The Nightwatchman

Peter Greenaway on Rembrandt, the art of VJing, and the death of cinema
by Leo Goldsmith  posted October 15, 2009
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The last of Peter Greenaway’s feature films to receive a theatrical release in the United States was 8 1/2 Women, made—and much derided—a full decade ago. This seems a curious fate for a filmmaker whose baroque, erudite, erotic, and singularly baffling feature films—especially the astonishing run of A Zed and Two Noughts; The Belly of an Architect; Drowning by Numbers; The Cook, the Thief, His Wife, and Her Lover; Prospero’s Books; and The Pillow Book—were staples of 1980s and ’90s art-house cinema. But in that decade, Greenaway hasn’t simply been in hiding. While volubly decrying the limitations of cinema as a visual-arts medium, he has been beavering away at scores of projects all over the world, steadily expanding a career that has long (and often loudly) flouted supposed divisions between the worlds of film, video, painting, theater, literature, music, library science, curatorial work, academia, and the Internet.

Since the very beginning of his career, when he studied painting at Walthamstow Art School, Greenaway seems to have had the syncretic approach of a multimedia artist, avant la lettre. Upon graduating from art school in 1966, Greenaway sought a job in film, first (unsuccessfully) as a critic, then finally as an editor and director of educational documentaries about British life for the Central Office of Information, a branch of the Foreign Office. He would adapt this mode in his early avant-garde short films, like H is for House, Dear Phone, and Windows, as well as in his first feature film, The Falls (1980). Less a narrative film than a kind of cinematic index, the film sorts and catalogs a dramatis personae of characters whose surnames begin with the word "fall," professing a rigorous visual and informational order that bears traces of the influence of mid-century European art cinema, like that of Ingmar Bergman and especially Alain Resnais. But Greenaway also demonstrated something of the irony and linguistic whimsicality of the American avant-garde filmmaker Hollis Frampton, as well as a peculiarly British, absurdist, and self-mocking sense of humor that makes the often perversely orderly nature of his compositions and structuring devices palatable or even funny.

On a purely formalist level, few filmmakers have exploded the confines of the cinematic frame as much as Peter Greenaway. This begins at least as early as his medium-length film, A Walk Through H (1978), which takes the viewer through a gallery exhibition of abstract maps painted by Greenaway’s alter ego, Tulse Luper. With its proliferation of frames within frames, his second feature film, The Draughtsman’s Contract (1982), continues this exploration of the different notions of composition in film and other pictorial arts. But this obsession reaches something of a fever pitch in feature films like Prospero’s Books (1991) and The Pillow Book (1996), as well as in later multimedia projects like the expansive Tulse Luper Suitcases (2003-4) and M Is for Man, Music, Mozart (1991), his short TV-opera collaboration with Louis Andriessen, where the frame overflows with information: text, illustration, drama, pictures in pictures, photography, and digital animation.

Increasingly, this meticulous flooding of the frame with data is leavened by frequent interjections of obscenity, sex, and bodily fluids (and indeed by the maniacal structuralist jollity of the scores of Michael Nyman, his onetime frequent collaborator), but the films’ whimsy is often overtaken by rigidity. Visual riches overload the senses, and narratives obsess over byzantine power struggles, usually hinging on ritual transactions of money, sexuality, and aesthetic control. For some, Greenaway’s films tend to reduce human life to a hermetic puppet theater, and even when they’re violent and vulgar, they can also be surprisingly chilly, like private games on which the filmmaker has graciously allowed us to eavesdrop. They are cinematic crossword puzzles, and the spectator is not often allowed to hold the pen.

For this reason, it’s no surprise that much of his recent work has sought the interactivity and aleatoric possibilities of games. Greenaway has spent the decade since the unpopular 8 1/2 Women (about which even the director himself seems nonplussed) immersed in a steady stream of online and multimedia art lectures and curatorial projects, theatrical works, and even live VJing performances. (A sample of these can be viewed here.) In the early 2000s, the major part of this work has been Greenaway’s long-gestating project, The Tulse Luper Suitcases—”a personal history of uranium”—which comprises various feature films, DVDs, exhibitions, plays, books, video performances, installations, and even an online game.

