See, I have a problem with this because I happen to think Tarsem is a genius. This isn't the first time I've talked about him (most recently in my Gladiator/300/Immortals discussion, which itself was my first reaction here to Cavanaugh's comments). But how can I consider Tarsem a genius when everyone seems to think he's anything but? Well, for starters, this is exactly the reception geniuses tend to receive. Melville's Moby-Dick famously was an epic flop that wasn't rediscovered for decades. Orson Welles saw his career fall apart after Citizen Kane.
And yeah, Moby-Dick and Citizen Kane even today are hardly universally acclaimed, insofar as anyone who doesn't particular consider themselves a connoisseur finds them difficult or pretentious. But the acknowledgement of genius is not a universal distinction. If it was, there wouldn't be such a hard time identifying it in the first place. There's a reason why students slog through Shakespeare, because you have to be able to understand something in order to appreciate it.
Yeah, I'm tossing Tarsem into the likes of Melville, Welles, and Shakespeare.
His first film was 2000's The Cell, the last movie Jennifer Lopez made before her emerging music career destroyed all her critical credibility (somehow). Today it would be an artful episode of Criminal Minds. This is a movie that's like The Silence of the Lambs combined with The Matrix, or perhaps most accurately Tarsem in his best comparison, channeling Christopher Nolan's Inception years in advance. Inception is another movie critics who want to dismiss it will say there were other movies with similar ideas. Anyone who says they don't like something because they saw a similar idea before, no matter how similar, cannot be taken seriously. If you cannot distinguish form from content, or content from form, you are not being critical. You're going the easiest possible route, to not being critical at all. Comparison, at its best, is about seeing contrast in its best light, or its worst, not for the mere fact of a similar idea. I mean, you could take literally anything you personally have ever loved, and thought insanely original, and come up with a hundred other similar ideas.
Anyway, it's funny, too, about originality, because if you want to go that route, you could even compare that distinctive psychopath from No Country for Old Men, Javier Bardem's Anton Chigurh ("Call it, friendo.") and notice that Vincent D'Onfrio's Carl Stargher in The Cell not only has a similar hairstyle, but a whole background the starkness of the Coen approach (which is how No Country succeeds, by the way) can't even approach, much less in terms of depth.
What Tarsem achieves in The Cell, most of all, is the beginning of his distinctive voice. No, not the visual voice, which is what anyone who knows or bothers to know anything about him will talk about, but his storytelling. This is where the complete concept is considered, and tellingly, very few critics ever talk about the complete concept. They earn their paychecks by picking up on one aspect, and try to define the entire movie by it, the way Self/less is endlessly discussed in relation to Seconds, or other body-swapping stories.
I haven't seen Self/less yet, but conceptually one of the criticisms that bothers me most is how Ryan Reynolds doesn't evoke the speech or mannerisms of Ben Kingsley. And why would he? It's Kingsley's mind that has been transplanted. On a basic level, I can see what people are talking about, but when you think about it, the physical and vocal quirks Kingsley presents are the last things that embody the character he portrays. It's the mind, the thoughts, the thought process: these are the elements of Kingsley's character that are transferred. Everything else is supplied by Reynolds' host body. Which, by the way, quickly begins to assert its previous host. Having Reynolds act and speak like Kingsley would be a far worse gimmick, all the way around, than whatever you might think of the concept of the film itself.
Speech and mannerisms are a direct extension of experience, experience rooted in the body and the environment around you. A person who grew up in the fishing communities of Maine (where the "Maine accent" comes from) but whose parents were English, wouldn't speak with a British accent but a Maine one. A person who grew up with one kind of body wouldn't suddenly suddenly change their posture if they lost their memory. Posture is an unconscious act, just as an accent is.
So why again would Reynolds magically start behaving exactly like Kingsley?
Tarsem's storytelling voice is all about awareness. His most telling movie is also his most brilliant, 2008's The Fall, about a stuntman who tries to commit suicide, and ends up recovering in the same convalescent home as a precocious little girl, who won't leave him alone. So he begins telling her stories. Immediately the viewer is aware that the stories as depicted in the film are what the girl imagines, not as the stuntman does. If you persist in confusion over this, please note the changing look of the stuntman's hero, who are various points looks like the girl's father (I like to compare The Fall to The Wizard of Oz, another movie that borrows familiar characters for additional roles) or the stuntman himself.
