322. THE FALLS (1980)


“I have often thought it was very arrogant to suppose you could make a film for anybody but yourself… I like to think of The Falls as my own personal encyclopedia Greenaway-ensis.” -Peter Greenaway


NARRATED BY: Colin Cantlie, Hilarie Thompson, Martin Burrows, Sheila Canfield, Adam Leys

PLOT: Some years after a “Violent Unknown Event,” the biographies of its survivors whose surnames begin with the letters “F-A-L-L” are filmed and released as one edition in an intended series of documentaries cataloging all those afflicted. The documentary presents ninety-two survivors’ stories, describing their lives in brief and detailing including the (invariably) bizarre symptoms each has suffered from since the Event. The scope of the endeavor and the unreliability of the source material results in the repeated derailment of the flow of information.

Still from The Falls (1980)


  •  Peter Greenaway assembled The Falls over a five-year period from found footage and snippets filmed for other, mostly aborted, projects.
  • Various references to the fictional “Tulse Luper” pertain, indirectly, to Peter Greenaway himself: Luper is Greenaway’s self-made alter-ego.
  • Composer Michael Nyman provided the score for The Falls, marking his second (after the short Vertical Falls Remake) of eleven collaborations with Greenaway. They fell out over the director’s tampering with the composer’s Prospero’s Books recordings.
  • At three hours and fifteen minutes in length, Greenaway never intended the viewer to watch the film in one sitting. Many have done so nonetheless.
  • While The Falls was compiled for a number of reasons, one of its goals was to expand upon what Greenaway considered an unsatisfactory ending for Alfred Hitchcock‘s The Birds.
  • An early biography features, in photographic form, the twin Quay brothers, who at that time had not yet established themselves as masters of stop-motion animation.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: Oh boy. In a three-plus hour Greenaway opus consisting of hundreds of shots, stills, interviews, and intertitles, this is tougher than usual. Still, I’m leaning toward a striking image that has stuck in my mind even months after watching The Falls. One of the victims of the V.U.E. sings forcefully at the camera to a tune familiar to those who’ve heard Michael Nyman re-working it for the bulk of his career. Among the ninety-two vignettes, she provides perhaps the most disorienting moment, with her staccato operatic performance and brazenly inscrutable expression, illuminated as if she were in a Rembrandt painting.

THREE WEIRD THINGS: Avian flu; Dreamers of Water, Categories 1 to 3; Sympathetic Tinnitus and other syndromes

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Peter Greenaway cranks up his love of lists as high as the medium of film can reasonably take him in his first feature. Posing as a documentary assembled by a governmental information bureau, the list of ninety-two “V.U.E.” victims acts both as a long series of (sometimes very short) short stories and as an insanely thought-through running gag. It turns the notion of documentary on its head, undermining the authoritative voiceover and ostensibly pertinent footage (photos, interviews, documents, etc.) through the sheer volume of absurdity, whimsy, and subversive wordplay.

Spectacle Theater’s trailer for The Falls

COMMENTS: With virtually all of his movies, Peter Greenaway treats his fans to something unexpected, yet familiar. The lover of lists, catalogues, technique, painting, and oddities does not disappoint in The Falls, both his first full-length film and quite probably his Greenaway-est. Compiling years’-worth of failed, abandoned, and otherwise incomplete projects into one sprawling section of an opus, Greenaway challenges the notion of what makes a movie, and gives documentarians a poke in the eye for good measure. The Falls is both a culmination of his short-film career as well as a promise of what every one of his subsequent movies would set out to accomplish.

Michael Nyman sets the tone immediately with a jabbing, spasmodic formality of sound scoring the film’s opening of veering, low-to-the-ground shots of an field strewn with boulders. The primary narrator (Colin Cantlie—whose last name does him credit) then grounds us in the nature of the project. The Falls is merely a list of a cross-section of the (living) sufferers of the Violent Unknown Event whose names happen to begin with “F-A-L-L.” We are advised that the randomness of this collection makes them “a reasonable cross-section of the 19-million other names contained in [the Directory].” Thereafter, The Falls discusses the ninety-two individuals while slowly laying out rapidly increasing amounts of peripheral information. (Take issue with that phrasing if you will, but it’s the best way I could think of to convey both the meditative pacing and strange tempo of the work).

Disorienting the viewer still further, several “FALL” names are introduced only for the narrator to immediately tell us there won’t be a biography for one reason or another: privacy, threats to sue, or legal tie-ups. Bio number 69 for “Wrallist Fallinway” illustrates how slapdash a fashion the chroniclers approached the list in the first place, as “Fallinway” is a typo for “Fallanway”, who was already covered in bio number 13. Bio Number 80 for Ascrib Fallstaff is better still: the omission is explained as “…pernicious inclusion of a fictional character. Criminal charges pending.” As this film works from a rather advanced edition of “the list”, it’s telling that the authorities have only just figured out that one of their compilers is a cheeky Shakespeare fan. Coupled with the avalanche of information in the “authentic” bios, we see that The Falls is both over-comprehensive and riddled with errors—much like many other a documentary.