More recently, and with no sign of slowing down, Greenaway has been occupied with an equally expansive project, a series of live digital deconstructions of nine classic selections from the history of Western painting, including Da Vinci’s The Last Supper, Veronese’s The Wedding at Cana, and Rembrandt’s The Night Watch. This last—and the murderous conspiracy that Greenaway claims the painting narrates—is the subject of his 2007 film, Nightwatching, and in many ways it’s a return to form, bringing the director back to the pictorial artwork-as-murder-mystery theme of The Draughtsman’s Contract, while softening the edges a bit. Instead of the Old Europe grandeur of the earlier film, a cousin to Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon and Anger’s Eaux d’artifice, we have the democratic openness and free-market messiness of pre-Enlightenment Amsterdam. Instead of the formal acting and language of a Jacobean comedy, we have a voluble, sympathetic, and wonderfully obscene performance by Martin Freeman (otherwise best known for his portrayal of Tim on the British version of The Office). And instead of the rigorously composed frames within frames, we have a fluid and agile camera movement intended to capture the richness of detail and sense of movement in Rembrandt’s painting.

Originally conceived as an explanatory piece to coincide with the feature, Rembrandt’s J’accuse, which opens at Film Forum in New York on October 21, now marks the end of Greenaway’s decade-long absence from U.S. theaters. It’s a particularly odd film to break that trend, as it seems even more deeply rooted in Greenaway’s multifarious and extracinematic career, wedding the fractious, multiscreen aesthetic of his later features and art lectures with the documentary form on which he cut his teeth. Drawing on new footage shot in and around the Rijksmuseum Amsterdam (where Rembrandt’s The Night Watch hangs), scenes from the feature film, and an active use of digital animation, the film dissects the painting to uncover its mysteries, narrated by Greenaway in voiceover and often from the position of a small frame in the center of the screen. This presence is itself a return for the director, narrating as he did those early shorts, with a knowing pedantry and a sense of ironic authority. Beneath its pretensions of being an educational tool for a visually illiterate world, Rembrandt’s J’accuse is really an ecstatic and rather fun film, which casts Greenaway as an intellectual sleuth out of Agatha Christie, ticking off clues to the crime.

Greenaway has always facetiously claimed that he’s more "a clerk, a listmaker" than a filmmaker. But rather than a stuffy librarian or an ivory tower intellectual, he has some of the fun, outrageous energy of Albert Spica, the titular thief played by Michael Gambon in The Cook, the Thief, His Wife, and Her Lover—though he’s rather more charming, not at all Cockney, and presumably less likely to cut someone’s belly button off or stab them in the face with a fork. As anyone who has heard the director’s narration in his early short films, or who has seen the looming presence of the director-cum-museum-guide in his new film, Rembrandt’s J’accuse, it is particularly his voice, with its air of slightly self-deprecating authority and punctiliousness, that commands attention. Like his films, this voice is precise, theatrical, given to vulgarities and mild provocations, and brimming with information about everything from art and world history, essential Dutchness, the death of cinema, what was good CSI, and the joys of offending prudish and atavistic sensibilities.

***

Comparing Nightwatching with Rembrandt’s J’accuse, it seems that you use the form of each film to do something very different with the same material. I wonder if you felt it was necessary to make the feature film in the idiom of Rembrandt’s painting—that is, as though it were a painting—and the documentary in the form of an art lecture, bringing 21st-century technology to bear on that same kind of work?

Looking at it backwards, there was no intention when we were making Nightwatching to make Rembrandt’s J’accuse. In a way, it’s a sort of footnote, [but] it reemphasizes so much. I suppose a criticism would be, “Why did you make the same film twice, Mr. Greenaway?” But it’s curious that there are people who would never even bother to look at Nightwatching, but would look at J’accuse.

But by my count, Rembrandt’s J’accuse will be the first time in a decade that a film of yours will have a theatrical release in the United States, and Nightwatching, nominally a more cinematic film, has only just had a DVD release.

