Not Just a Pretty Picture - The Films of Peter Greenaway
As you watch the credits roll, ask yourself a few questions. Have you just witnessed processions of sheep or prominent performances by other farmyard animals, scenes designed rigorously around a single colour, or tables laden down with lavish displays of food and artfully dismembered bodies? Have the actors spent much of the film’s running time in extravagant, yet unerotic, nakedness? Has the action unfolded in static tableaus framed like paintings in the National Gallery? If you can answer yes to all three questions, then it’s a safe bet you’ve just been watching a Peter Greenaway film. You are undoubtedly feeling puzzled, challenged, but hopefully also experiencing the pleasant accompanying sensation of having witnessed something clever, funny and different.
For a spell in the late 1980s and the early 1990s, Peter Greenaway was about as mainstream as a wilfully art-house director could get. With the sequence of Drowning by Numbers, The Cook, The Thief, His Wife and Her Lover and Prospero’s Books, Greenaway took the art film beyond its small niche and into popular culture. In the years since then, he has somehow lost this wider audience, with many viewers perhaps alienated by the director’s dogged pursuit of his own creative obsessions—the relationship between image and text, static tableaux and narrative delivered in framed chapters—and over familiarity breeding a predictable contempt. Greenaway has become a bit of a byword for the forbidding, inscrutable art-film, as if he was some ivory tower snob bent on perfecting some kind of visual repellent for the popcorn-munching average cinemagoer.
In fact, Greenaway’s work is quite accessible and much more entertaining than the average Hollywood box-ticking genre flick. Drowning By Numbers and The Cook, The Thief, His Wife and Her Lover are the blackest of black comedies told in visually engaging ways, with great performances by some of the best and most recognisable English actors, including Joan Plowright, Bernard Hill, Joely Richardson, David Morrissey, Helen Mirren, Tim Roth and especially the mighty Michael Gambon, relishing the role of the eponymous Thief. Prospero’s Books is a visually stunning adaptation of Shakespeare’s The Tempest in which the director overlays video images to create a radically readable screen, and showcases one of the last great performances of John Gielgud. The Baby of Macon is a truly impressive film that addresses greed, exploitation and the church in the oddly captivating form of a 17th-century performance of a morality play, in which a young Julia Ormond and Ralph Fiennes cavort in their bare buff. The Pillow Book manages to feed Greenaway’s obsession with image and text directly into the story of a young Japanese woman, whose fetish for calligraphy on her own and her lovers’ flesh leads to a conflict with an amoral publisher, with the noteworthy presence of a pre-Obi-Wan Ewan McGregor (also cavorting in his bare buff). Through most of these films (though not The Pillow Book), there is the additional pleasure of the music of Michael Nyman, providing a safety line that helps guide viewers emotionally throughout the often distancing visual presentation favoured by Greenaway.
Viewers jaded with the utterly arid state of the Hollywood blockbuster and not much consoled by the bloodless, twee timidity of many independent and art-house movies today could do well to revisit Greenaway’s films to witness a truly independent vision. While his creations emphasise ideas and a rich, complex aesthetic, there is also fun, good stories and uncomplicated entertainment to be had. If people were to approach Greenaway’s films with just some of the energy and experimentalism that has been poured into trying to read articles by economists struggling to explain the Euro crisis, they would find both their time and their effort being much more richly rewarded.