Every Picture Tells a Story by liwenting


									>>brief encounters
Peter Greenaway steps up his war on visual illiteracy/By Harlan Jacobson

Every Picture Tells a Story
in Rembrandt’s J’Accuse, peter greenaway, who has lived in                                       Rembrandt J’Accuse isn’t the official story of
Amsterdam for the past dozen years, deconstructs The Night Watch,                                this painting…
                                                                                                 There is no such thing as history—there
which hangs in Amsterdam’s Rijksmuseum. The painting is consid-                                  are only historians. There’s no such thing
ered to be the greatest of the Dutch master’s portraits of Holland’s                             as art history. There are only art histori-
17th-century militias, which were always full of bonhomie and                                    ans. So for every art historian there’s a dif-
                                                                                                 ferent opinion.
bravado to ward off those pesky Spanish.                                                         You said after the screening,“Documentaries
    But Greenaway, a fanatic crusader             on the painting with scenes from his 2007      can lie. Feature films tell the truth.” Since this
against visual illiteracy and a semiotician       film Nightwatching, an entirely fictional        is a two-part effort, tell me about the duality
with a vengeance, takes the painting apart,       account of Rembrandt’s undoing. Along          of the project.
line by line, vector by vector, plane by plane,   with The New Rijksmuseum, another doc          I’d been looking at Rembrandt since I
and reads it the way it was read in 1642          about the civic comedy of terrors that has     was 17. My reputation is as a director,
after Rembrandt completed it: as an outra-        delayed the renovation of the museum           but my greatest love is painting. Cinema
geous piece of theater in which the painter       where The Night Watch has hung for two         is an extraordinary childlike medium, a
bit the aristocratic hand that fed him by         centuries, J’Accuse was the hottest ticket     medium of dreams, hardly even of
embedding within the painting a sensational       in canal town.                                 thoughts. Most people in the world are
charge of murder. With The Night Watch,              Greenaway held forth at the American        visually illiterate. We’ve had 8,000 years
which Greenaway calls the fourth most cel-        Hotel in Amsterdam. It was a tour de force     of painting which have tried to teach
ebrated painting in the world after the           performance, in which an elegant decon-        people visual literacy. And we’ve now
Mona Lisa, The Last Supper, and the Sistine       structionist practiced his art of pictorial    had 113 years of cinema. There’s almost
Chapel, Rembrandt accused Amsterdam’s             forensics, and by dint of inclination and      no comparison between them.
leading citizens of a successful plot to elimi-   habit, embraced the ironic futility of semi-       The most successful works of art are
nate a financial rival. Suddenly his lucrative     otics: he essentially interviewed himself,     self-reflexive. They always say, “I’m only
portrait work dried up; he went bankrupt          questioned the inherent corruption of the      an artwork. I’m not a window on the
and was effectively exiled to the Jordaan,        process at every turn, twisted the architec-   world. I’m not a slice of life.” And any-
the boonies on the edge of town.                  ture of the encounter inside out, and          body who goes to a Greenaway film has
    Rembrandt’s J’Accuse, which premiered         effectively vanished as if he had popped       to hold to that very, very carefully.
at the 21st International Documentary Film        his own bubble. Fully a half hour in,          The Night Watch is part of a genre of militia pain-
Festival Amsterdam this past November,            matters at last focused on the work at         tings. But when you “read” that painting, you
amalgamates all of Greenaway’s research           hand and his life.                             know it isn’t a celebration of Dutch strength.

