Peter Greenaway: His Rise and 'Falls'
by Harlan Kennedy, 'Film Comment', 1982
Peter Greenaway - philosopher or comic, auteur or anarchist, poet or clown, sage or onion?
On the closing evening of the 1980 London Film Festival, British Film Institute director Anthony Smith mounted the dais in the National Film Theatre's main auditorium and announced that the co-winners for this year's BFI award for Best Film (scooped up in previous years by such as Robert Bresson, Alain Resnais, Bernardo Bertolucci, and Jean-Luc Godard) were Peter Greenaway's three-hour absurdist fantasia The Falls from Britain and Xie Thien's Two Stage Sisters from China. For close on thirty years and thousands of films, it was the first time a film by a British director had ever won or shared the award.
While battles rage in the world of movie form, and structuralism and narrative filmmaking fire at each other from either side of a Big Divide, Greenaway is perhaps the one moviemaker working today who is happily colonizing and cultivating the fertile territory in between. Impervious to flying bullets, he plants sumptuous stretches of hybridized horticulture. Greenaway's movies have blended the non-figurative rigors of structuralism - in which form rules and the processes of film itself dictate a pattern - with the associative resonances of narrative filmmaking. Greenaway is currently in post-production on his latest feature, The Draughtsman's Contract, a big-budget narrative starring Janet Suzman, and a co-production of the BFI and Britain's hot new TV station, Channel 4.
Greenaway is British cinema's Jorge Luis Borges: perfect form and pinpoint detail go hand in hand with a giddy flowering of marginalia. Around severe and power-backed methodologies - defenestration statistics in Windows, ritual uses of the telephone in Dear Phone, biographical dossiers of disaster victims in both his TV film Act of God and The Falls - Greenaway twines absurdist arabesques of infinite floridity.
The Falls, furthermore - its 186 minutes divided into ninety-two sections - is not only a giant and enchanted garden in its own right but a seedbed for the future of moviemaking. With the Spring-like burgeoning of home video systems and the falling demand for cinema seats, movies are moving ever more under the push-button control of individual viewers. Greenaway's epic - with its vast shaggy-dog structure of anecdotal episodes like an eighteenth-century picaresque novel - is prophetically tuned to the push-me-in-punch-me-out video phenomenon where the spectator has the right of "final cut". Prolixity, in doses of the new film-viewer's own choice, becomes not a liability but a new, free-form attraction.
The Falls is a hydra-headed biopic. It documents the lives of ninety-two victims of a "Violent Unexplained Event". Conjured into being as a modern Babel myth, the "VUE" has left its victims with the ability to speak one or several of ninety-two different new-minted languages (Capistan, Allow-ease, Hartileas B., etc.) and with a myriad of physical changes to boot. The victims chosen for the film are randomly picked from a total of 19 million VUE casualties because they all have surnames beginning with "Fall": from Orchard Falla and Constance Ortuist Fallaburr to Leasting Fallvo and Anthior Fallwaste. The events of their lives, both before and after the "fall" of VUE, are encapsulated in biographies ranging in length from five seconds to five minutes.
The result is a dovetailing of lawless arbitrariness with an obsessive orderliness that is spellbinding. Anarchist and archivist are yoked together in a demented bureaucratic acte gratuit, as if an existential poetry had blown through the corridors of institutionalism whooshing the dust off the filing cabinets and making the dossiers dance.
As alternating voice-overs earnestly relate the details of the biographees' lives, Greenaway's visuals provide a collage of initially confounding non-sequiturs gradually given harmony by their repetition through the film as leitmotiven: bird photos, paintings, shots of running water ("Sashio Fallaspy was a dreamer, Category One - Water - Flight"), and old archive footage (e.g. of Van Ricquardt's doomed "flight" from the top of the Eiffel Tower). The constant juxtaposition of images of Flight and Fall hint at the notion of an Absurdist Apocalypse which lies behind the whole film.
And indeed behind most of Greenaway's work. Spearheaded by The Falls, his films hint at terror and disorder in the everyday, cosmic fears camouflaged by British phlegm, the crack of doom concealed in the neutral recitations of bureaucratic dossiers. The half-hidden absurdist thrust of The Falls is the notion of mankind turning into birds as the dictates of some giant Judgement-Day mutation. Physical deformities set in, identities and personalities change shape, and human contact breaks down in a babble of half-formed language. Just as in other Greenaway films, tools of communication - from telephones and alphabets to road maps - hover on the brink of a comic-frightening gibberish.
