Gary Pollard Interviews Peter Greenaway


British filmmaker Peter Greenaway, with his art school background, is known for emphasising the visual. Many of his works have been examinations of man-made objects. His most commercially successful film: “The Cook, the Thief, His Wife, and her Lover” featured liberal doses of nudity and violence, all beautifully shot.

Greenaway, although a successful filmmaker, does not seem that optimistic about the future of film? Or even the present, actually. He feels that film, as he says in this interview, has not been used properly, and there are better things that we can do with it. He’s increasingly taken up VJ-ing, where he’s a video jockey, where he has multimedia presentations, big banks of stuff going on, he can bring up pictures, bring up sound, everything. But the irony is he started his career by making short films like “A Walk Through H”, which is a film based on maps and pictures of birds. So he’s examining these single human objects.

And then later on, he did “The Draughtsman’s Contract” where an artist is hired to do some drawings and accidentally draws a murder. There are clues in all the drawings he’s done to a murder, as he realises in the end.

Now Greenaway has done a new film about Rembrandt called “Nightwatching”, but he’s also using multimedia to do it. But the irony is, that although he is saying: “Film has to give us everything. It has to come from all angles.We need multimedia. We can’t just have one image, and one thing,” the focus of his film is one image: one Rembrandt image.

So whereas Bela Tarr does a long extended scene and there are a lot of things in the scene for you to make up your own mind about, Greenaway is now looking at a single painting where there are a lot of things to make your mind up about. And in Rembrandt’s famous painting “The Nightwatch”, it’s a mystery. It’s a kind of “CSI” story, as he tells us, and it’s something that you look at and you have to decode and unravel, and find out what’s going on behind it.

Peter Greenaway
Cinema could have been amazing and isn’t. And it’s ended up as bedtime stories for adults, of a very low denomination.


Essentially my big regret about the cinema is that it’s a text-based medium; it’s not an image-based medium. And every time you see a film you can see the director illustrating a text. The big I suppose cinematic subject-matter to have drawn public attention I suppose in the last five to ten years have been projects like “Lord of the Rings” and Harry Potter, and of course these aren’t films, these are illustrated books.


But my … the beginning of my career was associated very much with the excitements of painting and I did indeed go to art school against all the oppositions that you would normally expect under those circumstances in the late 1950s, early 1960s. And it’s always been my intention really to consider a career which was associated with ideas associated with the visual image,. And then I somehow, by accident, slipped into the film business. I should really be a painter. And I suppose my justification for that now is I have extraordinary privileges on stages, in opera houses, on television, in cinema, and now all these new media in association. I’m now a VJ and I do a lot of DVD manufacturing and so on. So in a sense I curiously am I suppose still a visual maker, I still am a painter but my medium is not the conventional one of canvas and paint, although I do still continue a painting career.

Gary Pollard
You are, kind of, in a way, writing an essay with the Rembrandt film, “Nightwatching”.

Peter Greenaway
Well I think, with all my films. I’m an essayist really. I think you know with “The Draughtsman’s Contract” going right to the beginning is really, I suppose, a documentary form dressed up in a fictional approach in a sense. I am interested in the pleasure principle. I don’t want to strip things back just to be a polemicist. I think all the very best art has enormous amounts of the pleasure principle in it, so that has to be a part of the phenomenon. So I want to use, you know, what Hollywood would recognize as a film medium. But I want to be able to push and pull into areas where Hollywood dare not go.

Gary Pollard
Is that why you include drama elements? Because you could dissect that painting without drama.

