Film (1980). British Film Institute. Directed by Peter Greenaway. Written by Greenaway. 187 minutes. Colour.
Perhaps the most elliptical Disaster in sf Cinema, the Violent Unknown Event (VUE) has killed an unspecified number of people and afflicted 19 million others with bizarre symptoms including physical mutation (see Mutants), recurring dreams of water, sexual quadromorphism, the spontaneous acquisition of new languages, an obsession with birds, and Immortality. Years later, The Falls presents biographies of 92 VUE victims – arranged alphabetically by surname from "Orchard Falla" to "Anthior Fallwaste" – ostensibly culled from a larger, error-strewn and constantly-under-revision Directory of VUE survivors.
The nature of the VUE is never made clear, though it may be "the responsibility of birds"; The Birds (1963) is referenced throughout, and The Falls may be viewed as an unofficial Sequel by Other Hands or Parody. A secret history of human flight dating back to Icarus is hinted at, but it is equally likely that the VUE may be a massive hoax concocted by the elusive polymath Tulse Luper – who seems to be lurking inside the Directory in a variety of disguises – or by his enemies in the murderous Society for Ornithological Extermination. The (frequently hilarious) biographies – read by a variety of authoritative-sounding narrators in a parody of official UK documentaries – build into a series of nested, contradictory narratives set in a subtly-transformed post-apocalyptic Alternate World. The Falls is a rare cinematic example of an sf Fabulation.
This huge and compendious film is the culmination of Peter Greenaway's early career as an experimental director. Shorts such as Water Wrackets (1978) and A Walk Through H: The Reincarnation of an Ornithologist (1978) juxtapose deadpan narration of imaginary worlds with disconnected and allusive imagery; here, as in The Falls, Greenaway displays an affectionate suspicion for documentary, and for categorizing systems in general. His next feature – The Draughtsman's Contract (1982) – saw him move into (comparatively) more conventional narratives and established his reputation as a major international arthouse film-maker. All of his narrative films feel fantastically displaced from the normal conventions of cinematic realism, though only a few – most notably Prospero's Books (1991) – could properly be described as fantasy. Much of his later work consciously tests the audience's tolerance for extremes of the erudite and the grotesque, leaving The Falls as one of his more accessible – and funny – films. [DO]
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