Review of The Falls (1980)

Moving picture, 3.2 hours

Peter Greenaway (writer-director).

Seen in 2016.

A Violent Unknown Event (VUE, view) occurring at an unspecified time and place has killed many. Survivors affected but not immediately killed by the VUE are identifiable by their physical mutations, systematized dream patterns, mental derangements, and massive changes in language, as charted in this series of biographies.

Literary wank. The basic premise and subject of the narrative are science fiction, reminiscent of Ishikawa’s “Where do the Birds Fly Now?” (1971), but unlike Ishikawa, Greenaway shies away from every trope of science fiction as a genre of cinema.

In a different writer’s hands, the basic ideas here could have become The Birds (1963) (explicitly referenced in this film’s 68th and 69th chapters), The Crazies (1973) or Pontypool (2008), but Greenaway is clearly not interested in anything so banal as mimesis. True to the form of minimally plotted “literary” fiction, he does his best to fail to describe or explain the event and its consequences. He fails continuously and purposefully, in joyously complex prose, full of peculiar names and vocabulary, drily delivered by a series of narrators, translators and talking-head experts, all of whom take the task of failure seriously.

To illustrate grotesque deformities, Greenaway uses only a bit of splotchy red cosmetics in one sequence, otherwise eschewing the craft of special effects. Similarly, there is little movement in the film as a whole, little synchronized sound, and repetitive music by Michael Nyman.

The result is profoundly silly and this is partly intended. The individual episodes are rarely very imaginative, but I sat through it with constant mild amusement at the density of its intricate web of references to itself, to other early work by Greenaway, and to history. As the script states in its 4th chapter, “Well, the coincidences seem inexhaustible, obviously. But I leave it entirely to the experts.”

The main source of entertainment here is Greenaway’s obsessive, self-conscious system-building itself. It’s similar to Wes Anderson’s style but lacks Anderson’s visual focus and talent. The early Greenaway—this is his first feature film—is so much more of a novelist that watching this is indistinguishable from reading, which is strange considering his love of painting.

moving picture fiction