After a summer like the one we’ve just had, you’d be justified in asking, once again, “Why are movies such a pile of crap lately?”
According to Peter Greenaway, British filmmaker, it’s because, as he puts it, “Cinema is dead.” It’s been dead for ages, apparently, so the pile of crap we keep encountering is the decomposing body of cinema. Or something.
If you’re an established filmmaker, you can dine out for years on a line like “Cinema is dead.” For some reason it makes artistically inclined people give you money to fund your cinematic projects. That’s what you call “irony.”
The other day I attended a “master class” presided over by Greenaway, that arthouse scourge who flourished in the 1980s directing films like The Draughtman’s Contract, The Belly of an Architect, Drowning by Numbers, A Zed and Two Naughts, and The Cook, The Thief, His Wife, and Her Lover. Why would I do such an insane thing, you might ask? Hell if I know. I can’t stand Greenaway films, can’t even stand to hear descriptions of Greenaway films. The titles alone are chilling, and even a single image from a Greenaway film can make me back away swiftly and slide out the side door.
Which is what I did after an hour of the “master class.” How I made it through the hour I don’t know: I must have a stronger constitution than I thought.
In case you’ve never been to one, a “master class” seems to be a session in a smallish room during which a “master” instructs assorted acolytes on his supreme artistry. Sort of like Yo-yo Ma On the Cello: The Secret to Better Bowing.
Before it got going, Greenaway was up front, fussing with his laptop. The sound wasn’t loud enough, and anxious women in charge of making events run smoothly were scurrying around trying to find the correct cables. But the images were projecting to Greenaway’s satisfaction, and in fact there was one up on screen already. It was a rendering of a transparent suitcase full of water, and as the suitcase turned, the water sloshed around inside. The explanatory onscreen note was “Suitcase Number 38: Water.”
I can bear this, I thought, and gritted my teeth. But I was sorely tested. That suitcase spun around sloshing for at least twenty minutes before we got a look at any other suitcases containing unlikely things.
There were some professor types there, but mainly grad students looking solemn. Greenaway was introduced in glowing terms; “transformative figure” was one of them, I recall. Greenaway’s a big strutting man in a pinstripe suit who’s clearly used to an atmosphere of reverence and spews nonsense fearlessly.
He led off with a plummy diatribe against narrative cinema, which has long dominated the film form:
“Cinema is a very poor narrative medium,” said Greenaway. “I think cinema knows that, and that is why it keeps returning to the bookshelf.”
For those of you who don’t speak fluent nonsense, he meant that storytelling is a literary form and filmmakers shouldn’t be poaching from it. Why not, you might ask? Why shouldn’t film incorporate techniques from literature and theater and music and dance and every other art and medium in the world just like it’s been doing ever since it was invented?
He didn’t say. “Cinema knows” what it’s done wrong, and that’s enough!
Fricking suitcase was still spinning around sloshing.
Greenaway said, “I was trained as a painter, which is primarily a non-narrative form. Why can we not have a non-narrative cinema?”
Somebody bright might’ve asked why it’s better for film to imitate painting than literature—or as Greenaway would say, “LIT-trot-choor!” But he wasn’t looking for the free exchange of ideas. He only asked questions he immediately answered himself without pausing for breath.
He went on to brag for awhile about how, in his films, he always attempted to mess with the narrative form by structuring them according to other logical systems, “non-narrative games, tricks, and concepts to see if we can find another GLUE to hold cinematic elements together.” For example, The Draughtsman’s Contract is structured as a catalogue of drawings, he said; The Cook, The Thief, His Wife and Her Lover is organized around a color scheme, and so on. In Cook/Thief, he also got tricky by taking what seemed to be an overarching thematic metaphor, cannibalism, and turning it suddenly literal—a character ACT-CHUALLY gets eaten in the end.
Very proud of that one, Greenaway was. He seemed to think nobody saw it coming, the flesh-eating finish.
