Saturday, August 1, 2015

The Landscapes of Film: Interview with Peter Greenaway (1986)

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 While his wife, Rose, supplied me with a box of published and unpublished work to consider, I felt the need for something else.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 While hunting for this lost hardcover, however, I came across a file in a box which contained a transcribed and unpublished interview with film director Peter Greenaway that David had done back in 1986 when the director was in Toronto for a presentation of his work.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.

Kevin Courrier,

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.

dc: Given your interest in ornithology, though, how did you make the leap into film?

pg: While at art college I came across film even though I was interested and more excited about the possibility of going to an art college to study painting. My attitude towards film then meant watching American pictures in the leisure entertainment sort of way. I had no idea that they could also be a vehicle for ideas, in the way I understood music and literature, until I saw Ingmar Bergman's The Seventh Seal.

dc: What kind of impact did it have on you?

pg: It took place one wet cricket afternoon in which all the games were rained out. I was taken by a near acquaintance to a flea-bit cinema and saw this extraordinary film. After that day, I began to see everything I could. I eventually came out of art school and started doing a lot of film writing for various London magazines. The Seventh Seal got me thinking about doing esoteric film comparisons between certain types of painting and film-making. I rapidly realized that I wasn't just interested in writing about film, but I wanted to make them as well. It seemed to me that the disciplines of film editing were closely aligned with other ideas of cataloging. Gradually I worked my way up with documentaries that I made for The Central Office of Information, which was set up by John Grierson back in the Thirties. I literally cut hundreds and hundreds of films on a variety of different subjects and dealing with subject matter that had to be presented in some rational form, which is finding ways of collecting and cataloging information. The main purpose of the COI was to present the British way of life to the rest of the world. By and large, their work methods and aesthetics were pretty conventional. But what it did do was give me a great ability to handle film, in all its different formats, and to find through experiments and mistakes a way to develop ideas. The work also provided a reasonable wage which I put away each week to sponsor my own private movies.

The Seventh Seal (1957)

dc: Were you still keeping an active interest in painting?

pg: Yes. I had painting exhibitions and was able to keep writing at the same time. I had also made about five or six films with very, very small audiences until I was discovered by Peter Sainsbury of the BFI (British Film Institute), and he encouraged me to make this short in 1978, A Walk Through H: The Reincarnation of an Ornithologist, and that was a turning point. He continued supporting me, and the Arts Council began sponsoring me, and pretty soon I was doing work for television including Act of God for Thames which was about people who had been struck by lightning. That one played in a number of Festivals and won a number of awards. Before long, I got to make the three-hour picture, The Falls [an absurdist encyclopedia of flight-associated material all relating to ninety-two victims of the Violent Unknown Event (VUE)], in 1980. From there, The Draughtsman's Contract opened the doors and even focused attention on my earlier work.

dc: You've said in a previous interview with Stuart Morgan in Artform that your films all connect conceptually. In what way does The Falls connect to The Draughtsman's Contract?

pg: The central argument of The Draughtsman's Contract [a murder mystery set in rural Wiltshire, England, in 1694 where Mr. Neville (Anthony Higgins), a young and arrogant artist is contracted to produce a series of 12 landscape drawings of an estate, by Mrs. Virginia Herbert (Janet Suzman) for her absent and estranged husband.] is about seeing and knowing and working on received opinions which is at the heart of the earlier documentaries. Those are even the tenets of documentary film-making. You show an image of a house and then you're told on the soundtrack that Balzac died there of an overdose of coffee. By the inference, you assume that this is the truth. It's the whole business of the voracity of the documentary. In a sense, like The Falls, The Draughtsman's Contract was conceived as a massive documentary. I wanted to look at 12 hot days in August of 1694. Working backwards, there are also connections with A Walk Through H, too. There are 92 maps in A Walk Through H, and 92 biographies in The Falls. The reason for some of this is that I am a huge admirer of the work of John Cage who in the 1940s had produced a work called Indeterminacy, which was a collection of stories put on two sides of a disk. Where he had a really nice idea was that each story should be allowed one minute of disk time. So if the stories were quite long they had to be read real fast, and if they were slow they had to read ponderously in order to stretch them out. I sort of liked that as a strategy. So I counted up these 92 stories. It was my homage to John Cage. But when I met Cage when we were working on this autobiographical film about him for Channel Four, it turned out that I didn't have 92 stories. I'd counted them wrong. There were only 90. He was vastly amused that I had erected this great fabric on a mathematical mistake.

