The Falls(1980)

The Falls

The Falls


"One fine morning, I awoke to discover that, during the night, I had learned to understand the language of birds. I have listened to them ever since. They say: 'Look at me!' or: 'Get out of here!' or: 'Let's fuck!' or: 'Help!' or: 'Hurrah!' or: 'I found a worm!' and that's all they say. And that, when you boil it down, is about all we say. (Which of those things am I saying now?)" - Hollis Frampton, A Pentagram for Conjuring the Narrative


"Yet something frightening lurks in the song of birds precisely because it is not a song but obeys the spell in which it is enmeshed. The fright appears as well in the threat of migratory flocks, which bespeak ancient divinations, forever presaging ill fortune." - Theodor W. Adorno




"An interest in the possibilities of a filmic encyclopedia to rival the Whole Earth Catalogues of the early seventies and a delight in the manufacture of lists for their own sake were the ideas initially responsible for various projects that coalesced into The Falls. If an ambitious filmic encyclopedia of the World threatened to make the World redundant, and if the items in the lists were essentially unclassifiable, then so much the better.

In Borges's 'Celestial Emporium of Benevolent Knowledge' animals are classified as 1) Belonging to the Emperor, 2) Embalmed, 3) Trained, 4) Sucking-pigs, 5) Sirens, 6) Fabulous, 7) Unleashed dogs, 8) Included in this classification, 9) Which jump about like lunatics, 10) Innumerable, 11) Drawn with a fine camel-hair brush, 12) Etcetera, 13) Which have just broken the picture, 14) Which look from a distance like flies.

In this pre-Dewey classified list the common factor among animals is solely category eight and possibly category ten - 'included in this classification' and 'innumerable'. So initially was it to be with the victims of The Falls. But that would have left out the persuasive, investigative method of Thornton Wilder in The Bridge of San Luis Rey - a scrupulous study of biography, written to justify a coincidence when five unassociated individuals fell to their deaths at the collapse of a Peruvian rope-bridge. The proto-Falls needed a rope-bridge disaster and the Violent Unknown Event - the VUE for short - was invented, to throw nineteen million unassociated individuals into a sudden, far-reaching and largely incomprehensible catastrophe. Like Scheherazade's Sultan, the VUE would provide the excuse to gather together in one place a disparate collection of anecdotes, facts, apocrypha, fictions, visual, musical and aural fragments, incomplete projects, unfinished films, present concerns and future intentions. And it took the better part of one thousand and one nights to do it.

The Violent Unknown Event's initial record was to be housed in a VUE Doomsday Directory - a collection of case-histories of its nineteen million victims containing medical and linguistic details, brief biographical notes and perhaps some attempt to explain why the victim was a victim. Bonds of association evolved - not at least the Theory of the Responsibility of Birds; the VUE, it was to be argued - though there is room in the film for a difference of opinion - was intimately associated with the arrested metamorphosis of man into bird.

Since a film consideration of each of the nineteen million VUE victims, like a full-scale map of the world, would mock human effort, it was thought appropriate to narrow the field, if not the intention, and find a representative but random cross-section of victims whose experiences could help to elucidate the phenomenon. Selection by alphabet is random enough, for what other system could put Heaven, Hell, Hitler, Houdini and Hampstead in one category? Not unaware of the significance of the four letters, it was decided that all those victims in the Directory whose surnames began with the letters FALL were to be chosen. There happened to be just ninety-two, the number of presently known VUE languages and the number of naturally occurring earth elements. Like their owners, the ninety-two filmed biographies are varied and differ from one another in pace, content, style, mood and intention. Some are ironic, some humourous or farcical, tragic or pedantic, some sharp and concise, others rambling, one or two may be ingenious. Several have been censored - no surprise perhaps in the sensitive area of the biography of the living. The biographies are placed end to end in alphabetical order within a slowly building material framework, and evidence steadily accumulates to make a discursive, open-ended, non-definitive essay on the nature of the VUE and, since it soon becomes apparent that the evidence is largely film evidence - photographs, slides, private and public film records - an essay as well on the nature of film artifice and film conventions, narrative and otherwise.

