Peter Greenaway's "Prospero's Books"
December 4, 2011 8:47 PM   Subscribe

Peter Greenaway's "Prospero's Books" (NSFW) is not a movie in the sense that we usually employ the word. It's an experiment in form and content. ... The books, their typography, calligraphy and illustrations, are photographed in voluptuous detail. ... "Prospero's Books" really exists outside criticism. ... It is simply a work of original art, which Greenaway asks us to accept or reject on his own terms. - Roger Ebert
posted by Trurl (32 comments total) 23 users marked this as a favorite

 
I love this movie.

I got all excited there for a moment and thought there were high-quality photos of the books online for me to view.

Sadly, I don't see that.

Still, wonderful movie. I should watch it again one of these days. I see it's out on DVD. I should order that.
posted by hippybear at 8:54 PM on December 4, 2011 [1 favorite]


Greenaway was for many years my favorite director.

I most enjoyed Drowning by Numbers (YT) (1988). The opening is especially good, which is what I linked to on YouTube. I was less enamored of Prospero's Books (1991). The Cook the Thief His Wife & Her Lover (YT) (1989) was also very good; as was The Belly of an Architect (YT) (1987). I actually have A Zed and Two Naughts (YT) (1986) and The Draughtsman's Contract (YT) (1982) on DVD and yet haven't watched them, I'm sorry to confess. 1996's The Pillow Book (YT) was pretty good, though somewhat underwhelming coming from him.

In my opinion, he had a very good run from 1986 to 1991.

Greenaway was the director who really challenged my understanding of cinema. Yes, I'm deeply aware of how middlebrow this makes me and how it reveals me to be far from a true cinéaste as there are numerous, more impressive precedents for this. But Greenaway, for better or worse, was who I first encountered that really forced me to think of cinema as something that can be beyond the conventional Hollywood narrative. I mean, really, for a lot of people Lynch has served the same function as Greenaway served for me and Lynch is downright conservative compared to Greenaway.

And so I think that it's really a shame that there are so few (relatively) higher profile directors going outside of conventional narrative. Temporal discontinuity is considered brave and challenging now.

I realize that I'm arguing 180 degrees against André Bazin's view that the inherent strength of film was fidelity to reality. I respect Bazin, but I think his view represents a kind of naivete about what was, really, still a very young art form. It's a common view that photography is a faithful representation of objective reality—but that's far, far less true than people think. Photography, both still and motion, is artificial and authored very nearly as much as any other art form, but in many respects much more subtly. That it's subtly an artifice represents an opportunity that photographers and filmmakers can, and should, usefully exploit.

And, in fact, a great many filmmaking conventions do just this. When these techniques were novel to audiences, they reacted with confusion and even occasionally anger and frustration. Now, we parse these techniques as the grammar of motion pictures effortlessly. And these techniques are very far from Bazin's faithful representation of reality.

So it seems to me that there's a great deal of potential territory that could be productively explored by being willing to go beyond established convention. Audiences can learn to parse new narrative techniques, new imagery, they can assimilate it if they're given the opportunity. And the unreality of photography inherently allows this. It practically begs for it. The very first filmmakers understood this because they weren't limited by convention...there was no convention. In a way, it's been to everyone's loss that we settled into what is really a fairly tame and unimaginative filmmaking aesthetic.
posted by Ivan Fyodorovich at 9:36 PM on December 4, 2011 [2 favorites]


When browsing your television listings, don't ever confuse Drowning By Numbers with Murder By Numbers. You'll be sorely disappointed. This is the voice of experience talking.
posted by hippybear at 9:44 PM on December 4, 2011 [1 favorite]


Also, Brian Dennehy has said that The Belly of an Architect is what he's most proud of from his entire career.

Looking again at some of the YouTube clips and trailers I linked to, I am struck by how fantastically beautifully filmed and framed are these films. Sacha Vierny was Greenaway's cinematographer on all of these films excepting The Draughtsman's Contract. I know nothing about their partnership other than what I've seen on the screen, but my impression is that they shared a unity of vision because they created some remarkably beautiful films.
posted by Ivan Fyodorovich at 9:48 PM on December 4, 2011 [1 favorite]


Via the earlier "UbuWeb Top Ten" post:
Four American Composers: Meredith Monk
posted by twoleftfeet at 9:50 PM on December 4, 2011


My favorite Greenaway film of all time is A Walk Through H. The Reincarnation of an Ornithologist.

I've had numerous drunken stoned conversations where I've taken the position that this is the Best Film Ever Made. You have to watch it. It helps if you're drunk or stoned.

