Peter Greenaway  



Scorning cinema as being mere 'illustrated text', Greenaway brings artistic values, intellectual esoterica, visual richness, pedantic obsessiveness and a documentary approach to movies, attempting to take cinema to the next visual level with every experiment. The results are intellectually stimulating, obscure, pretentious, bizarre and beautiful visual feasts with themes, metaphors, clues, cerebral puzzles, symmetries, lists, numbers, puns, obsessions and nudity galore. His movies are usually layered, self-referential, and revolve around abstract or artistic themes, and, therefore, although some of his movies employ a narrative, they cannot be fully enjoyed as such.

With his movies, he is compelled to explore abstract and artistic themes comprehensively, dissecting all of their facets and extremes in detached but visually explorative ways. For example, the film 'The Cook, the Thief, His Wife & Her Lover' explored vocal song, oral sex, cannibalism and scatology seemingly because they are all related to matters of taste linked to the same body organ, and not because he is out to shock per se. Athough, perhaps he views the jolting of his audience as a desirable effect in order to have us go beyond taboos and mentally absorb the ideas being explored. Another of his passions is exploring new ways to deconstruct a narrative and tell a story or educate on artistic history, using multi-layered multimedia to obsessively explore the details of an event, fact or scene.

Even his lesser movies have striking visuals, beautiful painting-like cinematography, and intriguing, precise and pedantic eccentricities. Not included here is his relatively ordinary drama 'Belly of an Architect' in which both the movie and its protagonist are obsessed with bellies as they pertain to art, the pedantic speculative back-story and analysis of a painting in 'Nightwatching', and numerous shorts and artistic documentaries, most of which are esoteric, very obsessive works with extremely dry and impenetrable intellectual humor. A fascinating and unique auteur.

Recommended

Cook, the Thief, His Wife & Her Lover, The  
Greenaway's most popular movie with an accessible plot about a crude, loud thief, a restaurant he terrorizes, and his cheating wife. But digging into the movie behind its notorious shock values comes up with a fascinating theme: Food, sex, good and bad taste, body orifices and body functions and how pleasures and disgust derived from them are so closely connected. Even speech, silence and singing are explored, demonstrating how the mouth can be crude, loud, gentle or restrained. Gourmet food, rotten food, sex, toilet habits, oral sex, scatology, vomit, cannibalism and other extremes are explored to comprehensively cover all aspects of this theme. The cinematography is nothing short of stunning with an amazing use of color schemes and composition, and fine tastes are mixed with digusting visuals, making this one very hard to watch, but intellectually and visually rewarding.

Draughtman's Contract, The  
A brilliant exploration of the theme of art and reality, the relationship between the artist and his subject matter, and the subjectivity of truth. The actual story is about an arrogant draughtsman hired by a Renaissance lady to draw her house in return for sexual favors. The rich folk play their games with him and the plot keeps thickening. Variations on the theme include living statues, ambiguous clues that mean different things for different people, and all kinds of subject matter that refuses to stay objective and static. Self-referential with a vengeance and delightfully stimulating.

Drowning by Numbers  
A cerebral joy of a puzzle about games and life and the blending of the two. Trigenerational women drown their three husbands and get the coroner to cover up for them. The coroner loves weird games, his son is obsessed with playing them and counting everything in sight (mostly dead things), everything has rules, and the son has a crush for a girl who skips rope and counts stars. Everything gets interconnected, life, death and its rules turn into games and counting exercises, and vice versa. The movie itself is a game - see if you can spot all the clues and numbers.

Zed & Two Noughts  
The themes here are birth, the symmetry of life, death, and the anti-symmetry of decay. The story is about two brothers that lose their wives and become obsessed over these ideas while developing a strange relationship with the woman who drove their wives to their deaths and thereby lost a leg. Siamese twins, symmetrical amputees, black and white animals both dead and alive, bestiality, sex, birth, death, evolution, rot and Vermeer paintings are explored. A lot of decay in all its reeking, wormy glory is shown. A very memorable, strange, intellectual and elegantly humorous visual essay.

Of Some Interest

Baby of Macon, The  
The central theme revolves around fantasy vs. reality. Religion is the main target here, portraying the belief in miracles, and a child icon being used for advertising, religion, power, money, and other not so idealistic purposes. Fantasy and ideals are forced onto reality, twisting it into blind depravity. This is also explored using a play within a play, acted out for a childish, rich Renaissance man in his home amidst extravagant sets, while the eclectic audience heckle and interact with the actors. Fantasy and real-life bleed from the set to the back-stage and to the audience (and vice-versa) while actors are abused and the audience participates in decadence and very twisted religiosity. Thus, the audience projects its religious dementia and affect the development of the play, and the twisted elements of the play instigate perversity amongst the audience. Features a notorious, extremely disturbing rape scene (that bleeds from the play to real life) which shocks you for hours afterwards even though it doesn't show the details. That and some child dismemberment helped it get quickly banned in the US. Amazing photography, overwhelming details, complex long tracking shots, and visually breathtaking, but a very slow story with too much emphasis on attacking dark, sleazy and depressing religion, and, overall, it just feels too pre-occupied with disturbing behaviour.