The film closes with a credit sequence structured by the chorus of the VUE anthem - whose creation has been successively mapped throughout The Falls - and whose images are the film's VUE witnesses projected onto yet another screen. There is no mistaking you have been watching a film - maybe you have been watching a film of a film." - Peter Greenaway, The New Social Function of Cinema, BFI, 1981


The VUE Commission's 10 pseudonymous identities


The Falls was assembled over a five-year period from a combination of self-generated and found film footage.

Footage from Greenaway's earlier films, Tree, Train, Five Postcards from Capital Cities, Erosion, Water and Vertical Features Remake is shown in the film.

Musicians Michael Nyman, John Hyde & Keith Pendlebury appear in the film.

The Falls was the co-winner of the 1980 BFI Sutherland Trophy Award for Best Film.

The length of the film is 6650 feet, 2028 metres.


The Falls

  0. Introduction

The Falls Biographies

  1. Orchard Falla

  2. Constance Ortuist Fallaburr

  3. Melorder Fallaburr

  4. Appis (Arris) Fallabus

  5. Standard Fallaby

  6. Tasida Fallaby

  7. Lacer Fallacet

  8. Arris Fallacie

  9. Mashanter Fallack

  10. Squaline Fallaize

  11. Carlos Fallantly

  12. Musicus Fallantly

  13. Wrallis Fallanway

  14. Allia Fallanx

  15. Starling Fallanx

  16. Ipson & Pulat Fallari

  17. Stachia Fallari

  18. Aptesia Fallarme

  19. Corntopia Fallas

  20. Anteo Fallaspy

  21. Pandist Fallaspy

  22. Sashio Fallaspy

  23. Vyanine Fallaspy

  24. Casternarm Fallast

  25. Ardenaur Fallatter

  26. Agropio Fallaver

  27. Propine Fallax

  28. Cash Fallbaez

  29. Antopody Fallbatts

  30. Coppice Fallbatteo

  31. Agrendo Fallbazz

  32. Cisgatten Fallbazz

  33. Hasp Fallbazz

  34. Canopy Fallbenning

  35. Cole Fallbird

  36. Castel Fallboys

  37. Acataloope Fallbus

  38. Astraham Fallbute

  39. Loosely Fallbute

  40. Betheda Fallbutus

  41. Cathine Fallbutus

  42. Bwythan Fallbutus

  43. Menenome Fallbutus

  44. Olivine Fallbutus

  45. Vacete Fallbutus

  46. Astra Fallcas

  47. David Fallcash

  48. Bewick Fallcaster

  49. Catch-Hanger Fallcaster

  50. Clasper Fallcaster

  51. Felix Fallcaster

  52. Max Fallcaster

  53. Orian Fallcaster

  54. Throper Fallcaster

  55. Raskado Fallcastle

  56. Appropinquo Fallcatti

  57. Agrimany Fallchester

  58. Sitiarch Fallding

  59. Ostler Falleaver

  60. Edio Fallenby

  61. Shey Fallenby

  62. Affinado Falleur

  63. Erek Fallfree

  64. Thomax Fallfresh

  65. Zachia Fallgillot

  66. Joyan Fallicory

  67. Bird Gaspara Fallicutt

  68. Obsian Fallicutt

  69. Wrallis Fallinway

  70. Ashile Fallko

  71. Agostina Fallmutt

  72. Castan Fallockery

  73. Cottes Fallope

  74. Pollie Fallory

  75. Afracious Fallows

  76. Hearty Fallparco

  77. Sallis Pino Fallpinio

  78. Crasstranger Fallqueue

  79. Romanese Fallracce

  80. Ascrib Fallstaff

  81. Armeror Fallstag

  82. Combayne Fallstoward

  83. Geoffrey Fallthuis

  84. Merriem Falltrick

  85. Stephany Falltrix

  86. Tolley Falluger

  87. Vassian Falluger

  88. Erhaus Bewler Falluper

  89. Grastled Fallusson

  90. Castral Fallvernon

  91. Leasting Fallvo

  92. Anthior Fallwaste

 93. Other Characters

 94. Cast & Credits

 95. The VUE Languages

 96. The Lleyn Peninsula

 97. Fountains Abbey & Goole Water Tower

 98. East Anglia

 99. Animated GIFs

 100. Music in The Falls


The Falls

