The director, the painter, the conspirators, and their victim
Filmmaker Peter Greenaway made a big impression with his 1989 film The Cook, the Thief, His Wife, and Her Lover, which received international acclaim and a fistful of awards— as well as controversy due to scenes of torture, nudity, gluttony, and cannibalism— all in the name of love. Greenaway’s previous films include A Zed & Two Noughts (1985), Drowning by Numbers (1988), and Prospero’s Books (1991).
Born inWales and educated in London, Greenaway initially studied painting and then turned to filmmaking in 1966. He has written about film and the arts and served as curator for a variety of exhibitions. In the 1990s, he penned a series of 10 opera libretti looking at connecting threads in the deaths of 20th-century composers (including John Lennon). In recent years, he has turned his attention to exploring in film and video installations some of the most scrutinized paintings in the history ofWestern art, including The Last Supper by Leonardo da Vinci and a series of works by Dutch artists, most notably The Night Watch (1642) by Rembrandt van Rijn.
In his 2008 film Rembrandt’s J’Accuse, Greenaway examines the content and context of Rembrandt’s monumental painting, which depicts the members of the civic guard of Amsterdam, led by Capt. Banning Cocq, ready to embark on their evening duties. Along with drummers, flag bearers, two women, a dog, and the painter himself, the group shown in the image totals 34. Part lecturer and part investigative reporter, Greenaway works his way through the ensemble cast depicted in the painting and discusses, from various perspectives, the ways in which the painting is a treatise on the corrupted power structure of Amsterdam at the time and depicts, according to Greenaway, a politically motivated murder. From England, Greenaway responded to questions about the painting and the film, which opens Friday, Dec. 18, at The Screen on the College of Santa Fe campus. Pasatiempo: Are you convinced that Rembrandt was so smart, devious, bold, or perhaps so reckless that he would visually make such accusations in a major painting commissioned for public display? Peter Greenaway: Rembrandt had paintings in the English Stuart collection in Whitehall and the Italian Medici collection in Florence by the time he was 22. His paintings were bought by Constantine Huygens for the House of Orange. Damien Hirst could make no contemporary equivalent. Until he was 36, Rembrandt was very rich and he was feted — a formidable combination of Mick Jagger and Bill Gates. He was a pop star. ... He had a big extravagant house. He owned a large museum of artifacts and expensive curiosities. He was brimming with egotistical pride and courage. And, as the film suggests, he had an eye for irony and cynicism about his elders and so-called betters. He knew, indeed, that [ The Night Watch] would be no hole-and-corner painting. ... Maybe, too, he had his mother’s Reformist greed for the moral high ground. Certainly, too, he wanted one up on his patrons — he had left school at 16, and perhaps he had that familiar go-getter’s chip on his shoulder toward the supercilious intelligentsia. He had motive. He had bravery. And he certainly had talent. And he knew that his references would strike all the right chords in a society that always looked for the metaphor. Pasa: Your exhaustive analysis of the painting presents enough material for a college seminar. Can viewers with little or no art-history background digest all that you propose in a 90-minute film? Greenaway: Probably not, but there again, I have always made films that demand a repeated viewing. I believe it is an obligation. Cinema to me was never an ephemerality, worthy only of a casual earlyevening glance.
