Friday, March 21, 2008

Peter Greenaway

Until last month, all of Peter Greenaway's feature films (except The Belly of an Architect, perhaps the least interesting of them all) were unavailable on DVD. Some had never been released, and others were long out-of-print. Zeitgeist Films began a collaboration with the filmmaker last year that saw the release of his early shorts, and his first full-length film The Falls, a 185 minute faux documentary made in 1980. The film is not about Niagara Falls, but rather about 92 persons whose surnames begin with the letters FALL. This purports to be a random sampling of victims of a mysterious incident called the "Violent Unknown Event" or VUE, which has killed many people and left survivors suffering from a common set of symptoms: strange bird-like mutations, dreams of water and the ability to speak new languages. The film is incredibly formal and the humour (while very funny) is extremely deadpan.

A few weeks ago Zeitgeist released his first two features: The Draughtsman's Contract from 1982, and A Zed and Two Noughts from 1985. The former is a kind of period-piece Blowup. Set in 1694, the film follows an arrogant young artist who has been contracted to produce a series of estate drawings as a gift from a Mrs. Herbert to her husband. The draughtsman demands sexual favours in exchange for his twelve drawings, many of which end up containing clues to a murder. Despite containing many of the same difficult devices, themes and imagery that Greenaway would explore in his subsequent films, the movie was somehow accessible enough to become a modest success. A Zed and Two Noughts follows two twin brothers, Oswald and Oliver Deuce, whose wives are killed in a mysterious car accident involving a swan. Unable to come to terms with their loss they become obsessed with death (they produce several time-lapse films of decaying animals) and with the driver of the car, Alba Bewick, who lost a leg in the accident. The twins also become, well, considerably closer as brothers. The film is presumably the inspiration for David Cronenberg's Dead Ringers, and Boxing Helena by Jennifer Lynch (daughter of David, who would not make a follow-up film for fifteen years).

Zeitgeist’s care with the release of these disks is worthy of Criterion. The previously available DVDs (once commanding large sums in the secondary market) featured mediocre transfers and little, if anything, in the way of extras. Zeitgeist has restored and repackaged them with Greenaway's close participation and each include a couple of printed essays, director's introduction and commentary, deleted scenes, interviews and other extras. A Zed and Two Noughts also includes excerpts from Ontario film-maker Phil Hoffman's Genie-nominated making-of documentary O Zoo.

Hopefully the company will continue releasing the films chronologically as the next two (again, side-stepping The Belly of an Architect) are among the most interesting. Drowning By Numbers (1988) tells the story of three generations of women, all named named Cissie Colpitts, who successively drown their husbands. The town coroner, Madgett, is in love with all of them and quickly becomes duplicitous in their crimes. Madgett's son Smut is a strange little boy who marks roadkill with paint and fireworks displays and who recites the rules of various unusual games. Despite this description, it is one of Greenaway's warmest and accessible films, and my personal favorite (which may also be because it was my introduction to Greenaway, twenty years ago). It also contains the best score, by composer Michael Nyman. Nyman began as an experimental performer and theorist, releasing the album Decay Music on Brian Eno's Obscure label, and publishing the book Experimental Music: Cage and Beyond. His collaboration with Greenway began with The Falls in 1980 and would last more than ten years. He scored all of Greenaway's films from The Falls to Prospero’s Books (again, with the exception of The Belly of an Architect, which featured music by Wim Mertens and Glenn Branca). After parting ways with Greenaway, his biggest success was the score for Jane Campion's The Piano.

The Cook, The Thief, His Wife and Her Lover takes place in Le Hollandais, a restaurant owned by the boorish and violent thief Albert Spica. His wife Georgina (fearlessly played by Helen Mirren) begins an affair with a bookish patron of the restaurant, which the cook (who despises Spica) helps to conceal. The graphic violence, full-frontal nudity (and cannibalism) led to the creation of the NC-17 rating, meaning many cinemas refused to screen it. It also ensured that the film would be a hit elsewhere, with the increased media coverage. It remains the filmmakers best known and most popular film. It is also one of his best.

Prospero's Books from 1991 is a film that is easier to admire than it is to watch. A visually stunning adaptation of Shakespeare's The Tempest, the film features Sir John Gielgud as Prospero, the off-screen narrator, and the voices of all the other characters. If that weren’t alienating enough to audiences, it also combined mime, dance, animation and a pioneering picture-in-picture technique. The film played at the Toronto International Film festival, but I don’t recall it getting a theatrical release in the city afterwards.

His follow-up, The Baby of Macon (1993) couldn’t secure a release in North America at all, beyond a few individual screenings in NYC and LA. Generally disliked by critics, the tale of virgin birth starring Ralph Fiennes is considered to be one of Greenaway’s most disturbing films.

The Pillow Book in ’96 was better received, by both critics and the general public. The film starred an often-naked Ewan MacGregor, fresh from his success in Trainspotting (and before his bad hair-cut for the Star Wars prequels). An adaptation of an erotic 10th century Japanese literary classic, the film is set in contemporary Japan and Hong Kong, allowing Greenaway to break from some of his previous stylistic conventions.

Nightwatching (2007) stars The Office actor Martin Freeman as Rembrandt and Eva Birthistle as his wife Saskia van Uylenburg. The film premiered at the Venice Film Festival last year and is apparently a return to the style (and content, presumably) of The Draughtsman’s Contract.

Peter Greenaway speaks at the Perimeter Institute next Wednesday, March 26, at 7:30 p.m , 31 Caroline Street North, Waterloo. Co-presented by the Kitchener-Waterloo Art Gallery, the event is hosted by writer, University of Guelph professor and senior contributing editor of Border Crossing Magazine, Robert Enright. To book tickets ($20 each) call 519-883-4480 or click here.

Greenaway’s 1983 documentary Four Composers (featuring short films on John Cage, Meredith Monk, Philip Glass and Robert Ashley) be viewed at Ubuweb, here.

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