Director Peter Greenaway on Rembrandt’s J’accuse and Our Visual Illiteracy

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Peter Greenaway’s new film, Rembrandt’s J’accuse, opening today at the Film Forum, is one of the most striking films the legendary director has ever made: A pseudo-documentary journey through Rembrandt’s masterpiece, "The Night Watch," in which Greenaway argues that the Dutch painter was using his canvas to solve a murder, it mixes the playful nature and bravura editing of the director’s earlier films with his recent obsession with reimagining and reinterpreting world history and culture. Greenaway recently spoke to us about Rembrandt, the sorry state of world cinema, and his new career as a V.J.

So, how much of what’s in Rembrandt’s J’accuse is fact, and how much of it is your invention?
[Laughs] You ask that very hesitantly. Some of the facts are true. Some of them are apocryphal. Some are my subjective viewing of the situation. And some are, just between you and me, downright lies. But I’m firmly convinced that there’s no such thing as history, there’s only historians. Even if the physical facts don’t change — you’re still looking at a painting Rembrandt made in 1642 — there are all sorts of different cultural perspectives. And one of the excitements about painting is its ambiguity: You can make perfectly reasonable assumptions that all derive from the same image. And in a sense, we’re playing with the critical apparatus that people use to examine things.

It seems you’ve also made this notion of uncertainty and variation a part of how your films are structured. The Tulse Luper Suitcases was released in a variety of different formats, in different versions: feature films shown out of order, a TV series, 92 DVDs, various websites. Was that the most ambitious project you’ve undertaken to date?
It was ridiculously, megalomaniacally huge. It was supposed to be an entire history of the twentieth century. And it’s performing in about eight different cross-media possibilities. The whole thing was really quite a disaster in the cinema. It has been very successful in all the fragmentary cousins and relatives of the cinematic imagination. As an interactive video, for example, it’s gotten 160,000 hits a day. So in a way, it’s helped underline my pessimism with cinema, but it’s also opened all sorts of doors and windows for me, into areas that the cinema might develop in the coming decades.

How do you see the state of contemporary cinema? You’ve spoken out at length — both in J’accuse and elsewhere — about visual illiteracy, and about the supremacy of word-based thinking and filmmaking.
Like many other people I know, I’m very disenchanted with cinema — with where the orthodox feature film has got to. We’ve ended up with bedtime stories for adults, and there’s sort of an umbilical cord between the cinema and the bookshop. We don’t have a visual culture that is at ease with the image, which is unfortunate because I do think that images are the prime form of communication.

I’m quite convinced that when civilization got itself off its knees, the very first communications were essentially to do with images. And when civilization finally goes down the tubes, as I’m sure it eventually will, I’m sure the last mark we make will probably be an image of some sort. But now, we have a text-based cinema. Practically speaking, I can’t go to a producer today with a book of drawings and say, “Give me the money.” The big things in cinema over the last fifteen years have been Harry Potter and The Lord of the Rings, which in a sense aren’t really films at all but illustrated books.

You can probably say that about a lot of films over the years. Aren’t there any filmmakers working today who are visually literate?
Ten years ago, I suppose the people from my approximate generation would have been David Lynch and David Cronenberg. But even those people, I feel, are now copying themselves, not really reinventing themselves. At the same time, I would also suggest that it’s possible that none of us have ever seen a film. All we’ve seen are 114 years of illustrated texts. Text has so many métiers to play with — from the novel to poetry to lyrical poetry to theater. But one would have thought that text should have left cinema alone and let it go on with its own concerns. We’ve had 8,000 years in the Western world of image-makers of one description or another, all madly pushing the frontiers of visual language. And then we’ve had 114 years of cinema, and filmmakers in general have ignored this 8,000-year heritage. But cinema really is a very poor narrative medium. And I think cinema knows this, which is why it has to feed off the bookshop. Its origins are always literary and not autonomous.

But with the emergence of new technologies and the plummeting costs of digital video, we’re also now seeing some microbudget filmmakers who are shooting without concrete scripts, who are improvising. Granted their films couldn’t be more different from yours, but do you think that technology might save cinema?
I certainly hope so. These are all extraordinary new technologies and new tools. In a way, we may be beginning to see a brand-new notion of cinema. One of the two greatest visualists of the twentieth century, as far as I’m concerned, was Sergei Eisenstein: On his way to Mexico to make a movie, he bumped into Walt Disney, and he said that Walt Disney was the only true filmmaker. And I don’t think he was referring to Disney’s anti-Semitism, or his good business sense, or his sentimentality. [Laughs] He simply understood that the Walt Disney effort, which at that time was specifically the cartoon, really does start from ground zero. I'd say the other great visualist of the twentieth century was Picasso, who said, "I do not paint what I see, but what I think." And I think these two ideas are connected. And now these new technologies have allowed us to encompass both of those ideas, and really make something that is truly its own thing.

In that spirit, you’ve been doing something that’s quite unique: You’ve been “visiting” paintings around the world and presenting multimedia interpretations of them. Can you tell us more about that?
We’ve selected nine paintings. The first was “The Night Watch.” The second was Da Vinci’s “Last Supper.” The third one, which we’ve spent most of this summer doing, is Veronese’s “The Marriage at Cana" ... They’re all big, very cinematic paintings, which make a grand display of the virtuosity and concentrated language of pictorial representation. The idea is to set them up with a cinematic language. We do that by projecting computer-programmed lights onto the paintings, to elucidate them, to deconstruct them, to demonstrate their associations with political and social contemporary critique, to analyze them the best way we can using the technology available to us. And J’accuse and Nightwatching also grew out of that — they’re part of this idea of having a dialogue between the painted and the cinematic.

You’ve also been V.J.-ing, amazingly enough.
"V.J." is, I suppose, a lazy handle for what I’m doing. But we’ve fragmented a huge amount of imagery into thousands of loops, taken from the original Tulse Luper Suitcases, some of them no more than a couple of seconds. And we’ve put together a project which is music-driven, in association with D.J.'s. I’ve had some hardware made specifically for me in Amsterdam and Rotterdam, which are the V.J. and D.J. capitals of the world. And I have these touch screens where I can push and pull these images onto as many big projection screens as I can: 33 screens is our record. What I’m trying to find is a present-tense live cinema, which is non-narrative and multi-screen. I don’t want to concentrate anymore on the single screen, which is far too small a canvas these days. I’m also interested in the cinema that’s never the same. Even Casablanca eventually becomes disappointing because it never changes. But we now have the technology to change it every night.