London

Peter Greenaway

Riverside Studios

Peter Greenaway has written documentaries about defenestration and people struck by lightning. He has also written pseudo-documentaries about fictional characters such as the polymath Tulse Luper. The Falls, a marathon three-hour-long movie made with the support of the British Film Institute, employs, extends and ridicules his pseudo-documentary conventions. It examines the results of a mysterious occurrence—the Violent Unknown Event (VUE)—discussed but never explained by the characters. Of the 19 million victims of the VUE a random selection from the new. fictitious Standard Directory yielded 92 surnames beginning with the letters “F-a-l-l.” Case-histories of these “Falls” are presented in alphabetical order. The Event changed their lives completely: vision, height and weight altered as mutations took effect. Four new genders came into existence and 92 new languages were acquired by the VUE victims: Alowese, Agreet, Abcadafghan, Betelgeuse, Candoese, Cathaginian, Cathanay, Curdine, Egalese, Entree. Foreignester, Glendower, Glozel, Ipostan, Itino Re, Karnash, Mawdine, Mickelese, Untowards, Upthalian, Vionester, Wringer. Physical mutations included skin discoloration, contracted intestines, splayed or retractable thumbs, six-part hearts, incontinence, loss of fingertips, bone-marrow deficiency and wings. The stricken are fascinated or terrified by water, darkness and flight. The most disturbing change is that sufferers seem to be immortal.

Evidence is often confused. Some of the Falls are simply typing errors, names of places not people, fictional rather than “real” characters. Others are involved in court cases, have escaped or been killed, have no fixed address or are too shy to speak. Interpreters are needed, as well as interviewers and narrators.

The three VUE epicenters were the Boulder Orchard on the Lleyn peninsula in North Wales, the Temple of Piety in the grounds of Fountains Abbey in Yorkshire and the Queen Charlotte Maternity Hospital on the Goldhawk Road in London, all real, totally unremarkable sites lovingly filmed by Greenaway. Theories of the Event are topographical, ornithological or religious. For instance, Agostina Fallmutt’s thesis that, ousted by mankind, birds took their revenge by alienating the human race, is greeted with derision by experts and laymen alike; Ubsian Fallicutt is convinced that the VUE was a hoax devised by Alfred Hitchcock to resolve the unsatisfactory ending of The Birds.

Compromised though it may be by sheer self-interest, for Greenaway historical reconstruction—a compound of pedantry, anger, logic and perversity—exists in an almost operatic domain. Nabokovian in its narcissism. Pynchonesque in its Manichean morality and manipulation of infinitely detailed subcultures, The Falls has been compared to Laurence Sterne, though manic cross-reference and linguistic tours de force bring it closer to James Joyce. It is an encyclopedia of avian mythology; an encapsulation of Greenaway’s own fiction, illustration, painting and cinema; a scrapbook containing pieces of old newsreel, tatty animated collages, a complete avant-garde work based on the construction of the Royal Festival Hall and studies of still photographs from family albums; a guidebook to a lost Britain; and a compendium of British humor, blending irony and smut, eccentricity and schoolboy puns. A taste for grotesques and proliferation also make it a contemporary bestiary: Tasida Fallaby, the malodorous naturist with black-and-white vision and a double menstrual cycle; Aptesia Fallarme, the “Waterfall on Legs”; Ipson and Pulat Fallari, the twin trapeze artists; Vacete Fallbutus, the petomane (a man who farts for a living) who can wiggle his ears, blow smoke rings from his nose and spit 80 yards; Arris Fallacie, the lice-ridden Dutch kite salesman; Carlos Fallantly, the murderer who had an affair with a turkey; Afracious Fallows, the scrofulous ex-headmaster with enlarged genitals and a chip on his shoulder; Pollie Fallory, who before the VUE worked as a bird imitator and after it learned English again in order to become a woman imitator—all exist in the foreground of The Falls. The background is a directory to the lost and neglected. A single shelter on the promenade at Barmouth, a cooling tower in Goole, a yellow door on the Lleyn peninsula, the word “clout,” a photograph of a Hereford washhouse and hundreds of other ordinary details are suddenly shot through with significance by their involvement in a plot that, like gossip, has no plot at all. The burden Greenaway places on the viewer’s shoulders is heavy, but no heavier than what a reader would expect from a post-Joycean novel. In return Greenaway’s audience is rewarded with the materials for an entire alternative system of thought.

Stuart Morgan