Pasa: In your prologue to the film you say that most people are visually illiterate. Greenaway: We have a text-based culture that prioritizes the written and spoken word— indeed, ever since the growth of general literacy — biased toward the written rather than the spoken word. Umberto Eco argues that after 8,000 years the text masters who have been in control of civilization must now— since the digital visual revolution began in 1983— move over to make way for the visual gatekeepers. The tragedy is, what price this new revolution if most of the population is visually illiterate? Pasa: Is your part onscreen intended to keep viewers grounded in the present and/or to allow you to emphasize certain points? Greenaway: Like Zola’s use of j’accuse! in the Dreyfus case, I wanted to bear personal witness as number-one whistle-blower. Pasa: At one point in the film, you appear as a decapitated talking head on a platter, or so it seems. Was that done for comic relief? Greenaway: I am a storyteller— alas— maybe cinema makes storytellers of us all, and you know what threatened the most celebrated storyteller of all time— Scheherazade— her head would be served up on a plate if she had failed to amuse and intrigue. Pasa: How long did you spend in research for the film? Greenaway: I have been studying Rembrandt since I was a student at 17 in the early 60s. I confess to not particularly liking his painting very much— far too Hollywood for me— but you cannot ignore him. You could say, considering our apparent contemporary position as good Democratic, Republican, anti-misogynist, post-Freudian, post-modernists, that he is the greatestWestern painter of all time and certainly the inspiration and major model for allWestern painting since 1860. Pasa: Not long ago, The Night Watch got a thorough cleaning, which prompted many art historians to declare that the painting was actually a day watch and the title a misnomer. Greenaway: Rembrandt never, ever knew his painting by that name. That is an addition by art critics in the early 18th century who were familiar with a new nocturnal Amsterdam police force of that date. In fact, [Rembrandt] surely would have always considered it a day watch rather than a night watch.
Pasa: In the film, you propose that Rembrandt’s commissions disappeared due to his exposure of conspirators in the painting, which ultimately led to his impoverishment. Greenaway: Because he was calculated to have been so very wealthy, art historians have always argued that it seems unlikely, if not by evidence impossible, to lose so much money so quickly. One of the other better excuses is to imagine [Rembrandt] speculating on ships and shipping— a notoriously money-losing occupation in 17th-century Holland. But there again, there is very little evidence to support that theory. Some say Geertje [Rembrandt’s servant] wasted all his money, but that seems implausible. [His wife] Saskia’s will was always considered an impediment, since she insisted that if Rembrandt should have married again, his fortune had to be halved so that their son, Titus, did not get disinherited by children of a second marriage. The theory of conspiracy to financially destroy Rembrandt is by far the most interesting one and, as you have seen [in the film], highly supportable. Pasa: I sensed from the gusto with which you present your case in Rembrandt’s J’Accuse that you enjoyed making the film. Was it a challenge nonetheless? Greenaway: Whenever I get a chance and an opportunity to discuss painting and cinema together, the candle is always burnt at both ends without travail. The first cut of the documentary was 50 percent longer than at its present length and dealt much more fully with 50 clues and had a much longer coda or epilogue. So I suppose my greatest chagrin or regret is having to cut the film down. Pasa: How has your background as a painter informed your filmmaking? Greenaway: I have always wanted cinema to be a primary visual art form, which it patently is not. And looking at any of the 300 films that include 14 features that I have made in 30 years, you can easily see that to be an implicit intent. Pasa: What do you hope viewers will take away from Rembrandt’s J’Accuse? Greenaway: Primarily a new desire to look at images much more closely and find in them great profundity of intent easily equivalent to anything our text-based prejudices have led us. Pasa: What’s on the drawing board? Greenaway: We are about to embark on a feature film about printing and engraving of the 1590s called after the printmaker [Hendrick] Goltzius, then a feature about Oskar Kokoschka’s struggle with his doll fashioned as Alma Mahler, and an opera involving Veronese’s painting [ Marriage at Cana]. And the ninepart examination of Classic Paintings Revisited [through video installations] continues with a show at The Armory in New York next year of da Vinci’s Last Supper, Veronese’s Marriage at Cana, and Giotto’s attempts at the same two subjects. You may have read of the Vatican’s new initiative to bring contemporary artists and the Roman Catholic Church back together. I am certainly a nonbeliever, a Darwinist, and a card-carrying atheist, but having met the Pope two weeks ago, I am looking forward to tackling that great Michelangelo masterpiece of The Last Judgement.
Jodhi May as Geertje Left, director Peter Greenaway with Jonathan Holmes, center, as Ferdinand Bol and Michael Teigen as Carel Fabritius
The Nightwatch by Rembrandt van Rijn
Going Dutch: Eva Birthistle as Saskia Uylenburgh