In the beginning was the image: an interview with Peter Greenaway

Cinema as a form of printmaking. Marvel Comics as ancient mythology. Death as a waste of good ideas. We talk history, knowledge and cinema with visionary British director Peter Greenaway.

Prospero’s Books (1991)

Peter Greenaway is looking forward to returning to London for the BFI’s retrospective of his films, Frames of Mind. It’s been some time since he last came here, having taken up residence in the Netherlands with his wife, the artist Saskia Boddeke. Since the turn of the 21st century, he’s been focused on his first love, painting, and his films of the last two decades – from Nightwatching (2007) to his upcoming Walking to Paris – have focused on the artists who inspire him.

Not that Greenaway dismisses his filmography. It is vast and rich, spanning from experimental shorts and documentaries to lavish features, which helped define the British cinematic aesthetic of the 1980s. From sprawling mockumentary The Falls (1980), via those arthouse sensations The Draughtsman’s Contract (1982) and The Cook, the Thief, His Wife & Her Lover (1989), to the dizzying multimedia project of The Tulse Luper Suitcases (2003 to 2004), Greenaway’s painterly visions are connected by a deep interest in patterns, sequences, numbers and letters.

Calling Greenaway at his home in Amsterdam, I want to unpack the foregrounding of images over storytelling across his long and prolific career. Our conversation constantly moved from the minutiae of his works to the much bigger picture of cinema and art at large.

When did it begin for you, this process of looking back at your film career?

The Draughtsman’s Contract (1982)

For me it was viewing The Draughtsman’s Contract, which was made 40 years ago in 1982, at the Venice Film Festival. The BFI have remastered the film, and they’ve done an extremely good job. I’ve made over 60 films of various gauges and purposes, through which I have pursued many of the fascinations which have entertained me for about 50 years. It actually surprises me sometimes when I look through the filmography and I think, “Oh good Lord, did I really make that?” Sometimes that can make it seem as if the film was made by somebody else. 

As a retrospective of your career as an artist, does focusing on your films feel reductive to you?

I never intended to be a filmmaker. My great enthusiasm when I was an adolescent was to become a painter. I would still regard painting as a much more venerable pursuit. We could say that painting goes back 45,000 years, if you think about the cave paintings in the south of France, while cinema is supposed to have only been invented in 1895 at Christmas time in Paris! So what is that? It’s only about 120-odd years. There’s no comparison between 45,000 years of the business of making images as paintings and the idea of making moving pictures. 

Do you have a sense of an artistic hierarchy?

“The best film I’ve seen”: Alain Resnais’ Last Year at Marienbad (1961)

You know, Sight and Sound are actually going around asking film directors of the world to name the 10 best films. Which is a rather silly game. How can you compare chalk and cheese? But I suppose it might encourage people to consider what’s valuable and what’s not. My so-called ‘best 10 films’ would to some people be very obscure. I doubt many people know the films of Hollis Frampton, for example. But I still think that the best film I’ve seen is Alain Resnais’ Last Year at Marienbad (1961), which I first saw when I was about 18. That’s an extraordinary movie, the closest cinema has come to understanding the greatest enigma of our lives, which is memory. We are nothing without memory. 

Do you think that creating a ‘cinematic canon’ plays a role in the posterity of cinema? 

I made a film about Sergei Eisenstein, a filmmaker I enormously admire. I suggested in that film, paraphrasing Eisenstein, that most film directors will be forgotten. There is an ephemerality to the medium, despite being technologically sophisticated. Maybe my great, great grandchildren will say, “Cinema? What was that?” We will probably have moved on so far that ‘the cinema’ will be deemed some strange, archaic preoccupation. But how can we predict that? My understanding of film’s ephemerality comes from the massive and very quick changes cinema goes through. 

Do you not see your own films as having the potential to last a long time?

I’m going to disappoint you. I’m much more excited by my paintings than my cinema.

To be honest I thought you probably would be. What distinguishes your paintings from your films?