For all the movie's length and rampant visual eclecticism, the cutting is swift and purposeful and the electronic jingle music (by Greenaway's long-time collaborator Michael Nyman) plinks and splashes buoyantly over the soundtrack whenever a new biography is introduced. Although Greenaway's style is predictated on a montage of static shots rather than on camera movement, his eye for set-ups and character blockings - e.g., in the front-on interviews with VUE victims - is so keen and quirkily surreal that it renders camera-movement almost superfluous. He will find the perfect visual relationship among setting, character, and camera, and the perfect lighting to sculpt the tableau into a bright, offbeat three-dimensionalism. (Throper Fallcaster, 13, sits in a bedroom shiny with seraphic light, telling bird jokes while a white egg on a string pendulum swings before his face à la Piero della Francesca.)
As a biographical marathon, The Falls is an elevation ad absurdum of Andy Warhol's dictum that "In the future everyone will be famous for fifteen minutes." Indissolubly blending truth and triviality, it is Pop immortality run riot, a parody of the mass-media age whose sacred text is Percepi est esse: To be seen (on the small screen or large) is to be. In the age of Truth twenty-four frames-per-second, or 525 lines-per-TV-screen, The Falls feints mischievously at falling in with the grand fallacy that earnest presentation is an imprimatur unimpreachable truth. Greenaway's brilliantly chosen voice-overs - sonorous and matter-of-fact - unite with sheen and clarity of the images to create a seditious, po-faced, unchallengeable purity. As lief attack the Great Wall of China with a toothpick, Greenaway makes the filmgoer feel, as unpick the sober monumentality of his movie.
In all Greenaway's films abstraction and adventure, structure and story, the earnest and the absurd dance in demonic equipoise. His work thrives on the presence of opposites and on their seesawing, vertiginous tension.
On January 16th, 1981, unsuspecting British citizens sitting in their sitting rooms were Greenawayed by the director's first movie for television. Made just after The Falls and similarly apocalyptic in theme, Act of God is for the unbaptized as spry and eeriely compelling an introduction as any. It documents, in quick-cut collage style, the case histories of a dozen-odd surviving people struck by lightning. There they stand or sit, slotted and streamlined into Greenaway's immaculate compositions telling their tales. True? Apocryphal? Exaggerated? Understated? The pro-filmic reality refuses to go on trial in Greenaway's movies: you accept it while you're watching it or the film dismisses you. (Act of God was enthusiastically received at the 1981 New York Film Festival.)
Viewers of Act of God will see: a married couple on a lawn behind their sprinkling-machine, reminiscing through the bowing lines of spray; a man relating his lightning experiences while sitting in front of open French windows beyond which a dark sky furiously threatens; an invisible interviewee's voice burbling through an unhooked telephone whose curved white back joins in a perfect visual arc with the house glimpsed through the open window behind it.
Throughout Act of God the editing is incisive, the compositions are icily stunning - David Hockney paintings vivants - and the camera itself is as starkly vigilant as it cuts from tableau to tableau as in The Passion of Joan of Arc.
Yet far from being rigor-mortised by its own doom-carrying deadpanness, the movie has a hilarious intensity. It's a hagiography of ordinary human beings rendered rare and holy by coincidences beyond their control - haply holding a seed of common apocalyptic experience is all Greenaway needs to grow his vast forests of statistical-biographical fantasy.
What matters, as in all absurdist art, is that logical methods work overtime to cope with the wildly bizarre. Greenaway's films have so finely shaded absurdism into the rational-seeming that you cannot determine where Truth ends, and Fiction and Folly begin.
The parody one-liner often bandied about at film festivals - when semiologists walk darkly about, speaking of "reading the text" of a movie - is "Have you read any good films lately?" It's an irreverence aimed squarely between the eyes of cine-critical pretension, but one doesn't have to take seriously the more pie-eyed pontifications of semiological textists to see that many films can indeed be read: that is, construed, decoded, raked for recurring themes and images. Greenaway's films are a feast for such delvings: not least because they make no pretense whatever that they are unicultural and "pure" of other art forms. Greenaway is a novelist and a painter as well as a filmmaker, and he gleefully plunders tropes and allusions from all media in his movies. It's another of the aspects that make him a moviemaker peculiarly suited to the video-cassette era. Consenting cineastes lucky enough to have their own copy of a Greenaway opus can unfold his movie labyrinths over and over again, in the privacy of their own homes, and espy new subtleties and crazy harmonies with each viewing.
