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Zeitgeist Video presents

The Early Films of Peter Greenaway (1969-80)

"It is not recorded what Orchard thinks of the Violent Unknown Event, and he is very non-committal about any opinion concerning the theory of the Responsibility of Birds, though in an unguarded moment he has described his enemy as the FOX. This might be no more enigmatic than a reference to his profession as a seller of chicken-wire."- Narrator (Colin Cantlie)

Director: Peter Greenaway

MPAA Rating: Not Rated for adult themes
Run Time: 05h:26m:00s
Release Date: 2006-04-11
Genre: experimental

Image Transfer
Audio Transfer
A AC+C+ B+


DVD Review

The release of Peter Greenaway's early work will come as a great relief to followers of the director, who, unless they were region-free and PAL capable, have had to make do with ropey bootlegs of much of this work for years. Indeed, many other films in Greenaway's catalog remain frustratingly unavailable in good editions, including some features (Drowning by Numbers, Prospero's Books, and The Baby of Macon) and a number of television works. In any case, this release from Zeitgeist, which gathers material previously released by the British Film Institute in R2, gathers much of Greenaway's "juvenilia," as he dryly calls it in one introduction, is certainly a must-have for followers of the work of this director. For those who have heard of Greenaway's recent three film Tulse Luper Suitcases project, the initial appearances of what has been called Greenaway's alter ego can be found here; indeed, Greenaway describes Vertical Features Remake, included on in this set, as a starting point of sorts for the later project, as yet unreleased in North America beyond the odd festival screening.

The earliest film included is Intervals (1969), in which Greenaway uses structuralist methods to string together the same footage three times; the footage was shot in Venice, where Greenaway made it a point to leave the famous waterways out of the film, looking instead at people going about their day to day business, presumably unaware they are being observed. Each set of the footage features a different soundtrack, allowing for a different experience each time.

Windows sees Greenaway taking a more political tone, if obliquely, at least in this day and age. Describing the film as his protest against South African prisoners killed in the guise of accidents, Greenaway uses his cataloging style to discuss a series of deaths by defenestration, using facts and figures set against shots of the lovely English countryside.

In Dear Phone, Greenaway creates a series of stories based around phones and the uses of England's famous red telephone boxes. A series of these boxes are seen in both rural and urban areas and in between, but we can never be certain which boxes go with which stories, or if they are meant to connect at all. Like most of the films within the set, the viewer is allowed to read into it what they wish, and repeated viewings reveal (or not) further connections.

In H is for House, Greenaway focuses again on a particular interest, that of cataloging and classification. Pointing out how crude the alphabet is when trying to provide organization and control, he uses footage of his family lounging about their country house, all the while ticking off things that begin with the letter H, as well as other alphabetical connections. Music from Vivaldi's Four Seasons provides a counterpoint to the dry humor at work.

Water Wrackets (1978) is fairly unusual in Greenaway's work due to its tale of a long-lost civilization, its history spoken by the narrator and framed by shots of water from a series of English locations. Greenaway describes the film as a spoof anthropological exercise, and that's more or less how it plays.

The lengthiest film of the first disc's lot is the final one, chronologically speaking. A Walk Through H is easy enough to describe, but rather more difficult to explain. Generally speaking, the film (subtitled 'The Reincarnation of an Ornithologist'), follows the narrator (Colin Cantrie) as he tells of his journey to a supposed reincarnation, through the use of 92 maps gathered for him by his friend Tulse Luper. The maps, which are shown one after another, are variously decorated and designed (all by Greenaway), but none are especially recognizable as maps as we would have them, all exactitude and careful detail. The maps the narrator uses are abstract and surreal, relating to events in the narrator's life that he explains as the film progresses. During the course of the journey, we see only the maps, with occasionally interspersed footage of birds, as it relates (or sometimes doesn't) to the narration. It's a film that can be bewildering on first glance, until the viewer gets to grips with what is happening and how it is being done. More than most, this film needs to be seen more than once.

