Wednesday, January 2, 2008

Body trouble: a short piece on the conflicted aesthetic pretentions and elegant alienation of Peter Greenaway

Peter Greenaway at the very least deserves to be considered a special case. Not only does Greenaway bring the distinct sensibility of the painter to (more or less) mainstream cinema, not only does he subvert the vocabulary of narrative film to make essentially associational structural explorations: Peter Greenaway is a grand cinematic alienator, wildly prolific and without peer. He doesn’t seem to even want you to like his films, which is fortunate.

I started hating Greenaway with
8 1/2 Women (1999), which I saw at Edmonton's Metro Cinema years ago. It’s Metro again who’ve prompted me to revisit Greenaway’s work for the first time since. Making up one half of their weekend Greenaway double bill, Metro’s screening A Zed & Two Noughts (85), perhaps the coldest movie about grief ever made. A clinically elegant approach to design and symmetry permeates the film from the surface down to its core. A car accident outside the Rotterdam Zoo, on a road titled Swan Way, is caused by a swan. Two women perish, each one spouse to one of a pair of Siamese twins. The widowers soon become lovers to the accident’s sole survivor, the driver of the car, who lost one leg in the violence and, urged by the surgeon brother of a famous forger of Vermeer paintings, is considering getting rid of the other. The twins also console themselves with documentaries about the origins of life and by monitoring of decomposition in various organic subjects: an apple, some prawns, a swan. The march of bloat, bubble and rot whizzes by in time-lapse images set to hyper-speed music.

Seen at the close of the opening credits, the image of the dead wives, leaning almost sensuously against one and other as sparks cascade behind them, possesses a certain perverse pageantry that determines the tone of what proceeds. The spectacle owes something to Warhol and JG Ballard in its transfixing power: morbid, telegraphic, flat, yet layered with meaning. It matches the highly theatrical quality of the film’s lighting, composition, production design and even dialogue. In Greenaway’s theatre, civilization is a sort of catastrophe waiting to happen, where genes dictate destiny and personality melts into base needs and the useless accumulation of knowledge. Incidentally, I don’t recall a single close-up in the whole thing: humans are to be observed from a distance sufficient for erasing the possibility of character identification.

Greenaway has stated that cinema doesn’t connect with the body the way painting has. The two mediums behave so differently that I don’t doubt for a moment that he’s right. Yet, while Greenaway has frequently condemned films for clinging to the aesthetics of the novel, I wonder if he’s aware of just how equally limiting his appropriation of the aesthetics of painting is. The body is often most palpably felt in films that fully exploit the medium’s particular sense of movement and urgency -elements Greenaway frequently avoids. In any case,  A Zed & Two Noughts is compelling precisely for its use of static or virtually static imagery. This is something worth praising, even if it’s a far cry from its creator’s ostensible goals.

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