Film-Philosophy

Journal | Salon | Portal (ISSN 1466-4615)

Vol. 8 No. 2, January 2003

 

 

Trevor G. Elkington

 

Between Order and Chaos:

On _Peter Greenaway's Postmodern/Poststructuralist Cinema_

 

 

_Peter Greenaway's Postmodern/Poststructuralist Cinema_

Edited by Paula Willoquet-Maricondi and Mary Alemany-Galway

Lanham, MD: The Scarecrow Press, 2001

ISBN 0-8108-3892-3

xxviii + 360 pp.

 

If, as Steven Shaviro suggests in _Doom Patrols_, 'postmodernism is not a theoretical option or a stylistic choice; it is the very air we breathe', then 'we are postmodern whether we like it or not, and whether we are aware of it or not'. [1] So how are we to define postmodernism, how can we even apply the concept? Certainly, postmodernism, as aesthetic, philosophy, cultural paradigm, or topic of choice, has seen many definitions offered; perhaps, for a cluster of theories that values multiplicity, it is only fitting that each of us will have our own, equally valid understanding of what postmodernism means. But the stakes are more acute when trying to apply postmodernism as an explicit concept, as the contributors must do in Paula Willoquet-Maricondi and Mary Alemany-Galway's anthology of essays, _Peter Greenaway's Postmodern/Poststructuralist Cinema_. To apply Postmodernism as an organizing principle is a challenge of which the editors and authors are keenly aware; as the editors state in the Preface, the very idea of a work that studies a single *auteur* through the lens of postmodernism or poststructuralism is itself a self-contradiction, given their paradigmatic association with 'the dissolution of the figure of the author'. This collection then is not 'an *auteur* study per se', but instead 'an attempt to understand and explicate Greenaway's work in relation to the epistemology of his time, that is, the age of postmodernism' (vii). And although the editors claim not to be 'arguing that Greenaway is a poststructuralist theorist, or even that he has read or is interested in discussing poststructuralist theory' (ix), what emerges from the collection is a sense of an artist who is precisely that, a postmodern and poststructural theorist sans pareil, a philosopher in the truest sense of the word.

 

Following a comprehensive Introduction by the editors, the essays and interviews in this collections are arranged as chapters and divided into three parts. The first, 'Postmodern Mega-Cinema', consists of four essays that place Greenaway's films within a British context, within the context of his other works, and within the context of global film practice. There is a tendency in the essays presented here to focus upon Greenaway's early, experimental short films and pseudo-documentaries, his initial attempts at feature length film such as _The Falls_ (1980), and his works in other media. Given the relatively scant attention paid to this body of work by scholars and critics, it is a most welcome contribution. The second section, 'Postmodern Features', makes up the majority of the collection, and traces the various poststructuralist and postmodern aspects of his work; I will return to this section later. The third section, 'Too Many Proofs Spoil the Truth', consists of the text of a lecture, titled 'Body and Text: _Eight and a Half Women_: A Laconic Black Comedy', delivered by Greenaway as part of a series organized by British Design and Art Direction, and two insightful interviews conducted by Willoquet-Maricondi. The organization of the volume highlights a cohesive elaboration of one overall topic, each chapter taking a particular approach, all leading toward a conclusion clearly in sight from the Introduction; if you prefer, one might look at the essays as variations upon a central theme or motif, each taking up and compounding ideas and themes found throughout. To simplify, one notices how the essays and interviews reveal a host of binary opposites functioning within Greenaway's art across various media (film, opera and theatre, installation art/exhibition, essay), and in doing so, reveal how he continually positions his work at the juncture between these various binary couplings:

 

Modernism -- Postmodernism

Structuralism -- Poststructuralism

Text -- Image

Word -- Body

Architecture -- Body

Mind -- Body

Place -- Space

Surface -- Depth

Literature -- Film

Theater -- Film

Authenticity -- Artifice

Reason -- Intuition

Introjection -- Incorporation

Reality -- Illusion

Catholicism -- Reformation

Substance -- Performance

Aescetism -- Excess

West -- East

Order -- Chaos

 

The list could go on and on, a taxonomy Greenaway's work and the very concepts which he has grappled with from his earliest experimental short films, made with private funds or the support of the British Film Institute. But to delineate this rigid approach to Greenaway's works or essays misses the point entirely, for as the filmmaker notes in one of the interviews: 'I would just argue that all our systems are very much constructs, even systems that are held very dear -- like religious beliefs -- and that they are only useful in small pockets, either for individuals and communities, historically and geographically, they fit time and place, they are conveniences' (302). In other words, it would be to apply a structuralist approach to poststructuralist works. Instead, the collection reveals how Greenaway, regardless of medium, creates taxonomies in themselves extravagant and fascinating, like Borges's famous 'certain Chinese encyclopedia', but taxonomies that simultaneously reveal their own inadequacy to represent the profound abundance of the world and our lives. Greenaway creates systems that delineate experience, but at the same time reveal their own constructed, possibly arbitrary, reasoning; systems that are doomed to self-de(con)struct just at the moment they become useful, just as with the list provided above.

