British polyglot Peter Greenaway (filmmaker, painter, video artist etc) has never easily fit into any mold. The unique talent behind, among many others, “The Cook, the Thief, his Wife and Her Lover,” “The Baby of Macon,” “Prospero’s Books” and more recently the evocation of the life and work of Rembrandt in “Nightwatching,” is eternally divisive. Some find the self-conscious intellectualism of his approach appealing, others find it elitist and alienating.
His new film, the bemusing but beautiful “Goltzius and the Pelican Company” is not going to settle the debate anytime soon (read our review here). Perhaps the very definition of iconoclastic, it explores sex and death (“What other subjects are there?” Greenaway asks) through the prism of the Bible, religion and 16th century Dutch politics. As so often in the filmmaker’s long career, the density of classical allusion and Greenaway’s instinct toward didactiscism do battle with the his almost impish desire to strip sacred cows of their stuffiness; to the casual viewer, though, seeing past the erudition to the irreverence may be a challenge.
Talking to him in Rome last week, we got the impression of someone who is perfectly content to elicit a somewhat schizophrenic reaction, as long as he gets a reaction. A chatty, warm man with an inescapable, apparently insatiable intellectual curiosity, our conversation ranged from ‘Goltzius’ to the state of modern cinema to Sergei Eisenstein and back again, and left us, as often do his films, dazzled, but a bit dazed. Here we go:
Peter Greenaway: That sounds about right! Look, there’s one thing I want to do with this film -- with all my films -- I want you to realize that this is a film and it manipulates and proposes and discloses and argues with you, but this is an artificial phenomenon. It might have access to things you know about (like the more you know your Bible the richer the palimpsest will be), but it is still a film.
The elaborate 16th century court set created within a 20th century warehouse enhances that, yet we hear that was not initially your intention?
Well, you've got to respond to circumstances…We had some money in Croatia, where they do tax incentives for filmmakers, and we wandered all around the country looking for the ideal 16th century ambience but couldn't find it anywhere. If the buildings were from that era they had been restored in a redundant way -- very squeaky clean.
But then someone said to come and look at this maintenance yard for repairing locomotives from the 1920s and it was the evening and the light was streaming through the windows and it was simply photogenic. So I just thought let's scrap the whole movie and write a whole new film to use this location, but that proved to be impossible. [Instead we shot ‘Goltzius’ there and] we may not really deliver suspension of disbelief. I mean, you're not going to "believe" this but you're going to have to believe it. And it makes a comment about the artificiality [of film].
I believe that...film has to be multimedia, so all the arts are involved -- so I present the architecture, and it’s about dance and its legacy, and typography gets huge amounts of time onscreen...
Words as pictures, text as image -- it’s not really part any more of the European tradition. My film “The Pillow Book” -- that was my attempt to make a demonstration that there should be no separation and there isn't in Japanese culture. There, text is image and image is text.
I deplore the fact that we have a text-based cinema. Every film you've ever seen has started with the written word, “Lord of the Rings” and ‘Harry Potter’ are obvious examples but even down to your Almodovar, Spielberg, Eisenstein, all film begins with the written word. I think we ought to allow cinema to be its own medium and I want to prioritize the image, but I never want you to forget this dichotomy that's going on.
He is famous for his poetry both in Dutch and English, and I knew of him through that. I think he was intrigued, being a wordsmith himself, he was entertained by the literary nature of the project.
And many of the rest of the often-nude cast are Italian?
I had to do some casting in France, and I was surprised that no one was to prepare to take carnal risks at all. But then I came to Italy and there is a growing body of very interesting Italian actors and actresses -- no decent writing, no good filmmaking but of a great number of exciting actors.
Hugely. The Sistine Chapel is an extraordinary work of education -- it lays out all the early books of the Bible. I always think that art is one of the most wonderful exciting curious ways to learn I have no worries or apologies about art being used as a teaching medium.
And who do you consider your influences in that regard?
I've always in my career looked East, living in London, rather than West. I've always been interested in the cinema of ideas which is far more prevalent through the greatest formative European movement that I am aware of, the Nouvelle Vague. I'm the same age as Godard so it's not a historical subject, it’s a living situation for me.
That, and of course Italian cinema which begins with DeSica and ends with Bertolucci, have been my big two learning associations, have been very much the model for all my ideas.
Also, when I was 15 1/2 and in search of topless women in films I went to our local soft porn cinema to see Scandinavian films. But one day I went along and I'm quite sure this cinema manager didn't know what he was putting on, and I saw an extraordinary film -- Ingmar Bergman's “The Seventh Seal” and it had a profound effect on me. It got tarred with the brush of being a Scandinavian, risqué film so without any knowledge of its value it was shown in this cinema. But it's a film that is absolutely ideal for 15 1/2-year-old adolescent; it's about mythology, it’s about religion, notions of truth, it's very entertaining, it's full of shock tactics–Knights and Crusades, It’s a very very influential movie for 15 1/2 year old.