British polyglot Peter Greenaway (filmmaker, painter, video artist etc) has never easily fit into any mold. The unique talent behind, among many others, “The Cook, the Thief, his Wife and Her Lover,” “The Baby of Macon,” “Prospero’s Books” and more recently the evocation of the life and work of Rembrandt in “Nightwatching,” is eternally divisive. Some find the self-conscious intellectualism of his approach appealing, others find it elitist and alienating.
His new film, the bemusing but beautiful “Goltzius and the Pelican Company” is not going to settle the debate anytime soon (read our review here). Perhaps the very definition of iconoclastic, it explores sex and death (“What other subjects are there?” Greenaway asks) through the prism of the Bible, religion and 16th century Dutch politics. As so often in the filmmaker’s long career, the density of classical allusion and Greenaway’s instinct toward didactiscism do battle with the his almost impish desire to strip sacred cows of their stuffiness; to the casual viewer, though, seeing past the erudition to the irreverence may be a challenge.
Talking to him in Rome last week, we got the impression of someone who is perfectly content to elicit a somewhat schizophrenic reaction, as long as he gets a reaction. A chatty, warm man with an inescapable, apparently insatiable intellectual curiosity, our conversation ranged from ‘Goltzius’ to the state of modern cinema to Sergei Eisenstein and back again, and left us, as often do his films, dazzled, but a bit dazed. Here we go:
The Playlist: I believe I found ‘Goltzius’ confounding and beguiling in almost equal measure.
Peter Greenaway: That sounds about right! Look, there’s one thing I want to do with this film — with all my films — I want you to realize that this is a film and it manipulates and proposes and discloses and argues with you, but this is an artificial phenomenon. It might have access to things you know about (like the more you know your Bible the richer the palimpsest will be), but it is still a film.
The elaborate 16th century court set created within a 20th century warehouse enhances that, yet we hear that was not initially your intention?
Well, you've got to respond to circumstances…We had some money in Croatia, where they do tax incentives for filmmakers, and we wandered all around the country looking for the ideal 16th century ambience but couldn't find it anywhere. If the buildings were from that era they had been restored in a redundant way — very squeaky clean.
But then someone said to come and look at this maintenance yard for repairing locomotives from the 1920s and it was the evening and the light was streaming through the windows and it was simply photogenic. So I just thought let's scrap the whole movie and write a whole new film to use this location, but that proved to be impossible. [Instead we shot ‘Goltzius’ there and] we may not really deliver suspension of disbelief. I mean, you're not going to "believe" this but you're going to have to believe it. And it makes a comment about the artificiality [of film].
I believe that…film has to be multimedia, so all the arts are involved — so I present the architecture, and it’s about dance and its legacy, and typography gets huge amounts of time onscreen…
Yes, I wanted to ask you about the relationship between words and pictures in your films – you frequently use words almost as pictures.
Words as pictures, text as image — it’s not really part any more of the European tradition. My film “The Pillow Book” — that was my attempt to make a demonstration that there should be no separation and there isn't in Japanese culture. There, text is image and image is text.
I deplore the fact that we have a text-based cinema. Every film you've ever seen has started with the written word, “Lord of the Rings” and ‘Harry Potter’ are obvious examples but even down to your Almodovar, Spielberg, Eisenstein, all film begins with the written word. I think we ought to allow cinema to be its own medium and I want to prioritize the image, but I never want you to forget this dichotomy that's going on.
Ramsey Nasr, who plays Goltzius, is the Dutch Poet Laureate. How did that casting come about?
He is famous for his poetry both in Dutch and English, and I knew of him through that. I think he was intrigued, being a wordsmith himself, he was entertained by the literary nature of the project.
And many of the rest of the often-nude cast are Italian?
I had to do some casting in France, and I was surprised that no one was to prepare to take carnal risks at all. But then I came to Italy and there is a growing body of very interesting Italian actors and actresses — no decent writing, no good filmmaking but of a great number of exciting actors.
How much do you see the role of cinema as educational?
Hugely. The Sistine Chapel is an extraordinary work of education — it lays out all the early books of the Bible. I always think that art is one of the most wonderful exciting curious ways to learn I have no worries or apologies about art being used as a teaching medium.
And who do you consider your influences in that regard?
I've always in my career looked East, living in London, rather than West. I've always been interested in the cinema of ideas which is far more prevalent through the greatest formative European movement that I am aware of, the Nouvelle Vague. I'm the same age as Godard so it's not a historical subject, it’s a living situation for me.
That, and of course Italian cinema which begins with DeSica and ends with Bertolucci, have been my big two learning associations, have been very much the model for all my ideas.
