Today would have been Critics at Large co-founder David Churchill's 56th birthday. Earlier this week, I was trying to think of a way to commemorate it in our post today. While his wife, Rose, supplied me with a box of published and unpublished work to consider, I felt the need for something else. But what? So without a solution in mind, I put it to the back of my mind and took to my storage closet the other night to find some book I needed for some other matter. While hunting for this lost hardcover, however, I came across a file in a box which contained a transcribed and unpublished interview with film director Peter Greenaway that David had done back in 1986 when the director was in Toronto for a presentation of his work. Seeing the typewritten series of sheets, where corrections consisted of pencil slashes across words and scribbled insertions, it took me back to a whole other era of writing and editing. But it also brought me back to the moment when David gave it to me to read which was shortly after he did his transcription.
We had been friends for about two years at that point and already feeling each other out on our favourite films, directors we liked and didn't, and gleefully and teasingly putting each other's views to the test. We were still a year away from doing reviews together on the radio. But he already knew that I was no fan of Peter Greenaway's pictures (which to that point included The Draughtsman's Contract and A Zed and Two Noughts) because I found them to be obsessively formal and the abstract exercises of a patrician; or perhaps, to put it more succinctly, Greenaway was the art historian as beach bully who (to paraphrase critic Terrence Rafferty) kicked art in our faces. So I think David wanted to prove otherwise when he gave me this interview to read. Perhaps he also wished to justify a sensibility that spoke deeply to him at the time. (David was also a huge fan of Alain Renais who had an enormous impact on Greenaway's work.) We had already had our arguments over Stanley Kubrick's later films like The Shining which David would attend whenever it was being revived. "Whenever I feel depressed, I go to see The Shining," he would often say about a film that could send me into fits of depression. I never got an answer out of him as to why it cheered him so (but had he lived, as he intended, to review Rm 237, a documentary about viewers' obsessions with The Shining, I might have gotten my answer). Anyway, I never did get around to reading his interview with Peter Greenaway which I'm sure he saw as a shortcoming of mine. Maybe he wanted me to find it the other night if you believe in interventions from the other side. But as I was reading and editing it today, I could hear his voice threading through this conversation as I could imagine him also grinning somewhere in satisfaction that he finally found a way to get my attention. I can say that after devouring the discussion, I still haven't changed my mind about Peter Greenaway and his films. But neither have I about David's value as a dear friend and great critic. And we all miss him in the pages of Critics at Large.
dc: As much as you are a filmmaker, you've also been called an enumerator, a cataloger and a classification theorist. How do all these things comprise what you do in films like A Zed and Two Noughts and The Draughtsman's Contract?
pg: All forms of art and human activity are desperate attempts of man to comprehend chaos by cataloging it in some way. Perhaps the supreme image is the map, that extraordinary artifact that's told you where you've been, tells you where you are, and tells you where you're going – all in one plane. Language, of course, is a supreme cataloging device which organizes our thoughts and ideas and puts them into some coherent form. So you could say that all human activity falls along this pattern. It's all a process of cataloging, collating and organizing random data that is forever falling on our ears in order that we can utilize and reuse it. So to actually do that in terms of art is no particularly original thing, but I just find it fascinating. Look at the concepts of the invisible line that runs around the world that indicates the equator. By dividing up the planet into convenient sections in order to comprehend the chaos of time is all part of the same desperate attempt to organize the material.
|A Zed and Two Noughts (1985)|
dc: How did your early years influence your tendency in your pictures to enumerate and catalog things?
pg: My father has considerable interest in ornithology, so that is why I use that influence as a focus in my films. Though I don't know that much about ornithology, my own particular interest in natural history focused in on the collection of British insects. I have a large collection that I recently gave up on because I feel today like it's big game hunting on a smaller scale. As the beetles I collected got rarer and rarer I began to feel like I was plundering. But it was still an area that fascinated me. That is, the careful cataloging where, for instance, I could discern 98 different species of the lady bug which each one is very minutely different from the next.