8 1/2 Women  
Sexual fantasy and female archetypes, Peter Greenaway style. A rich man's wife dies and is inconsolable. His son suggests sexual exploration. Lots of taboos are broken (incest, bestiality), amusing, almost surreal dialog is spoken, various forms of sex and sexual functions are explored in analytical ways, and 8 1/2 exotic sensual female characters form their harem until everything falls apart. Light-hearted and amusing, but nothing as brilliant, dense and cohesive as his other features.

Falls, The  
The ultimate Greenaway 'documentary' which alludes to elements in previous shorts as well as future full-length films and involves everything that is pure Greenaway: Dry puns, endless facts and figures, obscure intellectual clues, extremely abstract subject matter, etc. Clocking at 3 hours, this extremely challenging feature explores 92 out of 19 million people whose names begin with 'Falls..' and who were affected by a 'Violent Unknown Event'. These people attempt to describe the event and its consequences and are explored biographically so that pieces and clues slowly fall into place. Extremely challenging and boring, but fascinating as an exercise in ultimately abstract film-making.

Goltzius and the Pelican Company  
When Greenaway sets out to explore profanity, blasphemy and taboo in connection with erotica and religion as his theme, naturally one would assume that the result will be quite uncompromising. Of course, he does not do this gratuitously, but as part of an educational biography of the Dutch erotic artist Goltzius who was commissioned to make erotic versions of the Bible and perform provocative depictions of biblical debaucheury in blasphemous and titillating theatrical interpretations. Given this crude subject matter, only Greenaway could have explored it with such detachment and manage to combine crude provocation with refined taste while educating us on the history of erotic art. Adam and Eve, Lot and his daughters, David and Bat-Sheba, Potiphar's wife, Delilah, and Salome, all reduced to theatrical pornography with a painter's eye for settings and costumes, so that it's hard to tell where the cheap titillation ends and the art begins. These plays are acted in a strikingly decorated Brechtian warehouse for a strange, pseudo-libertarian Margrave who adopted a custom to take a scheduled dump publically in a library. The performance is also for his aides, a harem of black-faced slaves, and a group of clerics and rabbis who stupidly criticize the plays for technical inaccuracies, and take the players to court and punishment. In between the performances, various affairs and dramas escalate into sex, violence, castration and sodomy, sometimes paralleling or leaking into the plays themselves. All of this is highly reminiscent of Baby of Macon, but the look is more like Prospero's books, employing a narration and various multimedia about historical erotic art, as well as humor which that movie sorely lacked. Whether you like it or not depends on your attitude to the subject matter, the thick accents sometimes make it difficult to understand, and obviously this won't be shown in some locations, but it's undeniably a rich experience.

Pillow Book, The  
A visual feast of tactile pleasures exploring a Japanese lady and her obsession with calligraphy. The beauty and eroticism of nudity and writing blend in various ways and provide a somewhat erotic, striking visual experience. Skin is explored as paper, messages are sent using various body shapes, and words are exquisitely painted on specific body parts in creative patterns in order to convey ideas. In addition, an ancient Pillow Book compiles lists of various refined experiences, including pleasurable, memorable, or irritating ones. Thus, this explores themes of art as pleasure, the personal search for things that bring us pleasure, the human body, communication, and the conveyance of information via personal artistic expression. The story of her father, her bisexual lover and her vengeance against a publisher is secondary.

Prospero's Books  
One of Greenaway's most challenging and esoteric multimedia-documentary-style creations that discards narrative for a more multi-faceted experience. Nudity, scenes from Shakespeare's 'The Tempest', nudity, lots of bizarre surreal imagery, Prospero's magic and power is depicted throughout the movie as nude human forms, more nudity, his favorite books with lush details of their contents are listed, amazing visual feasts and gorgeous photography, and finally, more nudity. Did I mention that this movie contains a lot of nudity? Basically, this is physical and avant-garde performance-art combined with overwhelming visual multimedia in order to explore some esoteric details in a Shakespeare play.

Tulse Luper Suitcases        
In some ways, this is the culmination of Greenaway's art, career and ideas so far. The biography of the fictional Tulse Luper is explored via a massive multi-media project involving 3 feature films, a condensed feature film, an IMAX experience, some interactive multimedia websites with images, flash movies, documents, and blogs, DVD extras, books, CD-ROMs, and the (so far) missing TV series and 92 DVDs. The story is also called a personal history of Uranium (number 92), Tulse's story told via multiple 'prisons' he finds himself in, 92 suitcases filled with different objects, 92 characters, and 92 objects that represent the world. Each episode is a mini-story in different parts of the world and in different periods of time with the usual Greenaway dry humor, extremes, visual richness, and strange characters. It also has elements of auto-biography and numerous references to Greenaway's other works. The features feel like The Falls by way of the visual documentary-style of Prospero's Books and Pillow Book, but this is Greenaway's most ambitious work so far, attempting to take cinema to the next level. Dense movie scenes are delivered with the help of overlapping narrators, images, pictures, extra information, repetition, multiple takes and even multiple actors in the same role delivering the same information but with different meanings. Obviously not for everyone, and it benefits from increased involvement of audiences who pay attention to details, but what I miss the most here is Greenaway's completeness, most of this creation wandering about from episodic story to detail to object, lost in its own overwhelming obsessions.




2000- by Zev Toledano Table of Contents