The Sunday Intertitle: The Greenaway Way
(More of a subtitle, really, from 26 BATHROOMS.)
Peter Greenaway stared at the multiplex with his perpetual air of being offended by a smell. “Of course, in ten years, this will all be gone,” he mused.
The above scene, described to me four or five years ago by a member of staff from Edinburgh Film Festival, hints that perhaps Greenaway is not the world’s greatest prophet, although only time will tell. I guess only time will tell if he’s going to kill himself at aged 80, like Ruth Gordon in HAROLD AND MAUDE, as he promised to do in the Guardian this week. But the quote that really excited my interest comes from his piece in Saturday’s Independent, talking about his new film, NIGHTWATCHING, which deals with Rembrandt’s painting The Night Watch.
“In the film we very deliberately skirted the trap of showing Rembrandt paint the masterpiece; no one would believe us – any possible suspension of disbelief would entirely collapse. Martin Freeman was not bad at handling a brush with some conviction, but nobody would ever believe he could paint a Rembrandt.”
What throws me for a loop here is the suggestion that Greenaway is remotely interested in suspending our disbelief, something that never even occurred to me before. It seems flatly contradicted by his statements that “the only thing we never believe in films is sex and death” and that sex and death are the only subjects worth talking about in films. I remember being impressed by his statement that he generally avoided camera movement because it increased audience involvement, and thinking that I would bloody well move the camera in order to involve the audience. The reality is a bit more complex than Greenaway’s statement, but then it always is. “He’s a man of bold, spurious statements,” my friend at the Film Fest said.
I don’t have much time for the man, I must admit, though I wouldn’t go so far as Mr. Alan Parker, who once threatened (or offered?) to take his children to be educated in America if Peter Greenaway made another film here. Those two chumps deserve each other.
(I can, in fact, see a case for both filmmakers, but I’m equally out of sympathy with both also. Greenaway started his feature career with a genuinely unusual work, THE DRAUGHTSMAN’S CONTRACT, unlike anything else in British cinema and made on a near-shoestring. Unfortunately, he has followed it with more of the same, until the eye aches at the repetition. A similar repetition mars Parker’s altogether different cinema. The Greenaway I like best is the above-illustrated 26 BATHROOMS, a little documentary on an alphabetical theme. Because each bathroom corresponds to a letter, it’s very easy to tell how far along we are in the film, which is only half an hour long anyway. Also, filming in confined spaces prevents Greenaway from making every shot flat and symmetrical, and using real people speaking their own words rather than actors speaking Greenaways results in a welcome change from the glib marionettes he usually dangles before us.)
The one Greenaway film I’d like to see doesn’t exist. It was suggested by Greenaway’s evocation the TV show CSI to describe his forensic approach to Rembrandt’s work. His admiration for the series put me in mind of JG Ballard, who likewise expressed his pleasure at the show’s complete lack of human emotion, which echoed that of many of his own novels. Greenaway filming a Ballardian apocalypse might be quite nice, and his interest in digital technology, expressed back when Roland Emmerich was still blowing up dollhouses with firecrackers, would stand him in good stead filming the likes of The Crystal World.
Although THE MONOLITH MONSTERS is already a pretty good version of that, with its B-movie cast and Z-movie dialogue providing a more tolerable version of Greenaway’s arch alienation.