Paintings in Motion: A Dive Into the Filmic Philosophy of Peter Greenaway
Imagine, if you will, a film. This film is full of vibrant colors, which are carefully assigned by the director to different spaces and accentuated by remarkably dynamic lighting. In this film, the camera is slow and patient, following characters as they move or remaining still for extensive periods of time. Symmetry is everywhere in this film, not just in the composition of the scenes but in the plot, too. This is a film in which every frame is immaculately detailed and painstakingly structured, in which extras and leads pose as if they are in Renaissance or Baroque era paintings. This is a Peter Greenaway film.
My introduction to Peter Greenaway was The Cook, The Thief, His Wife, and Her Lover, his most well-known film. By the end of that movie my eyes had been opened to a new world of cinematic possibilities. I was absorbed into the beautifully artificial sets and massive spaces, mesmerized by the masterful performances of Michael Gambon and Helen Mirren. I was fascinated by the powerful contrast of colors, the meticulous control exhibited over every scene; I was surprised by the movie’s brazenness and shocked by its savagery.
Peter Greenaway approaches filmmaking from the perspective of a painter. In fact, just as films are sometimes called “motion pictures,” Greenaway films would best be understood as “motion paintings.” Each of his movies places greater emphasis on visual spectacle than message, as befits his personal philosophy of cinema. Greenaway has many times argued that narrative should be left to literature and film should be treated as a purely visual medium, much like the paintings he reveres. He claims that story only distracts audiences from what should be a film’s only priority: images. Tragically, aside from the one major success, Greenaway’s movies have received little attention from the public and been criminally underrated, likely because of his often-controversial choice in topic. I am here to right that wrong, if I can.
Many people may be repulsed by Greenaway’s movies because of their tendency toward blatant sexuality and twisted violence, but it is important to remember that his influences, both in story and style, come from 16th and 17th century art. In art, nobody bats an eye at displays of nudity, because depicting the body in full has been a part of painting tradition for thousands of years. In film, however, relatively strict industry standards are in place that discourage featuring nudity or sex in movies. Greenaway has featured full-frontal male nudity in every single one of his narrative films, which is intentionally jarring for most audiences. He challenges the double standard that exists between nudity in painting (lauded as high art) and nudity on film (often denounced as pornography) by imposing the visual conventions of art onto film. In his film Prospero’s Books, hundreds of extras, almost all of them nude or clad in baroque costumes, pose in scenes designed to be reminiscent of overpopulated 17th century paintings. Nudity and sex are so ubiquitous throughout the film that the viewer is desensitized and can observe the film from the detached perspective of an art critic.
It is self-evident how art has guided Greenaway’s visual tendencies, but what about his stories? In a Greenaway film, story is (despite the filmmaker’s dismissal) important but intentionally undercut by constant teasing that it is only a movie, and the audience should not take it too seriously. Greenaway is dismissive of filmmakers who strive for realism in their movies, arguing that film as a medium exists for making the impossible possible. In fact, it takes only a cursory glance at the local multiplex to prove him right: virtually no popular blockbusters are predicated on any semblance of realism. In The Baby of Macon, Greenaway depicts a play that is shot entirely within a cathedral on a stage that is not clearly defined, with characters that roam about for the amusement of nobles that may or may not be actors themselves. The movie is so designed that it is impossible for the audience to tell where the artifice of the play ends and reality begins. To Greenaway, the possibilities of artifice in film are infinitely more valuable than realism. A good movie is a strange and wonderful work of art that makes no attempt whatsoever to describe reality. To this end, Greenaway loves to tell stories that somehow incorporate or espouse the values of art.
This discussion of artifice leads to Greenaway’s mind-bending view of history, as his filmography is dominated by films set decades and often centuries removed from the present. According to Greenaway—almost verbatim—there is no history, only historians. History is a narrative much like literature, with the exception that it is widely accepted as the truth. Historians are the writers of history, and what they say goes, regardless of what really happened. Greenaway scoffs at “historical truth” and essentially does whatever he wants with historical stories. Art history is turned into works of art. In his film Nightwatching, he creates a fake conspiracy that was covertly depicted by Rembrandt in his famous painting The Night Watch. His film Goltzius and the Pelican Company is shot almost entirely in a large industrial warehouse though the events take place in the late 16th century, hundreds of years before the Industrial Revolution. The stories Greenaway weaves around these real historical figures have little factual basis, but nonetheless have value for the ruminations they offer about art, sex, taboo, and death. The truth is irrelevant to the filmmaking of Greenaway. He would much rather make pretty pictures and tell thoughtful stories than make every detail of his movie pointlessly historically accurate.
At this point I’ll issue a warning: the assertions of this article should be taken with a grain of salt because Greenaway is a very contradictory character. I have discussed at length his anti-narrative stance on film and his primarily visual focus, but Greenaway himself has never made an entirely non-narrative feature-length film. The scripts of his own movies are not mere afterthoughts, either. They are well-constructed and often involve philosophical discourse that is far from meaningless. Greenaway, it seems, cannot practice what he preaches. His unusual perspective on film makes for exceptionally creative movies, but Greenaway’s cynical criticisms of narrative in film are unfounded. He is a disparaging old intellectual who proclaims at every opportunity the death of cinema, but is unable to revitalize it himself, if the medium even needs revitalizing. Film is extremely well-suited for narrative, but it benefits from the unorthodox. Few directors have ever pushed the medium to its creative extremes as Peter Greenaway has, and his stunning brand of experimentalism will no doubt inspire innovation in film for years to come.