Interview with Peter Greenaway, 1/97

The Medium Is The Message

Questions: Manu Luksch
Answers: Peter Greenaway

P. Greenaway, photo Manu. Luksch
Your movies like Prospero's Books or The Pillow Book, but also your TV productions like Deaths of The Seine or Dante TV are examples of the new possibilities of expression in film by using state-of-the-art digital post-production equipment.
Will the digital media save or supersude film ?
Peter Greenaway: All the notion of film running through a camera and later through a projector is related to a technology that goes right back to1895 with soundtrack edit in 1929 - so these are very old technologies. I think that we can safely say now, that cinema almost is no longer film actually in physical terms, because so many filmmakers, whether they exist in a Hollywood studio situation with commercial filmmaking possibilities, or in the European situation associated with TV money, in manufacture and production, what they use is more to be like tape. Even if still there is a feeling that the quality of imagemaking is better on celluloid, very rapidly any selfrespecting filmmaker or producer convertes that to tape, edits on tape and I would suggest that most people would see the products not in cinema but on tape ...
... which means on TV?
Peter Greenaway: ...which means either on TV or in some video relation statistic. About 3 months ago there were some figures that came out from America rather than from Europe that said something -if I can get the figures correct- that 74% of people see films on TV, 23% of people saw it on video, and only 3 or 4 % of audience saw it in a cinema, which is an incredible collapse considering the huge, huge figures that were associated with audience in the 50s or 60s, when cinema was really very successful, at the height of its career.
Do you think that this is a development backwards?
Peter Greenaway: It goes two ways: I always argue that the best thing which could have ever happened to cinema was in some sense the invention of television, just like the best thing that could happen to painting was the invention of photography, because it allowed the medium to get on with what it did best, which has nothing to do with present tense but what we found according to the past, the ficional past. But what happened unfortunately with cinema is that, because of the audiences and their requirement to fulfill huge budgets both in manufacture and also in distribution, that a lot of cinema now copies television. All those concerns for using the whole picture space, and for examining extremes of light and dark, or sophisticated soundtracks, which was a characteristic of cinema of the 70s, when it was fighting television for the first time, have now gone under, so that, if I think about the English situation, for me people like Ken Loach for example are much more television oriented rather than film oriented.
But on the other hand TV language itself, certainly I suppose in post-production, has become so sophisticated now, that it has jumped ahead and we can all become Picassos, because of the way we can now manipulate the world in a way we could never have done it before.
Unfortunately there is a feeling that, no matter how sophisticated television language is, the actual content becomes more and more banal.
So you have this extraordinary language, but it is saying very little, and we have got somehow to resolve these differences in order to try to make this language an extraordinary future for cinema.
I feel very pessimistic about cinema in this moment, but very optimistic about its future. Finally we are able to gather together a language for itself, which really becomes totally autonomous and is not a slave anymore to what I would call the tyranni: the tyrannus of text, the tyrannus of an actor, the tyrannus of frame and the most difficult of all, the tyrannus of the camera.
The frame, which is a renaissance device, is hundreds of years old, in painting, opera, photography, theatre, television and certainly cinema, but also all the other arts have been exploiting the frame, so painting has been exploiting the frame largely in the middle of the 20th century.
I think of theatre in the round and now of new inventions like virtual reality, IMAX and OMNIMAX have also exploited the frame.
And we must make an effort to make sure that also all the other media exploit the frame and we are around it.
So notions of multiplicity of frame are rising - and of no longer having a flat space that stands in a dark cinema, so that we all have to look in one direction, which are things of the past now.
There is every evidence all over the world of having old formats crashing and breaking apart, but for me it's not really fast enough.
On the one hand you talk of new media meaning the 'tape-media', which develop quickly and support distribution, on the other hand you have visions about the new media, which include interactivity, 3D, maybe even smell, haptic senses, which develop too slowly -
Peter Greenaway: I think it's a trap stage now. In a famous John Cage quote, "if we move too fast we are going to loose our audiences".
If you invent more than 20% of novelty in any artifact, you immediately loose 80% of your audience. I think that a film like 'Pillow Book' was not as experimental as I wanted it to be.
I neither want to commit commercial aesthetic suicide, because I can't understand it. John Cage suggested that eventually the audience does catch up, and he suggested 15 years, but I think that he was very optimistic.
If you think about the world painting: the people's appreciation of world painting is probably just at about the level of impressionism now, which was as we know invented back in 1859 - so it takes a long, long time for new ideas to percolate down, to become common knowledge.
