Tag Archives: Peter Greenaway

LIST CANDIDATE: THE BABY OF MÂCON (1993)

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Peter Greenaway

FEATURING: Julia Ormond, , Philip Stone, Jonathan Lacey

PLOT: The story of a pseudo-miraculous infant unfolds in an elaborate passion play, which we watch along with 17th-century Italian aristocrats as they take in, and at times partake in, the play’s action.

Still from The Baby of Macon (1993)

WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: Beyond my usual answer of, “quite frankly, every Greenaway movie probably qualifies for the List,” is the less fatalist reason that The Baby of Mâcon should count among the weirdest movies of all time because it makes all other Greenaway films (except, perhaps, The Falls) feel positively accessible and happy. More a recording of a hyper-sumptuous stage production than a film, this movie is such an embodiment of hyper-stylized hyper-formalism it proves that Peter Greenaway can, like Spinal Tap’s guitar amp, “go to eleven.”

COMMENTS: Despite his oeuvre’s opulence, stylishness, and glamour, Peter Greenaway could never be accused of catering to any audience other than himself. I mean this as no criticism. The reception to his films proves that there are non-Greenaways out there who can get on the same wavelength and, if not always enjoy, then at least appreciate the detailed grandeur of his vision. The Baby of Mâcon checks its way down the Greenaway list: stylized setting and dialogue, grandiose presentation, and a vicious current of sadism. We’ve seen that he can be lyrical (The Pillow Book), quirky (The Falls), and, sometimes, even commercially successful (The Cook, the Thief, his Wife, & her Lover). The Baby of Mâcon, however, is Greenaway at his angriest. Watching this film is like watching a back-alley murder scored by Wagner and choreographed by Baryshnikov.

The story is a simple plot of cynicism hijacked by vengeance. Sometime in the middle of the last millennium, a baby is born. The baby’s actual mother was long thought barren, and through some quick maneuverings, one of her daughters (Julia Ormond) claims to have birthed the child through some immaculate conception. A local Bishop’s son (Ralph Fiennes) is, along with this father, skeptical. The baby has his own evil streak and condemns the Bishop’s son to death by ox-goring for having almost taken (consensually) his false-mother’s virginity. The Bishop (Philip Stone) finds his son dead, takes the child, and exploits him further. The boy is killed by his false-mother, who herself is condemned to a fate that would be best left unsaid.

Nonetheless, it must be. Peter Greenaway, through all the pomp, costumery, and stylization of the dialogue, shows his true fury at religion, the aristocracy, and much else about societal order. With the blessing of the in-film audience member Cosimo Medici (Jonathan Lacey), the false-mother of the titular child is doomed to a death by rape. I won’t trouble you with the “logic” behind it, but through one of his beloved lists, Greenaway subjects his character to hundreds of such experiences, consecutively, at the hands of the local militia—all blessed and “pre-forgiven” for their acts by the Bishop. All this is done before and audience who gaze, along with us, at the cruelty. They, however, are observers of a “morality play”; we have the discomfort of acknowledging how immoral the play’s events are. The only blameless character, the Bishop’s son, is the unfortunate catalyst of this evil. He is referred to as a scientist before his demise, and seems of a level head. No room for him in this world of intrigue, superstition, and malice.

There is simultaneously not much more to say about this film, as well as extensive remarks to be made about the reams of allusions throughout. Uncharacteristically for Greenaway, there is often a great deal of on-screen confusion (à la Aleksey German), as the camera is often (seemingly) obtusely placed, mimicking the position of an audience member of a stage play. It is left to us to follow the action, scouring the screen for what is happening where.

A bit of trivia: this was Ralph Fiennes’ second film role. His third, which would make him famous, is substantially more uplifting and, even, more cheerful—Schindler’s List. Released the same year as The Baby of Mâcon, film distributors in North America found it easier to put the evils of the Holocaust on display than to reckon with the malignity found in Greenaway’s offering.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Not even Ken Russell could have dreamed up the stew of grotesque religiosity, slavering voyeurism and sexual violence that is Peter Greenaway’s 1993 movie, ‘The Baby of Macon’…”–Stephen Holden, The New York Times (1997 screening)

CAPSULE: DROWNING BY NUMBERS (1988)

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Joan Plowright, Juliet Stevenson, Joely Richardson, Bernard Hill

PLOT: Three women bearing the same name resolve their issues with their spouses by drowning them, enlisting the local coroner to aid in covering up their murderous spree. All the while, the film itself counts inexorably from 1 to 100, which marks the movie’s end.