Well, there is a way in which the single image works into the best cinema. Again, this is going to upset most people, but it makes for better cinema than narrative. I think that the necessity that we’ve arranged to get cinema to tell stories is not a good idea at all. It’s a phenomenon that we can usefully and profitably associate with literature. But I like the idea of a single statement, which is what the very best form of painting is all about. The encapsulation of an idea or phenomenon, an event or memory, in the terms of a single image. But I think that most people in English culture, and certainly in cinema, are visually illiterate. Am I saying things which are too provocative for you?

Well, I’m curious because in terms of your use of paintings in your films, be that restaging Rembrandt’s works in Nightwatching (2007) or works by Vermeer in A Zed & Two Noughts (1985), are you not relying on an audience’s visual literacy?

Nightwatching (2007)

Consider that you and I are talking in an English language. We have a very large vocabulary. I think that Shakespeare is supposed to have used 80,000 words. The average Englishman nowadays probably only uses about 40,000. In a line of certain newspapers they don’t even use that much! But our language is full of metaphor and simile, which is very exciting to use, and I certainly like to use it. But why should we not also have the same fascination with image-making? A language is the product of a long historical process, but so are those that we see in painting. For not as long, probably, but certainly as profound. 

But people don’t express as much interest or delight with the idea of the image as they do with text. I’m constantly making presentations about the power of the image. It is said in Genesis that in the beginning was the word. Nonsense. When God sent Adam out to view the world and name everything, how could he name everything without having something to name? I made an exhibition once upon a time at the Venice Biennale which had the title ‘In the beginning was the image’. I would like to proselytise the profound relevance of the image, with references as repeatedly as I can to its power. Whether people are going to get all the references is entirely dubious. 

Does it matter to you if people don’t understand those references?

In a Scorsese or Spielberg film there are probably a hundred ideas, and most people only get 50. The beauty is that the 50 identified by one person is not understood in exactly the same way by everybody else. It’s more a scatter than a rifle shot, as it were. The possibilities of making and presenting ideas in cinema are so vast that the idea of making some connection is always going to be valuable. 

Many of your later films have been biographical. I get the impression, however, that there is no pretence to authenticity in your approach to historical narrative.

Yes, I’m not really interested in authenticity. I don’t think cinema has ever been ‘real’. It is much more fantasy-related, I suppose, and some of my heroes are the novelists of South American magical realism, especially Borges and Márquez. Their ability to slip in and out of reality. Reality is happening in the street outside my house; why should I try to reproduce it in the cinema? Maybe the most powerful and amazing thing all of us have is the human imagination. So let’s deeply involve that into the process. 

I’m thinking of what one might call the ‘docudrama’ films you’ve made, such as Goltzius and the Pelican Company (2012), where you’re infusing documentary into a fiction. What is gained from combining those modes of filmmaking?

Goltzius and the Pelican Company (2012)

As I get older I read less fiction and more fact. I’m a great reader of history, and history has enormous potential for stories. That’s the source of the fascination I have in my later films with painters. I bet most people hadn’t heard of Goltzius before I made a film about him. He’s a remarkable character, but I assure you he really existed! But I’m not determined simply to resurrect an obscure figure. I’m more interested in the parallels between what he did as printmaker and what I do as a filmmaker. What is cinema if not a form of printmaking? We make hundreds of identical copies of the same phenomenon and send them out for mass distribution. There’s no point in writing history unless you’re talking about your own times. 

Do you see how you interpret facts in your filmmaking as being different to what a historian would be doing in writing?

Somebody once said that history is just literature. People create history, because you can’t actually prove anything no matter how ‘perfect’ the documentation is. Most historians are literary rather than visual, and the written word is no more reliable a source than paintings. But let me give you another suggestion: why let the truth get in the way of a good story? Historians are going to be entertaining. And if they’re not entertaining, we’re not going to read them. 

That notion of entertainment seems to be at odds with the total negation of narrative. From your earliest films like The Falls and The Draughtsman’s Contract there are linearities and rhythms that give them structure. Is your fascination with patterns and sequences distinct from narrative?

You’re right that I’m not very interested in narrative. I think that narrative is essentially a literary preoccupation. I aim, and people might think it’s crazy, to make something of a non-narrative cinema pursuing what painting does extremely well, which is the singular statement. I try very hard to use systems, as you say. So yes, I’m not eschewing narrative completely. I think that would be cinematically suicidal. If most people go to the cinema to be told a good story, and I’m going to deny them the narrativity of cinema, then I have to keep them engaged by other means. 