It is ironic, isn’t it? Nightwatching certainly has its apologists. But it’s curious that there seems to be a much greater concentration on the documentary tradition. There are documentary film festivals popping up all over the world now which never existed. In general I’m fascinated by the notion of the feature film as essay: it’s back to Swimming to Cambodia and My Dinner With Andre—that sort of discursive way we can use fiction in association with apparent notions of telling the truth, although of course it goes back much further. The sort of Tristram Shandy thing: a self-conscious, self-reflexive phenomenon, which, if you’re interested in form more than content, you’ll find is very rich.

You’ve been talking for years about your interest in Dutch painting. Why did you feel it was the right time to do a film on Rembrandt?

Well, I don’t particularly like Rembrandt. Vermeer is my favorite Dutch painter, but we’ve done that one: we put a huge opera on called Writing to Vermeer about four years ago with the National Opera House in Amsterdam. But I went to art school at 17, and you can’t avoid Rembrandt. He’s there: a huge, huge great mass in the middle. I suppose, in a curious way, he’s the big introduction to the whole of late-19th-century painting: all the Impressionists loved him; Van Gogh sat with The Jewish Bride for 14 days. He’s a sort of demigod, in a sense, but I think he’s far too Hollywood for me: he’s too sensational, he goes for the easy way to do things, he’s incredibly prolific, and he’s always repeating himself. Vermeer, for me, is much more intellectually creditable, but Rembrandt is such a massive influence, and he has to be part of the firmament if you even remotely consider yourself interested in painting.

So why turn to Rembrandt now?

I’ve developed a litany now, but he is particularly relevant to us now for all sorts of reasons. When we think well of ourselves, he would seem to fulfill that. We now believe in republican democracy; he lived in one of the very first. I don’t think Mr. Bush would exactly understand the notions of Dutch democracy, but there was a huge amount of power-sharing when the rest of the world was basically run by monarchical tyrannies. And I think you could also say—and I choose the words carefully—that he could be described as a sort of anti-misogynist. You will never find an ugly painting of a woman. You’ll find paintings of ugly women, which is different. He seems to have an enormous amount of dignity for the female condition when all around him people are still giggling at women and using them essentially for the male gaze. Not that Rembrandt doesn’t use them for the male gaze—some of the most extraordinarily erotic painting in the 17th century comes from Rembrandt—but it’s very much to do with the girl next door rather than Juno on Mount Olympus.

I think you could use some more pompous words: he’s certainly post-Freudian. Many, many people have painted expressions on people’s faces, but he has a sort of schematization about it which is very theatrical. And in terms of theories of art, he’s very much sort of postmodernist, in a way: nonjudgmental, a huge range of activity, a sort of recidivist attitude towards notions of history, and all those things that people associate with positions of irony. Fashions, I’m sure you’d agree, change very rapidly with every generation in painting, so looking back 10 years, maybe looking forward 30 years, Rembrandt is in a position that we could feel very familiar with. What he does is what we want of ourselves.

What was the genesis of J’accuse? Did you feel you needed to explain more than one could glean from the feature film?

Yes, actually, you’re right. I’ve done deep studies of Vermeer, whom we hardly know, and deep studies of Rembrandt, about whom we seem to know everything. Rather like Manhattan belongs to Woody Allen and Paris belongs to Godard, there’s a curious way in which Amsterdam is Rembrandt’s town. We know what bridges he’s crossed; we know what brothels he went to; we know where all his children were baptized and buried. He’s incredibly well documented. So, in a sense, there’s information overload, and I wanted to embrace that. And I think that Nightwatching is a bit like a stone thrown in a pond—there are so many ripples going out and out and out.

