Girish has organized an "Avant-Garde Blog-a-Rama."
I've written a rather long piece about three early films by Peter Greenaway, A Walk Through H, Vertical Features Remake, and The Falls.
I still dislike LJ cuts, but damn this would be long to inflict on my LJ friends or others with blog readers so, big essay below the cut--
The Noise of Clouds: Three Early Films by Peter Greenaway
some unfinished documents by Ian W. Hill
assembly, hypertext, and editing by Dr. Martin Wesley
The Editor wishes to thank Paul Melia and the VFI, Rapper Begol, The IRR (Institute of Reclamation and Restoration), LePhrenic, the BFI (Bird Facilities Industries), H.E. Carter, CROW, and [in absentia] Tulse Luper for their advice, contributions, and influence in this restructuring/reconstruction of seemingly random notes by Mr. Hill in the light of the VUE (the Violent Unknown Event).
Mr. Hill is unavailable at this time due to delayed pernicious effects of the VUE that have rendered him incapable of completing his work at this time. I hope that my assembly and notes are in the spirit of Mr. Hill’s intent.
Martin I. Wesley, Ph.D.
director, Institute for Applied Neocollisionism
N.B. Unattributed documents are from IWH’s first, aborted attempt to transform this material into a stock “essay,” handwritten in the draft by Hill in a vain attempt to glue all these pieces together. And some others are my own creation. MIW.
email to Paul Melia of the VFI:
Been years now since we've had any contact re: The VFI, Greenaway, etc., but it's nice to look in on the VFI webpages from time to time.
As part of an "Avant Garde Film Blog-a-Thon," I'm writing a little piece [ed. note: little?] on WALK THROUGH H, VERTICAL FEATURES REMAKE, and THE FALLS, and went back to the pages for research. For the first time, I clicked through all of the links in the transcription of WALK THROUGH H at the VFI site, and came upon the discussion of the number 1,418, and the fact that the use of the number, seemingly significant in its context in the film, appears to be a mystery. For some reason, I thought I had read somewhere that that number signified the length of the film itself, in feet, in 16mm (as it was shot), and was planning to mention that fact in my article.
Unfortunately, I finally did the math, and 1,418 feet of 16mm film equals about 29 minutes. Short of the length of WTH (assuming my math is right; 1 foot of 16mm film = 30 frames / 24 frames = 1 second).
So, I'll pursue this avenue (35mm print maybe?) but unfortunately, I don't have anything new to add, which I thought I would when I typed your email address above (I did my calculations immediately after typing the number 1,418 in para #2). I'm positive the number in some way relates to the structural aspects of the Walk Through H, but haven't got it yet. I'll let you know if I do.
Ian W. Hill
Portland, ME, USA
from a computer file named “boring necessary stuff”:
A Walk Through H: The Reincarnation of an Ornithologist (1978)
41 minutes long
SYNOPSIS: An art gallery. The camera dollies slowly forward, past a desk where a woman reads a book on the right, into a separate gallery room. The walls are elegantly hung with what appear to be abstract works on paper – drawings, oils, watercolors. As the camera pulls closer to the work, a Narrator (Colin Cantlie) begins speaking:
"Tulse Luper arranged all these drawings in order for me one Monday afternoon when he heard that I was ill. [the camera focuses on one framed drawing] This was one of the drawings, in fact, he'd given me himself. It's one of a pair, though he told me not to bother to look for the other one. [the camera dollies right to focus on two other drawings] These two drawings I had received anonymously on different occasions through the post. [another dolly, another drawing] This one I'd bought. I remember it cost me very little. [and another] And these two were stolen though not by me. I was just the receiver. [and another] This one I copied from a drawing at Bridsaw. [and another] And this one I did steal - from the man who looked after the owls at the Amsterdam Zoo. [and another two] These two were given to me, probably as a birthday present. [and another] Tulse Luper came back about eleven in the evening and told me that this drawing was probably the one I would need first . . .”
