Tyrannies of technology and tradition: an interview with Peter Greenaway

Edited version. Full article appears in Graphis 326.

Peter Greenaway is an exception among film-makers. His work provokes critics into revealing their cosy preference for all films to be essentially the same: they want dramatic stories told in banal dialogue between famous actors playing clear roles. Everything else becomes secondary to an idea of protagonists upon a stage that has not changed from the classical theatre. Greenaway sees different potentials in film, which he feels has been neglected as what it so obviously is—a visual medium

His films for the cinema and television, helped in recent years by the prolific use of digital media technology, achieve a density of visual imagery that can only invite comparisons with painting. Here is what to many appears the paradox of Greenaway, a man who references old masters while embracing new technology. This richness allows him to construct films that do not rely on actor-led drama, but instead work with ideas of symmetry and number, the solving of puzzles, the reading of lists – games that would be impossibly bookish on the silver screen without this extraordinary sensory payback. Colour and music become central elements in Greenaway’s structural architecture, not merely bushes obscuring the edifice as they are in many films. Unusually enough for a film director, he directs opera; almost uniquely, he paints and curates art exhibits.

It is a sign of the struggle he has faced, however, that his greatest successes have been films where a more conventional idea of story dominates, The Cook, The Thief, His Wife and Her Lover (1989) and The Pillow Book (1995). But it is his even more stylized works such as his early masterpiece, The Draughtsman’s Contract (1982), and Prospero’s Books (1991) for which he is ultimately more likely to be remembered.

Graphis: As one who is interested above all in the visual, you have spoken of four tyrannies of the cinema: the text, the actors, the camera and the frame. It seems we’re still stuck with all of them.

Greenaway: They still are anxieties because they have come about in cinema for reasons which perhaps have nothing to do with film as film or with making portrayals of the world through the moving image. It’s curious to me how the film business is couched with characteristics which are more obviously to do with technologies and money. We shoot at 24 frames a second, which is basically the cheapest number of frames to give us the greatest sense of illusion. But we now know that 60 frames a second would be much better. Human guinea pigs who have experienced projection at 60 frames a second almost feel a sense of nausea at the sense of reality, but that’s just a learning process. I just use that as an example. Or take the frame, a totally artificial device which doesn’t exist in real life. It doesn’t even represent the periphery of our vision, which is far more amorphous. It’s a convenience, and all conveniences should be examined and re-examined. Let’s seriously consider, do we need the notion of the fixed rectangle? What is it there for? Where has it come from? What are our purposes? Why do we view all the plastic arts through this phenomenon which is such an artificiality?

Graphis: The frame is a convenience which has been re-examined in modern art.

Greenaway: It was a Renaissance creation. It didn’t exist before the Renaissance, because most painting was intimately related with the spaces of architecture. You go into a Gothic cathedral and you find every aspect ratio under the sun and it’s a painted surface. So somewhere, at some time, somebody suggested the notion of this parallelogram as the opportune performance area within which art should practise. And there have been so many imitators. There’s the proscenium arch of theatre. Shakespearean theatre doesn’t have that use of the parallelogram. Take Monteverdi’s first attempts at making opera in Siena and Bologna. They adopted that notion of the landscapes of someone like Claude Lorraine going back and back and back with a series of rectangles one behind the other, until it became an idée fixe in opera houses and theatres around the world, so that we always look at live action drama through this wretched rectangle. Cinema, of course, in its early days copied that notion, and television has then copied that. I believe there was an interesting experiment in the 1960s where the aspect ratios of a couple of thousand paintings of the Renaissance were put into a computer, and lo and behold, they came out with an average which again was related to our Academy cinema screen. So there is a kind of unwritten consensus about the ideal proportions. But we are not stuck with it. There’s been a continual non-questioning, it seems to me, of the rigidity of the frame. Now it’s about time that we did something about it. Let’s look about and see what other people have done. You’re right about painters. Frank Stella, Robert Rauschenberg, Jasper Johns have all pushed and pulled at what you can do. Rothko and company created paintings which were so big that they went beyond the periphery of your vision as you stood before them. Now we have Omnimax and Imax which play the same sort of game, and virtual reality which explodes the notion of the frames and so on. We shouldn’t forget, of course, that this is a Western obsession. The Orientals don’t have a frame. They don’t see the need for it. It’s just a particular Western device, a construction, which needs re-examining.

Graphis: The element of design in your work, with dialogue and action highly scripted and diagrammed, seems to celebrate, or certainly to live with, these tyrannies in this interregnum before the means are there to distribute some multimedia product less constrained than a film for projection in a movie theatre.

Greenaway: It’s like the scab you need to scratch all the time. John Cage famously said that if you introduce more than 20 per cent of innovation into any artwork, you’re immediately going to lose 80 per cent of your audience. It’s an educative process, and they have to catch up with you.

Graphis: What about the verbal tyrannies of script and actors?