Still from Drowning by Numbers (1988)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: When you put Peter Greenaway behind the camera, there’s going to be some weirdness as a matter of course. But while the movie has striking tableaus composed with his painterly eye, most of the oddity comes from the numerical gambit, with a touch of cavalier attitude toward the macabre.

COMMENTS: There’s no rule that says cinematic murder must be violent, or even serious. Consider the corpse lying in the bucolic countryside of The Trouble with Harry or the repeated deaths of Alec Guinness in Kind Hearts and Coronets. So Drowning by Numbers is following in a grand comedic tradition, right down to the titular crime occurring, like the best of jokes, in threes. However, if the murders themselves are relatively light on shock value, they are also surprisingly light on motive. The first husband is ostensibly murdered for unfaithfulness, although there’s little anger in the crime. The second is dispatched merely for being grossly inattentive. By the time we get to the third, there seems to be no real reason for it at all, other than the fact that, hey, we’ve got another husband to kill. The plot is as inured to the horrors of homicide as its murderers.

Drowning by Numbers is that rare film where it’s a tossup as to whether the tone is misogynist or misandrist. True, the men are largely unsympathetic, and that extends to coroner Madgett, who ultimately proves too aggressive in pursuit of romantic recompense for his role as accomplice. But it’s not as though women come off especially well, either. Even with three female leads, the movie doesn’t really pass the Bechdel test, since their conversations are largely about the men they love/kill. The three Cissies (who might be three generations, and who, curiously, share a name with a B-movie actress) are shockingly cold; they are not righteous, defensive, or even defiant about their acts. Murder seems to be a decision on par with re-arranging the furniture. Maybe this detachment is not entirely their fault, though, as the entire community seems to be largely apathetic about a sudden spike in the mortality rate. In addition to all this drowning, the film features a self-mutilation that is repeatedly dismissed as trifling, an irresponsible vehicular manslaughter that seemingly affects only one character, and a suicide that goes almost completely unobserved. Perhaps the film’s tone is really just nihilist.

Why so carefree about human life? Probably because of all the games. Characters are constantly playing complex games for which Madgett’s son/apprentice (blood relationships are poorly defined in this movie) must describe their arcane rules. They’re something to do in between all the murders. So it stands to reason that Greenaway himself needs a game to distract himself (and us) from the proceedings…which brings us to the numbers. An alternative way to watch the movie is to spend your time looking for the numbers as they advance, like a kind of scavenger hunt. Sometimes they are subtle, hidden on a far wall or tossed off in dialogue; other times they are absurdly obvious, like on a sign awkwardly nailed to a tree or, most amusingly, as identification for a pair of foot racers who stumble upon one of the drownings and proceed to stalk the merry murderesses for the remainder of the film, still attired in their running gear. But the numbers don’t really tie in to the story in any way, aside from a prologue that promises an ending at 100. It’s just a gimmick. A bold one editorially, showing how meticulously Greenaway has laid out his shooting story, but a gimmick nonetheless. It’s essential in the same way a book is on a sea cruise: just another way to pass the time.

Drowning by Numbers is a movie about games, motivated by games, and comprised of games. So your tolerance for the film probably depends on how eager you are to play.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“You either love [Greenaway]… or you hate him. In either case, you do not understand him. The characters in ‘Drowning by Numbers’ are all completely credible people, who speak in ordinary English and inhabit a real landscape (except for the numbers), and behave in ways that would not shock the reader of a mystery novel. It is just the arbitrary pattern that seems strange, as one husband after another goes to his watery doom.”–Roger Ebert, Chicago Sun-Times (contemporaneous)

