Cineaste or pseud?

The Films of Peter Greenaway - Peter Greenaway

November 6, 1998

After a century of cinema dominated by mainstream narrative film on the globally disseminated Hollywood model, we have become so accustomed to the affective appeals and the emotional satisfactions that cinema offers that Peter Greenaway's radically unconventional filmmaking is bound to divide and even antagonise audiences.

For every viewer in whom his crammed canvases, dense with visual detail and aesthetic inquiry, inspire a thrill of intellectual and sensory discovery, there will be others who perceive only an excessive stylistic gloss and a self-advertising display of knowledge that masks a paucity of real understanding - as Pauline Kael put it, "a cultural omnivore who eats with his mouth open".

To such spectators, the emperor is as naked as he typically renders his actors. That Greenaway so often faces a charge of pretentiousness perhaps owes something to that peculiarly Anglo-Saxon discomfort with an artistic practice so ostentatiously gorged on sumptuous visuals, narrative fantasy and philosophical speculation; yet it is not only those in thrall to the traditional verities of psychological realism and narrative plausibility who have sometimes found Greenaway's work nasty, arid and superficial, intricate but empty, replacing real complexity with arcane complication. Many took the controversial The Baby of Macon (1993) (a gory Renaissance parable culminating in a judicially sanctioned death by gang rape) as confirmation that the underlying motive of Greenaway's art is an anti-humanist formalism that ultimately generates a shocking callousness if not outright sadism.

Thus the paradox of Greenaway's work, identified as central by both Amy Lawrence and David Pascoe, is that his abiding project is to expose and paradoxically to subvert the doomed western project of dominating and controlling our world by the tyranny of interpretation and the hypostasisation of reason, yet that the personal style that has evolved to articulate this project is itself fantastically formal, minutely measured and fetishistically attentive to detail. Both writers identify Greenaway's abiding preoccupation with interpretive and organisational systems, perceived usually as illusory and ultimately self-defeating mechanisms of individual or social control: fearful symmetry, indeed.

The archetypal Greenaway system is the taxonomy: his films throng with collectors and list-makers whose catalogues, like Borges's Chinese encyclopedia, are frequently arranged according to a numerical or crypto-logical rubric or grid whose grotesquerie or arbitrariness proclaim the insufficiency and the crude curtailment of all such systems: amputees feature prominently in one of Greenaway's most system-satirising - and systematic - films, A Zed and Two Noughts. Yet the central figure absorbed by this exhaustive yet ultimately futile organising project is frequently some version of creative artist - the eponymous Draughtsman and Architect, or Prospero/ Shakespeare inventing, animating and ventriloquising The Tempest from his lonely library. This seems to be one of Greenaway's persistent self-reflexive touches: another being the insistence on the two-dimensionality of the representational surface - the screen - promoted by his reluctance to penetrate or explore the pro-filmic space (the space of the action) with his camera, preferring either to immobilise the camera's gaze or to traverse the dramatic action laterally and at a consistent distance from his subjects. This device more than any other accounts both for the much-commented-upon theatricality of Greenaway's work and its equally noticeable painterliness. Both Pascoe and Lawrence argue, without sounding completely convinced, that such manifest self-consciousness in Greenaway's work elicits a kind of reflexive auto-critique that implicates him in the very procedures he condemns. If one accepts this, the extreme severity bordering on dehumanisation that alienates so many from Greenaway's work would be explained if not mitigated.

Regrettably, neither book has much interest in exploring the social or cultural context that could generate this particular combination of the exquisite and the excoriating: so the cultural politics of the films and indeed Greenaway's own tenuous claims for his work's sometime political aspect - that for instance we are intended to take the Gautier-clad consumption-fest in The Cook, the Thief... as a critique of Thatcher-era materialism - go largely unexamined. Then again, Greenaway's unrepentant formalism admittedly invites a critical approach that can at least match his own grasp of contemporary and historical aesthetic debates: and from that point of view Pascoe's study, which focuses on Greenaway in his own professed (and rhetorically insistent) context of Renaissance and Enlightenment aesthetics, has a clear edge over Lawrence's more conventional close textual commentaries. So in their respective discussions of The Draughtsman's Contract, where Lawrence notes a painting depicted and discussed by Greenaway's protagonists only as a "vaguely Renaissance scene", Pascoe identifies the canvas as an 18th-century German allegory of Newtonian optics, and uses it as his point of entry into a consideration of the film's thematic concern with structures of illumination and insight and their opposites, ignorance and darkness. The danger of this approach is that it may capsize under the sheer profusion of reference: Greenaway's work at its worst degenerates into a sort of filmic acrostic for art-history anoraks, and at some points Pascoe risks sharing his subject's predilection for self-advertising erudition: the account of Prospero's Books, for instance, stalls in a welter of art-historical allusions and identifications of debatable relevance that leave us persuaded of Green-away's compendious visual reference but little the wiser as to his intentions in deploying it.

The strength of Lawrence's book, by contrast, is in partially redeeming Greenaway from formalistic concerns - notably by paying attention to questions of performance, and in recognising the undecidable human element that individual performers introduce into Greenaway's multifarious and opulent, yet emotionally two-dimensional palette. It is another Greenaway paradox - he begets them - that some of his most indelible images depict with comparatively little artifice the elementary and elemental privations of the bare, forked human animal: Gielgud's frail, spindly form emerging naked from the bath in Prospero's Books, or the fleeing lovers cowering and clinging to one another, refugees amid putrefaction, in Cook I Thief. While these images too, as Pascoe painstakingly points out, draw on an extensive artistic iconography (the ascetic St Jerome and Adam and Eve expelled from Eden), it is, as Lawrence argues, their vulnerable, immediate and insistent humanity rather than their erudition which compels. The pain and anger of Brain Dennehy's dying architect or Helen Mirren's passion and grief engender a compassion which gives the lie to the exactitude with which they are displayed by their own gifted but chilly creator.

Barry Langford lectures in film and television studies at Royal Holloway, University of London.

The Films of Peter Greenaway

Author - Amy Lawrence
ISBN - 0 521 47363 2 and 47919 3
Publisher - Cambridge University Press
Price - £37.50 and £13.95
Pages - 225

Register to continue

Why register?

  • Registration is free and only takes a moment
  • Once registered, you can read 3 articles a month
  • Sign up for our newsletter
Please Login or Register to read this article.


Featured jobs