Still considered the enfant terrible of English filmmakers,
now lives in
a kind of artistic exile in Holland. The Listjoined him in Amsterdam to discuss his latest film, 802 Women, which already has the critics' hackles rising.wOrds; John MacKenzie
PETER GREENAWAY IS SITTING IN HIS SPACIOUS, DIMLY-LIT office in Amsterdam looking thoughtfully at a computer. Polite and welcoming. he will nonetheless soon be dashing off to the opera — his own opera. a multi-media affair in the latter stages of its evolution. As we talk. parts of composer Louis Andriessen’s soundtrack — screams. crashes and very unromantic music — come from the adjacent editing suite.
First on the agenda. however. is Greenaway‘s new film. 8 ’: Women. The title refers to Federico Fellini’s 1963 film. 8‘3. a masterpiece of self-reﬂexive cinema (it is 8‘: reels long). in which Marcello Mastroianni played a director struggling with filmmaker‘s block amidst a fantastical assortment of women. It has been said that Fellini lived his fantasies through his films — think of his female stars. Sophia Loren. Claudia Cardinale and Anita Ekberg — and there is a moment in Greenaway's film where one of the characters wonders if all directors do something similar.
8’]: Women sees a rich widower and his son indulge in sexual fantasies which ‘ range from the classical Madame Butterfly figure to the mythical Italianate virgin—whore. The 'half‘ is a kind of ambiguous demi- creature — perhaps transsexual or truncated — which is left largely for the viewer to decide. and which is very much in keeping with the film’s laconic humour.
At its Cannes premiere. there were cries (mainly from men) about political incorrectness. which deeply surprised the director. ‘Although it’s about male sexual fantasy. the women are held with velvet gloves. There’s no predatory rape. no gynaecological detail. no erect penises and all those other current traumas of fashionably excitable cinema. The sex is in the head rather than the bed — not that I wouldn‘t under other contexts consider these other possible vehicles of sexual expression. But I always feel that overt sexuality in the cinema is very exclusive: it attracts you in. but shuts you out. It was essential to me to make the two men sympathetic despite their doing something highly reprehensible in a moral society. and to get people to think about the issues.’
Extra scenes do exist. however. in the published screenplay. and one of these features forcible sex. Were they shot? ‘Yes.’ Greenaway admits. ‘I was unhappy about it because it was too crude. I felt that. in terms of the film. it wasn‘t satisfactory. There are other practical reasons. My movies end up about four hours long — and I don’t want to make this ajustification — but there has to be the expediency of cutting it down to 120 minutes. I think that is the only form of censorship — the censorship of time — that has ever affected my cinema.‘
Greenaway then moves on to the fact that there are comparatively few Fellini references in the film. but admits that he was influenced by the Italians ‘strong imagistic sense . . . at a time when I was ripe for that sort of baroque imagination. There have been many. many films about filmmaking. but I think that Fellini‘s 8 ’/: is the most interesting because it deals in where the ideas come from and how you organise autobiographical information for a public audience.’
8 THE “ST 2—16 Dec 1999
'The sex is in the head rather than the bECI.' Peter Greenaway
In many ways 8": Women is a very personal film. ‘You're right to suggest [that it concerns] the death of someone who‘s absolutely central to your life emotionally. physically. sexually. socially. And also the ability to try and redress or re-find that necessary bond of continuity with your parents. most specifically. for a man. in terms of his father.‘
Greenaway views the widower and son characters in his film as being versions of himself in youth and old age.but he has other more structural reasons for making this film. In particular. it represents ‘a step back into very orthodox. what I'd call cut-and- paste. chronologist filmmaking. right in the centre of narrative tradition — a film which is. for me. my 8’:. Pillow Book is eight: were about to embark on a huge new project called The Tulse Luper Suitcase. which will be number nine: and I felt that. in some ways. this film was sort of sandwiched between the two.’
Not so much of the paint-box inserts and the elaborate pageantry of his more recent films. then. He even employs what is for him the unusual device of close-up. though. oddly for a man on his third opera. there is minimal use music. ‘But then the most interesting people are full of contradictions anyway.’ is his reply.
The new opera is called Writing to Vermeer — the Dutch artist who has been championed as a kind of proto-cinematographer. and whose lighting design was emulated in A Zed And Two Noughts. Greenaway's libretto is structured around eighteen letters written to Vermeer by three important women in his life.
The director feels that putting music and images together is part of the human condition. so his operatic vision is a marriage not of Figaro. but of music and images. of ideas and associations. and of the live and the recorded. So as we sip coffee in his editing suite. at young man called Elmer is digitally reshaping a scene in which Vermeer’s famous ﬂower girl. in her white cap and shawl. falls in slow-motion triplicate down a ﬂight of steps. This will be screened on stage simultaneously with the action. while another screen shows tulips raining down — an allusion to an absurd period in Holland when tulip bulbs were used as currency. Does Greenaway believe that his audiences will miss such allusions — or do they come with their thinking caps on?
'I‘d like to think so. but I sometimes think that position’s quite naive.’ And what does a former film editor think of all this digital technology? ‘I used to stupidly think that if people gave up finding funds for me. I could always go back to editing. but that's absolutely ridiculous now because the technology and the techniques have moved on so fast.‘
Not so with its uses. though. The Tulse Luper Suitcase. which concerns the 60 years from the discovery of uranium in 1928 to the break-up of the Berlin Wall. will use five media — film. TV. print. CD-ROM and the Internet — and will be filming in various parts of the world for the next three years. This project. Greenaway hopes. will not suffer the censorship of time.
8’12 Women opens on Fri 10 Dec at the Cameo, Edinburgh. Writing To Vermeer opened on Wed 1 Dec in Amsterdam. Peter Greenaway's web site can be accessed at www.tu|seluper.net