The Falls

UK 1980, 185 mins
Director: Peter Greenaway

A record of a cataclysm that never was, The Falls is the epic, lengthy but highly-rewarding culmination of Greenaway’s experiments through the 1970s, channelling sci-fi, mockumentary and the writing of magic realist Jorge Luis Borges. The ‘Violent Unknown Event’ precipitates a catalogue of disastrous ornithological relationships across 92 interlinking short films, evoking a world where birds dominate and human relationships must be re-mapped.

The Falls is a splendidly witty three-hour trawl through 92 potted biographies of people who have been victims of a VUE – a Violent Unknown Event – and it is haunted by Greenaway’s alter ego Tulse Luper.

One problem with Greenaway’s ever-extending work is that it forces you to become a disciple or to walk away. How much time can anyone devote to the minutiae of his fascinations? The answer for me – at least with these early works – is much more time than I expected. Greenaway’s work was imitating the information age before it had even hit its stride, but it also has its old-world charm.
Nick James, Sight & Sound, December 2003

A contemporary review
92 surnames, all with the prefix ‘Fall’, from Falla to Fall waste, have been picked out of the latest edition of the Standard Directory of the Violent Unknown Event (VUE), and the case histories of these randomly chosen subjects, ‘a cross-section of people with very varied biographies’, offer an admittedly partial history of the world but the only practicable history there is.

The Falls gives an alphabetical account (in English, though there are 92 versions) of each of these subjects. Some of them belong to the same family; others cannot be discussed because their ‘case’ is sub judice; a few are in fact ‘fictional’ characters and therefore inadmissible. These short biographies (hardly longer than five minutes at most and sometimes much shorter) vary in their detail, narrative style and content; some use voice-ever exclusively, others include interviews, still others are enacted, but most impart information as to the subject’s language (no two subjects speak the same language), the effect of the VUE on the subject, and the subject’s view on the question of the responsibility of birds.

Admirers of A Walk through H and Vertical Features Remake will recognise The Falls as an echt Greenaway movie in everything except perhaps its length. The director is an enumerator and a collator of statistics, a cataloguer, a cartographer and a ‘classification theorist’, all of these roles being ascribed to him towards the end of The Falls. He is a monument of erudition (most of it fake) and a master of innuendo and the allusive joke, a writer of summaries and synopses, a reworker of other people’s material (notably Tulse Luper’s) and, perhaps above all, an ornithologist. The Falls escapes being pettifogging because it is fictional – the mind that created the film is at least as interesting as the film itself – and, alas, because it is LONG (repetition, ultimately, is its own reward and Vertical Features Remake was not repetitive enough). At a guess, Greenaway has two sources, Wittgenstein’s ‘Die Welt ist alles, was der Fall ist’ (‘The World is all that is the case’) and Foucault’s preface to Les Mots et les choses where it is said that the history of the order of things is that of the conditions which make a taxonomy possible.

But these are fleeting allusions, to be taken no more or less seriously than all the other varieties of jokes with which the film is stuffed. Some of these relate to birds (the Goldhawk Road is a recurrent location, references abound to the Raven public house at Stamford Brook, one character’s car number plate is NID 92, Arris Fallacie is said to have been born in the Canary Islands, etc …. ); some have to do with the connotations of all 92 inherently improbable surnames (whether through unconventional orthography – Fallacie, Fallaize, Fallanx – or because they are apparently contradictory – Loosely Fallbute – or because they are stunningly appropriate – Coppice Fallbateo the ‘art historian’ fascinated by the suspended egg in the Brera Madonna); yet other jokes involve spotting the fleeting appearances by luminaries of Independent Film Culture (or recognising their voices), or calculating that a certain long shot from the South Bank of the Thames must have been set up on top of the National Film Theatre.

But for all his cosmopolitan baggage, Greenaway is also, and perhaps essentially, the heir to a very English Utopian tradition so strongly represented by Tolkien and Mervyn Peake. Like his illustrious predecessors, Greenaway has ambitions to create a total and self-sufficient world, complete in every detail, with its language and nomenclature, its maps and place names, and with the Violent Unknown Event to serve as its Genesis Myth. Hence a certain whimsy in The Falls which is not to every audience’s taste. The question inevitably arises whether The Falls is truly an advance on A Walk through H, many of whose themes and devices it simply expands on. For example, the freedom to use more than a rostrum camera and voice-over commentary obviously makes the visual repertoire of The Falls a great deal richer, but the heavy directorial technique (emphasising commentary and montage) to some extent denies this potential richness.