(transcript of full Narration, with hypertext footnotes by VFI scholars, can be found here)
The film continues for the next 40 minutes or so as a tour of these drawings, accompanied by the pulsing, driving music of Michael Nyman, which are now to be read as a series of “maps” for a mythical journey to be taken by the Narrator (a dying ornithologist) as he walks through “H” – though he himself is unaware of what “H” is. Perhaps it is Heaven, perhaps Hell. He is spiritually guided in his journey by Tulse Luper, who here makes his first appearance in the films of PG, and who suggests that the Narrator will discover what H is on his journey through it. It is almost certainly not “House,” and the Narrator is sure it is not for “Heron.” He is apparently hindered at times in his walk through H by Van Hoyten, who will reappear throughout PG’s future work as “the enemy,” but also finds himself helped and guided directly by birds (the only images we see besides the abstract maps are shots of birds flying or at rest).
The Narrator recounts his journey through H as we move over the details of the drawings, announcing his encounters in a number of fantastic towns – Canter Lupis, Belladrome, Hesgadin, Manaphia – at times having to run to get to the next map as the one he is on begins to fade.
By the end of the film, the Narrator’s journey through H (and, it would seem, his life) has been completed. He has used 92 maps and traveled 1,418 miles.
As the Narrator finishes his tale, the camera moves back out of the maps in the gallery to the woman at the desk as she gets up, leaving her book on the desk. It is now night, and she leaves, turning out the lights and locking up the gallery behind her. She has left a light on her desk, illuminating the book she was reading, which we move to. It is Some Migratory Birds of the Northern Hemisphere by Tulse Luper, with “92 maps, 1,418 birds in full colour.”
handwritten on paper scrap:
1978 – PG creates A Walk Through H and Vertical Features Remake
(in what order? – always placed with Walk first, then Features -- no other info available, so let’s assume that for now)
Full title of first film actually A Walk Through H: The Reincarnation of an Ornithologist.
1980 – PG creates The Falls
(how the hell long had he been working on it, in one way or another? it’s immense!)
later note, different pen:
according to one source, he worked on it for five years. MAKES SENSE.
biography of Tulse Luper, courtesy of the work of PG and the VFI:
Originally over 68 years of age. Persecuted in the 1930s, disappeared into a series of ever-more obscure prisons. Lover and sometime wife is, or was, Cissie Colpitts. Genetic history: his inventiveness and ability to tell stories derives from John Cage; his stamina and loquaciousness from Buckminster Fuller; mystery and provocativeness from Marcel Duchamp. Other traits derive from PG's father and Sacha Vierny. Appearance: known to sport a hat and pipe, sometimes a shotgun and motor-cycle. Madgett in DROWNING BY NUMBERS is regarded as a plumper and more combative version. Introduced in VERTICAL FEATURES REMAKE. Important character in A WALK THROUGH H. Production Advisor for THE FALLS. The academics of the IRR sought to discredit him by too much homage. Author of: 'Tulse Luper and the Centre Walk', a collage-book where biography is reduced to diagrams (this may in fact be by Shey Fallenby who spent some time pretending to be Luper); 'Some Migratory Birds of the Northern Hemisphere' - an ornithological classic; at least four short stories, 'The Cassowary', 'Sparrow-Week', 'The Photographer's Dog', and 'Quadruple Fruit'.
purported photograph of Tulse Luper, from the cover of Migratory Birds:
courtesy Paul Melia/VFI
from a computer file named “boring necessary stuff #2”:
BACKGROUND. After art school, Peter Greenaway for years worked as an editor of films for the British government’s Central Office of Information. He toiled on these films as his day job, supporting a wife and children (having fulfilled his biological imperative by reproducing) as well as well as his work as a painter and filmmaker. Most of these films were boring, statistical documents – “how many holes could fill the Albert Hall” and so forth, created to illustrate government studies, as if everything in the world could indeed be understood by being broken down and quantified in statistics.
He had been creating films since the mid-sixties, primarily image-based structuralist works (for example, Intervals, discussed here). In the early 70s, he began to add text as an important sonic element of his films (the written word already being important as an image in his films). 1973’s H Is for House, a transcript/description of which can be found here (H is for Here), with footnotes by VFI scholars, is essentially a 10-minute home movie (H is for Home Movie) featuring narration by PG, his young daughter Hannah (H is for Hannah), and a third, impersonal voice, Colin Cantlie, whose voice will become a crucial part of PG’s films for the next seven years (C is for Colin, Cantlie, and Crucial).