240. EISENSTEIN IN GUANAJUATO (2015)

“And a curious use of side-stepping metaphor and associative poetry is involved and embraced – all of which I came later to understand as characteristics of montage, the cinema of comparison – film by association – an ‘only-connect’ – cinema, cinema at long last not a slave of prosaic narrative but hopping and skipping about with serious purpose to run like the human imagination runs, making everything associative till everything past, present and future, old and new, both sides of the wall – like Cubism – which so influenced the contemporary Russian avant-garde in painting – though Malevich said that Eisenstein could never join the Russian avant-garde, he was ‘too real’. Amazing! I had found my first cinema hero.”–Peter Greenaway on Sergei Eisenstein (from director’s notes to Eisenstein in Guanajuato)

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Elmer Bäck, Luis Alberti

PLOT: In 1931, Soviet director Sergei Eisenstein (Battleship Potempkin) is in Mexico, gathering material for a new movie. While there, Eisenstein, a closeted homosexual, falls in love with his Mexican guide. He becomes more interested in the romance than the movie, but when his American financiers back out and Stalin calls him home, the director must abandon his first true love.

Still from Eisenstein in Guanajuato (2015)

BACKGROUND:

  • Eisenstein in Guanajuato begins from a real life episode. In the 1920s Sergei Eisenstein made three film in Russia—Strike, Battleship Potempkin, and October [AKA Ten Days That Shook the World]—that were globally regarded as classics, especially for their revolutionary kinetic editing. In 1928, Eisenstein was allowed to leave the Soviet Union as a sort of artistic goodwill ambassador. He toured Europe and North America, lecturing on Soviet film while learning the techniques used in other countries (specifically, the new technology of synchronizing sound to film). While abroad, the writer Upton Sinclair and his wife Mary agreed to fund Eisenstein with $25,000 to make a film in Mexico. Stalin worried that Eisenstein might defect and called him home, while the director simultaneously quarreled with his American backers over his extravagant expenses. The feature film, which would have been titled ¡Que viva México!, was never completed, although the Sinclairs edited some of the reported 250 miles (!) of film Eisenstein shot into three shorts. Eisenstein was never able to obtain the footage to edit himself.
  • Based on diary entries and homoerotic sketches he made, Eisenstein is widely believed to have been gay, and his marriage to Pera Atasheva a platonic one. There is no hard evidence he ever acted on these inclinations—although of course if he did he would have taken pains to hide the evidence, since under Stalin homosexual activity was punishable by five to ten years of hard labor in a prison camp.
  • Peter Greenaway originally planned the film as a documentary.
  • Try as he might, Greenaway could not find a Russian actor of the right age and appearance who was able to speak English and Spanish convincingly and was willing to appear nude in a gay sex scene. Elmer Bäck is a Finnish actor previously seen only on Finnish television.
  • Greenaway has announced a prequel, Eisenstein in Hollywood, intended to be completed by 2017.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: Probably, the image that sticks in your mind will come from the sex scene centerpiece—one of the most explicit gay romps in a mainstream film, and one in which the lovers discuss colonialism and syphilis as Eisenstein is anally deflowered. We don’t want to ruin the, er, unusual climax where Palomino storms Eisenstein’s Winter Palace for you, however.

THREE WEIRD THINGS: Looming desperadoes; shower phone; animated angel porn

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: This lurid and delirious biopic of Russian director Sergei Eisenstein plays like Peter Greenaway was possessed by the gay ghost of , desperate to come out and obsessed with a postmortem affection for split screens.

Original trailer for Eisenstein in Guanajuato

COMMENTS: It’s fair to say Eisenstein in Guanajuato is Peter Greenaway’s Ken Russell movie: an erotically charged imaginary biography of an artist in the throes of passion, and a salacious sneer at the Continue reading 240. EISENSTEIN IN GUANAJUATO (2015)

LIST CANDIDATE: A ZED & TWO NOUGHTS (1985)

AKA ZOO

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Brian Deacon, Eric Deacon, Andrá Ferréol, , Frances Barber

PLOT: After the deaths of their wives in a freak car crash, the brothers Oswald and Oliver, both zoologists, pursue different paths of obsession in an attempt to cope with their losses.

