Short and sweet

A special guest at the Haifa Film Festival, British director Peter Greenaway speaks about why he enjoys making short films and the end of modern-day cinema.

British director Peter Greenaway (photo credit: Courtesy PR)
British director Peter Greenaway
(photo credit: Courtesy PR)
Peter Greenaway, the distinguished British movie director who was a special guest last week at the 29th Haifa International Festival (which runs through September 28), has been thinking a lot lately about how technology will influence the future of movies.
During Short and Sweet, his presentation of a selection of his short films, technology was very much on his mind, because there was a delay in getting his films to play via a computer on which they were stored.
“Now you can see why cinema is dying,” he quipped.
But as the technical problems were resolved and his films were screened, he talked about why he enjoys making short films and why he continues to make them, even though he has directed dozens of features, including Nightwatching; Drowning by Numbers; The Draughtsman’s Contract and The Cook, the Thief, His Wife & Her Lover.
His films are intellectual puzzles and visual feasts that are often concerned directly with art. Nightwatching, for example, chronicles a period in the life of Rembrandt and examines how he composed one of his most celebrated paintings. His latest film, Goltzius and the Pelican Company, about the 16th-century Dutch printmaker and painter, had its premiere at the Haifa festival just after his short-film program.
But in spite of his success as a feature film director, Greenaway continues to make short films, and explained why: “Short films... are more inventive ways of making films, without the onerous problems of creating features. The more expensive the artifact, the less personal it becomes. Expensive films are committee films, full of compromises.”
He likened Hollywood films to Soviet Russia, in terms of producing work that is “committee made.”
Short films, by contrast, are “open to a huge amount of experimentation,” and can be made for little money or “minus money.”
He began his directing career in the Sixties by making his own self-financed short films. Trained as a painter, Greenaway found that working in the medium of short films helped him feel connected to his roots in fine art.
WHEN THE short films he had brought finally began to screen, Greenaway explained how they illustrate his theories about the future of cinema.
In a film he made that was commissioned by a design museum in Milan, the screen was divided up into panels of different shapes. Different images were projected on these shapes, of patterns, animated versions of Renaissance paintings, and shots of people walking.
“If cinema continues to exist, it’s not going to look like this black box [the traditional screen], I assure you,” he said. Far from despairing of the changes brought about by new technology, Greenaway said he welcomed them.
What he called the “four tyrannies” of traditional cinema – the frame, the text, stars and the camera – would gradually lose their importance.
The frame could be replaced by multiple screens, he said.
“We don’t want a text-based cinema,” he continued.
“We want an image-based cinema.... But most people are visually illiterate.” Traditional cinema “is a slave to the bookshop,” something he hoped would soon change.
As far as actors go, “cinema is not a playground for Sharon Stone,” and in the future, he hoped conventional actors would go the way of the phonograph and the typewriter. As for the camera itself, “it’s a stupid object that only reproduces what you put in front of it,” and he hoped that the digital revolution would bring movies closer to painting.
All of this theorizing was illustrated in his short films, which were an apt segue into his presentation of Goltzius and the Pelican Company.
He compared the era in which the printer Goltzius lived, when the printing press was a revolutionary new technology, to the present moment when technology is moving so fast.
“There was a lack of cultural confidence then, just as there is now, which made it a very interesting period,” he said. Continuing the metaphor, he described how the early printing presses were often used for pornography, as is the case with the Internet.
“Whether you’re a nun or a serial killer, we’re all passionately interested in sexual activity,” he said. And Goltzius and the Pelican Company, in which the printer and his theater company perform scenes featuring sex from the Bible in order to win an investment from an eccentric nobleman (F. Murray Abraham), certainly did not lack for sexual activity.
But just before the film screened, Greenaway seemed concerned his utterances might have been too revolutionary for his audience.
Greenaway pleaded: “If I put you off the film, forget everything I said.”