The Early Films of Peter Greenaway (Part 1)

Ah, Peter Greenaway- excepting Matthew Barney, he is the most “Art Film” ish Art Filmmaker in the history of Art Films, an obsessive formalist and painter who manages to convert his passions into esoteric, but somehow completely fascinating, works of art on the moving screen. If you’ve seen his work- from his biggest commercial success, The Cook, The Thief, His Wife & Her Lover to his many short, truly experimental pieces, you know what you’re in for when you sit down to watch his work.

What makes his early films so interesting is that it’s all there, in primitive, primeval form, right from the beginning: carefully composed, still camera shots; dry, stuffy narration with an ironic and subtle sense of humor not detectable by all; text and graphics plastered over images, usually organic ones showing life in its myriad forms: plant life, animal life, human life.

With Greenaway, humans are just another subject of curiosity worth studying, and these early films show an evolving but consistent artistic voice who never tires of observing humans-as-animals. Intervals, shot in 1969 but released in 1973, already establishes this aesthetic well: shots of Venetian life chopped up into seemingly-random edits while we hear basic Italian being taught. Windows goes a step further: a series of the calm, British countryside through windows while we hear statistics read to us detailing the 37 people who died last year from falling through windows. The entire narration sounds like one of Greenaway’s many fantastical constructions, until you watch the bonus video where he tells us his film was actually an unusually political piece criticizing apartheid in South Africa. (Tip: don’t watch that bonus feature until you’ve experienced the films for yourself.)

From film to film we see Greenaway get more ambitious technically while staying true to his aesthetic form; H is for House uses his own family’s home movie footage as creative fodder, Water Wrackets narrates a (fictional?) history of an ancient British dynasty in which water played an important part, all the while treating us to serene footage of lakes, rivers, and streams. Dear Phone takes narration one literal step further by showing us his scribbled first draft of the story we are hearing, which has to do with telephones, while intercutting shots of phone booths.

The centerpiece is Greenaway’s longest film of that point: A Walk Through H, a short feature featuring his soon-to-be-famous musical collaborator, Michael Nyman, composing one of his Glassian minimalist scores as we are treated to a narrative of the final journey of an ornithologist through a series of meticulously drawn maps. By this point, the modern Greenaway we know from feature films is quite prominent, and it’s only a short skip and jump to Drowning by Numbers, his whimsical masterpiece from the late 80’s. But everything in that film is in this one, in low-budget form, proving that art can be made out of anything if you know just how to use it.


One thought on “The Early Films of Peter Greenaway (Part 1)

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s