Yesterday I watched this film called The Fall directed by Tarsem Singh who did The Cell - I think he also did a lot of commercials and music videos - two films which are famed for their lush, over the top, visuals. Some cite them as amongst the most beautiful and visually extravagant movies ever made, some say they look like extended music videos and that they have as much depth.
I think that people saying that are a little harsh and miss the point somewhat, cos the film is certainly not without meaning, it feels like a real labour of love, an attempt to do something interesting... to muse on the nature of story-telling and the differences between what is said and what is understood. The problem is more that these attempts don't really work and that the differences we see are just not that exciting.
To illustrate better what I'm saying, I should say what the film is about I guess. It's set in a hospital in LA in the early 20th century, one of the patients is a stuntman from a film who has suffered a horrific injury while trying to jump off a train on to a horse or something - he begins to tell a story to a young girl who is there because of a broken arm, but it soon becomes clear that the story telling is really a ruse to manipulate the young girl - he stops at cliffhangers until she agrees to steal enough morphine for him to attempt suicide (is that really the best way to persuade her?). The main disparity that you notice straight away is that he describes one of his characters as "An Indian" and it's clear from what he says about him - his wife is his squaw, he lives in a teepee - that he is talking about a Native American, however the girl thinks that he means someone from India, and so you get the disparity that the voice over is talking about one person and the visuals which represent the girl's imagination show another. Now I'm not saying that that is, in itself, a bad idea, it's just that I don't find it a remarkable enough observation to hang a film on.
This kind of set up - where one character tells a story and this story sort of escapes the page and overlaps with life and somehow you end up learning something real and powerful from the relationship between the two - is not really a unique one. It's roughly the same type of thing as The Singing Detective or The Neverending Story, The Blind Assassin.... in fact I'm sure that if I put my mind to it there are many many more (help me out here), and they're almost all better than this. Cos the problem is that the story that the character tells just isn't that good, the colours and locations (and there are many many incredible locations, so much so that they have the opposite of the intended effect and by the end you find yourself thinking "I can't believe they went to so much trouble just for this") can't make up for the thinness of the plot, the lack of tension and the unsatisfactory resolution of every problem they face. And seeing as this "story within a story" makes up most of the film, that's quite a problem.
And, if that wasn't enough, to make matters worse, I didn't find the interaction between that story and real world that interesting either, there is too much telling and not enough showing in the linkages and ultimately the subtle beautiful incursion of one upon the other that you need just isn't really there.