Peter Greenaway`s Tulse Luper Project: New Media



Peter Greenaway`s Tulse Luper Project: New Media
Peter Greenaway’s Tulse Luper Project: New Media and Filmic Collage as Fine Art
A Discussion by
Michael John Ferguson Chance
Supervisor: Dr. Julia Hallam
Liverpool University
ABSTRACT: This dissertation will explore Peter Greenaway’s Tulse Luper project, with a partial focus upon The Tulse Luper Suitcases, Part 1: The Moab Story (2003). It will take shape as a broad discussion of the project’s features in relation to fine art and New Media theories, based around the idea that the formal characteristics of the Tule Luper project enable us to see Greenaway as an artist working with the medium of cinema, whilst simultaneously existing within the tradition of fine art. This conclusion is made possible through the understanding of postmodernism as a discourse that allows the acceptance of paradoxes as a satisfactory method of understanding; that the notion of simultaneity allows us reconcile seemingly inharmonious aspects of contemporary culture. I argue that Greenaway explores this concept through the Tulse Luper project, and that in doing so, the project proves that it is beneficial for artists to embrace various forms of new technology in order to articulate complex conceptual points in a way that is relevant to contemporary society in the era of the internet and digital technology. The study features an exploration of cultural and art­historical theory from Gene Youngblood, Leo Steinberg and Lev Manovich, and concludes with a consideration of Greenaway as ‘authentic’ artist within the conditions specified by Theodor Adorno in his conception of meaningful art within capitalist society.
­ CONTENTS ­ Introduction – The Aims and Structure of this Study............................................................................
Chapter I – Overviews
I – Limitations of Conventional Cinema........................................................................
II – The Tulse Luper Project..........................................................................................
III – Literature Review: Fine Art Influences.................................................................
Chapter II – Ideology
I – Modernism: Structure and Subjectivity....................................................................
II – Postmodernism: Allegory and Baroque Excess......................................................
Chapter III – Film Analysis: The Tulse Luper Suitcases, Part 1: The Moab Story
I – Visual Analysis.........................................................................................................
II – Aural Analysis.........................................................................................................
III – Thoughts................................................................................................................
Chapter IV – Reading Greenaway Through Cultural Theory
I – Youngblood: Synaesthetic Cinema...........................................................................
II – Synaesthetic Collage as Gestalt­Free Perception....................................................
III – Collage vs. Montage: Metamophosis vs. Linearity................................................
IV – Steinberg: Collage and the ‘Flatbed Picture Plane’................................................
V – Manovich: New Media and the Database................................................................
In this study I aim to explore Peter Greenaway’s recent multi­media project, The Tulse Luper Suitcases as a multi­faceted work of art. I believe that to classify Greenaway solely as a filmmaker – and to therefore deny him entry into consideration as a fine artist – is to vastly overlook the broad variety and intellectual depth of his oeuvre, of which the Tulse Luper project is a fine and fascinating example. I aim to approach the subject in a broad and open minded manner; one which will posit the project as simultaneously existing within the worlds of cinema, new media and fine art. In order to do this my discussion will bring together important theories that emerge from each of these disciplines of study, and in synthesising their different perspectives I hope to show that there is great benefit in maintaining interest in, and a consideration of, a broad variety of cultural theory. I hope this study to be read not as one that crosses disciplinary boundaries, but one which proves worth in the dissolution of such boundaries. I feel strongly that both the academic and the artist benefit from resisting over­
specialisation by maintaining an open­minded sense of wonder that applies equally to all avenues of art and culture. Despite this, I necessarily understand the limitations of a study of this size, and therefore must narrow my focus to certain key theories and areas of interest, which will broadly lie upon the meeting ground between cinema and fine art. I feel this is both germane to the subject matter and to the limitations of my modest background knowledge, since Greenaway’s interests and experience have (similarly to my own) been largely focused upon the workings of the European art cinema and fine art traditions. In the first chapter I hope to lay the foundation from which the rest of the study will depart. I will first discuss the way in which illusory realism has become a limitation upon mainstream cinema, in order to establish the cinematic context which Greenaway works against. I will then introduce the Tulse Luper Project as a form of ‘mega­cinema’, and establish its working theme. In the third subsection I will aim to provide a summary of a selected few pieces of academic literature, so that we may get a sense of the ways in which Greenaway’s film practice has been linked to fine art influences.