"In The Falls several semi-factional investigations of bird conspiracy were conducted by examining the poor and unsatisfactory ending to Hitchcock's The Birds. And there were cabalistic interpretations of various bird-listings in films... Special meaning was also looked for in local botanical names, Bird's-Foot, Henbane, Chickweed, Sparrowgrass and so on. And certainly flying creatures from Ganymede and Phaethon to the Wright brothers, Yuri Gagarin, Montgolfier, Amy Johnson, Lindbergh and de Saint-Exupery had to be icons. There were many smaller obsessional interests, like a fascination with English-language proverbs, jokes, nursery language, song titles and general wordplay, 'A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush', 'One swallow doesn't make a summer', 'Why did the chicken cross the road', 'Who killed Cock Robin', 'Bye-bye Blackbird', cock-a-hoop, hen-pecked, cock of the roost. A special place was also reserved for the feather-pen-plume held in Marat's dead hand in David's painting, to conjure up the ambiguities of the English quotation 'the pen is mightier than the sword' and develop them with conundrums of my own to support the supremacy of birds - 'If the pen is a feather, is the feather mightier than the sword?'.

The Falls was a watershed for me, containing a great many events, ideas, concepts and conceits which I have since expanded and developed. Its structure is ninety-two film biographies strung end to end, and its content is the examination of a Violent Unknown Event that affects some thirteen million people in north-western Europe, metamorphosing them in at least ninety-two different ways. The conclusions are deliberately left wide open, but there is enough evidence to link the event to birds and to the hubristic ambition of flying. But the film is also an ironic examination of all the ways the world could end, and it is not entirely irrelevant that ninety-two is the atomic number of uranium. When the film was made in 1978-80, there was every conviction that the atom could, and possibly would, be delivered by air one unsuspecting day, and that the aggressions of the Cold War, the antagonisms of the Space Race and the murderous cost of aggressive defence would find a final solution in a disaster from the skies." - Peter Greenaway, Flying Over Water, page 92

"The Falls is the magnum opus of this time. Now recreated in essence with all the new technologies of the 21st century in The Tulse Luper Suitcases - a project of peripatetic, picaresque encyclopaedia. I had always vowed to remake this essay every ten years - a goodly time to update a directory. Indeed The Falls did find its way into a book published in 1993 - twelve years after, and now it's 2003 and time to make a remake.

The original of The Falls was finally finished in 1980 and on 16mm with magnetic tape soundtrack. It is over three hours long and is divided into 92 end-to-end biographies of people who in some way have been apocalyptically associated with the VUE, the Violent Unknown Event, a phenomenon connected with birds - their flying or non-flying characteristics, their voice and song, their individual species habits, their man-manufactured mythology. Every civilisation in geography and history has had ambitions to fly. Here with uncertainties, ambiguities, vested interest informations and dis-informations is a compendium of human tragedies and celebrations, accompanied by the notion of birds. Audubon and Hitchcock are included, and so are all the familiars of the personal mythology of Tulse Luper, polymath, polyglot and sometime tiresome autodidact who had a mocking theory about almost everything.

