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The Early Films of Peter Greenaway 1 (2003)

Rating: 8/10

Running Time: 87 minutes

UK Certificate: PG


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 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 intrepretation of each painting, and it documents a bewildering intrigue between the narrator, his mentor Tulse Luper and his rival van Heuten (keeper of the owls at the Amsterdam Zoo).

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.

It's Got: Six short, actor-free films involving strange deaths, curious maps, blighted telephone communications, mythical peoples, ornithological obsessions, and lots of words beginning with H.

It Needs: To be left on repeat play while you sleep (for the strange dreams it will bring).

DVD Extras This DVD has been lovingly compiled, with animated, flexible menus, lots of extras, plus some hidden material. Extras include 16 minutes of filmed introduction by Peter Greenaway, which can be viewed all in one go, or else in smaller sections preceding each film under discussion. The interview is digitally inset on top of a collage of scenes from the film, much in the manner of the digital framing used in his more recent feature films like Prosperos Books and The Pillow Book. The interviews are informative, and highly articulate. In addition there is a gallery of Greenaways artworks from 1968-1978, and a gallery of intriguing notes (both handwritten and typed) for film projects which have never been completed. The hidden extras (which are actually much easier to find than H) include a general written statement by Greenaway, brief notes on each film by critics, an extract from the BFI Productions Catalogue 1977-8 on A Walk Through H, notes on the making of A Walk Through H by Greenaway, and notes on writing soundtracks for Greenaway by long-time collaborator Michael Nyman. DVD Extras Rating: 9/10


Watching this retrospective collection is like entering the strange, cluttered mind of a bureaucratic librarian, full of eccentric catalogues and desultory associations. A labyrinth of alien intelligence – intriguing, under-stated, anal-retentive, and joyously funny.