Friday, May 04, 2012

An Introduction to the Films of Peter Greenaway: Three Early Shorts

From Open Culture, three early short films from the avant garde film director Peter Greenaway, the warped and brilliant mind behind Drowning By Numbers (1988), The Cook, The Thief, His Wife and Her Lover (1989), Prospero's Books (1991), The Pillow Book (1996), and 8½ Women (1999), among other films.

An Introduction to the Films of Peter Greenaway: Three Early Shorts

This week brings a Peter Greenaway double-bill to one of Los Angeles’ choicest revival cinemas, and what better way to get myself into the appropriate headspace than by first watching a few Greenaway shorts on the internet? When not making films, staging art happenings, or giving lectures, Greenaway teaches at the European Graduate School, and so he has a faculty page featuring a selection of videos of and pertaining to his work. These go all the way back to 1969, when he made a black-and-white short called Intervals. Shot around Venice during the Biennale, the film showcases the tendencies around which Greenaway has gone on to build his entire body of work: an attention to architecture; an attraction to historic centers of European art; an inclination toward schematic structures based upon numbers, alphabets, and music; and a desperate desire to escape the confines of narrative.

In 1973′s H is for House, you can more clearly sense Greenaway’s droll, calculating humor that would emerge in full force in the eighties, the decade which saw the release of his well-known pictures The Draughtsman’s Contract, A Zed and Two Noughts, and The Cook, the Thief, His Wife and Her Lover. It begins with the tale of a naturalist who, accustomed to following the sun every day as it moves from one side of house to the other, simply cannot adapt when the Earth one day begins turning in the other direction. Things then take an architectural and alphabetical turn as the camera examines various features of a country house — the one from the story, perhaps? — and several voices announce all the things certain letters, mostly H, can stand for. (“Home movie,” “heliolithic,” “haberdashery,” and so on.) A lady and a toddler appear, and eventually we’re hearing another story, this time of a woman who always stares north, suspicious that sneaky city builders will encroach on her territory from that direction. As the sun sets around the house, one of the voices then tells us of a man who, convinced that sunsets “recharge” his eyesight, inadvertently sparks a rivalry between those who prefer to watch the sun fall and those who prefer to watch it rise.

In 1975, Greenaway came as close as he ever has to fantasy by making Water Wrackets (part one, part two).  Narrating over images of swamps, Greenaway crafts the absurdly elaborate far-future mythology of the title creatures. While these relatively simple pieces lack the visual abundance and long-form scope of the feature films that would come later, they nevertheless provide an illuminating glimpse into the way Greenaway sees and organizes the world. Though it enriches the viewing experience to understand these qualities in any filmmaker, with Greenaway it’s almost a necessity. Watch these shorts, and you’ll come away that much better equipped to enjoy The Falls, The Belly of an Architect, The Pillow Book, and all of Greenaway’s other movies, whether in a favorite theater or on the comfort of your own couch.

Related content:
Peter Greenaway Looks at the Day Cinema Died — and What Comes Next
Darwin: A 1993 Film by Peter Greenaway

Colin Marshall hosts and produces Notebook on Cities and Culture. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall.

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