Still from A Zed & Two Nougts (1985)

WHY IT SHOULD MAKE THE LIST: As an art-house film, A Zed & Two Noughts succeeds with its precise interiors, high-minded dialogue, and a cavalcade of mise en scène goodies. Smashed into its philosophizing and clever conversation are decomposing animals, two differently unhinged brothers, a surgeon with an unhealthy obsession with Vermeer, and a borderline-spastic score from long-time Greenaway collaborator, Michael Nyman.

COMMENTS: Taking the idea of in medias res to its logical conclusion, A Zed & Two Noughts (hereafter to be referred to as ZOO) starts with a flash of photography and a smash of a white swan onto a white car. Inside, two women perish—and a third survives, only to have had her leg crushed beyond repair. So far, so good—but not so “art house”, I hear you think. Yet this unlikely (and grisly) beginning somehow morphs into one of the most precisely arranged specimens of film I’ve had the pleasure to watch. After climaxing in the first few minutes, the remainder acts as something of an extended dénouement, culminating in a comparably macabre, though more peaceful, conclusion.

Stylistically, ZOO is like nothing more than a painting. Every shot is impeccably staged, suggesting that director Peter Greenaway could give even a lesson or two on orderliness in the frame. Scene after scene exhibits meticulous use of vertical and horizontal framing: doorways, windows, mirrors. Those who know a thing or two about Greenaway will be unsurprised: he trained as a painter before beginning his career as a film-maker. The precision of the film’s look is mirrored within it by the surgeon Van Meegeren, who obsesses over the Dutch painter Vermeer, going so far as to try and recreate the latter’s masterpieces Lady Seated at Virginal and The Music Lesson, using the fiery-haired Alba Bewick (the survivor of the opening car crash) as a template. During her first surgery we see him lightly caress her exposed body; after convincing her that her second leg needs removal, we see the surgeon’s assistant provide Alba with a new hair-do and earrings to make her look more like the young women in the Vermeer paintings.

Somehow I have as yet to mention the centerpiece of this refined ostentation, the Deuce brothers. Oliver and Oswald Deuce are, combined, the main character of ZOO. At the film’s beginning, they are obviously identifiable as separate people. Oswald is, so to speak, the left brain: he starts by trying to work out the facts, the tiniest specifics, leading up the deadly car crash that took his wife’s life. Oliver, on the other hand, is right-brained. He contemplates the greater role that the cosmos played in the tragedy as part of his mourning process, watching David Attenborough’s “Life on Earth” program. He feels he needs to start from scratch–the TV series spans some millions of years of natural history—in order to work his way to how events conspired to take his wife from him.

Events proceed in a sinister direction. The brothers’ work starts as time-lapse photographs of rotting fruit, then small fish, and finally works up to their penultimate project: the recording of a zebra’s decomposition. Thrown into this mess of decay, philosophy, paintings, and obtrusive music is an aspiring bestiality writer, a zoo warden who moonlights procuring exotic meats, and sundry “unexplained” escapes of animals. ZOO poses some tough questions, perhaps the most important of which is educed by the zoo’s chief administrator: “What valuable conclusion can be gained from all this rotting meat?”

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…Greenaway’s eccentric exploration of where all life’s absurd varieties must begin and end is, like a road accident, always fascinating, if not exactly pleasurable, to watch.”–Anton Bitel, Movie Gazette

194. THE COOK THE THIEF HIS WIFE & HER LOVER (1989)

“Painters hate having to explain what their work is about. They always say, it’s whatever you want it to be — because I think that’s their intention, to connect with each person’s subconscious, and not to try and dictate. For all of his intellectualism, I think Peter Greenaway directs from his real inner gut, and he seems to have a very direct channel in that. The only other director I can think of who’s close is David Lynch.”–Helen Mirren

Recommended

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: , Michael Gambon, Richard Bohringer, Alan Howard

PLOT: A brutish but successful criminal with expensive tastes has bought a French restaurant, where he holds court nightly drinking the finest wines and abusing staff and customers equally. A bookseller who dines there catches the eye of Albert’s mistreated Wife, and the two embark on an illicit affair. The Thief’s discovery of their affair sets off a chain of violent reprisals which ultimately draw in the establishment’s Cook.

