The term "art film" might have been coined to describe Peter Greenaway's movies. They embody everything, good and not so good, that is suggested by that usually unhelpful label. They play in "art house" theatres, and they are arty in their (not always unjustified) pretensions. But above all this, Greenaway's directorial techniques are defiantly those of a painter or illustrator or sculptor. The Brit is forever bemoaning, in interviews and commentaries, how limited film is compared to those media--the current show of his paintings and drawings at ASU is titled "If Only Film Could Do the Same."
What puzzles me is that Greenaway finds this so puzzling. Of course painting is "deeper" than cinema when it comes to stuff like texture and visual composition (so, for that matter, is still photography). Film is often a great visual medium, but it is, much more important, a great narrative medium--potentially, though not in fact, the greatest of all time.
The cinema can do what painting can't--it can show you what happened the moment before and the moment after the moment captured. Yet suppose that Dali, after he collaborated with Buuel on Un Chien Andalou, had exhibited it under the title "If Only Paint Could Do the Same"? He'd have been laughed at as a faddist.
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Cinema's strength, grasped instinctively by the greatest filmmakers and distilled into theory so perfectly by Eisenstein, lies less in giving us individual images to savor and probe for all their subtlety and more in making many fine images add up to something we couldn't have grasped from any of them separately. That's why films in which each shot is fussed over until it is formally impeccable and suitable for framing are often such chores to sit through. This is true of most of Greenaway's work that I've seen, laced with brilliance though it is. His films--among them Drowning by Numbers, Prospero's Books and, most famously, The Cook, the Thief, His Wife & Her Lover--usually feel more like plays or masques, performed in front of a camera, aimed, in turn, by a director with the eye of a Renaissance painter. Without question, this style can and does yield fascinating results at times, but it also leads to stasis and to stultifying longueurs.
In connection with the ASU show, Valley Art Theatre in Tempe is screening two Greenaway flicks. One of them, A Zed & Two Noughts (1985), is receiving its long-belated Valley premiäre. It's the best Greenaway film I've seen--as rigid and compulsively formal as the others and almost as overlong, but with fiercely witty visuals that accrue in power by their relationship to each other, rather than as discrete pictures at a celluloid exhibition. The plot concerns twin zoologists (Eric and Brian Deacon) whose wives are both killed in a freak car crash outside the zoo where they both do research. After the mishap, the aggrieved twins brood about death--one obsessively watches documentaries about evolution (narrated by David Attenborough). The other obsessively shoots time-lapse footage of the decomposition of various life forms, each higher on the evolutionary ladder than the last--first an apple, then a dish of prawns, then fish, then a crocodile, all the way up through swans and zebras. Both also become lovers of the survivor of the accident (Andrea Ferreol), a beautiful older woman. She has lost a leg, and her doctor, who is obsessed with Vermeer, speciously amputates her other one, perhaps for no reason other than that Vermeer never showed the legs of the women in his pictures. When Ferreol becomes pregnant by one or the other of the twins, they move her into an apartment overlooking the zoo, and continue both the mnage trois and their macabre research.
What's stumping the lads (who may have influenced the nutty twin gynecologists in David Cronenberg's Dead Ringers) is not, of course, the mystery of death, but the mystery of life. Why all the bustling cellular activity, the natural selection, the diversity and specialization of the natural world, when the ultimate fate of all organic matter is the compost heap? Without question, this is a valid mystery, and it gives Zed real horror and absurdist humor for most of its length. But the solution, if there is one, is unlikely to be arrived at by empiricism or taxonomy. Zed grinds on and on for perhaps a half-hour or more after it's made a point of which Greenaway seems unaware--that physical science can neither prove transcendence nor discredit the yearning for it. Also on Valley Art's Greenaway bill is The Cook, the Thief, His Wife & Her Lover (1989). This deliberately paced black comedy, which became famous/notorious in this country as the first film to receive an NC-17 rating, is set in an elegant restaurant frequented by a loathsome gangster (Michael Gambon), his wife (the peerless Brit sex goddess Helen Mirren) and his brutal entourage. He and his goons act like horrid barbarians; she watches with comic (and sexy) disgust, and takes as a lover a silent, bookish diner (Alan Howard) at a nearby table.
As usual, Greenaway's concern is far less for plot or character than for painterly composition and stately camera movement. The abominations in the foreground--among them forced coprophagy, murder and cannibalism--seem like Greenaway's ironic dig at what the modern movie audience requires. The Cook, the Thief is well-acted, visually beautiful, often erotic and occasionally horrifying, but Greenaway's dogged artiness here has little corresponding depth, emotionally or intellectually. None of this is meant to suggest that Greenaway is a poseur or a phony--he clearly has enough of the talent and rigor and individual vision of a real artist to stand up to that charge. But if he's sincere in his dissatisfaction, maybe he really should take up painting full-time. Film probably never will be able to express savagery or decadence--as essential concepts--with anything like the profundity of painting or drawing. But it can nose around in savagery and decadence (or kindness, or joy, or all of the above), it can develop themes, and build cases for, and counterpoint ideas on, any subject, in a way that oil and paint or charcoal and paper can never hope to.