The Early Films of Peter Greenaway 1 Review

Anthony Nield has taken a look back at the BFI’s Region 2 release of The Early Films of Peter Greenaway 1. Though lesser known than his subsequent work as a feature film director, the six films compiled here represent a body of work in their own right, and a fully rewarding one at that. The disc also comes with some noteworthy extras.

The first of two volumes, The Early Films of Peter Greenaway 1 brings together six of the director’s shorts made between 1969 and 1978, a period which saw him move away from being, essentially, a self-financing hobbyist and towards a more professional means of production. Of course, the use of the term ‘early’ implies a ‘later’, which we now know to mean his career as a feature film director of international renown, plus the idea that Greenaway’s filmography can be easily separated into two distinct categories. Which perhaps also supposes, therefore, that the ‘early’ works are merely a precursor to The Draughtsman’s Contract, et al. However, the pieces collected on this disc (and, indeed, on the second volume) very much form a body of work in their own right and as such this review will focus solely on these six films and make no mention of the ‘later’ efforts.

Being a body of work these shorts understandably present a series of thematic concerns and connections. Interweaved in each are elements of autobiography, an embrace of avant-garde theories and practises (particularly structuralism), a taste for the absurd, and a playful engagement with the formalities of documentary conventions, albeit within fictional contexts. The major concern, however, is a questioning of cinema itself and its capabilities. It’s an issue he has raised on a number of occasions and was laid out in his contribution to ‘Movie Times’ (a supplement to Sight and Sound, May 1996). In this piece he disparages cinema as “a mimetic mongrel art”, “a multi-hybrid” (of literature, theatre, and painting) and describes its history simply as “a prologue”. His major concern is with its conception: “words first and pictures second is no way to create a visual medium.”

The earliest featured short, Intervals (1969, with soundtrack added in 1973), sets the issue up most forcibly. Constructed from black and white footage shot in Venice and edited to strict structural guidelines, the film repeats itself three times, on each occasion to a different soundtrack. As each of these repetitions is played out to the accompaniment of a recitation of the Italian alphabet, for example, or burst of Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons, the images take on alternate meanings. Whilst it is certainly true that Intervals does, to a degree, find Greenaway feeling his way around the material and is perhaps marked by being a piece that is more about the experiment itself rather than the end result, it is also important insofar as it lays down the groundwork for its more distinct antecedents. Skip forward to Dear Phone (1976), for example, and the approach is more ambitious. Essentially, the short presents a series of almost anecdotal half-stories through images of the script itself and various ’phone boxes, combining them to create an absurdist mystery. Each of the mini-narratives has possible connections with the others (there are recurring characters and situations), as do the ’phone boxes themselves (telephones being the uniting theme throughout), suggesting one all-encompassing narrative, though any ambiguities are never resolved and things remain essentially unclear and as such in the hands of the viewer. Indeed, this sense of unsurety compels its audience to connect with the film in a more overt manner than with Intervals and is all the more rewarding for it.

The slightly earlier Windows (1974) on the other hand produces a series of windows and reels of a list of deaths by defenstration. The connection between the two is understandably easier to make, though questions do continue to arise: Are the windows projected on screen the same as the ones from which the various characters fell? As all of the windows which we are seeing are all from the same house, should we presume that the various deaths are all interconnected? Etc. Etc.

What this most assuredly demonstrates is Greenaway’s resistance to storytelling – or at least in the conventional sense of the word. All the shorts, with the exception of Intervals, come with voice-over from Colin Cantlie (referred to Peter Sainsbury, head of production at the BFI whilst most of these films were made, as “the tone of common sense”) and it is with this addition that the documentary elements come to light. Indeed, each film is essentially presenting a list: windows, ’phone boxes, 92 maps (A Walk Through H [1978]). Considering the hobbyist nature of the earliest pieces, this approach is hugely beneficial. Understandably, individual budgets were tight resulting in Greenaway having to keep things simple and reasonably short, but from this perspective he is also able to present a great deal of information, and toy with numerous themes, ideas and metaphors. (Windows, for example, as Greenaway informs us in its introduction, has an implicit political dimension relating to the situation in South Africa at the time of its making.) Moreover, it also allows the sometimes oblique natures of the works to be dealt with in more straight-faced terms. 1978’s Water Wrackets in particular succeeds in this manner, its potentially confusing fictional history of an invented civilisation now being rendered as an adventurous Wildlife on One study.

