The di­rec­tor, the painter, the con­spir­a­tors, and their vic­tim

Pasatiempo - - Moving Images - Dou­glas Fair­field The New Mex­i­can

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

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