REVIEW: A Walk Through H: The Reincarnation of an Ornithologist [1978]

Score: 7/10 | ★ ★ ★

Rating: NR | Runtime: 41 minutes | Release Date: 1978 (UK)
Studio: British Film Institute
Director(s): Peter Greenaway
Writer(s): Peter Greenaway

“This drawing was probably the one I’d need first”

What is “H”? It doesn’t stand for heron or owl keeper Van Hoyten. No, “H” is a place only decipherable when approaching its end—a journey spanning 1,418 miles traveled by following 92 distinct drawings that double as maps until such time comes when they fade into oblivion. More precisely they fade into a crossroads signpost or windmill silhouette, identical iconography left behind as a marker denoting we’ve finished one more step towards finding our destination. Whether or not that end point is the elusive word “H” has hidden or a new home for the myriad birds seen soaring past as guides is up to us. It’s definitely not for writer/director/artist Peter Greenaway or the mysterious game-master Tulse Luper to say. They merely facilitate the road.

It’s a long and winding one with multiple twists and turns leading into dead-ends that aren’t actually dead. If we must following one map to the next, we’re going to need to take the time to interpret seeming roadblocks as unlikely doorways. There are no obstacles when the mind is making pathways out of nothingness. Tulse Luper is the tour guide and he sets the rules. If we’re to jump from one to the next, it isn’t a possibility or request. We must. If the adventure needs more time to manifest so we may remember the events of our lives and exact moments (or erased memories) in which we found each drawing, we shall repeat a map until the moment arrives to continue on towards Heaven, Hell, or Oblivion.

This is A Walk Through H: The Reincarnation of an Ornithologist—an in-close camera pan through 92 random paintings Greenaway created for the journey. Each is meticulously framed on the walls of a museum, their histories embedded in their fabric and additional arrows and numbers presuming to inject newfound purpose in nondescript doodles. Tulse Luper tells the narrator (Colin Cantlie) where to start and it’s up to him to move along, one by one. Sometimes he walks, sometimes he runs, but always he looks forward into color washes and lines and backwards into the washed-out absence of fleeting instructions gone. There’s only a single way to go and there’s no stopping. The maps have been chosen, the order declared, and everything else unfolds as imaginatively fanciful checkpoints forward.

The action comes from the dialogue of the disembodied voice taking the stroll we follow in tow. He describes which line is our path (red or white), relays a brief expository lesson about that specific map’s origins, and drops a few morsels of his own past to glean from. Michael Nyman‘s score plays loud and the cuts skip with the beat from static painting to animate birds flapping their wings, scrounging for food, and staring back at us. It’s as though the maps are somehow representative of these winged creatures, each one manifesting into a memory this unknown ornithologist has left dormant in the recesses of his brain. His life flashes before his eyes as the birds he studied and loved, each route another choice for his reincarnation.

You feel the walk as the voice details what our feet would be doing if we were on the painting to traverse its hand-made curves. It’s a breezy journey into the mind of an unknown entity led by Greenaway and alter ego Tulse Luper. If you asked me before watching whether I’d ever use “breezy” to describe forty minutes of close-ups on paintings of various mediums, precision, and aesthetic I’d have laughed. But Greenaway has a way with words to transform a matter-of-fact, deadpan story into one with humor and intrigue. You begin to understand the narrator as he remembers stealing, creating, buying, and borrowing each image to recreate a life completed. Each “map” simultaneously takes him deeper into his soul and farther into the ether.

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