Or perhaps about pomegranates.
posted by twoleftfeet at 10:10 PM on December 4, 2011 [1 favorite]


I got all excited there for a moment and thought there were high-quality photos of the books online for me to view.

This seems like the next best thing.

1. A Book of Water

This is a waterproof-covered book which has lost its colour by much contact with water. It is full of investigative drawings and exploratory text written on many different thicknesses of paper. There are drawings of every conceivable watery association - seas, tempests, rain, snow, clouds, lakes, waterfalls, streams, canals, water-mills, shipwrecks, floods and tears. As the pages are turned, the watery elements are often animated. There are rippling waves and slanting storms. Rivers and cataracts flow and bubble. Plans of hydraulic machinery and maps of weather-forecasting flicker with arrows, symbols and agitated diagrams. The drawings are all made by one hand. Perhaps this is a lost collection of drawings by da Vinci bound into a book by the King of France at Ambois and bought by the Milanese Dukes to give to Prospero as a wedding present.

posted by ottereroticist at 10:28 PM on December 4, 2011


When browsing your television listings, don't ever confuse Drowning By Numbers with Murder By Numbers. You'll be sorely disappointed. This is the voice of experience talking.

I was going to come out with all guns blazing in defense of Murder by Death, but then I realized, er, Murder By Numbers. So, uh, yeah.

My favorite Greenaway film of all time is A Walk Through H. The Reincarnation of an Ornithologist.

Have you seen The Falls?
posted by juv3nal at 11:32 PM on December 4, 2011


Heh. Murder by Death really was pretty good, actually.
posted by Ivan Fyodorovich at 11:36 PM on December 4, 2011


Have you seen The Falls?

I saw The Falls in a university theater. Being a big Greenaway fan, I asked my friend, who was visiting, and my girlfriend, to go with me.

That film is over 3 hours long.

During the first twenty minutes or so, the crowd - university students and such - were into the film, laughing at the funny bits. After an hour and half, much of the crowd was restless. Two hours in, people started getting up and leaving. At the third hour, my friend and my girlfriend were complaining, but I made them stay.

When the film was over they were angry at me for making them watch the whole film.

It's actually a pretty good film if you can make it to the end.
posted by twoleftfeet at 12:54 AM on December 5, 2011


What I love about The Falls is that people getting up and leaving is at least partly Greenaway's intention with the film. The film's encyclopedic which is to say that only rarely does someone sit down with a volume of the encyclopedia and read it cover to cover.

It's maybe unfortunate that people get upset with the film and don't return to it though.
posted by juv3nal at 1:05 AM on December 5, 2011


The first time I saw The Falls was in the ICA video screening rooms - you could see all sorts of things if you were organised enough to book ahead, though in those days I wasn't organised enough to get out of bed most days. But I did see The Falls. The technician was even kind enough to pause it for me while I had a toilet break half way through.

The Sight & Sound review of the time said that it was the opposite of everything else happening in British publicly-funded cinema at the time (which tended towards the small-scale, the personal and the highly-political). It is still quite remarkable.

I think the best way to show it might be on a loop in a gallery - Tate Modern, are you listening? - which prefigures a lot of the work Greenaway's been doing recently - if you get a chance to see one of his installations, I'll be very jealous; if you get a chance to see him live, giving a talk, take it - lively, iconoclastic to the point of wilful vandalism. You may be lucky enough to feel personally insulted by it.

If I'd been organised enough to actually make pieces of work during the mid to late eighties (though that would have involved getting out of bed! Regularly!) they would probably have been the annoying love-child of The Falls and Laurie Anderson's United States.

People really should be more aware of Greenaway's early funny films, though, yes.
posted by Grangousier at 1:13 AM on December 5, 2011


if you get a chance to see him live, giving a talk, take it

YouTube is live, right? Greenaway's lecture on Nine Classic Paintings Revisited.
posted by twoleftfeet at 1:26 AM on December 5, 2011 [5 favorites]


I'm deeply aware of how middlebrow this makes me and how it reveals me to be far from a true cinéaste

A cinéaste is a filmmaker. I think cinéphile is the word you are after there.
posted by Wolof at 2:37 AM on December 5, 2011


That's a great review.
posted by grubby at 2:54 AM on December 5, 2011


While I'm here making uncharitable assumptions, I might add that the critique of Bazin upthread, if it refers to his essay "Ontology of the Photographic Image", is so reductive of B's position as to be almost unrecognisable. Bazin's argument is that deep focus and long takes allow the viewer to choose the elements in shot they wish to focus on without being coerced into looking this way or that by editing. It's a question of the agency of the spectator. His argument was explicitly directed at documentary, and his target was Flaherty, whose concept of truth was somewhat elastic, however spectacular.

