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Issue 05, Volume 02

A One-Question Interview with Peter Greenaway

by Shelley Farmer

Over the course of twelve features—from 1980's The Falls, a mock encyclopedia of avian ailments that could have been co-authored by Borges and Monty Python, to last year's Goltzius and the Pelican Company—British artist Peter Greenaway has built up a catalogue of recurring obsessions: numerical games; colorful maps; compulsive list-making; sexual perversions; death and decay; texts both sacred and forbidden; bodies both nude and elaborately arrayed—all watched over by the ghosts of the Old Masters and driven by propulsive scores (often composed by regular collaborator Michael Nyman). A quick adopter of video art and digital installations, Greenaway still finds much of his inspiration in the distant past, from seventeenth-century Dutch painting to old-world cartography to Shakespeare and da Vinci. In the summer of last year, Double Exposure contributor Shelley Farmer sent the filmmaker a single question. This was his reply.

The critic in claims that the cinema is fifty years behind all other art forms. You've often echoed that sentiment, arguing that the cinema is too wedded to narrative and psychological realism. So, how do you believe film can best become truly modern?

It was repeatedly suggested in the early 20th century by cinema apologists that cinema was a combination of the theatre, literature and painting, and nothing essentially has changed since then to weld these three primary art forms into a satisfactory synthesis that is autonomous and indivisible. All films can be deconstructed back into their three primary art forms, with the theatre dominating—especially with its two credos that suggest an actor is primarily trained to pretend that he or she is not being watched. We view actors in the cinema in their surroundings pretending to be real like we watch theatre, peeping at activity in a constructed box of people and properties through an invisible glass wall. And the overwhelmingly predominant characteristic in all this is the desire to be illusionistic and mimetic and to reproduce and record what God has already made. Our imaginations are far more powerful than God's—he mortally rested on the seventh day and never completed his assignment. We must and can do better.

Cinema has devices that can elaborate on the theatrical experience—it can go in close, for example, and it can move the point of sight—but these are elaborations invented by inference in the theatre thousands of years ago. And it can record events whose representation can be infinitely revisited, but paintings have been doing that for thousands of years. And it is difficult to think of a film that was not seminally created with words, with literature, with the assistance of the bookshop. Since cinema is so young compared to the six indivisible and autonomous arts of literature, theatre, painting, music, dance and sculpture, it may be churlish to complain about cinema's immaturity, but there have been millions of films in the last 117 years and perhaps it is not unreasonable to suppose that cinema could have tried harder and achieved more. Look what happened from 1895 to 2012 in literature: H.G. Wells, Hardy and Tolstoy to Joyce, Borges and Perec. Look what happened in painting from 1895 to 2012: van Gogh to Picasso, Warhol and Keifer. Look what happed from 1895 to 2012 in music: Strauss to Stockhausen and Reich. Large changes in concept, language and form. Has cinema anything at all comparable? A 2012 Scorsese still makes the same films as a 1912 Griffith. Cinema has been slow, turgid and imitative. In those 117 years, music threw away harmony; painting threw away figuration. Where are cinema's comparable initiatives? I believe cinema's next essential comparable revolution is to throw away narrative.

Now, very largely in the world, cinema is "bedtime stories for adults," a comforter, a bromide, a controlled dream based on regulated patterns, one that takes place before we turn out the light and fall into the abyss of real dreaming. Why is the gap between the cinema and real dreaming so impossibly large?

If we find all this unsatisfactory, what do we do about it? Well, first of all, most people do not find it unsatisfactory. They go with the flow, like dead fish. They stay with the patterns, accepting very slow incremental changes that will not irritate their conformism. John Cage suggested that if you introduce more than 20 percent of novelty into any created artwork you lose 80 percent of your audience. He did suggest that you'd only lose them for 15 years, but maybe that is optimistic. Much of the world has not yet accepted non-figuration, or been able to jump the hurdle of Cubism to enter the greatest century of painting civilization has ever known—and that was 150 years ago.

One of the first things to be done is to agitate for reform by practice and theory. No one will remake and refashion what they do not already know to be broken. Education, persuasion, and yet more education and persuasion. I am trained as a painter and I am prejudiced to believe that cinema should primarily be a visual art. But the educational systems of the world are predicated on text, and therefore most people, by default, are visually illiterate. We have therefore a text-based cinema. We think of cinema as text with all of its tropes and paradigms and characteristics, with all of text's grammar, syntax and very large vocabulary. We have a cinema curiously created by people called scriptwriters, which is a bit like asking bakers to make bread out of coal, not flour. We need to make cinema from a background and mind-set of pictures and images not words. In a brave new world of a brave new cinema, shoot all the scriptwriters.

What do we do about our impoverished cinema? We challenge visual illiteracy and start to think and evaluate and plan for picture, for image. We encourage painting and its associated relatives; we build film schools and image media-centers via art schools. Teach students the value and the purpose and the importance of the image, and teach them how to think and practice the receiving and the manufacture of imagery before you ever let them pick up a camera. Do not give a blind person a chain saw. To start with, you seriously challenge the tyranny of the frame, the text, the actor and the camera. You burrow deep into the history, meaning and conformism of the delimiting straightjacket of the frame, you de-invest the superiority of text, you re-evaluate the use and practice of the actor and—difficult, this one—you throw away the camera. The camera is a non-intelligent machine of mimesis. It only replicates what you put in front of it. Picasso said, "I do not paint what I see, I paint what I think".

I am optimistic. Already the digital revolution is teaching us to think differently. Let's get prepared. Fortune favors the prepared mind.



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