Peter Greenaway Says Cinema Hasn’t Changed Since Chaplin: ‘It’s Time to Think Big, and Desperately’

The Welsh iconoclast shares his typically ironic views about the state of cinema — all while his next film, a biopic of Romanian artist Constantin Brâncuși, languishes "in a laboratory in Rome."
British film director Peter Greenaway addresses the press conference of the film "Eisenstein in Guanajuato" at the 65th Berlin International Film Festival Berlinale in Berlin, on February 11, 2015. AFP PHOTO / JOHN MACDOUGALL (Photo by John MACDOUGALL / AFP) (Photo by JOHN MACDOUGALL/AFP via Getty Images)
Peter Greenaway
AFP via Getty Images

Peter Greenaway thinks cinema needs to start “thinking big, and desperately,” if it wants to start looking fundamentally different than it did in 1895. The erudite Welsh filmmaker best known for “The Cook, The Thief, His Wife, and His Lover” has always taken an ironic stance toward the state of filmmaking — though he’s not ready to declare its time of death.

In fact, as revealed in our recent interview timed to the 4K rerelease of 1982’s “The Draughtsman’s Contract” now making the theatrical rounds, he’s rather chipper about cinema’s prospects.

“The Draughtsman’s Contract was made in 1982, and a hell of a lot has happened to cinema in those times,” Greenaway said over the phone. His second film after the 1980 mockumentary “The Falls,” “Draughtsman’s” is a bawdy murder mystery set in rural England about a cocksure artist who agrees to make 12 landscape paintings for a woman whose contract includes increasing sexual demands. Hardly a commercial hit even with respect to the arthouse, this ingeniously crafted movie did establish Greenaway’s high-minded style, steeped in classical painting and the music of Michael Nyman.

“I’ve always argued that I think and still believe, that cinema is a very conservative medium. When you actually think about it, the changes and characteristics of cinema have remained very much the same ever since its beginnings in 1895. Though new technologies, new systems, new strategies have come along, there is a way that the basic premises of Méliès and the Lumières and Charlie Chaplin, etc., way back in 1900, haven’t really changed have they?” Greenaway wondered.

For his part, Greenaway has always borrowed more from classical art, music, and fashion than his film forebearers — Vermeer and Caravaggio have more to do visually with his stories of Sadean sexual degradation and sensual excess than anything else.

My first encounter with Greenaway’s urbanely witty personality was during a 2010 lecture at UC Berkeley titled “Cinema Is Dead, Long Live Cinema,” in which he declared cinema up to that point as a mere prologue for what’s to come. While working in typically Greenaway-esque maxims such as declaring Sergei Eisenstein the father of cinema, Federico Fellini the Oedipal son, and Jean-Luc Godard the crude grandson who turned the medium on its head. (“I’m sure it’s going to be no surprise to you, but I have no memory of that particular lecture,” he said.)

“The digital revolution has allowed people like me to become a painter in a way because I can now manipulate the singular frame and the image in ways I never could, and I am grateful for that,” said Greenaway, whose last feature to see theatrical release was 2015’s “Eisenstein in Guanajuato.” “You can now interact with the cinematic world, I suppose, much more efficiently with a much larger vocabulary. But I still feel the general tenets of cinematic practice haven’t really changed.”

THE DRAUGHTSMAN'S CONTRACT, Anne-Louise Lambert (holding cards), Hugh Fraser (rear), 1982, © United Artists Classics/courtesy Everett Collection
“The Draughtsman’s Contract”©United Artists/Courtesy Everett Collection

Greenaway, made an arthouse-hold name by Miramax with 1989’s X-rated “The Cook,” has aggressively challenged the notion of movies as a two-hour feature projected onto a 2D screen for decades. As a trained painter who never intended to be a filmmaker, Greenaway’s body of work takes a Brechtian attitude toward the audience, incorporating montage and tableaux to disorienting effect. That’s because he sees the medium as limiting in its architecture.

“The cinema, which is a black box, which you come in from out of the daylight into darkness and have to suffer all the indignities, being seated in one place, to almost limiting human anatomy and its retinal possibilities. Maybe we have to really think big, and desperately, about changing the whole attitude,” he said. “I can now take paint out of a pot and paint it on a human being, and I can make a human being a cinema screen. I can do thousands of different things. I can even basically project on the moon now, but there is no real indication that cinema has grasped all these possibilities.”

But he chalks that up to the limitations of human nature: “We come up with some grand, amazing phenomenon and maybe we practice its possibilities for a few years, and then we go back to our comfort zone again. Cinema [despite 3D innovation, etc.] is still back to where it was. When Charlie Chaplin was practicing. That’s very much to do with the conservatism of human beings.”

Greenaway has long faced behind-the-scenes resistance to his decidedly non-commercial visions. His most recent project, a biopic of Romanian artist Constantin Brâncuși called “Walking to Paris,” was completed, for his part, in 2019, but is still “languishing in a laboratory in Rome.” The French-Italian-Swiss feature blurs fiction, documentary, and art-historical essay as only Greenaway does.

THE DRAUGHTSMAN'S CONTRACT, from left: Anne-Louise Lambert, Hugh Fraser, Anthony Higgins, 1982, © United Artists Classics/courtesy Everett Collection
“The Draughtsman’s Contract”©United Artists/Courtesy Everett Collection

“It got chewed up and regorged and reconsidered by a whole group of producers who are still arguing about finishing it,” he said. “We still have to dub it, we still have to create it, etc. As far as my creativity on the film is concerned, it’s completely finished now and has been for about two years, but it’s very difficult to wrestle this wretched phenomenon out of the hands of warring producers. There is some talk about it maybe being ready for the Berlin Film Festival next year, but we’re onto other things because I can’t hang about waiting for these producers to make their minds up.”

Those “other things” include a continuing interest in death, as the filmmaker turned 80 this year and just 10 years ago said he was planning to commit suicide — whether assisted or otherwise — once he became an octogenarian.

“I’ve got so many contracts and obligations to fulfill that I am putting that particular situation off,” Greenaway said. With “Walking to Paris” on the shelf right now, he’s turning his attention to “Lucca Mortis,” an essay film he’s making with Morgan Freeman. “Now my thoughts are turning toward the Thanatos of my life, and I’m considering situations about, is death necessary, do we have any control about it, what do we do about assisted death, is suicide legitimate. I put it all together indeed in a very talkative film, I think, which basically uses cinema as essay.”

As for Greenaway’s 2012 comments to The Guardian about killing himself at 80, he said, “I was arguing, from a very ironic, intellectual point of view, because I cannot really think that an 80-year-old man — maybe an 80-year-old female is more valuable — but an 80-year-old man is pretty useless. If you haven’t been successful before 80, you’re unlikely going to be successful starting off [at 80]. There’s very little evidence of that being the case.”

The 4K restoration of “The Draughtsman’s Contract” is now playing at New York’s Film Forum. The film was restored by the BFI Production Board in association with Channel 4; the U.S. release comes from Zeitgeist Films in association with Kino Lorber.

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