Have We Seen Any Cinema Yet?
A lecture by Peter Greenaway
European Graduate School. August 1999
Schirmacher: Our esteemed guest here tonight is the world-famous filmmaker Peter Greenaway, who is here to challenge to our convictions: after one hundred years of movies, he asks us, have we seen any cinema yet? It's not a rhetorical question, I assure you. Peter Greenaway has opened our new doctoral program in media and communication, and he is our role model. I hope our students will turn out like him, not only filmmakers, not only artists, not only theorists, not only opera directors, but all of these together. In Europe, people say 'Oh this is Peter Greenaway, who also does movies', because he's known as a painter, a curator, and an opera director. So he fits extremely well into what we're going to do.
Greenaway: The title 'Have we seen any cinema yet?' is of course a provocation, because there obviously has been a phenomenon of projectors, screens, directors and actors coming together for the last one hundred and four years, if you believe that cinema truly began in 1895. There are many people who believe that cinema began much, much earlier. We could almost go back to moving images made by shadows in ancient Greece. Godard suggested that Vermeer, the Dutch painter was in fact an early cinematographer. Godard suggested of him that he painted essentially split seconds of light, and that a world which is entirely invested with light is one of the essential prerequisites of cinema. For me and for sheer convenience we must really believe cinema began in Europe with Lumiere in 1895. The first showing was on December twenty-second, four after Freud produced his first work on female hysteria. There must surely be a connection. What have we seen so far? Cinema even as we have it now in 1999 is still an incomplete amalgam of other forms of art which have still not completely reached autonomy. In a real provocative moment I would suggest all we've seen is one hundred years of illustrated texts and maybe some recorded theater. 99.9 percent of all cinema, I believe, can be very easily deconstructed back into those three Bazin principles, where he suggested that cinema came from literature, the theater and painting. I would suggest actually that very little of cinema comes from painting, that's one of my soapbox positions. I believe now certainly that the whole process of cinema that we've seen since those first steam engines came into the cinema and people ran out the exits, and since those the waves first came in and people lifted their legs in case they were going to get wet, has been exacerbated primarily by Griffith's association with nineteenth-century literature, which was the first real experiment in American cinema, and which began the way in which we have seen images which are constantly slaved to texts. I challenge you to acknowledge the notion that when you watch ninety-nine percent of cinema you can see the cinema maker following the text. The text is the prime organizer of ideas and of the narrative structure, as well as the prime organizer of the way the characters are envisaged, so much so that my sympathies lie with all those French apologists of the nineteen-twenties who thought of enormous futures of the cinema as primarily an imagistic medium, a medium of images. I think that really nothing has changed, in some senses things have gotten worse and worse and worse. Whether your name is Woody Allen or Godard and you write your own script, or your name is Scorcese and Spielberg and you're borrowing your script ideas from somewhere else, there is a way in which the imagery is a slave to the text. I suppose even the most extravagant claims being made for silent cinema with its intertitles, its gestures and narrative are subject to the same sorts of considerations. The possibility of deconstructing cinema back into its component parts, I think in some peculiar way, although I would castigate its value in terms of creating an autonomous medium, has been also been responsible for my own particular interests in the deconstruction of cinema. My general disenchantments about cinema since the mid-eighties have allowed me to follow my negative criticism and to embark on my own deconstruction by looking at cinema from the viewpoint of other arts such as theater and painting, not only to find ways of reinventing and reinvigorating, but also to pursue these other, more conventional media in preparation to hit head on and utilize all the amazing new technologies that are coming up very fast. There's a sensation that because of the circumstances of the technologies and mechanics in cinema, in some curious way we've plunged into the medium in a too-far advanced state. We need to go back to the beginning, empty the screen entirely and start all over again. I would suggest through all sorts of social, aesthetic and technological reasons that cinema is in deep trouble because it has been a slave to four separate tyrannies. First of all, I believe as already indicated that the cinema is a slave to text. We should had an imagistic cinema, not a cinema which is essentially created by writers. We don't want a writer's cinema, we want a cinema-maker's cinema. My second tyranny would the tyranny of the frame. This might seem strange to you, but all of us watch cinema primarily in a dark space sitting down, looking in one direction at a single frame. The human body doesn't like sitting still, it's obviously restless, and the notion of a single concentration on a single space is a most extraordinary situation. The notion that we should appreciate all of the visual arts within a given frame of course doesn't just come from cinema, its precursors would go back to the theater and certainly notions of