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.


Sam Juliano said...

Most interesting Ed! I have not seen it, but I am a longtime Peter Greenaway deciple. His best film is the one that is the most widely embraced, THE COOK, THE THIEF, HIS WIFE AND HER LOVER, but I have long had an affinity for PROSPERO'S BOOKS, THE DRAUGHTSMAN'S CONTRACT, and THE PILLOW BOOK, while finding some good things in THE BELLY OF AN ARCHITECT, DROWNING BY NUMBERS and the bizarre BABY OF MACON. I am a bit less enamored of NIGHTWATCHING. But THE COOK, THE THIEF is one of my favorite films of its decade.

Wonderful and concise writing here, imbued with passion for the work that set the stage for his feature films, and showcased his talents as an artist. I'll have to seek this out, especially as I have defended Greenaway for many years with some others who have found much fault in his work.

Ed Howard said...

Such a big Greenaway fan and you haven't seen his early shorts? The Zeitgeist box set of his early work is definitely essential. This particular short is my favorite of the Greenaway films I've seen so far, and most of the others in the set are nearly as good. And of course there's also his epic 3-hour The Falls, which is unlike pretty much anything else.

Sam Juliano said...

Indeed Ed,indeed. I will waste no time in acquiring these pronto.

Joel Bocko said...

Oh boy, by far my favorite Greenaway! (Just caught this on the sidebar.) I loved this when I saw it.

I wonder if Sam ever checked out the shorts. I enjoy Greenaway's features but I think his shorts are his masterpieces.

Seeing this discussion and the dates also reminds me it's been 2 years since I discovered Wonders in the Dark (and almost 3 since I started blogging) which is hard to believe.

Ed Howard said...

Thanks, Joel! I totally agree with you on the quality of his shorts. Those (plus the mammoth The Falls, which is related more to his avant shorts than his later features) are his greatest accomplishment, no matter how good some of the later features are. It's an amazing body of work.

jeanalfredmarais said...

I have used "The Cook...", "Drowning by Numbers", "A Zed...", "The Falls", and "A Walk Through H", for several years in my film classes, but in several ways I find "The Pillow Book" the most creative of all. Greenaway's collaborations with Michael Nyman (8 films) is every bit as strong as the collaboration between Reggio and Glass. I believe that both teams have produced some of the greatest films of the century.

Anonymous said...

but: where can I find the script to read the read the vocal narration?

Every link I found is dead.


And: where can I find all the 92 pictures (printed)?