Thursday, April 24, 2008

"The Fall" & "Goodbye Lenin"

I admit it freely: I did not like Pan's Labyrinth. I was disappointed by the effects which I found sparse, and by the black and white simplicity of the film's story (fascists are bad bad bad!!!). I bring this up only because when Tarsem Singh's "The Fall" is released on May 9th, comparisons between the two films will inevitably be drawn. Both star a young female fatherless protagonist who escapes into a fantasy world. Unlike Pan's Labyrinth, however, the fantasy world of "The Fall" is lush and vibrant. If there is anything to be said about Singh, it is that he has a wonderful eye. Even in the "real" world of the film, simple objects such as oranges and blocks of ice are lingered upon and presented as beautiful objects. (The film would work well in a pairing with any of the recent visually opulent Zhang Yimo films.) So Pan/ Fall double feature (sorry Guillermo).

What is so refreshing about "The Fall," visuals aside, is that characters are not clear cut (with the exception of the aptly named Governor Odious). And that through the characters, larger issues about the the nature of fantasy are raised. Roy, who tells the story to the girl, Alexandria, is a jilted lover who befriends her and tells her a fantastic story full of bandits, rare butterflies and mysterious shamans. In her eyes (a perspective we share for much of the film) he is the hero, "the black bandit" and a substitute father figure. Yet at the same time as he spins these tales his thoughts are only on his own suicide and he takes advantage of Alexandria's innocence; conning her into bringing him morphine. He uses the fantasy to get what he wants in the "real" world. While for her the fantasy is healing the wounds her father's death has left, for Roy, the fantasy is merely a means to an end (the end to be precise). The same story serves two very different purposes.

(note: spoilers ahead) In one scene, when Alexandria has finally realized that Roy means to kill himself and he has realized the pain he has caused her by using her, Roy begins to kill off the characters in the story. All of them die valiantly; sacrificing themselves so that Alexandria can continue. They all commit suicide in ways deemed acceptable and heroic. One blows himself up along with hundreds of enemy soldiers, one shields Alexandria from arrows with his own body. It is as if Roy is justifying the idea of suicide through the fantasy. But who is Roy justifying the idea to? Is this a message that Alexandria needs to hear or that he needs to? Thus we are faced with the question of who the fantasy benefits: the storyteller or the listener? Who is the fantasy for?

Another film that confronts these same issues is "Goodbye Lenin". In the film, the character of Alex, his mother having been in a coma though the collapse of the Berlin wall, constructs in her bedroom a mini socialist museum. He tries to ensure that she never has to go though the potentially deadly shock of realizing that the wall has fallen. The fantasy he creates is ironically the mundane. His fantasy protects her from the fantastic: the massive historical and cultural changes around them (pickles from Holland!). But is it simply his fear of shocking her that drives his creation of the fantasy? Or is he driven by guilt as he was the one who had caused her initial heart attack? Just as with "The Fall," the question remains as to who the fantasy is for? Who needs the fantasy? The creator? The listener? Neither of these films answer these questions. Which is just fine. I appreciate that I am left wondering…and imagining.

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