He curses the constraints of the traditional screen, but Peter Greenaway greatly inspired Australian filmmakers at the recent Australian International Documentary Conference with his passion for telling true stories in new and aesthetic ways using cinema language.
In a project dubbed ‘peopling the palaces,’ for example, he encapsulates life in the European Court in the 17th and 18th centuries by projecting scenes onto massive walls in a magnificent palace near Turin in Italy. The characters will be scaled to make visitors feel like they are in the room with them.
Recently inspired by his obsession with Rembrandt’s Night Watch painting, he created a feature, a doc, a museum installation, and re-presented the famous painting with a dramatic narrative by using lighting, other visual enhancements and a soundtrack. Greenaway says Rembrandt painted evidence of murder and rape into Night Watch, perpetrated by those who commissioned the picture.
Another very inspiring thing about Greenaway, now 65, is his sheer energy and ambition. He has just published the first of 100 books he says he will write over the next decade, and together they will be a compendium of world history. Many will be made into films.
‘It is a complete encyclopedia of everybody’s life,’ Greenaway told realscreen. ‘Book one is about conception, book two about birth, book three about naming children, book four about childhood disease, and at the other end, book 97 is about death, book 98 about funerals, book 99 about decay, and book 100 about ghosts. They are the most relevant things in every single year of your life: a true history of the world has to be a history of all its people, living and dead.’
It is regularly reported that the multimedia artist has said that cinema is just illustrated text, or is dead, or has outlived its purpose, or is beset by artificial constraints such as its 90-minute format and the shape of its frame. He repeated this in February at the AIDC in Fremantle, but his key message was very positive: imagery is elbowing out text as the key communication mechanism and online technologies are democratizing distribution. The result? If image makers can create new visual forms that are autonomous and have their own vocabulary, they will become the new gatekeepers.
‘We shouldn’t be crying tears… what happens next could be 10,000 times more exciting than what has happened before,’ he told delegates. If Rembrandt was alive now, adds Greenaway, he would be a photographer.
Sandy George is a Sydney-based journalist who specializes in writing about film, television and new media.