A history of the world should be a history of every one of its inhabitants, but that, like the Borgesian same-scale-as-the-world map, absurdly mocks human effort, so a section of humanity has to stand in for the mass, and in this case, all those people in the VUE Directory whose surnames appropriately begin with the letters FALL - will have to suffice. The Fall of Man, but more significantly the great Fall of Angels that introduced discord into the world - are, of course, referenced." - Peter Greenaway

"One of the methods of binding the large amounts of disparate material of The Falls together is a recourse to the branch of knowledge - not so much of ornithology - but of bird-lore; not a scientifically respectable methodology - it predates the empirical method codified by the great naturalists yet it was based on an observation of a sort. For example - where did swallows go for the winter? Observation quite correctly suggested that, on late summer evenings, they flew higher and higher into the sky - so high they disappeared. Some of them surely went to the moon. Or they flew very low over water and by nightfall they had vanished. Where had they gone? Obviously those who had not gone to the moon, over-wintered under the water. Starlings flocking in the cemetery trees were undoubtedly the souls of the dead. There were robins with breasts bleeding for Christ and dead avenging albatross and magpies presaging imminent death and the giant bird, the Roc, blocking out the sun and babies who disappeared without trace - obviously abducted by eagles and the hut on a fowl's leg... these and many other such preoccupations haunt the 92 biographies of The Falls." - Peter Greenaway, Papers

"Many, many years ago I made a film and I made a lot of it in Wales called The Falls. It was three and a half hours long, extremely boring and really sort of test people's patience; but I made it deliberately as a browse film a long time before the concept of browsing ever sort of began. It's a bit like the old idea of the Albert Hall with the summer concerts. The Albert Hall was created with an ambulatory which you were allowed to freely promenade and walk so you could come in and listen to a piece of music and you could go out into the sunshine again. You could go away and get a cup of coffee and then you could come back again. This film was made as a sort of browsing film. You could enter and leave it whenever you wanted to and in a sense this ability to create arts, works of art which gets you away from the fixed beginnings, middles and end of a narrative form and creates a new way of approach, I'm sure it's going to be incredibly enfranchising culturally. I would support it and this next project wants to be very much arranged in that way." - Peter Greenaway, Platfform 2001 interview

"It was really a dustbin, to be blunt, for all the thousands of films I've never made - 92 films I've somehow not finished. In some ways in was about 92 different ways the world may end - a very current sociological problem at the time. It was also about bird lore, it worked out all sorts of systems and conspiracies - I suppose I was influenced by Pynchon, Calvino, and Garcìa Marquez's 100 Years of Solitude - all those grandiose, encyclopedic works. It was 92 different ways to make a film. It contains many aborted films, films that I'd dreamt of and knew I'd never make, interviews, photographs of practically everybody I ever knew - so it was a personal compendium of my domestic and social relations, a gathering of everything I'd done before. I feel it's the most innovative thing I've ever done; I suppose I didn't realize at the time, but that was important because the next film I made, The Draughtsman's Contract, was a new departure." - Peter Greenaway

"Confronted by The Falls, the average Friend-of-the-Earth of the early 1980s risks being gripped by the desire to understand and interpret. The scholarly format stimulates these desires, as do the recurrent intimations of global catastrophe (both Alfred Hitchcock and Dr Strangelove would recognise them) and individual calamity (the 'ICA' pages of the Directory would doubtless include Icarus, another celebrated 'fall'). But the suggestions of imminent meaning are a tease. Why doubt the film's insistence on its own arbitrariness? Why dispute the proposition that an ideal history of the world would be a history of ALL the subjects who inhabit it? Perhaps the true coherence of The Falls lies elsewhere. Perhaps, like Michael Snow's Rameau's Nephew, it is less a directory than an inventory of audio-visual possibilities." - Peter Greenaway

"It's an ambulatory journey to be taken a little at a time, perhaps to be fast-forwarded through if and when the viewer chooses. Certainly, there's no insistence on my behalf that people should feel the obligation to watch it all the way through at a single sitting." - Peter Greenaway

"I like to think of The Falls as my own personal encyclopedia Greenaway-ensis." - Peter Greenaway


"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... 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... Here are 92 biographies, but this is only the taxonomy of a taxidermist, whereas the ambition is the world." - Jill Forbes, Monthly Film Bulletin