The stuntman's whole reason for telling his stories is to ingratiate himself with the girl, so he can trick her into giving him pills so he can try and complete his suicide. This is pretty horrible, but that's not the end of the story. It's the girl who forcefully insists on a happy ending, changing the stuntman's story when he reaches a bitter one so that it does. It's bittersweet and heartbreaking and uplifting in the best possible way, a movie of such insight into the human condition, so casual and breathtaking that I've never understood why even the critics had a hard time embracing it.
But it's because it's a challenge. Critics don't like challenging movies. I made peace with that long ago. They say they do, but they really don't. Critics are easy to manipulate, even though they say the movies they hate the most are the ones that try to manipulate. What they love most is the ability to join a bandwagon before the public does. In most instances, except when they want to join a public bandwagon (always the most harmless and least critical ones, such as calling the most innocuous superhero movies superb, as they did with The Avengers), they try their best to like movies they know the public won't (see: the Oscars most years).
And you would think Tarsem would be someone they'd love. But he started out with The Cell. If he'd started out, as Christopher Nolan did, with Memento (though Nolan's first film was actually the little-seen Following), something that was relatively modest in its ambitions, he might have had a shot. Instead, he turned out to be another Terry Gilliam. Critics sometimes pretend to like Gilliam, but more often than not dismiss him for the same reasons they dismiss Tarsem. It's one thing to be Tim Burton and to throw the idea of the artist all over the screen, but Tarsem and Gilliam, as incredible as it is to believe, are more subtle than that. Gilliam's Brazil, the one that made and broke his career, is in the end a fever dream of existential angst. This is the kind of thing Charlie Chaplin used to do, and even Chaplin struggles to be accepted as the genius he was. A devoted following, no matter how loud, must still be acknowledged for its limited scope. Chaplin never won an Oscar (he received honorary ones in 1929, at the first one, and 1972), the same with Welles (likewise an honorary Oscar, in 1971). Tell me how that's even possible.
In The Cell, Tarsem's awareness is about as plain as it can get. That's what hunting psychopaths is all about, and certainly the dream sequences. In 2011's Immortals, Tarsem deals with a depiction of Greek mythology that goes beyond the variety seen in either version of Clash of the Titans, where mankind's relationship with gods, and vice versa, is the source of the struggle, not incidental to it or some kind of game. There's a crazy king running around who seeks to "end the reign of the gods" by unleashing their predecessors, the Titans, so they can be wiped out once and for all. Zeus decides this is a bad thing, but tells his fellow gods to stay out of the conflict, even while he actively encourages the human champion, who never learns who the old man was who guided him.
It's very much a movie that you have to pay attention to in order to fully comprehend. I suspect a lot of people are more distracted than they'll admit. A movie that demands your attention, especially one that looks like it'll be a mere visceral experience like Immortals, is instantly frustrating, because it plays against expectations. Yes, Immortals is dominated by its images, and knowingly so, but to judge it only on those images is to miss the whole. And this is a movie with something to say.
Tarsem's next movie, 2012's Mirror Mirror, is far more direct in its social commentary, and perhaps even more confusing, as it casts perennial audience favorite Julia Roberts in the role of the villain, the evil step-mother of Snow White, who usurps a kingdom and gleefully embodies evil without overacting. This is a playful movie, but its form of the Tarsem awareness archetype is in pushing Snow White into a position of strength from her original position of weakness, all but completely hidden away until she begins to assert herself. And that's pretty much the summary of Tarsem's instinct, too. In all of his movies, a true self is struggling to emerge.
I realize that it's not Cavanaugh's job to defend artistry. But it was shocking to see him so dismissive, regardless of how much snark he tends to use in his movie remarks, of a talent I consider in such high esteem. Because that really is the general estimation of Tarsem. And I'm a little tired of it. What I'd like is to be pleasantly surprised, to hear about someone liking Tarsem, being as wowed by him as I have been, consistently, and in a variety of ways (which itself is a considerable part of why I'm still so wowed by him).
I look forward to seeing Self/less. I probably won't get to see it in theaters, but when I do catch it, I'll let you know what I think. When I judge a movie, I'm judging the whole thing. For me, a good movie is not defined by a good ending, but a good ending can help make a good film. A good movie has everything: a good story, good directing, good acting. Tarsem brings all this together with considerable regularity, and makes it work in concert, the way all good directors do. I like him, in the end, for the same reasons I like Nolan, I like Tarantino, I like Shyamalan. He's someone who looks at film-making as a full-on artistic possibility, a challenge to embrace with each new project.