Still from The Cook, the Thief, His Wife and Her Lover (1989)
BACKGROUND:

  • The MPAA denied The Cook the Thief His Wife & Her Lover an R-rating (under 17 not admitted without parent) because of its extreme content (including scat, violence, nudity, cannibalism, and some disgusting stuff, too). Rather than have the film released with an X rating (a designation associated with hardcore pornography in the public mind), Miramax released the film unrated in the U.S. This is frequently cited as one of the films that led to the creation of the adults-only NC-17 rating (under 17 not admitted, a rating which fared little better than X). Cook accepted a NC-17 rating for its DVD release.
  • The controversy did not hurt, and probably significantly boosted, Cook at the U.S. box office, where it grossed over $7 million, becoming the closest thing to a hit Greenaway has ever had.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: We are going to skip over the shocking (and spoilerish) final image, and instead focus on the color transitions during the magnificent tracking shots: as Georgina walks from the sparkling white ladies’ room into the royal red of the restaurant’s main dining room, her dress changes color to match the decor.

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Although not as thoroughly weird as most of the rest of his oeuvre, Peter Greenaway’s The Cook, the Thief, His Wife and Her Lover is the director’s most beloved (?) movie, and in many ways his poplar masterpiece. While the surrealism here is as subtle as the scatology is explicit, there can be no doubt that Cook is an outrageous, brutish and lovely work of sumptuous unreality from an eccentric avant-gardist that demands a place of honor among the weirdest films ever made.


Original trailer for The Cook the Thief His Wife & Her Lover

COMMENTS: He begins the movie by smearing dog feces on a quivering naked man who owes him money, then urinating on him. This is Continue reading 194. THE COOK THE THIEF HIS WIFE & HER LOVER (1989)

140. PROSPERO’S BOOKS (1991)

“This is as strange a maze as e’er men trod
And there is in this business more than nature
Was ever conduct of: some oracle
Must rectify our knowledge.”–Alonso, “The Tempest” [V,I]

Recommended

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING:

PLOT: Prospero, a magician trapped on an island with his daughter and native spirits, conjures a tempest to wreck a king’s ship on his shores. Once the monarch and his party are in the wizard’s power, he puts into place an intricate plan to restore himself to his former position. The text of Shakespeare’s “The Tempest” is followed faithfully, but is supplemented with peeks at twenty-four lavishly illustrated volumes in Prospero’s magical library.Prospero's Books (1991)

BACKGROUND:

  • Prospero’s books are mentioned only a couple of times by Shakespeare in “The Tempest.” In the first act of the play, Prospero says that before being shipwrecked on the island he salvaged certain volumes from his library “that I prize above my dukedom.” (The implication in the scene is that Prospero was so concerned with his studies that he neglected courtly politics and fell victim to a conspiracy to oust him). Later, Caliban speculates that Prospero’s magical powers come from his books. In the play’s final scene, Prospero throws a book(presumably his collection of magic spells)  into the ocean.
  • John Gielgud, who played Prospero in four major theatrical productions, had a lifelong dream of starring in a film adaptation of “The Tempest.” Over the years he approached Alain Resnais, , Akira Kurosawa, and Orson Welles about directing the project, but all of the plans fell through for various reasons.
  • Prospero’s Books was shot entirely on videotape rather than film so that Greenaway could digitally manipulate the images, making it one of the very first digitally produced films.
  • The movie was filmed entirely in a studio in Amsterdam and contains only interior shots.
  • Greenaway made a 23-minute short for British television, “A Walk Through Prospero’s Library,” commenting on the film’s opening three and a half minutes, in which he explains the one hundred (!) mythological references in the parade that occurs as the opening credits roll.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: Prospero’s Books contains dozens, if not hundreds, of lush, luscious, baroquely structured, interlaced images, and yet it’s the acres and acres of nude flesh that you remember most. Still, the most shocking image illustrates Prospero’s volume called “An Anatomy of Birth”: a pregnant woman peels back a flap of skin from her torso to reveal the gooey fetus, and beating organs, within. According to the narrator’s description of the tome, “…the pages move, and throb, and bleed. It is a banned book.”

