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Fatwah / movies / July 7, 2012
By Ramon Glazov

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


…and another…


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”.








Add your own

  • 1. Mr A.  |  July 7th, 2012 at 2:50 pm

    Getting better, Glazov. Closer to the mark you set, Dolan’s writing, this time. Does that mean… that you ARE… No, perish the thought.

  • 2. Sexy Claus  |  July 7th, 2012 at 3:40 pm

    Kick his ass, seabass!

  • 3. jimmy james  |  July 7th, 2012 at 4:57 pm

    Where the fuck is Dolan, anyway? We miss him.

  • 4. zhubajie  |  July 7th, 2012 at 7:10 pm

    Any reason to believe that Rembrandt CARED about the assassination? Rather than getting his pay from the guys in the painting?

  • 5. texas 'doc' watson  |  July 7th, 2012 at 8:27 pm

    Photoshop-contest entries

    Wow, I didn’t know eXiled also went to Fark!

  • 6. Punjabi From Karachi  |  July 7th, 2012 at 9:13 pm

    Hi ho!

    Interesting fact about Night Watch, it angered Rembrandt’s benefactors. Apparently it was because he had half of the Night Watch in the dark. Half the Night Watch was satisfied with it, and half was angry at being obscured.

  • 7. Greg L  |  July 7th, 2012 at 9:28 pm

    I find it hard to believe that you could discuss Greenaway, and take potshots and his po-faced statements re art history, historical facts, patterns, customs etc. without once noting that for 30+ years he has been taking the piss. The man’s first feature was “The Falls,” for christssake – he’s not Frederick Wiseman, nor even James Burke (“Connections”). Greenaway’s “documentaries” are rather in the vein of e.g. Jean Painlevé, Peter Watkins…and most especially the Welles of “F For Fake.” Greenaway is no more in earnest regarding widespread visual illiteracy and hidden clues in “The Night Watch” than he was in explicating “the Violent Unknown Event”; or in depicting the imaginary Tulse Luper’s acquaintance with the historical Raoul Wallenberg. He’s a joker, he’s like Welles telling the story of how his girlfriend Oja Kodar sat for Picasso. You’re knocking down the points of a piss-take, a fable dressed-up as art history…

  • 8. Phil  |  July 7th, 2012 at 10:51 pm

    Jesus, is everyone Dolan to you loons?

  • 9. radii  |  July 8th, 2012 at 12:53 am

    Greenaway is interesting, which so damn rare in this era … in fact, for decades it has been rare – you really can’t name any artists of note since the Op Art phase of the 1960s … Greenaway the painter likes to paint with film and I’ll see anything he does … yes, it can be ponderous to the extreme but I disagree with the basic premises that there is anything “desperate” or “gimmicky” about Greenaway’s work

  • 10. Punjabi From Karachi  |  July 8th, 2012 at 1:40 am

    Jesus, is everyone Dolan to you loons?

    Agreed. However, I stopped expecting sanity here long ago.

    The next person to start speculating about who-is-and-isn’t-Dolan gets reminded of their looniness again and again.

  • 11. Trevor  |  July 8th, 2012 at 6:55 am

    Already there are people leaping to Greenaway’s defense, saying “He’s not serious u guyz! He all clever and stuff, with his not-seriousness!”

    How is being an ass for the sake of being an ass in any way clever?

  • 12. Jugal  |  July 8th, 2012 at 1:43 pm

    Very interesting article, I particularly like the bit about the right-wing loons.

    About painting I have never been into it, in great part because of geographical issues. But The Night Watch is one of the few paintings that has got into my attention, primarily because of this song:

    Album version is better though.

  • 13. Mr A.  |  July 8th, 2012 at 2:09 pm

    I don’t mean to seriously imply that Glazov’s Dolan. It was more like taking the piss, you know – in an arty and ironic kind of way!

  • 14. vortexgods  |  July 8th, 2012 at 5:18 pm

    Some people actually think Gary Brecher is John Dolan!

  • 15. M.E.  |  July 8th, 2012 at 6:30 pm


    Some Greenaway cultist is taking Geenamway seriously and is criticizing his criticizers. OMG let me say again OMG

    What happened to Exiled? I’m reading it right now, so I guess I do know what happened to it. It’s right in front of me. And for some reason I can’t stop reading it and commenting over and over and over again. I guess getting kicked out of Russia made you guys real fucking stars, pure heroes and full of self-righteous wisdom that people like me don’t have and should be mocked because of it

  • 16. Hick  |  July 9th, 2012 at 1:34 am

    This is not the Exiled censor speaking, this is me; this is completely over my head. Like Whoosh.

