Combustible Celluloid
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With: Peter Westley, Aad Wirtz, Michael Murray, Lorna Poulter, Patricia Carr, Adam Leys, Mary Howard, Sheila Canfield, Evelyn Owen, Hilary Thompson, Carole Meyer, Monica Hyde, Colleen Thomas, Neil Hopkins, Dewi Thomas
Written by: Peter Greenaway
Directed by: Peter Greenaway
MPAA Rating: Unrated
Running Time: 195
Date: 01/01/1980

The Falls (1980)

3 1/2 Stars (out of 4)

The 'Falls' Guy

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

One of the cinema's more bizarre current practitioners, Peter Greenaway has as many fans as he does detractors. Educated film scholars have spouted volumes about his brilliance, while equally educated film critics tend to dismiss him in a well-placed capsule review.

His The Cook, the Thief, His Wife and Her Lover (1990) was an art house hit, but some of his other films, The Baby of Macon (1993), for example, found quite a bit less acceptance.

Born in Wales, Greenaway studied art and worked as an editor on educational and industrial films. In 1982 he broke out with the hit "The Draughtsman's Contract," but what happened in-between?

A new two-disc box set from Zeitgeist Films, The Early Films of Peter Greenaway, now sheds light on the mystery; it very concisely connects the man with his work.

The first disc contains six of Greenaway's short films, beginning with Intervals (1969), Windows (1974), Dear Phone (1976), H Is for House (1976), A Walk Through H (1978) and Water Wrackets (1978).

Unexpectedly, some of these shorts, especially Windows, reveal a heretofore hidden sense of humor. Over the course of four minutes, a narrator describes the various forms and statistics behind a year's worth of suicides, all having jumped (or been pushed from) windows. While the narrator drones on, Greenaway's camera records several idyllic and sometimes even beautiful windows and their views beyond.

Windows also explains how the director's work on the industrial films eventually came to bear on his own work.

The second disc comes with a longer film, the 44-minute Vertical Features Remake (1978) as well as Greenaway's feature debut, the extraordinary, 195-minute The Falls (1980).

Set in the future, The Falls is as unique as any film ever made. It outlines 92 case histories, each with a last name beginning with the letters f-a-l-l.

Each of these people was affected in some way by something called the "Violent Unknown Event," or VUE for short. Each now has some unusual new physical problem, as well as some kind of interest or obsession with birds, flight or elements thereof. (Ironically, the title, "falls," is more or less the opposite of "flight.")

Several more droning, British narrators tell the stories of these subjects, while Brian Eno's music cues the beginning and the ending of each segment. Sometimes we see the subjects on camera, and sometimes only in photographs. Some of the segments go on for five or more minutes, while some last only a few seconds.

What's truly striking is the level of inventiveness that went into each of these vignettes. It's a whopper of a film, and it must have been one massive screenplay, but each word is carefully chosen, not only for the way it fits into the overall discourse, but also for laughs. Some of the case histories wind up as funny or as bizarre as anything Monty Python ever performed.

The Falls breaks down into a wealth of footage, photographs, drawings and charts, sometimes photographed straight on like a scientific study, and sometimes shown with artful intent (specific lighting, POV shots, etc.). It's almost a film school all by itself.

While The Falls is a must see, not all of the films in this box set will hit their mark, just like with Greenaway's subsequent features. Plus, people already inducted into the "club" (i.e. anyone who already knows about Greenaway's fictitious muse Tulse Luper) will have an advantage.

But any filmmaker willing to attempt to aggravate their viewers -- as well as enlighten or entertain them -- definitely has a place in my heart.

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