Peter Greenaway Looks at the Day Cinema Died — and What Comes Next

Cin­e­ma went into its death throes on Sep­tem­ber 31, 1983. The instru­ment of its demise? The video remote con­trol. When the “zap­per” endowed the view­er with the abil­i­ty to play, pause, stop, fast-for­ward, and rewind at will, the medi­um’s artists lost their absolute con­trol over the rhythm, dura­tion, and oth­er chrono­log­i­cal sub­tleties of the cin­e­mat­ic expe­ri­ence. Or so film­mak­er Peter Green­away claims in this lec­ture at UC Berke­ley. Any­one fan enough to read all the inter­views the direc­tor has grant­ed — and I count myself in the group — will by now be famil­iar with, even weary of, Green­away’s ideas about cin­e­ma’s tech­ni­cal and eco­nom­ic strait­jack­et­ing, its arbi­trary aes­thet­ic bound­aries, and its squan­dered poten­tial as a free­stand­ing art form. Nowhere else, though, does he explain and elab­o­rate upon these ideas in such detail, or in such an enter­tain­ing­ly ora­tor­i­cal man­ner.

“The death of cin­e­ma,” though? Real­ly? Know­ing how dra­mat­ic that sounds, Green­away frames what’s hap­pened in anoth­er way: per­haps cin­e­ma has yet to be born. What if the last cen­tu­ry or so has offered only the pro­logue to cin­e­ma, and mod­ern film­mak­ers must take it upon them­selves to bring the real thing into the world? These may strike you as the thoughts of a crack­pot, and maybe they are, but watch and lis­ten as Green­away recounts the stunt­ed devel­op­ment of the art form in which he works. We’ve grown so accus­tomed to the lim­i­ta­tions of cin­e­ma, so his argu­ment goes, that we don’t even feel the pres­sure of the “four tyran­nies” that have lord­ed over it since the begin­ning: the frame, the text, the actor, and the cam­era. Even if you loathe Green­away’s films, can you help ask­ing your­self whether the rarely ques­tioned dom­i­nance of an elite class of essen­tial­ly the­atri­cal per­form­ers, fol­low­ing tex­tu­al­ly con­ceived instruc­tions, viewed from one per­spec­tive at a time through a sim­ple rec­tan­gle, holds the movies back?

Since his fea­ture-length debut The Falls in 1980, Green­away has strug­gled against what he sees as the bar­ri­ers put up by cin­e­ma’s unhealthy entan­gle­ment with the nar­ra­tive-dri­ven forms of the­ater and lit­er­a­ture. Trained orig­i­nal­ly as a painter, he won­ders explic­it­ly in pub­lic and implic­it­ly through his work why films can’t enjoy the same free­dom to explore the cre­ative space at their dis­pos­al that paint­ings do. All his pic­tures, even the best-known like The Draughts­man­’s Con­tract; The Cook, the Thief, His Wife and Her Lover; and 8½ Women, use set­tings, actors, images, words, and sounds like col­ors on a palette, apply­ing them with infini­tude of strokes, cre­at­ing a whole from which no one ele­ment can be eas­i­ly sep­a­rat­ed. In this lec­ture, Green­away mar­shals footage from his projects con­duct­ed even far­ther out at the medi­um’s edge: his trans­for­ma­tion of an actu­al Ital­ian palace into one big non-nar­ra­tive film, his col­lab­o­ra­tions with avant-garde com­pos­er David Lang, and, of course, his VJ-ing ses­sions.

Relat­ed con­tent:

Dar­win, A 1993 Film by Peter Green­away

Col­in Mar­shall hosts and pro­duces Note­book on Cities and Cul­ture. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall.

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Comments (4)
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  • Hi, I’m a huge fan of, so I do not intend to crit­i­cize your work but… Sep­tem­ber 31? It’s a 30 day month. thank you for all the shar­ing, keep up the good work

  • cjmarshall says:

    Now, here I’d love to say I made a typo and cor­rect it, but… that’s the “date” Green­away gives every time. I real­ly don’t know what to tell you.

  • Alex Gamela says:

    well, i believe mas­ters make their own time, so that’s good enough for me.

  • nazif topcuoglu says:

    obvi­ous­ly you can­not pin­point the exact date of the inven­tion of ‘the remote con­trol’, hence it is anoth­er one of Green­away’s jokes

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