From The eXiled’s Australasia Correspondent
PERTH, AUSTRALIA — A reliable source tells me that Peter Greenaway’s pseudo-historical documentary, Rembrandt’s J’Accuse, played recently at Berkeley’s snooty Pacific Film Archive. So — partly out of boredom, partly out of masochism, partly because no one’s kicked Greenaway in a while — I decided to watch it online.
Now let me warn you, it’s torturous, even for a Greenaway flick. It would take a far more perverse bad-movie masochist than me to endure, let alone enjoy, his work. The guy’s career was desperately gimmicky to begin with — stiff, long-winded jokes about golden showers intercut with landscape-gardening pedantry — but it impressed all the usual boofheads, particularly Ebert, who gave The Draughtsman’s Contract more fucking stars than Barry Lyndon!
Now Greenaway has sunk to an even baser level of gimmickry: Dan-Brown-style conspiracy theories involving famous paintings. The basic argument of J’Accuse is that Rembrandt’s The Night Watch isn’t just a group portrait of a Dutch militia company, but also a secret indictment of Captain Frans Banning-Cocq, the leader of the militia, for the murder of his predecessor, Piers Hasselburg.
Supposedly, the painting is full of clues pointing to the murder, but, in four hundred years, nobody has picked them up, because, as Greenaway explains:
“Most people are visually illiterate. Why should it be otherwise? We have a text-based culture. Our educational systems teach us to value text over image, which is one of the reasons why we have such an impoverished cinema. Just because you have eyes does not mean you can see.
“Our sophistications of communication are text-based in the spoken and the written word, and as a consequence by comparison the interpretation of the manufactured image in our culture is undernourished, ill-informed and impoverished.”
The all-seeing Greenaway, it appears, hasn’t noticed all the comic books, cartoon strips, TV shows, music videos, feature films, T-shirts, billboards, public sculptures, Flash animations, Photoshop-contest entries and street graffiti around him. No sir, we’re all just a bunch of cinematically impoverished visual illiterates! Uplift us, O mighty symbologist Greenaway! Instruct us in the semiotics of Lady Gaga’s pink-triangle unicorns! Teach us the hidden intrigues behind the video clip to Kanye West’s “Power”! We’d be lost without you!
And so our intrepid auteur takes us through a list of 34 “mysteries” behind Rembrandt’s painting, each one supposedly hinting at the conspiracy to murder Captain Hasselburg.
Suffice to say, Greenaway’s “visually literate” graphics look more like they came out of a classroom Powerpoint presentation than a documentary:
Even worse are the bits where Greenaway runs The Night Watch through various tacky Adobe filters, the kind amateurs inevitably use. Yep, when you’re a Pacific Film Archive moviegoer, it doesn’t get much more avant garde than ‘Cutout,’ ‘Plastic Wrap,’ and ‘Neon Glow’:
Behold, in order: “The Cutout”…
…the “Plastic Wrap”…
…and finally, alas, the “Neon Glow”
They don’t call them “artistic filters” for nothing!
So how would an erudite, visually literate person interpret Rembrandt’s militia portrait? They would start by noting that Frans Banning-Cocq is wearing a black suit with a red sash, which proves he is the murderer, because black and red are the Devil’s colours. As Greenaway puts it, he is “Satan, complete with black Satanic costume, black hat, black jerkin, black breeches, black hose and black shoes, with a demoniac red crimson sash.”
Banning-Cocq to Greenaway: “Damn ye, you found me out! If it wasn’t for you nosy post-modern film director kids meddling in my painting, I woulda gotten away with it!”
It doesn’t matter, of course, that Banning-Cocq might’ve been wearing black because it was fashionable in the 17th century. Or that Greenaway himself has already shown us a whole gallery of Dutch burghers, innocently dressed in red-and-black, without any “demoniac” connotations:
Red sash on black Exhibit #1
Red sash on black Exhibit #2
Or even that Greenaway used one of those paintings for his own fucking set design all the way back in 1989:
A visually literate person would also note that Captain Banning-Cocq’s hand is not actually his hand – it is the hand of his murdered predecessor, Piers Hasselburg. (When you’re visually literate, you can tell these things on sight.) Greenaway’s voice-over explains:
“Although much art historian scholarship has been made of that hand, scholarship that has been mocked by the commentator who suggested indeed that Banning-Cocq is simply holding out his hand to see if it were raining, there is something a little unconvincing about it – its draughtsmanship, the way it issues, without absolute conviction, from the black suit. Is it indeed because it is not Banning-Cocq’s hand at all, but Hasselburg’s?”
