An eye for optical theory

An eye for optical theory

Legendary film director Peter Greenaway spoke to The St. Petersburg Times during his visit to the city.

Published: June 21, 2012 (Issue # 1713)

Peter Greenaway shown during the filming of his documentary ‘Rembrandt’s J’Accuse’ (2008).

Handsome, dapper, erudite and charming, you would never know to look at him that Peter Greenaway is one of the most polarizing figures in world cinema.

Mischievous? Yes. Affected? Sometimes. But at 70 years old, the great British director is nothing if not a supreme gentleman.

Watch the films, however, and you might be forgiven for thinking him a nasty piece of work — all gnashing teeth and flying fur — with a nose for the louche. But that would be missing the point slightly. A master of the dramatic moment, he is naturally drawn to extremes.

Greenaway is constantly engaged in a diversity of simultaneous undertakings: Writing, directing, VJ-ing, painting, creating multimedia installations and conducting research into arcane bits of knowledge, his hyperactive intellect synthesizing the varied strands into a cohesive constellation that is as fascinating as it is complex.

This week and last, the director was in St. Petersburg to attend a retrospective of his film work, while also participating in a charity auction of his paintings at the Kempinski Hotel Moika 22 to benefit the Pantelemonovsky Medical Foundation. As if that weren’t plenty, he was also here looking for an actor to play the lead role in a project about the Russian filmmaker Sergei Eisenstein’s time in Mexico, “Eisenstein in Guanajuato.”

Greenaway, who considers Eisenstein the supreme filmmaker, found it difficult to identify a Russian actor able to play the part.

“Although our film is about a Russian subject, we might very well in the end choose a character who is not Russian at all. But I think the great problem is, the character has a huge demand because the dialogue that I write is hardly, ‘Pass me the salt, darling.’ It’s full of English wordplay, alliteration, punning and complications of understanding, which I think only prime English speakers would completely understand.”

Curious words for an extremely vocal critic of films that sacrifice visual acuity to the service of text — a practice he disparagingly calls “bookshop cinema.” His films nonetheless fetishize the written word to the point that some might question the sincerity of his pronouncements on the vices of text.

“It’s an ironic contradiction. I thoroughly enjoy text, and I write novels, and I’m reasonably well published. So I’m all for text. But in context, if you like. And I think that there are so many ways in which text can hand down its meaning, not only contemporary forms, but ancient forms of lyric poetry, etc. Why can’t we allow cinema to get on with its own business? Which I think is really about imagery and not about text.”

A walking encyclopedia of visual culture, he is also one of its most eloquent champions. And in an effort to awaken audiences from their complacency, he is not above a jolt of provocation.

“People are lazy. People don’t think. People think sloppily. People are concerned, I suppose, with notions their grandfathers told them and hardly ever question it. I think we need that questioning. Otherwise our situation will never improve.

“We’ve got to make sure that our curiosity is sharp and hard, and not simply accept homilies and truths because they’ve been around a long, long time. There’s nothing unusual, I don’t think, in this. I think it’s the way we all operate. We all try to convince our grandmothers that god is dead, for example, although she will not listen, god bless her. But I think that it is an inevitable progression; it’s how civilization moves forward.”

Greenaway’s films engage with the whole rich history of visual representation. Approaching them unprepared can often lead to bewilderment. But demanding as they may be, requiring that viewers work to make associations and discover meaning through visual cues, they also offer a lot in return.

“I’m very, very interested in ideas of visual literacy. I believe most people are visually illiterate. It’s not necessarily their fault, it’s the way we organize our education program.

“Just because you’ve got eyes doesn’t mean that you can see, in the same way that you don’t drop out of the womb fully speaking, and certainly not fully writing. It’s a huge, massive education which never stops.”

Asked whether he feels duty-bound to administer this education himself, he is characteristically direct.

“Duty sounds a bit strong. I think it’s an artist’s obligation to open doors and windows. You know that’s what an artist is for: To provide alternatives, and to provoke, and to stimulate. But it’s my, I suppose, particular concern — my bugbear. Maybe it’s totally unreasonable, maybe it’s far too purist, but let me repeat: I believe that cinema is the prime means which we have, heretofore, for being able to express our ideas in visual terms.”

“Champions of the new digital revolution like Umberto Eco would say that we’ve had 8,000 years of the text masters.” Greenaway points out that it’s almost always been masters, hardly ever mistresses, which he finds incredibly unjust.

“And he would argue that the text masters who created all our holy books — who created all our manuals of behavior, who told us how to tie babies’ nappies and make aircraft carriers, who told us about ethics, who told us how to behave — these people have to move aside now because we have a greater, I suppose, second Guttenberg revolution: The age of information. And he would argue that indeed, even all the notions of what we now play with on our laptops — in a curious, primal way — is far more visual-visual than it is, actually, in terms of text.

“Again, you’ve got to be careful. I always remember my mother saying ‘Come away from that television set and go and read a book!’ Now we all need to be quite, I suppose, literate, to be able to handle the huge amounts of text on our laptops. But I think Umberto’s premise is a good one. One that certainly supports the way that I would like to think.”

Ever since his groundbreaking work with an early analogue form of high-definition on “Prospero’s Books” in 1991, Greenway has engaged the latest technology to expand his vision. He continues to be excited by the possibilities they open up.

“As you might know, in 2016 the whole world is going to celebrate the death of Shakespeare. You can imagine, every single theatrical company is going to put on ‘Macbeth,’ and it has been suggested that maybe I should digitize the original ‘Prospero’s Books.’ And I quite like that idea.

“You can’t in any way change Gielgud’s performance — and wouldn’t want to — but there are all sorts of extraordinary things that I think we could do now that we couldn’t do then. And also, of course, as I’m never satisfied with an image, it would give me a chance to shorten the film and get rid of the longeurs, and to sharpen the whole thing up. So I would quite like to do that.”

An abiding concern of his is the way in which any new technology is used in the service of the erotic, which is the subject of his soon-to-be-released film about a late-16th century Dutch maker of naughty etchings, “Goltzius and The Pelican Company.”

“We can trace the history of visual imagery of the last 700 years to the very first Venetian painting which was related to the new technology of oil painting. This allowed paintings to become very private, so you could take them to your bedroom. Necessarily, all those rich princes from all over Europe began to commission from people like Giovanni Bellini, Titian and Giorgione very privatized and often very erotic pictures — what we would regard now simply as pinups. But the art galleries of Europe are full of reclining nudes whose purposes are pretty self evident, though we try to cloak them in intellectual respectability.”

That idea of the transformation of function, and the changes in meaning the process produces, informs his practice at every step. With one foot planted firmly in the past while the other strides fearlessly into the digital future, Greenaway tramps his own, inimitable path exploring new ways in which to excite the intellect with an art that is fully engaged with its place in the long history of visual representation.

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