And he still sees the form as art. In a recent interview about Immortals, he talked about the popular "slow-down-then-speed-up" technique of filming action sequences — a gimmick that's at the height of fashion right now (see the trailer for the next Sherlock Holmes film) but passé to Tarsem. "McDonald's was doing it 10 years ago," he says.
Instead, he used multiple shots to film fight sequences where vanquished enemies are thrown out of time, their broken bodies drifting in the air like cherry blossom petals as their opponents spin to face new challengers.
When I went looking for Tarsem's commercial work, I was surprised to find I already knew some of his spots. There's the one with the kung-fu monks who all have a cryptic symbol on their foreheads that turns out to come from head-smashing a Pepsi can. Then there's the Campari spot featuring a erotic-noir chase between a man who is revealed to be a woman and a woman who is revealed to be a man.
Watching Tarsem's early works in a single sitting is fascinating. I've believed for years that commercials will someday be recognized as the haiku of our civilization. There's no market for the "short film," but the truth is that we all watch hundreds of short films every day, and Tarsem makes some of the best.
His commercials and videos are visual poems, detached from the products they pitch. Like poems, they assemble vivid images and make them strange to us; they refer obliquely to ideas and emotions that can't be communicated through other means.
And they betray their maker's obsessions — with masks, with transformations, with the invisible world of the mind, with children and fatherhood. The specific images he uses and reuses are very personal.
A lot of the imagery that ends up in his films started out in his commercials. Tarsem prefigured the entire opening sequence of The Fall — black-and-white, extreme slow-motion, set to Beethoven's Seventh Symphony — in a Reebok commercial. The amazing barbed-wire bull mask in Immortals seems to have its roots in a Nike spot (Tarsem's muse and collaborator, the costume designer Eiko Ishioka, worked with him on both projects).
And there's a scene in The Cell when the heroine confronts the killer for the first time. That scene takes place in the same bare-board room, with its same single rainy window, as Tarsem's 1991 video for R.E.M.'s "Losing My Religion." In fact, the establishing shots in each are identical, down to the poses and composition of the frame.
Is this an old apartment of his? A painting he studied? An image from childhood, or from a dream?
"I have certain images in my head," Tarsem explained to one interviewer. "It's why I get spat on by critics. . . . Most people like a good script, and, unfortunately, I usually don't start with that. I start with a good visual."
Immortals is full of images, set in a Greece that never was, filled with Brutalist architecture and medieval murals; the oracle and her priestesses wear scarlet burkhas, the masks of Hyperion's army are like something out of Guernica. Everything is lit with the diffuse clarity of an Renaissance painting.