|by Peter Sobczynski
In which your faithful critic looks at a couple of killer bears, some friendlier beavers and what may well be the single oddest film ever covered in this column
Peter Greenaway is perhaps the maddest hatter working in the world of film today and God bless him for it. His screen work is strange, obtuse, ugly, ultra-arty and pretentious-in-a-good-way in a manner so utterly removed from even the most basic concerns of commercial filmmaking that even those who favor art-house films to multiplex fodder tend to find his work utterly perplexing. (I have attended theatrical screenings of his films for over 16 years now and I have yet to see one in which at least ten audience members didn’t walk out at some point.) The films tend to favor form over content (like Godard, he loves experimenting with sound, video and text to such a pronounced degree that the results are closer to multi-media installations than anything else), are usually crammed to the edges of the frame with tons of ephemera (including lists of various items, puzzles and references to his work from the past and the future) and tend to take viewers to dark and uncompromising places without ever attempting to soften the blows. (One film, his brilliant religious satire “The Baby of Macon” did that to such a degree that it horrified audiences at its 1993 Cannes premiere and still has not received commercial distribution in the U.S., despite having Ralph Fiennes as one of the leads.)
In person, he is no different–he comes across as an especially hard-nosed professor who will nail you to the wall if he senses even for a second that you aren’t up to his intellectual level–I once heard him do an interview on NPR with someone who clearly wasn’t entirely familiar with his work and he tore that person to piece. (I have interviewed him twice and survived both experiences–this may have been helped by my expressed admiration for “The Baby of Macon”–but I walked away both times feeling as if I had just gone 12 rounds with a prizefighter.) Not surprisingly, Greenaway’s work has never broken through to the mainstream in America, with the sole exception of his 1990 breakthrough “The Cook, the Thief, His Wife and Her Lover” (a savage indictment of Thatcherism that began with a man being beaten, pissed on and smeared in dog shit and ends in one of the most unforgettable finales in film history), but he has inspired a small and devoted cult. For those fans, Zeitgeist Video has finally released “The Falls,” Greenaway’s 1980 debut feature film, a work so strange, obtuse and self-contained (imagine the longest and weirdest Monty Python sketch ever created) that it almost makes his later works seem like Jerry Bruckheimer spectacles by comparison.
Set in some unspecified time, perhaps in the future or perhaps right now, the film deals with the aftermath of a ‘Violent Unexplained Event” (VUE) that has created wild changes in the world. Perhaps caused by birds, this VUE has begun to transform some victims into bird-like creature while making others seemingly immortal. Other results include the sudden development of four new sexual genders and no less than 92 new languages. The film catalogues the case histories of 92 victims, all of whom have last names beginning with FALL and examines what changes they have undergone, sometimes in brief passing and sometimes in excruciating detail. Perversely, Greenaway goes about recounting these histories by telling instead of showing–we are treated to graphs, charts and official documents, all described in calm, measured tones by a series of narrators, but we never actually get to see any of the case histories for ourselves. To further add to the fun, this all runs on for no less than three hours and never breaks from its formal conceit for a second. (When I saw this film for the first time at the Film Center of the Art Institute in Chicago many years ago, the screening was a complete sell-out but after the intermission, I would say that at least a third of the seats were now mysteriously empty.)
Look, I know fully well that most of you will never, ever get around to checking out this movie and I suspect that the majority of you who actually try to take a stab at it will probably tune out long before the end. Frankly, I understand completely and I think that even Greenaway himself might see your point. (In some interviews, he has suggested that it might play better if viewers just dip into it at random, in the way that one might with a favorite book, instead of tackling the whole thing at once.) However, I know that there are a few of you out there who relish the experience of charting the unknown waters of the cinema in order to see something truly unique. If you are that kind of person, “The Falls” is definitely for you and I would be willing to bet that even if you wind up hating the film, you will never, ever forget seeing it.<
Written and directed by Peter Greenaway. 1980. Unrated. 185 minutes. A Zeitgeist Video release. $29.95
NEW AND NOTABLE
ELLIE PARKER (Strand Home Entertainment. $24.99): This ultra-cheap indie comedy-drama, about the day-to-day struggles of an aspiring actress looking in vain for her big break, is a wildly uneven effort that is saved from total disposability by a great central performance from Naomi Watts in the title role and a funny supporting turn from Chevy Chase (yes, Chevy Chase) as her brutally honest agent.
