Peter Greenaway reflects on his career as he finishes his new film
Right off the bat, Peter Greenaway wants to make it clear that he’s never really taken himself seriously as a filmmaker—although, like so many of the paradoxes that define Greenaway’s identity, it’s ill advised to take such a claim too seriously.
“It’s a terrible confession to talk to you,” he says via Skype from a tiny house on the Atlantic coast where he goes on weekends (he spends most of the rest of his time in Amsterdam). “There’s always this feeling of being removed from the activity, taking a step back and trying not to look at it with a sarcastic or derogatory attitude, but certainly with a considerable amount of irony.”
That cheekiness is evident in Greenaway’s 16-feature filmography, from the Terry Gilliam-esque irreverence of The Falls (1980), a three-hour catalog of eccentric survivors of an imaginary catastrophe, to the obsessive brain-dump that is The Tulse Luper Suitcases (2003-04), a tricky trio of features centered around his cinematic alter ego, the elusive Tulse Luper.
Greenaway has arguably the most playful resume of any great living director, crammed with visual puns, mathematical puzzles and imaginary languages. He’s obsessed with lists, maps, and all sorts of taxonomic tools that humans have devised to make sense of a chaotic world (this is his structuralist impulse in action), even though he so obviously delights in using those very same systems undermined (for which he was dubbed a “poststructuralist” by those who share his affinity for classification).
The now 80-year-old director of art-house stunners like 1989’s cannibalism satire The Cook, the Thief, His Wife & Her Lover and 1996’s NC-17-rated The Pillow Book hasn’t softened one bit. He’s still working – Greenaway is completing Walking to Paris, a year-long portrait of Romanian sculptor Constantin Brâncuși’s journey to the European capital of arts – and is still fighting, in his own defiant way, against the idea of cinema as a medium for telling stories tell; he is convinced that it can do much more.
“We built our cinema around the idea of illustrated text, but I always objected. Every time I started writing a screenplay, I was like, ‘What am I doing here? I want to make moving pictures!’” says Greenaway.
“I never intended to be a film director,” he explains. “I wanted to be a painter from a young age. There is nothing in my family to suggest any support system, yet a series of fortunate accidents got me into art school in the early 1960s. At that time all art schools had film clubs, the Nouvelle Vague was in full swing and it was an exciting time for Italian cinema, so those were my credentials.”
“Breathless” by Jean-Luc Godard electrified him. Alain Resnais’ Last Year in Marienbad blew his mind and quickly became his favorite film.
“It has crazy ideas where people don’t have names, and it’s all about memory, which is remarkably unreliable,” he says. “I’m not a big fan of abstract art. I still believe in notions of form and figuration, but it was the film that came closest to the wind, the idea of being an abstract film. It removed anecdotal information and replaced it with other types of anecdotal information.” Seeing it, Greenaway realized, “I wanted to do the abstract art of cinema, in a way.”
After being rejected from the Royal College of Art’s film programme, Greenaway found work as a film editor with the Central Office of Information or COI, Britain’s post-war department for ‘marketing and publicity’ (i.e. propaganda). “I’ve always made films about Concorde and Hovercraft and all these things that the British pat themselves on the back for, but I’ve always been deeply shocked and amused by this use of propaganda,” says Greenaway. “And it’s still going on, isn’t it? We are now in this era of extraordinary hoaxes.”
A decade and a half that he spent compiling such material gave Greenaway an incredibly refined flair for putting images together, which he applied to a series of experimental short films, a handful of which received critical acclaim.
“I had done quite a few films that involved all kinds of filmmaking fads. I was fascinated by land art of planting ball bearings as if they were seeds. I wanted to use the language of cinema to discuss it,” he says, “but I want the widest possible audience. Then along came this extraordinary phenomenon called Channel Four, which suddenly, because it was run by academics and university people, decided we needed something smarter, something more provocative.”
In this way, Greenaway found new support for the stupid things he had been doing for years. If The Falls could be seen as the absurd pinnacle of his short film work, 1982’s The Draughtsman’s Contract was a critical and popular breakthrough. Like Last Year in Marienbad, the film is a bit of a brain teaser, though Greenaway insists the mystery isn’t as complicated as it seems. (In fact, he explains it all quite well in the director’s commentary, for anyone looking for insight.)
“I was always very aware that we have a very literary cinema. I mean, cinema is supposed to be about pictures, but you can’t go to a producer with 17 prints and plans for serial painting and convince him. Traditionally, a producer needs a script, and a script is a script, and a script is fiction,” explains Greenaway.
And so Greenaway pushed back, testing the limits of the medium, delivering just enough storyline to keep the audience interested while bending the forms as far as he could.
“I had another serious problem: if I wasn’t very interested in narrative, how the hell was I supposed to tie it all together? We all use narratives. Events happen during the day and we tell our wives, our dogs, our doctors, our dentists what happened to us. But the narrative is extremely short-lived and anecdotal,” he says.
So Greenaway looked for other systems to structure his films. “‘The Cook, the Thief, His Wife & Her Lover’ is an illustrated menu. A menu is anything from appetizers to coffee, so I used that as a structure,” he explains. “With ‘Drowning by Numbers’ the title says it all: it’s a film about numbers. It’s all a very confident way of saying, ‘This isn’t reality, this is a movie.’ A film is a construct. Let’s play with artificiality.”
There it is again: the notion of play that is so central to Greenaway’s aesthetic. To say he’s not serious about his art would be absurd, and yet the best way to appreciate his work is to relax and embrace the spirit of renegade experimentation. Watch his use of color in “The Cook…”, revel in the choreography and compositions of “Prospero’s Books”, laugh at the bawdy excess in “Eisenstein in Guanajuato” (a tribute to the Russian silent master) .
“The really exciting days of cinema were probably the last 10 years of silent film, when they demanded that the pictures tell the story,” says Greenaway. Since the introduction of sound, cinema has been tied to literature, he says. Movies are obsessed with realism – as painting once was until the invention of the camera liberated art. “Photography spawned the greatest century of painting we’ve ever known,” he says.
But the films are stuck, he believes. “Cinema hasn’t even reached its Cubist period,” Greenaway once told an interviewer.
He did his part to shock, only to be shocked in return by the institutional embrace.
“I think it was David Hockney who said, ‘If you turn 80 in England and you can still boil an egg, look, they’ll pin a medal on you,'” he laughs, repeating a joke that’s nearly a decade old was previously made after receiving the BAFTA’s Career Achievement Award. “So I was like, ‘Fuck that. I’m really going to make films that I really want.’”
Aging hasn’t tamed him one bit. “The death date for most white males in Europe is 81.5 years, so I have a year and a half left,” he says. “Let’s hope I can stretch that a bit. I’ve got plenty of scripts ready for movies.” Like “Joseph,” a scandalously outrageous investigation into Jesus’ fatherhood that Greenaway describes as “a catastrophic collapse of Christianity.”
Or “a dialogue between Stalin and Dracula” revealing his secret to the Russian leader. “As a vampire, he doesn’t suck blood. He’s doing something far more powerful. He feeds on human sperm from the Well. So there’s one more sensational film I want to make,” says Greenaway, knowing one will never see the light of day.
“At the end of this summer I’m due to do a film with Morgan Freeman about death trying to find a reasonable notion of suicide. I believe death is unnecessary.”