Quentin Crisp once said, “Any movie, no matter how bad, is better than real life.” Two recent movies, Garth Jennings’ Son of Rambow and Tarsem’s The Fall, take that quote to heart.
The first film, set in an English provincial town in the early 1980s, concerns two boys who, out of boredom and loneliness, set out to make their own home-movie version of Rambo: First Blood. Advertised as a light comedy, the film is actually much sadder and more complex than that, though not necessarily better for it. The second film, set in a Southern California hospital in the 1920s, concerns the tales told by an injured stuntman to a little Eastern European immigrant girl. Visually as magnificent as anything that has ever been put on screen, it becomes an occasionally touching but not terribly coherent meditation on the origins of both storytelling and the cinema.
Son of Rambow and The Fall share the plot device of a character that has never seen a movie. In Son of Rambow, Will Proudfoot (Bill Milner), a delicate, imaginative boy of about ten, is a member of the Brethren, an austere British religious sect so strict about forbidding movies, TV and recorded music that Will must sit outside the classroom when his teacher plays educational videos. One day Will is in the hallway when the teacher in the next room throws out Lee Carter (Will Poulter), a class bully and cutup a year or two older than Will. Will is bouncing a tennis ball that bounces accidentally over to Lee. Lee gives Will a withering look and hurls the tennis ball at him, missing Will and smashing the school fish bowl.
As Humphrey Bogart said to Claude Rains, this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship.
Lee, a practiced bully and con man, bullies and cons Will into becoming the stuntman-star of Son of Rambow (“Rambow,” of course, being Will and Lee’s schoolboy misspelling). Lee aspires to enter a competition for young filmmakers, and he needs someone to perform the stunts he balks at doing himself. One look at Lee’s bootleg copy of First Blood—Will’s first sighting ever of a movie--is enough to get Will hooked. He fills his Bible—his only spare paper—with “Son of Rambow” drawings, and willingly submits to the hair-raising stunts Lee sets up and films. These are invariably hilarious, but always on the razor edge of calamity. (KIDS, REALLY: DO NOT TRY THEM AT HOME!!!) One stunt that goes awry, however, has the effect of bringing Will and Lee closer together, turning them into real pals. Will and the audience learn more about Lee’s home circumstances: deserted by his parents, trying desperately to win the regard of an elder brother (Ed Westwick) who treats him like dirt, Lee is a sad case whose classroom antics mask constant emotional anguish.
Will, meanwhile, is getting pressure at home from his well-meaning, widowed mother (Jessica Stevenson) and even more from Brother Joshua (Neil Dudgeon), a fellow parishioner with romantic designs on Will’s mother. Brother Joshua is the self-appointed enforcer of piety within the Brethren, and feels that Brother Will is backsliding dangerously. Nevertheless, Will and Lee continue filming until the incident of the Flying Dog (probably the best set piece in the movie) gets Lee suspended from school for ten days. During that time, Lee and Will’s snobbish classmates learn about the movie. Led by overbearing French exchange student Didier (Jules Sitruk), they pressure Will in Lee’s absence to get in on it. Will, overwhelmed at being an object of admiration for once, acquiesces, only to find that Lee is less than happy about the classmates he despises muscling in on his brainchild.
From that point, Son of Rambow follows the basic pattern of childhood-friendship films, including misunderstandings, a near-tragedy, and a final triumph. The ending had audience members at the screening I attended applauding loudly. But although the ending sent me out of the theater smiling, I’m not sure how convincing I found it. Although Son of Rambow has an ample number of funny scenes, its basic mood is melancholy, its view of human nature dour. Normally this additional complexity would be cause for praise, but I found the film slightly out of balance. Will’s fellow parishioners—particularly the egregious Brother Joshua, the film’s official voice of religion--aren’t any more likable at the end of the film than at the beginning, and Will and Lee’s teachers and classmates certainly aren’t. Son of Rambow’s supporting characters exist largely to criticize and punish Will and Lee, just as the offstage adults in Peanuts exist largely to criticize and punish Charlie Brown. The happy ending is based on major changes of heart from two supporting characters, but though the script’s action gives them compelling reasons for changing, its pervasive logic suggests that once a fanatic/bully/waster, always a fanatic/bully/waster. (Will isn’t really a fanatic, and Lee isn’t really a bully; those are just the roles the fanatics and bullies all around them forced them into.) This, to me, gave the ending the feeling of a deus ex machina, rather than something that flowed organically from the script.
Nevertheless, at its best Son of Rambow is a charming valentine to the movies, and a moving testimonial to the difference movies can make in the lives of lonely, mistreated children. It helps that all the performances in the film are first-rate, starting with young Milner and Poulter, two wonderfully gifted child actors. Look at the difference between the naturalness of their performances in the main portion of the film and their stilted, novice performances in the film within the film. These kids definitely know what they’re doing.
The Fall, like Son of Rambow, contains a film within a film. But unlike Son of Rambow, the film within a film is the heart and soul of The Fall, making the “real life” portion of the film seem lackluster.
