Borges Meets Hitchhiker’s Guide
How Greenaway surprises. Here is an early work that is rich in ways that in later works seem submerged.
The concept: A ‘Violent Unexplained Event’ occurs at 11:41 PM GMT, 14 June, People experience physical changes, often transitioning to birds. 92 new languages appear, and 92 birdnames are embossed in some minds. Four new genders are created; survivors appear immortal. Birds are the apparent cause, perhaps the Australian flightless rattite. The survivors are catalogued by competing societies (together with the detracting Society for Ornitological Extermination, FOX). This film is from the catalogued biographies from the primary society, of those whose names start with ‘fall.’ There are 92 of them.
Some elements are familiar to later Greenaway viewers. Already Nyman creates an apt score. There is a magical surrealism. We have counting and other overlapping synthetic laws that restructure a slightly askew reality. We have a layering, so that many scenes add to or annotate others. Later, Greenaway does this with simultaneous images. Here the device is linear. Much harder, as one must not only create the alternative world, but also it’s linear unfolding. Hence, this seems his most intelligent work.
The big shocker: In his later, much more commercial works, one can always count on lush painterly images, and often on elaborate panning shots. None of that here, in fact a practiced complement. All the attention is on the narrative, with many narrators, all filmed doing their work.
This film is self-referential in all the ordinary ways, plus the idea that the creator of the film is responsible for the radical change in reality. Of course, I do believe great artists do change the world; isn’t that the only workable definition of art? Does Greenaway come up to this measure or is he like everyone else, a mere spectator?
Spectating here, but we do see something that retrospectively alters my recent experience with ‘Drowning by Numbers.’ Biography 27 is of the three Cissy Colpitts, who live in Goole and establish an experimental film repository in the watertower. This is administered from a room in the nearby maternity hospital, one of the primary epicenters of the VUE (view). The three Cissys and the watertower reappear in ‘Drowning by Numbers,’ and their collective mission is to have a child after eliminating husbands. Fits the Prospero role of replacing God with a new logic.
Posted in 2000
Ted’s Evaluation — 3 of 3: Worth watching.