Peter Greenaway is a filmmaker trained as a painter. He has long been sceptical about the restrictive boundaries of cinema, and you could not say that his films were obsessive about the traditional characteristics of cinema. His films are very distinctive and stray well off the beaten path. Some commentators have said that his films are anti-cinematic and that he is not a filmmaker at all. He might not disagree with that. He is disquieted by the inability of the cinema that we now have, to give us all the rich potential excitements of the early 21st century world. No touch, no smell, no temperature, short duration. Passive, sedentary audiences, no real audience dialogue, overloaded technical specifications in set piece High Street architecture, limited to a single frame at a time, visible from only one direction. Excessive desire for reality, temporary sets, actors trained to pretend, flat illusions, little comprehension of a screen as a screen. Omnipotent financial vested interests, and the tyrannies of the frame, the actor and the text. And most disturbing of all, subject to the tyranny of the camera.
The list of disenchantments is long. He's far from being alone in holding these views. His present particular strategy to investigate and change these short comings, as he sees them, is to invest much time in extra cinema activities, if only in the hope of bringing those activities back in to cinema to find ways to reinvent it. For reinvention in the cinema is surely long overdue and very, very necessary. A medium without constant reinvention is doomed to perish. Many say now that there are no great inventors working in cinema any more. They have gone elsewhere. Perhaps they are right.
Even though Peter Greenaway is an Englishman, he was actually born in Newport in Wales (his mother is Welsh) on April 5th, 1942. The family left Wales when Greenaway was three years-old and moved to Essex, England. At an early age he decided he wanted to be a painter. He developed an interest in European cinema, focusing on the films of Antonioni, Bergman, Godard, Pasolini and Resnais. In 1962 he started studying at the Walthamstow College of Art, where amongst his fellow students was musician Ian Dury (who Greenaway would later cast in The Cook, The Thief, His Wife & Her Lover). Greenaway would spend the next three years there, and at the time of arriving there he made his first film, Death of Sentiment. It was about church yard furniture, crosses, flying angels, typography on grave stones, and was filmed in four large London cemeteries. In 1965 he joined the Central Office of Information (COI), where he remained for the next eleven years as a film editor and then a director. In 1966 he made a film called Train, composed of footage of the last steam train arriving at Waterloo Station (directly behind the COI), structured into an abstract Man Ray ballet mécanique, all cut to a musique concrete track. He also made a film called Tree in 1966, the tree in question was surrounded by concrete outside the Royal Festival Hall on the South Bank in London. The 1970s would see Greenaway getting much more serious with his filmmaking. In 1978 he made Vertical Features Remake and A Walk Through H. The former is an examination of arithmetical structure and the latter a journey through various maps. In 1980 Greenaway delivered his most ambitious and extraordinary film of his career, The Falls - a mammoth, fantastical, absurdist encyclopedia of flight-associated material all relating to 92 victims of the Violent Unknown Event (VUE). The 1980s would see some of Greenaway's best films, The Draughtsman's Contract in 1982, A Zed & Two Noughts in 1985, The Belly of an Architect in 1987, Drowning by Numbers in 1988, and his most successful (in the mainstream) film in 1989, The Cook, The Thief, His Wife & Her Lover. The 1990s brought the visually spectacular Prospero's Books in 1991, the controversial The Baby of Mâcon in 1993, The Pillow Book in 1996, and 8 1/2 Women in 1999.
In 2004 Greenaway completed the trilogy of films in his ambitious project, The Tulse Luper Suitcases, a multimedia extravaganza featuring innovative film techniques. His current project is Nightwatching, a film about Dutch painter Rembrandt and his painting Nightwatch. On the future agenda is 55 Men on Horseback, a late eighteenth century tale of a man who tries to bed a woman by sending her 55 paintings of horses; and the Russian epic Augsbergenfeld. In Greenaway's mind we haven't seen any cinema yet. His ambition (as stated above) is to try and reinvent it. The world of cinema would be a duller place without him.
Wayne (webmaster) and Peter Greenaway at the Lovebytes Digital Arts Festival in Sheffield, England, April 2005