Amsterdam, for three generations—though even Amsterdammers themselves are not so aware of it—really was the center of the world. Just for three generations, because of their position. It’s the first major seaport on the Atlantic after the whole nexus of power and trade had moved from the Mediterranean round about 1580, 1590. The collapse of the Medici. The creation of new economic bonds with places like, I suppose, Antwerp, Bruges. And after the Huguenots got persecuted, all the money people fled north. So you could say that Amsterdam was the extreme western end of the Silk Road, which stretched all the way to Beijing. And of course the whole of the Americas had just been opening. There was massive trade—of course, of slavery. The Dutch were supreme slave masters. On the Dam Square every Tuesday morning you could’ve bought your pick out of 4,000 slaves. Dutch history doesn’t talk about this too much.

Much of the documentary is filmed in the Rijksmuseum itself. Was this difficult to negotiate with the administration, the crowds, art historians?

I live in Amsterdam, and when I look out my attic window, I look straight into the Rijksmuseum. I have a ticket in my pocket, and I can go and visit the Rembrandts virtually any time of day or night. When we did the initial installation, I had four policemen and three Alsatian dogs as we made our first preparations for chucking light on the painting. And after I’d been there about a week, I only had one policeman, one art historian, and one dog. The second week, they gave me the key.

In the film there is actually a list of the names of people who have seen The Night Watch, and I did notice that Derek Jarman is listed among them, as is Ingmar Bergman—

As is Goering; as is Franco....It’s an extraordinary list, and we happen to have it because the painting went on view almost immediately after it was painted, which is very unusual. And it was in big museums and military institutions in the early days, so there was always a visitor’s book, and all the names were there.

And I did notice that the last name on that list was not, as I expected, “Peter Greenaway,” but rather “R. B. Kitaj.”

That’s a particular homage; I have always highly, highly regarded him. I’ve always thought the English have treated that man so abominably.

You’ve done a lot of work with museums and art institutions in recent years—in a sense, some of your projects even function like traveling museums. What do you think of the contemporary function of the traditional museum?

Well, I think it’s all up for grabs. In terms of young students, it seems like there are more people now wanting to become museum curators than any other [occupation] on earth. It used to be undertakers and prostitutes; it now seems to be filmmakers and museum curators. It seems to be a highly desirable thing to do. Why is that? Maybe it’s a gathering-in but also a desire for overview, or something about presentation and exhibition. Maybe that narcissism is part of the 21st century, but it is true: I’m getting far more interest from art collections and institutions than I ever would from the bona fide origins of finance in feature films.

Like the “Nine Paintings” project?

We’re engaged on a big project of which [Nightwatching and Rembrandt’s J’accuse] are maybe only a small part. I suppose the general thesis is that there’s been 8,000 years of Western painting and only a miserable 114 years of cinema. And the cinema we have is not image-based; it’s text-based. I’m convinced that the cinema is essentially brain-dead now—for all sorts of reasons and justifications which I’ve developed copiously and bored everybody silly with. But I still believe that to be the case, and I think one of the issues is that most people are visually illiterate. (It’s an educational phenomenon which sometimes I make an apology for, but often not.) And we’ve embarked upon what I suppose could be described rather pompously as a visual-literacy exercise.

Do you know the phenomenon that if people don’t believe that a thing is broken they will never attempt to mend it? I also relate to Umberto Eco’s idea that we’ve had 8,000 years of world governed by the text masters, but the digital revolution seems to suggest that we can change all that, and we can have a world governed by the image masters—and in this case mistresses as well. And as part of that visual education, cinema surely surely surely would have been in an ideal position to act as a visual-literacy educator. But I trained as a painter; my biases are always toward painting. To me, cinema is an ephemeral art. I’m sure the very first marks made by man were paintings, and when civilization goes down the tubes, as it surely will, the last mark made by man will also be a painting. So painting is very, very important. Its present vestigial, elitist position in society is not even relevant to that.

Which paintings are you working with?