20   FILM COMMENT     January-February 2009
It’s a cynical satire. Since Rembrandt is       had an astigmatism. He’s looking at us        contract: provided I didn’t waste my time
not a text man, he’s not Zola, he’s going       through his lazy right eye. “That’s out-of-   and go to America, he would look after
to make an indictment in a medium he            frame information! How would you              my film career. We’ve been together ever
knows so well that he can virtually dream       know that?” I picked it up in the research.   since. In March we start our 15th feature.
the image into existence. The Dutch [of         There is one big thing I discovered: the          So if you’d like to tabulate that: Father’s
1642] are surrounded by monarchists             whole plot of the glove. Nobody else has      interests in birds, my adolescent interest in
who are very antagonistic to notions of a       ever mentioned that before. I worked on       painting landscapes, discovery by Rotter-
republic. They’re being attacked by Spain.      the forensic evidence to come up with the     dam, picked up by Dutch producer.
On a domestic as well as a military level,      theory. [With the glove] Rembrandt            Where do you think you are in your career now?
they cling together. They enjoy one             makes a criticism about the homosexual        It would be extreme arrogance to make
another’s company. And The Night Watch          relationship that existed. Rembrandt was      comparisons between myself and Rem-
is an extraordinary example of that: 34         pretty homophobic, so he would have           brandt, but if you’ve seen The Draughts-
bold men with the bravado to protect            seized on that.                               man’s Contract, you know I’m interested in
Holland against its enemies.                    Why did you come to Amsterdam?                outsiders. The artist is paid, is given legiti-
    I know there is a little mystery to this    My father was an ornithologist, and he        mate space, to be the antagonist, the provo-
painting. Starting with the notion of an        specialized in creating bird reservations     cateur. The draughtsman is an outsider
apparently wild gunshot in a melee of           all over Northern Europe. His favorite        who loses in the same way [as Rembrandt
people rushing around is a very danger-         birds were ones that inhabit the seashore     does], almost by the same methodology,
ous thing to do. If anybody’s going to          and land water. And that’s a description      by painting a phenomenon that is reinter-
paint exactly what he wants to paint, it        of the Dutch landscape—masses of              preted in a way that the establishment
has to be Rembrandt, as demonstrated by         water, huge amount of coastline, all his      feels is impossible to undertake as a criti-
the phallic spearhead [strategically placed     favorite birds live here. My father used      cism of themselves.
in the painting’s foreground].                  to bring my younger brother and me to            We made this huge project, The Tulse
Why do you think Rembrandt felt compelled                                                     Luper Suitcases [03-04], which was meant
to deliver that painting to those people?
He’s a provincial living in Leiden. He wasn’t
a member of the bourgeoisie though he’s
                                                “  It would be extreme arrogance
                                                to make comparisons between
                                                myself and Rembrandt, but if
                                                                                              to be my summation, my magnum opus,
                                                                                              where I tried to put in everything that I’d
                                                                                              learned about the media, but also every-
painting for a very bourgeois market. Think     you’ve seen The Draughtsman’s                 thing about my social and political history,
of a young pop star who rapidly becomes         Contract, you know I’m interested             too. But it was singularly unsuccessful in
very arrogant and self-righteous. Rem-          in outsiders. The artist is paid, is          the cinema. It’s far too advanced, far too
brandt is painting two society portraits a      given legitimate space, to be the             intense, too complicated. People are pre-
week. He’s charging as much money for
one portrait as the average Dutch artisan—
a carpenter, a baker—earns in a year.
                                                antagonist, the provocateur.
                                                the marshes in the north of Holland, and
                                                                                              pared to sit down and watch CNN with its
                                                                                              multiple screens, its 15 logos, its maps and
                                                                                              screens. But they’re unprepared to put that
    When you’re young and without much          we spent all our time in waders with          language into cinema.
political sophistication, or maybe you          binoculars. By the time I was 13 I was           John Cage, a hero of mine, said,
think you have too much political sophis-       drawing and painting. This became so          Watch out. You introduce more than 20
tication… I used to throw ball bearings         obsessional that I avoided university, fell   percent of novelty into any artwork, and
under the hooves of horses outside the          out with my parents, got chucked out of       you lose 80 percent of your audience. He
American embassy in 1968 with a certain         the house, and went to art school.            also said that in 15 years, people are sup-
youthful political arrogance against the            I knew that I was going to paint land-    posed to catch up. I think 15 years is
Vietnam War and the way Americans were          scapes, and the best landscape painters in    pretty generous.
polluting the politics of the West. So let’s    Europe are the Dutch. Emblematic nature       How would you address the problem of
say Rembrandt, with a certain lack of           fascinates me. I came back here on school     visual illiteracy in a perfect world? Which I
political acumen, what is he doing? He’s        holidays, hardly having any money, sleep-     guess would be run by you…
a David taking on a Goliath. With all his       ing in youth hostels in the red light dis-    I want to be Minister of Culture. I want
arrogance he feels he’s in a position to        trict, obviously enjoying myself but          to have power to organize notions of edu-
point an accusing finger. He’s a great           deeply impoverished, and I decided not        cation. I don’t think any filmmaker
young virtuoso painter determined to            only to paint but to make films.               should be allowed to pick up a camera
overstretch himself. And the Goliaths               I made some little films, which were       until he’s spent three years in art school
came together and destroyed him.                discovered by the Rotterdam Film Festi-       to get him to learn to look and to realize
Is there any one thing in the painting that     val, run by Hubert Bals. Bals’s assistant,    that this amazing piece of electronic cam-
when you looked at it suggested murder?         Kees Kasander, wanted to become a film         era equipment is totally without intelli-
It was the notion of Rembrandt’s self-          producer and I wanted to become a direc-      gence. The intelligence has to be put there
portrait looking at us, this single eye. He     tor. Kasander offered me an incredible        by somebody else. I

                                                                                                 January-February 2009   FILM COMMENT     21

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