The early, alien humor of Peter Greenaway


Excuse me but . . . what planet is Peter Greenaway from?

His provocative, obscure and recondite oeuvre makes a good deal more sense if one begins with the proposition that he is from some other sphere. Then one can't possibly begin to ask such questions as, "What does it mean?"

The avant-garde British filmmaker has confounded audiences and irritated critics for years with such antic strangenesses as "The Belly of an Architect," "The Cook, the Thief, His Wife and Her Lover" and "Prospero's Books." And it's no relief to see "The Early Films of Peter Greenaway," at the Charles for a day, because they turn out to be just like his later films -- only earlier.

This selection of work from the '70s suggests that quite soon Greenaway will be posing with Hillary Clinton for a National Enquirer photo and headline: ALIEN VISITS FIRST LADY, SPEAKS WITH BRITISH ACCENT. We see the same obsessions as characterize his later work, which is different from the earlier work primarily in that it is, uh, later.

These include: a fascination with text itself (as in "Prospero's Books," the narrative, such as it is, is frequently broken up with images of the actual script in Greenaway's own hand); a fascination with numbers, lists, charts and academic rhetoric; and a love of dense metaphysical language coupled with glorious imagery.

The most amusing is "Vertical Features Remake," in which a self-important cultural agency tries in its witless, heavy way to "remake" the "lost movie" of a fictional filmmaker/philosopher. The remade movie consists of 11 montages of 11 vertical images found in the English countryside. The humor in this is rather dry.

Others are simply ridiculous.

"Dear Phone" is a series of inert sequences -- like still lives -- of red British phone booths intercut with vignettes both read and shown on the page (text again) of the adventures of people on telephones. All the people -- oh, this'll knock you on your butt! -- have the initials H. C.!

In all, the films eschew the dramatic -- there are no characters but neither are they documentary -- for the didactic.

Not a single emotion could be located and as for human beings, they don't enter in.

On the other hand, the imagery is frequently beautiful and brilliantly worked out and the productions increasingly elaborate.

The showing is two hours and 15 minutes long and includes seven early films. The best thing about them is that they are early.


"The Early Films of Peter Greenaway"

Directed by Peter Greenaway

Released by Zeitgeist Films



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