Long before he became notorious for his groundbreaking social commentary The Cook, the Thief, His Wife and Her Lover, director Peter Greenaway was establishing himself as an arcane, avant-garde auteur. Beginning in 1982 with The Draughtsman's Contract and running through a series of artistically adventurous films, including A Zed and Two Noughts, The Belly of an Architect and Drowning by Numbers Greenaway became categorized as a risk taking rule breaker. Fiercely independent, wildly inventive, and suggesting a aesthetic both logical and insane, he was a filmmaker failing to play by the rules. Yet, when looking back at his very early films, it is clear that what Greenaway was doing was rebelling against the very idea of cinema. Zeitgeist Video is now offering a two DVD set of the man's beginning works, and they argue for a longstanding desire to avoid narrative flow, a need to deconstruct storytelling, and a love of reinventing what makes up a viable motion picture. While not always successful, these movies champion Greenaway as a director of decided skill – and sly subversion.
Concentrating on the years 1969 through 1980, this digital presentation of Greenway's early cinematic experiments consist of five short films, 2 longer, featurette-like pieces, and a 3 hour magnum opus in mock-documentary form. All bear a striking resemblance to each other in tone and temperament, and almost all center on birds, ornithology, and man's relationship to space, both personal and cosmic. Individually, a basic plot outline for each is as follows:
Intervals (1969): Using a Bolex camera that could only capture brief, glimpse-like shots, Greenaway paints a portrait of the backstreets of Venice without ever once truly referencing the city or its fabled canals.
Windows (1974): A quasi-documentary style piece about people who have fallen out of windows. Some are suicides, some are accidental, but most seem to have the issue of flying and man's relationship to birds at their core.
Dear Phone (1976): Over screens of written narrative, our director juxtaposes images of telephones, hoping to show the connection between the sentiments being expressed, and the modern technological ability to (mis)communicate.
H is for House (1976): Like a psychotic nursery rhyme, words beginning with "H", among others, are set beside imagery of a typical English countryside, and one terribly twee family that lives amongst it's beauty.
Water Wrackets (1978): As images of water rush by, and the sound of shifting liquid fills the speakers, we hear a neo-epic poem about a race of aliens, and their battle for individual recognition and supremacy.
A Walk through H (1978): Thanks to a series of ever more bizarre maps, we chart the course of a dead ornithologist and his own perplexing journey through "H" – a possible landscape…or maybe, just his own internal highways.
The Falls (1980): As part of an overview on something called the VUE (Violent Unknown Event) a case study of 92 biographies is offered. Each person is different, yet they are all linked by the same four letters in their last name – "fall". Some of these stories last for a moment or two, others are drawn out over several minutes. The individuals effected (there are over 19 million in the world, according to the film) suffer from numerous physical and mental infirmaries, while achieving various extra-special abilities, like intelligence, insight, and most importantly, immortality. All 92 are discussed and we hear testimony, see archival footage, and listen to scholars discuss and dissect their importance to the world. Naturally, it all revolves around birds, ornithology and speaking in tongues.
Vertical Features Remake (1978): Using information gleaned from personal papers and other artifacts from his life, a film by enigmatic moviemaker Tulse Luper is reconstructed by a British cinema preservationist society. We see three differing versions of the project, since scholars argue amongst themselves over the proper way to achieve the mystery man's rather ambiguous goals. One thing's for sure – Luper wanted to study the vertical elements in the landscapes of England. Just what elements he was concerned about, the number, and their location become the subject of much speculation.
Peter Greenaway really doesn't make movies. The best way to describe his works, including his very earliest cinematic efforts, would be to call them "optical fictions". He is more of a writer than a film fabricator, a man completely interested in the interplay between ideas and images, vs. making a coherent, cogent narrative. Certainly as he progressed in his career, he became better at mixing axioms with art, as efforts like Drowning by Numbers, The Cook, the Thief, His Wife and Her Lover and Propero's Books prove out. But back when he was a budding filmmaker, Greenaway was obsessed with the visual, and translating the canvas and the page to the rather meaningless movie screen. Unlike someone with a similar conceit – David Lynch's first films were a magnificent meshing of painting and plot – Greenaway overloads his movie with deliberately complicated, often contradictory concepts. That is why they can seem elusive and aggravating, occasionally stunning but more often stunted by their strained ambitions.
Greenaway is also a puzzle lover. He enjoys the notion of interlocking layers, filling his films with clues, hints, mysteries and maps that require the audience to create connects and concede conclusions. Sometimes, the answer is obvious (as when we see the neon letters spelling out "aspic" in The Cook, the Thief…, or the random placement of the Drowning numbers), while at other moments, the sum up stays obscure and impossible to define. Then there are the occasions when the answer is…that there is no answer. Audience acceptance is not high on his list of aesthetic priorities. Instead, Greenaway expects you to meet him at the entrance to his surreal showcases, open the door into this clever, confusing world, and then continue on all the way in. It's the only means of making sense of his efforts. It's also the only possibly path to ever enjoying them. The films here represent some of the most maddening examples of the director's dynamic. If you can survive them, his more "mainstream" oeuvre will be a perfectly edible piece of cake. Perhaps then it's best to review each offering separately, to see where Greenaway began, and how he modified his approach, ever so slightly, to reach the ridiculous heights of something like The Falls. We start with:
Intervals (6 mins) – Score: **
This black and white snapshot of Venice at the end of the '60s is best considered an experiment in editing interconnected with environment. Since he uses so many mundane settings (alleys, walls, storefronts) the monochrome only highlights the backdrops bleakness. In addition, there is no real story, just a series of pedestrians passing by. If you are looking for a clear example of Greenaway's past lives as a photographer, painter and editor, this movie would certainly fit the bill.