I know that in terms of cinema people's appreciation is supposed to be much more rapid, because it's more disseminated around the world, but I still think that people are incredibly orthodox.
For example, alot of people, also intelligentsia, still have great difficulty in a notion of fragmenting the images like in 'Prospero's Books' and 'The Pillow Book'. They complain it's more CD ROM than cinema, but I don't agree to that, because I think that the notion of a single frame in a dark space viewed by a passive audiance is very much a thing of the past now, and we have got to accomodate the new media to all the other new excitements.
First, when I started making cinema, there was nothing else like cinema, in a sense cinema was itself, but by the time my kids went to cinema for the first time, they described it as the big television in the dark, so they already had other ideas of what the medium could be.
So if you think about kids now coming to the age, I think they have enormous control via the computer screen, via CD ROM, via the internet, they can zap and change and interreact in ways cinema never ever allows to do that.
So I think that cinema no longer fulfills the imaginative expectations of a new and young audiences simply because their imagination has been trained somewhere else. So we have to change it.
Now you are working on a digitally manipulated film again...
Peter Greenaway: You speak to me sitting in a videostudio in the middle of Holland, and we are manufacturing the opening film of the Rotterdam film festival in a about three weeks time:
The film is extensively the celebration of a new bridge called Erasmus Bridge, which was built in Rotterdam and finished about three months ago. Back in 1929, a famous Dutch documentary filmmaker - a man called Evans - made a 35mm b/w silent film on another bridge in Rotterdam. There is a way in which the film we are making is meant to be a hommage to this original film, which was regarded by the European avantgarde as important.
But a lot of people, when they saw the film back in 1929, thought that it had no structure, thought that it was moving far too quickly, thought that the editing was extremely rough, but looking at it now, it seems to be an incredibly slow and boring film with very little sort of actual interest in what potentially we can see is being regarded as interesting now.
This film was regarded as a state-of-the-art movie then, and admittedly had political implications to do with solidarity and socialism of Rotterdam. Accidentally this actual filmmaker went off to live in China for about 30 years, and his films have been seen by more people in the world than anybody else's, simply because there are so many Chinese, who are so enthusiastic about cinema - and by this way Evans has left his stamp very much on Chinese cinema's part of the revolution, anyway, ...
Using his example as state-of-the-art, we have been encouraged now to use state-of -the-art equipment, and I'm sure, that Evans would be amazed to see what we do now...
What equipment are you using?
Peter Greenaway: We use this small digital recording video cameras with these cassettes, which have the size of a human brain, and their tapes are so inexpensive and small, and the ability of these cameras to run at night and at day at any speed, to cope with insides and outsides simultanously and fully automatically, totally unabtrusive so you can wander the world without anybody even knowing that you are filming them.
Also the quality of the images surprises me to no end, they have an amazing quality.
We are working here with a brand new system of making a convertion of this material, which is edited in a sophisticated post-production system called 'Flame', and then we are transforming this tape of high quality to high quality film.
It's very important also for me to go through this experiment, because we are to prepare a new feature film called 'Looper's Delft Suitcase', which will be 8 hours long. It will be shot all around the world, starting in America and finishing in Manchuria, via most countries in Western and Middle Europe. I have one year of filming ahead of me and I want to make sure that the crew is extremely small.
You can never conventionally do this with the old equippement, so that's another indication how the actual hardware, the cameras and the ability to organize the material this way is making great changes in the possibilities to organize cinema.
Greenaway in front of an object in his exhibition "100 Masterworks", photo Manu. Luksch
You were working on a CD ROM on allegories...
Peter Greenaway: Yes, at this present stage, again we have to work on at-the-stage-of-the-art computers to make magnificent complex still images, which have the ability of being projected to the size of the Empire State Building.
We will produce the most magnificant images also for book manufacture, which will deal with the combination of text and image. I'm currently very excited about - witness the 'Pillow Book' and the use of typography and calligraphy - and with the whole ethics of the war, or if you like the confrontation between text and image, which is a condition of cinema.
One reason, why I feel we haven't seen any cinema after 100 years of cinema yet, is, because basically, if their name is Scorsese or Godard or Wenders or Spielberg..., you have to have text first before you can have the image. That seems to me to be a poor way in which text serves cinema as it doesn't serve literature either.
One excitement about this revolutionary disk is that you can manufacture an object, which can make its appearance in the world in so many different formats.
I'm trying to use that old concern for total art form to bring all arts together. Maybe in certain ways, the films like 'Pillow Book' or 'Prospero's Books' could not have been made ten years ago, because the particular technology did not exist. I'm a firm willing believer in the notion that the medium is the message.
