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Difficult Directors: Peter Greenaway

Perhaps the most difficult director and films that you will ever encounter: Peter Greenaway.

My last Difficult Director, Nicolas Roeg, I called the least difficult of the bunch.  At the other end of this spectrum lies Peter Greenaway, whose best known film is The Cook the Thief His Wife & Her Lover (1989).

Greenaway’s qualities for making audiences uncomfortable, for breaking taboos, and for dealing with baffling subject matter is shared by most difficult directors; David Lynch comes to mind. Indeed, Lynch and Greenaway share an affinity for painting and creating a cinema that relies heavily on the artistic vision. 

They differ when it comes to film narrative. Lynch’s are open, in the sense that virtually anything can and does happen, always keeping his audience off-balance. He has stories; the stories are often racy and violent; however, Greenaway has declared a disinterest in narrative

    I don’t think the cinema is a particularly good narrative medium.
    My interest, I suppose, would concentrate on other notions that the
    film represents. If you want to be passionately attached to narrative
    then be a writer, not a filmmaker. 

I don’t use “difficult” lightly to describe his films.  He might be impossible.  And this partly attracts me to his work.

Thus, the word “enjoying a Greenaway film” is like no other enjoyment.  My testament to this took the form of an article I wrote nearly ten years ago called “Unwatchable”.

I was trying to locate the most unwatchable film in my experience. After assessing many films that I couldn’t watch to the end, I finally chose Greenaway’s Prospero’s Books (1991), a loose adaptation of Shakespeare’s The Tempest starring John Gielguld. 

The catch or paradox to this selection was that I called it the most unwatchable despite having watched all of it! I had to rent the film five times before I could finish. I may have fallen asleep several times during this prolonged watching, but I also concluded that I wasn't uninterested in the film so much as that there was TOO MUCH in it for even a sympathetic viewer to grasp.

Besides the overwhelming, painterly details of every shot in every scene, Greenaway takes away the standard narrative devices that will hold viewers' attention for long periods. I found the following comment from Roger Ebert that sums up the experience:

    Prospero’s Books really exists outside criticism. All I can do is describe
    it. Most of the reviews of this film have missed the point; this is not a
    narrative, it need not make sense, and it is not "too difficult" because it
    could not have been any less so. 

You have to travel a long way up the ‘high aesthetic’ river to meet his films on their own ground. 

Greenaway’s first full-length film, The Falls (1980), is a good place to sample his work. Three hours long, The Falls is an encyclopedic work with 92 biographies of people whose surname begins with ‘Fall’. These people have been affected by a mysterious occurrence called the 'Violent Unknown Event' or VUE, which involved birds, and many people are chronicled here as having acquired bird-like tendencies. 

It’s Greenaway’s most humorous film—most of his films lack levity or lightness (an affliction many difficult directors suffer), a side effect of being bereft a narrative.  One can even interpret The Falls as a sequel to Hitchcock’s The Birds (1963).  Throughout the film, there is a spectre of a massive, worldwide attack on the human race by birds, and Hitchcock’s film fits the criteria for such an event. 

(Note: After having just watched The Falls, I was following a car from Pennsylvania on U.S. 95 that had V U E on the license plate. Was it a coincidence and a radom combination of letters? Or had I stumbled upon a Greenaway fan? It would have been the first that I had met.)

Besides the other difficulties, Greenaway’s films have a didactic element, his films generally attacking what has been called “patriarchal society.” Oppressive male figures abound in The Belly of an Architect (1987), The Draughtsman’s Contract (1982), The Cook the Thief, Drowning by Numbers (1988), Prospero’s Books and The Baby of Macon (1993), and are defeated by the women they think that they control. 

(The politics is not subtle. Another facet of the difficult director.) 

His high level of difficulty, however, has not prevented Greenaway from making films seemingly non-stop. They play at festivals around the world but are very rarely seen at the local Arts theaters. It’s very difficult to find DVDs of his films in the United States.

Greenaway's interest in painting has led to the making of two of his most accessible films, both dealing with the Dutch painter Rembrandt and one of his most famous work, Nightwatch: Nightwatching (2007) and Rembrandt, J’accuse (2008). The latter, a documentary, is an expose of the painting’s content, the Dutch militia hiding a murder. It is also a scathing attack on our visually illiterate culture.

Bob Castle is an author, teacher, film critic, and playwright. He is also the founder of the Collingswood Movie Club, which meets monthly in the public library for film showings and discussion.

Castle's writing has appeared in Bright Lights Film Journal, Film Comment, and The Film Journal. His plays have been performed during the Philadelphia New Play Festival, the Philadelphia Fringe Festival, and at the the Gone in 60 Seconds and "In a New York Minute" festivals.

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Ned Bulmash January 18, 2013 at 05:02 PM
I don't know anything about Peter Greenaway. I will see if the Camden County Library has DVDs of his films.
L. Eaves March 24, 2013 at 09:30 PM
I have rarely experienced a more thoroughly comedic filmmaker in all my years than Peter Greenaway, myself. This is a man who recreates the tempest in Shakespeare's The Tempest with a child urinating from a swing! And where the films are not comic, they are often tragicomic or satirical, two other modes which I would attribute to comic expression. A Zed and Two Noughts is hilarious, Drowning By Numbers is essentially a giant non-sequitur full of wordplay and visual puns, and 8½ Women is essentially a continuation on this thread. To flip your comment on its head: "most of his films lack levity or lightness (an affliction many difficult directors suffer)", I think many difficult directors' films are seen as lacking levity due to the viewer not picking up on the humor because it's not telegraphed, or it is melded within rather than detracting from the drama/tragedy/etc. The list of films I find full of levity that others find absolutely bereft of it is long, and I continually look for more films that will fit in that vein, because they're often the subtlest and most clever.
Robert Castle March 24, 2013 at 10:24 PM
I agree with you wholeheartedly. You seem to be more tuned into Greenaway than I am. Perhaps I find The Falls a comic tour de force, the humor/comedy of his other films doesn't strike me as hard. Yet, I'm a big fan of his. The two films on Rembrandt are excellent (his sardonic humor comes through on his documentary dealing with Rembrandt's Nightwatch). Glad to see a Greenaway fan in this area of the world.

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