by Simon Field
'The New Social Function of Cinema', BFI, 1981
"They were learning to draw," the Dormouse went on, yawning and rubbing its eyes, for it was getting very sleepy; "and they drew all manner of things - everything that begins with an M - "
"Why with an M?", said Alice.
"Why not?", said the March Hare.
As Peter Greenaway's oeuvre begins to amass (the verb seems particularly appropriate in the corner of THE FALLS, building as it does on the mythology of A WALK THROUGH H and VERTICAL FEATURES REMAKE) the paradoxical place of oeuvre within the spectrum of independent film-making in this country becomes more apparent. It would not, one suspects, find a place within the ubiquitous model of two avant-gardes. Neither political in ambition, on the one hand, nor radically 'formalist' or 'materialist' on the other. It bears no trace of that 'work upon the signifier' that is announced by the assertion of duration, repetition, foregrounding of camera procedure or other aspects of the cinematic mechanism that have become, by now, the almost academic signs of an 'anti-illusionist', 'anti-narrative' project. In fact, most disarming for any follower of avant-garde film over the last decade, or two (and here, I speak for myself) is the fact that not only is Greenaway apparently unconcerned with matters of radical or experimental visual form that have characterised the avant-garde during that period, but that he almost entirely and seemingly wholeheartedly adopts the rhetoric of certain dominant, or commercial film forms - specifically that of the short, informational documentary, such as one imagines might be produced at the Central Office of Information, or Shell, or some other institution.
Furthermore, and this from the perspective of the avant-garde associated with the London Film-Makers Co-op that has been far more concerned with narrative and particularly matters of narration than generally seems to be realised (necessary polemics against narrative having engendered in their turn certain myths), there is a strong suspicion that Greenaway films are excessively literary. They show an excessive enthusiasm for verbal play, for the spinning out of slight narratives in visual form, in conjunction with heavily conventionalised modes of image construction. And in this context the term literary, of course, carries with it the weight of years of avant-garde concern with the autonomy of film from the other arts and a continuing and embattled stand against the hegemony of certain forms of fictional, narrative cinema. These critical assessments are confirmed moreover, for the hardened campaigner, disenchanted by years of persuasion, by the relative ease with which the films have been taken; there being more than a lingering trace of puritanism in the avant-garde that asserts that 'reading' film should be 'work'.
In fact, as we will see, this characterisation of Greenaway's work is fundamentally correct. What it fails to take account of is the fact that the 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 (meet Throper 'Castor' Fallcaster, 'zoologist and infant polymath', collector and recounter of bird jokes that are in the main based on awesomely awful puns). On the other, rather more respectively, it finds its equivalents in the literary practices of Borges and Calvino. The Borges who is fascinated by the creation of fictional works, of critical oeuvre: books, documents, objects - and their respective authors - that are invented within the meticulous and limpid style of the critical essay or short literary note (non-fictional genres of writing, on the whole). A novel or encyclopaedia entry which has never existed is treated as if it did, and thus necessarily re-arranges the history of literature, shattering mentally the ontologies and cosmologies that those literatures sustain. It is the Borges who pushes paradox to the point where it undermines the logic of appearances and conceptual order. It is the Calvino of Castle of Crossed Destinies generating an infinitude of narratives and acts of story-telling from the re-shuffled images of the tarot pack, his 'machine for constructing stories'. (Meet Leasting Fallvo who 'writes plots, fictions, lyrics and narratives. Among his clients were second offenders, alibi-hunters, newspaper editors, script-writers, confidence tricksters, dramatists and bored children'. It was he who ensured that the 'nearly empty shelves' of the VUE Commission library 'looked more respectable'.)
