Tarsem Singh and the Art of the Blockbuster

Tarsem Singh on the set of Immortals

Relativity Media

Before I get started, let me admit the following: I am drawn to lost causes in Hollywood. I count Brad Anderson among my absolute favorite directors; I still perk up when I see Adrien Brody mentioned in the casting rumors for a new film. Nothing fascinates me more than that thin membrane of actors and directors who are inarguably too talented to fail completely but whose faded status prevents them from taking on prestige work. It is the industry’s version of purgatory: creating films that still cost tens of millions of dollars to make but giving the talent involved neither a hit nor a flop to clarify their fortunes.

Now. That being said, I cannot understand why people are not more interested in Self/Less.

All the ingredients should be there. With Marvel’s Deadpool currently in post-production, audiences are curious to see if Ryan Reynolds can redeem himself as an A-list talent. Proponents of original science fiction narratives like Tomorrowland should be heartened by the original story belonging to David and Alex Pastor, writer-directors of the sleeper hit Carriers. And people craving a different type of blockbuster palette than those offered by Terminator: Genysis or Marvel Studios should welcome the practical effects and elaborate costuming that come with any Tarsem Singh production.

Despite Singh’s early accolades directing music videos and commercials, critical reception towards the director’s feature-length work has remained largely muted. Even ignoring 2006’s The Fall — Singh’s best film and the only one that includes a writing credit for the director – Singh has demonstrated the repeated ability to stick to his personal aesthetic despite working on blockbuster budgets. The (admittedly) subjective data pulled from Rotten Tomatoes, IMDB, and Metacritic all indicate a director who has yet to break through critically, though audience scores tend to be slightly more favorable (and most critics praise his visuals, even in their negative reviews). While Singh may not be a household name, the filmmakers that praise his work in interviews – including David Fincher, Spike Jonze, and Dan Gilroy – are powerful enough to bolster his reputation as an underrated auteur. Fincher in particular was instrumental in getting The Fall made; he has described the film in interviews as what would have happened if Andrei Tarkovsky had remade The Wizard of Oz.

It is this element often associated with Tarkovsky’s films – the use of tableau vivant, a French term that describes the living dioramas of film and theater – that gives Singh’s film their unique imagery. The Cell, The Fall, Immortals, and Mirror Mirror all utilize gothic costumes and bright backgrounds to evoke the aesthetics of art and still photography. Each film blends together gothic extravagance and an earthy spiritualism that may only be matched in contemporary popular culture by Bryan Fuller’s work on Hannibal. Singh began the elaborate staging of his images even during his advertising work in the early nineties, crediting the films of Tarkovsky acolyte and soviet refugee Sergei Paradjanov as a major influence. In a 1994 interview with Rolling Stone magazine, Singh explains how he tried to sell Kodak on Paradjanov for their newest commercial, only to be told that it was “not the kind of thing the new generation would like.” Years later, this eye for cinematic tableau is what keeps the director’s career alive and well.

The Cell

New Line Cinema

Adding to Singh’s aesthetic is his long partnership with the late Japanese American costume designer Eiko Ishioka. Ishioka – who passed away in 2012 – created costumes for opera and theater, including productions as diverse as “M. Butterfly,” Cirque du Soleil, and “Spider-Man: Turn Off The Dark.” In the ’90s, Ishioka won an Academy Award for the costume design on Francis Ford Coppola’s Dracula. Coppola would describe her work as being a mixture of Japanese avant garde and Western sophistication, writing in an introduction to one of Ishioka’s books that “beauty itself” was her medium. When Singh met Ishioka later that decade, he would tell the artist that an early published collection of her work was the director’s bible while he was still in art school. In keeping with Singh’s tableau designs, many of Ishioka’s costumes would also incorporate aspects of set design, with Carl Stargher’s robes in The Cell doubling as the drapery in his throne room.

Taken separately, either Singh’s staging or Ishioka’s costume designs would be enough to give even the blandest Hollywood movie a spark of life. Taken together, they create a world of onscreen beauty that elevates any narrative. Consider Immortals, widely considered to be the worst of Singh’s films. Critics of the movie are quick to dismiss it as a mistimed 300 knock-off, a mishmash of Greek mythology that catches both Stephen Dorff and Mickey Rourke at the nadir of their Hollywood careers. This may be true; I will admit that questions of CGI abdomens on middle-aged actors can occasionally make it hard to follow the storyline. Focus solely on the design of the film, however, and you have Singh translating Caravaggio paintings onscreen and retelling the Minotaur myth with a helmet made of twisted spikes. While Immortals might be Sing’s most straight-forward action film to date, there is also plenty of evidence that the director can find arresting imagery in a modern science fiction story. Those worried that Self/Less won’t push beyond its tepid trailer should remember both The Cell and The Fall exist primarily in the twisted perspective of their protagonist’s minds.

Any director who operates in mainstream films and still keeps an eye for the fantastic – including Singh’s preference for practical effects and costuming wherever possible – should warrant at least half-again as much praise as the criticism we offer directors like Colin Trevorrow and Alan Taylor. A lot has been written recently about the need for a better breed of blockbusters, but giving every aspect of filmmaking an equal amount of weight is severely limiting to those that excel in certain areas and not others. I would much prefer to see a director like Tarsem Singh swing for the fences and miss than consume another in an endless line of sanitized corporate blockbusters. The end result may grade out the same, but the process of getting there can be endlessly more fun.

You do not have to match my high hopes for Self/Less. I am, after all, a sucker for the lost causes of Hollywood. All I ask is that you consider Self/Less as an alternative to the type of summer spin we’ve come to take for granted. In a week dominated by criticism of Terminator: Genysis and praise for the revitalized Marvel Studios with Ant-Man – two movies engineered to succeed by staying within the audience’s comfort zone – let’s give a little love to a film that might risk being bad in the hope that it pulls off something pretty good.

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