The man was a great deal more subtle and intelligent than the caricature you seem to have imbibed.
posted by Wolof at 2:55 AM on December 5, 2011 [1 favorite]


Greenaway should do GIFs. His films are perhaps particularly suited to them as they're rather like moving paintings (Prospero's Books was, in any case).
posted by stinkycheese at 3:27 AM on December 5, 2011 [2 favorites]


I needed a quick refresher on The Tempest for a college class, so I rented Prospero's Books.

That didn't work very well.
posted by Faint of Butt at 3:49 AM on December 5, 2011 [3 favorites]


We actually watched Prospero's Books in a literature class during a segment about The Tempest. It didn't go over well. Lots LOLs over the nudity and weirdness.

This is where I complain that so few Greenaway movies are available on decent (or any) DVD releases
posted by octothorpe at 4:47 AM on December 5, 2011


I was in college when Prospero's Books came out, and I drug a few friends to see it, based solely on having seen and liked The Cook The Thief His Wife & Her Lover, and the fact that it was "The Tempest" with Sir John Gielgud. Afterward my friends were like "what the hell was that?" We generally agreed that it was gorgeously filmed, but the "story" was totally lost in the process.

I absolutely love the music, though sadly it seems composer Michael Nyman was upset with how the music got used in the film and it was the last time Nyman and Greenaway worked together.
posted by dnash at 5:48 AM on December 5, 2011


When browsing your television listings, don't ever confuse Drowning By Numbers with Murder By Numbers. You'll be sorely disappointed. This is the voice of experience talking.
You can always take solace in the fact you're not making the opposite mistake.

"Oh Ms Bullock! What have you done?"
posted by fullerine at 6:42 AM on December 5, 2011


Just saw Drowning By Numbers- my very first Greenaway- thanks to Mr. Foxy, who was PG's student at that eccentric institution known as the European Graduate School (fellow faculty include DJ Spooky). What a marvelous, gorgeous, utterly creepy film. Can't wait to see Prospero's Books.
posted by foxy_hedgehog at 6:56 AM on December 5, 2011


Greenaway fans in need of a fix might consider watching this year's The Mill and the Cross - - perhaps the closest to a spiritual successor to Greenaway's œuvre that has come along in quite some time.
posted by fairmettle at 7:07 AM on December 5, 2011


Prospero's Books was one of the first major theater releases that used a lot of digital HD without being a special effects film. All that picture-in-picture stuff Greenaway was doing was quite innovative for its time. It was fascinating to watch his painterly eye take on this very non-painting medium and make it work. I can't find a Blu-Ray release of the film, that's a shame.

I remember reading The Tempest twice in preparation for watching the film. I'm glad I did, because it really helped make sense of the movie. His treatment of Caliban is fascinating.
posted by Nelson at 7:19 AM on December 5, 2011 [2 favorites]


As someone who loves Shakespeare and John Geilgud both, I saw this twice. The first time, it had just opened, and the crowd was young and hip, so there weren't a lot of comments on the nudity.

The second time (just to soak up the beautiful language and images) I went alone, and noticed that I was the only female in a theater where nearly everyone else was male and alone. When the film ended, I noticed many puzzled and disappointed faces. I guess they expected the nudity to be naughtier than it was.
posted by kinnakeet at 10:14 AM on December 5, 2011


"A cinéaste is a filmmaker. I think cinéphile is the word you are after there."

The English appropriation of the word has both meanings. And, "film enthusiast" is a literal parsing of the word from its etymology.

"Bazin's argument is that deep focus and long takes allow the viewer to choose the elements in shot they wish to focus on without being coerced into looking this way or that by editing. It's a question of the agency of the spectator. His argument was explicitly directed at documentary, and his target was Flaherty, whose concept of truth was somewhat elastic, however spectacular."

That's a very idiosyncratic reading of that essay. When an essay is titled "The Ontology of Photography", it's unlikely that it's merely a critique of a particular technique used by a particular photographer in a particular context.

Here's two excerpts from that essay (available here for those who wish to read it or refresh their memory of it):
Originality in photography as distinct from originality in painting lies in the essentially objective character of photography. For the first time, between the originating object and its reproduction there intervenes only the instrumentality of a nonliving agent. For the first time an image of the world is formed automatically, without the creative intervention of man. The personality of the photographer enters into the proceedings only in his selection of the object to be photographed and by way of the purpose he has in mind. Although the final result may reflect something of his personality, this does not play the same role as is played by that of the painter. All the arts are based on the presence of man, only photography derives an advantage from his absence. Photography affects us like a phenomenon in nature, like a flower or a snowflake whose vegetable or earthly origins are an inseparable part of their beauty.

