The Early Films of Peter Greenaway 2

The Early Films of Peter Greenaway 2 (2003)

The Early Films of Peter Greenaway 2 first published by Movie Gazette, 28 Oct, 2002

Includes Vertical Features Remake (1978) and The Falls (1980)

This, the second of two DVDs bringing together all of Peter Greenaway‘s earliest experimental work, features the two projects which immediately preceded Greenaway’s first feature film, The Draughtsman’s Contract (1982). Both projects are whimsical mockumentaries full of Greenaway’s usual eccentric wit.

Vertical Features Remake (1978, 44min) is, at heart, four short films, each comprising virtually static images of vertical landscape features (tree-trunks, fence posts, etc.) which are edited together in precise mathematical patterns. As such, it typifies the structuralist methodology which prevailed in 1970s avant-garde film – except that Greenaway ingeniously pretends that the films are four separate attempts by members of the ‘Institute of Restoration and Reclamation’ to reconstruct a lost film by Tulse Luper, and he frames each ‘remake’ with a wickedly absurd account of the academic debates between film restorers and other interested parties which led to its creation. In this way, Greenaway has his cake and eats it too, making rigorously formalist films typical of the times, while at the same time lampooning the kind of theorisation which underpins them. The joke is funnier than it sounds on paper, although more fictive documentary and less vertical imagery would have been preferable, as the four ‘remakes’, each one longer than the last, are themselves inescapably dull.

The Falls
The Falls (1980)

The second film on the disk, The Falls (1980, 187min), features 92 curious biographies of people whose surnames begin with the letters ‘Fall-‘, presented in alphabetical order. These purport to be a representative sample selected from the nineteen million entries in a Standard Directory of sufferers of the Violent Unknown Event, or VUE. As the biographies, represented in different styles and full of vertiginous detail, gradually unfold, intersect, overlap and subsume one another, different views (or, in French, ‘vues’) of the possible nature, significance and origin of the VUE itself – which appears to have something to do with the human emulation of birds and the Fall of Man – begin to emerge.

The entries, each of which is in effect a short film, typically include the victim’s physical symptoms (many of which suggest partial assimilation to the physiology of birds), languages acquired (92 new languages arose spontaneously from the VUE), gender (the VUE created four sexes), age (fixed, since VUE casualties are immortal), attitude towards the ‘Theory of the Responsibility of Birds’, and a wealth of bizarre anecdotal material, all narrated with po-faced understatement. Some entries are censored, some are sub judice, some are listed in error, one is ‘ex-directory on medical advice due to subect’s allergy to public exposure’ – but all are intriguing, clever, and very, very funny.

Behind this motley collection of classifiers, biographers, ornithologists, indexers, filmmakers, linguists, documenters, collagists, illustrators and writers of fiction, lurks the mischievous shadow of Greenaway’s favourite recurring character, polymath and ‘the VUE’s master strategist and cataloguer’ Tulse Luper (who is listed in the closing credits amidst the film’s ‘advisors’) – and behind Luper is the unseen figure of Greenaway himself, of whom all ninety-two characters form a composite picture.

The encyclopædic format of The Falls accommodates perfectly Greenaway’s obsessions with lists, directories and alphabets, with numbers and statistical information, with committees and bureaucracy, with the imposition of order on chaos, and with music, film and fiction itself. The work incorporates references to all of Greenaway’s previous works, and also contains the germs of his future features like A Zed and Two Noughts, Drowning by Numbers, and The Tulse Luper Suitcases (which premiered at Cannes only this year). Even the BFI itself, which financed The Falls, appears in the film under the guises of the ‘Bird Facilities Investments’ and the ‘Bird Foundation Industries’.

Whether you view these two pieces as allegories for our fallen times, as postmodern reconstructions of films that were never made and events that never took place, as the sustained pedantry of a lunatic, or as a comprehensive encyclopædia of human absurdity and banality, they are ingenious, kaleidoscopic works that will boggle the brain and tickle the fancy. The Falls alone makes this DVD worth watching (and rewatching). Certainly one of Greenaway’s most accomplished films, its obsessively dizzying detail, endless digressions, and surreal humour are enough to give any viewer the best kind of vertigo.

strap: Vertical Features Remake and The Falls are two postmodern, absurd reconstructions of films that were never made and events that never took place

Anton Bitel