His next film, Windows (narration transcript here), again focused on the same house, elegant views carefully structured in editing, but here with a single narrator (Cantlie) reciting statistics on a number of deaths by defenestration in a certain area during a certain time period, bringing the form of his day job into his personal art work, and combining it with his personal concerns regarding landscape and structure – also using it for the first time, and not nearly the last, for a covert political statement, in this case the murders occurring under the apartheid system of South Africa, where numbers of people being interrogated by government agents found themselves “accidentally” falling to their deaths from windows.
cut and pasted into the notes from the VFI website (probably written by Paul Melia) with a note from IWH, “important!”:
Windows is the first of Greenaway's three 'disaster' movies, the other two being The Falls and Act of God. Each represents an attempt to come to terms with disaster by means of tabulating data. However, Greenaway reduces the notion of statistical research to absurdity. An 'Act of God', for example, establishes that if your surname initial is L and you wear a hat and your favourite colour is blue and you enjoy spinach, then watch out - you are bound to be struck by lighting. Greenaway's strategy owes much to Mr. T. Wilder's novel, The Bridge of San Luis Rey.
continuing . . .
Around the same time, PG created another film, Water Wrackets, described by the creator as follows: “A Romanticism, a lyricism, an evocation of time past. Over water images a documentary-style voiceover recounts a military campaign -- trivial events, mundane descriptions, 'historical moments' all related to water imagery. The film displays a modernist skepticism about representing 'reality' past or present. A construction of 'legend' that confronts the fictional nature of conventional legends themselves.” More concretely, it is a fantasy film consisting of documentary shots of water, narrated (again, by Cantlie) as though the images illustrated a Tolkienesque story of war in an alternate universe. The disconnect between “what we are told” and “what we are seeing” versus “what we are being told we are seeing” begins to become a more important element of PG’s films.
The final important film of PG’s to mention before the “Tulse Luper” trilogy to be described is Dear Phone, in which elegantly composed shots of classic red phone booths in various settings are interspersed with a series of short-short stories (narrated by Greenaway himself this time) presented as text on the screen – first in messy, hand-written draft form, getting cleaner and cleaner with each story, moving towards typewritten copy with deletions and notes, finally ending with a clean copy of the final story, which turns back on itself, possibly describing the creation of the film itself.
All of these previous films will find their synthesis in Greenaway’s following trilogy . . .
what we know about the foul Van Hoyten, former owl-keeper at the Amsterdam Zoo!
email from Paul Melia, Manchester, England:
Do let me know the URL for your blog-a-thon.
Regarding the number 1,418 at the end of H. I took part in – and helped to organize – a Greenaway conference in 1998 where John Wyver delivered a paper with the marvelous title ‘ 26 Things That I Know About Peter Greenaway’. In there he says 1,418 corresponds to the number of feet in a 16mm print of the film. Are you confident he’s wrong – what numbers are you using for your calculation? (e.g. How long do you take 1 second of film to be, and why?)
I’ve carried out a fair amount of work on Vertical Features – enough for a slim volume on the film, although no plans are in place to write/publish anything. I’ve also made a few short digital videos which have received screenings in and around Manchester. My latest movie – 92 Sounds for John Cage – will be shown on a huge digital screen in the city centre this autumn.
from a computer file named “boring necessary stuff”:
Vertical Features Remake (1978)
45 minutes long
SYNOPSIS: At some point in the past, Tulse Luper, as part of an IRR program, studied a section of British countryside and documented the vertical elements (natural and man-made/added) in a documentary film, “Vertical Features.” The film has been lost, probably due to interference by Van Hoyten, GangLion, LePhrenic, and possibly even Luper’s sometime lover Cissie Colpitts. This film by Greenaway consists of sections narrated by Cantlie (illustrated with photos/drawings), describing the efforts of IRR scholars to recreate Luper’s original film (structured in mathematical groups of frame counts) from his notes on the project, alternating with the recreations themselves. We are presented with four different remakes of “Vertical Features” as the academics involved argue over the meaning of Luper’s notes (which resemble the abstract “maps” that guided the walk through H), interpreting Luper’s abstractions (if they are even Luper’s) as literal directions, and create new versions of the film based on their individual interpretations of these “instructions.”. By the end, the narration has become a mirror maze of confusion, as more and more “evidence” presented by the narrator begins to contradict everything else we heard, and the photo we have been presented with repeatedly as being of Luper is probably itself a fake (if Luper even exists, and isn’t a fake himself, as Van Hoyten might want you to believe . . .).
found this somewhere, not sure where:
Greenaway’s father was an ornithologist who died shortly before PG made A Walk Through H. A violent unknown event?
from a more finished draft:
Greenaway and flight.
