Making more movie lists over here, re-categorizing things, so my first screening from the new project is The Falls by fellow categorizer Greenaway. 92 sections of varying length (some are major characters who will be referenced later, some are just represented with a title card – half the subjects of discussion don’t even appear). All people affected by the Violent Unknown Event (which took place at least three decades before the present interviews) are affected in different ways, but all have interest in birds and flight. They suffer different ailments and dreams, speak in one or more of “the mutant languages,” and are classified as one of “the four newly formulated genders.”
Absurd concepts mixed in with bland facts and read/performed very straight. At one point the narrator is shown onscreen then muted as a later narrator updates his report. Murders and accidents and conspiracies… callbacks and self-references (to PG’s earlier shorts). Not sure if someone being struck by lightning is a reference to the same year’s Act of God. A sinister force called FOX, a society for ornithological extermination, comes up a few times. Tulse Luper is in this, as an influential author whose stories sometimes seep into the film.
Influenced by TV sketch comedy? “Fortune favors the prepared mind.” I searched for “Greenaway” with “Monty Python” and found this interview/manifesto.
Precocious children with parental issues, highly-organized secret plans and old-fashioned craftsy props surrounded by superstar actors including Bill Murray – so yes, it’s like any Wes Anderson movie, but it’s a good one. He has a unique talent for collapsing different locations into one hermetic snowglobe of a film. The visual/conceptual unity is helped by the soft, grainy 16mm cinematography, and that fact that all the action takes place on an island.
In the celeb-actor world, Frances McDormand is cheating on husband Bill Murray with local cop Bruce Willis. Edward Norton leads a troop of scouts, hopes to join his idol, scout commander Harvey Keitel, at the big convention where Jason Schwartzman is some kinda mercenary merchant. And Bob Balaban is a sort-of-present character/narrator.
But one of the movie’s strengths is that it focuses primarily on its young heroes, Sam and Suzy, who run off together and camp on the beach, leaving the celeb-actors as background players. Willis and Norton lead search parties as two threats approach: an epic storm, and Tilda Swinton of Social Services, coming to take Sam to a home.
Katy liked it more than she thought she would.
I found out about this due to the Greenaway short (also called Act of God, also about people’s experiences with lightning) included on the DVD, then was intrigued to discover that the feature is Baichwal’s follow-up to the great Manufactured Landscapes. Landscapes got to piggyback off its photographer subject’s artworks and visual ideas. This one is an interview documentary, so Baichwal and her cinematographer/husband were on their own to create meaningful enough images to justify the film, and I think they succeeded. And the storytelling definitely succeeded. I’ve never been afraid of lightning before, and now it’s all I think about.
A man in Ontario tells of a camping trip years ago, everyone stunned and scattered by a lightning strike, one kid had his insides burned right out. A man in France who won’t show himself on camera built a museum of lightning-struck objects. An ex-soldier in Vegas had his life changed by a strike through the telephone, opened a clinic for dying veterans. Three kids killed and others injured from a hilltop strike in Mexico. And, connecting these stories of powerful electricity hitting the human body, musician Fred Frith improvs while being hooked to brainwave machines, measuring the electrical impulses he uses when creating. He invents some wonderful storm-music at the end. Baichwal and husband filmed most of the lightning in the movie (and there’s a ton of it), set out to make a film about randomness and meaning, hence the Frith bookends.
Act of God (1980, Peter Greenaway)
Baichwal said she tried cross-cutting between segments but it didn’t work, so she lets each story stand on its own. Greenaway, of course, does not – he breaks up the questions and lightning-strike descriptions into categories (time of day/year, height of subject, etc), sorts them, and interrupts with bursts of Michael Nyman music. He’s also less natururalistic, arranging interview subjects into amusing compositions, including one person struck through the phone line who tells her story through a handset. Unless IMDB is messing with me, his DP later directed Surf Nazis Must Die. The short makes efficient use of its 25 minutes, but it wouldn’t have made much of an impact had I not watched the longer, calmly frightening feature beforehand.