 

To understand his works, one must look at the transition between concepts, remain in the flux, and delight in the play between stasis and fluidity. Unlike a Modernist, who might look upon the collapse of reason's grand edifices with nostalgia, Greenaway invites us to seize upon this moment of liberation: 'We are on our own, which I think is FANTASTICALLY liberating, and which would also prove that all the other checks, all the other codes, all the other organizations of our lives are human constructs, which we have attempted to invent in order to attack the notion of purposelessness' (305). In these moments, he invites comparison to Jean-Francois Lyotard, one theorist not shy of offering definitions, as he writes in 'Answering the Question: What is Postmodernism?': 'Finally it must be clear that it is our business not to supply reality but to invent allusions to the conceivable which cannot be represented . . . The answer is: Let us wage a war on totality; let us be witnesses to the unpresentable; let us activate the differences and save the honor of the name'. [2] For Lyotard, the path to navigating the unpresentable, or what he calls the 'the postmodern sublime', is found in mini-narratives, small strategies employed as needed in the context of the moment and abandoned once they are no longer useful, always aware of their constructed nature. As his works expose their construction and embrace the unpresentable that lies beyond, Greenaway begins to sound very much like a poststructuralist (or postmodern) theorist waging war on totality and rigidity.

 

The pleasure and danger of a work so wide-ranging as this collection is that it allows one to focus upon the topics most personally engaging, which is another way of saying I found myself looking for the ways in which the essays spoke directly to my own research interests. In my case, that interest lies in the connection between phenomenology and film theory, and in this particular instance, the ways in which Greenaway's films echo Maurice Merleau-Ponty's notions of embodied perception, gestalt, sensation, and the chiasm between flesh and the world. Consequently, I found myself particularly drawn to essays by Michael Ostwald and Paula Willoquet-Maricondi, which deal with the tension between body and space in Greenaway's works. However, as I hope to reveal, the points made within these works inevitably point to a larger conclusion offered by the collection as a whole. Whether one focuses upon body and space, word and image, modernism and postmodernism, structuralism and poststructuralism, theater and film, or any of the other binaries mentioned above, one sees again and again how Greenaway positions himself in the flux, showing how these kinds of structural components are constructs of human meaning.

 

In his work _Arts de faire_ (_The Practice of Everyday Life_), Michel de Certeau argues for a reconsideration of place and space. For him, place is where 'the elements taken into consideration are *beside* one another, each situated in its own 'proper' and distinct location . . . It implies an indication of stability.' Contrast this then to space, where 'one takes into consideration vectors of direction, velocities, and time variables. This space is composed of intersections of mobile elements.' Simply put, 'space is a practiced place'. [3] And as de Certeau argues throughout his work, the agent of practice is the embodied self. He suggests that a physical place, say the Place de la Concorde, only becomes a space upon the consideration of human elements such as time, speed, direction; that is, at the moment its rigid imaginary boundaries are violated by self-determined agents. In doing so, he draws upon Merleau-Ponty's distinction between 'geometrical' space and 'anthropological' space, here meaning the difference between a Cartesian, objective space that can exist only as a ideal mental abstraction and a space that is invested with incarnate consciousness existing in the world, a space where people exist. This distinction reflects Merleau-Ponty's central concern in _The Phenomenology of Perception_: that Descartes's split between the body and the mind cannot account for the way in which we actually live, the way in which our mind is woven into our body, which are in turn woven into the world. Merleau-Ponty reworks Descartes, arriving at his incarnate Cogito, in which mind, body, and world cannot be separated. As Ostwald and Willoquet-Maricondi suggest in differing fashion, Greenaway's works suggest a heightened awareness of the role of incarnate consciousness in realizing spatiality.