It is only in deference to Peter Greenaway’s love of thoroughness, of lists, and ticking off check boxes that this fourth review paragraph is included. Crunching commentary about a Titanic-length epic such as The Falls into our quick-ish review format is necessarily an exercise in omission. Little has been mentioned, for instance, about the whole avian over- and under-current, and indeed until now I have not once discussed the sub-theme of new languages brought about by the Violent Unknown Event. Such diversions will have to be saved for another place, another day. ((For those inclined toward numerology, the word-count for the fourth paragraph is in keeping with Greenaway’s arithmomania.))

Formalist though he certainly is, Peter Greenaway is also a man with a sense of humor, well aware of his own eccentricities. The Falls is an often-hilarious tour de force—I shy away from this term, but Greenaway’s earned it here—that gleefully undermines both the world’s and the director’s desire to comprehensively organize anything. As ninety-two (or so) episodes of a planned 19-million part documentary, it is madness; madness along the lines of Jorge Borges’ fiction about an empire’s cartographers desiring such precision that the commissioned map they produce is the size of the empire itself. The Falls not only undermines a documentary style, it undermines the entire genre. That such a film is also crammed with eccentric ephemera and presented with the straightest of straight faces elevates it from divertingly eccentric to delightfully weird.


“…it’s not really necessary to interpret The Falls to enjoy it, not if you enjoy Lewis Carroll, Sight and Sound magazine, Magritte, the British Broadcasting Corporation, the kind of jokes small children love, linguistics and disaster journalism.” -Vincent Canby, The New York Times (contemporaneous)

“…a cross between Alice after the Holocaust and the ramblings of a deranged film librarian.”–Time Out London

“The film is deranged and hypnotic, and can possibly only be enjoyed by those who like riddles, puns, Zen, avant-garde cinema, The Quay Brothers, Children’s Stories, Hitchcock’s “The Birds,” Magritte, non-linear storytelling, ornithologists and strange mind-trips.”–Dennis Schwartz, Ozus’ World Movie Reviews

IMDB LINK: The Falls (1980)


The Falls :: Zeitegeist Films – U.S. distributor page


The Falls  – An exceedingly detailed wealth of information is to be found at the Greenaway fan site, including a complete synopsis of every V.U.E. victim and what is likely every public statement Greenaway has made about the film


The Falls – Greenaway’s text for the film

HOME VIDEO INFO: While you can still find them, there are two primary flavors of The Falls released by Zeitgeist Video on DVD. It flies semi-solo on one disc (buy), accompanied by its near-immediate predecessor, the 45-minute Vertical Features Remake (1978). “Greenaway: The Early Films” (buy) is a box set with the Falls/Vertical Features disc alongside another housing half a dozen earlier short films (starting with a brief black and white short from 1969 and finishing up with 1978’s  much Greenaway-er “Water Wrackets”).

For DVD transfers, the films look just above adequate, but at least sound as good as you’d like. Tucked in the discs are little video remarks from Peter Greenaway about the movies, which are the most pertinent of the small handful of extras. And, as one would expect, liner notes from the director can be found tucked in the snap-cases. (I suggest nabbing the box set for a very long evening of obtuse wit.)

As I implied earlier, at the time of this posting there is only one (!) copy of The Falls and two (!) copies of “The Early Films” available for sale at Amazon.com on DVD. One can also stream The Falls, for a price, on Fandor. Netflix has the solo disc available through its mail-order DVD rental arm. For those willing to hit up eBay, either can usually be found for under $30. Like pretty much all of his output, Peter Greenaway’s debut feature remains unavailable in Blu Ray format.

(This movie was nominated for review by “lasopa”, who called it “great stuff if you are in the right mood and very funny [in a dry english style].” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)

7 thoughts on “322. THE FALLS (1980)”

    1. I believe that Greenaway didn’t think it went far enough, or at the very least stopped short of where it could have headed.

      In its way, “The Falls” (or at least the events it concerns) could have easily been the immediate follow-up to the ending for “The Birds”.

  1. Wow, This movie looks so interesting that I just sprung for it too. I got the final copy.
    I really wish the Cook, The Thief, His Wife and Her Lover wasn’t in DVD Limbo. It’s still a mystery why Criterion hasn’t licensed it yet. I saw Prospero’s Books in the actual movie theater in college and it was visually incredible, but all of us were very disappointed and frustrated by the choice to have Gielgud voice all the characters. Had the other participants been able to speak their roles it would have been a HUGE advantage to the movie and a RELIEF to the audience craving some form of actual interaction between characters. I’d love to see this again as an adult – yet it’s another Greenaway movie in DVD purgatory. I still really love The Draughtsman’s Contract and Drowning By Numbers.

    1. I wonder if one of the problems with Greenaway’s earlier movies is re-licensing Nyman’s music, since they had a falling out. That wouldn’t explain the unavailability of something like The Baby of Macon, though. His later work may simply suffer from a lack of interest.

    2. That could very well be, Greg.

      I really hope they get back together. I recently watched Greenaway’s 2007 outing with Martin Freeman, “Nightwatching”. The score was…merely adequate. It could definitely have done with a Nymanizing.

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