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Rome Interview: Peter Greenaway On 'Goltzius And The Pelican Company,' Sergei Eisenstein, 3D & The Future Of Cinema

The Playlist By Jessica Kiang | The Playlist November 19, 2012 at 12:41PM

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.

Bosch Painting
Your upcoming projects include a 3D short, what do you think of the format?
I am now making a 3D movie in Portugal [part of the same series a the "Centro Historico" shorts, reviewed here]. I think there is no future whatsoever in 3D, it does nothing to the grammar and syntax or vocabulary of cinema. And you get fed up with it in exactly 3 minutes. So I think it's a dead-end I think it's, you know, a trick to try and get people away from their laptops and back to the cinema, like all the experimentation in the '50s and '60s with Todd AO and VistaVision and all that stuff. I repeat I don't think 3D cinema is going anywhere but I think it's important for me to learn as much as possible about cinema and optics.

Also on your list is a film about Hieronymous Bosch
Yes, 2016 is a grand celebration of Hieronymous Bosch. Though most of his paintings now are either in Spain or Portugal he comes from a city in lower Holland he was the first surrealist, if you like and there is a theory that most of his imagery is a transcription of the vernacular language that existed around the Burgundian empire in the 15th century, so it’s an exploration of that.

Sergei Eisenstein
...and another on Sergei Eisenstein?
Yes, I have this film about Eisenstein who lost his virginity in Mexico City aged 33. St. Augustine suggested we all go to heaven aged 33, and Eisenstein has his first sexual experience, homosexual experience, in Mexico City aged 33.

I've always been fascinated by Eisenstein. My first painting exhibition was called “Eisenstein at the Winter Palace” and I've always been puzzled why his first three great films, "[Battleship] Potemkin," “October” and “Strike” were very intellectual, were conceived from a very cerebral point of view, and his last three great films which are “Ivan the Terrible,” “Alexander Nevsky” and “The Boyars Plot” [aka “Ivan the Terrible Part II”] are suddenly full of humanism and much more concerned with emotional associations, and have much more respect for human emotion.

I think his 3 years outside of Russia, when he went to Mexico -- first to California but of course Hollywood spits out intellectuals so that certainly didn't work,  but then he went to Mexico on the advice of Charlie Chaplin to make "Que Viva Mexico" and that too was an absolute disaster, but when he was in Mexico, he fell in love with a historian ...and they had a torrential, ten-day, very carnal affair. And he finally came to terms with his homosexuality, but also he went there initially to see this very famous museum of the dead, there are 400 corpses there, so if I believe that there only two subject matters -- sex and death --  [the story] fulfills that.

“October” is sometimes known as “10 days that shook the world.” This is “10 days that shook Eisenstein.”

You’ve made some gloomy prognostications about the future of cinema in the past. How do you feel about it right now?
The cinema we've got now is certainly not the cinema of our fathers and forefathers. The alternatives in terms of entertainment are gross, we now have a system like in Amsterdam where young people simply don't go to the cinema. And we have the prospect of the democratization of the medium… Already my Facebook is full of filmmakers and laptop users asking “when can we have the film so we can re edit and reorganize it?" and I think, well, that’s okay by me.

In a world where we can all be our own filmmakers, the old elites are disappearing and there is no desire to look at somebody else's dream anymore because you can go off and make your own. Maybe YouTube is the greatest thing that happened to cinema in the last 10 years. 95% of it is crap but that's always been the way, but there you can avoid the middleman. So [the future is all about] this notion of the democratization of the medium...whatever your nostalgia for "Casablanca" there is a big seachange happening.

What I'm looking for now is a present tense cinema: I can make a film on a Monday I could remake it for Tuesday, re-remake it for Wednesday; you could never do that with celluloid cinema. It's going to be absolute horror for distributors but they're all disappearing anyway.

It's very difficult to understand but I'm looking for a nonnarrative, multiscreen, present-tense cinema. Narrative is an artifact created by us, it does not exist at all in nature, it is a construct made by us and I wonder whether we need the narrative anymore. I'm trained as a painter and the very best paintings are nonnarrative, why can't we make nonnarrative films?

The big revolution of the 20th century was to get rid of harmony from music with Schoenberg. People like Beethoven could never imagine we could get rid of harmony but we did. Then in imagistic terms that revolution was figuration -- we got rid of figuration in painting and harmony in music and now we have to get rid of narrative in cinema.

How we're going to do that I do not know but the pursuit is on and it's very valuable to ask the questions.

This article is related to: Peter Greenaway, Goltzius And The Pelican Company, Interview, Rome Film Festival

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