Sure, there was shit smearing and fork stabbing, but the most horrifying aspect of Peter Greenaway's The Cook, The Thief, His Wife, and Her Lover was not the violence, the sadism, or the scatology, but rather the obsessive sense of order. In the maelstrom of rapes and beatings and trucks filled with maggots, Greenaway never lost sight of the intellectual rigidity of his project, never forgot to begin each scene with a title card in the form of an impeccably rendered menu. Similarly, in the less menacing 1988 feature Drowning By Numbers (which should be arriving at CocoWalk any day now), Greenaway doesn't let a brutal triple murder obscure a calculated structuralist game that involves counting from one to 100 with on-screen images.
Back before The Cook and Drowning, back before even The Falls (Greenaway's feature debut), he was already exploring the same territory, striving for the ultimate fusion of the systematic and cinematic, and the mid-Seventies shorts that compose Three by Greenaway (Water Wrackets, Dear Phone, A Walk ThroughH) carry his distinct stamp.
The three shorts are not traditional narratives at all, but rather abstracts that explore the essence of systems. Over ordinary visuals far inferior to the translucent majesty he would later achieve with cinematographer Sacha Vierney, Greenaway injects arcane topics (Water Wrackets relates the genesis of a lake-canal system; Dear Phone links absurd Greenaway short stories that feature phones) with an intimidating dose of complexity. These films, impersonal and quirky, have no actors, only footage and filmed text, and the unfamiliarity of their method isn't factored into the presentation - the narrator of Water Wrackets speeds through his material so quickly that you're not likely to catch, let alone understand, most of it. Still, there's an intriguing preoccupation with apparently trivial detail. In Dear Phone, all of the phone-story protagonists (who we meet only through their appearance in printed scripts) carry the initials H.C. Why? Maybe in honor of H.C. Earwicker, maybe because Greenaway had ham and cheese for lunch the day he started shooting. Doesn't matter, really; the films exist to prove that the internal logic of an invented world is its own reward.
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The technique blossoms fully in the third and richest short, A Walk Through H. Ostensibly a tour through a gallery hung with the maps and drawings of a late ornithologist, the film draws in on those maps, close enough to see the weave of the paper on which they are printed, and then dissolves into the world they create. Hypnotic and hermetic, A Walk Through H benefits from luxuries the other two shorts don't - higher production values, Greenaway's beautiful maps, the score of long-time musical collaborator Michael Nyman. But as a narrative, it's no less daunting. Ninety-two maps, 1418 miles traveled through this falsified two-dimensional country. You figure it out.
Such severely structural work is usually confined to textual media; movies, because of their cost and their celebrity, have ceased to be associated with experimentation. Even here, with Greenaway's startlingly detailed imagination, the passivity of the medium often renders the works tiresome - they're purely intellectual pleasures, and inveterate mental doodling is an acquired taste. But as with Borges or Lewis Carroll or Donald Barthelme, the rational fabulism forces one to reassess how narratives are structured, how they operate, how their flow is redirected. Outer bounds fold upon inner logic.
As Greenaway has assumed more traditional trappings, the structuralist ploys in his films have been obscured. These three shorts, with no mitigation of the gamesmanship, no conventional veil, offer a chance to see the exposed circuitry. Three by Greenaway is certainly an odd trio, but as Greenaway himself might observe, all trios are.
DEAR PHONE, WATER WRACKETS, A WALK THROUGH H Directed by Peter Greenaway. Shown Friday and Saturday at 8:00 and 10:00 p.m. at the Alliance Film/Video Project, 927 Lincoln Rd, Ste 119, Miami Beach. Admission is $6, $4 for Alliance members. Call 531-8504.