FUN WITH DICK AND JANE (Sony Home Entertainment. $28.98): If you are looking for a darkly funny film revolving around corporate greed and the poor employees caught on the short end of the stock option, go and seek out the astounding documentary “Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room.” If, on the other hand, your are looking for 90 minutes of lazy-ass slapstick and self-important huffing and puffing about the evils of corporate America (especially ironic coming from star Jim Carrey, who got paid $20 million to do some half-hearted schtick and whose improv antics in front of the camera reportedly drove the budget north of $100 million), then please enjoy this utterly worthless, if depressingly successful, retread of a 1976 film that wasn’t exactly a barrel of laughs in the first place.
GRIZZLY (Shriek Show. $19.95): One of the more notorious of the killer animal films that inundated theaters in the wake of “Jaws,” this 1976 effort was an exceptionally shameless ripoff that basically retells Steven Spielberg’s story with an 18-ft-tall grizzly bear subbing for the shark. If I recall, and I may be wrong since I haven’t seen it in years, there is a scene in which the bear attacks a helicopter–in other words, where this film ripped off “Jaws,” it is possible that it was later ripped off in turn a couple of years later by “Jaws 2.”
HOUSE OF WHIPCORD (Shriek Show. $19.95): One of the more perverted horror movies to emerge from England in the 1970's, this deeply twisted Pete Walker S&M extravaganza involves a group of prudes who decide to restore moral order the only way they know how–they lure loose young women to a remote country estate and torture them in various sadistic ways. Of course, you can’t feel too sorry for the girls since they are lured there by a man who claims that his name is “Mark E. DeSade.” Not for most people, but you know who you are.
LAUREL & HARDY GIFT SET (Fox Home Entertainment. $34.98): First we got a collection of shorts from the depressing later part of Buster Keaton’s career. Now we have this box set of three Laurel & Hardy features from the 1940's–“Great Guns,” “Jitterbugs” and “The Big Noise”–that are generally considered to be the nadir of their illustrious careers. I can only assume that an all-Besser Three Stooges collection is due any day now. Fans of the duo may still want to pick these up because the films have been given a decent presentation–the prints look pretty good and each disc has a commentary and some newsreel extracts–and doing so may inspire those holding the prime L&H material to actually do something with it.
MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE: COLLECTIOR’S EDITION (Paramount Home Video. $19.99): It is probably inevitable that the blandest and least distinctive of Brian De Palma’s films would turn out to be his most financially successful one. Nevertheless, this 1996 blockbuster, which has been remastered and re-issued to tie in with the upcoming sequel, does have a few redeeming virtues to it–De Palma keeps everything moving at such a rapid clip that you hardly notice that Robert Towne’s script makes no sense and there are a couple of extended set-pieces (especially the famous one involving Tom Cruise dangling from wires in a motion and climate-controlled room) that are as technically spectacular as anything he has ever done. Besides, the success of this film gave De Palma the clout to make his nutty and brilliant (and thoroughly underrated) “Snake Eyes,” so it had a happy ending after all.
PLAYMATE OF THE YEAR COLLECTION-THE 1990'S (Image Entertainment. $29.99): Strictly for research purposes, of course. Interesting side note–I’ve actually met two of the women featured here. (This information is patently irrelevant, I realize, but I just had to share.)
AN UNFINISHED LIFE (Miramax Home Video. $29.99): If “Grizzly” didn’t sate your desire for films in which people rassle unconvincing killer bears, you might get a kick out of this turgid soap opera in which Robert Redford, Jennifer Lopez and Morgan Freeman wrestle with their various demons and come to terms with things. Once assumed to be a prime piece of Oscar bait for Miramax, this title wound up sitting on a shelf for a long time before its token release and when you watch it, you’ll understand why.
WOLF CREEK (The Weinstein Company. $29.99): A slick-but-superficial horror hit, supposedly inspired by real events, about a trio of dopes who step out of the frying pan and into the barbie when their car breaks down in the middle of the outback and they accept a tow from a guy who turns out to be a deranged cross between Crocodile Dundee and Charles Manson. Not a great movie–while the first hour’s wind up is effective, the eventual bloodshed is more sadistic than suspenseful and the end is jarringly abrupt (it almost feels as if some final scenes were dropped)–but a well-made one that is certainly better than the likes of “Hostel.”
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originally posted: 04/14/06 14:01:10
last updated: 04/22/06 08:58:25