When surmising the film work of Peter Greenaway, several rather luscious factors often come into play: The huge, architectural scale of his filming locations and sets; the painterly detail of his composition; Influences of Western high art; the larger than life (often Shakespearian) characters performed by the biggest stars in the UK. All of these facets are what makes his non-narrative, upscale films such as The Belly Of An Architect (1987) or The Cook, The Thief, His Wife And Her Lover (1989), a ravishing feast. Yet, his shorter, earlier works suggest an entirely different proposition; an interest in the rural, the horticultural and the ornithological.
Greenaway was initially born in South Wales in Newport but was moved early on to Chingford in Essex. There’s a sense that the edges of the rural have always been around the filmmaker even when he went to the aptly named, Forest School in London; the place is immersed in the woody surroundings of Epping Forest. Perhaps it is this aspect alone that subconsciously influenced Peter Greenaway’s naturalist tendencies in his very early short work before other, more direct ornithological influences were allowed to be unleashed.
In an early short film, Tree (1966), he made a homage to a lone tree that sits outside on South Bank in London. This in itself reflects the director’s interests; the earlier being the natural, the later being the more urban, perhaps even cosmopolitan. It wasn’t until the 1970s when the BFI were properly funding his own projects that this would manifest further. The rural climbs of cottage aesthetics and village life make up the subject for a number of his shorts, the most successful of which being H Is For House (1973).
Within the film, the idyllic life of a rural household is portrayed in a jovial but surreal way through structuring the film around the alphabet game of the film’s title. Whilst beautifully textured imagery of the picture-postcard cottage create a strange, almost uncanny representation, the sound is undercutting the comfort through hinting towards the world outside of this bubble. H may be for house but the film also reminds that H is for holocaust. Also worth pointing out is the parallel between the film’s sound forms and the later music that Michael Nyman would produce for Greenaway in its layers of hypnotic motifs. The last film in this cycle also uses Nyman’s music to create this effect.
Greenaway would film another short in this way, finding a style where film could be made on an enjoyably small scale through putting images together with contextualising voice-over. Windows (1975) in spite of not being released until two years after H Is For House appears to not only be filmed at the same house but on the same days with the same weather as well. It could very well be cut footage from H Is For House but injected into the short is a sense of a macabre humour. Though the rural is only really present through the window of the film’s title, it tells of the fictionalised accounts of people who jumped or fell out of windows, using the usual statistical accuracy that Greenaway often imbues into his dialogue.
This style of creating fictions over what could be, in terms of narrative, blank imagery continues in the folkloric Water Wrackets (1975). By using stunning rural footage of rivers, lakes and the surrounding foliage, Greenaway creates a faux-historical parable about a lost community almost in the same style that Ben Rivers uses today. By tying in the naturalistic (as in the influence of nature rather than a tie to realism), the films begin to take on a magical and quite balmy quality of Borgesian labyrinths and rural climbs.
The final film to look at in this small selection of the director’s work comes in the form of A Walk Through H: The Reincarnation Of An Ornithologist (1979). The influence of ornithological study on the film is clear from the title, let alone the vast amounts of footage of a variety of different birds in their natural habitats. There’s little doubt that the influence of Greenaway’s bird-watching father has had a great influence on the work and also some later themes of his feature work as well.
Surprisingly, however, Greenaway goes back to the form that first started with Tree; balancing the rural natural with the cosmopolitan urban. Though the film does include plenty of natural footage, the majority is taken up by following the pathways on map-like artwork that are housed in a gallery. The artwork is Greenaway’s own and the voice-over tells of the long and complicated history of obtaining all of the maps and following their desired pathways. It would be a balance that would be returned to on several occasions but, more often than not, tipped towards the grotesquery of various human zones.
Of course, there are occasions where these interests would find their way back into the feature length films. In Drowning By Numbers (1988), the rural landscape of Suffolk becomes absolutely vital to the Caravaggio-like composition of the morbid narrative and A Zed and Two Noughts (1985) is explicitly about the naturalistic obsession with cataloguing the putrefaction of dead animals. Yet Greenaway would never again use such emphasis on nature and the rural found in these early shorts. Perhaps there was something a little too comforting and less probing within work that dealt with such pleasures; or more reasonably, perhaps they were about a subject so deeply personal to Greenaway that they would stay hidden like curios in a box, ready to open for personal doses of nostalgia whenever the mood suited.