The film is extremely difficult to look at, not because it is dull but because it is long, and it is sometimes positively tiresome, principally because of its whimsical obsessiveness. Additional viewings would undoubtedly dispel these longueurs by removing the need (or desire) to apprehend a totality – for after all, and this fact is extremely disturbing, its length and content are gratuitous and arbitrary. Here are 92 biographies, but this is only the taxonomy of a taxidermist, whereas the ambition is the world.
Jill Forbes, Monthly Film Bulletin, February 1981

Director: Peter Greenaway
Production Company: British Film Institute Production Board
Screenplay: Peter Greenaway
Photography: Mike Coles, John Rosenberg
Additional Photography: Erica Stevenson, Francine Winham, Peter Greenaway
Rostrum Camera: Bert Walker
Lighting/Grips: Glyn Fielding, Charlie Giblett
Camera Assistants: David Scott, Andrew Speller, David Bough
Stills Photography: Tony Poulter, Michael Nyman, Ian Lake, Donald Lazenby, Ripon Carter Archive
Editor: Peter Greenaway
Music: Michael Nyman
Additional Music: Brian Eno, John Hyde, Keith Pendlebury
Sound Recording: Malcolm Hirst, David Lawton, Diana Ruston, Digby Rumsey, Mick Audsley
Sound Re-recording: Tony Anscombe
Translator: Aet Nyman, Brian Sweetman, Sharon Maconie, Carole Myer, Tom Hunsinger, Maria Almendra, Gabor Vernon, Colin Cantlie, Lesley Wilson, Aad Wirtz, Elizabeth Ledward

Colin Cantlie, Nicolas Hayley, Peter Westley, Hilary Thompson, Steve Saunders, Aad Wirtz, Sheila Canfield, Ann Barnard, Michael Murray, Adam Leys, Barbara Grant, Lorna Poulter, Serena Macbeth, Ben Grove, Patricia Carr, Martin Burrows, Doug Wootton, Adam Leys, Rory Allam, Mary Howard, Ian Mitchell, Sheila Canfield, Keith Thompson, Evelyn Owen, Lucy Skeaping, Hilary Thompson, Carole Myer, Monica Hyde, Colleen Thomas, Neil Hopkins, Dewi Thomas, Peter Sacre, Keith Pendlebury, Robert Warby, Marcia Pendlebury, Brothers Quay, Tom Hunsinger, Martin Burrows, Maggie Palmer, Adejbo Nkasaggi, Maurice Tarling, Pat Whitney, Alicia Webb, Sandra Williams, Garry Morris, Richard Jenkins, Serena Macbeth, John Wilson, Lesley Wilson, Gabor Vernon, Rod Stoneman, Aet Nyman, Teet Toome, Reeta Toome, Artur Toome, Martin Pawky, Jeremy Tarling, Graham Jones, Chris Auty, Glyn Fielding, Chris Rodriguez, John Lea, Alice Skillings, Michele Osborn, Simon Fea, Kenneth Breese, Edith Lazenby, Nigel Algar, Nita Bird, Cedric Pheasant, Lucy Finch, Donald Lazenby, Terry Lansbury, Freida Jones, Pat Hopkins, Peter Sainsbury, Ian Lake, David Cowper, Sarah Cowper, Herbert Mullinger, Christine Metcalfe, Christopher Metcalfe, Lilian Mullinger, Marion Brame, Wendy Evans, Bob Godfrey, Mick O’Connor, Raina James, Chris Thomas, Alderich Asenbryl, Dorothy Bradley, Udi Eichler, Cathy Lake, David Lawton, Brigitte Kahn, Glennys Williams, John Hyde, Christopher Williams, Gillian Tarling, Russel Flint, Howard Milner, J.J. Czipri, Lucia Apel, Molly Nyman, Rachel Penfold, Simon De Quincey, Carlene Crow, Colin Hasp, Colin Berwick, Anthony Sloman, Peter Nage

UK 1980
185 mins

A Zed & Two Noughts
Tue 18 Oct 18:10; Sat 5 Nov 17:40; Sat 12 Nov 17:40; Mon 21 Nov 20:40; Sun 27 Nov 12:15
Peter Greenaway: Frames of Mind Season Introduction
Wed 19 Oct 18:10
The Belly of an Architect
Wed 19 Oct 20:30; Fri 18 Nov 18:20; Tue 22 Nov 18:10; Sat 26 Nov 15:30
The Falls
Sat 22 Oct 13:50; Sun 6 Nov 14:40
The Cook, the Thief, His Wife & Her Lover
Sun 23 Oct 15:30 (+ intro by Justin Johnson, Lead Programmer); Sat 12 Nov 14:55; Mon 28 Nov 17:50
Drowning by Numbers
Sun 23 Oct 18:00; Sat 19 Nov 14:30; Sun 27 Nov 18:00
Peter Greenaway Shorts Programme 1
Mon 24 Oct 18:10; Thu 10 Nov 20:40
Experimental Sound and Vision: Found Sounds, Lyrical Loops and Landscapes
Thu 27 Oct 18:15; Thu 17 Nov 18:15 (+ intro by author and musician David Toop)
Prospero’s Books
Tue 1 Nov 17:40; Sun 20 Nov 18:00
Peter Greenaway: Pioneer of Cinema
Sat 5 Nov 12:00-17:00
The Unreliable Narrator: Adventures in Storytelling, Documentary and Misinformation
Sun 6 Nov 12:40; Fri 25 Nov 21:00
A TV Dante: Cantos 1-8
Tue 15 Nov 18:20
The Baby of Mâcon
Wed 16 Nov 20:30; Fri 25 Nov 18:00; Mon 28 Nov 20:30
The Pillow Book
Fri 18 Nov 20:30; Thu 24 Nov 20:30; Tue 29 Nov 17:40
8½ Women
Sun 20 Nov 12:50; Wed 30 Nov 20:35

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Programme notes and credits compiled by the BFI Documentation Unit
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