Saturday, April 7, 2012


Peter Greenaway, 1980
Starring: Peter Westley, Aad Wirtz, Michael Murray

“I’d rather be pecked to death by penguins.”

Greenaway's first feature film lacks a typical narrative structure and is instead a three and a half hour satirical documentary made up of 92 parts of varying length. After suffering the worldwide VUE, "Violent Unknown Event," many survivors developed common symptoms resulting in internal and external ailments, mutations, obsessions with birds and flight, persistent dreams of water, knowledge of new languages, agelessness and immortality, though they are still susceptible to injury and certain diseases.The Falls is a small section of a fictional directory compiled of biographical information from all the survivors of the VUE and the 92 entries correspond to persons with last names beginning with "F-A-L-L." Some of the entries are cross references, refer to organizations like the VUE Commission, discuss the role of birds or flight in the VUE, or relate fictional stories by the author Tulse Luper, a character who would show up again later in Greenaway's multimedia multi-film series The Tulse Luper Suitcases.

The Falls is truly a breathtaking, inspired experiment and I'm surprised to find that it is quickly becoming one of my favorite Greenaway films. You don't have to watch it in any particular order, nor do you have to endure all three and a half hours in one sitting, an endeavor that is painful and rewarding in equal parts. Fans of Pynchon, Nabokov, Vonnegut, Borges, Marquez, Kafka, and Lewis Carroll will no doubt enjoy it, though The Falls bears a particular resemblance to some of the more absurd humor found in Monty Python. There are large doses of surrealism, social satire, and magic realism. Those who love experimental cinema should keep an eye out for an appearance from the Brothers Quay, who star as twins Ipson and Pulat Fallari in one of my favorite reoccurring story lines.

Thematically, The Falls is most concerned with birds and flight. There are multiple layers of references to Hitchcock's The Birds, ornithology, and bird mythology from around the word, namely the story of Icarus and Daedalus. Communication and language also has primary importance and the film is full of made up languages that resulted from the VUE. As in Greenaway's later works, he is concerned with list making, collecting, organizing, anecdotes and story telling and the blurring of fact and fiction. The incredibly inventive, well written vignettes help the lengthy running time speed by and allow viewers to remember characters and plot details and develop a connection to a story that only emerges through the brie, scattered fragments. The film is put together with still photographs, stock footage, documents, drawings and graphs. Like the later Tulse Luper Suitcases, it feels more like a multimedia adventure than a feature length film.

Though it is humorous and satirical, the film is also concerned with a cosmic, chaotic kind of terror that waits around the corner in the guise of war, disease and unexpected violent events. Communication breaks down on every level, leading to both the tragic and the comic. In a thoroughly British way, it mocks bureaucracies and the futile attempt to organize information and reality.

There is an excellent score comprised of music by Michael Nyman, Greenaway's regular collaborator, as well as songs from Brian Eno, John Hyde, and jazz musician Keith Pendlebury, who appears in the film. "Golden Hours" from Eno's excellent album Another Green World is featured repeatedly, as is "Jugband Blues" from Pink Floyd's final Syd Barrett album, Saucerful of Secrets. There is also a reoccurring adaptation of the second movement of Mozart’s Sinfonia Concertante for Violin, Viola and Orchestra in E Flat Major, which is used again in the later Drowning by Numbers.

The Falls received a British Film Institute Award and is a dazzlingly creative, rewarding work that will be particularly beloved by those who enjoy lists, word games, puns, literary jokes, and absurd humor with deadpan delivery. The Falls is available on DVD from Zeitgeist as part of their Early Greenaway collection. There is a single disc DVD that contains The Falls and Vertical Features Remake, as well as the two disc set with a second disc featuring several of Greenaway's experimental shorts and a number of special features. Though The Falls is surely an acquired taste it comes with the highest recommendation.

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