painting. Ever since painting separated itself from architecture, it has decided to be bound in a parallelogram. How restricting - why have we done that? It does provide a focusing space, but it is some senses only a convenience. A frame doesn't exist in nature, it's entirely artificial. What is interesting also is the aspect ratios of that space. Certainly a painter could choose his own aspect ratio. Conceivably if a painter wanted to paint a giraffe, it makes a lot of sense to make his aspect ratio extremely long and vertical. If a painter wants to paint a snake traveling across the grass, he could arrange his frame to be sympathetic, and produce a very, very narrow and long horizontal frame. Ironically though, I suppose in relation to questions of the golden ratio, about four or five years ago the dimensions of a whole series of paintings from the fourteenth, fifteen and sixteenth centuries were put into a computer, to average out and find what the maximum and most optimistic ratio the painters had used. It turned out to be the ratio of the academy picture which has basically been the mainstay of all cinema. In a peculiar way, although past civilizations painted in circles, some painted in strange shapes, sometimes regular, sometimes irregular, predominately the history of Western painting has all been contained in a space like that which is before you now. The television ratio of 1 to 1.3 has begun to create a great straitjacketing, a great closure of the ability in which the whole world is now seeing its moving picture imagery. There are of course all sorts of attempts in alternate aspect ratios, but predominantly as of this decade most of the world sees its imagery in one particular aspect ratio. Isn't that strange? Isn't that curious? One of my ambitions would be to consider why we look at cinema in a frame, is it necessary, isn't it about time we exploded that, because it has no real association with the way we look at the world. Painting, I suppose, with abstract expressionism in the middle of the century and other forms of appreciation of the image have certainly already dissipated this blowing apart of the single frame. If you stand close to a Rothko, it's so big it's beyond the periphery of vision. Picture space like Imax and Omnimax is so big and you're so close to the screen as to again be on the edges of your vision. Virtual reality certainly doesn't need a frame, so really there's an indication that the usefulness of the single frame is breaking down. You all of course know the filmmaking experiments of Abel Gance in 1929 with Napoleon. He utilized three screens in order to break away from this mono-screen phenomenon, however it was so complicated to set up three screens and three projectors in conventional cinemas that the experiment was never followed through, it was in a sort of cul-de-sac. So we probably have to wait about forty years until the inventions of new technologies whereby we could pick up the experiments again and start to run with them. My desire is to break away from the conventional relationship of a seated audience in the dark focusing on one single screen throwing shadows of a hallucinogenic nature. That necessarily has to be expanded and changed. My third tyranny would be the tyranny of the actor. Now we all know that the actor and actress are the best possible publicity stunts cinema could ever ever imagine. The actor or actress offscreen creates an environment which affects how you look at them on the screen. The whole media of the world in all its gossip facilities is very highly geared in order to create this particular relationship, but to repeat a phrase I've used at least fifty times in this room in the past three days, the cinema does not exist as a playground for Sharon Stone. My fourth tyranny is the most difficult to comprehend and perhaps the most blasphemous. We have to get rid of the camera. The camera has made us arrive at cinema almost at level six on the Richter scale. We've already created pictures of the world which we know are grossly inadequate. The world out there is always going to be more exciting, more fascinating, more adventurous, more extraordinary than what can be presented through a camera. Every time we watch a film that particular preoccupation, I believe, is very much present in our mind. When I say 'get rid of the camera', of course we will probably always need some kind of recording mechanism with a lenses and a viewfinder, but I'm also convinced that if the history of cinema of the last hundred years has been very much associated with the production of a photographer, that whole situation has been changed around so that the king in terms of cinema manufacture will now be the editor. The editor, thanks to new technology, can do anything with anything. I can put you all on the moon, I can turn you all into blue bottles, I can change the sex of everybody in the room, I can balance you all on the end of my finger. There is no end now, literally, to the things you can do with the new technology. The tyranny of text, frame, the actor, and the camera. We must reinvigorate, re-find ways to organize those things and in some cases eradicate them from the scene. This sounds all very, very negative. I do need, certainly since the mid-eighties, feel that sense that cinema perhaps doesn't know anymore where it is going, it perhaps also is dead as medium of investigative radical exploration, there are no more interesting filmmakers left, they've all gone somewhere which is far more interesting. For me, Bill Viola is worth ten Scorceses. I believe that cinema will probably wag its dinosaur's tail for at least three or four more generations, it has a lot of vested money at stake, but you know how long it takes a dinosaur to