Something in the Way

What is the purpose of art? Sorry, that’s a bit grandiose. There is an avant-garde filmmaker who baffles me. His name is Peter Greenaway, and he makes films that, to me, look like moving paintings. They are, to borrow a phrase from an anonymous Internet commenter, basically pornography for people with OCD or Asperger’s. Their structures are so rigid, their visual compositions so formal that more often than not, the human element tends to get lost in Greenaway’s elaborate intellectual games. One of his films, Drowning By Numbers (which I haven’t seen), reportedly features the numbers one through one hundred concealed within the frame one by one, in order, over the course of the film. What is the purpose of hiding such an Easter egg in one’s film? Peter Greenaway’s films can be analyzed at great length, but if they leave you feeling cold, it’s probably intentional. Greenaway is famously disdainful of “narrative cinema”, believing that films can and should be used for so much more than telling stories. To me, this is like saying that a conversation can consist of so much more than just words. I could sit here and spout gibberish at you all day, but if I want to hold your interest, isn’t making sense the best way to do it?

Good Lord, is anyone reading this? This blog averages about ten hits per day, at least a few of which come from me. If you even bothered to visit the site, hopefully you’re willing to read a critique of an art-house filmmaker that you likely haven’t heard of. But that’s not what’s bugging me. Peter Greenaway, to some, is challenging conventional wisdom about the definition of cinema. To others, he’s just an asshole. I’ve enjoyed some of his films, but I’m leaning towards the latter. What gives him the right to tell the rest of us what cinema is about? He likes David Lynch, but hates Martin Scorsese. If you can’t appreciate the work of one of the greatest artists in the history of the medium, Mr. Greenaway, has the thought occurred to you that the problem might be you rather than the medium? His reasoning is totally backwards. He seems to believe that because cinema was, in its infancy, not exclusively about telling stories, that means that everything that has happened since is hogwash. I call that evolution. Apparently, he regards himself as a crusader. I say he’s an arrogant fool who is trying to turn movies into something that they never were and really shouldn’t be.

So if anyone is still paying attention, let me answer the question that I posed at the beginning of this article. The purpose of art is to make the appreciator feel something. That is true of painting, music, theater, literature, and just about every other art form that I can think of. If I want to play a game, I’ll buy a fucking puzzle. If I want to engage in a lengthy discussion about the shifting role of women in 17th-century England, I’ll attend a goddamn lecture. One of the highlights of my cultural education was attending a screening of Chaplin’s City Lights. If you haven’t seen that film, you really must. It’s beautiful, funny as hell, and deeply moving. The man who organized the screening moderated long group discussions after the movie, but that night, it lasted less than five minutes. We looked at each other, said, “Wow, that was a great movie”, and went home. I’ll take that over Peter Greenaway’s 60-plus films combined.

I tried to love his movies. Really, I did. But no matter how close I got, there was always something in the way. Why make movies if you don’t love them more than life itself? I don’t write because there’s nothing better to do; I do it because when I don’t, I can barely sleep at night. People appreciate art for all sorts of different reasons. They make it for all sorts of reasons as well. But if you’re not going to dive headfirst into it, no matter which side of the divide you are on, I have no use for you. I know many talented writers, actors, directors, and musicians, and the one thing that they all have in common is commitment. They share an obsessive need to get even the most minor details just right. Whether anyone notices is irrelevant, because they’ll know, and that’s all that matters.

There is a give-and-take that must exist in any healthy relationship. One must not make movies with the intention of changing movies; one must make movies to see them grow and develop. In other words, the artist changes with the medium. Otherwise, the relationship becomes static, like a painting. Let’s not make movies a medium through which to scold audiences, but to challenge them, to make them think, and lastly, to give them a sense of release. Hell, they’re paying for it.

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