We meet at Trondheim’s Kosmorama film festival. There is something annoying about film maker Peter Greenaway. To many, he is a British snob, full of clichés. Such as “film is dead.” That there has never been “a pure film”. That film remains illustrated text. Or, that books should not be adapted to films.
British Greenaway was born in London and raised in a working-class household. The superstar director is in Trondheim for less than 24 hours – flying straight in from Amsterdam where he now resides. Le Monde diplomatique has been granted a 12-minute interview. Slightly reluctant, I sit down in front of this arrogant, upturned face seated over there in the sofa. In my notes, I have jotted down something Greenaway said in 1997: “The film is old technology. I think the last 30 years have shown us that the film is dying. In one way, Jean-Luc Godard ruined everything […], he rang the death bells because he took apart the film, fragmented it, and did so very self-consciously. »1 Greenaway is renowned for self-confidently taking control of interviews, and clichés are bandied about. I ask for a more philosophical conversation, on what he means by “film is dead”. Greenaway replies whilst holding a glass of white wine:
– “Film is not yet taking visuals seriously. I have not been to the cinema in 20 years. I think the last I saw was Blue Velvet by David Lynch. Film is extremely boring. The most interesting things rarely happen in film, but rather within art and literature.”
– Perhaps you could explain a bit more instead of claiming. Are you able to comment on Godard being declared the one who divided up the film?
– “You have to read more than just Godard, he is an old man. Deal with the present.”
– But, you yourself referred to him earlier?
– “You sound like a student. Get past him. Forget about intellectual textbooks.”
In the past, Greenaway was a director I looked to with joy. In the 1980s, I discovered his Zoo (1985), a film about the decay – both of insects, animals and humans. As philosophy students, we ran to film clubs and cinemas to watch films like The Draughtsman’s Contract (1982), The Belly of an Architect (1987), Drowning by Numbers (1988), and The Cook, the Thief, his Wife and her Lover (1989) which shocked Oslo’s Gimle-audience. In the 1990s, Prosperos Books (1991) was showing when I studied in New York – where half of the audience left midway. Our Media Theory Professor showed us excerpts of the film – whilst lecturing with the blinds pulled, the raster faded by the sun. And we discussed. Later on, the charming The Pillow Book (1996) was launched – in which Greenaway through Japanese characters attempt to unify text, body and image. But, by the time 8 ½ Women arrived in ‘99, our interest waned.
The most interesting films all cost less than a million dollar (Peter Greenaway).
In Trondheim, Greenaway showed Nightwatching (2007), and did a ‘masterclass’ for 400 spectators. We hear that film has not yet achieved the adequate degree of autonomy, that it is not making use of its visual potential. He is repeating himself. For instance, in an interview 14 years ago: “The film has not yet existed. Nobody up till now has created a film. The best we have witnessed has been some sort of illustrated literature or recorded theatre.”2
In the 1960s, Greenaway was part of the French auteur-environment, according to himself. The young Peter spent three years running around in Paris with his tape recorder trailing François Truffaut. For then to tire of him, as he was “too exhibitionistic and too French a director.” But, have we too not tired of Greenaway, after a few laughs, as his lecture has exceeded his allotted time by half an hour? Is the 66-year old too fond of his own show as he stands there, a long, flowing pink scarf wrapped around his throat?
Is he unable to hear his own cliches and claims with he serves up with bravado in Trondheim’s largest cinema auditorium? “The most interesting films all cost less than a million dollar.” (That does not apply to most of his own films, I think to myself); “Film has lasted 112 years, but has yet to convince visually.” (Does he not watch any films?); “There are only two real themes within film: sex and death.” (Really, are we that simple?)
Not everyone in the auditorium agree with Greenaway’s prophecy of doom regarding film history: “It is possible to describe it as a three-generational period, with the grandfather who organised it all [Eisenstein], his sons [de Sica, Fellini, all the way to Fassbinder’s death in 1976] who mainly maintained it all, and the grandchildren [Godard et. al.] who threw it all away.”