In the second chapter I will discuss Greenaway’s ideology in terms of a duality between modernism and postmodernism, and explore the ways in which these two perspectives help us to understand some of the themes and methods of his work. The third chapter will focus upon The Tulse Luper Suitcases, Part 1: The Moab Story (2003), the first of the trilogy, and will hopefully begin to explain the formal aspects of the project. For the sake of clarity, the analysis will be split into two sections: visual analysis (exploring purely graphic elements of the film) and aural analysis (exploring the film’s music and its relation to visuals and form). The analysis will be followed by a short reflection upon the more philosophical aspects of the film.
In the fourth chapter, I will discuss the Tulse Luper project in relation to several theories which I believe give an interesting perspective from which to read Greenaway’s work. These will centre around the concept of collage, and will include Gene Youngblood’s ‘Synaesthetic cinema’, Leo Steinberg’s ‘flatbed picture plane’, and Lev Manovich’s ‘New Media’ and ‘database’ theory.
I will then conclude by discussing some relevant theories of Theodor Adorno, and assess whether Greenaway can be considered an ‘authentic’ artist in Adornian terms. By the end of the study I hope to have convinced the reader that one’s conception of fine art should be broad and welcoming of cinema and new media forms as serious and artistic methods of representation, expression and conceptual discussion, and that as such, Peter Greenaway should be respectfully seen as a true artist. ­ CHAPTER I ­ OVERVIEWS I – LIMITATIONS OF CONVENTIONAL CINEMA
While admitting that he couldn’t live without it (in Woods, 1996: 264), Greenaway is perhaps one of cinema’s greatest contemporary critics of the ‘Hollywood tradition’ (a term which shall not be limited to films made in Hollywood, but applies to any mainstream cinema that works within Hollywood’s traditional stylistic and formal boundaries, and is also interchangeable with the term ‘classical cinema’). In many articles, catalogues and interviews, Greenaway has expressed his dissatisfaction and ambivalence towards cinema as a whole, citing among his many disenchantments: “cinema’s restrictive frame, its lack of an ability for simultaneity, its passive audiences, its non­existent iconic presence, its poor narrative qualities, its slavery to text” (Woods: 263). The Tulse Luper project represents, thus far, Greenaway’s most concerted attempt to address these issues.
Like many avant­garde filmmakers, Greenaway’s criticisms focus on the narrow­mindedness of cinema; its unwillingness to embrace or create new forms of expression. When one looks at the great imaginative leaps made by literature, music and fine art within the twentieth century, it does indeed seem odd that cinema, the most modern (in the technological sense) of all these forms has (comparatively) found a state of happy – and ever popular – creative stagnation. Slavko Vorkapich has claimed that:
“There are extremely few motion pictures that may be cited as instances of creative use of the medium, and from these only fragments and short passages may be compared to the best achievements in the other arts” (1966: 172).
Perhaps to compare cinema to other forms of art is unfair, after all, when Vorkapich was writing, cinema had been in existence little more than seventy five years, whereas painting, at least in the Western tradition, has had thousands of years to develop to its current level of sophistication and variety. However, filmmakers do have the entire span of art history to find inspiration from, so arguably it should progress at a much faster pace.
In an interview in American Film, Greenaway argues that “if you look at twentieth­century painting, its been ten thousand times more radical than the cinema has” (1991: 37), and it is hard to disagree. Perhaps it is because many filmmakers see cinema as separate from the fine art tradition, and therefore creatively retard the progression of cinema by limiting their palette of techniques to those suitable for entertainment purposes. Whether these speculations are true or not, there are certainly more tangible reasons for the past limitations of cinematic expression.
