Jonathan Glazer emerges every so often with work that above all is constructed by a powerful aesthetic. More than narratives, what Glazer crafts are images combined with soundscapes which immerse the viewer in moments of dread, hallucination and discovery. Moments which could have the feel of a common day action suddenly take on a dreamlike ambiance. In Glazer’s underrated 2004 film, Birth, Nicole Kidman plays an upper class New Yorker confronted with the possibility that a young boy is her reincarnated husband. His 2013 Under the Skin finds a silent woman played by Scarlett Johansson, an extraterrestrial in human form, drives through grey streets seeking male prospects for the purpose of consuming their physical essence for an unclear plan. In both films familiar settings, whether upscale dinner parties or gritty alleyways, are touched by extreme possibilities. But how does the artist respond to the world when it actually does become extreme?
Glazer’s latest work is an unnerving short film titled The Fall, which at only 7 minutes functions as a visceral piece of near-surrealism. In a darkened wood a group of people wearing masks with tense rictuses, almost of rage, shake a tree. At the top of the tree another figure, wearing a mask expressing a look of near resignation holds on but eventually falls to the ground. The others, snarling and shouting an incomprehensible chorus of sound, grab their victim and tie a noose around his neck before letting him drop. Glazer then allows the camera to linger on the rope running its course over what appears to be a well. The angry faces look down below, in anticipation that their prey has been extinguished. But after the rope has fallen into the darkened abyss below, we learn the masked victim remains alive, holding himself in place between the walls of the well, now attempting to climb his way back up.
The Fall is a nightmare condensed into a short film, one of the most difficult of cinematic arts to pull off successfully. Some shorts will attempt to compact a story best fit for a feature into a quick timespan, others will simply wander into aimless, neo-avant garde experimentation. Few directors have the capacity of a David Lynch to express a potent narrative through sheer images as in his own, legendary shorts. Glazer however, is in such a league. Before his debut as a feature film director, Glazer was at the helm of music videos for artists like Nick Cave and Radiohead, displaying a sparse yet elegant eye. Bodies and faces are always at the forefront. In Glazer’s first feature film, 2000’s Sexy Beast, what stands out is Ben Kingsley as a fierce gangster named Don Logan, who speaks with a rapid fire, acid tongue. In Birth, Nicole Kidman and Danny Huston attend a performance of Wagner after confronting the boy claiming to be Kidman’s husband. Glazer holds the camera on Kidman in her theater seat, for nearly 3 minutes, as confusion, sorrow and uncertainty all flow through her face. It is an astounding shot.
Faces are also key to The Fall, which is Glazer conjuring the state of modern civilization and its behaviors into a strikingly simple, evocative piece. The clan has gone insane and chases the outsider, now hiding at the top of a tree. Why this particular victim? His face is different, but then crowd madness needs little reason. All that is required to insight a mass panic is tapping into that most elemental mood, fear. The angry faces shout gibberish and that is in itself the reality of a populace gone mad. In the essential work, Diary of a Man in Despair, a Prussian aristocrat named Friedrich Reck-Malleczewen chronicles in his journal the experience of watching Germany descend into Nazism. Reck’s journals, cited by Hannah Arendt as “one of the most important documents of the Hitler period,” are written with the voice of an astounded, educated man aghast at a world going over the cliff. Passages state, “This mob, to which I am connected by a common nationality, is not only unaware of its own degradation but is ready at any moment to demand of every one of its fellow human beings the same mob roar, the same gravel-swallowing, the same degree of degradation.” He goes on to describe the crowds greeting Hitler on German streets as “in the spiritual state of howling dervishes” and concludes, “this people is insane.”
The Fall intensely captures this kind of mass psychosis. Glazer was reportedly inspired by a news item about Eric and Donald Trump, Jr. on a hunting trip, and has described the rise of Trumpism as a crowd madness akin to the arrival of fascism. The maddened faces in the short itching to lynch this one sole victim is a powerful visual statement on a world where social rage and fear is directed at any easy target, in particular those singled out by whatever crazed leader is standing behind the podium. Immigrants, Muslims, Jews, refugees, all are fair game in countries where old economic models begin to crack and elites would rather shift the blame. In The Fall, no explanation is given for the lynching, it has been lost amid the grunts and snarls. American history is littered with lynchings, assassinations and other atrocities committed behind the shallowest excuses. Today we fear mass shootings and other random acts of public violence inspired by hidden rages or broken minds. The angry mob in Glazer’s short has lost all capacity to communicate. Its language is a bestial howl. Content with their task, the mob walks away from the well, stomping and almost chest-pounding.
If the title suggest a literal and metaphorical fall, one the fall of the lynch victim and the other an entire society falling into a dark hole, Glazer does not allow his film to end on total despair. That one different face in the crowd, the one which finds its neck put under a noose, survives and must struggle to return upwards into the surface. As a visual statement the film implies we are currently in a forest of shadows, wandering mad, yet we can resist. A return to sanity will not be easy. The last few years have opened new chasms in the west, if not much of the world, which have unleashed forces still playing themselves out. Repression break necks and shatters bones in Iran and Bolivia while prowling for the undocumented in the United States. But the human will to resist remains. The Fall is a vision of plague and endurance. The short’s protagonist must carefully make his way up the well, step by agonizing step. One hopes Glazer will produce more work, sooner rather than later. By channeling the darkest recesses of the age, The Fall encourages us to avoid diving into an eternal abyss.
Watch The Fall here