A Loony Visionary’s Alternate Realities


Obsessives who follow their vision and/ or aesthetic strategy over the cliff edge and right into the abyss are difficult to appreciate; how could their later work be so disastrously wrong, their initial projects be so sublime, and all of it of a piece? No one standing in the world’s film culture may personify this better than Peter Greenaway—to see his last 15 years of features is to see a lunatic lost in a masturbatory maze of his own insidious devising. But his earlier films are rigorously, fabulously fascinating—while clearly being born from the same hyper-structuralist brainpan as Prospero’s Books, The Baby of Macon, The Pillow Book, 8 1/2 Women, and The Tulse Luper Suitcases. Greenaway was from the very beginning an ambitious sand castle builder in the tradition of Borges, Pynchon, and John Barth, and this two-disc set is an Alexandrian library of fake histories and web-like chronicles of portent, crowned by The Falls (1980), a three-and-a-quarter-hour powerhouse display of imaginative dissonance, detailing the deranged effects of the V.U.E. (Violent Unknown Event) on the section of British population with names including the word fall. Greenaway’s gift was such that any associative piece of culture could and would find its way into his intricate alternate realities; my favorite among his shorts is Water Wrackets (1978), a dazzling secret history of a lost civilization as recounted in a tireless narration, over images of their bygone habitat: ordinary British streams, lakes, and thickets. Of the discs’ eight films, the two 40-plus-minute featurettes made in 1978, Vertical Features Remake and A Walk Through H, are even denser in their furious extrapolations. Supps include Greenaway paintings, new video intros, original press book essays, liner notes by the filmmaker, and even notes for films unmade.