The Movies of Tarsem Singh

Time to take a break from talking about my own work and talk about someone else's! I've set up a Links section on the front page to link to anything I like, comics, music, movies, science. Every now and then I'll discuss one of these links in greater detail here.

Tarsem Singh is Terry Gilliam with the humour taken out, and replaced by wonder. He's the most visually amazing movie director I've ever seen. You can read all about him on IMDB, and track down his movies from there.

I first came across his work with The Cell, which was an incredibly welcome movie in the wake of 90's serial killer chic. It was released after Silence of the Lambs and Natural Born Killers, both of which had spawned numerous copycat movies. The serial murderer in popular culture was all-too often being presented as some kind of charismatic anti-hero. I remember Neil Gaiman provided a rather cool rebuttal to this idea in Sandman, in which the king of dreams encountered a group of serial killers, and literally stripped of the dreams and fictions that they were anything more than just murderers.
The Cell did something similar but without the meta-fiction. The story revolves around a serial killer played by Vincent D'Onofrio, but strips him of any kind of charm or "alpha-predator" vibe, and instead presents a seriously damaged and brutalised individual. His role is not so much villain as medical subject, which was a really refreshing take on the subject. Instead of seeing him outwitting the police, or playing cat and mouse with anyone, he experiences seizures and schizophrenic episodes, and gets tasered by the police on their one encounter. We see the battle inside his head played out between a wounded young boy, himself abused, and the predatory persona that he wears when peforming his own killings.

Anyway, while the story was great, I was also struck by the unique visuals. Much of the movie takes place in a shared dreamspace, using experimental technology that allows Jennifer Lopez' psychiatrist character to enter the minds of others. And this is where Tarsem was allowed to go wild and do what he does best. These internal shots are poised and impersonal like Magritte paintings. There's a rich textured quality - perfect footprint-free sand dunes and stark silhouettes, which gives it the look of an expensive coffee ad.

His people are often distorted through the use of bizarre costumes that play with scale. D'Onofrio's killer in the Cell appears with giant purple silk sails attached to his back via his piercings, that draw through a mechanism like a bizarre S&M bridal train when he walks forwards. The surreal effect is heightened by the fact that this mechanism only makes sense for the one forwards move that he does - it exists only for a single stage direction.

Similarly, the bridal veil from The Fall (below), the red burqa outfits worn by the oracles in Immortals (also below) serve to hide the familiar human figure inside and give the viewer that sense of confusion and slippage when they first see them. Not so much "who is this character?" but "Ahh! Where's their head?" in the split second when they appear.

The Fall is his middle film, the one where he acted as co-writer, and I would say his masterpiece. Once again, a plot device is used to allow him to enter a fictional space where symbolism reigns over realism. Here it's simply a story that an injured stuntsman is telling a little girl in a hospital. The shot at the top of the column depicts the main characters within the story, and should give you an idea of the stark, bold visual style used in the story sequences. Outrageous costume designs and set pieces are combined with stunning location photography in Tarsem's native India.
The Fall is a story about the power of stories. These can often be hackneyed and a bit self-obsessed, since they are inevitably written by a story-teller. At its worse, it's like rockstars losing touch with their roots to write about fame and stardom instead. If this puts you off, I doubt it would help to say that the innocent belief of a child in the story saves the day? Probably not, but Lee Pace as the injured stuntsman Roy and Catinca Untara's disarming Academy Award winning performance as Alexandria are devoid of any schmaltz or sentiment you might expect from this description.

Six years separated The Cell and The Fall, and it was another five years before Tarsem directed a feature film again, this time turning to Greek legend with Immortals. We get a fresh visual look on a genre that's been done to death in movies, and it has Tarsem's visual stamp written all over it. The ridiculous gravity-defying helmets, the stark geometry of Perseus' cliffside village and so on. But I have to admit to being a little bit disappointed by this movie and how conventional it was in a lot of places.
Tarsem followed up a year later with Mirror Mirror a curious and whimsical re-telling of Snow White. Once again, his handiwork is all over it, but it somehow falls short of his first two movies.

I eagerly await his new science fiction movie Selfless coming out in 2015.

Could you capture elements of Tarsem's style in a comic? You'd lose the breathtaking nature of his photography - some shots are amazing simply because they are real, and feature exotic landscapes, hundreds of costumed extras and so on. But good draughtsmanship can be equally breathtaking too. More directly translatable are his posed longshots and framing that often looks a bit artifical. Characters stand evenly spaced, side on or straight at the camera. This could look like poor composition without the right art style to back it up. His costume design is definitely translatable to comics. The large headresses and geometric pieces would not be a million miles out of place in Moebius' work.

As for me, I can look at my own designs for Gloriana J and say that maybe I had a bit of Tarsem on my mind when I designed her.

Anyway, go and watch The Fall. Its very cheap on Amazon and it's utterly brilliant!

See you in seven, spectators of the cinematic!

Dr Mike 2000, 22 Mar 2014