However, some years ago, Greenaway wrote a piece, for, precisely, Le Monde diplomatique, on revisionist film makers, the way “Coppola, Kubrick and Scorsese worship the Fellini/Welles-direction, and Woody Allen, Wim Wenders and the Coen Brothers revere the Godard-direction.”3 He also mentioned post-revisionist “Tarrantino, Stone and Scott” who are involved with interaction and pastiche. But, did he not just say that he no longer watches films?
– Last year, the Coen Brothers introduced their Oscar-winning film based on Cormac McCarthy’s No Country for Old Men. What did you make of this adaptation?
– “I have not watched it.”
What does Greenaway really mean by ‘film needs to take the visual seriously’? At least, 11 years ago, he explained that Alain Resnais’ Last Year at Marienbad (1961)4 is the closest you come to film – a work of art which cannot be expressed through any other medium. Resnais’ master piece is described as “a true filmatic intelligence. It is not slave to the text. It is not slave to a story. Instead, it deconstructs these phenomena and creates an absolutely filmatic product.”
A rather philosophical film. Hence, I attempt a Godard reference, who stated that reality itself, and thus the story, is most accessible through art, through the poetry of pictures.5
I am expecting a philosophical answer. The man is seated about ten centimetres below me on the sofa in front, but his head is turned upwards in such a manner that it feels as if he looks down on me:
– “Reality itself is far more real and inspiring. I can just take to the streets here in Trondheim and look around to get inspired. After all, my films are only fiction.”
Is the man unable to reflect, or just too tired to reflect after numerous interviews this Sunday? In my notes, is also a quote from a decade-old Greenaway interview: “To me, creation is trying to orchestrate the universe in order to make sense of our surroundings. Even if we, in trying to achieve this, reach for all forms of strategies and measures, which in the end will appear to be completely useless in keeping chaos at bay.”
The reality which surrounds us. Previously, Godard reminded us that film images contain the happiness of preservation but that nothing-ness lives next door. While the images can deny the nothing-ness, their fleetingness will remain a reminder. Thus, he defends the dignity of life in his around 80 films. But, what strategies does Greenaway employ in a bid to maintain reality?
– Are you looking for a deeper meaning with your aesthetic films?
– «Meaning, what is that? Deeper meaning?»
– Yes, something meaningful, something which provides a meaning beyond enjoying the moment.
– “What exactly do you mean?”
– Let’s define it as something that has consequences for us: The potential ethical-political sides to being a human.
– “But, everything is political! For instance, the way you sit in front of me now, the way you are unshaven, the way you cut your hair, the clothes you wear – and how you express yourself through your questions.”
– You previously stated that “meaning is not the meaning of art”. Does it not strike you that a typical aesthetic film may be found too light, as a toy or different games?
– “My films and other projects enable me to play with language. Language is infinitely more interesting than content. The content always disintegrate fast, and all we are left with then is the language. But that is more than enough. To a large extent, more than enough.”
Greenaway’s obession with lists is well known. Unlike a film’s regular dramatic narrative, Greenaway, for instance, structured Zoo around the alphabet, The Cook, the Thief his Wife and her Lover based on the seven colours of the rainbow, and Drowning by Numbers …, well have a guess.
–”I don’t want to be either polemic or didactic, or to have an ‘opinion.’ I most enjoy art works that depict an encyclopaedic or complex world.”
