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.

Having a rough week, I considered pulling out the emergency relief film, Paddington 2, but Brian Dennehy had just died, and I’d long wanted to see it, so chose to watch the movie about a man in constant pain whose professional and personal life falls apart until he commits suicide – great fuckin’ idea.

Composer Wim Mertens does a serviceable Michael Nyman impression – or maybe that was Glenn Branca, one of his few film credits. Architect Dennehy is in Rome with wife Louisa (Chloe Webb, just off starring in Sid & Nancy) outlining the exhibition he’s preparing on an obscure French architect. Webb is pregnant, and having a blatant affair with Lambert Wilson, who is also stealing money and discrediting Dennehy so he can take over the exhibition, and whose photographer sister Stefania Casini (Jessica Harper’s murdered friend in Suspiria) is trying to seduce Dennehy. I like how Dennehy finds her room full of photographs of previous scenes, as if whenever Casini is offscreen, she’s filming the movie we’re watching.

This would make a good double-feature with Dead Ringers, another 1980’s movie about twin doctors who fall for the same woman. In this one, Oliver and Oswald (twins, separated conjoined, I think Oliver is the blond one) are played by Eric and Brian Oswald (brothers, not twins) – zoologists studying animal behavior when their wives are killed in a car accident while being driven by Alba (Andréa Ferréol of La grande bouffe, The Last Metro, Street of No Return). They become increasingly obsessed with Alba, with each other, and with chaos and decay, freeing zoo animals and shooting time-lapse films of ever-larger dead ones.

These three are surrounded by some suspicious characters: a woman called Venus (Frances Barber of Secret Friends) and a mad surgeon named Van Meegeren, who amputated Alba’s leg after the car crash and now wants to amputate the other leg. She finally turns down the twins in favor of a new man who is also missing his legs – I think she dies at the end but not sure exactly why, and the brothers stage a suicide before the time-lapse camera to add their own decaying images to the collection.

It sounds like a bunch of weirdness from a plot description, but in practice it’s much weirder. Obsessed with Vermeer, decay, snails, symmetry, doubles, the alphabet, fakes and missing limbs – with the great pulsing Nyman music, and always more than one thing happening per shot, each splendidly composed frame full of motion.

The Wholly Family (2011, Terry Gilliam)

A rich tourist couple in Naples argue amongst themselves while their son swipes a masked statuette from a street vendor. That night after the boy is sent to bed without dinner, it comes to life and an army of masked Italians taunt him with food he’s never quite able to eat (plus the heads of his parents). The family has a happy reunion in the morning, but they’ve become figures at the street vendor’s stand.

Very good little movie, with masks out of Dr. Parnassus, doll-parts out of Tideland and who knows what else.

The Discipline of D.E. (1978, Gus Van Sant)

This has been one of my favorite short stories for years (it’s by William Burroughs from Exterminator) and despite the movie’s ranking on J. Rosenbaum’s list of favorite films, I figured a satisfactory adaptation would be near-impossible. It’s fun, but really just reading the story aloud and illustrating on film.

Carrots & Peas (1969, Hollis Frampton)

A taster of the new Criterion set – I also rewatched parts of Zorns Lemma (thanks for adding chapter stops) and played the great commentary track on Lemon. Stop-motion carrots, cross-fade, stop-motion peas. Color filters, reversals and other craziness. Then around the one-minute mark it becomes a still life, barely changing for the next four. Meanwhile a lecture plays in reverse on the soundtrack. Some fiddling in quicktime reveals that it’s a fitness lesson of some sort.

The Town (1944, Josef von Sternberg)

An advertisement for small-town USA, filmed in Madison, Indiana. Boring, flavorless little industrial film – no reason at all to ever watch this, besides to see the depths to which the once-glorious Sternberg had fallen.

Turen til squashland (1967, Lars von Trier)

Holy cow, an animated romp with happy bunnies. One is kidnapped, so the hot dog man and other two bunnies ride a friendly whale to the kidnappers’ castle, where the missing bunny rides down its water spew.

Revolution (1967, Peter Greenaway)

A grim-looking leftist march of young men, not seemingly shot in any organized way, but edited to the Beatles’ Revolution, which is kind of funny since it’s got a lyric about “carrying pictures of Chairman Mao,” and some marchers carry anti-capitalist posters.

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.

Filmed like a stage play with tableau shots and intricate lighting, and performed to the rafters, with driving music, a thousand pages of dialogue and a million times more profanity than the Korda movie.

Rembrandt is portrayed by a playful Martin Freeman. Saskia is alive until halfway through the movie, and Geertje and Hendrickje show up too, perverse and unrecognizable from the other movie (Geertje in particular is less forbidding, almost jolly in this one). Respectively, PG cast Eva Birthistle (Ae Fond Kiss, Breakfast on Pluto), Jodhi May (House of Mirth) and Emily Holmes (Snakes on a Plane) as Rem’s women.