 

Michael Ostwald's 'Rising from the Ruins: Interpreting the Missing Formal Device within _The Belly of an Architect_' discusses an organizing structure originally conceived but not realized in Greenaway's 1987 film: a series of eight time-lapse images. In _The Belly of an Architect_, Stourley Kracklite, an architect of limited success, attempts to mount an exhibition of another architect of limited success, the Modernist forerunner Etienne-Louis Boullee. Fittingly, architecture, either in blueprint or through its realization wood and stone, becomes a visual motif in the film. Kracklite's younger wife begins an affair, Kracklite's exhibit is taken from him, and he begins to suspect a cancer growing in his stomach. As his fortunes fail, the interactions between body and building take on a central position: people applaud buildings, build models of them, walk through them, plummet from their windows, and interact with them in innumerable other ways. But unlike most other Greenaway films, _The Belly of an Architect_ lacks a central organizing conceit; it is this conceit Ostwald attempts to reconstruct. Greenaway's original script and notes recorded his intent that: 'Eight of Rome's celebrated architectural sites chronologically structure _The Belly of an Architect_'. [4] These eight sites not only connect the scenes within the narrative but they also 'connect Boullee to Kracklite, for the first seven of them were Boullee's major inspiration' -- the eight sites 'represent an architectural heritage of two and a half thousand years to put Kracklite's nine-month predicament into perspective', and emphasize,

 

'the ephemerality of one foreign individual striving for significance in an eternal city that has absorbed so many foreigners . . . While in the finished film it is still eminently clear that major relationships are between architecture and body, the nature of these relationships is less obvious [without the organizing structure]' (144).

 

Ostwald argues that with these images, 'Greenaway was not merely supporting the return of the body to its historic position as the hegemonic form generator in architecture. Reinstating the missing formal device makes it apparent that Greenaway was commenting not only on architecture but also on the way in which the postmodern city must be read in both space and time' (138). Underscoring the echoes of de Certeau, he later writes, 'the postmodern city, a city not of places and spaces but of vectors, speeds, and times, is the city that Kracklite confronts head-on' (139). As the film highlights the human body's ability to awaken the static potentials of architecture by moving in and through them, so does the film illustrate the transition from the modernism of Boullee and Kracklite to the constantly volatile postmodern city, a place in which neither architect has a natural place, witnessed by Kracklite's suicide at the end of the film. But rather than valorizing one vision -- be it static architecture, arid modernism, the active body, or the fluid postmodern -- Greenaway instead asks us to revel in the flux between these poles, showing the ways in which the film itself is nothing but a system reflective of its own construction.

 

Likewise, Paula Willoquet-Maricondi's '_Prospero's Books_, Postmodernism, and the Reenchantment of the World' explores body and language as transitional media. As she suggests, _Prospero's Books_ is 'a postmodernist 'visual essay' that critically investigates a set of practices that became fundamental to the establishment of modernity in the seventeen century: these are, the hegemonic role of vision, the rise of transcendental reason, and the concomitant Cartesian subject's colonization and mastery of the world' (178). Greenaway's film adapts _The Tempest_ for the screen, but in doing so, completely owns the resulting original text in a way that 'practices' Shakespeare: Greenaway engages the static play as a system through which he traces human vectors. One of the master-puzzlemaker's most complex works, _Prospero's Books_ presents the aging scholar-sorcerer in the act of writing _The Tempest_; in writing, Prospero *thinks* the events of the play into existence, literally writing his way out of exile. Willoquet-Maricondi shows her indebtedness to phenomenology, citing Merleau-Ponty in demonstrating how, as Prospero strives toward this pure expression of will, he

 

'negates the visible -- the organic, dynamic, and unpredictable reality of the island and its inhabitants -- only to construct the visible according to a 'model-in-thought'. As Merleau-Ponty reminds us, and _Prospero's Books_ illustrates, this attempt ultimately fails' (183).

 

The essay argues that Prospero's ability to abstract and control through language, to impose order upon the world through the word, insures the very resistance to such an act. Caliban, the body to Prospero's mind, survives to the end. As Prospero destroys his books and thus dismantles the island that he has built with them, Caliban emerges from the sea to retrieve two of the books, the collected plays of Shakespeare and the text of _The Tempest_, which Prospero has just completed. Throughout the film we have seen the ways in which incarnated cogitos enact the texts of the books themselves, and indeed Prospero writes _The Tempest_ into existence only so that he can physically enter that world to exact revenge and emerge from exile. He enters, physically, the realm that his mind has created, in a way echoing Berkeley and paralleling Merleau-Ponty's idea that body and mind are not truly separate. The essay concludes that 'Greenaway further weakens the totalizing potential of ocular-vision-become-worldview [of Descartes, et al.] by drawing attention to the primordial role of the body in experiencing and tacitly knowing the world' (199). Or as Greenaway states of the body in one of the concluding interviews: 'It's the center of our existence. Without it, we can make no perspectives' (307). Furthermore, in his 'Body and Text' essay, he argues: 'I believe the body must be up there earnestly and vigorously rooting for its supremacy, text or not text' (292).