Newton is a demigod in Greenaway’s universe, perhaps as much as to be feared as respected – gravity is responsible for the death of a number of his characters, and the title of The Falls certainly is apt for a film that records the death of a number of people from their hubris in attempting to imitate birds.
The Louvre at one point had notable artists curate shows from their collection – Greenaway created a show entirely based around the idea of flight, starting from the idea of being at rest, inert (Redon’s Ball, an immovable object), ascending to Heaven through climbing, then leaping, then flying, only to fall, past the starting point, into Hades, and bouncing back to rest again, and a different Redon object, held by gravity, trapped, static -- flight, true flight, being only a dream achievable through art.
Greenaway called the exhibit, in English, Flying Out of This World. A slightly clunky title for PG, but his original French name for the show, Le Bruit des Nuages, poetic and lovely in French, is also concrete and bound by gravity in English.
The subject of one biography in The Falls, who apparently has been granted the ability to fly by the VUE, notes his belief that mankind is too concerned with Icarus, and not enough in his father . . .
from the VFI Website “VUE FAQ,” in response to “What caused the VUE?”:
2. an ecological experiment gone disastrously wrong
3. VFI Scholar Ian W. Hill has written: “the corporate entity ultimately responsible for the financing of Mr. A.J. Hitchcock’s film The Birds superimposed, fully against Mr. Hitchcock's wishes, the title "The End," in an attempt to suggest that one had in fact occurred, on most of the original release prints. These prints can still occasionally be found on television. If one is tempted to look into causes of the VUE (as I, frankly am not, except for pure aestheticism) perhaps it is as a form of revenge for a corporate attempt to deny them of their power, of their greatest moment of glory in the film medium. If this is so then a viewing of a 'tampered' print of The Birds is a truly hazardous act.”
A demigod in the PG pantheon is John Cage.
One of the reasons PG chose 92 as the number of biographies to be contained in The Falls was his belief that Cage’s Indeterminacies consisted of 92 stories by Cage.
A few years later, when PG made a documentary about Cage, he was nonplussed to be informed by his subject that there are 90 stories in Indeterminacies, not 92.
email back from Hill to Melia:
Great to hear back from you.
I have no idea where I got the original idea that 1,418 was the length of WTH in feet myself, but I know I've assumed it for many years now.
But that doesn't work. 1,418 feet x 30 frames of 16mm per foot (a figure I know well from using the inch/frame ruler on 16mm editing tables for metric cutting when I edited film) = 42,540 frames in WTH. Divide by the number of frames in a minute of 16mm sound film (1,440) and you get almost 29.6 minutes, well over ten minutes short of the actual length of WTH.
So, nope. I've gone through a number of other mathematical permutations, honestly theoretical or downright fanciful, to see if the varied numbers around the film can make 1,418 in some way. Not yet. But of course, being PG, it's hard to see how the number couldn't have SOME kind of significance.
Perhaps PG's math was off before the prop book was created (as he misremembered the number of Cage's stories in "Indeterminacies" as 92) and I'm spending time trying to mathematically justify a mistake.
Thanks for the links -- I'm sure I'll see you sometime at the PG Yahoo group.
great to hear about the films, the conference and everything, and again, best to you and your work,
from laptop file “PG notes”:
Reincarnation not possible, except perhaps through what is left behind in this world.
Is Greenaway giving his father reincarnation through his film? Himself?
(exactly as I wrote the word “father” above, the word “ornithologist” was spoken by an actor in the film – Compulsion, 1959, directed by Richard Fleischer -- playing on the TV in this room!)
even less likely photo of Tulse Luper, from Vertical Features Remake:
courtesy the IRR/BFI
Hill repeatedly writes at the bottom of many of his note pages:
beware the FOX!
in one place this is accompanied by:
Van Hoyten? here?
