An eye for optical theory
Legendary film director Peter Greenaway spoke to The St. Petersburg Times during his visit to the city.
Published: June 21, 2012 (Issue # 1713)
Handsome, dapper, erudite and charming, you would never know to look at him that Peter Greenaway is one of the most polarizing figures in world cinema.
Mischievous? Yes. Affected? Sometimes. But at 70 years old, the great British director is nothing if not a supreme gentleman.
Watch the films, however, and you might be forgiven for thinking him a nasty piece of work — all gnashing teeth and flying fur — with a nose for the louche. But that would be missing the point slightly. A master of the dramatic moment, he is naturally drawn to extremes.
Greenaway is constantly engaged in a diversity of simultaneous undertakings: Writing, directing, VJ-ing, painting, creating multimedia installations and conducting research into arcane bits of knowledge, his hyperactive intellect synthesizing the varied strands into a cohesive constellation that is as fascinating as it is complex.
This week and last, the director was in St. Petersburg to attend a retrospective of his film work, while also participating in a charity auction of his paintings at the Kempinski Hotel Moika 22 to benefit the Pantelemonovsky Medical Foundation. As if that weren’t plenty, he was also here looking for an actor to play the lead role in a project about the Russian filmmaker Sergei Eisenstein’s time in Mexico, “Eisenstein in Guanajuato.”
Greenaway, who considers Eisenstein the supreme filmmaker, found it difficult to identify a Russian actor able to play the part.
“Although our film is about a Russian subject, we might very well in the end choose a character who is not Russian at all. But I think the great problem is, the character has a huge demand because the dialogue that I write is hardly, ‘Pass me the salt, darling.’ It’s full of English wordplay, alliteration, punning and complications of understanding, which I think only prime English speakers would completely understand.”
Curious words for an extremely vocal critic of films that sacrifice visual acuity to the service of text — a practice he disparagingly calls “bookshop cinema.” His films nonetheless fetishize the written word to the point that some might question the sincerity of his pronouncements on the vices of text.
“It’s an ironic contradiction. I thoroughly enjoy text, and I write novels, and I’m reasonably well published. So I’m all for text. But in context, if you like. And I think that there are so many ways in which text can hand down its meaning, not only contemporary forms, but ancient forms of lyric poetry, etc. Why can’t we allow cinema to get on with its own business? Which I think is really about imagery and not about text.”
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