Eight-year-old Alexandria (Catinca Uncaru) broke her arm picking oranges with her Romanian immigrant mother. Bored with staying in bed, she roams through the hospital, making friends with doctors, nurses and patients alike. One day she stumbles upon Roy (Lee Pace), a stuntman who broke his back in a fall off a railroad bridge during a movie shoot. Roy warms up to Alexandria, and begins to tell her a long, convoluted, gaudily embroidered story involving a mysterious, wildly varied cast of characters that travels around the world seeking revenge on the evil Governor Odious.
The basic disconnect that powers the film is that Roy thinks largely in terms of the movies, whereas Alexandria—like Will in Son of Rambow—has never seen a movie. The Fall gains its energy from its evocation of the little girl’s imaginative construction of the tale Roy tells her. When Roy speaks of Indians, he speaks of squaws and wigwams, but Alexandria envisions turbans, saris, marble palaces.
The people Alexandria sees in the hospital every day begin to populate the story. The man who delivers ice to the hospital (Marcus Wesley) becomes Otta Benga, courageous African warrior who has sworn to kill Odious for enslaving him and murdering his brother. A one-legged stuntman who visits Roy in the hospital (Robin Smith) becomes the Italian explosives expert Luigi. Friendly Nurse Evelyn (Justine Waddell) becomes the enigmatic princess, masked by a white lace fan, who is the love interest for both the Blue Bandit (Pace) and Governor Odious. A hospital orderly (Leo Bill) becomes Charles Darwin, resplendent in black bowler and bird-of-paradise feathered coat, hunting the elusive Americus exoticus butterfly with the aid of his intrepid monkey sidekick, Wallace. And a supercilious movie star (Daniel Caltagirone) who stops by the hospital one day to sign autographs provides, at long last, the face of Odious.
It soon becomes evident that Tarsem wants to make the movie that only an innocent child, who doesn’t understand the medium or its limits, can imagine. He doesn’t succeed—who could?—but the exquisite tableaux he presents are their own reason for being. With the help of a brilliant filmmaking team including cinematographer Colin Watkinson, production designer Ged Clarke, art director Lisa Hart, and costume designer Eiko Ishioka, Tarsem ushers us into a world of wonders. Vast ocher mountains thrust their peaks into cerulean skies; elephants swim in turquoise seas dotted with pearl-white atolls; dazzlingly elaborate cities, designed by M.C. Escher for Shah Jehan, stretch to the farthest horizons.
Roy’s story is disjointed—believably; it’s a tale told in fits and starts by a man in horrible pain and usually drugged. This fits well with the disjointed way in which Tarsem filmed the movie; unable to secure traditional methods of funding, he shot whenever he could with whatever funds he could get in more than a dozen countries, from South Africa to India to Fiji to Spain. At times The Fall plays as if Steven Spielberg, George Lucas, Terry Gilliam, David Lean, and Michael Powell all got drunk together one night, camera crew at the ready, and decided to improvise a film on the spot. The film’s visuals are all the more amazing when you remember that Tarsem has said there is not one single computer-generated image during The Fall’s 117-minute running time. It reminds us of the miracles Powell performed in such films as The Thief of Bagdad, Black Narcissus, and The Red Shoes, when computers were still a gleam in Alan Turing’s eye.
Unfortunately, the story’s lack of symmetry and fitful character development are problems in the end. The only character we really get to know is Alexandria; Catinca Uncaru, with her chubby, rosy cheeks and heart-melting dimples, is a total charmer playing her. She’s a bit of a thief and con woman; the scene in which she manipulates her doctor, who speaks only English, and her mother, who speaks only Romanian, into letting her stay a few more days in the hospital is the funniest in the movie. Her childish misunderstandings and still-shaky grasp of English are crucial factors in the plot, particularly at one point when she confuses a Greek “E” with the number “3.”
The limits of Alexandria’s understanding serve eventually to darken the plot, much as in Atonement or The Fallen Idol. Hearing Roy’s case discussed, she hears words she understands only imperfectly, such as “suicide” and “morphine.” Soon Roy uses his new-found sway over Alexandria to persuade her to obtain for him a bottle of little white pills from the dispensary. This leads to a couple of near-tragedies and the denouement of Roy’s adventure tale, in which the depression and despair of the grown man collides with the child’s optimism and need for a happy ending.
If Tarsem had ended with this final scene between Roy and Alexandria, which is played beautifully by Pace and Uncaru, I would have been perfectly satisfied. Unfortunately, he adds a coda about the Western silent Roy was filming in real life. Although I understood that Tarsem wanted to show us Alexandria as she sees her first movie, this coda tells us nothing new, and ends the movie on a dull note. Although Tarsem aspires to comment on both cinema and storytelling, the obvious conclusion is that—like far too many directors today, including some illustrious names—he cares obsessively about the former, and very little about the latter.
Nevertheless, the images in The Fall haunt me, and lead me to recommend the film to adventurous moviegoers. Although the film isn’t for every taste, at its best it richly portrays the universality of cinematic imagery and the endless desire of moviegoers to project themselves into it. The image of Alexandria projecting herself into Roy’s story as the Blue Bandit’s dress-alike sidekick, in matching blue mask, gaucho hat and sleeveless leather vest, is one we can all appreciate.