- The Art and Artifice of Peter Greenaway
It is significant that the subtitle of Alan Woods’ new book, Being Naked Playing Dead, is not “The Films of...” or “The Cinema of...” but rather “The Art of Peter Greenaway.” “Artist” is certainly a more accurate description of Greenaway’s occupation than “filmmaker”; while he is widely known as one of today’s most brilliant and unique filmmakers, he has also worked in the mediums of painting, installations, experimental television, and opera. Woods’ subtitle not only indicates this fact, but also makes clear that Greenaway’s films must be considered in light of his wider body of work, and, more importantly, that his work must be considered within the context of contemporary art rather than contemporary cinema. As Woods points out: “Greenaway’s cinema requires a critical analysis which is not restricted to cinema, but draws its terms and concepts and examples both from the history of Western painting since the Renaissance... and from a base within the very different world of contemporary art practice” (87). Through his in-depth understanding of salient issues in contemporary art and his ability to decipher the wealth of influences and references at play within the works themselves, Woods distills the complexities of Greenaway’s art into a cohesive aesthetic theory, an outline for a “new cinematic language.” He constructs a fascinating portrait of Greenaway’s working method as well as illustrates a potentially new method of film criticism.
Part of what makes Greenaway’s films unique is the way they address the medium of film itself. Greenaway is obsessed with the difficulties of representing reality on film, and this problem becomes focused on representations of the body. As Greenaway explains: “[there are] two phenomena I have never been able to suspend disbelief about in the cinema—copulation and death” (52). Copulation and death are the two subjects addressed by Woods’ title, and they are particularly significant to Greenaway because they mark the limit of representation, the limit of film’s ability to represent the physical world. According to Woods, naked bodies, which are ubiquitous in Greenaway’s films, are linked to mortality: “Our interest in the nude, he suggests, is more than sexual: it is also to do with our knowledge of our own mortality. Many of the bodies he shows us are dead, or at least... acting dead” (162). It is paradoxical that Greenaway’s method of addressing the artifice of film is actually a project of connecting viewers to something more genuine: the experience of their own bodies, their mortality, the human condition. Greenaway recognizes the inability of “dominant” cinema to convey this experience because of its strict adherence to narrative; narrative is unable to remind people that they are mortal, and this is why Greenaway advocates a new cinema, a “cinema of ideas, not plots.”
Jorge Luis Borges once said that the short story did not necessarily require a plot, but rather a “situation,” and it is this word that appears in Woods’ text in place of plot: “the situation, however artificial, becomes difficult to bear because it must be thought about rather than consumed/resolved through narrative” (201). Narratives fail because they resolve tension, whereas Greenaway uses tension to evoke thought. Narrative relies on character identification, on the viewer’s empathy with the plight of the protagonist, but Greenaway rejects such a notion: “Empathy... prevents us from dealing with, facing up to, what is really real” (176). This repositioning of the viewer in relation to the work of art is almost Brechtian, except that Greenaway’s project does not encourage political awareness so much as an awareness of the operations of nature; according to Woods, Greenaway disrupts narrative from a “Darwinian standpoint.” However, it would be wrong to interpret Greenaway’s emphasis on nature as an attempt to evoke a spiritual or a transcendent experience. Woods describes Greenaway’s use of cinematic artifice as an attempt to combine Brechtian as well as Baroque theatricality (the Baroque aesthetic combines soul and body, the spiritual and the material): “It is not spirituality which is co-existent...