The Draughtsman's Contract (1982). 

dc: You seem to suggest in The Draughtsman's Contract that it is useless and foolhardy to try and outwit the ruling classes at their own game because they operate by a different set of rules than the rest of society.

pg: I don't know whether Canadians got to know about the Lord Lucan affair a decade ago which involved a murder among the upper classes in Britain where they closed doors and prevented the media and even the police from getting at the truth. There seems to be a general feeling that in certain matters, if they want to, the aristocracy can close the doors and allow the truth from escaping. After all, the same question was asked about Hamlet: Where the hell were the police in Hamlet? Another example of the aristocracy policing itself.

dc: Many critics talk about the influence of Alan Renais' Last Year at Marienbad on The Draghtsman's Contract, but wouldn't you say that you're more obsessed with representation, while Renais is more obsessed with time and memory?

pg: Yep. In its various parts. One of the riches of Marienbad for me is its musical structure, even though it's a borrowed musical structure and it refers to things outside the film. I'm very keen to use those musical structures in The Draughtsman's Contract and I'm sure they exist there, but the stately movement of the people also has a stillness within their movement. Those kinds of dichotomies are also characteristic of Draughtman. Renais' use of the main central triangle of nameless individuals doesn't find representation in Draughtsman. But the general sense of ambiance, and the powerful, self-reflexive way Marienbad is made are certainly the type of characteristics that I pay homage to.

The Last Year at Marienbad (1961) 

dc: Do you think there is any correlation between The Draughtsman's Contract and Stanley Kubrick's Barry Lyndon, particularly in how both of you uncover the societal rot within the beauty of the landscape?

pg: A lot of people make that comparison, but I believe rather erroneously. I think Barry Lyndon was concerned with completely different things than I was. Unlike mine, Barry Lyndon was about the subjective view of life where you're constantly shifting your allegiances. You don't identify with one particular character. But outside of that, Barry Lyndon was also marred by the miscasting of the central role to Ryan O'Neal. I just couldn't believe him in that part. Kubrick does create a delightfully felicitous organization of shots, but not with the stringency with which we put together the shots in The Draughtsman's Contract. I think there are certainly better Kubrick films than Barry Lyndon.

dc: Which directors do you most admire?

pg: Well, Renais is certainly at the top. I'd add Antonioni, most of Godard, Truffaut up to and including Jules et Jim, Bergman, Bresson and Fellini. Visconti's La Terra Trema is a great movie. But I'm afraid that Americans don't really exist on this list and neither do, by and large, any British directors. Yet I do admire enormously Hollis Frampton and the works of Michael Snow.

dc: How do you explain the British obsession with their gardens? It's very alien to our obsessions in Canada.

pg: You must remember in England it is very difficult to find what can be truly called natural landscapes because everything has been walked on a thousand times. So we have a long tradition of curbing nature and turning it into exactly how we need it. There's in fact a nice balance to be kept all the time, a sense of control of the wilderness which a garden represents. It's forever going its own way, but you're forever holding it back in check. We also have this great obsession with the weather. Our weather is so variable that sometimes in the spring and summer, the weather can change from hour to hour. You can have dark, black skies followed by brilliant sunshine. We used some of those variables in The Draughtsman's Contract.

The Belly of an Architect (1987)

dc: What do you have coming up?

pg: I work on the premise that for every ten projects started maybe only three or four ever reach fruition. There seems to be a high state of natural wastage in the film business. Consider the number of films on paper that exist and never get made. The whole history of cinema is full of it. It's also a question of funding so there are three scripts ready to go. I think the next one will be The Belly of an Architect which is an argument about architecture. It's going to take place in Rome and it involves an American architect who retires to Rome to put on an exhibition of of the French revolutionary architect Étienne-Louis Boullée, who was probably the forefounder of fascist architecture. Certainly Albert Speer in Germany based his buildings on Boullée. The big civil buildings in Moscow and Beijing, and Mussolini's in Rome, owe a great deal to his work which gives me the premise of whether in fact architecture is political, or whether it ought to be political. It's got all those ideas. But on a more narrative level, it's about an architect going back to Rome and he is dying of stomach cancer. That is the main question of the film: the problems of success, failure, death and old age, those sorts of problems.

– David Churchill (1959 – 2013) was a film critic and novelist. Seemingly born with a pen in his hand, he was a freelance writer for over 25 years. Most recently, he worked in the publications department of Vintages, the fine wine and spirits division of the LCBO, where he wrote about beverage alcohol. His first novel, entitled The Empire of Death, is available for order athttp://www.wordplaysalon.comThe Eye of the Storm, his second novel, will be released posthumously.   

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