Celluloid narcissus

When Peter Greenaway's films stare into our eyes, they see themselves

You won't find a better paradigm for the polarities of opinion about British director Peter Greenaway than in Love and Hisses, a collection of picks and pans written by members of the National Society of Film Critics. Reviews of the filmmaker's 1990 scatological comedy The Cook, The Thief, His Wife, and Her Lover by The New Yorker's Terrence Rafferty and Michael Wilmington, writing for Isthmus, are placed side by side for a little "Jane, you ignorant slut"-style jousting. Wilmington contends that The Cook is a morality tale that is, unlike most other films, hellbent on using the full range of cinematic vocabulary to score its points; Rafferty pronounces the film to be pleased with itself all out of proportion to its virtues, which are of the carny sideshow variety.

With ten features and countless shorts on his resume, the 55-year-old Greenaway has made it crystal clear in interviews that he makes movies for an audience of one--himself. This comes across less as arrogance than overarching philosophy; he's not just hiding behind auteurist privilege. While often visually sumptuous, his movies are economical with storytelling and character, often distributing atrocities as little pin-pricks to the fingers rather than a kick in audience stomachs. Some outraged detractors have declared Greenaway overindulgent, but of all the sins he's committed--and they include emotional dishonesty, ritual character sacrifice, and flippant brutality--glutton is a label he least deserves. Greenaway is nothing if not meticulous, astringent, and scalpel-precise; there is no deliberate obscurity a la Bunuel and Brakhage in his experimental films. Each of his movies says just what it wants to say, and no more. Filmgoers worldwide have been repulsed and fascinated by these naughty little messages.

To understand Greenaway as the cinematic portraitist of the beautiful and the decaying, you must turn to his '60s training at London's Royal College of Art. He was denied entrance to the film school at the Royal College, so he bought a 16 mm Bolex and, inspired by the avant-garde's experiments with form (he turned his job at the British Film Institute into the equivalent of a film degree), spent a big part of the '60s and most of the '70s making short films that were little essays in monomania and various obsessive compulsive preoccupations like categorizing, list-keeping, counting, etc.

His first feature was the 1980 mockumentary The Falls, which applied his brand of mental trickery to the sweeping, ornate eye that would electrify his pungently beautiful meditations throughout the '80s. The Falls dares you not to laugh at its pokerfaced verite approach to 92 victims of the VUE (Violent Unknown Event). The mischievous vacuum at the center of this fictional event, the sheer anonymity of the central issue being discussed, is later reflected in the non sequiturs that drive his characters to do truly nasty things to each other.

In the world of Greenaway, it's the random minutiae corralled by creativity that often stands as the only bulwark against brutish human nature, which is most vividly embodied in Michael Gambon's riotous Bluebeard performance during the color-coordinated The Cook, The Thief, His Wife, and Her Lover. Just like when the rhyme-singing little girl who's struck down by a car in mid-jump-rope during Drowning By Numbers, the little efforts of human ritual and organization retain a classical purity because fate and human intervention don't.

A prediction: the future film book that'll discuss Greenaway's newest The Pillowbook with the most passion and attention to detail will be the twentieth edition of The Guide to Male Frontal Nudity in the Movies, which debuted late last year. One way to know you're in Greenaway land is the complete disregard of Western cinematic sexual conventions like penile censorship. Ewan McGregor of Trainspotting and the upcoming thriller Nightwatch apparently possesses a very healthy body image, because the image of his very healthy, pale, androgynous body appears about every other frame. He plays a young man who shares a love of language with Nagiko (the breathtaking Vivian Wu) that's so intense, the pair of them like to write across each other's naked bodies. Sexual jealousy sets in as Nagiko the Human Parchment asks a variety of men to prove their penmanship.

For better or worse, a Peter Greenaway film reverses the art-house experience. Even the most adventurous viewers, cineastes who're thrilled to trip with Godardian editing or Jarman's deliberate tears in the story fabric, aren't accustomed to being scrutinized by the movie they're supposed to be dissecting. But that's the unnerving, oddly pleasurable sensation that Greenaway induces: He's watching us more intently than we are watching him. He doesn't make audiences hunt, but his Lewis Carroll-esque lust for puns, numerical riddles, absurd physical cruelty, and stylized set pieces suggests that the normal ray of entertainment has been directed not at the audience, but back into the film itself. Filmgoers can jump into Greenaway's ring of laser-concentrated mayhem, but first they must be invited.

 
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