In another place, too long to reproduce, Hill attempts to enumerate all of the appearances of Van Hoyten in The Falls, A Walk Through H, and Vertical Features Remake, connected to everyone else ever mentioned in relation to him, then connecting all of those names. The writing becomes increasingly agitated the more Van Hoyten is mentioned, to the point of eventual complete illegibility.
cut and pasted into the notes from the VFI website (probably written by Paul Melia) with a note from IWH, “important?”:
“Greenaway has acknowledged the influence of 'Land Artists' such as Richard Long and Hamish Fulton, specifically their interest in mapping out landscape through new, conceptual forms. One issue these artists faced was how to make a place personal and yet avoid the subjective response to landscape which values that quasi-magical character of a particular site enshrined in the idea of the 'genius loci'. Landscape as anti-Romantic subject needs the map and the geography book: an inventory can also prove useful.”
from a computer file named “boring necessary stuff”:
The Falls (1980)
185 minutes long
SYNOPSIS: . . ?
How to describe the vast, encyclopedic, “documentary” film, The Falls? Courtesy of the VFI website, a number of descriptions, all from writings by PG, slightly edited for this context:
"A Standard Directory of survivors is compiled in the wake of the Violent Unknown Event (VUE). The Directory lists approximately 19 million persons, many of them victims of physical and verbal mutations, all of them become immortal. The Falls is an audio-visual presentation of the available data on a block of names arbitrarily taken from the most recent edition of the Standard VUE Directory: the 92 surnames beginning with the letters F-A-L-L, from Falla to Fallwaste.
"The Falls was a watershed for me, containing a great many events, ideas, concepts and conceits which I have since expanded and developed. Its structure is ninety-two film biographies strung end to end, and its content is the examination of a Violent Unknown Event that affects some thirteen million people in north-western Europe, metamorphosing them in at least ninety-two different ways. The conclusions are deliberately left wide open, but there is enough evidence to link the event to birds and to the hubristic ambition of flying. But the film is also an ironic examination of all the ways the world could end, and it is not entirely irrelevant that ninety-two is the atomic number of uranium. When the film was made in 1978-80, there was every conviction that the atom could, and possibly would, be delivered by air one unsuspecting day, and that the aggressions of the Cold War, the antagonisms of the Space Race and the murderous cost of aggressive defence would find a final solution in a disaster from the skies.
"Since a filmic consideration of each of the nineteen million VUE victims, like a full-scale map of the world, would mock human effort, it was thought appropriate to narrow the field, if not the intention, and find a representative but random cross-section of victims whose experiences could help elucidate the VUE. Selection by alphabet is random enough, for what other system could put Heaven, Hell, Hitler, Houdini and Hampstead in one category? Not unaware of the significance of the four letters, it was decided that all those victims in the Directory whose surnames begin with the letters FALL were to be chosen. There happened to be just ninety-two... Like their owners, the ninety-two filmed biographies are varied and differ from one another in pace, content, style, mood and intention.
"The film closes with a credit sequence structured by the chorus of the VUE anthem... and whose images are the film's VUE witnesses projected onto yet another screen. There is no mistaking you have been watching a film -- maybe you have only been watching a film of a film."
The Falls, a catalogue of more ideas than could be fully developed by any one artist in a lifetime, also contains the seeds for many of PG’s future narrative films to come. The plot of A Zed and Two Noughts is set up in one biography, and Cissie Colpitts (mentioned repeatedly in Vertical Features Remake and in The Falls represented under her F-A-L-L-begun married name) reappears, split into three women, in Drowning By Numbers, as a tormentor of a Luper stand-in named Madgett. Other visual, textual, and thematic elements continue through PG’s first phase as a narrative filmmaker (consisting of The Draughtsman’s Contract, A Zed and Two Noughts, The Belly of an Architect, Drowning By Numbers, The Cook, the Thief, His Wife, and Her Lover, Prospero’s Books and ending in the beautiful, inhumane The Baby of Macon, which seems to have ended this first narrative period, burning his narrative structures to the ground and sowing it with salt prior to the rebuilding of The Pillow Book and later films.
The work of Michael Nyman on these films cannot be overemphasized, and cannot be dealt with properly in this space – music, especially the VUE Anthem/Bird-List Song heard in various forms throughout The Falls, is vital to all three films (even when remarkable sparse, as in Vertical Features).
Also, Colin Cantlie makes a final appearance as the primary narrator of The Falls, and is also finally seen onscreen in the recording studio, speaking his text. Greenaway also makes an appearance as an interviewer in one biography.