Drowning by Numbers (1988)

For example, The Cook, the Thief, His Wife & Her Lover is really about colour, and Drowning by Numbers, as the title suggests, is about numeracy. In every film there’s a conceit which plays rather abstractly within the proceedings. The number 92, the atomic number of uranium, which either means the success of civilisation or its total failure, is omnipresent. It’s a bit cabalistic, but then again I think a lot of us have a fascination with numbers and systems.

The flow provided by those systems comes through in the music as well.

Yes, I think so. If you think about Michael Nyman and the minimalism that came out of New York in the 1960s, it’s all tied to those sequences and pattern-making. What Michael Nyman was particularly clever at was that he related it to English Baroque music like Henry Purcell, and earlier composers who had similar ideas, be it in a completely different age with different orchestration and values. 

I’ve always thought that in most human pursuits, there’s nothing new. Everything is a reformulation of what we’ve gone through before. The major dominance in contemporary cinema is Marvel Comics, isn’t it? The Marvel Comics relate back to ancient mythologies, be they Scandinavian or Greek. We’re just remaking everything. Take Nightwatching. I made a film about Rembrandt; you know something about Rembrandt – I’m plugging into your knowledge of Rembrandt as a platform from which to build ideas.

Those ideas have a tendency to go beyond what one perceives simply looking at Rembrandt’s paintings. You flesh him out and give him a sexuality and a mortality.

The Greeks had two essential words: eros and thanatos. They are the bookends of our lives. Not so much birth, but actual population conception, and then death. Since I’m now 80 I’m concentrating largely on the thanatos. What do we do about this inescapable problem that we’re all going to die? Is it possible to have any sense of control over it, and can one have a happy death? I’m starting a new film with Morgan Freeman called Lucca Mortis which asks the absurd question, “Is death necessary?” 

We’re all complicated people, no matter our background, but when we die huge amounts of knowledge just disappear. What an incredible waste! What are these Darwinian evolutionary games playing at when it has this in-built waste situation? It goes hand-in-hand with the irony that we’re all living longer. But what does that mean? Is it simply adding one more number to a list of numbers? Does it actually imply adding quality? Probably not. 

When you received your BAFTA for outstanding contribution to British cinema in 2014, you said that cinema needs to constantly be reinvented. Do you still feel that way? Is cinematic reinvention about technology, such as virtual reality, or is it a matter of content and purpose?

Peter Greenaway

These new technological inventions haven’t really changed the nature of cinema, have they? That great splurge of interest in 3D, where the hell did that go? I think that these gizmos, these new excitements are more to do with trying to revitalise a fascination in cinema practice.

To me cinema is still in an embryonic state. I had hoped it would develop with the digital revolution, which was a great excitement for me because filmmakers could virtually become painters again. They had control of the image in an intimate way that they’d never had before, using CGI and so on. I find it sad that the human imagination gets excited by some new phenomenon, and then miserably goes back to its comfort zone. Despite all these technological inventions, cinema is still the same as it was when it began in 1895. 

You still believe you have a part to play in cinema though? You’re still making films.

I think I have about 20 film scripts that I would like to make. But since one of the reasons why we’re having this conversation is that I am now 80, my days are numbered and there’s just not time enough to make all these movies. I think the average white male in Europe is probably dying off at about 81½ so I have about a year and a half left I think. We’ll see what happens. My time is limited now. I think you can understand I still have a certain amount of energy to continue. But we’ll see what happens. 

Surely you’ve got to make it at least to 92, Peter!

Well I should do, shouldn’t I?

Frames of Mind: The Films of Peter Greenaway runs at BFI Southbank from October to December 2022. A selection of his films are also available for free and for subscribers on BFI Player.

Peter Greenaway will be in conversation at BFI Southbank on 9 December.

The Draughtsman’s Contract is back in cinemas and on two-disc Blu-ray in a 40th anniversary 4K remaster by the BFI National Archive now.

The Belly of an Architect is out as a BFI dual format edition (Blu-ray and DVD).

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