They’re all very famous paintings—and we are going to bring to bear state-of-the-art modern technology in a sense to instigate, I politely like to say, dialogue. Because if you say “interfere,” it frightens art historians. And we’ve done three of them: the first one was The Nightwatch at the Rijksmuseum, and that spawned all sorts of different projects: a feature film, a documentary, a number of plays which are now running around Northern Europe, and all sorts of exegesis of one description or another. The second one we did was the Da Vinci “Last Supper,” which we did in Austria and Milan; and this year we’ve spent with Veronese’s Wedding at Cana in Venice. I’m about to make a feature film based on The Wedding at Cana, which most people, if they’re being honest, think of as The Wedding of Christ. So it’s nice and blasphemous, and it’s going to disturb and fuck up a lot of people, which is an exciting thing.

So, the Rembrandt, the Da Vinci, the Veronese, Velásquez’s Las Meninas, Picasso’s Guernica, a Seurat in Chicago, a Monet in Paris, a Jackson Pollock, and—the crème de la crème—Michelangelo’s The Last Judgment. They need, in a curious way, to be ‘cinematic’ paintings; they need to encapsulate ideologies; they need to be big in thought as well as in size. And we are very surprised. We thought this would be an academic pursuit. It would be interesting to art historians; it would be relevant in some ways to the whole notion of cinema; and it would also entertain the laptop generation. But it’s worked off in many, many ways, and it’s worked off so big that we’ve been invited to the Armory to put all three of these things on probably next November.

So you don’t, I take it, subscribe to the idea that painting died the second the camera was invented?

You know the tradition of history painting. It was really a phenomenon of the Renaissance and the post-Renaissance, but you could even describe a Jackson Pollock as a history painting. It’s in that grand tradition. The history painting was meant to be an encapsulation of an auteur’s entire vocabulary—it’s like the 19th-century symphonic form or the great late-19th century Tolstoyan novel. All the world in one place.

In the Rembrandt films, as well, you seem to attribute a great deal of agency and importance to the role of the artist. He literally solves a crime and exposes a conspiracy.

The first film which still is my calling card—I don’t know if you’ve seen it; it was made in the early 1980s—was The Draughtsman’s Contract. In a way, Nightwatching is The Draughtsman’s Contract all over again. It’s really the same scenario all over again: the investigation of a conspiracy through the investigation of an image. Although, in that film I had the temerity to make the image, but here I didn’t. And I haven’t fucked about the original, either—you can go to the Rijksmuseum, and I never touched anything!

Actually, in the press notes and on your website, J’accuse is even likened to CSI. Do you actually watch CSI?

Not so much now; I think the whole thing has rather faded and is not as good as it used to be. But certainly the Las Vegas version; I was a really avid watcher. I like the methodology: following a blood trail and marking every spot. The whole business about forensic investigation, and I suppose my film is a sort of forensic investigation. But I think especially the Las Vegas version—maybe the first two series—were extremely well-written and remarkably acted without virtuosity. I think the series has inevitably, deeply deteriorated now.

I think Tarantino directed an episode, didn’t he? I’d like to be asked to do one.

Do you watch much television in general? Do you go to the movies?

I don’t like cinema very much; I don’t think I ever really have liked cinema. And I’ll be absolutely honest with you: the last time I went through the ritual of buying a ticket, going into the dark, sitting for two hours, and staying to the end must have been something like David Lynch’s Blue Velvet, which is an awfully long time ago.

I’m far more interested in the, shall we say, extracinematic world, or cinema used outside of the cinema. So that represents the whole video world, notions of webmastering and all that activity. Still, my first love is painting. I will travel a thousand miles to see painting, but it would be very difficult to get me into a cinema.

In terms of your extracinematic pursuits, one of the most surprising is your recent forays into VJing. How does that fit in with everything?

I’ve staked since the early 1990s a huge investment in new tools and new technologies. I don’t know how much you know about my cinema but I think it’s as much about language and as much about form as it ever is about content. So my interest in the notions of an aesthetic medium is very, very strong, and there are so many extraordinary tools for us to play with: some of which will evaporate and disappear, but some of which will be sustainable. And rather like a marksman with a blunderbuss, I am spraying my shot wide rather than rifling. And we’re doing many, many things, and the VJing thing is going extremely strongly.

I’m particularly curious about the VJing in comparison to your prior work because the mode of reception is so very different from watching a Greenaway film in a cinema...

