1. The Baroque Is the Cross He Bears
The thing that bothers me about Peter Greenaway is not actually his work (of which I'm mostly ignorant) but the discourse--the rhetoric--which surrounds it. Recently reading some appreciative articles, interviews, and reviews about this filmmaker (I mean, artist) almost caused me to strain my eyes from rolling them so much. Writers do much hemming & hawing about how Greenaway "rejects" this or that conception of narrative in favor of 'sequence' (or 'spatiality'), that his films are singular challenges to cinema's (presumably previously essential) conventions of identification and empathy. Greenaway himself seems to buy into this image, even feeds it: apparently the cinema has run its course, the idea of cinema-as-storytelling has been discarded by Godard (but apparently not before...), and we're all starving for a truly radical departure--and innovation--in cinema.
What bothers me about all this running-off-at-the-mouth is that it poses as a high-cultural stance but it betrays a profound ignorance of the history of the cinema (and by extension the history of global twentieth century cultures, and the history of art). One suspects that Godard is about as radical and obscure a figure as Greenaway is acquainted with in the cinema: for him the avant-garde exists in painting, but apparently has only a few quick, scattershot appearances in the medium of film. But Greenaway is not the first nor the tenth to challenge the things he supposedly challenges; I doubt he's either the best or the tenth best to do it. (My temptation here is to imagine Ruiz dressed up as Annie Oakley singing to Greenaway, "Anything you can do I can do better...")
The cinema is full of films that "challenge narrativity" (from Cornell's Rose Hobart to Meyer's Supervixens) or ignore it altogether (from Garrel's Les Hautes solitudes to Sonbert's Carriage Trade). There are plenty of films that draw upon a rich cultural history of ideas to create conceptually sophisticated and deeply intellectual work with no compromises for the industry: the films of Harun Farocki, Pier Paolo Pasolini, the Straubs, Derek Jarman, Robert Bresson, Glauber Rocha, Chris Marker. The ostensible profundity of Greenaway's conception of cinema comes, I think, from an awful "greatest hits" approach to cinema, whereby (1) it is conceived as essentially, basically, and ultimately a commercial machine used to the ends of die Kulturindustrie, and (2) those rare films which challenge this notion are always those films which have at least one foot squarely in it--because any cinema that isn't part of "the movies" is blissfully ignored by someone like Greenaway, who needs to uphold this image of a reactionary industry to stand in for the entirety of the medium so that he and a few other lone geniuses (Eisenstein, Lynch, Godard, Welles, Fellini) can do their allegedly progressive film-art on "symbol and metaphor." He will compare the development of music or painting over our period of modernity to that of cinema, and wonders why cinema comes up lacking--but that's because he isn't pitting the run-of-the-mill Hollywood hit of 1952 with a Norman Rockwell painting, and he isn't pitting de Kooning with, say, Brakhage. He's comparing the run-of-the-mill Hollywood film with the avant-garde coterie of the art world as though they are the representative equivalents of their given media.
I brought up this question of "truly challenging" work with regard to Cassavetes a while back. I'm getting increasingly uncomfortable with rhetoric that asserts that this or that film is something akin to cinema's zenith, its event horizon, its sublime poetic limit. I just don't understand why something can't be great, decidedly non-mainstream, and not incredibly challenging, automatically 'over the heads' of anyone who doesn't love it. Malick gets this treatment; Kubrick gets this treatment; Greenaway seems to bask in this treatment (going so far as to insist that Americans don't understand "metaphor and symbol," things like that). This is where, as far as extremism & dogma go, I do prefer Ray Carney's brand; at least Carney, in refusing to acknowledge or discuss 99% of "the movies" in a constructive way--the commerce, the industry products--in favor of reading the medium in terms of its artistic development [as he sees it], is drawing attention to films which the culture industry buries or ignores, and is in some sense resisting the predominant cultural impulse to discuss cinema exclusively in terms of multimillion dollar feature films. He's wrong and shortsighted on so many counts, but he's wrong for some admirable reasons. Greenaway identifies "the cinema" as "the movies" and this enables him to talk about the presumed failures of the medium and the glories of his own, radical cinema-based art. It's self-serving, and it perpetuates the logic of the marketplace despite Greenaway's intentions. Someone like Carney will point the way to some new & amazing films you may never have heard of; someone like Greenaway will point you only to their own films.
