Thursday, April 26, 2007


I went to hear Peter Greenaway talk the other afternoon. As I’ve mentioned before, I used to like his early work very much, and was pleasantly surprised by The Baby of Mâcon.

Peter GreenawayGreenaway's presentation, entitled "Cinema is Dead, Long live Cinema," lasted a couple of hours, and offered what he termed "provocations" on familiar themes: the conservatism of film, the various tyrannies that afflict the cinema (the frame, the text, the actor, the camera, but also the narrative and the director), and his fundamental interest in painting. I say that these themes are "familiar" because many of the same observations can be found, often word for word, in his Cinema Militans Lecture of 2003.

Sometimes he was a little over the top, as in his repeated suggestion that the first act of civilization had been a painting, and the last act would most likely be a painting, too. And not least in his declaration that the cinema died with the introduction of the remote control. Sometimes he was spot on, for instance in his observation about how little the cinema had changed since its invention in the 1890s compared to the many developments in literature and painting over the same period. Even so, he omitted the entire history of avant-garde or experimental film, let alone the non-narrative elements of mainstream cinema. Throughout, he gave the impression that his was a lonely voice heroically standing up to history.

He also talked about some of his ongoing projects, including Stairs, an installation in Geneva that consisted of a hundred small staircases in public places at the top of which which people could view some aspect of the city "framed." This is one of a series of projects that he described as "stripped down cinema." Others, some of which may or may not be realized, focus on projection (in Munich) or the prop (in Trieste).

Finally, he showed a few clips. But these were what was most disappointing.

They included a "son et lumière" installation projected onto Rembrandt's Night Watch. Greenaway didn’t call this a "son et lumière," but really that's all it was. And surprisingly, given his antipathy to text or narrative, the effect of the installation was above all to generate a narrative out of the pictorial image. At the beginning all is dark, cocks then crow to signal dawn, lights reveal figures, steps, a dog barks, and so on. Yes, it revealed aspects of the painting that are not evident at first glance, but no more or less so than any other attempt to enliven a painting for pedagogical purposes. Eve Sussman's 89 Seconds at Alcázar is a much more interesting (and more properly cinematic, in all senses of the term) animation of a classic painting.

Martin Freeman in NightwatchingLikewise the trailer of Greenaway's upcoming film Nightwatching (which can be seen here) hardly raised many expectations that would make me see it once it's out of post-production. As a costume drama dealing with the context of an old master, it's not obvious how different it is from, say, Girl with a Pearl Earring. Except instead of Colin Firth and Scarlett Johansson: Martin Freeman, from The Office.

But perhaps Night Watching is merely a bid for commercial (semi-)success to finance what Greenaway really wants to be doing? Well, if that's a project like The Tulse Luper Suitcases, a multimedia work with its own website and video game, then as far as I'm concerned, judging by the clip he showed, he needn't bother. For all Greenaway's talk of the "well-wrought image," the screen was simply busy: with multiple overlays of the same shot from different perspective, chessboards, drawings, images of water, subtitles, and so on. The idea may have been to produce some kind of palimpsest, but the diaphanous quality of each layer suggested an overall insubstantiality. Moreover, it lacked the humor of Greenaway's rather similar first film, The Falls, much of which was a parody of the public information films that Greenaway started out making while in the employ of Britain's Central Office for Information.

I fear that Greenaway now takes himself rather too seriously. No wonder, if he thinks it's his duty single-handedly to save cinema from itself.

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