There are social and industrial reasons: cinema has always been a costly business, restraining its imaginative possibilities on a conservative leash; since the more ambitious a project is, the greater the number of public required to watch the film, and the public arguably tend to be wary of significant change (as John Cage famously said, if you introduce twenty percent of novelty into an art­product, you stand to lose eighty percent of your audience). This is combined with the fact that cinema is generally, and through necessity, a collaborative product, which, even accounting for auteur theory, makes the creation of an individual statement difficult. Yet, the way in which this conservatism is articulated in cinema is by adherence to the major force that has dominated cinema in its hundred years of existence so far: realism. It may seem perfectly reasonable for cinema to be centred on the concept of creating the illusion of reality, since this has been one of its greatest and most exciting strengths ever since the Lumière brothers’ L'Arrivée d'un Train en Gare de la Ciotat (Lumière, 1895). For many years some thought that photography should (or could) only be used for documentary purposes because it’s claim over painting was its ability to (supposedly) capture real life in a less humanly mediated way. However, even in the very earliest days of cinema, pioneers such as Georges Méliès recognised that as well as depicting reality, cinema had a unique (and for Méliès, an almost literally magical) ability to manipulate, distort, question, and finally escape the very reality that constrains our normal lives. Many would dismiss this work (such as Le voyage dans la Lune – Méliès, 1902) as foolish fancy, but in fact, even the legendary Sergei Eisenstein once suggested that one of the only true filmmakers was Walt Disney, because his world was entirely fabricated, and realised the true imaginative potential of cinema because his films escaped not only the grip of our everyday reality, but also of the mimetic reality within the Disney world itself, in which anything was possible, and nothing out of place.
However, despite this, realism has remained dominant in classical Hollywood cinema, which does not mean to say it is necessarily interested in reality, or that it depicts an honest, unflinching representation of our real lives (Hollywood cinema can in fact be defined by its expression of the ‘utopian’ ­ see Richard Dyer’s influential essay ‘Entertainment and Utopia’ for an illuminating discussion of this), but that the diegesis it presents is believable, and relates in some way to our world, or at least the way in which our world could be.
But how does music fit into the Hollywood tradition of realism? Does the existence of non­diegetic soundtracks undermine Hollywood cinema’s claim to realism? Undoubtedly its primary purpose has in fact been to support that illusion of realism; to ease our entry into that intangible world painted with shadows on the theatre screen. The ultimate aim is that once we are absorbed in a state of suspended disbelief, our intellectual capacities may be pacified in order that we enter a regressive state (Flinn, 1992) and become more open to emotional manipulation, resulting in complete investment into the characters on screen. This allows us to leave the theatre thrilled, and happy, but more importantly ­ from a socio­political perspective ­ satisfied; that is, reassured that as long as one conforms to society’s dominant moral laws, all our problems can be overcome and happily resolved in the end. In order that this conservative­utopian aim should be successfully implemented in a film, there needs to be no part of it that jars; that reminds the audience they are, in fact, watching a film: all aspects should work together holistically, and the presence of a ‘punctum’, to borrow Barthes’ terminology; a moment in the film which punctures the illusory reality, would be seen as a failure in classical terms.
Greenaway certainly is not interested in the emotional manipulation that characterises Hollywood films, and has often commented that classical films, in their conservative narrative structure and devices (simple, linear structure ending with resolution, clear character motivations, reliance on cause­effect logic, etc.) resemble little more than illustrated stories, reliant on techniques established in the emotionally psychological novels of the nineteenth­century. Greenaway’s recent ongoing project, titled The Tulse Luper Suitcases, not only aims to challenge these narrative traditions and the illusion of reality, but also what we think of as cinema. II – THE TULSE LUPER PROJECT
The Tulse Luper project is multi­faceted, including three feature films (and an edited version compiling all three entitled A Life in Suitcases [2005]), two books, a website ( and a massive online game (, a live VJ (video DJ) show, and was originally intended to include 92 DVDs and a CD­ROM, as well as a 16 part television series. This may not seem that unusual in today’s film industry, in which blockbusters exploit a wide variety of horizontally integrated media forms, including computer games, websites, merchandise, toys, music video tie­ins and so on, yet Greenaway’s vision is not one based on marketing and revenue streams, but rather as a whole work, comprised of different fragments which together form a tapestry; interwoven and cohesive. Paula Willoquet­Maricondi has called this approach “mega­cinema” (see ‘From British Cinema to Mega­