    So many of those dudes in the paintings look like little 5’2″ hobbit people.

  • 17. Adam  |  July 9th, 2012 at 5:31 am

    In other words Greg L. is saying:

    “I’m pretending like I’m not hurt, I’m a Greenaway fanboy who thinks his postmodern ‘humor’ is actually ‘humor.'”

  • 18. Mudplanet  |  July 9th, 2012 at 7:44 am

    Greenaway ISN’T funny. If you can watch Drowning by Numbers without puking out of your ears (even if the puke doesn’t come until two days later) you have no sense.

  • 19. John Galt  |  July 9th, 2012 at 9:39 am

    Not that I’m into naked self-interest or anything like that, but he used a full-frontal Helen Mirren when she was OLD and HAGGARDLY, not when she was young and lucious as my Ayn when she was tenderly writing love notes to child murderers. But I digress…

  • 20. jyp  |  July 9th, 2012 at 11:14 am

    So this fellow, whoever he is/was, was “taking a piss”? Indeed. Taking a piss on our heads. Oy! A pox on him and all like him. And the swaybacked mare he rode in on.

  • 21. Mr. A  |  July 9th, 2012 at 4:18 pm

    Jyp, I’d hoped you’d appreciate the DAY-li-chews irony of it all, y’all!

  • 22. Margo Adler  |  July 9th, 2012 at 5:10 pm

    “And if Holland has not already accomplished [assassination], as [Rembrandt] believes, with the murder of Hasselburg, will it become a Dutch habit?”

    What an IDIOTIC thing to say. Yeah, the murder of a single person could become a national pastime. Especially when the Dutch have one of the lowest homicide rates in the world.

  • 23. True Kilcockian  |  July 11th, 2012 at 4:00 am

    Article written in Perth but author saw the film in Berkeley. John Dolan lives in San Francisco.

    Ames won’t let Dolan’s light shine.

  • 24. S  |  July 11th, 2012 at 1:20 pm

    Re: the F is for Fake comparison. The difference with Welles is that he tells you up front that he’s taking a piss and you still can’t stop watching because Orson Welles is always fucking interesting and compelling. Oja Kodar’s body certainly helps one’s attention span too.

    Comparing Greenway’s pretentious bad jokes — the kind of jokes that snooty jerkoff’s chortle knowingly at, the kind of jokes that actually aren’t funny and only serve to show how smart the prat who “gets it” really is — to the great Orson Welles is like comparing your dirty uncle’s clumsy limerick to George Carlin.

  • 25. rob  |  July 12th, 2012 at 1:45 pm

    ehhh… I have enjoyed some of his films. They have their moments, at least visually, and the score to The Cook, The Thief… is one of my favorites of all time. I don’t really understand the purpose of writing an article like this. Greenaway is pretty much washed up in the cinema world and has never really been taken seriously in the filmmaker-as-philosopher circles. Just let the dude have his fun. Pointless documentaries about old paintings that will be watched by less people than the number who attend any given major sporting event arten’t really a worthy focus of criticism. I wish I hadn’t read this, though maybe I’ll finally watch this film after passing over it countless times on my netflix queue.

  • 26. John  |  July 13th, 2012 at 6:58 am

    Among the many crimes of Dan Brown, perhaps none is so hideous as the propagation of the word “symbologist,” used in this post, thankfully, with a touch of air quotes.

    This is a grotesque neologism, created by some doofus who was incapable of combining two basic Greek combining forms [“symbol(o)-” and “-logist”] into one correctly formed word: “symbolologist.”

    Yes, the correct formation sounds dorky, but that’s almost the point. Rather as Newt Gingrich speaks as a dumb person imagines an intellectual speaks, so the correct formation “symbolology” would fool the suckers while immediately telegraphing to anyone with half a brain its complete risibility.

  • 27. kfreed  |  July 13th, 2012 at 8:17 am

    Shocked… RW propaganda disguised as art criticism.

    Now, write an article on this one and document heads exploding(double dog dare ya):

  • 28. Berkeleyite  |  July 21st, 2012 at 10:30 pm

    @Greg L – I saw Peter Greenaway speak at UC Berkeley about J’Accuse and his various audio-visual presentations with The Night Watch and The Last Supper, and he seemed deadly serious about all this assassination conspiracy theory shit. I suppose he could have been taking the piss out of the ivory tower, but in that case he is so deep in self-satire that it makes no difference if he’s serious or not.

  • 29. adriana  |  August 10th, 2012 at 10:23 am

    I don’t understand your arguments… If there are any… Your text gave me shivers – it reminded me the communist propaganda giving a shit on your opinion as a citizen…

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