India has given Hollywood some of its best directors in the past decade or so. Shekhar Kapur, who did two Elizabeth movies with Cate Blanchett as well as the most recent version of Four Feathers (otherwise known as Heath Ledger's Lawrence of Arabia), is a favorite of mine. M. Night Shyamalan, who became everyone's favorite director after The Sixth Sense and then least favorite soon after (even though he's still brilliant), has been the most successful of them. But the best of them may yet prove to be Tarsem, a visionary on par with Tim Burton, Terry Gilliam, and Guillermo del Toro, whose handful of movies have managed to skirt the mainstream ever since the release of The Cell in 2000.
I just saw The Cell for the first time today. I was certainly aware of it since its original release, that movie with all the interesting visuals and Jennifer Lopez back when she was only known as an actress, and a critical favorite at that (times change). Turns out it fits nicely in the canon as I've come to know it, even featuring those accordion stilts most recently featured in this year's Mirror Mirror (this time with more dwarf action!). It's a serial killer story at the dawn of the serial killer age on TV, before everyone and their mother was able to figure out what messed up freaks were up to. In The Cell, tortured Vincent D'Onofrio has daddy issues that result in his kidnapping of unsuspecting women and turning them into dolls (this would be solved in one episode of Criminal Minds today, and actually was), while Vince Vaughn is tasked with finding his last victim after D'Onofrio is found in a comatose state. To accomplish this, he turns to Lopez, who has been developing basically the human version of the Vulcan mind-meld. All of this is an excuse so Tarsem can treat us with his astounding visual storytelling; in fact, most of that storytelling is done without dialogue, and it still works. It's a treat to see actors like D'Onofrio and Vaughn take center stage, too; the last time D'Onofrio has gotten to do anything interesting, people actually grew bored of him being awesome all over Law & Order: Criminal Intent, and Vaughn has retreated into a string of comedies. Lopez, meanwhile, is the exact opposite of everything critics began calling her in the movies after her singing career took off, and she does most of it while letting Tarsem turn her into the ultimate vamp. It's a revelation.
The Fall (2006) is his opus, his masterpiece, meanwhile, the epic vision of a man on the edge and saved by a little girl, whom he regales with a fairy tale that is really a tragedy. It's everything The Cell promised the career of Tarsem to be, but with a story that matches the visual splendor with heartbreaking precision. I've been championing this movie since its original release, and I doubt I'll ever grow tired of doing so. The people who know about it define Tarsem by The Fall; the people who don't still identify him with The Cell. I guess it's not bad either way, but if you have to peg him by either one, choose The Fall, which stars Lee Pace, at that time known for the quirky TV show Pushing Daisies. He's the only name star of the bunch, but the movie was a passion project for Tarsem, shot over the course of years and on his own dime. I like to consider The Fall to be the adult's Wizard of Oz.
The problem with Tarsem's career is that he either takes an incredibly long time to make a movie, or releases them in quick order. That's what happened next, and I think that confused the perception and reception of his subsequent projects.
First came Immortals last year, which was quickly dismissed as imitation 300, even though it has Tarsem written all over it, spare in its storytelling, rich in its visuals and vision, perhaps his most expansive to date. One of the signatures of Tarsem is that he deals with heightened reality, and the time of Greek myth is about as literal a heightened reality as you can get. Only, as always he doesn't just do the myth, he brings it down to a human scale. In The Cell, Jennifer Lopez ends up crying over the tragedy of Vincent D'Onofrio's life. In The Fall, the whole audience is doing it. In Immortals, it's the gods.
Immortals was quickly followed by this year's Mirror Mirror, which follows that tragedy streak with the sad tale of Snow White, who follows in the pattern of lost innocence in the prototypical model, as Tarsem returns to the realm of fairy tales, trying his best to conform to mainstream standards. His sad fortune is that Snow White and the Huntsman was due for release months later, and so everyone focused on the duel of projects and forgot that there's a filmmaker working his own brand of magic, modifying it for a wider audience, for the first time opening courting families with a twist on his usual whimsy, this time making it actually whimsical. There's a fair bit of gravity to Lily Collins has a face for melancholy, and though a lot of her material is either withering before Julia Roberts or swooning around Armie Hammer, not to mention making fairly heavy-handed political metaphors, she shows a great amount of strength while looking the picture of innocence. Innocence is another trademark for Tarsem, individuals thrust against situations that cause them to confront the limits of their innocence without breaking it, finding ways to affirm rather than shatter it, and that's a rare message for any storyteller.
His next project is Marco Polo, which seems exceedingly natural for Tarsem's instincts. His is a career I will continue to follow with great interest.
Other directors with similar ambition include Terry Gilliam, as I suggested earlier (highest personal recommendation being The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus); Jean-Pierre Jeunet, who has done such films as Amelie and The City of Lost Children (neither of which I've seen); the late Ken Russell, whose Altered States is considered to be an ancestor to Fringe; Julie Taymor, lately infamous for the Broadway show Spider-Man: Turn off the Dark, but also responsible for the exceptional Beatles homage Across the Universe; Michel Gondry, who shined with The Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind; and Darren Aronofsky, whose closest work to Tarsem's to date is The Fountain, which was his The Fall. I recommend viewing any or all of these films. This is what the movies were always meant to be.