There you have it. If your hand doesn’t issue from your shirt-cuff with “absolute conviction,” that might be because it isn’t really your hand but the hand of a dead Dutch guy. (Perhaps Rembrandt grafted it on while you were sleeping.) And if you can’t handle Greenaway’s logic, it only means that you — yes, you, my friend! — are directly contributing to the malnourishment of our poor, starving, neglected puppy of a cinemaaar!
You’d also notice — if you were as visually literate as Peter Greenaway — that the girl in the painting is a child prostitute, because she’s carrying a chicken, bound by the feet, to symbolise her pitiable state of captivity. And that Banning-Cocq is extending his left hand, his sinister hand, which means that — I dunno — something sinister is going on.
Oh, and then Greenaway spouts this bit of madness:
“A visitor to the Rijksmuseum, apparently understanding something of the meaning of Rembrandt’s Night Watch painting, disturbed and incensed at its implications, took a kitchen knife from his raincoat pocket and heavily scored the Night Watch canvas. He recognized Captain Banning-Cocq to be Satan in the act of luring Christ into the Underworld.”
You heard correctly! He didn’t gouge that painting because he was a gibbering psychotic vandal-freak, but rather, because he was as visually literate as Peter Greenaway — which, as far as I know, means about the same thing.
Just for reference, here’s one account of the vandalism that took place on September 14, 1975:
On this day in 1975, an unemployed schoolteacher named Wilhelmus de Rijk walked into Amsterdam’s Rijksmuseum and headed straight for Rembrandt’s The Night Watch. He stood in front of the painting, looking creepy, until the guards – modern versions of the people in Rembrandt’s painting – got scared and asked him to leave. At which point De Rijk walked out of the room, walked back in, and attacked the painting with a bread knife that he had stolen from his hotel’s room service.
De Rijk was a large man, and he managed to hold the museum guards off long enough to slash the painting more than a dozen times while shouting, by way of apology, “I have been sent by the Lord! I have been forced to do this by forces out of this Earth!”
Pay very close attention. That there, ladies and gentlemen, is what a “visually literate” art critique sounds like! You’re not a true connoisseur until you start attacking famous paintings with a knife you randomly filched from Holiday Inn!
But there’s still no cornering Greenaway when it comes to pure, frothing psychobabble. Not when he treats us to insights like this:
“And if Holland has not already accomplished [assassination], as [Rembrandt] believes, with the murder of Hasselburg, will it become a Dutch habit? Might we suggest that Rembrandt was being prophetic and making an apocryphal reference to the savage assassinations of the brothers De Witt in the Hague in 1617, and even perhaps the murder of Pim Fortuyn in 2002 in a media park in Hilversum, and much closer to home, the assassination of Theo van Gogh in 2004 in the streets of Amsterdam.”
See, when you’re visually literate, the idea of Rembrandt “making an apocryphal reference” to assassinations that happened over 300 years after he died seems perfectly straightforward.
And who were these guys that got killed? Pim Fortuyn was an Islamophobic, anti-immigration, Dutch politician — and self-described “classical liberal” — who trolled for Muslim males who shared his sexual preferences by night, and called for their deportation when they took offense by day. Theo van Gogh was an anti-multicultural, anti-immigration filmmaker and a close friend of Fortuyn.
That’s right: if Greenaway is to be believed, Rembrandt was a steadfast political ally of crypto-fascist Teabagger-icon Geert Wilders and his great movement of anti-immigrationist troll-martyrs.
Work that one out!
Ramon Glazov lives and writes in Perth, Western Australia. Email him at “ramonglazov at gmail dot com”
Would you like to know more? Read more articles by our Australasian correspondent, including “David Foster Wallace: Portrait of an Infinitely Limited Mind” and “How Christopher Hitchens Robbed Hunter S. Thompson’s Grave”.
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