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Peter Greenaway On Tape Cinema Versus Digital Cinema

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Peter Greenaway in interview (in full)

E Borley

Peter Greenaway was in town as part of the 25th Cambridge Film Festival as a speaker on the symposium discussing cultural product and platforms now available and to celebrate the 4th film of The Tulse Luper Suitcases. We caught up on the phone…

What are the Tulse Luper Suitcases all about?

"Well, I suppose on a personal level it’s a sort of manifesto - the English aren’t so hot on manifestos - we would normally leave all that to the Germans.  But I feel that all of us, whatever we feel about the cinema, would acknowledge that there are great changes happening.  Cinemas are not attracting audiences like they would have done with our fathers and forefathers.  There’s a long period of deterioration; cinemas are closing, diversifying or becoming multiplexes and there’s a grand association, I suppose, with all the new media, that cinema is leaving those curious places called cinema in the high street and becoming more of a domestic personalised activity.

"So, when you get figures out of Hollywood that would suggest that 75% of people see their feature films on television, another 20% would buy dvd’s and once upon a time the VHS’s and only about 5% of audiences of feature films actually see them in cinemas.  This is different, of course, all over the world - my adopted country, where you’re phoning me now, I think they have the worst record in the world.  I think the average Dutch citizen probably goes to the cinema about once every two years which is very, very low, but if you go to Calcutta or even Mexico city, the situation is very different.

"So, audience relationships, I think, have changed because there are many, many more exciting things to do - our focus of communication may not be quite as strong as it used to be and for me, as a practising artist, with a background in painting and other sorts of art forms, I sincerely believe that cinema can’t deal with the phenomena of our times -  one of which is interactivity and the other’s multimedia.

"I want to see if we can open up the vocabularies, acknowledge the huge, very exciting change which, I suppose, is really represented from ceasing to making films now on celluloid and making them on tape, so we have put a lot of investment, critically, aesthetically and financially in saying ‘good-bye’ to celluloid cinema, ‘hello’ to tape cinema. We are now manufacturing absolutely everything on high definition, where I sincerely believe that the quality of image never deteriorate and is almost as good as 70mm.  I want to get rid of all those old fashioned snobbism of celluloid cinema, which is still around with all the vested interest - that medallion-man cinema activity where you have to go into the streets with the biggest camera you can find, with the biggest crew you can find, and exhibit the fact that you’re making a film. So I think all that stuff has gone, and thank God that it has. Some people are still hanging onto to it of course, because it looks good and makes them feel good and gives them loads of publicity in sparkling magazines, but it’s deeply impractical and part of a hype and isn’t necessary.

"So, I think we have to acknowledge the democratization, the non-elitism now, that Hollywood isn’t quite as powerful as it used to be, the fact that we can’t police the notions of the new media. You can’t police the web sites, for example, although people desperately try. And so all these new freedoms ought to be reflected in the cinema that we make. And I think we make a cinema which is related to browsing rather than reading. It’s to do with different sorts of time-spans, different sorts of intelligences, requiring different phenomenon.

"So against all this background, I think we ought to make new products and I think that any media, certainly cinema, which has a high degree of technical association, has to continually reinvent itself or it’s going to disappear. So against all this, and I’ve been thinking about it for a very, very long time, I want to put everything that I know and everything that fascinates me and all the other 400 films that I’ve made previous into one particular place.

"I’m interested in encyclopedias, dictionaries, directories; the whole notion of the information age, so I want to make a product that somehow sits fairly and squarely with the circumstances of what we have now, related very much I suppose to young people aged between 16 and 30 who are born virtually with a laptop on their laps as they drop out of the womb. People for whom, in some curious way, cinema is a very old-fashioned medium where you can’t inter-connect, where you can’t really leave your seat in a satisfactory way, where you’re sitting in the dark - and what the hell are you doing sitting in the dark? - man’s not a nocturnal animal and you’re sitting still only looking in one direction - the world’s all around you, not just in front of you. So, it’s attempting, I suppose on all these different levels to make a product that says ‘hey look, we’re now living in the year 2005, we’re not back with the Lumière Brothers in 1895’ - a lot has happened since the beginning of cinema."

