Interview: Peter Greenaway

Very few people can pull off wearing a navy blue pinstripe suit paired with a dark lined open-neck shirt. Yet not everyone is Peter Greenaway. The veteran British director, an intriguing, eloquent and eminently likeable subject, has been based in Amsterdam for the last twenty years. In a conversation as eclectic as his latest film, Eisenstein in Guanajuato, he spoke with CineVue’s Matt Anderson about his admiration for the cinema of Sergei Eisenstein, intertextuality, film as propaganda, nudity and Donald Duck.

Matthew Anderson: What is your earliest recollection of watching an Eisenstein film? 
Peter Greenaway: I was 15 – we’re talking 1957. At the bottom end of Leytonstone there was a little grubby cinema called The State and it became our sort of Mecca. When you’re a 15 year old adolescent you’re very, very keen to see a naked woman and the chances are you’re not going to see it in English cinema, but you will see it in Swedish cinema and Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal certainly provided the naked woman. One evening they put on a Russian movie which I knew nothing about: Eisenstein’s Strike, a very serious film. English and American fodder never seemed to be an in-depth examination of history but here was a cause and effect movie. Hollywood would create Donald Duck being hit over the head with a brick but in the next frame he would be up and running again. In a Russian film when you’re dead, you’re dead. Strike is a film which didn’t romanticise or deodorise poverty, portraying brutality even towards women and children. I began by not quite understanding how these things were done, the knowledge came after. I gradually built up a huge curiosity and respect for his extraordinary vision of the cinema. We’ve only had cinema for 120 years, not very long when you compare it to 8000 years of painting. I was always slightly disenchanted that paintings didn’t have soundtracks so maybe that’s what I do.

MA: In previous films you have detailed the tribulations of artists of many guises (The Belly of an Architect, The Draughtsman’s Contract): was a biopic or homage to Eisenstein always in your mind? 

PG: I think there have been very few visionaries in 120 years – you can count them on the fingers of two hands. Eisenstein was certainly number one. He had an advantage, he had Stalin behind him. Lenin and Stalin, certainly, thought that in Russia – which had 90% illiteracy – making propaganda through pictures was ideal. What do we feel about cinema as propaganda? It’s always propaganda, isn’t it? An advertisement for a way of life: capitalism, happy endings, pie in the sky when you die. Great art can also be great propaganda and the adverse is also true. Success is wonderful, exciting, and somehow failure is curiously educating, also. Eisenstein went to America, stayed in Hollywood for eleven years and came out with absolutely zilch, nothing. My first idea was to make a documentary about why Que Viva Mexico had failed but I ended up with a feature film with a documentary edge.

MA: In terms of aesthetic choices and editing you’ve really thrown the kitchen sink at the film – how did you go about incorporating so many different elements and splicing them all together? 

PG: There is a huge amount of film and photography about Eisenstein, what he looked like, where he went. He was quite vain, I think. He brushed his wiry black hair every morning to look eccentric, I’m sure. Once you have these cues and clues, it becomes fascinating and interesting to write. There are ways and tricks of developing and performing. Eisenstein says my heads too big, my body’s too small, I don’t have an entertaining prick and my feet are clumsy – he gives you all kinds of clues. The Russians would have you believe that he was somewhat po-faced, stern, privatised and secretive but he wasn’t. His correspondence is alive! People loved him and were very entertained by him. So we wrote somebody who was part-clown, part-showoff. He doesn’t behave particularly well, he’s a bit petulant, somewhat naive, rather arrogant.

MA: In the film Eisenstein considers himself a “boxer for the freedom of cinematic expression”. Is that you speaking of yourself through his words?

PG: Yes, but part also – strangely enough – of Scorsese speaking. The whole film is full of quotations: when he jumps on the bed it’s Renoir in La Règle du jeu; when he’s drinking it’s multiple scenes from Jules et Jim by Truffaut; and naturally there are hundreds of quotations from Eisenstein himself. In Raging Bull he’s talking to his prick, he’s preparing for a boxing match and doesn’t want to get his sexual apparatus too over-excited… so it’s Eisenstein as a man talking to his prick.

MA: Full male nudity is one of the film’s boldest, bravest elements – why do you think the male form is so infrequently shown on the big screen compared with the female?

PG: I think it’s to do with paternalism: the female ‘demonised’. It’s been there for thousands and thousands of years and still exists though things are getting a little better. Our freedoms about homosexuality have loosened up. I’m always rather puzzled about our up-tightness concerning the human form. In American cinema when people take their clothes off it’s normally a prelude to sex but in fact when most of us take our clothes off that’s not the case at all. It’s difficult to shower with your underpants on but looking at American cinema you’d think that that is what Americans do. It really is rather absurd.

MA: So it’s part of a stuffy Anglo-Saxon prudishness…? 

PG: Yes, Sir Kenneth Clark wrote a very good book about the Naked and the Nude and how often it’s simply to do with climate. We’re very aware of the naked form in northern Europe because it’s fucking cold when you take your clothes off! But when you do so in Italy it’s an absolute delight so the Nude is the positive naked form and the Naked is the guilty. Catholics are a little freer about these sorts of things than Protestants.

MA: How did Elmer Back come to be cast in the lead role?

PG: The actor to play the part ideally had to be Russian but I couldn’t find anybody there. We know what Eisenstein looked like but he was also a mega-talker. You’re going to have to know a language extremely well to be able to handle Eisenstein. After a lot of struggle we finally found Elmer who gives an extraordinary performance. We’re going to make a trilogy now: Eisenstein stayed near Lausanne in Switzerland for what could be regarded by cinephiles as the very first film festival ever – that will be our next film. He argued with those present as to whether cinema is entertainment or is it an art form? And the jury will never come out because it has to be both.

MA: Did Elmer Back and Luis Alberti have any qualms in spending such a length of time baring all? 

PG: Luis is gay so that perhaps wasn’t such a great problem for him but Elmer Back is straight so there were sensitivities but they got on very well. With straight actors playing gay characters it can be challenging but I don’t think you feel that with Elmer. In the early stages I said I want to make a character here who is really mortal. Though he’s a genius and an amazing filmmaker, like all the rest of us he vomits over his own shoes and he’s a miserable drunk. And he shits and he makes love, he’s problematic. That adds to the amazement that he could produce such extraordinary films. To be extraordinary is difficult, it’s a bit like the religious myth isn’t it? You have to make Christ mortal in order to make him a God.

Matthew Anderson | @behind_theseens

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