Saturday, June 26, 2010

Peter Greenaway

Ever since I became interested in serious cinema in the early 80’s, Peter Greenaway has been a major presence in my view of things. I’ve seldom mentioned him here because he’s – as we intellectuals like to say – sui generis: I can’t think of any other filmmaker for whom Greenaway provides a useful reference point. And as for reviewing Greenaway's own films – well, that’s barely been possible. His last, Nightwatching, did play here briefly last year, but didn’t garner much attention. Before that, he devoted several years to The Tulse Luper Suitcases, a multimedia project comprising three films, books, a website and other multimedia material. I saw the first two parts at the film festival, but as far as I know, it was never shown here after that (the third film didn’t even make the cut for the festival), and it’s not available here on DVD.

Short Films

The Tulse Luper Suitcases isn’t just a silly-sounding title – it’s the extension of a myth Greenaway’s been developing for over thirty years. He says: “Creation, to me, is to try to orchestrate the universe to understand what surrounds us. Even if, to accomplish that, we use all sorts of stratagems which in the end prove completely incapable of staving off chaos.” It follows, perhaps, that narrative – in the sense of a good plot - matters much less to Greenaway than structure and texture, and just as scientific understanding doesn’t start at zero with each new experiment, his work builds explicitly on what came before it.

Born in 1942, he started as a painter, then began to make short films in the 60’s and 70’s. Some of these are available on DVD, and I recently watched a number of them. Seldom using actors, they’re all conscious puzzles, built on limited means and often visually quite straightforward, but still laden with complicated if not impenetrable narratives, delivered in an earnestly serious voice-over. Water Wrackets consists solely of shots of rivers and streams and the like, but the story we’re told on top of this is a complicated, Lord Of The Rings-type myth (and Greenaway actually evokes Tolkein in his commentary). It doesn’t make any obvious sense, and doesn’t really go anywhere, but it’s a rather brilliantly sustained oddity.

It’s rather thrilling to work through the shorts and see Greenaway gradually growing in resources and ambition. Dear Phone, made a few years later, consists of a series of absurdist anecdotes involving public telephones. As the narrator reads the stories, we see on the screen the script he’s supposedly reading from, thick with edits and additions and scribbles. In between, we stare at images of red British phone boxes, listen to dial tones and suchlike. The stories are unrelated, but with enough general similarity to suggest some connective tissue. Again, it’s a film made from almost nothing, but bursting with a sense of possibility.

The Falls

This phase of Greenaway’s career culminated in 1980 with the magnificent, indescribable The Falls. The film is set in the aftermath of a widespread “Violent Unnamed Event,” somehow related to birds, as a result of which thousands of people acquired strange powers or abnormalities, in some cases including flight; it also spawned multiple new languages. Greenaway structures the film, which runs over three hours, as an illustrative cross-section of 92 victims, notionally lifted from a much larger cataloguing project, all of whom have “Fall-“ in their surname (by the way, there are also 92 Tulse Luper suitcases, and the number recurs throughout Greenaway’s work). The film takes on the look of a cinematic scrapbook, constructed from archive footage, landscapes, diagrams, interviews, and whatever else an archivist might have at hand. Their case histories incorporate musings on the event’s origin (at one point citing Hitchcock’s film The Birds as a possible progenitor), glimpses of a whole alternate universe of organizations, key figures (including Tulse Luper), codes and signs, and a lot of deadpan wit. I suppose it could be termed science fiction, but that’s hardly the point – whether or not you actively enjoy the film at every point, you sit there and think: how could anyone have this much creative capacity and discipline?

The Falls, like many Greenaway movies, owes a lot to the shimmering, propulsive score by composer Michael Nyman. The film doesn’t owe a lot though to people – there’s very little in there that speaks to an interest in human spontaneity or emotional complexity. Greenaway made the leap to working with actors in his next major project, The Draughtsman’s Contract. I haven’t seen that one since it came out (planning to get to it soon) but it gave him a broader audience for the first time, and allowed him significant freedom for the next fifteen years. His best known films include The Cook, The Thief, His Wife And Her Lover, which I recall most clearly for doing more than any other film to obliterate the gap between human flesh and uncooked meat, and the ravishing The Pillow Book. His most controversial is The Baby Of Macon, a medieval reconstruction culminating in an extended gang-rape sequence (once he started working on a larger canvas, nudity became a prominent element of Greenaway’s repertoire, sometimes to the extent of overshadowing almost all else about the films).

Tulse Luper

I’ve seen all the films made during that period, but not usually more than once, and until I happened on those short films, I was no more thinking of Greenaway than of a hundred other filmmakers. Since then though I’ve been mulling over him as a symbol of how little we expect of or accept from our artists. You get exhausted and overwhelmed even trying to crack the surface of everything he’s created (just try spending some time on the Tulse Luper website). Sure, the suspicion remains that Greenaway, who has a liking for grand pronouncements like “cinema is dead,” holds his audience in contempt. But his personal commentaries on the DVD of short films have a spiky humanity to them, and here and there he lets his softer side show. He describes Luper’s origins this way: “for me he was a character who, I suppose, was like an alter ego. I was a very shy young man in those days and I found it very, very difficult to say Peter Greenaway said, so I blamed all my extravagances, obsessions and fascinations on this man called Tulse Luper." And it all went on from there.

In an age where popular culture constantly invites us to get our entertainment from the mundane foibles and interactions of others, Greenaway represents a challenge indeed – a forty-year project in projection and extrapolation, deeply personal and involved, even if it sometimes seems designed largely to chase us away. It’s not necessary, I think, for anyone to try to absorb all his work – we have to put our own lives first! But I’d certainly urge anyone to seek out some of it.

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