‘Cinema of Ideas’: Films of Peter Greenaway

The British filmmaker Peter Greenaway recently celebrated his 77th birthday. The controversial filmmaker became a seminal figure on the art-house and avant-garde cinema after the release of ‘The Cook, the Thief, His Wife and Her Lover’. He is recognized as an innovative, intellectually stimulating, and provocative artist.

‘Cinema of Ideas’: Films of Peter Greenaway ‘Cinema of Ideas’: Films of Peter Greenaway Source : Taste of Cinema


Peter Greenaway was trained as a painter and heavily influenced by theories of structural linguistics, ethnography, and philosophy. Greenaway's films "traversed often unprecedented ground, consistently exploring the boundaries of the medium by rejecting formal narrative structures in favor of awe-striking imagery, shifting meanings, and mercurial emotional tension; fascinated by formal symmetries and parallels, earning equal notoriety for its provocative eroticism as well as its almost self-conscious pretentiousness. The first of Greenaway's experimental short films to gain widespread distribution was 1969's seven-minute Intervals. Greenaway first garnered festival notice, and with 1980's The Falls, a "documentary" set in the future, he made his long-awaited feature debut. The 1982 17th century drama The Draughtsman's Contract was his critical breakthrough, and the film launched him to the forefront of the global experimental film community. With 1989's more accessible The Cook, the Thief, His Wife and Her Lover, Greenaway made his American breakthrough. A corrosive allegory of life in contemporary England, the film became the subject of much controversy in the U.S.

The first incongruity in Greenaway's works is the coupling of the terms poststructuralist and postmodern with the name Peter Greenaway. As Wollen's comment suggests, the name "Greenaway" is undeniably associated with authorship, with the director as author, and with "signature" films; the terms poststructuralist and postmodern, on the other hand, are associated with the dissolution of the figure of the author. Interestingly, Greenaway's name on the credits is a commercially viable ploy that appeals to notions of the artist as visionary and to audience recognition. Greenaway himself, like Fellini, has provided his own critique of authorship in his films. It is not surprising, then, that his newest film, Eight and a Half Women, is a homage to Fellini's 8 1/2, a film that marks Fellini's self-conscious and direct engagement with the question of authorship. Greenaway not only demonstrates tolerance toward his films being "read" by audiences, but he has shown a genuine interest and curiosity about how they are read. "If you make something for public consumption-however small the audience-" he states, "it must be theirs to interpret as they wish. You cannot control it".

Greenaway himself both exploits and parodies traditional notions of authorship, as can be seen for instance in The Draughtsman's Contract, where the artist is ridiculed-and killed-for his pretensions and vanities. As many critics have noted, this ironic attitude toward the function of the artist can often be seen in postmodern works. Rosanna Maule notes that "in the context of postmodern address, authorship may disengage the interplay between narrative instances, implicit author, and real author that has traditionally founded its authoritative address in the film text". Greenaway does not describe himself as first and foremost a filmmaker, and his relationship to the medium has been, from its inception, rebellious and ambivalent. It is perhaps for this reason that Greenaway's films are often difficult to categorize or classify. As Amy Lawrence notes, they are easy to recognize but difficult to describe and are best approached as what Alan Woods calls a "hybrid" genre.

Postmodernism is a complex phenomenon that can take many forms; some are manifested in popular film and some in the art cinema. It has been used to designate forms of thought, the historical period we are currently living in, and this period's economic practices. Far from being a unified theory, postmodernism has alternatively been linked, on the one hand, to neoconservative politics and, on the other hand, to a politics of resistance. In its "resistant" manifestation, postmodernism concerns itself with a critical deconstruction of ideologies, while the "reactionary" brand of postmodernism tends toward the use of pseudo-historical forms to reaffirm conservative values.

While Greenaway has, without a doubt, been influenced by such modernist filmmakers as Ingmar Bergman and Jean-Luc Godard, his work is significantly different from the modernist narrative strategies that these filmmakers employ. Most of Godard's cinema is a Brechtian deconstructive cinema, and Bergman's films are characterized by the same ambiguity of meaning of modernist literature. Greenaway uses both these strategies while going beyond them in his deployment of postmodern forms. While Greenaway continues to use many of the self-reflexive and politically critical modes of the Brechtian cinema, his self-reflexivity is taken up in the service of a more radical form of free play of meaning that does not lead to closure. Greenaway has also adopted the patterns of illogical narrative structures and spaces characteristic of the art cinema, as exemplified, for instance, by Last Year at Marienbad.


Greenaway could be said to promote the autonomy of art and its separation from life and history through idiosyncratic plots and an overstylized aesthetics, he also consistently places his films in rather specific historical periods, makes constant references to past artistic modalities-such as Jacobean drama or Renaissance painting-and either is inspired by or makes references to contemporary political preoccupations in both his experimental and feature films. One need only recall that Windows was inspired by the appalling accounts of political prisoners in South Africa being pushed out of windows; that The Cook, the Thief, His Wife and Her Lover is, by Greenaway's own admission, at least partly a response to the Thatcherite government.

Greenaway needs to be reexamined for, in effect, ""Greenaway tends to dwell on ‘high' culture's often crudely material underpinnings, particularly the sources of wealth and power that manipulate and control its production and circulation". Amy Lawrence implicitly makes a similar point when she compares The Cook, the Thief, His Wife and Her Lover to other films of the 1980s "that revive the gangster genre as a metaphor for the brute capitalism espoused by the Conservative government throughout the decade". She goes on to argue that the haute cuisine served by the restaurant Le Hollandais-owned by the "gangster," Albert Spica, and operated by his French chef-is "inseparable from systematic killing". That Greenaway does not hide his relationship to consumer society in The Cook, the Thief, His Wife and Her Lover, but politicizes it, is most evident in the choice of setting and mise-en-scène of the film. That most of the film takes place inside the restaurant, and that the owner, the workers, and the clients all share this same space, suggest that there no longer is a position outside consumer society from which to interrogate this society.