It is interesting, therefore, that the majority of these shorts are also to a degree home movies, an element that undoubtedly prevents them from becoming mere academic exercises. Intervals was shot whilst Greenaway was holidaying in Venice, whilst Windows, H is for House (1976) and Water Wrackets were all filmed at the holiday home where the director and his young family would spend their summers. Indeed, H is for House – a witty questioning of the way the alphabet is constructed – can also be read as a record of his daughter’s childhood, a recording of both her voice and at play. What this adds is a great deal of charm to the pieces – the thought of Greenaway as a hippy is a heartwarming one – yet, importantly, never gives rise to amateurism. As Intervals suggests, Greenaway takes great care in the process, whilst another of his touchstones, the landscape film, ensures a keen eye for visuals; another of H is for House’s qualities is its ability to evoke the English summer so succinctly.

In fact, Englishness is another strong factor in each of the films. Not only is it there in the presence of, say, the distinct red telephone boxes in Dear Phone or the aforementioned H is for House example, but also in the ironic, absurdist narratives that keep the post-Intervals shorts together (Intervals instead demonstrated this trait by being a film about Venice which features not a single shot of water). Despite claims in his sleeve notes (and elsewhere throughout the years) that if you wish to story then you write a novel, Greenaway obviously has a immense talent for the written word. Of course, none of the shorts can make claims towards having a straight-ahead, no-nonsense narrative, even A Walk Through H, the longest and most ambitious film on the disc, with its distinct beginning, middle and end is too convoluted to satisfy this criterion. Rather each of the films present what feels like snippets, ones which are littered with oddments. The tale of rival societies of sun worshippers in H is for House or the bird references that are teased out throughout A Walk Through H (there is a death caused by an omelette; the narrator at one point contracts chickenpox) possess a wonderful sense of humour and, once again, a great charm. Alongside the home movie qualities, it is this aspect which makes Greenaway such an individual of the experimental film movement rather than a simple practitioner of theories or member of any collective. Certainly, as the films progress there is a move into the creation of his own mythology with the figure of Tulse Luper, the key figure in A Walk Through H also figuring heavily in the two films that make up The Early Films of Greenaway 2, Vertical Features Remake (actually made before A Walk Through H) and his three-hour opus The Falls.

The Disc

As all of the shorts were shot on 16mm we perhaps shouldn’t expect too much from their presentation. Indeed, they are often grainy whilst their soundtracks likewise contain a little crackle. That said, whilst the soundtracks could have been rendered a little sharper, it is difficult to imagine what could be done to the picture qualities in order to improve them in any overt manner, and as such we should accept what we have. The original Academy ratios are adhered as are the mono soundtracks, whilst the slightly softer, more grainy look no doubt aids the home movie elements.

Counterbalancing this level of quality is the presence of a number of wonderful extra features. Greenaway himself has had an input in the two Early Films discs and as such we get his typically astute and erudite contribution to both the sleeve notes and introductions to each of the shorts. All are especially pithy and get down to the root intentions of each, whilst also being decidedly harsh with regards as to how well he feels, in retrospect, he was able to achieve them. But then there is also a great warmth towards his “first steps”, one that makes this introductions warrant repeat viewings.

Greenaway has also allowed the BFI into his own personal archives for this release resulting in two galleries. The first presents a number of artworks made during the same period as the films in question (1968 to 1978) which are instructive in revealing how much relation his film works had to his other projects. Of course, nowadays Greenaway is more likely to be putting together an art installation than making a feature, and its intriguing to see that this dichotomy has always been in place. The second gallery is more interesting, if less rewarding. It contains notes on a number of projects which, presumably for a number of reasons, never saw the light of day. The problem is that Greenaway’s handwriting – as proven in Dear Phone – is rarely legible making a perusal of these notes often hard going.

Also present, albeit in easter egg form, is a press book. A lengthy piece, this text based extra contains new notes by Greenaway on both his early career and each of the individual films (meaning, understandably, that there is some crossover with the sleeve notes and various introductions) plus, more intriguingly, access to the BFI’s ‘Production Catalogue 1977 – 78’. This latter piece contains notes by then Head of BFI Production Peter Sainsbury, Greenaway and composer Michael Nyman on A Walk Through H. All three go into great depth making it a most welcome piece, even if Nyman’s discussions of how he went about composing his score mostly went completely over my head. But then, as with the introductions, this gives me a reason to return to it time and time again.

As with each of the short films, the introductions come with a variety of optional subtitles.

Anthony Nield

Updated: Mar 23, 2005

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