Greenaway is also just DAMNED FUNNY. Have to get this across, in the same spirit as PG’s sense of humor. He is so often regarded as COLD and ACADEMIC. He is GUT-BUSTINGLY FUNNY in a dry, deadpan way. These films are comedies, dammit! Avant-garde, structuralist comedies!
the text of biography 5 from The Falls:
Standard Fallaby has an Otis-Wren single-berth caravanette with a glass-roof. In winter he hides it among hundreds of other caravans on sites in the west of England - ostensibly that it might escape the scrutiny and examination of his sister Tasida Fallaby whose attentions, according to Standard, are not ornithological and exceed those of an orthodox brother and sister relationship.The VUE Directory Commission have, as yet, not been able to locate Standard Fallaby or his caravan. The Violent Unknown Event has contracted Standard's intestine and paralysed his legs. He is obliged to cling to a hanging-brace when asked to stand up. He speaks Curdine which is a cursive language that deliberately fosters ambiguities and encourages punning. Tulse Luper has said that in the larynx of the right person, Curdine would be a superlative language - an antidote to all the world's feathers. Since the VUE, Standard Fallaby has developed a passionate interest in the Corvidae. Every rook nesting-season he parks his caravan beneath a rookery somewhere in the west of England within sight of the Atlantic. He has laid a claim before the WSPB, the World Society for the Preservation of Birds, to have discovered a rook sub-species, Corvus frugilegus atlanticus, whose diet is largely shellfish and whose call is imitative of immature seagulls. The WSPB has not recognized his claim.
Recently, Tulse Luper has reappeared in a narrative trilogy of films, The Tulse Luper Suitcases, shot by Greenaway over several years (and closely connected to a PG-supervised website). Unfortunately, these films have not yet made it to the USA in any form, and I have not been able to afford to buy the import DVDs.
The stories of Luper and his suitcases are legion. Before PG finally created his “authorized” version of Luper’s baggage, the VFI conducted a survey into this area itself. Suitcase #15, “A Suitcase Filled With Death,” was found by Mr. I.W. Hill and submitted to the VFI at that time.
As The Falls (and to a lesser extent, A Walk Through H and Vertical Features Remake) is a catalogue film at the start of PGs narrative film career, detailing all the possibilities of films to come, some of which were acted upon, some not, the contents of the newest Tulse Luper Suitcases seem to possibly be made up of fragments of all of the projects PG has attempted to create in the last 25 years since The Falls that did not come to fruition, a catalogue of dead ends rather than possibilities.
the text of biography 35 from The Falls:
Cole Fallbird's biography is sub judice pending trial for mis-conduct with a mynah.
For further study, the Greenaway films discussed can be bought here (contains Intervals, H Is for House, Windows, Water Wrackets, Dear Phone, and A Walk Through H) and here (contains Vertical Features Remake and The Falls), or found respectively on Netflix here and here. Mr. A.J. Hitchcock’s film The Birds, perhaps a trigger for the VUE, can be bought here and rented here. Mr. T. Wilder’s influential account of a previous Violent Unknown Event, The Bridge at San Luis Rey, can be bought here.
PG’s films are an account, humorous to be sure, of the perhaps despairing view that in a chaotic, random universe of Violent Unknown Events, man’s attempts to create order from this chaos are at best a humorous diversion and at worst an effort that will ultimately bring even worse confusion and chaos into the world.
Dr. Martin I. Wesley, of the Institute of Applied Neocollisionism, is a researcher in the effect of rhythmic film editing patterns on the brain and the scientific quantification of the emotional effects of art. He has collaborated (under the pseudonym “Doctor Memory”) on three stage plays/experiments with Mr. Hill, and is currently working with Hill (pending Mr. Hill’s recovery from VUE-related symptoms) on a scientific film documentary on the potential medical uses of metric film editing entitled Eye, and his favorite Tulse Luper story is “Quadruple Fruit.”
The VUE has indeed played havoc with my memory (it's been about 15 years since I cut 16mm film).
Thank you! That brings the 1,418 feet of 16mm film up to 39 minutes -- probably indeed the accurate length (to the frame) of A Walk Through H.
Thank you, Jim, for the correction -- though I am horrified at my poor recollection (I used to cut by the foot often enough that I should have remembered).