THE GENIUS OF TARSEM SINGH
Salvador Dali said “I have Dalinian thought: the one thing the world will never have enough of is the outrageous”: a philosophy perfectly understood and applied by film director Tarsem Singh, whose cinematography encompasses the terrifyingly impressionable hyper-realism of surrealist art. The director’s images are intensely vivid in a subconsciously unrealistic manner. Each shot produced is a work of art – precisely crafted and coloured to reflect thought, tone and emotion within the context of the scene. Singh’s images are provocative as well as evocative. The magnificence and sheer opulence of the director’s art is most beautifully pictured in The Cell (2000) and The Fall (2006), both of which poignantly register Singh’s creative genius.
The Cell delves into the subconscious mind of serial killer: a concept that lends itself to the potential for alarming imagery. With the digital developments of modern film, the medium is the perfect vessel for Singh’s obtuse imagination. The twisted inner-mind of Carl Stargher (Vincent D’Onofrio), the film’s murderer, is rendered with a sensitivity that in no way undermines the brutality of his actions. The ugly reality of the killer’s conscious existence is juxtaposed with the dark tragedy of his inner turmoil. The trauma that Stargher suffered as a child is uncovered as psychotherapist Catherine Deane (Jennifer Lopez), explores the killer’s past by entering into his subconscious in a desperate attempt to discover the whereabouts of his most recent victim. In so doing, Deane unearths the reasons for Stargher’s psychosis and bids to save his soul. Singh renders even the most horrific and the most grotesque portions of Stargher’s mind stirringly beautiful. The director pictorialises the subconscious fight between good and evil and what manifests on screen is a dark and disturbing rendition of psychosis.
Singh draws on the surrealist manner of using symbols and motifs to convey meaning. The director’s penchant for horses, water, Escher-inspired mazes, Dali-esque landscapes, and reflections, which are so prevalent in The Cell, reappear in The Fall. Singh uses symbols to represent his exploration of the human mind. The two films suggest that the director’s particular interest lays with the inner-workings of those who are mentally unstable, and children. In The Cell, upon entering Stargher’s subconscious, Catherine Deane is confronted with Stargher as a young Carl – a symbol of the innocence and goodness that has been corrupted by a deplorable childhood and thus formed the violent man he has become. Deane battles to save young Carl in the hope that his goodness will prevail over the crazed warrior king that dictates the killer’s mind, but in the process Deane is forced to kill the older Carl, and thus young Carl also meets his end. Singh renders Stargher beyond saving and thus comments on the long-term effects of an abusive childhood: Carl Stargher is shown to be the oppressed who becomes the oppressor – the victim who becomes the victimiser.
The Fall offers a more positive exploration of a mentally unstable mind than that offered by The Cell. The Fall focuses on the emotional torment of stunt man Roy Walker (Lee Pace), who is injured in a stunt accident whilst trying to commit suicide upon the discovery that his lover is in love with another. Walker ends up in hospital with damaged legs and as his body recovers his mind rests on the brink of falling into a deep abyss. He befriends a child named Alexandria (Catinca Untaru), who is recovering from a fractured arm, and tells her sumptuous stories. Being an opportunist by nature, Walker seizes the opportunity to use Alexandria’s wonderment to fulfil his ultimate goal, which is suicide. The little girl will do anything to hear the next instalment of the tale, including stealing morphine from the dispensary against her better judgement. The film focuses on the relationship between the unlikely pair as it follows Walker’s grandiose tale of valiants and villains from Alexandria’s perspective – as she imagines it. The child draws on her world as a frame of reference as she imagines the tale’s players: Luigi – an explosions expert; a Native American Indian; A runaway slave; an East Indian swordsman; a masked bandit; and Charles Darwin – all on a quest to kill oppressive Spanish Governor Odious for individually inflicting atrocities on each one of them. Alexandria casts Walker as the masked bandit and certain individuals at the hospital pop up in the story as well, including the dreaded X-Ray man who multiplies as the army of Odious in her mind, and the beautiful nurse who feature’s as the masked bandit’s love interest/nemesis. As the story progresses, the lines between reality and fantasy start to blur as Walker imports his recent experience into the tale. The outcome of the story becomes the integral to Walker’s future in reality. Alexandria becomes the true hero of the story as her childlike innocence and vitality penetrate Walker’s psyche and he stands up to the villain in the story, which is symbolic of his ability to overcome his attitude of self-pity and victimisation in reality. Walker is, essentially, villain unto himself. So the broken man is rescued by the innocent child – through Alexandria’s ability to imagine. Although positive in tone, the darkness inherent in The Cell rears its head occasionally. Images including the horse hanging in the children’s ward, as well as Singh’s representation of Alexandria’s subconscious state after falling and hitting her head, serve to remind the viewer of the intrinsic danger that is present in the film – that Roy Walker runs the risk of descending into an emotional abyss. The audience is left with the notion that the mind is resilient and yet impressionably fragile.
“Surrealism is destructive, but it destroys only what it considers to be shackles limiting our vision” (Salvador Dali). Tarsem Singh is an artist who is able to unshackle the imagination of his audience through his own brilliant interpretations of character. He emphasises the importance of creativity that is not imprisoned by circumstances, adulthood and self-doubt. His art is often uncomfortable and its beauty partly lies in its ability to unsettle the viewer’s sense of normalcy. It is also unsettlingly stimulating and artistically magnificent – his images will sear themselves onto the retina and the mind for aeons.