die. It may be brain dead but still the tail will waggle. I think the reason why people have left this medium behind is largely because of the invention of all the new possible moving image technologies, surely that in itself is a suggestion that we can no longer be satisfied by the normal cinema experience. I think maybe that the key in all of this might be in the simplest of devices, the zapper. The notion of choice. You know how young children, when they watch a romantic comedy, when the two principals start to kiss, they fast forward, it's not for them. As an extension of that single gesture we can do so many things. We can go backwards, forwards, we can go fast, we can go slow, we can change the time scale, with DVDs we can interrupt the structure. There are ways that now, in our domestic living rooms, we can have an interference with the screen. Once that activity has been reached, there is no going back. I think in that sense the single-strand cinematic experience of a chronological picture image in a certain single architectural space is no longer anymore important. But let us not cry anymore tears for 'Casablanca'. It was good for our fathers and our forefathers but it will not satisfy the human imagination anymore. I think we have to grapple with that, we have to utilize all the new technologies and we have to reinvent this phenomenon of what we call cinema. Again I think there are no surprises here, cinema is a strongly technological medium, probably the most technologically-based medium we've ever had in Western civilization. Because of that, it's developed a particular aesthetic which can't be divorced from the technology. Now it is not only remarkable to imagine huge, cumbersome rolls of thirty-five mil film, cumbersome projectors, darkened spaces, and all the difficulties in manufacturing and distributing, but all the new technologies in their ease, simplicity and financial availability have already in their sheer practical, economic level made those classic methods unviable. I suspect now that there's no mainstream film which is edited on a flatbed editing machine. Almost certainly even though films might be made for quality reasons on celluloid, all post-production is done through tape. Those suggestions already are indicating the ways and means to rethink light projection across space. As I understand them, all aesthetic technologies basically last about one hundred years. Fresco painting in Italy lasted about one hundred years. Even canvas painting of the nineteenth century lasted about one hundred years. It has to do with three generations, the father, the son, and the grandchild. The father invents the medium, the son consolidates the medium, and the grandchild throws it away. In Europe, Eisenstein invents, Fellini consolidates, and Godard throws away. If you're American, it would have to be Griffith invents, Orson Welles consolidates, and we're still arguing who's been throwing it away. We should not worry about this, we should not cry tears, because this is the end of a cycle. Three generations is probably more like seventy years, not one hundred, and I sincerely believe that the last true radical experimentation in cinema was in Germany in the nineteen seventies with the likes of people like early Wenders, Fassbinder and Herzog. They were the last people to add something to the vocabulary of the cinema experience. Please don't bring up Tarantino, he's a pasticheur. Does anybody else want to offer a challenge of someone who has really offered something profoundly interesting in cinema since December 24th, 1975, which a famous American apologist said marked the last day of cinema, I think it also marked Fassbinder's death. If this is the case, and if we do in fact have a moribund cinema, then it's all our responsibilities to pick up where all these people have left off, to consider what we've seen so far as a prologue, and finally to invest our enthusiasms and imaginations in something which can really now can be autonomous cinema. I've been making some dangerous statements here, and I can see people's laughter and disbelief, although I have been offering these criticisms and provocations there is a truly felt seriousness about it all. Now it comes time to put my films where my mouth is, I'm going to show you a short clip from a film I made about three years ago called 'The Pillow Book'. In my search to find new ways of inventing cinema I was fascinated by Oriental hieroglyphics, which manage to be both image and text at the same time. Eisenstein was talking about this way back in 1910, and many other people have realized this potentiality. It is a generalization I suppose, but it could be imagined that the history of calligraphy or text in Japan has also been the history of painting. There is not that appalling division that we might in find in the West, the notion that literature is here and painting here and never the twain shall meet. This is most unfortunate if you're really profoundly interested in cinema aesthetics, because if there's anywhere where image and text could meet it would be on that screen. The story of 'The Pillow Book' is about a contemporary Japanese woman who wants her lovers to write on her body. French philosophers of the last thirty, forty years have stressed the importance of how all the texts, all the hieroglyphics in the world are essentially, inimically made by the human body - how that particular relationship between the imagination, the shoulder, the arm, the hand, the pen, the paper, is what crossed every t, dotted every i, made every significant mark. If we break the relationship than we are in danger. I can offer you ironically that if it's the body that makes the text, then the best place for that text is back on the body.