Possibly there’s an angel on the roof, or perhaps it’s just Bob Kemp’s daughter. Maybe her name is Marieke. I get that there’s a huge conspiracy, that everyone in the movie knows about some sordid goings-on, that the cover-ups are ineffective and that Rembrandt is said to be exposing the misdeeds within details in his painting (definite shades of The Draughtsman’s Contract), but I have a hard time following all the specifics. There’s a flood of explanation at the end: one man is burning down houses for insurance, one runs an orphanage as a child brothel, one is manipulating tobacco prices, and one shot Hasselburg. The picture is usually dark around the edges, almost definitely in sympathy with The Night Watch, but I didn’t get any other art or history or story references because I am not cultured enough to appreciate Greenaway. It’s a common complaint, but I don’t hold it against P.G. – that he can make such a talky yet visually interesting film which actually makes me want to learn more about Rembrandt and 1600’s Dutch society is good enough.

It has some drowning, and some numbers, but I guess Greenaway hadn’t ramped up to his full obsession with categorizing and enumerating things (or perhaps he was taking a break – I haven’t seen earlier feature The Falls yet). Fox Lorber did a lousy job with the DVD, but some of the nice candlelight photography and PG-esque controlled compositions came through. I enjoyed it, though it’s not as sneaky a mystery or as delightful a script as it thinks.

Neville with Mrs. Herbert:

Mr. Neville is the titular draughtsman, hired to draw architectural sketches of the Herbert gardens while the master is away. But will the master ever return, or has he met with misadventure? As part of Neville’s fee, he gets to have his way with Mrs. Herbert, while her daughter makes a separate sexual agreement with Neville, suspected by her snobbish German husband Mr. Talmann. Any sense of suspense fizzles out as everything becomes increasingly obvious (young Mrs. Talmann is trying to get Neville to father her child, since her husband is impotent – and yes, Mr. Herbert has been killed). Everyone is trying to frame everyone else, but the grand loser is Neville, set upon at the end by the society types, who cut out his eyes then drown him in the same pool where Herbert was found.

Mr. and Mrs. Talmann:

As usual with British period society comedies, most of the fun is in the bitchy cleverness of the sniping dialogue. Not the only movie Greenaway has made about finding murderous evidence in a painting – isn’t that what the recent Nightwatching & Rembrandt J’Accuse were about? Perhaps PG was traumatized by a youthful viewing of Blow-Up. I also liked the camoflaged naked guy creeping around the garden (doesn’t seem like a realistic occupation – maybe he is independently wealthy)

The director would go on to bigger and better things, but his cast would not. Neville was Anthony Higgins (Merchant/Ivory’s Quartet), currently in something called Malice in Wonderland. Mr. Talmann (my favorite for most naturally wearing the ludicrous period clothes/wigs) was Hugh Fraser, not German at all, appears in Agatha Christie TV series. His wife: Anne-Louise Lambert (Picnic at Hanging Rock), her mother: Janet Suzman (apartheid movie A Dry White Season), and the wicked estate lawyer who works out the contracts was Neil Cunningham of Jarman’s The Tempest.

Neat DVD. Glad I resisted temptation to buy it, but made a nice rental. Now if I can carve out four hours in two days to watch the second disc…

INTERVALS is pure formalism, edits of precise length set to an even beat, all shot in Venice but with no glimpses of water. PG says the rhythm is something to do with an Italian piece of music, just to make it even more rigorous.

The next four juxtapose grainy old films with off-kilter narration, looking progressively less like home-movies as PG starts getting a bit of a budget. H IS FOR HOUSE is actually a home movie, with a narrator reciting related and unrelated words that begin with the same letter. WINDOWS tells of 37 people who fell to their deaths from windows during a certain year in a certain province. WATER WRACKETS is very nice shots of water with a fake Tolkien-esque background story on the narration. DEAR PHONE, the most diverting of the four, alternates shots of red phone booths with shots of the pages the narrator reads from, stories of people obsessed with the telephone.

Dear Phone

A WALK THROUGH H was the best one here (fortunately, since it’s some 40 minutes long). A journey through “H” (heaven/hell?) with 92 maps, incl. backstory on the maps, the people they were acquired from, and the narrator’s spiritual guide, Tulse Luper. Almost the whole movie was motion close-ups of the maps themselves (and sometimes of the windmills that appeared as the maps faded), with bookend segments showing a gallery in which each map was displayed. Way to turn a painting career into a film career. Gives me real hope that the three-hour The Falls won’t be boring, as it seems it should be from its description. Oh, as the narrator is an ornithologist, we got some nice shots of birds too.

A Walk Through H

Was a fun disc, with scans of paintings and video introductions by PG, and gave nice insight into the genesis of the cataloguing fetish he expressed colorfully in Prospero’s Books and Drowning By Numbers. I’m into the head-smashing repetition of the Michael Nyman scores in his films, too. Still don’t get why some critics say his early stuff is wonderful and everything since (1985? 89?) is crap. Adrian Martin calls him “a totally vacuous phony”, and I know Sam hates PG too. Maybe one day it’ll hit me all at once, and I’ll sing the praises of Cache, late Woody Allen, Carl Dreyer and Robert Bresson while damning Prospero’s Books, Robert Rodriguez and Steven Spielberg.

A Walk Through H