Though Greenaway said he felt compelled to break film audiences of their stupid reliance on narrative, he understood that something else equally fascinating must be substituted in place of narrative.
After all, he wouldn’t want to create mere academic, ivory tower objects of study, he said: “I want to be MAINNNNNSTREAMMMMM.”
So his new, revived cinematic form is non-narrative, incorporating multiple screens, and functioning in “present tense”—that is, always changing, never the same show twice, relying on a “live element.”
Yes, Peter Greenaway had decided to become a VJ.
If you’ve ever been to a nightclub where they project a bunch of flashing, changing pictures on the walls as part of the overall stimuli, you know the kind of con he’s pulling on the art-media crowd.
Take the sloshing suitcase, for example; Greenaway finally got around to that. He cranked up the volume so we could hear the accompanying soundtrack, a mixture of classical music and tidal shooshing noises that, he claimed, creates a “mesmeric phenomenon.”
He admitted that we’d probably seen this sort of thing before, in perfume ads and the like, but he seemed to feel that if he added twenty more screens all playing different loops of his various perfume ad images, he’d really have something. That twenty-one-screen Greenaway show slayed ‘em in Stockholm! Or was it Warsaw?
So he showed us a bunch more of these things, to give us the idea. There were other numbered suitcases like “79: Holy Earth: Uranium” that looked a lot like the glowing “great Whatsit” box from the Cold War film noir Kiss Me Deadly, only without the screaming blonde.
Speaking of screaming blondes, there was a repeated clip of a woman’s head snapping sideways to a cracking noise: “That’s Franke Potente, an actress of some celebrity, having her face slapped continually, forever and ever,” gloated Greenaway.
“Aw,” said a saddened female grad student in the audience.
And so the long day wore on.
There were a few art-porn ones, too, just to startle people awake now and then. As anyone who’s ever seen a Greenaway film knows, the real “glue” holding his films together is full-frontal nudity. Wangs and bush tarted up in draped silks and body-paint calligraphy, that’s the Greenaway method. “New media” merely adds CGI.
As we stared at a picture of a giant cigar with an opera singer’s head in a small box above it, trilling, and text crawl underneath it repeating the line, “These are the clues that should alert you to the conspiracy,” I realized I’d attended the master class with some vague idea that Greenaway might take the opportunity to defend himself, to offer some sort of explanation for his “art.” His is the kind of filmmaking that’s so uninvolving it requires an explanation. It had better be conveying a weighty message because it’s not doing anything else. In fact, it should be allegorical, with everything symbolizing something else, so at least you could make a guessing game of it. The giant cigar stands for patriarchal capitalism, and the opera singer is the feminized institutional culture that sings the praises of a violent and oppressive system…
Finally Greenaway finished with the perfume ads, but didn’t explain them beyond saying he was doing “Eisensteinian montage, which can provide any number of cerebral and emotional experiences infinitely multiplied.” Sez you, Greenaway!
Then he announced he would show us his “Nursery Tales.” He said this project was intended to “drag fairy tales out of the nursery” and reveal them as they really are, “intense stories of human relationships that form the BODY of Western LIT-trot-choor.”
That’s a project I coulda sworn had been done a few times already.
And I noticed we were back to filmed narrative again, only now it was okay for some reason.
He started off with Cinderella. Images of sullen, distorted females staring out at us, and assorted Cinderella story paraphernalia identified by a loud, penetrating Brit voice: “PUMP-kins and MAG-ic, PUMP-kins and MAG-ic, PUMP-kins and MAG-ic.”
Well, I’d about had it. I was hounded out at last by the Brit narrator yelling “TWO RATS, TWO RATS, TWO RATS, TWO RATS…”
Maybe narrative film stays popular because for the past hundred years it’s managed to shove gits like Greenaway to the margins. If so, that’s a good enough reason to cheer it on. Long may it reign!
Read more:, Eileen Jones, Uncategorized
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