"Greenaway's most brilliant film. It is one of the most astonishing films of the 1980s, virtually unclassifiable. It grasps the intrinsic eclecticism of cinema by the neck and shakes with all its might... What is most astonishing about The Falls is how entertaining it is. It has so little to do with what is usually considered to be normal cinema enjoyment. If it resembles anything, it is an awkwardly produced public television documentary that fails to clarify its facts and its point of view. But for over three and a half hours Greenaway weaves a mesmerizing, highly textured free-for-all that is, incredibly, immensely enjoyable. Once again, Greenaway's structuralist aesthetics are presented in a manner that is easy to engage. It is hard to imagine anyone else being able to pull it off." - James Irwin, Cinematograph

"Greenaway's films, in particular The Falls, find their place within a rather different domain of the modernist enterprise that that 'legitimised' by current avant-garde film practice, (this in spite of Greenaway's enthusiasm for chance and pre-ordained structure). That domain is bordered on the one hand by the grand English tradition of nonsense, honoured by the Surrealists as the tradition of 'objective humour' that goes back to Lewis Carroll and possibly passes through the Beano... Juxtaposed with straight images, the exhaustive detailing of the transformations wrought by the VUE conjures up a crack in the visual exterior of the world. Behind the images of the Goldhawk Rd, behind its ordinary facades might lurk a completely different 'order of things'." - Simon Field, BFI

"The Falls is arguably Peter Greenaway's most demanding film: an epic three-hour journey through the labyrinth of his game-playing imagination... The staggering complexity of the information crammed into these case histories makes the video format particularly appropriate; repeat viewing offers a relaxed way of absorbing the literary intricacies... Greenaway's principal achievement in The Falls is to have created a compelling and consistent world sustained by the conventions of the documentary form; however absurd or hilarious the revelations appear... The Falls is Peter Greenaway at his most engagingly bizarre and challenging, and further proof that he is Britain's greatest living film writer and director." - Chris Blackford, Rubberneck magazine

"The Falls is not only a giant and enchanted garden in its own right but a seedbed for the future of moviemaking... It's an abstract film with a strong undertow of leitmotiven, a castle-in-the-air built on sensate foundations and with real and shivering winds blowing through it... The Falls is the cinema's ne plus ultra of Poetic Pedantry: a hair-splitting hosanna to all things statistical, a paean to Pseudoscience, Edward Lear wrapped up in the Encyclopaedia Brittanica... The Falls is the flexiform shape of cinema to come, and Greenaway a prophet-polymorph for the new millennium. Keep watching the screens!" - Harlan Kennedy, Film Comment

"Some elements are familiar to later Greenaway viewers. Already Nyman creates an apt score. There is a magical surrealism. We have counting and other overlapping synthetic laws that restructure a slightly askew reality. We have a layering, so that many scenes add to or annotate others. Later, Greenaway does this with simultaneous images. Here the device is linear. Much harder, as one must not only create the alternative world, but also it's linear unfolding. Hence, this seems his most intelligent work... Fits the Prospero role of replacing God with a new logic. Love it." - Ted Goranson, IMDb user comment

"In a mad, mad, madly convoluted spoof on an educational documentary, Greenaway purports to explore the effects of VUE, or “Violent Unknown Event.” The director’s first feature, and the film that made him the new hero of the avant-garde, THE FALLS is an intellectually humorous treat of gargantuan proportions. With pseudo-scientific diligence he limits his study to victims whose names begin with the letters F-a-l-l. The wide-ranging catastrophes most often involve birds." - Barbara Scharres

"Intriguing, clever, and very, very funny... Ninety-two lifetimes' worth of ideas crammed into three economical hours that seem all too short... Certainly one of Greenaway's most accomplished films, its obsessive detail, endless digressions, and surreal humour are enough to give any viewer the best kind of vertigo... 'The Falls' is quite simply a masterpiece of apocalyptic idiosyncrasy." - Anton Bitel, Movie Gazette