[Greenaway shows the opening sequence from 'The Pillow Book']
In every possible way, every work that you make is really a trial run for what happens next. There are certain circumstances of building up the vocabulary here, witness the multiple-framing, witness the use of text on screen, witness the flatness, the use of color coordination, etc, which I want to very sincerely develop in a brand new project which has the title of the Tulse Luper suitcase. I've been talking so much about using new technologies, but I don't want to dissociate myself from the past, I need to look over my shoulder and sideways at all the other media, to see if finally we can create a defining work at the beginning of the new age of post-television technologies. This is I suppose an extremely arrogant assumption, to find a Finnegans Wake, James Joyce, Ulysses phenomenon here, whereby we unite the full possibility of the moving image and all of its associations, and push it so far to the edge that literally like Joyce we have to change the language in order to encompass the ideas. A grand ambition, but I sincerely believe that there is a feeling abroad everywhere that we are looking for an encapsulating work that will finally give the new technologies a legitimacy we can build on. Let me explain why I want to do this. I certainly want to use the characteristics of all these individual media within their own particular circumstances and vocabularies, but I want to see if it's possible to create a whole distribution and united performance activity across all these areas. The film's prime mover is the knowledge and understanding of what Uranium has been, and we all know that the atomic number of Uranium is ninety-two. There will be ninety-two events, ninety-two characters, and ninety-two suitcases. All these ninety-two suitcases, from 1928 to 1989, will be packed and unpacked, repacked, maneuvered around all over the world. We start filming in Chicago next January and will probably finish in three years' time in Manchuria. I don't want to waste all of your time packing and unpacking suitcases on the big screen, you unpack them to your delight on a CD-ROM or its equivalent. So if suitcase forty-three contains Nazi gold, you can take out every single bar and examine it for its stamp marks, its credence and precedence. Another strategy, one of the characters wants to rewrite the thousand and one tales of Scheherazade all over again for the end of the twentieth century. You can find all these tales day by day on the internet, starting on the first day of the Venice Film Festival when we really announce this film. You will note that a thousand and one days is approximately three years. I suppose under these circumstances the ideal audience is someone who goes to see all four films, buys the CD-ROMS and the DVDSs watches the TV series, and is plugged into the internet - that way you can get the truly encyclopedic, holistic view of all the parameters of everything that's contained in this movie. Thank you. Does anyone want to offer a provocation back to me?
Schirmacher: Your talk has a mixture which a lot of people have felt about your work. On one hand, you have these great visionary ideas, these provocations, breaking down things, on the other hand, sometimes it creeps in somehow, this number game, it has to be sixty-two, twenty-four, whatever, now you betray the mind of a bureaucrat, sitting there and deciding one hundred ways to experience the world! Why not one hundred one? Why did you need this structure of numbers still? Why don't you trust that when you're exhausted, that's your number? You won't know in advance. Why should it be so many days? Is it for the audience, they need structure and order? This is exactly how government thinks, that you need some rules otherwise it will be anarchy. Why not anarchy? In many ways you are the typical anarchist. You have all the strengths and joys of breaking down things, then you turn around, and you have the face of the guy who needs his database in order to feel safe.