Windows (4 mins) – Score: **
Far wider in scope than the preceding effort, Windows tries to be a kind of Richard Corey of cinema. Greenaway wants the penultimate denouement about WHY many of these people fell out of their window to be something wistful and full of wonder. However, because the film is so short, and tries to do so much in such a minimal amount of time, the reveal is routine, instead of riveting. Again, this is a very image heavy piece, with lots of shots of landscapes and open air. A narrator named Colin Cantlie, fills us in on all the facts. The pictures are just portraits of the plot's aftermath. This will rapidly become Greenaway's creative calling card, turning up over and over again in the next few films.
Dear Phone (17 mins) - Score: *1/2
A very odd idea for a movie, Dear Phone has a rather appropriate title. More or less a deliberate dissection of how the telephone has replaced letter writing, and in return, the oral tradition in narrative, Greenaway uses sequences where text fills the screen as a reminder of how formal and artful words can be. He then offers up the deliberately mundane images of the red boxy British phone booth as a means of dehumanizing communication. It all ends up very forced and incredibly indulgent. By the time we get to the fourth or fifth story, we no longer really care, and since the call boxes offer little visual variable, we eventually grown bored. This is definitely not one of the director's more successful efforts.
H is for House (9 mins) – Score: **1/2
In some ways, recreating a child's alphabet book in cinematic form seems perfectly sensible for someone like Greenaway. Here, he can indulge in his most idiosyncratic imagery and it will still seem like a perfect pairing for the subject matter. Really nothing more than a recitation of word's accompanying glorified home movies of the artist's family at rest and play, H is for House doesn't dig as deep as many of the director's other efforts. Still, it does seem to be saying something about the maturation process, like how a simple letter like "H" can mean an equally basic idea like "house" when you're small, or "horror" when you're an adult.
Water Wrackets (11 mins) - Score: **
Imagine if someone read to you the selected works of Philip K. Dick, or J.R.R. Tolkien, while shots of running water filled the screen. That's the effect of this rather odd mix of narrative and nature. Greenaway is obviously intrigued by clans and tribal history, and the fable he forges here can be very effective. Still, without the benefit of visuals beyond the various streams, ponds, rivers, lakes and seasides of England, there is very little here to help us connect. Unless you pay incredibly close attention, you will lose track of the various family feuds and political posturing, and this definitely lessens the film's impact. It is here where we start to see Greenaway's bows to the classical concept of the epic poem. It will take on greater significance in the next film offered.
A Walk through H (41 mins) – Score: **1/2
Nothing more than 92 maps, closely examined by the camera, as a narrator explains the arduous life long journey taken by a now dead ornithologist, A Walk Through H is like peeking inside a medieval topography shop. The diagrams, all done by Greenaway himself, resemble phases of travel, segments of exploration that could indicate aging, psychological maturity, or simply places on the planet. The director once again indulges in made up names, quirky languages, and numerical referencing, all to give this voyage a mandatory mythical quality. For the most part, it works. We get sucked into the story, and want to hear more. But just as quickly, we find our interest waning and we no longer care about the outcome of this weird walk. As a remarkable example of imagination and visualization, this film is enthralling. As a narrative worth waiting on, it definitely has its weak spots.
The Falls (195 mins)– Score: ***1/2
In essence, the first DVD in the set was a primer, everything present suggesting and building up to this film. Wildly ambitious, overly dense, loaded with ideas and strangely seduction, this three hour plus production is massive in scope, while it stays relatively small in emotional meaning. With 92 stories to tell, Greenaway only has a little over two minutes per person to get his point across. Sometimes, he cheats, treating several individuals as names only, thereby building up time to address certain individuals in more depth. Still the overall approach is far too scattershot to arrive at something transcendent. Indeed, in a lot of these early offerings from the director, we anticipate the moment where the movie makes its case for timelessness. Sadly, such a cinematic sentiment never arrives. What we do get, instead, are dozens of delightful stories, filled with imagination, wit, unsettling substance and unusual genre elements. With its apocalyptic approach to the premise (everyone here is a victim of a strange phenomenon called the VUE) we get a surreal mix of science fiction, environmentalism and biography, all baked inside another of Greenaway's eccentric filmic casseroles.
