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Peter Greenaway to visit SIFF, screen new film on May 19

May 19, 2013


May 19--The Seattle International Film Festival pays tribute this year to director Peter Greenaway ("The Cook, the Thief, His Wife and Her Lover"), and it couldn't have caught him at a better moment.

His latest film, "Goltzius and the Pelican Company" -- to be screened after Greenaway gives a talk on Sunday -- is a sumptuously barbed screen concoction about a 16th-century Dutch engraver, Hendrick Goltzius (played by Dutch poet laureate Ramsey Nasr), who hopes to finance a new publishing company by selling erotic illustrations of Old Testament episodes to a supposedly freethinking nobleman, the Margrave of Alsace (F. Murray Abraham).

Live theatrical enactments of the tales are offered as "previews" of the planned engravings. But the sexually explicit performances soon run lethally amok as controversies over heresy and casting decisions get out of hand.

Talking from his home in Amsterdam earlier this week, Greenaway, 71, explained how he's been able to make such idiosyncratic films for almost five decades. He also touched on why, even though his movies are jampacked with hyper-literate text, he sees scripts as a pernicious constraint on cinema.

Greenaway grew up in South Wales and was educated in London, where he lived for about 30 years. His lucky turn as an experimental filmmaker came when he met Dutch producer Kees Kasander at the Rotterdam Film Festival in the early 1980s.

"He offered a most extraordinary potential contract," Greenaway recalls, "provided I had no Hollywood ambition but would remain a European filmmaker. He basically said that he would support the rest of my career."

They've worked together ever since.

An obsession with bargaining -- sexual bargaining, fiscal bargaining, wranglings over the right to life itself -- has been present in all of Greenaway's films, and it's central to "Goltzius."

"I'm interested in, I suppose, the notion of the contract: the social contract, the contract between nature and man, and the contract between God and man," Greenaway explains.

Although his scripts are heady, playful affairs, he's serious in his antipathy toward text.

"What is cinema, really?" he asks. "It's a medium of artificial light. But essentially, you have never seen a film that was not created by text. ... Most of it is organized by dialogue and takes its attributes, its characteristics, very largely from the theater."

Even if Greenaway hasn't dropped language from his movies ("If you want text, I'll give you text," he quips), he has exploited film's "imagistic" potential to the hilt. "Goltzius" sometimes slips into art-lecture mode, and Greenaway's fusions of live footage with ever-morphing graphic design and digital layerings are thrilling throughout. Indeed, each new Greenaway film seems an excuse to have fun with new technology.

"Well, you know, almost every afternoon there's a new gizmo, a new trick, isn't there?" he says. "I think it's important for filmmakers, certainly, to be aware of all these possibilities."

"Goltzius" has no U.S. distributor, perhaps because of its sexual explicitness.

"But even without the sex," he laughs, "it's very difficult for me to get a U.S. distributor."

He keeps going by keeping his budgets low: "An average Greenaway film costs about five million U.S. dollars, which I know is chicken feed for an American movie. But it does mean it gives me absolute enormous freedom. ... I don't think there's any particular virtue in making expensive movies, because they end up as committee-made phenomena, and the obligations of the marketplace cramp and crop and curtail the sheer excitements of the cinematic imagination."

Michael Upchurch:


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