Greenaway: My first comment is that I would go even further than you, let's go further than that, I'm not simply a bureaucrat, I'm a clerk, I enjoy collation, numeration, collecting and cataloguing…
Schirmacher: I know you do, I know there's a biographical explanation, but…
Greenaway: [interrupting] You've said enough now, I think that to make your melodramatic point you've also ignored all the other systems I involve myself with, in terms of number counts, equations, Godardian adages like 'cinema is truth twenty-four frames a second', color coding, physical laws, all those other structures which are available to us from science. My big complaint about cinema is that first of all it's an extremely poor narrative medium. If you want to tell stories, don't be a filmmaker, be a writer. There's a big problem here. John Cage said that if you introduce more than twenty-percent of novelty into any medium, you immediately lose eighty percent of your audience. I don't want to commit aesthetic or financial suicide, so I hope it doesn't sound patronizing but I have to travel slowly. To do that, I will have to abrogate the notions of why we go to the cinema, which for most people is to be told a story, which is in a sense an extraordinary contradiction. I challenge anybody in this room to tell me the story of 'Casablanca' or 'Titanic' in any detail, because what you come away with when leaving the cinema is not a notion of narrative or plot, it's to do with ambiance, perception of atmosphere, sense of place, performance, lines of dialogue and all those attributes which only the cinema can give you. Most people, however, watch films just before they go to bed. What an act of confidence that is. Is cinema only our bromide to put us to sleep just before we have our cup of cocoa? What I need to do is challenge the notion that cinema should be organized by narrative. If you just throw that completely out, you have a number of problems. First of all the audience is alienated, they don't know where they are. Secondly, what agenda, what structure, what glue do you use to keep the material together? Number counting, numerology and so on just happen to be other ways, and probably the most convenient. We all speak the same numerological language - whether we're in Tokyo, or Melbourne, Paris or Saas-Fee we understand the notion of number count. The predominant number count around the world, apart from the eccentricities which still exist in England, where we have strange phenomena like pints, is basically based on the distances from one and two and from one to one hundred. We we conceive in terms of centuries, millennia, we're all getting amazingly overexcited about what's going to happen in seventh months' time. This absurd notion that we should structure our lives upon the death of a minor Palestinian prophet of two thousand years ago, especially when the Vatican decrees that and the famous star that lit up the nativity happened in 6 A.D. How on earth and how ridiculous that we're celebrating the millennium at all! If we are going to use numbers as a device, as a construct, and that's only what they are, then it makes sense not to choose a number which does not fit the notions of a happy maximum factor whereby we govern our sense of history. Also graphically there's something extremely beautiful about the gesture of ONE, and two NOUGHTS. Of course I could choose ninety-nine point five, but obviously the sheer convenience of using one hundred makes a great deal of sense.
Schirmacher: My question is, do we need this?
Greenaway: We need alternative systems to a cinema which is enslaved to narrative.
Schirmacher: Right, but now we are enslaved to numbers…
Greenaway: Again, as always Wolfgang, you overemphasize and melodramatize a point beyond any qualification which I'm sure you seriously believe in. These are alternative devices which are used not consistently, but as variations on a theme.
Schirmacher: As far as I understand you, your real organizing principle is what the viewer is actually doing with it. The numbers are just your offer. They always have this kind of ironic twinkle to it, 'don't believe in this order, it's just there to challenge you to have your own organization.' I agree with you that you need an organization, but this is so private and subjective within any of us, it's very important not to care if there's an organization or principle outside, but dare to live according to your own principle, as you do. These principles of numbers are Greenaway's, please find your own principles by watching me, and because of the technology, you have no excuse anymore to say that you are just there in the passive audience. You are part of the artwork itself, maybe the most important part.
Greenaway: Of course I would also offer the suggestion that by giving you an abstract number count it can actually free the audience for greater possibility of interpretation, rather than the facts have to be slaved to the given minutiae of the narrative, whether that narrative is borrowed or created by me.
Schirmacher: Meaning is really the most enslaving thing.
Greenaway: Although my films posit alternative systems, they always always show those systems to be ultimately inadequate for universal suffrage. Every system is only relative in a particular time and space. At the end of 'Zed and Two Noughts' which is very largely a film about the antagonisms between Genesis and Darwin, the two principal characters and stand up and say 'Maybe in a few thousand years' time Darwin will look just as superstitious as Genesis.' You're absolutely right, although in our desires to understand chaos we miserably try to organize systems of our own choosing, those systems will always always be inadequate.
Audience: The idea of the frame is something that interests me in all the arts. Even if we want to break frames, the question is, is the frame a slave or is the frame a given? Even if we break down that frame and go to another frame, we have to use the tools. There are lines on the TV screen, even on the internet there are certain technological frames. In essence we cannot work without frames.
