Wednesday, May 20, 2009
Films I Love #32: A Walk Through H (Peter Greenaway, 1978)
A Walk Through H: The Reincarnation of an Ornithologist was the culmination of Peter Greenaway's 1970s short-form work. It is a 40-minute abstracted journey film, told almost entirely through the use of a series of 92 "maps," a set of drawings and patterns gathered together in a museum by the mysterious Tulse Luper, a character who has wandered through many of Greenaway's films. The narrator (Colin Cantlie) drolly describes each map in turn, recounting a journey through "H," though the meaning of this journey or what "H" stands for is never explained outright. Instead, as Greenaway's camera pans across the surface of each drawing, following the maze-like paths that lead from one map to the next, the narrator describes how he came to possess each of these maps, and what his journey is like. Greenaway occasionally intercuts images of birds and sunsets, the only figurative images in the film with the exception of the bookend sequences in the museum where all these maps are framed and displayed. Otherwise, the film is "set" entirely in the world of "H," which is represented only by Tulse Luper's maps, an elaborate guide through a mystery region, with a mysterious purpose as the goal.
This film is a culmination of Greenaway's tendency towards lists and repetitions, a motif that would soon be elaborated on even further in the three-hour epic of The Falls. Here, Greenaway's deadpan wit is comparatively concise, and about as mordantly funny as he'd ever be. The narrator is entirely straight-faced, but his bizarre, offhand descriptions of people and places and incidents — all of it tossed off with a tone that suggests he expects his audience to know exactly who and what he's talking about — are often hilarious non sequiturs. Some of these characters and ideas would later show up in Greenaway's feature films, and it's not surprising: A Walk Through H suggests a thriving, fully populated world beyond its narrowly defined borders, with a great deal of intrigue and activity leading up to the gathering of these maps. The entire journey is driven as well by the propulsive, looping score of Michael Nyman, a chiming, hypnotic piece of music that accelerates to a frenzied crescendo for the breathless conclusion, in which an ornithologist is (possibly?) reincarnated at the journey's end. This is a strange and unforgettable film, an imaginative mental odyssey, a map leading into the creative jumble of Greenaway's fertile mind.