On the one hand you complain about the inactive audience, on the other hand you don't believe in a 'democratic' way of art production. Isn't there a contradiction?
Peter Greenaway: Indeed, all the best ideas are contradictory and the best people are full of contradictions.
We are in a sort of of big transitional situation. Philosophically I feel that the notion of artists as supermen is a renaissance attitute, it goes right back to Michelangelo, and that the Picassos and Stravinskys in some sense are maybe the last great big superheroes of art.
Artists were regarded like that also before Michelangelo, but this attitude has very much to do with the renaissance concept of humanism. Renaissance concepts are always related to Monarchy and Absolutism and Oligarchism, while we live in a sort of Western democratic age, and there is a way in which our cultural organisation of ethics is far behind our political systems.
I think that all moves to greater and greater activity and less and less passivity, and away from the notions of the artist as a superbeing, and I think there are a lot of things happening in contemporary art which are supporting this notion.
Isn't interactivity only valuable if both sides - the audience and the artist - participate and learn about reactions...
Peter Greenaway: Let's take 'The Pillow Book' for example, which has got multiple images in it. On one level it is much more like human experience, because we don't observe the world like if we walk through one frame, we constantly walk along the street along human activities, combining our memories and imaginations in the present tense.
So there is a way in which there is some sort of interactivity at place when you look at 'The Pillow Book', because there are several images to choose from and it's up to you or the audience in which order you choose them or how you utilise them.
But you can't make conclusions because you can never get statistics about their choices...
Peter Greenaway: ...that's all right, I have no fear or worry about that. I mean that's always the case, even if I make a conventional movie like 'The Draughtman's Contract', I can't tell how people are particulary utilising their imaginations to develop it on. When an artwork is made in some sense the artist has to fulfill his part of responsibility, because everybody's expectations and everybody's cultural background is so different.
'The Draughtman's Contract' was regarded by some as being anti-Thatcher, by some as pro-Thatcher, by some as totally macho, some thought it was a feminist tract, some thought it was a description of the English football system, some thought it was due to the American presidential elections at that time, and, when it was shown in Spain, some thought it was an anti-Franco-movie.
None of these ideas came to me when I made the film, but I can't deny them, if people want to see it that way.
Just in general terms, I think it's important that every creator should try to use his own technology.
It has been a condition of all innovative and radical painters of the last 400, 500 years, since the Renaissance. People like da Vinci used subsquares and the new technology that was associated with navigation and mathematics. One of my favourite painters, Vermeer, working in the mid-seventeenth century Delft would use all the technologies related to polishing and making lenses. Almost certainly Vermeer used a sort of Camera Obscura, so he was the first cameraman, too, and that 300 years before the Lumière brothers even bothered about utilising first of all moving pictures.
But in the last century, when painters used photography, or this century, when painters have used early cinema, there is a way that the current technological activities and excitement was not utilised all along the line, which again makes cinema to seem so old fashioned. Most cinema, most expectations in terms of production, distribution and sometimes audiences are still back to the Casablanca syndrome way back in the 1940s: stories simply told, beginnings, middles and ends, just one image, based very much on structures of the late 19th-century novel writing.
Greenaway in the "Hofburg", Vienna, photo Manu. Luksch
Do you expect to find solutions for what you complain about in old, conventional cinema characteristcs - linearity, the 'tyranny'...- in interactive film?
Peter Greenaway: In certain ways I think one can't rush too fast, because in one sense you do leave the audience behind and isolate yourself too much.
What would answer the question, too, is that one way of solving the problem is by making different sort of products, for different sorts of audiences, so not just to exclusively make cinema for cinema distribution, but to work a lot in television, to make books, to make curatorial shows, or, to pursue other pioneers of contemporary activity like Christo, to use a lot of communitiy as a big architectural setting.
It's also interesting to follow the information more back to itself, and I think that new media with the use of interactivity and the multiplicity of frames is beginning to offer a language. The next film we are going to make, 'Looper's Delft Suitcase', is in fact going to be made for 35mm film distribution, for television, as a CD ROM, and it's also going on the internet.
So it's an acknowledgement to the different ways in which my films as independent filmmaker are appreciated, acknowledged and discussed.
For examle, I know that there is a very large audience out there discussing my films in the internet and I want to address them directly in their own medium. I think the interest and the fascination will be to see how we can bend and organise all this four different digitally supported media to interact successfully. A lot of people will go and see the film but never buy the CD ROM and vice versa, so it has got to work both ways. I've got to make each work autonomously to serve the particular audiences, but also to see if I can find a cross-over situation.
