Greener Pastures

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New Possibilities: Cinema is Dead, Long Live Cinema." The title of British director Peter Greenaway's lecture this past Monday at Zellerbach Playhouse, the first of two Avenali lectures sponsored by the Townsend Center, is an ambitious one. It suggests that cinema, as it reaches its apogee with nowhere else to go, has a regenerative capacity, an untapped gene previously pronounced vestigial. Like any carbon-based life, film has to die first before it can be reborn a new species.

"I come from the same country as Monty Python," Greenaway announced early in the lecture, immediately setting the stage for what would be a provocative, insightful diatribe on the state of cinema. Though his self-proclaimed "adopted country" is Holland, where apparently the Dutch go to the movies "once every two years," Greenaway is mostly known for his British features, beginning with "The Falls" in 1980 and the many Trojan magnum opuses that followed. Before that, he directed avant-garde shorts in the 1960s and later, a series of experimental film projects that, just like his features, continue to reject the sinews of genre.

Greenaway declared cinema as we know it a mere "115-year prologue," so of course there must be a main body and epilogue. Greenaway's obsession with trilogies doesn't stop there: he referred to the Trinity of fresco painting as Giotto, Michelangelo and Carracci. His interest in painting, which stems from his background as a visual artist, is made manifest in films like "The Cook, The Thief, His Wife & Her Lover" (1989) where he married the mad world of Jacobin France with the oil-painted decadence and religious rhetoric of Dutch painter Pieter Aertsen's "Butcher's Stall with the Flight into Egypt" (1551). Throw in some sex acts that might be illegal in a few countries and you've got a Greenaway film.

Greenaway deemed Sergei Eisenstein the father of cinema, where Fellini was the Oedipal son and Godard was the brilliant, crude grandson who turned the medium on its head. For America, Greenaway outlined the same trajectory with D.W. Griffith, Orson Welles and John Cassavetes.

So if Godard and Cassavetes have dried up cinema's impetus - not before leaving a legacy or two on the nightstand, of course - what happens in the morning? Greenaway, half-playful, half-serious, posited that cinema finally flatlined in the 1980s when the "remote control was introduced," giving the audience "choice." "Cinema as an individually perceived phenomenon is erroneous," he said. Obviously he abhors domestic movie-watching - imagine someone in front of the TV "with a cat on their lap and a glass of cocoa in their hand" - which is strange considering his praise of YouTube and the sensory overload-inducing tickers of CNN.

Even further, Greenaway decried the filmgoing experience as counter-intuitive to human physiology, a denial of our 360-degree world when witnessed on a 180-degree, 16-by-9 screen. "What the fuck are you doing sitting in the dark? You're not nocturnal animals!" He also took to task the "tyranny of text," urging us to give cinema agency over literary forms, the "tyranny of the actor" ("Cinema was not created to be a playground for Sharon Stone") and finally, the "tyranny of the camera."

In an attempt to cut cinema free from the "straitjacket of its own genre," Greenaway screened excerpts of his unparsable short films. With classical soundtracks and archival footage, these were the kind of clips you'd send to extraterrestrials to provide a microcosmic picture of our world. It's an entirely intellectual spectacle that may shut the layperson out. Occasionally, as in the Arnold Schoenberg-scored "Warsaw," the films hearkened back to the polyoptic frenzy of Dziga Vertov's "Man with a Movie Camera" (1929), one of avant-garde cinema's founding works. Still, Greenaway's films, intended as present tense, non-narrative cinema on multiple screens rather than today's standard anamorphic view, don't quite translate on a PowerPoint presentation.

Greenaway offered weighty, theoretical recourse for cinema - now crawling under the covers of its deathbed but it seems as if these notions are still incubating. Where does cinema go from here? Hell if I know. It's like trying to imagine a color that doesn't exist. But maybe that's because we're living in an era that isn't finished or dried up. It's still very much happening and waiting to have its stakes claimed. Our era doesn't even have its own name: Postmodernism is, after all, just "after Modernism," and even Modernism doesn't seem so far gone from our own vantage point. If all we know about film has been a 115-year prologue, just imagine how long it will be until cinema climbs to yet another stratospheric summit. On Greenaway's terms, the Armageddon might come first.

Watch television with a cat in your lap with Ryan at [email protected]

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