Monday, 12:00am
27 October 2003

The painted frame

Greenaway's films demonstrate the possibilities of word and image and moving image. Critique by Rick Poynor

Web-only Critique written exclusively for

The imminent arrival of Peter Greenaway’s most ambitious project to date, The Tulse Luper Suitcases, spanning three films, a book, exhibitions and a website, makes this a good moment to revisit the director’s early work, reissued as two DVDs in the British Film Institute’s History of the Avant-Garde series. Greenaway has always polarised audiences. British critics frequently declare themselves repelled by his coldness and cleverness, while outside Britain (he now lives in Amsterdam) he is revered as one of the most cerebral and original contemporary film-makers.

The eight films Greenaway made from 1969 to 1980, before the international success of The Draughtsman’s Contract, introduce his list-making construction methods and an already elaborate private mythology. We meet characters who will keep turning up in his screenplays: the ornithologist Tulse Luper (a Greenaway alter ego), his rival Van Hoyten, and Cissie Colpitts, first president of the Goole Water Tower Film Vault. Some viewers dislike the uncompromisingly literary and painterly textures of his feature films, finding them uncinematic, and these qualities are even more pronounced in the early films, which deftly exploit this clash. Narrators with BBC voices intone Greenaway’s bizarre anecdotes over beautifully composed images shot on static cameras that resemble stills in which there is often no more than a flicker of movement.

Greenaway declared himself to be against narrative, but these films are overloaded with narrative content, as though he was trying to render it senseless by providing more than the viewer could wish to assimilate. Over ravishingly lovely scenes of running water, Water Wrackets (1976) delivers fake history in tones of absolute authority that suggest it’s our problem if the unfamiliar events and terminology are hard to grasp. In The Falls (1980), the 92 sequential biographies of survivors of a Violent Unknown Event mysteriously connected to birds are fantastically inventive and often funny, but at three hours long, a little draining. In Vertical Features Remake (1978), a documentary about attempts to reconstruct a lost film by Tulse Luper, the tension between word and image makes the film. Greenaway alternates squabbles between academics with four versions of Vertical Features, based on images of tree trunks, fence posts and telegraph poles edited according to precise structuralist principles. It’s a well aimed joke about a once dominant style of avant-garde film-making, which is also a highly pleasurable, though impure, contribution to the genre.

Music is a key part of this pleasure. Greenaway makes atmospheric use of pieces by Brian Eno and Max Eastley, and Michael Nyman’s chugging scores anticipate a run of masterly soundtracks for later Greenaway films. In A Walk Through H (1978) – the H could stand for heaven or hell – Nyman’s strings drive the protagonist on his travels towards the afterlife. The journey is visualised as a series of 92 maps painted with an elastically fluent graphic line by Greenaway, whose skills as an artist – he graduated from Walthamstow School of Art and occasionally exhibits – have tended to be overlooked by film writers. The movement comes from the camera, which tracks anxiously across the maps, searching for the correct pathway, as the narrator urgently records the latest details of Van Hoyten’s treachery. For Vertical Features Remake, Greenaway created research papers and diagrams, with handwriting, crossing out and smudges of colour. In Dear Phone (1976), a meditation on obsessive phone callers, he intercuts shots of the script, which evolves from scribble to typewriter perfection, with footage of red phone boxes. Despite the now antiquated imagery, the theme was prescient.

For anyone interested in the artistic possibilities of word and image and moving image, these films are unmissable. Both DVDs include artworks related to the films, archive material including manuscripts, and lucid commentaries by Greenaway, whose talking head appears – Greenaway style – in a window within the image. Experimental film projects as personal and idiosyncratic as A Walk Through H or The Falls, both financed by the BFI Production Board, would struggle to find funding today. All eight films can be enjoyed in their own right, but they also enrich an appreciation of Greenaway’s later commercial releases. This is an excellent series and the BFI deserves credit for its outstanding level of commitment to visual culture.

Rick Poynor, writer, founder of Eye, London

Eye is the world’s most beautiful and collectable graphic design journal, published quarterly for professional designers, students and anyone interested in critical, informed writing about graphic design and visual culture. It is available from all good design bookshops and online at the Eye shop, where you can buy subscriptions and single issues.