Seven Things I Know About Him

"G Is For Greenaway:

The Films of Peter Greenaway"

Walker Art Center

April 4 through April 30

A. PETER GREENAWAY might be the most generous misanthrope in all of cinema: His savage worldview is rendered with academic rigor and the utmost respect for lighting, composition, etc. The most lavishly offensive of his films remains The Cook, the Thief, His Wife & Her Lover (1989), a pretty picture of depravity framed by scenes of a man being smeared with shit, and another getting his just desserts by unwittingly eating human flesh. Ultimately, such characters are mere conduits for Greenaway's Ideas--and so, perhaps, is his audience. "Americans don't understand what metaphor is about," he has said.

B. Albeit messy in these details, Greenaway's oeuvre is mathematically precise. Indeed, if any director begs a formalist overview, it's him. To be exact, the Walker's month-long retro assembles 10 shorts, nine features, and one Regis Dialogue (on April 30, between Greenaway and critic Peter Wollen). Aptly, anal-compulsion permeates the series: Greenaway's "Inside Rooms: 26 Bathrooms" (screening April 18, before The Cook) spends 25 minutes on a sterile survey of two dozen toilets, plus two. Lack of order seems to disturb the auteur: Last year at Cannes, he lamented that the millennium may have been miscalculated.

C. Greenaway's early "H Is For House" (April 16, preceding A Zed and Two Noughts) prognosticated its maker's twin fetishes for nomenclature and enumeration: Set to Vivaldi's The Four Seasons (count 'em), it's a home-movie inventory of things that begin with the letter "H" (e.g. Hollywood and hodgepodge), narrated in part by Hannah, the director's daughter. Likewise, The Falls (April 9) is a mock-documentary about 92 survivors of the "Violent Unknown Event" (acronym: "the VUE"), all of whose last names begin with the prefix "Fall." (Note: It runs three hours.) The 44-minute "Death in the Seine" (April 23, preceding Prospero's Books) compiles 23 case histories of watery corpses found between 1795 and 1801. And The Pillow Book (April 25) is a singular achievement that's triply structured, as it tallies 13 books of erotic poetry while spanning 28 years and two fires in the life of its heroine.

D. Greenaway's gift for clever cataloguing and apt alliteration evidently emerged from his early experiences. Born in Wales in 1942 and raised in London, he spent 11 years working at the Central Office of Information in England, starting in 1965 as an editor of government-statistics documentaries. (The Falls seems at once the consummation of this job and a mockery of it.) Among his few acknowledged influences are avant-garde precisionist Hollis Frampton and French New Wave puzzlemaker Alain Resnais (Last Year at Marienbad), whose brilliant cinematographer, Sacha Vierny, he has adopted as his own. Otherwise, per Greenaway, "Nobody has yet made a film." (Himself included?)

E. Greenaway's films truly belong in a museum. Full of fastidiously composed tableaux (many of which resemble installations), his work suggests that of a "fine artist"--or, as he describes himself, "a painter who happens to be working in cinema." Indeed, Greenaway draws entire worlds within his frame, artificially owing to the "You're watching a movie" aesthetic of '60s-era Euro art cinema. Though he favors historical features--like The Baby of Macon (April 4), a play within a play set in the 17th century--he embraces HDTV and IMAX, and hopes one day to make a fully digital film. (Thus allowing him, one supposes, to control everything.)

F. Ironically or not, Greenaway's movies tend to be (self-)portraits of the artist (architect, actor, calligrapher, coroner, cook, thief) who tries and fails to maintain order. Sordid sexual arrangements generally cause these catastrophes, as in The Draughtsman's Contract (April 11) and his new Pillow Book--although the latter seems the warmest and least fussy of Greenaway's films, and a rebuttal of his stated belief that it's "very arrogant to suppose you could make a film for anybody but yourself."

G. Greenaway is God. That is, unless you're religious. But especially if you're an aesthete. And at least in his own mind.

 
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