Some of the stories are very intriguing. There is an entire family forced to search for a missing member via postcards and slides. We are introduced to a man whose resulting physical deformity enables him to fly. A woman stands on a busy London street, and in a profoundly odd language, complains about the amount of tax dollars used to study her predicament, and the cases of others like her. There is some very sly, subtle humor in spots (one of the effected people, a parasite riddled man who works with kites, speaks all his lines in Pig Latin) as well as some stunning visual ideas (many of the documentary "participants" do not want to be seen, and instead pick iconic images from popular culture to illustrate their appearance). Yet the overall result is maddening, not magnificent. Greenaway is like the cinematic equivalent of a Thomas Pynchon novel. There is so much going on, so many details flying by and so much subtext being laid out that we become immune to it. No matter what this director is doing, we are no longer enjoying ourselves. It's not that he's tried our patience so much as played right into it. We keep waiting for something to stir us. Unfortunately, that's all we do.
Vertical Features Remake (44 mins) – Score: ***
Call this a preservationist's spin via Rashamon and you'll get part of the point the filmmaker wanted to obtain here. Using his fictional alter ego, the long reference Tulse Luper (many of the short films mention this mystery man) Greenaway mixes mathematics with structuralism to create three separate versions of the same film. Nothing more than a series of static landscapes, differing production paradigms are used – 11 shots of 11 different elements, each one lasting 11 frames, followed up by 11 more clips, this time with each lasting 12 frames, etc. – to try and decipher the aesthetic goals of Luper's exploration of verticality. Much of the movie's running time is made up of these examples, while the rest of the narrative is taken up with conflicting conversations and accusations between scholars, each one arguing that their insight into the man and the meaning of his papers is the correct one. It is rather witty, and such a set up allows us the luxury of being intrigued by the final outcome.
It is safe to say that nothing here is as resoundingly memorable as Michael Gambon grousing about the quality of cuisine in England, or Prospero's sexualization of Shakespeare, but you can see the building blocks to Greenaway's later achievements here. You can also witness the excesses that drove him out of the media darling chair with the release of the widely panned Pillow Book. Since then, only his 1999 effort 8˝ Women gained any kind of mainstream interest. It is safe to say that, as a filmmaker, Greenaway probably doesn't care that he's no longer the favored fad gadget of the muckraking media. He started off as an artist, and such ambitions are not diminished by trends, popularity or publicity. As these first films clearly illustrate, this director wasn't concerned about commercial success. All he wanted was to put his musing into motion picture form, and on that account, he was totally triumphant.
Offered in a professional, if plain, 1.33:1 digital presentation, the films found on this Greenaway collection look very good. Some suffer from excess grain, and a few look forged out of less than the original elements (The Falls has a second generation aura to its imagery), but overall, these rarities look perfectly presentable. As a director, Greenaway is all about the careful controlling of framing and composition, so having these clean, crisp transfers really accentuates his aesthetic approach.
The good news here is that the incredible Michael Nyman, a constant in the Greenaway canon, was present to score many of these mini-movies. His minimalist musical milestones really add a great deal to the shorts, while Brian Eno helps out on the longer, Disc 2 pieces. The bad news then? Zeitgeist Video does NOTHING to improve the sound quality. The mundane Dolby Digital Mono mix is tinny, thin and flat as a flapjack, really robbing the audience of a chance to hear Nyman's new age nuances. Even the narration is rendered rough and distorted some of the time. What these movies needed was a brand new sonic remastering. Then we could appreciate all aspects of Greenaway's art – his approach to both vision AND sound.
Sparse as they are, Zeitgeist still gives us the opportunity to hear Greenaway explain himself…sort of. Accompanying each film is an introduction (though, oddly enough, they cannot be viewed as part of each movie's overall presentation) in which the filmmakers fondly recalls the reasons behind each production, and some of the goals he hoped to achieve. It can get rather erudite, and you often get the feeling that Greenaway himself didn't quite know what he was doing all the time. Still, just to hear the man discuss his canon is reason enough to celebrate. Now if only he hadn't been so brisk in his comments (these quaint conversations only last about 16 minutes total). Elsewhere, Greenaway gives us a chance to look over his artwork as we get galleries offering stills, paintings and other production materials. Along with an insert featuring more memories from the director, we get a fairly indepth dissection of one man and his many movie mannerisms.
Though there is not a single masterpiece among them, the films offered as part of this Peter Greenaway overview are easily Recommended, especially for any fan of the auteur and his unusual creative canon. Individual moments will strike you, and if you pay close enough attention, you will hear some wonderfully wicked ideas buried inside all the bluster. Yet, as hard as it might be to believe, this material is not nearly as accessible as The Cook, the Thief… or even the more mindblowing Drowning by Numbers. Those cinematic statements were the combination of several secure moviemaking ideals. Here, Greenaway is struggling to discover his voice, eager to use the camera like a brush and the screen like a canvas to paint powerful portraits of humanity and nature directly onto celluloid. That it doesn't work all the time is to be forgiven, just don't expect to be thoroughly entertained. A lot of what this box set represents is just filmmaking at its most rudimentary. Thankfully, both the creator and his audience have moved on. You may want to as well after sitting through this ambitious audition.