Peter Greenaway Holds Court: An Interview at the Venice Film Festival

By Badt, Karin | Film Criticism, Winter 2004 | Go to article overview

Peter Greenaway Holds Court: An Interview at the Venice Film Festival


Badt, Karin, Film Criticism


Peter Greenway, by some accounts, represents outmoded filmmaking, and yet he holds forth, to all who will listen, much in the style of Gloria Swanson's famous line--"Im big, it's the pictures which have gotten small"--that cinema today is outmoded: it has become, he argues, mere illustration of text and does not explore its visual potential as a peculiar seventh art. Digital filmmaking, as exemplified by his own most recent film, The Tulse Luper Staircases (2004), however, allows for experiments in time, sequence, and action, and calls into question "storytelling" as only the variegated technology of contemporary cinema can.

Since the beginning of his career in the 1960s, Greenaway has been obsessed with storytelling. All of his films, from his experimental meditation Intervals (1969) to the celebrated The Draughtsman's Contract (1982) to the video-glitz Pillowbook (1996), have summoned viewers' attention to the artifice of the story; using tricks such as numbers, maps, and taxonomy to order sequences arbitrarily. Lately, however, the erstwhile painter has taken this directive to the nth degree. The Tulse Luper Suitcases, the third and final episode of a three-part "story," seems to overthrow master narrative altogether, at the risk of alienating those audiences who may long for a modicum of narrative convention. The Tulse Luper Suitcases ix the open narrative of one matt from the 1920s onward, as he examines the contents of 92 suitcases. A tour-de-force of superimposed images, split screens, and frame-in-frames, it literally leaves the story up for grabs.

This pronounced theoretical pertinacity may be the reason why Greenaway is no longer the feted wonder among movie critics, who otherwise begrudgingly admire his genius. Greenaway's masterpiece, The Cook. The Thief, His Wife and Her Lover (1989), the film that launched his international success, did have a structuring story. While playing with arbitrary narrative codes--the plot was structured as 8 sections of a menu; the settings were color-coordinated like squares on a gameboard; and the pastiche of eras gripped the eye as a patchwork of costume, painting, and furniture--the film ultimately held the viewer with conventional emotional identification. We wondered about the wife and her lover; and what the thief would do to both. The story even satisfied our Western urge for epic narrative by ending with an actual cannibalistic sacrifice, a Girardian catharsis of story and history at once.

But now with The Tulse Luper Suitcases, Greenaway's most experimental film to date, it is virtually impossible for a spectator to identify with any one story, as no story--and there are dozens told--is ever completed. All begin, and none end, and at the conclusion we find out that Tulse Luper, the protagonist, does not even exist: he is a figment of the imagination. Greenaway has even engineered a website for the movie to be played as a game, where viewers can enter in and out at will, using the full potential of cinema to make a dialogue between image maker and image consumer: "Who ultimately is the creator, or the created?" says Greenaway. Or, to cite Greenaway's favorite metaphor: "Who is the prisoner and who the prison keeper?"

A more market-oriented question is: who will play? Does this postmodern enterprise hold any allure for today's viewer, intellectual or not, at a time when--as a quick review of favored films reveal--we long for more stories, more characters, more grounding, more realism (or illusions thereof), at a time when documentaries and "mastered" attempts at truth (a la Michael Moore) are doing almost as well as Hollywood fictions or political campaigns, and when we ask not for language games and self-consciousness but for values, direction, and character? Even Greenaway's cohorts in experimental narrative--David Cronenberg and Todd Solondz, for example--keep conventions such as character at the fore to allow the illusion of a meaningful experience. …

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