The Early Films of Peter Greenaway 1 first published by Movie Gazette, 13 October 2003
Includes: Intervals, Windows, H is For House, Dear Phone, Water Wrackets, A Walk Through H: The Reincarnation of an Ornithologist
Peter Greenaway is responsible for some of the most artfully idiosyncratic British feature films of the last quarter of a century – and after a long hiatus he returns with The Tulse Luper Suitcases, screened this year at Cannes. So the time is right to revisit his formative years and to take stock of his earliest excursions in cinema.
In a filmed introduction to this excellent collection, Greenaway says that his first forays into cinema now ‘in some sense read like juvenilia’, yet it comes as something of a surprise to see how quickly, even within the decade covered by these pieces, Greenaway’s style matured and the obsessive themes apparent in his later films were already taking hold. Lists, numerology, the alphabet, death, birdlife, landscapes, colour-coding, draughtsmanship, and even the fictive polymath Tulse Luper can already be found in these incunabula, along with Greenaway’s mischievous sense of absurdity, cloaked as ever behind a clipped English reserve.
The first three films are made in the style of home videos (in large part due to budgetary constraints). Intervals (1969) is a rhythmically edited sequence of black-and-white shots of Venice streets, looped three times to three different soundtracks. Windows (1974) shows views from the various windows of a country house, while a fey voice-over catalogues the misadventures of 37 people in a single parish who were killed falling out of windows. H is for House (1976) depicts domestic scenes around the same country house, while one voice lists words beginning with H or tells surreally logical nonsense stories, another gives accounts of different birds, and a child’s voice names things beginning with different letters of the alphabet.
The next two films show an increasing visual sophistication. Dear Phone (1976) is an intricate work of lost connections, in which images of variously located red phone boxes are intercut with scrawled texts (also read out aloud) whose evolving narratives feature (different) protagonists with the initials H.C. and their odd relationships with both their wives (usually called Zelda) and with their telephones. In Water Wrackets (1978), which spoofs anthropology and Tolkien, beautifully gloomy images of the Wiltshire wetlands are accompanied by an authoritative voice conjuring the local campaigns and rituals of a (thoroughly invented) thirteenth century tribe.
Last but not least comes A Walk Through H (1978), significantly longer (at 41 minutes) than the others, and considerably more elaborate. As the camera pores over 92 mixed media pictures hung in a gallery (all painted exquisitely by Greenaway himself), a pedantic narrator (Colin Cantlie) describes his mysterious journey to H, using the pictures as maps. Subtitled The Reincarnation of an Ornithologist, this film seems to be concerned with the migration of a soul (to Heaven or Hell) following the migratory paths of birds (which feature prominently) – but along the way it takes in the curious provenance and interpretation of each painting, and it documents a bewildering intrigue between the narrator, his mentor Tulse Luper and his rival van Hoyten (keeper of the owls at the Amsterdam Zoo, and a character in Greenaway’s feature A Zed & Two Noughts, 1985).
Experiments in form and structure can often be unwatchably arid, but the unique charm and wit of Greenaway’s scripts, along with the dizzying richness of their detail, guarantees that this collection of short films can be watched, and rewatched, with a smile. Only the first film (which has no accompanying script) lacks real distinction – the rest, especially Dear Phone and A Walk Through H, reveal the developing genius of one of this country’s most intelligent, eccentric and amusing minds.
Watching this retrospective collection is like entering the strange, cluttered mind of a bureaucratic librarian, full of eccentric catalogues and desultory associations.
strap: A labyrinth of alien intelligence – intriguing, understated, anal-retentive, and joyously funny.