I could go on, and start picking apart Greenaway quotes for their inaccuracies or their oversights or their baldfaced lies, but I have to eventually get to the second part of my blog entry.
2. Rewriting the Contract
Several years ago I had my first, and until recently, only experience with Peter Greenaway's cinema: I tried to watch a video of The Draughtsman's Contract ('82). I hated it so much I turned it off. (This is a rare event: usually if I turn off a video of a film I haven't seen, it's because I'm interrupted by something more important, or perhaps I'm too tired and would rather give it a go the next day...) This has been the foundation for my antagonism toward Greenaway, or more accurately, toward the high-and-mighty rhetoric which surrounds his work. But like him or not he's something of a major figure of British cinema, and world cinema (whoops again, I mean "the art world"), and I've detected a few stray mentions of him on Matt's site that indicated he (and David Lowery) liked at least some of Greenaway's work. So I might as well see if my initial disdain continues to match my distaste for the rhetoric.
I have to report the confounding news that, upon a repeat effort with The Draughtsman's Contract, I believe I liked it. I've had a few days to think about why I liked it, and I'm still not entirely sure, but I do think I admire the film. Everything I wrote above still stands, but that's OK so long as I can be aware of contradictions in my own thought & practice here, and reconcile as many of them as I can.
So here we have a Baroque Blow-Up, and one that happens to deal with subjects that orbit my own range of interests: political intrigue (on a small scale), coded images and signs, the consideration of an historical 'visual regime.' But I imagine that a film with these attractive totems could still disinterest me, even repulse me; why did this film (on this viewing at least) win me over, bring me in? The tableau presentation, with its occasional flatness and frontality (or, extended into a long space, its 'High Renaissance' perspectivalism) was very admirable in its sheer forthrightness; what I mean by 'forthrightness' is that Greenaway seems to want to provide us with thought-provoking images, images upon which we reflect (and simply for their conceptual content), but he makes little effort to make the image itself attractive, 'enveloping,' intriguing to the emotions as well as the eye. If I can anthropomorphize a little here, they're the sort of images that, if you met them walking down the street, would intensely invite you to coffee and rigorous philosophical conversation rather than to alcoholic revelry and a roll in the hay. This sort of image-making has occurred in the work of several other filmmakers I've been interested in lately (including Derek Jarman--hmm, I wonder what Jarman and Greenaway thought of one another?) ... and of course each artist has his own variant: Jarman's cinema seems to be an intellectual conversation about the erotic & political qualities of rolling in the hay, for instance ... and anyway, to be clear, I'm not making good/bad binaries between which sort of anthropomorphic path is best ...
I do like Greenaway's willingness to make his late 17th century manor lived in without resorting to dystopic prurience (as in some 'edgy' historical films--like Philip Kaufman's execrable Quills). I like that the scenes are (yes) 'sequentialized' without a strong dramatic build-up (though I'm afraid I'm less blown away by this simple and quite palatable fact than Greenaway would presumably like for me to be...). But what else? Why else would I actually like this film, even if only moderately? Why exactly did I hate it so much before? Could it be that Greenaway is, in a limited way, right? That my younger self, much more attuned to the cinema as "the movies," was fundamentally challenged by his work? If that is the case--if--then wouldn't it mean that Greenaway is really only cinematically challenging for those who aren't already on his general level with regard to cultural capital? Who really is his audience, and if I decide to see the films and join with that projected audience, how do I fit into it?
A little wary still, I suspect I won't be able to figure these questions out until I've seen a few more of Greenaway's films. Any recommendations for second & third efforts?