Peter Greenaway reflects on his career while finishing a new movie

Right off the bat, Peter Greenaway wants to make it clear that he never really took himself seriously as a filmmaker – although, like so many of the paradoxes that make up Greenaway’s identity, it’s unwise to take such a assertion too seriously.

“It’s a terrible confession to talk to you,” he says via Skype from a small house on the Atlantic coast where he goes on weekends (the rest of his time he spends in Amsterdam, mostly). “There is always this feeling of being removed from the activity, of stepping back and trying to watch it without a sarcastic or derivative attitude, but certainly with considerable irony.”

Such brashness is very evident in Greenaway’s filmography, which spans 16 feature films, ranging from irreverent to the Terry Gilliam of “The Falls” (1980), a three-hour catalog of eccentric survivors of a an imaginary, brain-dumping cataclysm is “The Tulse Luper Suitcases” (2003-04), a delicate trio of feature films centered on his cinematic alter ego, the elusive Tulse Luper.

Greenaway has what is arguably the most playful resume of any great living director, brimming with visual puns, math puzzles, and imaginative language. He’s obsessed with lists, maps, and all sorts of taxonomic tools that humans have devised to make sense of a chaotic world (that’s his structuralist impulse in action), even though he so clearly delights in subverting these same systems (for which he has been called a “poststructuralist” by those who share his affinity for classification).

Now 80, the director of art house films such as the 1989 cannibalistic satire ‘The Cook, the Thief, His Wife and Her Lover’ and the NC-listed 1996 ‘The Pillow Book’ -17, did not soften at all. He’s still working — Greenaway is wrapping ‘Walking to Paris,’ an in-progress portrait of Romanian sculptor Constantin Brâncuși’s trip to Europe’s art capital — and still battling in his own provocative way against the idea that cinema is a medium for telling stories; he is convinced that he is capable of much more.

“We created our cinema on the notion of illustrated text, but I’ve always opposed it. Every time I started writing a screenplay, I thought, ‘What am I doing here? I want to make animated images! says Greenaway.

“I never planned to be a director,” he explains. “I wanted to be a painter from an early age. There’s nothing in my family that suggests a support system of any kind, and yet, through a series of happy accidents, I found myself in art school in the very early twenties. 60. At the time, all the art schools had film clubs, the New Wave was in full swing and it was an exciting time for Italian cinema, so those were my references.

“A bout de souffle” by Jean-Luc Godard electrified him. “Last Year in Marienbad” by Alain Resnais upset him and quickly became his favorite film.

“He has crazy ideas where people don’t have names, and it’s all about memory, which is remarkably unreliable,” he says. “I’m not a big fan of abstract art. I still believe in notions of form and figuration, but it was the film that traveled closest to the wind, to the idea of ​​being an abstract film. He removed anecdotal information and replaced it with other types of anecdotal information. Seeing it, Greenaway realized, “I wanted to do abstract film art in a sense.”

After being rejected by the film program at the Royal College of Art, Greenaway found work at the Central Office of Information, or COI, the UK’s “marketing and publicity” (i.e. propaganda) department. post-war, as an editor. “I was constantly making films about Concorde and about hovercraft and all those things that the British people congratulated themselves on, but all the time I was deeply distressed and amused by this use of propaganda,” Greenaway says. “And it goes on, doesn’t it?” We are now in this era of extraordinary fake news.

A decade and a half of assembling such material gave Greenaway an incredibly sophisticated sense of how to put together images, which he applied to a series of experimental shorts, a handful of which had received critical acclaim.

“I had done a lot of films, which were linked to all kinds of fashions in cinema. I was fascinated by land art, planting ball bearings as if they were seeds. I wanted to use the language of cinema to talk about it,” he says, “but I want the widest possible audience. Then along came this extraordinary phenomenon called Channel Four, which suddenly decided because it was run by scholars and scholars that we needed something a little smarter, a little more provocative.

Thus, Greenaway found new support for the follies he had been doing for years. If “The Falls” could be considered the absurd culmination of the abridged work he had done before, 1982’s “The Draftsman’s Contract” was a critical and popular breakthrough. Like “Last Year at Marienbad,” the film is something of a puzzle, though Greenaway insists the mystery isn’t as complicated as it seems. (Indeed, it explains everything pretty well in the director’s commentary, for those looking for ideas.)

“I’ve always been very aware that we had a very literary cinema. I mean, cinema is supposed to be about pictures, but you can’t go to a producer with 17 prints and shots on serial painting and convince him. Traditionally, what a producer needs is a script, and a script is script, and script is literature,” says Greenaway.

And so Greenaway pushed back, testing the limits of the medium, delivering just enough intrigue to keep audiences interested, while bending the forms as much as he could get away with.

“I had another kind of serious problem: if I wasn’t very interested in storytelling, how the hell was I going to hang it all together? We all use storytelling. Events happen during the day and we tell our wives, our dogs, our doctors, our dentists what happened to us. But the storytelling is extremely fleeting and anecdotal,” he says.

Consequently, Greenaway turned to other systems to structure his films. “’The cook, the thief, his wife and her lover’ is an illustrated menu. A menu consists of appetizers all the way to coffee, so I used that as a structure,” he explains. “In ‘Drowning by Numbers’, the title tells you everything: it’s a film about numbers. It’s a very conscious way of saying: “It’s not reality, it’s a movie”. A film is a construction. Let’s play with artificiality.

Here it is again: the notion of play, so central to the aesthetics of Greenaway. To say he’s not serious about his art would be absurd, and yet the best way to appreciate his work is to relax and embrace the renegade spirit of experimentation. See how he uses color in “The Cook…”, savor the choreography and compositions in “Prospero’s Books”, laugh at the bawdy excess of “Eisenstein in Guanajuato” (a tribute release to the master of Russian silence).

“The really exciting days of cinema were probably the last 10 years of silent film, when they demanded that pictures tell the story,” says Greenaway. Since the introduction of sound, cinema has been chained to literature, he says. Films are obsessed with realism – just as painting once was, until the invention of the camera set art free. “Photography has created the greatest century of painting we have ever known,” he says.

But the films are blocked, he believes. “Cinema hasn’t even reached its Cubist period yet,” Greenaway told an interviewer.

He did his part to shock, only to be shocked back by the institutional embrace.

“I think it was David Hockney who said, ‘If you hit 80 in England and you can still boil an egg, watch out, they’ll pin a medal on you,'” he laughs, repeating a joke made nearly a decade earlier. , after receiving the BAFTA Lifetime Achievement Award. “So I thought, ‘Fuck it. I’m really going to make films that I really want to make.

Getting older has not tamed it at all. “The date of death for most white men in Europe is 81 and a half, so I have a year and a half left,” he says. “Hopefully I can stretch that a bit. I have loads and loads of movie scripts ready to go. Like “Joseph,” a scandalously sacrilegious investigation into the fatherhood of Jesus that Greenaway describes as a “one-shot cataclysmic collapse of Christianity.”

Or “a dialogue between Stalin and Dracula”, which reveals his secret to the Russian leader. “As a vampire, he doesn’t suck blood. It does something much more powerful. It feeds on human semen from the source. So there is another sensational film that I want to make, ”says Greenaway, well aware that we will never see the light of day.

“At the end of this summer, I’m supposed to do a film with Morgan Freeman about death, which tries to find a reasonable notion of suicide. I believe that death is not necessary.

About Herbert L. Leonard

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