Greenaway: I disagree, it's very, very interesting how we have conceived of the computer as a keyboard and a TV screen. You know the famous Lautreamont saying, 'a chance meeting on a dissecting table between a sewing machine and an umbrella'. You could say 'the unexpected meeting of a typewriter, a television screen, and a computer', it need not have been arranged like that, and there's every indication that this very triumvirate is going to very rapidly break down. What I'm trying to say is, which came first, and that every art needs to have some sort of nemesis when it begins. It always picks up where the old forms left off. They did not really have a frame before the thirteenth century. Before that, painting in the West was intimately associated with wall spaces which were certainly not rectilinear. The frame does not exist in any natural form, it is a convenience, it needs to be challenged, you say it's a given, but givens are all constructs which need be examined and re-evaluated. There is every indication that across all the new technologies a single frame is going to prove to be inadequate for creating a new vision for ourselves.
Audience: What I meant was, I would say poetically that the true art breaks frames by introducing new frames, I mean any kind of frame, including the frame within the structure of a computer.
Greenaway: I take it certainly both literally and metaphorically. My particular concern before we get that large is to address myself to the particularities of cinema and television, and indeed of the monitor screen itself, first of all to liberate ourselves from the confines of this given artificial space through which we have viewed all the plastic arts for the past six hundred years.
Bois: But then why do you express regret that more film is not founded on painting?
Greenaway: I suppose there is a way in which the business of the moving image has this huge heritage from the still image. I talk specifically about the West because as soon as we talk about the East there's also the interesting phenomena that Eastern painting does not have a frame. I believe that if cinema's purpose is to make beautiful women look more beautiful, rich men look richer, landscapes look more breathtaking, there have been thousands and thousands images made about that same exercise, and so it makes a lot of sense for me to continue to look over my shoulder and see what's been done before. We use a very, very sophisticated language system which again is full of masses of quotes, re-quotes and etymological meanings which we use both consciously and unconsciously, so I would like to think that we could create a visual language which was just as rich. There are of course many, many differences between the two compositions of painting and cinema, and not just because cinema moves and painting doesn't. I do think it's very valuable to hook ourselves on to this long continuation of image-making.
Audience: I was wondering if you could elaborate more on the relationship between the body and the text. The scenes from 'The Pillow Book' were very erotic but very intellectual stimulating as well. What I saw was all the different ways you can write on the body, to write a check, or the Lord's prayer, you made me think of 'The Penal Colony' in which writing on the body is a form of torture. What do you think about this relationship, what are the possibilities, is there a sense in which the body escapes or is always a remainder no matter how much we write?
Greenaway: In what I said about the body that makes the gesture of writing and which accepts the return gesture of being written on, it is significant that the texts are written on the body with a brush, which is non-penetrative, it doesn't injure the body in any way. The body can be re-used, it can be wiped clean, in the film you can see this explicitly. It's deeply sensuous and concerned with three-dimensionality as well. There are plenty of examples of this motion in Japanese mythology. You can nefariously think of examples from the Holocaust and various other unfortunate moments in Western culture where for abusive reasons the body has been written on. There is a notion that our faces are already a text, that there is a text of the body which indicates time, experience, continuation, abuse, good times, bad times, sometimes the body itself records those by its configuration, aging and physiology. In some of the Japanese texts in the film the words are intimately associated not only with the surface of the skin but with the body's internal organs and systems as well.
Audience: You've definitely trashed mainstream filmmaking, which is incredibly boring, self-serving, and corporate, but there is a whole tradition of experimental film that you haven't spoken about, which has really broken expectations and created images which are so disturbing to the viewer…
Greenaway: What is so sad about so-called underground filmmaking is that it always remains underground. There are remarkably few breaks through the ice into the mainstream. There are famous examples like 'Eraserhead', and there is that all-so pervasive feeling that if sufficient numbers of filmmaker do come to this material then maybe there are ways and means that it does influence mainstream cinema. We can find many examples of that in terms of European art cinema, you can see a Hollywoodization of what movements like the Nouvelle Vague were doing, so there is a transference of ideas maybe not going as deep down as you would wish. Maybe we did once think that Lynch was an underground filmmaker, but it's rare that such a thing happens. Isn't it curious that all underground painting becomes overground painting. We cannot say the same about filmmaking.