Unpacking Peter Greenaway could easily take a lifetime. His densely structured films, in which images overlay images and words overlay both, are so layered with symbolic links and suggested ideas that it sometimes feels like it's impossible for an analysis to hit bottom. Initially an experimental filmmaker, he moved sharply toward the mainstream in the '80s, though his structuralist notions remained obvious even in narrative films like A Zed & Two Noughts and The Cook, The Thief, His Wife, And Her Lover. But by the '90s, with Prospero's Books and The Pillow Book, he was essentially producing more nuanced, glossier versions of his earliest experiments. And those initial works, collected in the two-disc set Greenaway: The Early Films, have so much in common with Greenaway's recent Tulse Luper Suitcases project that they make his career to date look like a Möbius strip—or like one of his own films, moving through variations on half a dozen central themes at once.
The centerpiece of the Early Films set is Greenaway's 1980 film The Falls, a 195-minute alternate-history encyclopedia exploring 92 individuals whose last names begin with "Fall." After an unexplained phenomenon known as the "Violent Unknown Event," strange languages and a preoccupation with ornithology, flight, and birds becomes common. The Falls' 92 segments simultaneously appear as tiny, rich, oblique portraits of VUE victims with parallel histories and obsessions, and as miniature films, each made in a different style, albeit with an overall sense of a gravely serious, factoid-obsessed British documentary. Taken as a whole, it's hypnotic and overwhelming, a sort of Steve Reich phasing study with visuals. Picked apart and taken one story at a time, it's a massive, thoughtful anthology full of weird humor and elaborate fantasy.
The set's seven other pieces follow similar patterns writ small, by absorbing viewers into repetitive parallel images and creating an intricately detailed story around them. Pieces like "Vertical Features Remake," "A Walk Through H," and "Intervals" each explore, repeat, and develop their core imagistic concepts, focusing on ideas like maps or vertical items in landscapes, then extending their themes into multiple obsessions and multiple meanings. Compared to Greenaway's narrative films, which combine these kinds of hyper-intense momentary fixations with story and overwhelmingly rich cinematography, his early work sometimes looks bland and simply repetitive, especially when presented in such bulk. But it's endlessly fascinating how his minute variation-studies invite viewers to see a single shot or idea anew, and to unfold its symbolism one interval at a time, knowing that they'll never fully run out of parallels or possibilities.
Key features: "Greenaway On Greenaway," an indispensable short feature in which the director briefly discusses each piece in this set.