Whatever Happened To Peter Greenaway?
Britain has a strange love/hate relationship with art and artists. Most of our painters were and are at best mediocre (don’t get me started on the Emperor’s-New-Clothes world of Emin and Hirst). Go into an old country house and there’ll be a Stubbs and a Reynolds, and that’s it. It took a long time for us to get away from the ‘I don’t know much about art but I know what I like’ mentality.
In cinema critics have always favoured the neo-realists over anything surreal, fantastical or abstract, thinking it’s better to watch an angry teenager sitting in a field with a can of lager (cf. ‘Fish Tank’, ‘The Selfish Giant’, anything by Ken Loach) than it is to experience something as phantasmagorical as ‘Prospero’s Books’.
Is this why Peter Greenaway fell so spectacularly out of fashion? At first the artist/director was a British Film Institute darling, with short films of alphabetical lists, and the astonishing feature debut ‘The Draughtsman’s Contract’, still a film I admire and love. His playful murder puzzle ‘Drowning By Numbers’, with its hidden numerical count and identically named murderesses, was as gloriously odd as his ode to decay and animals, ‘A Z And Two Noughts’. Inevitably he started baiting the censors with the coloured-coded ‘The Cook, The Thief, His Wife & Her Lover’, and almost overnight became reviled by conservatives, facing accusations of misogyny for ‘The Baby of Macon’.
Looking back at his output there’s not a dud film among them, my favourites being ‘Drowning By Numbers’ and ‘Prospero’s Books’. But Greenaway was a man of Europe, despised the Little England filmmaking mentality and said so – thus cutting himself off the film establishment. And he fell too heavily in love with technology, resulting in ‘The Pillow Book’, which was densely visual at the expense of cohesion. Previous films had felt like waking dreams, possessing logic and tension, but now they were art, not films, and lost their audiences.
He returned to Holland to start his self-proclaimed masterwork, a multi-part, multi-media grand experiment that was intended to encompass films, art and the internet in 92 parts; ‘The Tulse Luper Suitcases’ was finished as a trilogy funded by half a dozen different nations. And to my knowledge, despite critical acclaim, it has only ever been shown once in its entirety in the UK. Australia released a box-set of the films, but it was quickly deleted.
Why, then, when we’re so starved of decent art house films, has ‘Suitcases’ not been released, and why has Greenaway not been re-evaluated for new audiences? Partly, his place was taken by others, including Sally Potter’s bracing ‘Orlando’ and Joe Wright’s stylised ‘Anna Karenina’. Greenaway had one more trick up his sleeve with two films, fiction and documentary, about Rembrandt’s ‘The Night Watch’, starring Martin Freeman. The moral: Art doesn’t sell at the cinema without a linear story to tell.
Greenaway periodically exhibits his artwork in European museums and galleries.