Friday, December 2, 2011

An Appreciation of Peter Greenaway

I was going to write up one of my usual "favorite film by so-and-so" posts for Peter Greenaway, but this director presents a special case. I certainly have a favorite film of his, which is "A Zed and Two Noughts," sometimes shortened to "Z00," but there are still several of his major features I haven't been able to track down yet - "The Pillow Book" and "The Draughtsman's Contract" for instance - and I'm just busting to write about the ones that I have seen already, while my memory of them is still fresh. And quite honestly his movies share so many themes and ideas, they often feel like variations of each other, so it feels right to talk about them in aggregate.

You often hear about director's visuals being influenced by classical painting, but Peter Greenaway is the only director I've come across whose visuals literally look like paintings from start to finish. He creates spectacular, detail-rich environments with very formal blocking and composition of elements, framed in such a way as to emphasize their relationships to each other. His shots are often static, or limited to long pans and zooms, emphasizing design over motion. It's no surprise that he began as a painter himself, and that he's made several films about artists and architects, including Étienne-Louis Boullée, Hendrik Goltzius, and Rembrandt van Rijn.

But the biggest recurring theme in his movies is obsession. Obession with death, with sex, with order, and with conspiracy. "A Zed and Two Noughts" is about twin zookeepers who make a study of death and decay, after a tragic car accident claims both of their wives. The hero of "The Belly of an Architect" is consumed by recurring stomach pains, sexual infidelities, and art history. "The Cook, the Thief, His Wife & Her Lover" is all about oversized appetites, for food, for power, and for revenge. Greenaway made two films, a dramatization and a documentary, about the Rembrandt painting "Nightwatching," which may be a secret accusation of murder by the painter. All of these obsessions inevitably lead to downfall and often death.

And Greenaway is certainly an obsessive himself, from the staggering level of work he puts into these films, and the myriad ways he explores every new subject. Take "Drowning By Numbers," for instance, where a trio of women, all named Cissie Colpitts, drown their husbands one after the other. Scenes and actions all recur in threes, like verses in a poem. A major player in the plot is the local coroner, a man who loves archaic counting games with elaborate rules. To top it all off, the numbers 1 to 100 appear in the film, in order, forming a long countdown to the film's finale. Most can be found in the visuals, some are spoken aloud, some are almost impossible to find, and several appear in groups of three at a time. Coming out of the theater, I wonder if some audiences found themselves subconsciously counting the cars in the parking lot.

Greenaway had two famous collaborators on his most memorable films who must be mentioned. The first was cinematographer Sacha Vierny, who worked on all of Greenaway's films up until his death in 2001. Vierny also did many of Alan Resnais's films, including the maddening "Last Year at Marienbad." The other was composer Michael Nyman, who is probably best known for "The Piano," and is terribly good at writing music that is perfect for going insane to. Greenaway and Nyman did eleven films together, and then had a falling out in the early 90s. Both men had a lot to do with creating the particular tone of Greenaway's films, this methodical, orderly, slightly sinister, slightly mechanical feel. Not only were you sure the hero would die, but come to his doom in exactly the right way, at exactly the right time, in the perfect light for the audience's inspection.

As I watched more and more Greenaway films, I was a little stunned that I'd never heard of him earlier, because Greenaway's favored subject matter, black humor, use of irony, and classical bent are all right up my alley. The more I think about it though, the more his obscurity becomes understandable. The pacing of these films is often very slow and deliberate. Sex and nudity are frankly portrayed, though never in a particularly prurient fashion. His stories are wildly strange and fascinating, but not always in a way that's easily approachable. Characters are very flat, and often feel more like props than human beings. And of course, not everyone enjoys witnessing other people's obsessions and descents into madness. Frankly, I think you may have to be a little nuts, or at least susceptible to going nuts, in order to fully enjoy some of his films.

On the other hand, many of Greenaway's fans have complained, and I fully agree with them, that his films are just too damn hard to find. "The Cook, the Thief, His Wife & Her Lover" is out of print on DVD, but unexpectedly popped up on Netflix. It doesn't look like "Prospero's Books" was ever released in Region 1 format at all. Ditto "Drowning by Numbers," which I've found impossible to get ahold of any decent, non-fuzzy print of.

I don't regret going to the trouble to find and watch these films though, because they're that good. I'd put Peter Greenaway up there in the pantheon of the great directors with Kubrick and Kurosawa in a second, and I expect he's going to endure for a lot longer than some of the big name, big-deal filmmakers of the present day.

Once I get through a few more titles, I expect I'll come back to do a proper "Favorites" post. I've been typing for hours and I still have too much to say.

1 comment:

  1. "I'd put Peter Greenaway up there in the pantheon of the great directors with Kubrick and Kurosawa in a second."

    And similarly, alas, just as late-period Kurosawa, without actor Toshiro Mifune and screenwriter Ryuzo Kikushima, was never quite as great as the Kurosawa who came before, Greenaway without Vierney or Nyman leaves a lot to be desired as well.