Media cousins of cinema, painting, and the written or spoken word, figure hugely in Greenaway's work; not least in his best short film A Walk Through H. A dead ornithologist narrates "his last journey" through an imaginary landscape. The landscape is represented by assorted maps (designed by the filmmaker as Byzantine water-color mazes), and the camera roves them, occasionally interposing real-life shots of birds-in-flight.
In all these movies Greenaway the absurdist holds sway over Greenaway the formalist. A delight in human foibles seeps through the frugal intricacies of the form and the immaculate ceramics of the imagery. And the structures that human beings build around themselves to ward off the evil eye of chaos are the subject of the films' satiric fire as much as the strategy of their style.
Vertical Features Remake is the only Greenaway film, in recent years at least, where the director seems to be lured into his own line of fire. His last film made before The Falls, it's Greenaway's closest engagement with movie structuralism. Though the film's starting point is fictional-fantastic, it slowly turns into a near-abstract exploration of cinema form, bleeding its images of emotional association and using them as building blocks in a collagiste experiment with cutting, tempo, and the counterpoint of sound and image.
The film's title refers to the series of "vertical features" from the English landscape that were allegedly collated by the late, great, apocryphal naturalist Tulse Luper (before he died) and made into a short film. Luper's opus has disappeared, of course, and VFR documents the successive attempts of the sinister Institute of Reclamation and Restoration to remake the film from odd bits of surviving footage and related papers and photographs.
VFR's zany-skeletal raison d'être quickly disappears from view, however, being no more than a McGuffinesque pretext for what proves a series of (for Greenaway) surprisingly dour and formalist impromptus on a theme. As no less than four IRR reconstructed-films unspool before us, our eyes are snagged and spiked on a staccato of trees, pylons, palings, and goalposts, all set to Michael Nyman's music, hornpiping on our eardrums like a synthesized version of a Mahlerian scherzo.
Although structuralists put Vertical Features Remake, with its formal purity purged of all but a vestigial narrative interference, at the top of the Greenaway pantheon, its formal fandangoes for many of his devotees lack the comic-associative richness which is precisely what sets him off from other filmmakers fascinated by structure.
Greenaway quickly got back onto the wide and flowery path of his own magnificent obsessions. 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 grand repository of all Greenaway's mythic material, and a sound argument could be made that it's not the "last" Greenaway film but the first (to borrow some topsy-turvy Greenaway logic). All the director's classic characters appear here: from the legendary ornithologist Tulse Luper to Van Hoyten, keeper of birds at the Amsterdam Zoo, to Cissie Colpitts, without whom the Goole Water Tower would not be what it is. And every Greenaway fetish, from linguistics to ornithology, is gleefully aired as if it were the daily currency of our culture.
Is The Falls a great film or a great folly? Possibly, and plausibly, both. Certainly a great labyrinth, worthy to stand coiled and intricate beside Borges's stories and Thornton Wilder's The Bridge of San Luis Rey, two of the clearly discernible influences upon the movie. Like Wilder's novel, a fabulous fantasia of biographical miniatures linked by a common, violent apocalypse, Greenaway's film gives us a biographical mosaic whose pieces are seen to join only in the grand overview of a Violent Unexplained Event.
The harmonies and cross-references in The Falls, like those in Wilder or in Borges, are as vivid and haunting as in a piece of music. 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. Just as Borges builds his steeping structures of seeming nothingness with stones quarried from the real world of philosophy, history, and religion, Greenaway creates his symphonies of sinister systematisation from real-life material: philology, ornithology, institutional bureaucracy. It's a movie realization of Borges's mad-methodical cosmos Tlön, where "Metaphysicians do not seek truth or even for verisimilitude, but rather for the astounding. They judge that metaphysics is a branch of fantastic literature. They know that a system is nothing more than the subordination of all aspects of the universe to any one such aspect."
Greenaway's films are monomania made marvellous, systems made symphonic, delight twenty-four frames-per-second. The Falls makes its bow prophetically at a moment in movie history when the literary and verbal heritage of television, born of sound, radio, and the spoken word, is finding itself having to mix in more-and-more with the visual heritage of cinema, born of photography and painting. Film forms are bending into new shapes; media are interbreeding; viewing habits themselves will need to change and adapt to live and flourish. The Falls is the flexiform shape of cinema to come, and Greenaway a prophet-polymorph for the new millennium. Keep watching the screens!