To speak of Borges and Calvino is not to assert a pedigree or a derivation but to evoke a context of modernist strategies, concerned firstly with the play of language and secondly - as one finds in certain essays of Borges - with the exploitation of generic convention, of modes of writing and description to ironic, distancing and finally subversive effect, that with accompanying laughter, induce in the reader a sort of critical vertigo, that crack open ordered thought and appearance. It is striking that the spirit of Borges' work has seldom found its equivalent in film (with the exception of literal adaptation - Bertolucci, Rivette, SERAIL). The only other exception that comes immediately to mind being the American Hollis Frampton whose writings show an enthusiasm for the recently discovered archive of only partly decodable artifacts and whose films NOSTALGIA and POETIC JUSTICE place a voice-over description in questioning and evocative disjunction and photographic images and whose ZORNS LEMMA conjures up the arbitrary but generative powers of the alphabet (both index - as structuring device - and element of language). All pre-occupations that find interesting parallels in Greenaway's work, which also shares a highly ironic tone but whose strategies involved centrally the wholesale adoption and parody of a conventional cinematic form. It is this, quite apart from the sustained invention and variation upon themes from the more arcane corners of ornithology and self-propelled flight, that sets the films apart.
THE FALLS carries this principle to the furthest extent of any of Greenaway's films to date. It is exhaustive in scale, with its examination of 92 separate entries of the Directory of victims of the VUE, but it is also exhaustive in its concentration on details, albeit they are 'improbable facts'. The film adopts all the conventions to ensure the conviction of the documentary subject: the carefully objective BBC tones of a voice-over commentary, with the occasional appearance of such a commentator before the camera ('it was from this balcony...'); interviews with 'experts', footage made 'on the spot' authenticating the site of a particular event. Images constantly, confirm - as we would expect in such a genre - the resolutely factual description of the commentary: we see - as we might on the news - Goldhawk Rd where many events occurred, we witness a suffering victim of the VUE endlessly drive in circles. The voice-over seldom departs from the resolutely factual: the physical changes, the medical symptoms contracted after the VUE are listed, job descriptions presented (a remarkable number of the victims themselves seem, curiously, to be collaters of facts, indexers, cartographers, ornithologists, linguists, archivists), the topography of events and movements carefully detailed. The whole assembly being more thoroughly welded together with a resolutely professional veneer of elegant titles, accomplished editing, a rhetoric of seamless dissolves and fades, the careful interweaving of voice and music, the professionally elegant camera-work whose presence in turn confirms the 'authenticity' of the hand-held, grainy interview material, the found footage in shaky black and white, numerous visual artifacts (the traces of past events), found fragments of film, slides, photographs, letters, maps, drawings that provide confirming evidence (Bazin-like) of the authenticity of an event, the existence of a person.
The poet John Ashbery once remarked of Impressions of Africa (commending it) that it was "merely a catalogue of description of fantastic objects and events, held together by a thin ribbon of plot, and delivered in a neutral, antiseptic style." The tone of THE FALLS is ultimately too ironic to be antiseptic, but in all other aspects Greenaway's strategy is Rousselian (he also has a Rousselian enthusiasm for generating his fantastic events from acrostics and other 'arbitrary' language-based procedures). A mere index, the film has no 'ribbon of plot', merely more than three score dubious narrative fragments, concerning a possible event. The interest lies in the biographical quirks and skills. The coherence is assured by the 'logic' of the index, by the continuities of the voice-over and the conjuring-up through the convention of the documentary of the privileged relationship that genre claims to have with the world from which its fragments are taken and which we, the audience, are assumed to share.
It is on the assumed transparency of this relationship that Greenaway pivots the full force of his ironic strategy. For, just as for Roussel, his use of a descriptive, in many ways, dead-pan style is to more fully assert the 'reality' of the fantastic personae that THE FALLS presents. The documentary codes are thus carefully rallied, worked seamlessly together to serve descriptions of incredible transformations - the 'glossolalia', the physical changes or the extraordinary feats of the VUE victims (Aptesia Fallarme: 'The water poured from her skin, from the corners of her mouth, from her nose... Every minute this human waterfall would shake her body like a dog and wring out her hair.') The astonishing and recurring real footage of a real practitioner of self-propelled flight jumping unsuccessfully from the Eiffel Tower only serves to narrow the gap between the fantastic verbal descriptions and the more 'mundane' footage. 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'.
'Alice was silent. The Dormouse had closed its eyes by this time, and was going off into a doze; but, on being pinched by the Hatter, it woke up again with a little shriek, and went on: " - that begins with an M, such as mouse-traps, and the moon, and memory, and muchness - you know you says things are 'much of a muchness' - did you ever see such a thing as a drawing of a muchness!" '
Lewis Carroll Alice's Adventures in Wonderland