PETER GREENAWAY FEATURE
image might appear rather obtuse, but not to the mind of Mr Greenaway. Curious as it might seem, The Baby of Macon started its gestation period when he used Olivieri Toscani’s much- banned photo of a new-born child as a contemporary preface to his 1991 Rotterdam National Gallery exhibition The Physical Self: ‘I wanted to examine why people got so upset by something we all pass through, the one moment ofequality in all our lives,’ explains the 5 l -year- old Londoner whose rise to international prominence began after The Draughtsman's Contract premiered to ecstatic acclaim at the 1982 Edinburgh International Film Festival. ‘lt was ruminating on that and on related images in the Catholic church — the Madonna and Child, the virgin birth — which set me off in the way that most of my films begin, with me worrying about a series of propositions and notions. And from there on in, I needed a script, 21 set of characters, a plot to worry about these things in public with you, the audience.’
A subsequent family holiday in Macon in south-east France and the local cathedral’s apocryphal tales of a child saint ‘way back when’ helped to set the ball rolling. Before long, after an abortive attempt to form the material into an opera with Louis Andriessen, The Baby 0f Macon was upon us — mutilation, rape, dismembcrment and all. ‘lt’s the way i want to make movies, part of my whole cultural baggage,’ he maintains. In The Cook, The Thieﬁ His Wife And Her Lover and A Zed And Two Noughts, there’s already been a concern with the whole cycle of life. and I want to address these taboo, sensitive
areas we all feel a bitjumpy about. ,
In The Baby 0f 5 Macon is so horrendous, l have difficulty in ' watching it myself, and I
The experience is as much for me
as it is for the audience — let’s see ! what these images are, let’s i grapple with them. It’s a
dangerous knife edge to travel, but I hope that I can do it and still manage to avoid gratuitous excitement in the event. The rape scene in The Baby 0f Macon is so horrendous, l have difficulty in watching it myself, and I don’t believe anybody could be titillated by it. It’s meant to go beyond the veil of tears, beyond moral preoccupations.’
The sequence in question takes place on a stage where a troupe of actors are playing out the story of L- --- -- ~ ‘- Macon’s alleged miracle baby for the benefit of the entourage of wealthy nobleman Cosimo (a figure based on Cosimo de Medici, the Florentine heir ‘prone to obsessive religious melancholy and exhibitionist piety’), when reality takes over in the telling. It’s the young aristocrat himself who joins in the action and decides that the character of the child’s conniving sister, who has tried to pass her young sibling off as her own virgin birth, be punished by the local guard. They, in turn, are soon forming an orderly queue to perpetrate horrifying revenge on the unfortunate actress in question — a series of events which, for Greenaway at least, throws up all manner of thematic and aesthetic resonance.
‘Here we have the establishment dealing with someone who dares oppose it on its own terms. The young woman tries to make miracles and that’s the church’s business, so they unutterably crush and humiliate her in a way that perhaps only the Catholic church could do. As an
‘The rape scene 9
don’t believe anybody could be titillated by it. It’s meant to go beyond the veil of tears, beyond moral " preoccupations.’ ‘
institution, it has a very bad reputation for its dealings with women over the past 2000 years, a reputation that continues to this day.’
Despite such credible artistic intentions, however, responses — particularly from women who continue to find the director’s willingness to heap indignities upon their sex — have been swift in their outcry. There may be those who reckon Greenaway is a disturbed individual, but the man himself stands firm in his own purpose. ‘l’m a basic London bourgeois,’ he shrugs. ‘l don’t sleep in a coffin and walk around with a skull in my hand. But I do think these preoccupations reflect things that are going on in the world. I don’t want to make trite parallels but, for instance, the mass rape of Muslim woman in the Yugoslavian war and the enormous amount of hysteria about child abuse in the media at the moment show how much these things are there all the time, worrying at the back of our minds.
‘These things are highly contentious current issues which need to be discussed, but I wanted to put everything into a historical context so that way we can look at it a little more coolly, a little more cerebrally if you like, without becoming totally obsessed by the minutiae of an emotional involvement. 1 don’t think you can completely eradicate that, but I do believe films are perfectly capable of carrying lots of ideas and lots of meanings.’
And there, indeed, is the rub. Greenaway might like us to look at the material in The Baby 0f Macon with clinical detachment, yet the images themselves deliberately probe away at the areas of human experience that upset us the most. It’s an uneasy balancing act and whether it works or not will probably be up to the sensibility of the individual viewer. One thing that is certain, however, is that the ritualistic dialogue and the whole self-referential apparatus of having players and audience on screen together do effectively limit your identification with the on-screen action and, moreover, any traditional kind of movie narrative pleasure you might take from it. Undeniany The Baby 0f Macon is a cold piece of work, I though perhaps necessarily so,
<7 -- A 9 for the reasons Greenaway himself hasjust outlined.
‘The starting point of the film was to consider the exploitation of children, but it was also to talk about the cinema as well. This is a film about “who are the actors?”, “who are the audience?” so that in the very last shot where the camera pulls back and back and back, you too, out there in the auditorium, feel that you’re part of the phenomenon. Whether it’s Jurassic Park or Terminator 2, we’re all engaged in this thing called cinema, which is a peculiar mixture of voyeurism and gratuitous excitement in other people’s pain. My films are deeply ironic, they’re pointing out that this whole process is indeed going on and perhaps disparaging it too.’ D
The Baby 0f Macon opens at the Glasgow Film Theatre and the Cameo, Edinburgh, on Friday 17 September. The performance in Glasgow at 7.15pm on Monday 20 will be followed by a personal appearance by the director.
‘CInama is a peculiar mixture of voyeurism and gratuitous excitement In other people’s paln.’
‘I want to admire: the taboo, samitlva areas we all feel a bit lumpy about,’ says Greenaway. Even those who could stomach The Book, Tito ﬁllet, Ills m1: and liar Lovaiabova), are likely to find It difficult to watch The Baby of Macon (opposite and below).
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The List 10—23 September 1993 7