Why would a noted British filmmaker want to take as a subject four American composers? Perhaps the question answers itself, in part, when I tell you the identity of the filmmaker, Peter Greenaway, and the composers, Philip Glass, Meredith Monk, John Cage, and Robert Ashley. No wonder this selection of musical personalities appealed to the director of The Draughtsman’s Contract;The Cook, the Thief, His Wife, and Her Lover; and Prospero’s Books, whom critics have labeled, at various times, a classicist, an experimenter, a formalist, and a weirdo. Alas, Greenaway’s fans may not know much about Glass, Monk, Cage, and Ashley, just as those composers’ adherents may never have encountered a movie of Greenaway’s. To bridge the gap, we give you the documentary series Four American Composers, free to watch online. At the top of this post, you’ll find the first episode, on Cage. The second, below, covers Glass. The third and fourth take on Monk and Ashley, respectively.
Greenaway die-hards such as myself may, watching these documentaries the filmmaker created in 1983, think back to his early career. At that time, he made pictures like The Falls, which rigidly followed the documentary form while completely abandoning its aspirations to capture the literal truth. Thoroughly nonfictional, or at least seeming that way, the documentaries that make up Four American Composers nonetheless exude the Greenaway sensibility. “Because he made mostly mock-documentaries in the seventies,” writes Amy Lawrence in The Films of Peter Greenaway, “the ‘real’ documentaries are nearly indistinguishable from the fakes. Real people (especially John Cage) tend to become Greenaway characters.” The project thus slides neatly in with his other, more “straightforward” films, all of which take place in a deliberately structured labyrinth of joke and allusion peopled by architects, inventors, aristocrats, and artists — obsessives, all.
You can find two other films by Greenaway — Darwin and Rembrandt’s J’accuse — in our collection of 525 Free Movies Online.
Colin Marshall hosts and produces Notebook on Cities and Culture and writes essays on literature, film, cities, Asia, and aesthetics. He’s at work on a book about Los Angeles, A Los Angeles Primer. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall.