In The Falls (1980), Peter Greenaway’s first feature film, Greenaway does what he seems to enjoy most: cataloging, numbering, and otherwise ordering the chaos of life. The Falls, we are told at its outset, is only a part of a much larger project, that of cataloging everyone affected by the Violent Unknown Event (VUE), which VUE is, per its name, never explained. Whatever it was, it happened, it affected millions, and in some way or another, birds had something significant to do with it.
The Falls, then, is concerned only with the 92 people affected by the VUE whose last names begins with letters FALL. Which names are then listed. Some examples being Orchard Falla, Melorder Fallabur, Starling Fallanx, Aptesia Fallarme, Pandist Fallaspy, Antopody Fallbatts, Bwythan Fallbutus, Catch-Hanger Fallcaster, Appropinquo Fallcatti, Agrimany Fallchester, Ostler Falleaver, Pollie Fallory, Crasstranger Fallqueue, Tolley Falluger, Erhaus Bewler Falluper, and Anthior Fallwaste.
A short documentary is then presented for each of these 92 people, in alphabetical order. The Falls is three hours and five minutes long. I did not watch all of it at once.
The Falls is narrated in a dry, British documentary style, but the content is more suited to a Monty Python sketch. The individuals affected by the VUE are, like their names, out of the ordinary. So too the results of the VUE, both physical and mental. There are mutations, obsessions, deaths, and the learning of strange new languages. Those affected by the VUE tend to dream about water and are fascinated by birds. Did birds cause the VUE? They might have. But why or how they did so is never suggested.
Every now and then during the three hours of The Falls one is given cause to think that, as new facts about more individuals are revealed, a picture is being created, and that by film’s end, the VUE will have been explained, and so too the reasons for what its victims suffered. One would be wrong.
The Falls is, in its dry British manner, quite silly, and not, I would say, intended to make any sense beyond the playful. Some of the victims are pictured, others are seen in the flesh, and many are not seen at all, fearing to reveal their mutations, or else they’re dead, or else they’re simply unwilling to take part in the documentary. Meanwhile, as edited by Greenaway, images concrete, abstract, and everything in between fly fast and furious to the strains of Michael Nyman’s music (with some occasional Brian Eno tracks from Another Green World thrown into the mix).
None of the 92 documentaries making up The Falls (minus a few names skipped for being fictitious of otherwise unavailable) are dull. They zip by. Yet, added together into one three hour movie, you could fairly call The Falls boring. There’s no story to follow. It’s one amusingly wacky oddball after another, the only changes in pacing lying in the differing lengths of each character’s bio. One feels a sense of relief when they’re short (or skipped altogether!), yet the longer ones are the most compelling. It’s the kind of movie one enjoys having seen more than one enjoys watching.
As for the ornithological angle, it grows ever more detailed as the movie progresses. A sort of movie within the movie has various characters tasked with naming as many birds as they can beginning with various letters of the alphabet. There are, perhaps, more varieties of tits in the world than you previously suspected.
In the world of Greenaway’s films, The Falls feels like an early experiment in moving from shorts to feature-length (or well beyond feature-length), without having to bother with things like story and dialogue. It plays like a short film that goes on for three hours. If that’s your cup of tea, you will, in some sense of the word, love it. If my description sounds in any way like filmic torture, you are advised to skip it and watch Drowning by Numbers or The Cook, the Thief, His Wife and Her Lover instead.
Meanwhile, here’s a two minute trailer: