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  • Dramatizing the Failure to Jump the Culture/Nature Gap: The Films of Peter Greenaway
  • Vernon Gras (bio)

Peter Greenaway’s films share the absurdist premises of Beckett and Pinter but not their minimalist understatement and choked up silences. He likes to do “talkie” films and stuffs them as full of information and citations of past culture as the film’s problem or conflict will allow. Similar to other postmodern artists whose works are informed by the current “loss of center,” Greenaway’s films are filled with quotes and allusions to the cultural monuments of the past in architecture, painting, sculpture, landscape, scientific theory, religion, and myth. He has been criticized by some as an elitist for the heavy load of intellectual freight his films carry. But many critical reactions to his work have been profuse in their admiration of its multilayered richness. 1 In an interview with Joel Siegel in City Paper (April 6, 1990), Greenaway argues that his many cultural allusions are not affectation. Rather, he feels, they help in the development of an introspective approach to film making. He grants that cinema must be realistic, that is, reproduce the external world, but it must also render a multilayer of metaphorical meaning. Thus, Greenaway’s films are far richer in their mise-en-scène than in montage. More attention is given to how a particular scene is framed and shot than to fast cuts, changing camera angles, and the suspenseful development of a story line. The latter he contemptuously refers to as “the Hollywood cinema” and a “St. Vitus Dance use of the camera.” 2 In defending his financially successful The Cook, the Thief, His Wife and Her Lover from being a Hollywood sellout, Greenaway asserted that “this is a metaphorical film. There’s no way that the American cinema ever deals in metaphor. The only decent metaphorical filmmaker you have here is David Lynch. Americans don’t understand what metaphor in cinema is about. They’re extremely good at making straightforward, linear narrative movies which entertain superbly. But they very rarely do anything else. The whole purpose of my cinematic effort is to explore metaphor and symbol.” 3

It is precisely this thick visual and verbal texture in his films that induces pleasurable anticipation in his followers and perhaps contributes more to the viewer’s interpretive interest than do the storyline of his [End Page 123] characters. With confirmed regularity, Greenaway places his dramatic conflicts into a thick cultural tapestry whose allegorical meanings and oppositions, though enlivened by the surface activities of his characters, usually do more for his films than does the plot.

I’m looking for ways of structuring films that coexist with my thematic material but that also have their own identities and interest. In some ways my films are more satisfactorily explained by the esthetic one brings to painting than to movies. The sense of distance and contemplation they require has much more to do with painting. When you go into an art gallery you don’t emote, by and large, like people do in the movies. I know my work is accused of being cool and intellectually exhibitionistic. But I’m determined to get away from that manipulated, emotional response that you’re supposed to have to Hollywood cinema. 4

The recurring allegory, metaphor, or subtext in all his films, underlying their more immediate and superficial action, is the inevitable failure of whatever ordering principles his protagonists engage in. The same self-awareness and reflexivity about their art found in writers like Borges, Calvino, Barth, and Pynchon, find thematic and cinematographic expression in Greenaway. On more than one occasion, Greenaway has admitted fondness for Borges, Calvino, Smollett, and their influence on his work. 5 Like many postmodern writers, Greenaway makes the creative process itself the main issue in his films. It is human creativity, the artistic activity itself—meaning giving—that functions sub voce as the hero. Excluding Prospero’s Books, Greenaway’s major films have depicted this theme as serious actions in a tragic mode. Beginning with The Draughtsman’s Contract (1982) and continuing unabated through A Zed and Two Noughts (1985), Belly of an Architect (1987), Drowning by Numbers (1988...

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pp. 123-143
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