Was it the chicken and egg syndrome…were you a clever entrepreneur that spotted the changes in the market and responded to them…?

"That sounds a very American question - put the bucks before anything else! There’s no way I could be a Spielberg, nobody’s going to make a lot of money out of me; my subject matter is far too elitist and privatised. We do have an audience, but it can’t command the sort of things that your question demands. So, in all honesty, no, the practicalities and the considerations of making a distributable cinema with all the things that I’ve been talking about, it doesn’t sit very well in our Hollywood context.

"I suppose things have changed in the last five years - now that you can virtually get the obscure films of Claire Deney on DVD or in your local video shop - that wasn’t true 5 years ago. So, young people can now visit the history of cinema that they’ve never been able to before - I’m quite sure the last generation thought that there was probably no cinema before Tarantino anyway - so that is a brand new opportunity, in a sense, to historically get a perspective. But young people see MTV, V-Jaying (which I’m now becoming emphatically involved with because I think that it is very fascinating) - I need to make broaches to these people, I don’t think that they’ve got grasshopper minds, I think that’s a journalistic insult. A lot of people that I know who engage in that lap-top culture within specified areas are deeply excited by all sorts of phenomenology, so I think that notion of the scattering, jittering, unsettled mind is a phenomenally - if it existed at all, maybe the generation before last, but I think that things are settling down now in all sorts of extraordinary new ways which make for very perceptive audiences. That’s always a problem of cinema isn’t it ?- It’s always insulted its audience, I think that it’s an appalling fact - you know how Brecht once said that most people go to the cinema and leave their brains with the hat-check girl…"

So are the artists worried that the consumers are becoming producers?

“That’s all right! Death of the author - it’s a sort of French philosophical attitude of the last 60 years. But I think that the human psyche is always interested in a Stravinsky, a Picasso, a Corbusier - it’s part of human nature. Someone who has the imagination and the discipline to concentrate and put forward imaginative ideas in one singular place and spend their lives doing it, there has always been a fascination for those people so I don’t really believe in the death of the author. Consider the other situation, practically everyone in the world has now got a camera and that camera’s even associated with the telephone that they hold to their ear, but there still are only about 100 good photographers in the world and that sort of situation will always be with us.”

In The Tulse Luper Suitcases (and, indeed, in much of your work) there seems to be this highly charged sexual tension with the viewer and each and every single actor - does this tie in with Darwin’s theory (that you’ve been noted to quote that ultimately, we’re only here to procreate) - so that our overriding response to your work is ultimately one of uncomfortable sexuality?

"Well, let me offer you a truism; there really are only two things to talk about, one is sex and the other’s death; the beginning and the end - Eros and Thanatos. These are the two non-negotiables of life - everything else is negotiable isn’t it? Even love is negotiable, but procreation and the end of all things… (ok, we have medical science, we can live a little longer, we’ve now got sexual freedom that our parents didn’t have, we can make choices that they would never even consider) but still, ultimately, these are the non-negotiable factors and they are deeply related to the whole of civilization whether you’re an Eskimo or whether you’re Japanese or a sophisticated bourgeois Londoner, they all deeply impinge on our activity.

"There was a father / son relationship, Renoir the father who was a painter, Renoir the son who was the film-maker - apparently one day the son said to the father, ‘I really want to become engaged in making cinema but I don’t really have any ideas’ and he said ‘don’t worry son, if you just have two ideas, that’s more than enough for a life-time because most people don’t have any ideas at all, and if those ideas are ‘sex’ and ‘death’ well it’s never ending’ and I want to explore that. I want to come up against the taboos, I want to prick conscience, I want to not create a cinema which simply massages what you know, that sort of consoles and makes you feel comfortable - but I think that’s always been the characteristic of all the art that disturbs. Art needs to disturb as well as to celebrate and I would like to be associated with both those verbs."