Also, when I was 15 1/2 and in search of topless women in films I went to our local soft porn cinema to see Scandinavian films. But one day I went along and I'm quite sure this cinema manager didn't know what he was putting on, and I saw an extraordinary film — Ingmar Bergman's “The Seventh Seal” and it had a profound effect on me. It got tarred with the brush of being a Scandinavian, risqué film so without any knowledge of its value it was shown in this cinema. But it's a film that is absolutely ideal for 15 1/2-year-old adolescent; it's about mythology, it’s about religion, notions of truth, it's very entertaining, it's full of shock tactics–Knights and Crusades, It’s a very very influential movie for 15 1/2 year old.
Your upcoming projects include a 3D short, what do you think of the format?
I am now making a 3D movie in Portugal [part of the same series a the "Centro Historico" shorts, reviewed here]. I think there is no future whatsoever in 3D, it does nothing to the grammar and syntax or vocabulary of cinema. And you get fed up with it in exactly 3 minutes. So I think it's a dead-end I think it's, you know, a trick to try and get people away from their laptops and back to the cinema, like all the experimentation in the '50s and '60s with Todd AO and VistaVision and all that stuff. I repeat I don't think 3D cinema is going anywhere but I think it's important for me to learn as much as possible about cinema and optics.
Also on your list is a film about Hieronymous Bosch
Yes, 2016 is a grand celebration of Hieronymous Bosch. Though most of his paintings now are either in Spain or Portugal he comes from a city in lower Holland he was the first surrealist, if you like and there is a theory that most of his imagery is a transcription of the vernacular language that existed around the Burgundian empire in the 15th century, so it’s an exploration of that.
…and another on Sergei Eisenstein?
Yes, I have this film about Eisenstein who lost his virginity in Mexico City aged 33. St. Augustine suggested we all go to heaven aged 33, and Eisenstein has his first sexual experience, homosexual experience, in Mexico City aged 33.
I've always been fascinated by Eisenstein. My first painting exhibition was called “Eisenstein at the Winter Palace” and I've always been puzzled why his first three great films, "[Battleship] Potemkin," “October” and “Strike” were very intellectual, were conceived from a very cerebral point of view, and his last three great films which are “Ivan the Terrible,” “Alexander Nevsky” and “The Boyars Plot” [aka “Ivan the Terrible Part II”] are suddenly full of humanism and much more concerned with emotional associations, and have much more respect for human emotion.
I think his 3 years outside of Russia, when he went to Mexico — first to California but of course Hollywood spits out intellectuals so that certainly didn't work, but then he went to Mexico on the advice of Charlie Chaplin to make "Que Viva Mexico" and that too was an absolute disaster, but when he was in Mexico, he fell in love with a historian …and they had a torrential, ten-day, very carnal affair. And he finally came to terms with his homosexuality, but also he went there initially to see this very famous museum of the dead, there are 400 corpses there, so if I believe that there only two subject matters — sex and death — [the story] fulfills that.
“October” is sometimes known as “10 days that shook the world.” This is “10 days that shook Eisenstein.”
You’ve made some gloomy prognostications about the future of cinema in the past. How do you feel about it right now?
The cinema we've got now is certainly not the cinema of our fathers and forefathers. The alternatives in terms of entertainment are gross, we now have a system like in Amsterdam where young people simply don't go to the cinema. And we have the prospect of the democratization of the medium… Already my Facebook is full of filmmakers and laptop users asking “when can we have the film so we can re edit and reorganize it?" and I think, well, that’s okay by me.
In a world where we can all be our own filmmakers, the old elites are disappearing and there is no desire to look at somebody else's dream anymore because you can go off and make your own. Maybe YouTube is the greatest thing that happened to cinema in the last 10 years. 95% of it is crap but that's always been the way, but there you can avoid the middleman. So [the future is all about] this notion of the democratization of the medium…whatever your nostalgia for "Casablanca" there is a big seachange happening.
What I'm looking for now is a present tense cinema: I can make a film on a Monday I could remake it for Tuesday, re-remake it for Wednesday; you could never do that with celluloid cinema. It's going to be absolute horror for distributors but they're all disappearing anyway.
It's very difficult to understand but I'm looking for a nonnarrative, multiscreen, present-tense cinema. Narrative is an artifact created by us, it does not exist at all in nature, it is a construct made by us and I wonder whether we need the narrative anymore. I'm trained as a painter and the very best paintings are nonnarrative, why can't we make nonnarrative films?
The big revolution of the 20th century was to get rid of harmony from music with Schoenberg. People like Beethoven could never imagine we could get rid of harmony but we did. Then in imagistic terms that revolution was figuration — we got rid of figuration in painting and harmony in music and now we have to get rid of narrative in cinema.
How we're going to do that I do not know but the pursuit is on and it's very valuable to ask the questions.