[...]

Besides, painting is, after all, an inferior way of making likenesses, an ersatz of the processes of reproduction. Only a photographic lens can give us the kind of image of the object that is capable of satisfying the deep need man has to substitute for it something more than a mere approximation, a kind of decal or transfer. The photographic image is the object itself, the object freed from the conditions of time and space that govern it. No matter how fuzzy, distorted, or discolored, no matter how lacking, in documentary value the image may be, it shares, by virtue of the very process of its becoming, the being of the model of which it is the reproduction; it is the model.
Bazin's realist view of cinema is presented repeatedly and deepened in his essays and, apparently, this is the conventional understanding of his aesthetics. That his realism applies to narrative cinema is obvious in The Evolution of the Language of Cinema, where he talks at length about montage and the silent era.

In addition to The Ontology of Photography, I also found "The Evolution of the Language of Cinema" and "The Myth of Total Cinema" available online and similarly copied them to my Google Docs account. They will remain public for only a short while.

You might be interested in Daniel Morgan's paper which attempts to refute the conventional view of Bazin's aesthetics as strictly realist.

"The man was a great deal more subtle and intelligent than the caricature you seem to have imbibed."

My presentation here might be a caricature, but that would be my own creation, not one that I "imbibed". My knowledge of Bazin is wholly and exclusively the result of reading Hugh's translation of What is Cinema?, not any other source whatsoever. No film course, no criticism of Bazin, no discussion with anyone else, absolutely nothing else besides his (translated) words themselves. So, I may well have misunderstood him—though I don't believe you've established that and I think Bazin's essays provide a preponderance of evidence supporting my position—but it's not because I "imbibed" some dogmatic caricatured presentation of his views from some other source, as you imply.

I'm very touchy about this because of my background. I read and study primary sources. I have almost no use for critical analysis of someone else's works as the primary means of comprehending those works. I am interested in reading critical analysis after-the-fact, however.
posted by Ivan Fyodorovich at 10:24 AM on December 5, 2011 [1 favorite]


I saw The Falls in a university theater...

I saw The Falls in an open screening at a university theater in Canada (Innis Hall, UofT) and most of the audience was polite enough to stay to the end. It was the second part of a double bill with Vertical Features Remake, so most of audience kinda knew what they were in for.
posted by ovvl at 11:13 AM on December 5, 2011


Whenever my friends would complain that Prosperpo's Books was boring, I'd say: "But hey, it's got dogs wearing Flemish lace collars!"
posted by ovvl at 11:21 AM on December 5, 2011


Ivan and Wolof: you might have heard of Christian Metz. One of his essays titled On the Impression of Reality in the Cinema might interest you. Metz starts off with Barthes's thesis of how a still photograph juxtaposes the seemingly illogical dual of here and then (or, "a new category of space-time: place present but time past") and postulates why photography affects us in different ways than cinema. (Basically, his argument is "the combination of the reality of motion and the appearance of forms"). I don't agree with Metz here. It might be interesting to discuss it with you. Memail me if you can't find a copy.

I was telling a gallerist friend of mine the other day what strikes me as the two main distinguishing properties of photography: that that it (still) remains object-making, and will do so for a while, and that due to their ubiquity (and the proliferance of static visuals in general), photographs are a tad more approachable than, say, paintings, or sculpture.

Greenaway is one filmmaker who I find serendipitous and always-fresh (Hollis Frampton being another). In his Cinema Militans lecture in Amsterdam in 2003 titled Toward a Re-Invention of Cinema he calls the vast majority of cinema "illustrated text". Frampton raised some similar issues in his essay A Pentagram for Conjuring the Narrative.

Speaking of H.F., when I found Frampton's writings I was maddened and elated: here was someone who was speaking directly to me. In his movies I found many of my ideas expressed elegantly decades before I was born. Goddamit I thought. I hate him and I love him, for I am a narcissist and loathe myself. I cried.
posted by beshtya at 11:42 AM on December 5, 2011 [1 favorite]


I absolutely love the music, though sadly it seems composer Michael Nyman was upset with how the music got used in the film and it was the last time Nyman and Greenaway worked together.

Yeah, when The Pillow Book came out, Nyman's absence was really noticeable. The film just didn't feel right without his touch.
posted by homunculus at 2:44 PM on December 5, 2011


Although Wim Mertens' score for Belly of an Architect is wonderful.

(When I finally visited Rome, twenty years after seeing that film, I understood Greenaway's point about that ancient, beautiful, evil city.)
posted by Grangousier at 4:17 PM on December 5, 2011


The Crass, Beautiful Eternal City
posted by homunculus at 12:49 PM on December 6, 2011


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