Greenaway: I think we’ve had a hundred years of illustrated text [in film]. Illustration in the English language is a dirty word. I don’t want to be an illustrator, I want to be a prime creator.

Graphis: Constraints help people. This is one of the reasons that your four tyrannies aren’t resisted more often. You playfully reference these tyrannies, with a camera pointing at a Kabuki stage in 8 1/2 Women, for example, or the constant sight of the artist’s framing device in The Draughtsman’s Contract. So you draw attention to these tyrannies, but you also impose new ones of your own which become your own trademarks or mannerisms – lists, documentary narration, bilateral symmetry, colour symbolism and so on. Why do you do that?

Greenaway: It’s to demonstrate artificiality. Cinema is a deeply artificial medium, and there’s a way in which I want to show that when you watch a film of mine you are only watching a film, hence not just the bilateral symmetry but other ideas such as a self-consciously shallow stage depth and the deliberate use of perspective devices. I think there’s always something to learn by looking over your shoulder at the hypotheses which supposedly are no longer relevant to 20th century life. I’m fascinated, for example, by Renaissance paintings, such as the Sacra Conversazione by Piero della Francesca, where the Virgin Mary, as the centre of the world, appears in the middle, and the saints are all arranged like characters. Those ideas of bilateral symmetry are fascinating in their own right, but let’s see if we can use them—in a good postmodernist sense—to re-enliven and re-excite the sheer phenomenon of looking, looking, looking.

Graphis: You’re working with the Dutch “minimalist” composer Louis Andriessen on the Vermeer opera, and you’ve had a long collaboration with Michael Nyman whose music is prominent in many of your films. Tell me about the importance of music to you.

Greenaway: Well, I don’t think there ever was such a thing called silent cinema. There was always some notion of sound even if it was the sound of the auditorium in a John Cageian sense. I know you can create films without music, but I think it deeply impoverishes the cinematic art. In my long relationship with Michael Nyman—certainly in The Draughtsman’s Contract—we tried very hard, like the Prokofiev-Eisenstein situation with Alexander Nevsky, to define structure that would combine both. I’ve been very interested in those connections, but unfortunately most music in the cinema is decorative, there to emphasize, it’s very seldom structural.

Graphis: You paint. I want to know what a painterly eye achieves in film other than dropping in carefully contrived references to art history which are in a sense just clever sight gags.

Greenaway: It does irritate me when people say my films look like paintings. I mean, come on. That’s not what it’s about. It’s a whole essence to do with information received by the eye, not through some textual excuse. The very best painting explains the world without giving you a narrative and without going via a textual excuse.

Graphis: Don’t the sight gags, the film tableaux modeled after Dutch still lifes and so on, sabotage this more sophisticated objective?

Greenaway: I think they add levels and layers, almost like an overture. So if I reproduce The Art of Painting, [a painting whose title is often mistranslated as The Artist in his Studio] a very profound consideration by Vermeer of what painting is about, but then I begin to slice it up and deconstruct it in other ways, then I’ve given you an introduction to the ways that I want you to think about what I’m doing. Of course, inevitably and without apology I rely upon the audience’s appreciation of the original, which is always a problem. Who looks at E.T. by Spielberg and regards it as the resurrection myth? But if you know that’s there as well, it does give another layer to that film—which again relates it to the whole history of Western art.

Graphis: Old art forms, painting and music, and new technology make a pretty heady mixture.

Greenaway: I feel that the more knowledge we have, the better our experience and delight and fascination and excitement and insight. So let’s try and use as many communication forms as possible. Wagner’s notion of the total art form was suggested many, many years ago. Bernini and people before that were “multimedia artists”. It’s existed for ever really. I look towards the possibility of communication through as many links as possible, and I would like to reconsider and break apart the orthodox links and introduce huge areas of new sorts of information which might historically have been the preserve of specialists. Look how night-time cameras have given us information about the natural history world, for example. It’s a new tool giving us new insights and new aesthetic possibilities. Or the whole business which seems so banal by now of simply changing speed, go slow and go fast. Botanists began to learn more about how plants grow, so there’s a direct, almost practical association here. But now let’s take this particular information gathering, turn it back on itself and use it for aesthetic ends.

Graphis: Your attempt at this fusion is a massive ongoing project called The Tulse Luper Suitcase. Why must The Tulse Luper Suitcase be so all-encompassing?

Greenaway: We need a defining work to legitimize somehow the aesthetic possibilities of the new media. We almost need Eisenstein’s October. About the same time elapsed between the beginnings of cinema and Eisenstein’s October [made in 1927 to celebrate the tenth anniversary of the Russian Revolution] when we began to realize the full potential of the medium as there is from when these new technologies began to get a serious grip on our imaginations until now. So we’re waiting for the defining work, I think, which legitimizes what comes afterwards, the James Joycean phenomenon which pushes to the edge so that you have to reinvent the language. I want to be able to use the characteristics of all these different media, but also find an audience that looks at the film, buys the CD ROM, plugs into the internet site and watches TV for a total possibility of examining this huge new creative world.

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