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: It’s an (almost) all nude adaptation of “The Tempest”; that should be enough for you. If it’s not, then consider the fact that a narrator constantly interrupts the story to describe the contents of Prospero’s magical books, including such tomes as “An Atlas Belonging to Orpheus” (“when the atlas is opened, the maps bubble with pitch”) and “A Book of Travellers’ Tales” (illustrated with “bearded women, a rain of frogs, cities of purple ice, singing camels, Siamese twins”); Greenaway shows us the contents of each book in a transparent overlay or a window that opens on top of the main action. If that’s still not enough for you, recall that the fairy slave Ariel is played by three separate actors, the youngest of whom urinates nonstop, and that a team of white horses suddenly wanders onto the set during Miranda and Ferdinand’s courtship scene. Your high school English teacher would not approve. This is acid Shakespeare.

Short clip from Prospero’s Books

COMMENTS: In 1979,  produced an adaptation of William Shakespeare’s The Tempest that featured a naked adult Caliban Continue reading 140. PROSPERO’S BOOKS (1991)

88. THE PILLOW BOOK (1996)

“I am certain that there are two things in life which are dependable: the delights of the flesh, and the delights of literature.  I have had the good fortune to enjoy them both equally.”–Sei Shōnagon, “The Pillow Book,” Section 172.

DIRECTED BY: Peter Greenaway

FEATURING: Vivian Wu, Ewan McGregor, Yoshi Oida

PLOT: Every birthday, Nagiko’s father draws calligraphic figures on her face while ritualistically reciting the story of creation. Nagiko grows into a beautiful young fashion model obsessed with the intersection of calligraphy and sex, seeking lovers who will use her naked body as a canvas on which to write. She meets and falls in love with a bisexual British translator who convinces her to write on others’ bodies, and together they conspire for revenge against the publisher who wronged her father.

Still from The Pillow Book (1996)

BACKGROUND:

  • The “Pillow Book” from which the movie takes its title is “The Pillow Book of Sei Shōnagon,” the diaristic collection of anecdotes, observations, poetry and lists by a lady-in-waiting to Empress Sadako of Japan in the Heian era (the book was composed around 1000 AD).  Shōnagon’s work, though probably never intended for others’ eyes, became one of the classics of Japanese literature and a tremendous source of historical data about the Japanese imperial court.  Greenaway was inspired by “The Pillow Book,” but the film is not an adaptation of Shōnagon.  In an interview he explains: “I took some of [the book’s] sensitivities, primarily where Sei Shōnagon said, ‘Wouldn’t the world be desperately impoverished if we didn’t have literature and we didn’t acknowledge our own physicality?’ And the movie’s just about that.”
  • Occasionally, the spoken Japanese dialogue is not translated into subtitles. This is deliberate.
  • Venerable cinematographer Sacha Vierny had shot Greenaway’s previous six feature films and had previously worked with Resnais (Hiroshima Mon Amour, Last Year at Marienbad), Buñuel (Belle de Jour) and Raoul Ruiz (The Hypothesis of the Stolen Painting, Three Crowns of the Sailor), among other notable (and weird) directors.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: There are a bewildering number of nominees to choose from, especially since Greenaway frequently places two or three images on the screen at once, picture-in-picture style.  The overwhelming repeated image is that of writing inked on nude bodies, however, and so the shot of glowing letters cast on Vivian Wu’s darkened, reclining body as she writes in her diary in bed best captures The Pillow Book‘s visual fetish.

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: The Pillow Book is a movie about a fetishistic, eccentric, obsessed


Trailer for The Pillow Book

character, brought to us by an auteur with firsthand knowledge of those qualities.  Greenaway splashes the screen with visual extravagances, with pictures framed inside of other pictures, and images layered on top of one another, melding one into the next.  Full of obscure musings about the nature of art and sex, The Pillow Book tells a story of lust and revenge, but subjugates the text to the image, the narrative to the cinematic.  The result is visually hypnotic, frequently frustrating, and all Greenaway.

COMMENTS: A man and woman make love.  The entwining limbs are spectral, as their Continue reading 88. THE PILLOW BOOK (1996)