Giving people a multi-sensory experience - does this sit a little too close to the chaos theory (ie with it’s seeming randomness in content and arbitrary delivery) - about everything, everywhere - and that there’s a huge resistance to that and that many people want to be told what to do and told how to read a film or a play…

"True…well, John Cage, an American composer who, for me, says a lot of wise things says that if you introduce 20% of novelty into any artwork - that’s a painting, a piece of music, film, theatre, whatever, watch out because you’re going to lose 80% of your audience because Man is naturally a conservative animal - he wants to stay comfortable, to a certain extent.

"On the other hand, civilisation is an incredibly thin veneer - witness the bombs in London last week, witness all the chaotic injustices of the world and you’ve only got to slightly pin-prick that veneer and the whole thing begins to fall apart, we can see how even more it could fall apart unless we really do cohere to what we know - it’s inevitable. But what, art has allowed itself to and encouraged itself, learnt to deal with those sorts of possibilities? Cinema does this all the time, doesn’t it? It engages in these things but without any sense of responsibility. Somebody once said, if Greenaway made a film about Mickey Mouse (you know how Mickey Mouse hits his head on the brick, and then the next frame he’s up and laughing, and running around?), if Greenaway made a film of Mickey Mouse, he would be in hospital for six months, he would suffer a brain trauma and he would never forget that event. Ok, Mickey Mouse isn’t the whole of the cinema but there’s a feeling that cinema performs its tricks, plays its games, takes its responsibilities with a great sense of irresponsibility and either romanticizes and deoderises things out of context, or you go to the other extent and you cover the world with blood and guts and just giggle about it. I want to examine what I would call the ‘giggle factor’ in cinema which is just there to provoke without responsibility."

In 2003 you said that you wanted The Tulse Luper Suitcases to start to re-invent the cinematic experience - do you think it’s managed to achieve that?

"We have nine hours of film yet it’s only really been seen by a rarefied, elitist film festival audience. It’s our big push - we’ve sold the film to over 41 territories around the world and what we’re trying to do this autumn is to let it go all at the same time, so that it opens in Japan and London and California and Berlin because I’m interested in these ideas (again, here’s another problem) of present tense cinema. Every time that you see Casablanca, it should be different because this is what we expect of a television and web-site based world - but, of course, this is going to create enormous problems for distributors - they’re going to throw their hands up in horror when they get Mark I and Mark 2 and Mark 3000 but there again, I always think that cinema made itself inaccessible. Where can I go and see Stanley Kubrick’s 2001 tomorrow afternoon? Where can you go and see your favourite film next Thursday? You can’t. This so called, highly popular artform of the 21st Century has made itself inaccessible. I can go and see an obscure painting by Carravaggio in a small Umbrian town far easier than I can go and see my favourite film in a capital city in Europe. That can’t be right can it?"

So what’s after this. Heard that your next project is The Historians?

"Well, I have an even bigger project than Tulse Luper…"

Can it get any bigger?

"Yes, well there’s that famous Bourge short story who made maps the same scale as the world or that a history of the world has to be a history of every single one of its inhabitants - I mean, it’s highly mocking but there’s also a certain amount of truth it brings… No, but we do have a project called ‘The Historians’ - I want to create a whole century in all minutiae detail from beginning to end so that I can tell you how to change a baby’s nappy and also how to build a war ship - it’s a great embrace but with the information age it’s not so inconceivable. But next year, in 2006 is 400 years of the birth of Rembrandt - and as I phone you now, I’m looking out my window at The Rijksmuseum in the centre of Amsterdam and inside the museum is probably the third most famous painting in the world after the Mona Lisa and the Sistine Chapel, is Rembrandt’s ‘Night Watch’ - and we’re going to make a film about it - that’s the first thing. We start principal photography on the 1st November 2005."

Finally, if you could achieve one thing or be remembered for one thing, what would it be?

“Pain in the ass may be? I don’t know. I feel myself extremely privileged, you know. I have opportunities to do thing on on opera stages on theatre stages, curatorial works in the Louvre, they’ve allowed me to re-hang the Night Watch - I’m going to take it off the wall and relight it - I can’t imagine anything in the art world that an artist / curator could be somehow more privileged. I want to be able to enjoy these things and celebrate them and hopefully communicate those excitements to everyone else.”