Greenaway is not the first to do this. Greenaway’s «ancestor» Godard was superb in his use of lists and categories – unlike the archetypical narrative film. The philosopher Gilles Deleuze describes him as Aristotle-like; Godard’s films are syllogisms with “varying degrees of probability and logical paradoxes.”6 He creates lists or series marked by categories. Various genres are reflected in the film divided by broken lines akin to alpine skiing in a multilingual world. Godard influenced Pop Art, and later on, contemporary and video art, by deconstructing the filmatic language, in addition to questioning the meaning of pictures and their representation. Through film, he reflected on the politics, production, self-reflection and subjection of the picture.7
For example, Godard’s Les Carabiniers (1963) is not another film glorifying or criticising war, but an adaptation of the categories of war: Airforce, Navy and Army (air, water, earth); ideas such as occupation and resistance; feelings including violence, absence, escape, surprise, noise and silence. The film also made use of colour codes, although not the entire rainbow like Greenaway. To Godard, it was vital to “strip reality off its disguise to recreate the raw reality. […] To film is therefore to seize an event as a sign.”8
Regarding signs and lists: Greenaway’s The Tulse Luper Suitcases (2005) features 92 events with sub plots which describe the travels of Tulse Lupers and its 92 accompanying suitcases. The project consists, among other things, of several features all together lasting seven hours. Uranium is coded 92 – hence the era is set to the nuclear bomb deterrent from Hiroshima to the fall of the Berlin wall. In Trondheim, Greenaway showed several excerpts: The work contains parrallel narratives, collections of facts, stories (“History does not exist, only historians.”), documentary, reruns, and alternatives. The project is available online (160, 000 daily hits), and consists of interactive video games, 92 suitcase-DVDs, and is set up as an opera-like “total artwork” featuring Greenaway himself as the DJ. The project is a navigating work – the stories mere appendages.
Already in his 1991 Prosperos Books, Greenaway used a HD-video assembled in the middle of the film recording – and, as aforementioned, audiences left midway. Today, many are used to the way TV and computer screens use layers upon layers, windows, insets and frozen images. And ever more of the film industry is now made up of post-production, computer manipulated actors, digital backdrops, special colour effects, etc. As Greenaway stated in Trondheim: “The actors will all disappear. We are able to recreate them from their toe nails and up.” He explains that young people go to the cinema less often than before […] my next film will be launched on Second Life, which has 64 million members.» And; “interactive films are the future.”
– You are clearly a technology optimist, but doesn’t all this technology mean that we are losing something along the way?
– “But, art has always taken advantage of technology! Do see the pencil I am holding? That is technology as everything else. This is nothing new. New computer technology and Virtual Reality can bring us out of the passive, one-way cinema darkness. For instance, with a three-dimensional IMAX or VR-glasses, the border of the screen moves out of the line of vision, so you feel as if you are in the middle of the film.”
I keep reaching for the content behind beautiful facades: In The Tulse Luper Suitcases, Greenaway uses meaningful issues well worth considering: On his journeys, Tulse Luper is constantly taken hostage and incarcerated. Akin to today’s asylum seekers. Metaphorically, some of the scenes can be interpreted as prisons: “imprisoned in the home”, “deserted” loneliness, the restlessness of travelling, trapped in classical literature or strangled by the claustrophobia of the bourgeoisie. And what about suitcase number 46, with its 92 barres of gold – all the gold belonging to the victims of the Third Reich.…
I feel that film has so much to offer outside of the slavery of the narrative (Peter Greenaway).
– Is it possible to say that Tulse Luper has any political messages?
–“We somehow expect the film to provide us comfort or meaning. But, that is not the meaning of art. All my films are experimental in one way or another – this way I take a risk. I think it is important to provoke, whether intellectually or visually.”
I am thinking about how far Greenaway is willing to go, with his encyclopaedia or list obsession. Allow me to yet again use Godard to illustrate the problem. In the 1960s, he discussed the possibility of making a film about the concentration camp: “The only real film that could have been made about it – which would have been intolerable, and thus has never been made – would have been the concentration camp filmed from the view point of the tourist and the daily routines. As in, how do you get a six foot human into a 50 centimetre long coffin? How do you load ten tonnes of arms and legs into a three-tonne truck? How can you incinerate 100 female bodies with only petrol enough for ten? How do the secretaries make machine-written lists of everything? The most gruesome is not these scenes, but the very banalities of daily life in such a camp.”9 Meaning the way evil can be trite.
