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.
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