 

These essays point to two of the ways in which Greenaway's works fluidly move between binary poles, the ways in which his works simultaneously construct and deconstruct artificial organizing structures as a way of pointing out how meaning itself is constructed. Similar gestures are made throughout the volume. Mary Alemany-Galway's essay, 'Postmodernism and the French New Novel: The Influence of _Last Year at Marienbad_ on _The Draughtsman's Contract_', discusses the connection between Greenaway's breakthrough film from 1982 and Alain Resnais's film from 1961. Alemany-Galway argues for considering _Marienbad_ to be a transitional point between modernist art cinema and postmodern/poststructuralist cinema; likewise, she links this film to the various formal games played by the French New Novelists, which she in turn sees as a transitional moment between modernism and postmodernism. By arguing that Greenaway's film 'brings the narrative strategies of the New Novel to the screen but keeps a certain fullness of the real that engages the audience's emotions' (116), the author effectively argues that Greenaway once again straddles a binary opposition, in this case between finite representation and infinite reality, or between the illusion of narrative control and the chaos of existence.

 

_The Draughtsman's Contract_, set in 1694, displays the rigid structuralist elements found in novels like Queneau's _Exercises in Style_ or Perec's _A Void_, [5] while at the same time pointing out, as these novels do, that the meaning we make in the world are primarily reflections of our own minds. The protagonist of the film, Mr Neville, is contracted by the wife of Mr Herbert, a nobleman, to draw a series of images from her husband's estate. In exchange for his services, the noblewoman offers her sexual favors. The draughtsman concocts a series of draconian rules governing the behavior of the people of the estate, an attempt to limit and control the conditions under which he sets pencil to paper. His rules, and the drawing he hopes to create, thus become an attempt to create the perfect, objective representation of the various aspects of the estate. However, as Mr Neville soon discovers, people cannot be controlled; they happily violate his rules and leave evidence of their passing in each of his drawings. Moreover, the draughtsman is soon caught up in the affairs and personal politics of the estate, realizing only too late that his drawings are in fact evidence of the nobleman's murder and an implication of his complicity. Moreover, just as the draughtsman attempts and fails to construct objective representations through artificial imposition of order, and likewise fails to remain aloof of the estate's political machinations, the film reveals its own artificial constructions, failing to reveal the answer to the central mystery of Mr Herbert's death.

 

As Alemany-Galway points out, nowhere are the limitations of objectivity more apparent in both films than in their mise-en-abyme elements. In _Last Year at Marienbad_ the main characters stop to discuss a statue of a couple with a dog, and all the possible meanings that can be derived from it, concluding that no answer carries more value than any other. This moment of reflexivity suggests that any meaning that can be derived from the film must be multiplicitous and non-hierarchical. Likewise, in _The Draughtsman's Contract_, Mr Neville's viewfinder, a drafting tool that imposes rigid lines upon the scene to be recorded in order to aid perfect perspective, is constantly blocked, disrupted, and otherwise foiled. As the author notes, the viewfinder, 'with its emphasis on measuring and squaring off the view, is an apt metaphor for the ways in which the bourgeoisie sees nature as an object that can be measured, quantified, and owned' (123). But the film itself draws attention to this limitation; the viewfinder also becomes a metaphor for the film's inability or unwillingness to solve its own mysteries -- in this case, who is responsible for the death of Mr Herbert, the owner of the estate? Or as the author puts it, 'all filmic reality is a visual construct' (125), and any sense made therein in is an artifact of human intervention. Drawing upon Derrida's notion of 'free play', the essay points out the resistance between formal control and chaos in the two films, concluding that,

 

'the only way out is to try to present all the options -- to present all that one sees and knows, and *that one does not see or know everything*. That is, to present the contradictions and the limits of seeing, knowledge, and representation. Nature will always be more than can be captured by representation' (135).

