The Favorites is a series briefly exploring films I love, to find out what makes them - and me - tick. A Walk Through H (1978/UK/dir. Peter Greenaway) appeared at #50 on my original list.
What it is • The screen is occupied by a succession of drawings, caught somewhere between outlandish abstraction and ridiculously detailed cartography. The soundtrack is occupied by narration and an occasional burst of frenzied music, the narration leaning to the latter reading - in fact, our guide specifically refers to the sketches as maps - while the music often accompanies activity, be it quick cutting or zooms. At a glance, this is perhaps the simplest film on the list, a thirty-five minute journey through an art gallery with a voiceover telling us stories we can hear but not see. The deeper we dig, however, A Walk Through H is actually an incredibly complex experience. The drawings are both ornate and suggestive, not entirely obscure but with a significance just out of reach - like we're waking from a dream. The narration jauntily assumes our familiarity (or rather, hinges on our baffled amusement) with a dense mythology of people and places as if we've just cracked open a spin-off book attached to a central text we never read. The deadpan non sequiturs and Carollesque absurdities are amusing on their own terms, but all the more intriguing for their offhand references to a bigger story. This was one of Greenaway's earliest works, and while his later films (like The Cook, the Thief, His Wife, and Her Lover and A Zed and Two Naughts) would grow ever-bolder in their fusion of obsessive categorization and bohemian experimentation, A Walk Through H remains the purest expression of his unique sensibility.
Why I like it •
For anyone who experiences a dizzying and not entirely unpleasant tug-of-war between the left and right hemispheres of their brain, Greenaway's work is a godsend. These films are fanatically cerebral: dramatically distancing, void of any relatable human behavior, obsessively mannered in the precision of their arrangement. At the same time, they are so gorgeous in their photography, so electric in their editing, that their effect hits you viscerally. This sensation is perhaps epitomized by Michael Nyman's distinctive scores for Greenaway's films, a collaboration as iconic as Alfred Hitchcock's work with Bernard Herrmann or David Lynch and Angelo Badalamenti. Nyman's music pulsates and pounds away at repetivie motifs in a fashion he described as "Mozart played by Jerry Lee Lewis," though you could also say it sounds like a computer having an orgasm. All of Greenaway's works that I've seen (mostly the early ones) are distinctive, but A Walk Through H is my personal favorite because of its perverse appeal to the imagination. Films are all about what we see - and the fascinating images hanging from the wall (created by Greenaway himself) deliver on that front. But films are also more subtly about what we don't see, what image and sound suggest, and A Walk Through H takes place as much offscreen as onscreen, probably moreso. It's a movie I could "watch" on mute or with my eyes closed. Both experiences would yield striking sensations; fused together they're even better than the sum of their parts.
How you can see it • A Walk Through H streams on Fandor and Ubu and is available for DVD rental on Netflix as part of the Greenaway: The Shorts package. I wrote about the film, along with two other experimental titles, for my Avant-Garde series, in an entry called What's in a Name?
What do you think? • Do you agree with (apparently all) the Netflix reviewers that this and other early Greenaway shorts are not as satisfying or too difficult compared to his later films? What is your favorite era, and your favorite style, of avant-garde filmmaking? Which Greenaway feature is your personal favorite, and why? (I would probably lean toward A Zed and Two Noughts - the color, the music, and the craziness of the conceit; though actually I might go with The Falls , which I oddly group with his shorts given its proximity to them in chronology...and despite its massive 4-hour runtime!)
• • •
Yesterday: Pinocchio (#51)
Tomorrow: Murder, My Sweet (#49)