Like one example in terms of the actual film itself, one of the sub-plots is about the packing and unpacking of suitcases of which there are 92. 92 is significant because of the atomic number of uranium, and it all takes place around the creation of the atomic bomb from 1935 to 1942.
There is a way we will certainly talk about this suitcases on the film and you might even see them being opened and closed, but there is never going to be time to discuss them. So on a CD ROM, all the full contents of the contents of the suitcases will be discussed, and if you see the film and the CD ROM, then your knowledge of the subject will be so much better.
It has to do with not actually only creating the images on the screen, but also with the way in which the films will be perceived, distributed and organised, which is also part of the same phenomena.
Could you tell us more about the Internet part?
Peter Greenaway: Very shortly: when we start filming, I will start to send out bulletins, some of them phoney, some of them faked, some of them in different languages.
Also you can see from 'The Pillow Book', how interested I am in the interaction of text and image. It is also fascinating, that we appreciate the WorldWideWeb, CD ROM and television because of their visual quality, but in fact these are deeply text-driven media.
When I was a child, my parents kept me away from television, because they said there are too many pictures, I was not reading enough, but now people have to be highly literate in order to organise these new technologies, which were supposedly in a sense highly visual and not textual, so that's an extraordinary and very interesting irony - especially, of course, if you are English, because the predominant world language for this whole technology is English.
I read last week in the newspapers, how desperate and unhappy the French are now becoming, because they are getting left behind the new technologies, simply because they got the wrong language.
My further ambitions: I would like very much to make CD ROMs on Omnimax. I want the single huge screen image giant so you have to stretch your neck the same way like if you wander around the world. And I also want the Internet capacity to CD ROM to go on to make encyclopedias forever and forever, which can interactively react in a completely different way to every single person that uses them... but of course this technology of Omnimax and CD ROM is not with us yet.
Why is the huge size so important to you?
Peter Greenaway: One of the big frustrations of television is the reduced size of the screen. I think the reason why cinema has fulfilled people's imagination for so long, certainly for 70 years - I wouldn't say for 100, as for the last 30 years we are discussing cinema as being corrupted by TV - is because of the excitement about an image, which is bigger and noisier than you are, so that this sort of scale is very important. The TV industry has deminuized, shrunken this particular excitement with the size of the screen. I think that eventually, when technology has improved, we will get back to a bigger format again.
A great problem is, that when I go to the cinema, I want to sit there entirely on my own on the best seat, and there is only one best seat in every cinema, and I want to enjoy the film on a one-to-one-base as a CD ROM, but of course architecturally and financially it's extremely hard to imagine how to do it.
Do you think the effort of 3D Imax to get closer to reality simulation is worth it, because it is supporting artistic expression?
Peter Greenaway: Oh no, already the notion of 'virtual reality' is such a misnomer, we don't want virtual reality, we want virtual unreality. Why do people spent thousands of millions of pounds trying to create artifical dinosaurs for 'Jurassic Park', that seems to be a total waste of time to me.
These sort of things are just heading conventional text story lines with conventional attitude, it has nothing to do with changing the media, it just means to create robotic equivalents, which exist in the frame anyway, I don't see any point, you know, a real 'Jurassic Park' can be much more exciting than any robotic invention anybody invents inside a frame.
Are you yourself surfing the net?
Peter Greenaway: No, my assistant Eliza is doing it for me a lot. At the moment we are making a big conversion to work directly with it. I think there are four Greenaway websites in America and about five in Europe. We feel we ought to be much more connected to them, I ought to continue to get more and more engaged.
But it's a race, we all have to run very fast, because the technology is moving so fast, and if you think you are up-to-date with something, you are suddenly already left behind.
So none of the Greenaway- websites is authorized by you?
Peter Greenaway: The december-site has been done on my behalf.
It's also interesting in which ways the confabulation increases and increases as well as wrong information, but what can you do about it?
It's also quite alarming how the information gets around the world so incredibly quickly now.
Like once one of my lectures had been canceled only three hours before and about 25 people had already found out via internet.
Will you spend more time online?
Peter Greenaway: After a while it does become sheer exhausting, the banality and boredom of its all is like listening to people's late night radio conversations.
I think philosophically internet is not changing things, even if you can admit adultery over the internet, I don't know how you could do this, but apparently there are court cases in America which try to prove this.

Thank you for the interview. (Manu Luksch)