At first, Judge Jesse Ataide wanted to pull out his hair. Then he recognized the brilliance.
"I like to think of The Falls as my own personal encyclopedia Greenaway-ensis."—director Peter Greenaway
Peter Greenaway. One of the most fascinating, bizarre, infuriating and brilliant artists working in contemporary international cinema.
Facts of the Case
With the release of this two-disc collection from Zeitgeist Films, one finally gets a look at the developmental period in Peter Greenaway's varied and distinguished career. Since attracting international attention with the The Droughtman's Contract in 1982 (which began a string of acclaimed films in the 1980s including A Zed & Two Noughts (1985), Drowning By Numbers (1988) and The Cook, The Thief, His Wife, and Her Lover (1989)), Greenaway has developed a reputation of being one of the most inventive, experimental and challenging directors of the last several decades.
The Falls is the type of film that I wish I possessed an amazing interpretation and could subsequently provide a brilliant analysis of, but quite frankly I was just as baffled watching this film as you're likely to be while watching it. While doing research—attempting to make some kind of sense of this massive, enigmatic three hour film—I came across a review that named The Falls as the film in contention with Andy Warhol's Empire as "the Gone with the Wind of avant-garde film."
As the first full-length film after the string of shorts found on the first disc in this collection, The Falls serves as his decisive entry into feature-length filmmaking. Set up as a mock documentary, the film is composed of 92 vignettes that detail 92 individuals who are suffering from symptoms caused by the VUE, more commonly known as the "Violent Unknown Event." What exactly the VUE is kept ambiguous: the film sets out to catalogue the supposed affect this event has on a number of people, most of which are related to birds. Among the common symptoms developed by VUE victims are a sudden desire to fly, taking on the physical characteristics of birds, and the ability to speak what are described as "new languages." The film focuses on 92 individuals, all who share the surname beginning with the word "Fall."
For the first half hour, I was completely baffled by what I was watching. Despite its immaculate construction, the film seemed completely and utterly inane. Then I suddenly realized that that's the whole point of the film—it's Greenway's trademark blend of outrageous content and rigorously formal style of filmmaking inflated to epic proportions. From that point on The Falls became hilariously funny—granted that I love this style of deadpan British humor—and it develops its own suspense by causing the viewer to wonder how long Greenaway can sustain this massive joke.
Somehow, he does. The content, and the chief pleasure of the film, is revealed in the details. Just a glance at the list of 92 characters, which include such names as Masicus Fallantly, Menemome Fallbutus and Castral Fallvernon, demonstrates the type of quirky, unexpected details that generate the content of this "documentary." From this list of 92 names comes some of the most ridiculous character sketches I've ever encountered—my favorites being the segment on Obsian Fallicutt, a film buff who studies Hitchcock's thriller The Birds so closely that he identifies a new bird species which he christens the "Alfred," and the tangled relationship of Ipson and Pulat Fallari, played by the celebrated directors the Brother Quay (Street of Crocodiles). All the while, the film takes a deadly serious tone that very effectively parodies the documentary form.
Like any documentary, The Falls is assembled from countless film clips, archival footage, illustrations, graphs, drawings, photographs—anything that would help lend a sense of authenticity to the film. This in turn means that the visual quality of the film varies from moment to moment with the shifting quality of the material being presented. But overall, the image is as good as could possibly be desired from a film of this nature; the same could be said of the audio, which features a soundtrack by acclaimed film composer Michael Nyman (The Piano). Sometimes the audio seems a tad crude, but it only serves to heighten the seeming authenticity of the film.
This disc is also packed with quality extras. The most important—if it can be called an extra at all—is the 44-minute film Vertical Features Remake, which anticipated The Falls by two years, and began exploring the style and content that would be developed more fully in the later film. Indeed, there are a number of references and images that appear in The Falls, including the film's subject: the enigmatic Tulse Luper, who is described as "Greenaway's best-known character and cinematic alter-ego" and is the center of the The Tulse Lupper Suitcases, a project which Greenway has been working on since 2003.
Vertical Features Remake gives the impression of being meticulously researched and reconstructed from seemingly lost materials, and makes most bona-fide documentaries look quite sloppy and haphazard in comparison. However, this is the type of film that is more valuable as an intellectual exercise than as a piece of entertainment. Not nearly as witty or droll as The Falls, Vertical Features Remake, while fascinating and rather amusing as a parody and in blurring the lines between what is "real" and "fake," cannot be said to be a particularly enjoyable film experience.
The extras on this disc include video interviews with Greenaway, which themselves are rather ingenious and visually interesting constructions, as well as being information-packed and quite philosophical in nature. He spends several minutes discussing each film, conveying both his intent and placing it within the context in his entire career. The other extras are the "Ephemera Gallery," which include Greenaway's artwork (collages), notes, original press materials (including photographs and plot synopses) and an extract from a British Film Institute Production Catalogue.
The second disc, Greenaway: The Shorts includes Greenaway's six short films that began Greenaway's career as a film director.
• Intervals (1969): Believing Truffaut's idea that "a director gives himself away completely in his first film," Greenaway says that all of the hallmarks of his later style can be found in this six-minute black and white film. Composed of clips taken in Venice (though none of the traditional water images of that fabled city are accounted for), it is repeated several times with different sounds, scoring and editing pace.
• Windows (1974): A series of images depicting windows from country houses in rural settings, it shows the documentary-like elements that Greenaway will develop throughout his career by narrating the beautiful images with rather morbid facts regarding deaths caused by falls out of windows.
• Dear Phone (1976): An interesting examination of the differences between how something can be read, and how it can be said and heard.
• H is for House (1976): Greenaway characterizes this film as a "home movie," and there is an intimate, almost autobiographical element to the film—which makes sense, considering it features Greenaway's young daughter. There is also a rather cheeky use of narration featuring a good chunk of the "H" words found in the dictionary.
• Water Wrackets (1978): Characterized as an "anthropological spoof," this short is composed almost entirely of images and sounds of moving water.
• A Walk Through H (1978): At 41 minutes, the longest of the shorts included on this disc, it's described as a "journey through a series of maps." The film anticipates the superior Vertical Features Remake and most especially, The Falls, both which are included on the other disc in this collection.
Taken as a whole, this group of shorts is more interesting viewed as exercises and a warm-up of sorts to Greenaway's later films. While the imagery is often arresting and they can be rather intellectually engaging, they are not particularly enjoyable—and even the ones clocking in at several minutes can seem to go on and on indefinitely.
An extension of the bonus features found on the Greenaway: The Falls disc, this disc also features a video interview with Greenaway, as well as another "Ephemera Gallery" with material appropriate to this group of films.
Even though this set comprises most of Greenaway's early cinematic output, I can't imagine this being a particularly good place to start exploring his filmography—while still containing the same rigorous aesthetics and off-beat sense of humor, his later feature films tend to be more entertaining and enjoyable than this particular collection of films.
But after watching and contemplating these films, I can't image one not being impressed by Greenaway. Those interested and willing to immerse themselves in this universe will find this set to be a treasure offering valuable insight and context to one of the most experimental and interesting artists working in contemporary cinema.
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