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Greenaway, Peter (1942-)

Director, Writer, Editor

Main image of Greenaway, Peter (1942-)

Peter Greenaway was born in Newport, Wales in 1942. He studied at Forest Hills Public School, and then at Walthamstow College of Art. Described as an artist who is a believer in the subversive power of the image, his critical relation to visualisation is expressed in paintings, films, television and multi-media formats, that have earned him international acclaim as well as charges of mannerism, elitism, obscurantism, intellectual exhibitionism, even misogyny.

Greenaway has come to be recognized as a philosopher of cinema, since the style and substance of his work addresses the changing status of the image in the contemporary world. His films draw self-consciously on various arts - painting, literature, calligraphy, theatre, architecture, and music - however, they are not merely formal exercises in style. Though they are obsessed with the nature and importance of form, they address profound questions of the historical role of art in culture.

Greenaway's work is critical of Hollywood methods of filmmaking that he sees as mere illustration of nineteenth century novels. For him, cinema must resist appropriating existing novels and plays. His early films are "not illustrations of already existing texts, or vehicles for actors, or slaves to a plot, or an excuse to provide emotional catharsis", as Alan Woods puts it.

The non-feature films and videos that he made from the 1960s into the 1980s can be described rather as "theoretical deliberations" (Vernon and Marguerite Gras). They are encyclopaedic in scope, visualising aspects of modern life, e.g., transportation, funeral architecture, telephone boxes, rural and ancient, domestic and public landscapes, dress designers, composers, lakes, water towers, roads, conspiracies, riots and demonstrations, etc. However, these films are not conventional documentaries but Greenaway's mode of subverting realism, of highlighting the theatricality and artifice of the visual image so as to enable an understanding of the "vast amount of data that's pushed at us all the time" (Marcia Pally).

The Draughtsman's Contract (1982), Greenaway's first mainstream feature film, is set in the seventeenth century, a time of social and economic transformation. The film portrays the draughtsman's encounters with the moneyed upper classes as he seeks to fulfill his commission. Though the film involves intrigue, even murder, it is not a conventional crime narrative. It is a whodunit that is also a complex exploration of the production of the visual image and its relation to sound, particularly music (thanks to Greenaway's collaboration with Michael Nyman). It examines perspective through the visual and verbal references to painting - the focus on framing of the drawings and of the film itself, on conversations that are as stylised as the images of architecture and formal gardens. In effect, the film uses all of these strategies to invite the spectator to consider different ways of visualising history, contemplating language, storytelling, and, above all, cinema.

A Zed and Two Noughts (1985) captures similar images of nature and artifice to those Greenaway created in his short 'documentaries'. The film involves twins, Oliver and Oswald, but the narrative is not a story; it is a compendium of animals as in the zoo of the title. But Greenaway's zoo is the world, and, more specifically, the world of cinema. The cinematic and philosophical focus is on the world as reflected, on issues of sameness (as in the case of identical twins), emerging from the dualities of cinema and reality, art and nature, forgery and authenticity. Greenaway also introduces a motif from his other films - mortality seen through the lens of the cinema that both captures death and is itself doomed to decay and death.

According to Greenaway, The Belly of an Architect (1986), his third feature film "has tried to explore all the different means whereby art has produced the human form" (Vernon and Marguerite Gras). The film reprises Greenaway's ubiquitous and complex motif of doubling with two architects, one an eighteenth century historical personage, Etienne-Louis Boullée, the other a contemporary American, Stourley Kracklite, who has come to Rome to set up an exhibit of Boullée. Greenaway seeks further doubling in the film's conjunction of past and present, particularly in the linking of Boullée's buildings to Fascist architecture and by linking architects to filmmakers in relation to the dilemmas they face in being dependent on patrons while attempting to express their own personal and cultural vision.

Drowning by Numbers (1988), Greenaway's next film, is generally regarded as more accessible to spectators than his other narratives. The film involves three women dissatisfied with their husbands and determined to do something with their disaffection - through death by drowning. By this act, the women develop "a deeper form of kinship" and "a primordial affinity with water" (Amy Lawrence). As the film's title suggests, the film relies on the elemental nature of water. The numbers alluded to in the title involve the doubling and tripling of characters, the four elements, the visual presence of ciphers, and the frequent allusions to counting. In Greenaway's films numbers play a prominent role, having to do with complex modes of ordering the world and are tied to modes of representation - classification, taxonomy, and symbolisation - that are scientific and visionary.

