Peter Greenaway at AIDC

As Sandy George said in introducing this plenary session of the Australian International Documentary Conference in Perth in 2008, there were only two other Peters who would get this many documentary filmmakers to hear him, and they were Peter Garrett the Minister for the Arts, and Saint Peter.

So why were they here to see this Peter? Well perhaps it was because Peter Greenaway has made fifteen feature films, fifty shorts and documentaries including The Draughtsman’s Contract, The Cook, The Thief, His Wife and Her Lover, and Zed and Two Noughts.

Only the previous day the well-known documentary filmmaker Mark Lewis (Cane Toads: An Unnatural History) had said that Greenaway’s Acts of God was the reason why he was inspired to make films in the first place.

Peter Greenaway is a fabulous speaker – witty, controversial, and stimulating in equal measure. He began by confessing that he isn’t a documentary filmmaker at all – n fact he hardly even thinks of himself as a filmmaker these days. But he did want to talk about this phenomena called cinema, how it affects him and where he stands at the moment – and perhaps were we all are, and what we ought to be doing.

Greenaway explained that he started as a painter, and that’s what he feels happiest talking about. He added that painting has an 8000 year history, which puts the 112 years of cinema into the shade – and that’s if you believe that cinema was invented by the Lumiere brother. “I believe that cinema was invented by Rembrandt and other painters who were attempting to discover how to manipulate light. And after all, that’s what cinema is, isn’t it?”

Peter said that he liked people with contradictions as they were interesting. “I’m reluctant to call myself a film director, even after 25 years of practising,” he said. “I stand before you at age 65, and I still wonder what I ought to do when I grow up.”

“Am I taking myself seriously enough, am I taking you seriously enough? The jury’s out and I’ve had an exciting time. I stand between these two poles of excitement, painting and filmmaking.”

Greenaway explained that he became disillusioned about filmmaking in the early 90s, finding filmmaking to be boring, irrelevant, and unnecessary. He contrasted filmmaking with architecture, “because you can’t bypass the dominance of architecture. It’s neither decorative nor ephemeral.”

He launched into a critique of modern cinema. “Our films are deeply text based. Films are meant to be visual but you’re just a bunch of text pushers and the imagery comes from the side.”

“Cinema is a huge joke. We’ve never seen a film, we’ve seen 100 years of illustrated text.”

He cited the recent Harry Potter series of films to prove his point. “Curiously, the books were far more successful that the films. So why do we have to keep going back to that goddamn bookshop to find the basis for a film?”

He recognises that you must refer to a text in order to get the money to make a film. “I’m in the same boat. I can’t go to a producer or a studio with four paintings and two lithographs and say give me the money.”

For Greenaway, we are all fairly visually illiterate, but producers are the most visually illiterate of them all.

He suggested that French filmmaker Jean-Luc Godard had the right idea. “Play the game,” he suggested. “Write the text, get the cheque and when we’re sure it has cleared, throw the text away and make the goddamn film.”

Peter Greenaway is obviously regretful that his days as a painter are now over. He was a painter living on chips and carrots and nothing else, but he obviously relished the role. Now the world is dominated by the text makers, not painters. At least that’s the way it has been for many years.

But now all that is changing, according to Greenaway.

“Since the digital revolution, the age of the text makers is over and its now the time of the image makers. If you believe in the notion of the image, this is the beginning of the golden age.”

Greenaway feels that all cinema is fiction, and that includes documentary. However he feels that his feature films are more honest than the documentary, as at least the fiction filmmaker makes it clear that their film is telling lies.

He is critical of film and television for its artificial length, dictated by the needs of cinema exhibition and program schedules rather than any artistic consideration.

“Television is a terrible tyrant of where things are placed and how long it is. You’re all stuck in series of strait-jackets,” he thundered. “I’m always searching for ways out of this strait-jacket.”

“I believe cinema is effectively dead,” Greenaway concluded. All all technology has its arc in history from invention, through consolidation – and finally someone comes along who throws the whole thing away.

For Greenaway, Eisenstein was the inventor of cinema, Fellini was the consolidator and Godard was the one who threw it all away.

And TV died on 30 September 1983, with the invention of the remote control.

But now we’re entering a brand new era. “These formulations are beginning to be eroded, if not corroded,” Greenaway continued, “and the most important screen now is the one on your mobile phone.”

He taunted the audience, assuming we were all Second Lifers. “Of course you are. You have to know about this amazing phenomenon.”

For Greenaway, cyberspace is the new artistic frontier that is going to change everything – the way we do business, as well as communicate.

“The frame is an entirely man-made device. An artificial device. Some have suggested that it’s like a window in a house, but windows run north-south and the cinema screen runs east-west.”

Peter lives in Holland because he’s not appreciated in England. “And the country which appreciates me most is Italy,” he said.

Greenaway showed us ‘an impoverished DVD’ version of an exhibition he created in Italy, which attempted to compress 2000 of years of Italian design into five minutes. It was truly impressive, but not as impressive as the real thing would have been in its immensity.

“There is a huge palace outside Turin which is their attempt to build Versailles. These places are dead because they don’t have any people in them. I created a project called People In The Palaces. We did it all with projections,” he explained. “We can see people coming in one door, walking through and out the other door, even having a meal.”

He added that computer technology allows him to film anecdotes of palace life individually, to be put together later and transmuted into an exhibition. For Greenaway, this is cinema “but taken away from the notion that the only place to see films is either in the cinema or on the television.”

Greenaway created a highly successful interpretation of Rembrandt’s ‘Night Watch’ in Amsterdam, which is such a valuable painting that just after the Second World War the Americans offered to forgo the debt owed to it by Holland in exchange for it.

The painting told the story of a murder, which by publicly accusing someone in paint, severely held back Rembrandt’s career. Greenaway’s interpretation used visual effects to bring the painting to life, employing a stunning soundtrack as well. “If Rembrandt had been alive today he would obviously have been a filmmaker,” he added.

He has always been astounded that filmmakers don’t take more notice of the 8000 years of painting. “Painters and painting have always governed the way we look at the world,” he told us. “Look at Picasso’s Guernica, Monet’s Water Lillies, Da Vinci’s “The Last Supper.”

Interestingly for a painter, Greenaway believes that cinema is 60% sound and 40% vision, and that’s why he gives his exhibitions such stirring and evocative sound.

“We have now been given Da Vinci’s ‘The Last Supper’ to play with, he announced with glee.

In conclusion, Greenaway reiterated that for him cinema was dead, but we shouldn’t cry about it, for it is being replaced by an exciting era of multimedia activity.

The presentation concluded with the presentation with a trailer for a film he made last year, about Rembrandt called “Nightwatching,” which won the Open Prize at the 2007 Venice Film Festival.

“Look at what painters have done through history and what they are doing now,” he urged us. “Become visually literate. Learn to see.”


First published in Screen Hub 2008.


Leave a Reply