 

Greenaway's films present rigid systems of order and classification, only to disrupt them through the chaos of ruptured narrative, demonstrating once again how he places his work at the point of juncture, or rupture, between these two poles.

 

Likewise, Lia M. Hotchkiss discusses Greenaway's most controversial film in her essay 'Theater, Ritual, and Materiality in Peter Greenaway's _The Baby of Macon_', pointing out the film's many levels of intertextuality and reflexivity. She distinguishes between strategies of *introjection*, in which one work envelopes another, and strategies of *incorporation*, in which the works become enmeshed. _The Baby of Macon_ exhibits both behaviors, as a way of revealing greater and greater levels of artificiality and construction within the film itself. The film centers around a theater performance, set in Italy in 1659 for the court of the de Medicis, dramatising events which occurred in the French village of Macon 200 years earlier. The play, a lurid story of rape, revenge, murder, religious fervor, and heresy, is introjected into the story of the de Medici court, and on that level, the film becomes what Hotchkiss calls a 'Chinese box', one layer of narrative enveloping the next in ever decreasing circles. However, introjection quickly gives way to incorporation, as the members of the court, Cosimo de Medici III most notably, become drawn into the events of the performance, and the line between performance and reality blur. The actress portraying a character who is to be repeatedly raped off-set as punishment for her transgressions is *in fact* raped by her fellow performers, despite her cries that the audience cannot see them and they need not continue performing, and there is reason to suspect later in the film that several of the on-stage murders include the actual deaths of the actors. Given these, and other similarly graphic events, the film ran afoul of censors and has not received commercial distribution in many countries; it is difficult to obtain even in video formats, and, in this way alone, the essay is invaluable for the information it provides on this film. But more significantly, Hotchkiss illustrates how the film is a crucial piece in the larger puzzle of Greenaway's works. At the conclusion of the film, the audience in the de Medici court is revealed to be yet another performance for an even larger, previously unseen audience, who bow to yet another, and another, apparently ad infinitum, with the clear implication that the film's audience is yet another level of spectatorship and voyeurism. As demonstrated in the essays previously discussed, the film thus frustrates easy delineations between theater and film, performer and spectator, illusion and reality. Greenaway's postmodern use of intertextuality blends the two types outlined by Hotchkiss, moving freely between introjection and incorporation, and, on all levels, the film constructs and thwarts meaning. In this, as in all of Greenaway's work, a war is being waged upon totality. Part of the pleasure of his films comes from admiring the clockwork-like precision with which these formal devices are constructed. An equal part comes in the pleasure of watching them self-destruct.

 

Regardless of the level of interest in Greenaway and his work, scholars of poststructuralism or postmodernism will find scores of enticing ideas throughout this anthology. Knowledge of his films is useful but not necessary for understanding the larger issues. Given the detailed references to previous criticism, a bibliography of secondary literature on Greenaway would have been helpful, though not necessary, and this minor complaint is offset by the inclusion of a comprehensive list of Greenaway's works across his various media. The volume deftly illustrates how poststructuralism and postmodernism can be applied to one *auteur* without sinking into reduction or simplification, and expands not only our understanding Greenaway, but also how these theories behave when practiced.

 

University of Washington

Seattle, Washington, USA

 

 

Notes

 

1. Steven Shaviro, _Doom Patrols: A Theoretical Fiction about Postmodernism_. (New York: Serpent's Tail, 1997), p. i.

 

2. Jean-Francois Lyotard, 'Answering the Question: What is Postmodernism?', trans. Regis Durand, in _The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge_ (Minneapolis, Minnesota: University of Minnesota Press, 1988), pp. 81-82.

 

3. All quotations Michel de Certeau, _The Practice of Everyday Life_ (Berkeley, California: University of California Press, 1984), p. 118.

 

4. Peter Greenaway, _The Belly of an Architect_ (London: Faber and Faber, 1988), p. vii.

 

5. See Raymond Queneau, _Exercises in Style_, trans. Barbara Wright (New York: New Directions Publishing, 1981); and George Perec, _A Void_, trans. Gilbert Adair (New York: Harpers Collins, 1995).

 

 

Copyright © Film-Philosophy 2004.

 

 

Trevor G. Elkington, 'Between Order and Chaos: On _Peter Greenaway's Postmodern/Poststructuralist Cinema_', _Film-Philosophy_, vol. 8 no. 2, January 2004 <http://www.film-philosophy.com/vol8-2004/n2elkington>.

 

 

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