Peter Greenaway
You can indeed, but that’s maybe always the sad thing about cinema: it’s always deconstructible back into its parts. So, you know, a film apologist like Bazin in the 1910s would suggest that cinema is a combination of literature, the theatre, and painting, although I think there’s very little painting in cinema, because again it’s so text based. But it hasn’t changed. He could say that in 1921 and it really hasn’t changed. We still have the same phenomenon. And I think all of us know that of all the media cinema is deeply reactionary. Scorsese basically makes the same films as Griffiths. Where have we travelled to? And if you think the the Lumiere brothers invented, in 1895, the cinema – although I would suggest now that people like Rembrandt invented the cinema because these were the first people who dealt with artificial light, along with Caravaggio and Velasquez you know round about the 1640s – there’s a way in which the propositions of cinema have not travelled very far. I think Rembrandt in the film says things like “The definition of an actor is somebody who’s been trained to pretend they are not being watched” which is really a sort of, you know, Chekhovian Russian phenomenon and we still have a cinema that preserves the invisible Fourth Wall. We’re still playing these stupid games that are related I suppose and really quite old-fashioned, we know, with Russian theatre in the 1890s.Cinema has moved very slowly and very cautiously. But now I don’t think it’s a matter of much concern because I think the cinema is dead. I give you a date: 31st September 1983 when the “zapper” or the remote control was introduced into the living rooms of the world. I think if cinema is to continue it has to be interactive, and it has to be multimedia.

Gary Pollard
Is there a contradiction – an aesthetic contradiction? On the one hand you’re doing the VJ thing where you’re giving people multiple things to look at, and multiple things to listen to. On the other hand, when you go to Rembrandt you’re saying: “Here’s a single thing, a single frame of film. Pay that enough attention and you’ll get something out of it.”

Peter Greenaway
It could be true, but then when you look at that single frame there’s a lot going on, a huge amount of hypertext. And it’s said by art historians that there are fifty mysteries inside he Rembrandt. . And when you start breaking those mysteries down they’re full of all sorts of references. You know, there are social references and historical references, and aesthetic references. I think Amsterdam, for about three generations in the middle of the 17th century, was the centre of the Western world. New York used to be called New Amsterdam. And Peter the Great goes away and makes St. Petersburg based on his six years experience in Amsterdam. So there’s a wave of Dutch influences, even in this part of the world. I think the first trading community in Japan for example was the Dutch. So they had an enormous amount of interest I think and influence, again before the British took over, ultimately two sea powers fighting one another, and the English won. So the film of “Nightwatching” I think is as much about notions of Amsterdam, nmotions of Amsterdam as a community. There’s always this talk about money, money, money all the time and the film is literally sprinkled with references to Alexander and Jaffa/Java and the New World and Manhattan and so on. So there’s a way that out of this singular image, this frozen moment, which represents somehow a frozen still if you like in terms of not just Rembrandt’s history but Dutch history in itself is worth looking at, and looking at, and looking at, because it can give us back so much.

Gary Pollard
One of the areas that painters have got limitations is they don’t have control over time. You know, you get people who go to the Louvre and they “do the Louvre”, 300 paintings in one hour. Are you in a way giving Rembrandt back the control over time, making you look at the painting…?

Peter Greenaway
Yeah, I hope so. I mean I’ve often thought the DVD would be the ideal medium for me because it covers both the time frames. I’m trained as a painter, and I know the time frame is really in the hands, curiously, of the visitor, of the viewer, and you’re absolutely right. And I think you exactly posit the ideal question for me. I want people to look. Look, look, look, look, look. Use your eyes, develop a philosophy for the notion of how important the visual image is

Gary Pollard
So … do you ever actually enjoy those bedtime stories for adults?

Peter Greenaway
Well, let me try and answer your question by maybe a roundabout route. I can see that “Nightwatching” is really a CSI, it’s a crime-scene investigation. I’m not so sure about the New York version of that, but I really enjoy the Las Vegas item. It’s beautifully made, very well scripted, sharp moving. And I like the notion of investigation in such minute detail. And that, I suppose takes me all the way back to “The Draughtsman’s Contract” which is doing the self same thing. I’d love to be invited to direct one of those CSIs

Gary Pollard
That would be good. Thank you very much.

Peter Greenaway
My pleasure. Thank you.

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