"It’s a fascinating work filled with in-jokes, self-referencing and odd loose ends, with a light and surreal humour all of its own. It’s at the centre of Greenaway’s work and career as a filmmaker... Like all of Greenaway’s films, you’ll either love it or hate it. But for the former group, it’s a bizarre, idiosyncratic enigma that you’ll treasure forever." - Dan Emerson, Stylus Magazine

"The text is a formal tour-de-force that draws on the English literary traditions of social satire (Jonathan Swift) and nonsense humor (Lewis Carroll), as well as on French surrealism. But despite its impressive range of cultural and linguistic references, The Falls delivers us into a world of Greenaway's own invention." - Pacific Film Archive

"The film's dead-pan-zany commentary spoken with ex-cathedra solemnity by a rotating host of voices-off creates the most delicious snarl-up of pedantry and poetry in British cinema's history. The Falls is Moviedom's answer to Tristram Shandy and you should fall over yourself to see it." - Nigel Andrews, Financial Times (21 Nov 1980)

"The simultaneous narrative fragmentation and textual excess of the film are among its most striking features. More striking still is the fact that while it is full of birds and bird references, it would be hard to imagine a less beautiful, less elegant, less poetic film about birds." - Steve Baker, The Postmodern Animal

"Electrifyingly intelligent... The Falls is monstrously clever, undeniably inventive, certainly monumental, and terminally cute. Although impossible to dismiss, the film's most appreciative audience may be addicts of "Puns and Anagrams" or those who find Pale Fire Nabokov's great novel." - J. Hoberman, The Village Voice

"An elongated, meticulously constructed piece of fabulous fantasy. A fantastic, frivolous frolic... Not recommended for everyone, but if you want something hilariously unique and different, look no further. A spellbinding achievement." - Wayne, webmaster of

"There has never been a movie like The Falls and there probably won't be many imitators, either. It's a mad, flamboyant vision that couldn't have sprung from anywhere but the imagination of Peter Greenaway." - David Sterritt, Christian Science Monitor

"Peter Greenaway's three and a half-hour avant-garde masterpiece has to be seen to be believed... Wildly inventive... Frequently hilarious, highly surreal, and almost certainly unlike anything you have ever seen before." - Adam Lemke, Movie Miser

"It's not really necessary to interpret The Falls to enjoy it, not if you enjoy Lewis Carroll, Sight and Sound magazine, Magritte, the BBC, the kind of jokes small children love, linguistics, and disaster journalism." - Vincent Canby, New York Times

"The unending wealth of narration seems to have been supplied by a consortium of government bureaucrats, ornithologists, Western art specialists, numerologists, dadaists and possibly the Monty Python crew." - Desson Howe, Washington Post

"Makes The Cook, The Thief seem as accessible as The Frugal Gourmet... Methodically constructed, frustrating as hell at times, but also strangely compelling for extremely intrepid filmgoers." - Steven Puchalski, Shock Cinema

"Greenaway's legendary first feature film is a brilliant synthesis of narrative and experimental techniques. A tour-de-force of montage illustrating a vast, cunning chronicle worthy of Nabokov." -

"Confirms Peter Greenaway's position as an inspired absurdist and experimenter... a determined attempt to bring fantasy into British filmmaking." - Chris Auty, Sight & Sound

"For those who like riddles, acrostics, sudden excursions, romantic insights, and the eerie music of Michael Nyman (plus bits of Brian Eno)... come to Xanadu." - Time Out

"Giddy, hypnotic, intricate, and utterly delightful." - Hank Sartin, Chicago Reader

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Lacer Fallacet

Carlos Fallantly

Throper Fallcaster

Afracious Fallows

Armeror Fallstag

Erhaus Bewler Falluper

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Harlan Kennedy


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Ernest Brown

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Bird Cemetary

The Bird on the Hill

The Death of Marat

Emmanuelle Riva


A Feather at Night

Field Shadow

Forest Rook

Franz Reichelt


Levi R. Chase

Looking for Nabokov

Robert Falcon Scott

Tippi Hedren



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