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.