The most apt metaphor in Greenaway's films for this process of parodic assimilation and subversion-of past and contemporary styles, which we are claiming here to be characteristic of postmodernism, is perhaps to be found in the many images Greenaway creates of voracious acts of consumption, disgorgement, and evacuation. Greenaway assimilates what he refers to as "two thousand years of image-making," only to give it back to his audience in an ironized form that casts a critical gaze not only at the present but also at the past, and at the continuities that exist between the two. The incorporation into the mise-en-scène at the restaurant of Frans Hals's painting The Banquet of the Officers of the St. George Civic Company (1616) and the modeling of Albert Spica's and his cronies' appearance on the characters in that painting, are such instances of the use of pastiche not as a mere duplication of a past forms to reinforce conventional ideologies, as Jameson would have it, but rather, as a self-conscious and self-implicating critique of a bourgeois ideology of consumption whose early manifestations Greenaway locates in the seventeenth century.

Hutcheon argues that That Greenaway problematizes history and self-critically acknowledges his own "cannibalization of styles of the past" is indicated by his use of cannibalism as a central theme and metaphor in The Cook, the Thief, His Wife and Her Lover. That he turns this cannibalization into a critique of the "aristocratic" and decadent models of consumption illustrated by the restaurant's specialization in refined cuisine and mirrored by the Hals painting-models of consumption that have come to define contemporary culture-is suggested by his own remark that "having eaten and raped the rest of the world, the next step is to eat one another".


The references to and depictions of the various cannibalistic acts in the film point to Greenaway's own cannibalization of styles but also suggest that consumption is the dominant relationship in our society. Greenaway's grotesque depictions of consumption capture the original meaning of the word consume, that is, "to take up, waste, spend, and devour". The cannibalistic act that closes the film is thus an appropriate metaphor for the "end" of consumerism-the end as logical conclusion and as final act of a culture that comes to regard everything, including its members, as grist for the mill. In sum, all representation- whether in the form of texts, images, or buildings-is "productive," in Annette Kuhn's sense of the term, for it constitutes objects for consumption, by the gaze as well as by purchase.


The Cook, the Thief, His Wife and Her Lover has been regarded as one of the strongest critical evaluations of our current modes of production and consumption, and, as attested by the public's and critics' outcry following the release of the film, it is not, to its credit, an easily consumable artifact. Greenaway seems to be conceding his own duplicitous participation in this process by staging the production and consumption of food and then by drawing analogies between that and the production and consumption of visual representations. Like the production of food in the film, the production of aesthetic objects-such as the Frans Hals painting and the film itself-might be described as what Bertolt Brecht termed a "culinary practice," that is, the preparation of a product for consumption and digestion.

Gavin Smith has suggested that the film be read as being about the movie business, for it functions "as a metaphor about the conflict between creativity and consumption". Greenaway agrees that this is a constant theme for him and that in many respects the same could be said about The Draughtsman's Contract or The Belly of an Architect: "There's a way in which the whole of Belly could be said to be not so much about putting on an exhibition as making a film". To drive the point home even further, Greenaway suggests that Richard, the cook, stands in for the filmmaker, "who invites the viewers to come into the cinema: this is the meal I'm going to prepare for you". The Cook, the Thief, His Wife and Her Lover is but one instance in Greenaway's corpus of art questioning itself as it questions the world.

Greenaway is regularly described, and describes himself, as a painter who works in cinema, or, as he puts it, "a film-maker trained as a painter". His goals and methods, he explains, are closely tied to the history of painting: I wanted to make a cinema of ideas, not plots, and to try to use the same aesthetics as painting which has always paid great attention to formal devices of structure, composition and framing, and most important, insisted on attention to metaphor. Since film is not painting-and not simply because one moves and the other doesn't-I wanted to explore their connections and differences-stretching the formal interests to questions of editing, pacing, studying the formal properties of time intervals, repetitions, variations on a theme, and so on.


Greenaway explores, through a system of citations deployed in postmodern fashion, not only aesthetic and art-historical questions of perspective and depth but also ideological and political questions of relevance to the historical period in which his films are made. His filmic output straddles four decades and two significantly different modes of production: the avant-garde experimental films of the '60s and '70s, and the art-cinema feature films of the '80s and '90s.


As Elliott and Purdy put it, the "early films of the sixties and seventies already bore the Greenaway signature: a fondness for landscape; a fascination with lists, grids, taxonomies, catalogues, counting games and aleatory sequences; a parodic use of the documentary voice-over; and, above all, a quirky sense of humour that constantly reminded the viewer not to take things too seriously". Greenaway himself has attempted to define the English aspect of his identity: "I suppose the characteristics of irony, black humour, a pronounced interest in words and landscape and game-playing are English. My films perhaps relate to an English literary tradition and to English landscape painting".


For Hill, this art cinema includes, at one extreme, the "heritage" films of Merchant-Ivory that appeal to an aesthetically conservative audience; at the other extreme, the postmodern experimentations of Greenaway or Jarman-who in themselves also appeal to somewhat distinct audiences; and, somewhere in between, it also includes directors like Ken Loach and Mike Leigh who work along traditions of "realism" and social critique. Peter Wollen was, indeed, correct in including Greenaway's films among what he called the "Last New Wave" of British cinema, a body of work produced by "original, oppositional, visually oriented modernist auteurs"."


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Reference: Paula Willoquet-Maricondi & Mary Alemany-Galway-Peter Greenaway's Postmodern Poststructuralist Cinema-The Scarecrow Press (2008)


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