by Allan Fish
(UK 1980 187m) DVD1/2
Violent Unknown Events
p Peter Greenaway d/w Peter Greenaway ph Mike Coles, John Rosenberg ed Peter Greenaway m Michael Nyman, Brian Eno, John Hyde, Keith Pendlebury
Colin Cantile, Peter Westley, Aad Wirtz, Michael Murray, Lorna Poulter, Patricia Carr, Adam Leys,
Self-indulgent? Overlong? Very much so, yet also full of genius, Peter Greenaway’s mindbender is one of the forgotten great films of the 1980s. But how on earth can one sum it up? Essentially we are told there has been on earth what has been described as a VUE (Violent Unknown Event). There are numerous theories, many of which centre around birds and flight obsession in general. 19,000,000 people have been affected by this event (which is never explained or referred to as anything other than as a VUE), and The Falls is a sort of mockumentary (shot in 92 languages, this is the English version) in which 92 people whose surname begins with the letters F, A, L and L (hence Falls), are discussed in detail. Some of these discussions last only a few seconds, some over ten minutes, yet all are interrelated in theme and in some cases, by fate. From Orchard Falla to Anthior Fallwaste, we are taken through them in rather punctilious detail.
It opens with Michael Nyman’s idiosyncratic music as the list of 92 are read out, and it reads rather like a dramatis personae dreamt up by W.C.Fields, with such names as Melorder Fallaburr, Lacer Fallacet (owner of the Korova Milkbar in A Clockwork Orange perhaps), Squaline Fallatize, Corntopia Fallas (worthy of Russ Meyer that one), Canopy Fallbenning, Loosely Fallbute, Catch-Hanger Fallcaster, Hearty Fallparco and, best of all, Crasstranger Fallqueue. It sounds absurd and that’s exactly what it is, over three hours of absolute madness. It’s like a cinematic cocktail with mixtures of Jacques Rivette, Franz Kafka, Lewis Carroll, Bill Fields, Monty Python and the Goons. Not to mention, of course, Greenaway’s most famous creation, the fictional ornithologist Tulse Luper. And there are consequently too many laugh-out-loud moments to count, from discussions about how the VUE made people sterile, to the very first Fall buying a house next to a runway on Zurich airport after selling up her previous homes full of terminal furniture from airports around the world; from flying dogs at 2,000 feet to a Fall being fined three kröner for exercising a dog in public without a lead; from two little girls spending summer with a red fold away chair, one sleeping a lot, to one who could do miracles with his own body; and from a parent drowned in a ship’s swimming pool to someone being charged with misconduct with a mynah. This description says it all; “Starling Fallanx, singer, firework enthusiast, wanderer, collector of berets, bird hats and cardboard boxes, authority on the nightingale, was struck down by the VUE near a late-flowering Hawthorn bush on the road into the Manifold Valley.” Spike Milligan would have been proud.
So what exactly does it all mean? Your guess is as good as mine, but it’s one of those films that, while one can see the objections that would be made by mainstream cinema-goers raised on a diet of Indiana Jones and Luke Skywalker, for the more shall we say adventurous filmgoer it’s an absolute treat. We don’t care that it’s overlong – it’s this length solely because of Greenaway’s obsession with the number 92 (as witness The Tulse Luper Suitcases, Greenaway’s ongoing project in the new millennium again based around the number 92). There were other cherished pieces of nonsense around this time – the film of Vivian Stenshall’s Sir Henry at Rawlinson End, to name one – and of course there were Greenaway’s own even earlier films, including the similarly Luper-dominated A Walk Through H. It’s like going down the rabbit hole for three hours and, upon reaching the nirvana of 92m, one almost expects the Star Gate to open and a giant bird to appear from the top of the Pyramid of Khufu. (Well, maybe not the pyramid, this is Greenaway after all – let’s say the Air Traffic Control Tower at Heathrow Airport). Sometimes greatness can be achieved in sublime moments and this has them to spare. How can you not like a film which includes the priceless line “I’d rather be pecked to death by penguins”?