on 15 November 2005
One feels compelled to point out, that if the viewer enjoyed films like The Draughtsman's Contract, Drowning by Numbers, The Cook The Thief His Wife & Her Lover and The Pillow Book... it doesn't necessarily mean that you'll enjoy this collection of early short sketches and visual experiments. Greenaway's student work is charming, though decidedly non-linear... with projects like Water Wrackets and A Walk Through H making his later, more-polarising work, like Prospero's Books and 8 ½ Women, look like the most conservative pieces of narrative cinema ever created. Greenaway's style during this period was very much toying with the form of the documentary, with films like Windows, Dear Phone and the two aforementioned, really laying the groundwork for his later work, whilst also, to some extent, establishing the various personal idiosyncrasies that would pepper his first feature-length project, The Falls.
All of the films featured here are short in form, though filled with huge ideas, with many of the films, most notably Water Wrackets and Windows, really using their initial simple set up to explore deeper themes and ideas that don't necessarily become clear until the second or third viewing (much like the various layered themes at work within his best films, like A Zed and Two Noughts and The Draughtsman's Contract). Greenaway's work, even the ones that might seem fairly straightforward, are always about more than one thing, which means that many of these projects might seems infuriatingly slight upon first experiences, though certainly, perseverance and a lot of thought eventually exposes more interesting elements away from the surface pretensions.
If you liked the Falls you're sure to enjoy Dear Phone, a collection of letters and various correspondences printed on screen and simultaneously narrated by Colin Cantlie, which give us a look into the wild idiosyncrasies and bizarre revelations of Greenaway's never-seen characters, all inter-cut with shots of old red telephone boxes scattered around the UK. The photography is nice, with Greenaway showing an early sign of the painterly shots and compositions he would later perfect, whilst the little stories presented by these letters are enjoyable, showing the influence of Alan Bennett in the way mundane everyday actions are juxtaposed with loftier issues, and giving us some of that same absurd comedy later explored in The Falls. Another enjoyable film is Water Wrackets, a film that uses multiple shots of water falls, bubbling brooks and babbling rivers, coupled with a voice over that flippantly tells of post-apocalyptic nuclear war and past historical atrocities in a dry, droll and typically British way. Although enjoyable, there is much to Water Wrackets that is unfathomable on first, second or perhaps even third viewings... so it's perhaps best to give the film (or films) a spin with Greenaway's great introduction, with gives a lot of information regarding his personal ideas and ideologies, as well as offering hints that allow us to further appreciate the film on a deeper level.
A Walk Through H (subtitled, The Reincarnation of an Ornithologist) is the most obvious of the films included, showing a style of seemingly Borgesian mock documentary that would go towards the creation of The Falls. It's a vast film, one that tries to be about several different things at one, so naturally Greenaway's commentary comes in handy for those of us to slow (like me!) to grasp every single strand of the film. For those who dislike the films of Peter Greenaway, his short work will do little to convert you. The films manage to seem both highly intellectual and charmingly quaint (the sight of the old red telephone boxes in Dear Phone is particularly touching... although you do still see them around every once in a while), moving from moments that are strikingly beautiful on a visual level, to something that is more humorous within the script.
At any rate, this is a great package, with Greenaway getting involved in the same way he did with the excellent DVD versions of The Draughtsman's Contract and A Zed and Two Noughts (I wish the BFI would also release Drowning By Numbers and The Baby of Maçon) by presenting sleeve notes and introductions. If you've already seen and loved these short films of video or TV, or if you're a Greenaway devotee looking for a greater challenge, now's you're chance to see his early short experiments on the only format that matters... anyone else would be advised to try before you buy.