Peter Greenaway in conversation

Posted: December 12, 2008 in creativity

Cinema is Dead


petergreenawayToday i watched an excellent conversation between Peter Greenaway and Virginia Trioli on ABC’s iView. I knew that Greenaway is a fabulous arthouse movie director and producer; what I didn’t know for example is that he trained as a painter (and he still paints and has worldwide exhibitions of his work), wrote 10 operas, embraces enthusiastically the possibilities of the online environment, works all around the globe as a VJ and much more. Quite an impressive, versatile and prolific artist!

Peter Greenaway, in my mind, has always been a man of bold ideas. No surprise then that in the interview he declared again that cinema died – on the 31. September 1983, with the introduction of the remote control into the world’s living rooms. It meant giving movie viewers finally the interactive choices that for example every lover of the arts had for centuries when looking at art objects or the average shopper can make walking down the most mediocre high street. Movies don’t allow us interactive engagement, apart from the simple step of walking out; they don’t give us the opportunity to engage, with our whole body and all our senses. All they do is offering the opportunity to stare at a 2D-screen for 90 minutes, glued to your seat. It’s a bit like reading a book, and in a way cinema could be described as a variant text-based art form.

Developed in the late 19th century, it seems to remain in a time warp, and consequently Greenaway describes it as moribund, boring and disappointing. His proposal for the survival of the cinema is ‘interaction’ – the ability on the site of the recipient to become a co-director . This happens not just by stopping and rewinding a movie, but for example by rearranging or editing the textual content live, during the process of viewing, remaking it into something new every time we see it. In a way, interacting with a movie is like creating our own work of art, most certainly with an intention different from the author’s original one.

Sounds a bit overwhelming? Sounds like we’ll be missing out on what the artist wanted to tell us? Only because we are not used to it for a number orf reasons. And also because society has developed a notion and practice of seeign the artist and the recipient as two different entities, living in very different worlds. But that’s me now spinning Greenaway thoughts further into a new conceptual future that could and hopefully will replace the act of art consumption with the one of co-creation.


Scene from the film The Draughtsman’s Contract 

Quite exciting! But back to the Trioli conversation with Greenaway. Greenaway, disliking the text-based structure of movies, consequently also dislikes the concept of the narrative cinema uses for its performance (see ‘Harry Potter’ or ‘The Lord of the Rings’); it makes cinema an illustrated book which, when you think of it, doesn’t sound very exciting. Cinema should separate itself from bookshop, proclaims Greenaway. What that would mean of course is re-educating people: we all are more or less sophisticated in the use of words coz from early childhood we’ve learned to speak and we practice related skills daily in thinking, talking and writing. Not many of us have gone to art school and/or express ourselves constantly in visual terms.

That leads to the answer as to why Greenaway, with all those ideas, still makes movies! He explained that he believes that if you introduce just 20% innovation into an art form, you’ll lose 80% of your audience. In other words, you need to embark on an education process that is slow, steady and varied – which is something that can be seen in some of his movies where narrative still is present but distorted or interrupted, in others where it is almost abolished (like ‘Prospero’s Books‘ or ‘The Pillow Book‘) or his VJ activities where we find, if at all, thousands of narratives that we create in our own heads from the surrounding sound and image bites.

The destruction of narrative either through user-driven means of as deconstruction performed by the artist can symbolically also be seen as taking visual art out of its traditional frame. Greenaway pointed to 2D-art coming from an architectural feature history (and I would add  that of the sacred ritual), and it’s been only a 600 year old tradition to put a picture into a frame. Film followed the frame metaphor by adding narrative to the framed picture. Now interactivity can remove the frame again and re-introduce the image(s) to where it really belongs: the world around us, life. After all, we live in the 21st century in which art can be for example projected onto the 360 degree 3D space we are part of or in which we can create 2D or 3D images simply by interacting with space itself. In such a world framed art simply becomes a relic, pleasurable but at the same time limited in terms of artistic and participatory exploration … unless itself is integrated into the world of art that is spatial, unframed like Greenaway’s staged a one-night performance ‘remixing’ da Vinci’s original  The Last Supper in the refectory of Santa Maria delle Grazie to a select audience in June 2008.


Scene from the film Nightwatching

Greenaway touched on much more in the 30 minute interview that just the material limitations of film as a medium. He reflects on cinema blurring the demarcation between truth and lies, the artificiality of art, the power of music (cinema as the carrier for music), the paradox of being a painter and film maker while being so highly critical of these media. And he underlines the importance of using his position of privilege to propagandarise the notion of what cinema is and especially what it isn’t. There is also the notion of  ‘passionate detachment’, the cerebral reaction complementing the emotional, dealing with the horrific such as in “The Cook, The Thief, His Wife & Her Lover”, the allegory for the greed, lust and power reigning the Thatcher years. That movie also reflected what Greenaway seems to often describe as the game play: we look at life, we have all these perceptions of right and wrong, yet we participate fully in it.

On a more personal note, Greenaway reflected on his relationship to his late father whom he personified in many main characters in his movies. But his mainstay really seems to be his incorporation of (new) digital technology into art (film) production, with its aspects of interactivity, choice and multimedia, his desire to make images in cinema: he wants it to be a ‘profound, sophisticated experience that embraces everything else that we would wish to put into a superior art form”. This artistically ambitious vision seems exceptionally portrayed in The Tulse Luper Suitcases, a multimedia project with innovative film techniques that resulted in five films (which I’m dieing to see – even though it’s a 7-hour experience 😉 ) – or of course in Greenaway’s VJ activities which not only apply multimedia and choice but incorporate the dancing bodies into a participatory interactive relationship between the DJ and the audience. What a different place from a cinema in which you sit on your seat, looking for 2 hours in one direction!

Short interview on cinema = dead


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