and must-see examples, starting with Tarsem Singh's The Fall.

The story begins simply enough, in a "once upon a time" version of 1920's Los Angeles, where a young, inquisitive girl with a broken arm stumbles across a lonely, talkative paraplegic. But as the title credits hint, with their slow motion footage of men in action, hauling a drowning horse out of the river, there are other layers at work.

In this case, the modest opening is really just a Princess Bride frame in which the crippled and heartbroken Roy tells young Alexandria about the epic quest of the Blue Bandit to avenge his brother's murder. Then again, the comic tones start to shift as it becomes clearer that, like in del Toro's Spanish films, the real world is bleeding into the land of make-believe: Roy is stringing Alexandria along in the hopes that she can deliver him enough morphine to end his suffering. As Roy's world collapses, his vivid imagination (shot in an exquisitely fantasia that surpasses Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon) grows darker and darker, with Alexandria entering his world, in tears, to question why his assembled band of heroes are all being killed.

It's all rather remarkably done, and Tarsem makes a point of laboring over the shots--especially those of the "exotic" Middle Eastern architecture--to make sure we get our fill of the fantastic before moving on to the necessarily bloody bits. In these moments, The Fall lives up to its name, paralleling not just the physical maladies of its real-world characters, but the mental effects of depression. It is in this double-edged storytelling, where the fantasy becomes a tool to illustrate reality, that the movie merits being called "magical realism," and also why it is so effective. It has co-opted a beloved genre, that of the adventure film, and mirrored it back on those who would use it. This is most apparent toward the final, anti-climactic (yet correct) scenes, which show clips of the early silent films of 1920, projected onto a wall for a room full of sick patients who need the slapstick, who justify the illusion.

I don't remember much of Tarsem's 2000 film, The Cell, except that it tackled a similar idea in a far tackier and more restrained fashion: a psychologist enters a serial killer's mind. But by making a film about the power of films themselves--the need, in other words, for stories--Tarsem frees himself from the cell and makes a touching film in which the exposed beauty never feels manipulative.


Seth Christenfeld said...

I presume/hope that you've read the work of Chris Adrian and Karen Russell. (And if you haven't, you certainly ought to.)

Aaron Riccio said...

I bought Adrian's "The Children's Hospital" but haven't read it yet. I'll add Karen Russell to my list though, on your recommendation. I have to finish reading Lauren Groff's "The Monsters of Templeton" and Kevin Brockmeier's "The View from the Seventh Layer" first, both of which are also up my alley. (There are many authors I haven't touched on yet, such as Jonathan Safran Foer.)

Seth Christenfeld said...

The Children's Hospital is fascinating, but it gives off the feeling of Chris Adrian being a whole lot smarter than everybody else in the room--so as long as you go in knowing that you probably won't understand everything that he's getting at, you'll be fine (don't worry, only he understands everything he's getting at).

View is terrific, I thought--I think that Brockmeier is a far better short story writer than novelist (judging from this and the gorgeous but disappointing Brief History of the Dead).

I really can't say enough about how amazing Karen Russell's St. Lucy's Home for Girls Raised by Wolves is, so I won't even try.