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Ever since 1981, when MTV entered American homes and changed the way we look at the things we look at, it has been a truism that music-video directors are a lesser breed than directors of real art forms like film. And ever since Julien Temple crossed over from Janet Jackson mini-movies to Absolute Beginners, this truism has been disproved repeatedly. Music videos expanded the repertoire of rock images, brought wit and irony to the usual rock-star posturing, and introduced a new visual vernacular—all innovations immediately adapted for other short-form graphic showcases, like advertisements. By now, movies and music videos are inextricably bound; which feeds which more conceptual novelty has become an exploding-chicken-vs.-slo-mo-spinning-egg question.
Then again, big-screen success isn’t guaranteed every music-vid talent, even one who has directed one of the greatest videos of all time, R.E.M.’s “Losing My Religion.” Tarsem Singh, a TV-commercial veteran as well, has a gift for filling the screen with evocative, splendid, and nightmarish images. The former Harvard Business School and Pasadena Art Center student also has an uncanny facility for editing his work into rhythms that elicit maximum power from the short form, and he’s as sensitive to sound as he is to sights.
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All of which made Singh a natural choice to direct The Cell, a phantasmagoric, new-millennium Silence of the Lambs-style psychological-pursuit movie that proposes to probe the mind of a serial killer from the inside. But things went horribly wrong even before the shoot began, starting with the script. Mark Protosevich’s first screenplay involves Catherine Deane, a mind-bogglingly beautiful psychologist (Jennifer Lopez) testing a scientifically absurd new therapy technique that allows her to “enter” the thoughts of a comatose subject through what the movie calls a “neural transfer.”
She is working on retrieving a young boy whose fear of the bogeyman keeps him mentally trapped in a spectacular desertscape, through which Catherine floats beatifically in a gown of white feathers. A series of laughable coincidences leads to an opportunity for Catherine and the scientists who monitor the transfer experiments (Marianne Jean-Baptiste and Dylan Baker) to explore the brain of Carl Stargher (Vincent D’Onofrio), the man whom the FBI has nailed as responsible for the grisly, elaborate torture, murder, and fancy fetishization of many young women. (It seems the only thing that will not change in the cinematic near-future, when everything in the world will come in tasteful shades of gray, is that men will continue to prey on young women. Let’s hear it for traditional American values!)
The Cell should be the kind of saturated visual experience that renders all plot foolishness moot, like Dark City or The Matrix, but because the terms of the interior fantasies are connected to the purported science of the experiment, the entire structure collapses thanks to Protosevich’s shoddy construction. Short of the creaky Dr. No-era machinery of the fully automated torture chamber, Stargher’s accommodating habits (like having the foresight to own an extremely rare dog bought from a licensed breeder as well as a distinctive vehicle), and the FBI’s lucky breaks, Protosevich can’t be bothered to come up with a plausible way to land a comatose serial killer in an experimental lab.
Once there, Stargher’s brain is an open book for the curvaceous Miss Deane, but the rules of this particular engagement are too fuzzy to transport us. The neural crossover is depicted both from her point of view and from an omniscient, though claustrophobic, one—Catherine experiences Stargher’s interior landscape, but we watch her experience it as well. Amid stunning, showoffy art direction, she encounters a broken and fearful child—Stargher in his youth—and watches him suffer at the hands of a sadistic father. It’s worth noting that the brutality wrought upon the boy is your common, garden-variety bad-father business, hardly in proportion to the intricate, lengthy, staggeringly obscene treatment to which Stargher subjects his victims; this gap answers the one psychologically valid question raised by the script: Does the grown man a victimized child becomes have a choice in whether he too becomes a predator?
Anyone who has been riveted by The Cell’s trailer might imagine that even a plot so careless, so goofy, can be redeemed by the sumptuous, frightening vividness of Singh’s imagination. But given the opportunity to romp through the fetid subterranean slime and elaborate fantasies at a madman’s deepest core, the director finds…a century of art history. Apparently, Stargher is repressing another childhood trauma—accidentally swallowing Robert Hughes’ entire oeuvre, tome by tome. Singh offers little psychological or narrative context for the Kabukilike Stargher “King” character with the Divine eyebrows or the hag-faced grinning mermaid beyond their obvious noncomatose corollaries. And he has no excuse for the Damien Hirst-style horse sliced into segments by glass panes, which is the viewer’s first clue that Singh isn’t in it for the plot.
The Cell is a showcase for an art-obsessed youngster and his pals—production designer Tom Fodon, director of photography Paul Laufer, brilliant costume designer Eiko Ishioka—to run wild with everything they know and charge people cash money for the spectacle. Stargher keeps shelves full of nasty little dolls customized to reflect both his sickest fantasies and his impressive grasp of art history, from Alice Neel’s nudes to Max Ernst’s bird-headed women to Oskar Schlemmer’s balletic Bauhaus abstractions; the deep-brain visions of his victims also include Degas’ 14-year-old dancer. Singh is not a painting snob—fetish photographer Joel-Peter Witkin is well represented, as one might expect, as are the static, ominous interiors of Andrei Tarkovsky’s films. The ostentation with which these references are flung in the viewer’s face is as insulting as the images are beautiful: They are not meant to connect to the inner workings of a killer’s mind or to a plausible cop-pursuit story—or to a feature-length film, for that matter.
Singh, for all his undeniable talent and extraordinary vision, has given a bad name to earning these qualities in the salt mines of pop videos. With The Cell, he has mastered only one aspect of the big-screen leap: He has made the most amazing trailer ever. CP