Last Updated May 19, 1997
The Painful Experience of Peter Greenaway in Person
We saw Peter Greenaway speak last week. We saw his new film The Pillow Book at the Museum of Fine Arts. Annie and I were supposed to see in Toronto but didn't. I loved the film. It was exceptional. I think it was probably his most accessible work since The Cook, The Thief, His Wife and her Lover. But what he had to say was painful, painful, painful. He said the most trite things. The most awkward cliché's. He kept referring to himself in the royal "we." He said "Someone once said regarding a film we made called The Cook, The Thief, His Wife and Her Lover, that it could be summarized as saying 'you are what you eat.' if that's the case, then, this film could be perhaps best summarized as 'you are what you write.'" Painful enough without reference but once you watch the film you see that that is completely off.
Peter Greenaway left me with the impression that even he didn't know what his films were about. He seems to be almost an unwitting vessel of messages sent from beyond. A dupe. A hapless gate and nothing more. He said not once, but twice, even that the woman in the movie "is so enamored with writing on the body that she's not sure if she chooses her lovers because they are good calligraphers, or if she chooses her calligraphers because they are excellent lovers." huh? That hasnothing to do with her feelings, motivations, etc. It's such a shame to have seen him speak. His pomposity. His gall to say he feels nothing compelling has come out of cinema in the last 20 years yet he also claims he has not watched any movies in the last 20 years. All his influences and accolades were so trite. True, but they were a given - Alain Resnais (and of course I must note in fairness it was Peter Greenaway who got me into Alain Resnais at the Toronto Film Festival when he chose Last Year at Marienbad as his favorite film), Goddard, etc.
The worst was when he made claims about his own innovation - how he was pushing the bounds of the narrative. How films now were so literal, this happened, then this happened, then this happened, etc. His was exactly the same. There was very little to no messing around with time and space. To claim any sort of innovation on the narrative is galling. The only thing he said about his films that had any sense of truth about it was his admitted fetish with "taxonomy" classifying, collecting, cataloging. This indeed is something Greenaway could claim to have really brought to the fore in Cinema. Something he could claim as his own. He's been doing it forever A Zed and Two Noughts, Drowning by Numbers, Cook/Thief, Belly of an Architect and The Draughtsman's Contract all exhibit this. And his visual style, compelling as always, was indeed at a new high in this film it was stunningly beautiful. But to claim any sort of innovation on the form of narrative is preposterous. Even Goddard is more abstract than him. And to think of what he said about Cinema. Has he missed the entire point of people like David Cronenberg, Lars Von Trier, David Lynch or even fucking Richard Linklater? Slackers was more narratively ground-breaking than The Pillow Book. No, he hasn't missed the point, he's just got his head up his ass and he doesn't pay any attention.
Perhaps an artist needs to do that to become true to his or her vision. And of course as the success comes, so does, inevitably, the confidence, and the knowledge that your vision has been justified and validated. And so inevitably, I think, there is a tendency to believe what people say about you. To believe you have some insight into your are or into life. And then you are compelled to speak it.
And then you make a fool of yourself like when Mr. Greenaway painfully claimed completely out of the blue and apropos of nothing "and let us not worry about art being too elitist.. All good art is elitist, by nature it can be nothing else. I just sat there stunned and embarrassed. As if Italian Futurism, Russian Suprematism, The Wizard of Oz, Dostoyevsky, Henry Miller, the Kama Sutra, and any quality work of public architecture in the world do not qualify as art. His words make you cringe. I would have admired him more if he went up there and said "I'm an out of date snob. A stuck up windbag" as a preface to his speech. At least then I would have given him bonus points for being self-aware to some extent. But as it is, it seriously effects my opinion of his work.
Peter Greenaway is currently undergoing an extensive US tour showing and supporting The Pillow Book.. Perhaps you'll be lucky enough to see him.