I think that habit is dead, quite frankly. I live in Holland, and they have the worst statistics in the world for going to the cinema: the average Dutch citizen only goes to the cinema once every two years. Now that doesn’t mean necessarily the death of the screen—which is omnipresent, and there are probably five cameras on us at this very moment—but it does, I think, really mean the death of the cinema or the death of the cinematic habit, the so-called (and I dispute this) socializing phenomenon of going to a theatrical environment and sitting in the dark and looking in one direction for 120 minutes.

Do you see VJing then as more of a present-tense cinema?

Yes—and I think we only call it VJing as a handle, so that people somehow know what we’re doing. What I’m interested in is multiscreen, present-tense, nonnarrative images: Abel Gance writ large. And there are so many people working on them now: attempts to make a nonnarrative cinema; attempts to make cinema, like television, present tense. Every time you see that film Casablanca, it’s always the same; every time you see a Greenaway film, it’ll be different. It’s an absolutely terrifying proposition for distributors and so on, but to hell with that. The middlemen are disappearing, anyway.

It’s all part of what I call “live cinema.” Cinema came out of the fairground; it came out of the variety show. A cinemamaker is extraordinarily separated from his audience—you hardly ever see them. Mechanical reproduction and assembly-line procedures produce that distance. So, I’m very curious to see if we can bring back the live element. We’ve just this last week had a performance of a new version of the Veronese at the Venice Film Festival, and I insisted that I needed to be present with the film. So, we show a piece of film; I talk; we show a piece of film; I talk. It’s a little bit peculiar.

So, you see what you’re doing as more in the tradition of 19th-century pre-cinema, the light show, the phantasmagoria?

That whole world is fascinating, isn’t it? All the way from late-16th-century lanterns and slide lectures, purveyed by hundreds of people in the cinemas in back rooms all over Europe, right up to Marey and Muybridge, and the whole business of the still into the moving, and the conceptualization of the cinema is very fascinating. Because I don’t think the cinema began in 1895; I think it at least began in about 1620 with the first painters who began to paint artificial light. And what is cinema but the manipulation of artificial light?

In J’accuse, you make the interesting claim that Rembrandt was in fact one of the original filmmakers.

Well, I think there’s that first amazing four. It’s Caravaggio, I suppose, primarily. Then, it would be Velásquez, who’s also essaying an attempt to create movement as well as chiaroscuro and all the other current concerns about painting language. And then probably you can add Rubens in Flanders and then certainly Rembrandt. So, these four—whose lives all overlap, which is interesting—are the first purveyors of the notion of a world organized by artificial illumination.

But you’ll find other people who take it back to—I don’t know—Greece 300 B.C. with the Maid of Corinth. And other people take it even further back a thousand years B.C. with the Chinese who probably developed some extraordinarily complicated shadowplay. So, you take your choice, but tradition needs to be kicked in the arse every now and again.

With the VJing, one of the things that most interests me is how different it seems, as an improvisatory medium, from your film work, which is so tightly controlled.

I have often been accused of being anally retentive, with a tyrannical control of the material—which I suppose is true. But those freedoms of spontaneity—I don’t know. Maybe spontaneity is a bit of a misnomer. Of course, all the material is mine, and I’m very familiar with it. Each session, which lasts about fifty minutes, is unrepeatable. We have something like two thousand roots which I can push and pull with a touch-screen, but it would be impossible to reproduce exactly what goes on. And we often interact with different DJs, so they come along with their different musical landscapes as well and interact.

Don’t let’s push the spontaneity too far, but what is exciting is the sensation that you are doing something that does have present-tense characteristics and is responsive, like a visual jazz jamming session. And, again, quite heady for a filmmaker who rarely meets his audience, to feel that inevitable live response. And I do have intense critics, of course, but there’s been an enormous amount of enthusiasm for it. We get more invitations than I’m willing to take up, otherwise I’d be doing it every fucking afternoon of the week. We limit to about 12 to 14 performances a year.