The Cook, The Thief, His Wife, and Her Lover (1989), made during the last years of Thatcherism, was commercially his most successful film and revealed Greenaway's penchant for allegory and his ability to combine political with cultural critique. The film draws on popular images of crime and violence, food and fashion, and links them to Thatcher's England. The focus on consuming is not only a critique of contemporary capitalism as gangsterism, but of the violence of history as conveyed through the fictions by which it is consumed,

Prospero's Books (1991) carries Greenaway's investigation of representation to greater complexity. The film engages with Shakespeare's The Tempest, not as theatre transposed to film but rather - through the overarching figure of Prospero (Sir John Gielgud) - with issues of art and science, human intelligence, the powers of reason and unreason. The most striking aspect of the film has to do with role of "books", the archive of human knowledge, covering the natural sciences, history, magic, painting, and calligraphy. Prospero's Books is exemplary of Greenaway's encyclopedic strivings. The "books" are the artist's archive and are also indicative of the potential of cinema to capture the multiplicity of life and thought. Utilising allegory, the film draws on visual images, dialogue and music to invoke theatre, masque, opera, high and low comedy and create a complex vision of authorship, cinematic narration and the clash between words and images.

The Baby of Mâcon (1993) draws on a play performed in Italy in 1659 and focuses on the slippery relation between theatrical illusion and 'reality' within the performance of a play, exploring the complex role of ritual (and cinema), in Greenaway's terms, as both "paradoxical and dangerous", an opportunity for critical reflection or an instrument of deceit and manipulation.

In creating The Pillow Book (1995) Greenaway follows another trajectory, pursuing connections between writing and the body: the body of thought, the body of writing, and the body as writing. Working with a thousand year-old diary, The Pillow Book of Sei Shonagan, he reshapes the text to address his primary aesthetic and philosophical concerns. As both this allegory and Prospero's Books suggest, Greenaway is wrestling with relations between word and image: Japanese calligraphy provides him, as it did earlier for Sergei Eisenstein, with a rethinking of the separation of the body and the text. The film is a cornucopia of images and allusions: Greenaway explores within the film and in the form of the film the creation of new languages, generating different visual effects with framing, multiple screen images, letter-boxing, overlaid texts, writing superimposed on visual images as well as writings on the body of the actors.

Consistent with his exploration of media and language, Greenaway's later films - 8½ Women, Death of a Composer (both 1999), The Man in the Bath (2001) and Tulse Luper's Suitcase (2002) - rely on new media, particularly CD-ROM. Greenaway continues to expand his exploration of the various arts, their interconnections, the historical changes that must be acknowledged and their implications for understanding the relationship between expression and power.

Bencivenni, Alessandro and Anna Samueli, Peter Greenaway: Il cinema delle Idea (Genoa: Le Mani, (1996).
Elliott, Bridget and Anthony Purdy, Peter Greenaway: Architecture and Allegory (Chichester: Academy Editions, 1997).
Gras, Vernon and Marguerite Gras (eds), Peter Greenaway Interviews (Jackson, Mississippi: University of Mississippi, 2000).
Greenaway, Peter, 'Body Talk,' Sight and Sound (November 1996): pp. 14-17.
Greenaway, Peter, 'Avez-vous en fait déjà vu un film,' Positif, January 1997, pp. 95-103.
Lawrence, Amy, The Films of Peter Greenaway (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997).
Pally, Marcia, "Cinema as the Total Art Form: An Interview with Peter Greenaway," Cineaste, vol. 18, no. 3 (1991): 6-11, 45.
Perlmutter, Ruth, 'Peter Greenaway: An Inter-Review,' Post Script, Winter 1989, pp. 56-64.
Wiloquet-Maricondi, Paula and Mary Alemany-Galway, Peter Greenaway's Postmodern/Postructuralist Cinema (Lanham, Maryland: Scarecrow Press, 2001).
Woods, Alan, Being Naked Playing Dead: The Art of Peter Greenaway (Manchester, Manchester University Press, 1996).

Marcia Landy, Reference Guide to British and Irish Film Directors

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Selected credits

Thumbnail image of Dear Phone (1976)Dear Phone (1976)

Anecdotes about various uses and abuses of the telephone

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Peter Greenaway's typically idiosyncratic breakthrough film

Thumbnail image of Falls, The (1980)Falls, The (1980)

Peter Greenaway's catalogue of survivors of an unknown disaster

Thumbnail image of H is for House (1976)H is for House (1976)

An imaginative exploration of the significance of the letter H

Thumbnail image of Intervals (1973)Intervals (1973)

Shots of Venice assembled according to various musical principles

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Peter Greenaway's mocking parody of rigid structuralist principles

Thumbnail image of Walk Through H, A (1978)Walk Through H, A (1978)

Peter Greenaway's journey through maps of an imaginary landscape

Thumbnail image of Water Wrackets (1978)Water Wrackets (1978)

A 'documentary' about an imaginary civilisation based around water

Thumbnail image of Windows (1974)Windows (1974)

Darkly witty allegory concerning death by defenestration

Thumbnail image of Zed and Two Noughts, A (1985)Zed and Two Noughts, A (1985)

Animals, biology, car crashes, decay, elephants, forgery... the list goes on

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