Disc 2 gets into Greenaway's first major feature-length (and then some) work, The Falls, which clocks in at an immense 196 minutes. The Falls is a colossal faux-documentary looking at the victims of what Greenaway terms the VUE, or Violent Unexplained Event. In order to provide a cross-section of the victims, it has been decided to profile just those victims whose last names begin with the letters FALL, of which there are 92. Beginning with Orchard Falla and finishing with Anthior Fallwaste, Greenaway leads the viewer through all 92 lives, each illustrated in varying detail, with a mix of new footage and found materials, all dryly narrated by multiple narrators.

In many ways, this film is perfectly made for DVD. In a cinema, it's quite easy to imagine this as a punishing experience, running in its entirety without break. But on disc, its encyclopedic structure allows for browsing and stepping through, which is what people do with such sources anyway. The film has thankfully been chaptered by biography, so the viewer can either go from start to finish or simply leap around as wished. When viewed in the latter fashion, one perhaps loses the full cinematic experience, but I found this a much more satisfying way to watch the film. Michael Nyman contributes a wonderful score, echoes of which appear in later projects for Greenaway, and there are even echoes of later projects, such as the three Cissy Colpitts of Drowning By Numbers, who are mentioned here. Also on the second disc is Vertical Features Remake, another faux-documentary, this time poking fun at academic pursuits. Greenaway's invented Institute for Restoration and Reclamation has tried to reconstruct a lost film by Tulse Luper, called Vertical Features. Their version of the film falls under immediate fire by other interested parties, leading to "remakes" of the film according to their input. The vastly differing versions point out the inherent problems in assuming the true intentions behind a work of art.

Rating for Style: A
Rating for Substance: A


Image Transfer

Aspect Ratio1.33:1 - Full Frame
Original Aspect Ratioyes

Image Transfer Review: Taken mostly from 16mm sources, the transfers here look about as good as we might expect. There is some shimmer on occasion in addition to higher than usual grain, and the prints themselves sometimes have dirt and other minor defects, but otherwise they look okay. Given the origination of this set in Region 2, all have been converted to NTSC and retain their PAL running speed. I didn't notice this as a problem in terms of video, but those sensitive to such problems are so warned.

Image Transfer Grade: C+

Audio Transfer

 LanguageRemote Access

Audio Transfer Review: The sometimes tinny, crude sounding audio isn't too offputting, and I don't imagine much could be done to improve it. It's not especially harsh, but given the use of music, one would like a more robust presentation.

Audio Transfer Grade: C+ 

Disc Extras

Static menu with music
Scene Access with 105 cues and remote access
Packaging: Box Set
1 Disc
1-Sided disc(s)
Layers: dual

Extra Extras:
  1. Filmed introductions by Peter Greenaway for each film
  2. Artwork and archival galleries
  3. Press book materials
  4. Inserts with brief introductory notes by Greenaway
Extras Review: Like the European releases, these discs contain filmed introductions to each work by Greenaway, in which he describes the genesis of each project and his general artistic intentions in making them. These are all recommended and are selectable either individually or en masse. The short films disc includes an insert with further comments by Greenaway. The Falls disc I reviewed did not contain an insert, but the box does list one to be included. Also on each disc is a gallery of Greenaway's art, which can be stepped through by the viewer. Press books and catalog material from the BFI are included (these were easter eggs on the Euro discs), and on the Falls disc, archival materials for unmade Greenaway projects are provided. One disappointing omission from the Falls disc was the ability to select biographies based on association among the 92 people; chaptering is limited to the list of biographies alone on the Region 1 set.

Extras Grade: B+

Final Comments

For fans of Greenaway, this is a must-have; those interested in experimental film will presumably find it of interest as well. If you've watched other Greenaway films, however, you'll have some idea of what to expect, although there is a general lack of narrative here for those who want or need a story. As Greenaway notes, the films included here are more about exploring specific ideas of interest to him personally. Zeitgeist's two-disc set gathers material previously released in Europe, which includes specially filmed material by Greenaway introducing all the films. A generous helping of the director's paintings and archival material rounds out a solid package.

Jeff Wilson 2006-04-10