Of course, I think an awful lot of it is just masturbatory wallpaper without much structure, but I’m trying to make it richer and stronger and stranger.

On top of everything else, you are still an active painter.

Yes, I have an exhibition in Milan called “Heavy Water,” which is again about my current concerns about weight and mass and the inevitable drowning of the world, which seems to be just around the corner.

It’s interesting that there seem to be a lot of artists who move into cinema and film-related worlds, but you seem to be doing almost the opposite.

Well, I have to be a bit careful about this, because I can see already the ways that you might be thinking. Like French newspapers were saying, “Ah, Greenaway’s given up feature films and has gone into the art museum business.” But it isn’t true. We’re doing many, many things right across the board. It just happens that there’s some publicity accruing about this thing which tends to distort the picture. I’m about to do a pornography in Brazil; I’m about to make a big film about Eisenstein; I’m about to make a Japanese horror movie. So there are all sorts of things going on.

You’re about to make a film about Eisenstein?

Yes, I discovered recently that Eisenstein lost his virginity, aged 33, in Guadalajara. And I’ve been spending a lot of time there, so I’m now making a film called Ten Days That Shook Eisenstein.

With the nine classic paintings, and now with Eisenstein, you seem to enjoy carving up sacred cows. How do the Dutch feel about how you’ve portrayed Rembrandt?

The Dutch are incredibly pragmatic people, and they’re also Calvinists, so they don’t believe in hierarchies. They don’t regard Rembrandt as an inspired genius; he was just the guy next door who made a very good living by painting. It’s very difficult to impress the Dutch.

They sound a bit like the British.

[The British] tend to be far more mean-spirited, in a way. There’s a largesse about the Dutch. All those clichés about their tolerance—they’re true. And at the breakfast table, you can talk—with sensitivity—about homosexuality, abortion, and euthanasia. And those three words send most of the rest of the world running for the hills. I don’t want to talk about the Dutch like they do on Fox News—have you heard what they say about the Dutch on Fox News? Everybody’s children are aborted, and we all die at 21!

You say “we”—do you identify yourself as a Dutchman?

Well, I’ve become a sort of honorary citizen. I won’t bore you with the whole story, but my father was an ornithologist, and he set up bird reservations in Holland. He was fascinated by estuarine birds—a mixture of saltwater and freshwater—and when I was a little boy, I spent all my holidays dragged through Dutch marshes with waders up to here and binoculars. So, I began to get to know and also take a delight in what for some people are extremely boring, forever, forever, forever flatlands. But they have a charm and a mystery allied to the weather and the water vapor in the air. Everything is hazy and indistinct. But the funny thing is that the Dutch do not have a history of ghost-story-telling, and I’ve never been able to understand that...

And then, I first began to make my very modest little black-and-white 16mm Bolex films, which were basically only seen by my brother and his dog, and these were picked up surprisingly by the Rotterdam Film Festival, which at that time was very investigative and avant-garde. And I eventually met a Dutchman—a man called Kees Kasander—who offered me this extraordinary opportunity. He said provided I didn’t want to film Elizabeth Taylor fucking on a United States aircraft carrier with a bunch of 300 pigs, he would look after my film career. I couldn’t believe it, but now we’re about to make our 15th feature film. He’s been my complete sugar daddy.

And you live there year-round now?

Yes, you know, inevitable classic story: I fell in love with my assistant who was given to me to make an opera with Louis Andriessen about 15 years ago. So I chucked in my London life, and now I happily live in the center of Amsterdam with a whole brand new family. And I still speak Dutch very, very badly. 

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Peter Greenaway
Peter Greenaway at the Venice Biennale with a digital The Wedding at Cana by Veronese
Photo Gallery: The Nightwatchman

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September 13–October 4, 2009 Peter Greenaway

THE AUTHOR

Leo Goldsmith co-edits the film section of The Brooklyn Rail and is a PhD candidate in the Department of Cinema Studies at New York University. He contributes regularly to Not Coming to a Theater Near You and Reverse Shot.

More articles by Leo Goldsmith
Author's Website: Not Coming to a Theater Near You