Would Greenaway have been able to film the concentration camp – something akin to Drowning by Numbers accompanied by Michael Nyman’s breezy score? No I doubt he would have dared.
– Do you not have to use a story, to convey a meaningful message?
– “I feel that film has so much to offer outside of the slavery of the narrative. One has created a film art where one speculates in having the audience identity with the emotional and psychological expressions of the actors – film stars are worshipped. This is an underestimation of the visual potential of the film language, which is both limiting and reducing. You have to go outside of the lazy, mimicking, passively observing eye. Rather than impersonatingly copying the world through reproduction, we should instead want a “virtual unreality” as the new film art.”
– In his book Thus Spoke Zarathustra, Nietzsche used the subtitle A Book for All and None. Is this how you view your own work, something for all, if only they are able to understand what you are doing?
– “I don’t want to sit in an ivory tower. And I don’t want to be an underground film maker. I want to make films for the largest audience possible. But arrogantly enough, I want to make them my own way.”
So, what exactly did Greenaway mean by his cliché about the death of the film? According to Carsten Juhl, “it will be a problem for Peter Greenaway that he has no clue about the analytics and dialectics of the aesthetical reflections.”10 Again, my thoughts revisit Godard regarding film’s death or final stages. Godard’s great film and TV work Histoire(s) du cinéma is akin to an epitaph to the film. The basis of the work’s film chapters is sadness and melancholy. Simultaneously, his message is that the beauty and aesthetics will save you from loneliness. In particular, the sentence “do not harm yourself, we are all still here,” the way we are all almost present in the communal imagery of the film universe. Godard is, at the same time, inopportune, provoking, and defends film as the great Art. Where Greenaway speaks in clichés or only reaches for aesthetics, Godard pulls out the questions from his 1990s films – such as New Wave (Nouvelle vague, 1990), Oh Woe is Me (Hélas pour moi, 1993), and the uncertain future of a late-capitalist Europe (Allemagne neuf zéro, 1991).
Godard has not given up on his political will of change. He searches for the thought remarks of moving images. The inner worry, the unease of heart and thoughts following today’s society death of friendship – especially pertinent in these, our xenophobic, nationalistic times. By “regaining his true identity, to become a danger to the thinker, to change reality ..[…] the human is first and foremost true in his creativity.”11 Godard’s optimism for the possibility of the film universe to bring us closer to live and the world, is far removed from the colder Greenaway culturally-aesthetic retraction.
Nevertheless; they both struggle with the media society’s opinion resolution – one in the shadow of the other – as in the words of the narrator in Chris Marker’s Sans Soleil (1983): “The images have replaced my recollection.”
1 See salon.com, 6. June 1997
2 See Paris Transatlantic, November 1994. www.paristransatlantic.com/magazine/interviews/greenaway.html
3 See Peter Greenaway, «Filmen fire tyranner», Norwegian Le Monde diplomatique, May 2006.
4 See also Truls Lie, «Auteurenes arv», Norwegian Le Monde diplomatique, September 2007.
5 See also Montage. Om film. Bonnier Essä, 2002.
6 See Gilles Deleuze, Cinéma 2, p. 185, Éditions de Minuit, Paris, 1985 (Eng. overs. Athlone Press, 1989).
7 See also Gareth James and Florian Zeyfang, I Said I Love. That is the Promise. The Tvideo politics of Jean-Luc Godard, b_books, Berlin, 2003.
8 See Godard on Godard, Da Capo Press, 1972.
9 Ibid, s. 198. My translation. Be aware of Alain Resnais film Nuit et brouillard (1955) on the WWII concentration camps, where the inhuman brutality is depicted more as a phenomenon.
10 Carsten Juhl, Globalæstetik, s. 70, København 2007. See «Sublim opprustning», Norwegian Le Monde diplomatique, March 2008, p. 15.
11 See also Montage, p. 31