Cinema’ in Peter Greenaway’s Postmodern/ Poststructuralist Cinema), and in many ways it relates to Wagner’s conception of the Gesamtkunstwerk, the “total” or “integrated artwork”; in which one project brings together theatre, literature, music and fine art into a unified master­work. Cinema can be seen as the ideal medium for this concept, and it is not hard to conceive that had Wagner lived today he probably would have been a filmmaker. So how does the expansive nature of this project affect the way in which we see the Tulse Luper feature films? Clearly, it implies that the films do not in themselves present the whole story; one is not to place one’s belief in them as a complete artefact. This may lead us to believe that Greenaway wants his audience to experience every facet of the whole project, to obsessively scour the internet, complete the online game and watch all the films, perhaps cross­referencing between the different mediums in order to understand all the subtle interconnections and marvel at his masterful wit and intelligence. However, this is not the case. Greenaway has stated that he would like the Tulse Luper project to be something which people can ‘dip in and out of’; for the point of the project is not to encourage an unhealthy interest in list­making and cataloguing, but rather to highlight to us the fact that although it is in our human nature to do so, it is essentially pointless to believe we will reach any truth through humanly imposed methods, after all, “there is no such thing as history, only historians” (Greenaway explains this to be one of the production’s “main metaphors” in an interview with BBC Cambridgeshire). So, the Tulse Luper project aims to challenge Hollywood traditions of mimetic realism through its themes, as well as through the interrelation of its formal elements, such as its overall structure, its visuals and its music. Whilst Hollywood cinema has a purpose (to absorb and entertain), the Tulse Luper project could, through a negation of realism, be considered as a work of fine art, since fine art can be defined as that which is created for aesthetic and conceptual rather than utilitarian purposes; it has no purpose other than for the sake of its own existence. Whilst it could be argued that the project manages to entertain (especially considering the online game and VJ performances), it is clear that entertainment is not the project’s raison d'être; it exists rather to make a series of conceptual points.
Whether considered as ‘pure’ art or not, Greenaway’s film practice has arguably been more profoundly influenced by aesthetic developments in the field of art history than the sister art forms, whether music, drama, literature, or indeed, cinema itself. He has of course been influenced by the major figures of the European art cinema tradition, such as Eisenstein, Godard and Bergman, whose film Det Sjunde Inseglet (The Seventh Seal, Bergman, 1958) Greenaway viewed whilst at art college, inspiring him to realise the metaphorical and allegorical power of film (he claims to have watched two screenings a day for five days consecutively [Willoquet­Maricondi & Alemany Galway, 2001: 15]). He has also been heavily influenced by the work of Alain Resnais, such as L'année dernière à Marienbad (Last Year at Marienbad, Resnais, 1961) which can be seen as influential due to its non­straight­forward narrative; caught up in repetitions, and a sense of game playing, as well as its theatricality and use of deep perspectives (Woods, 1996: 16). Another influence is Hiroshima Mon Amour (Resnais, 1959) which features an aesthetic focus upon patterns of light caused by reflections off bodies of water, which is now considered one of Greenaway’s trademarks (ibid). It is important to note here that Sacha Vierny, the cinematographer whom Greenaway has called “my most important collaborator” (, in fact worked on both Resnais films (among many others), and provides a significant and tangible link between the two filmmakers.
However, although cinema history has informed much of Greenaway’s style ­ perhaps due to the many explicit art references in his films and the attraction of studying inter­disciplinary links ­ many critics have chosen to study the way in which his work relates to fine art. There is a significant weight of academic writing that delves into the many links to be found between Greenaway’s work and that of certain key art­historical styles and ideological movements, so I will now summarise the major works of criticism in order that we may be able to ascertain the way in which Greenaway’s films have been academically situated within a larger artistic context.
Peter Greenaway: Architecture and Allegory, (1997) by Bridget Elliot and Anthony Purdy, not only discusses Greenaway’s work in relation to European architectural and allegorical traditions, but situates those in a larger consideration of the links between Greenaway and baroque art. This is significant because many of the artists who have most influenced Greenaway’s visual style, as well as his use of metaphorical and allegorical symbolism (see below for a list of such artists identified by Alan Woods), belonged to a period which can be broadly defined as Baroque; a movement that originated in Italy at the beginning of the seventeenth century, and swept through Europe to find significant influence in Holland; the two most important artistic nations in Greenaway’s conception of post­Renaissance art history. It is important to understand Greenaway’s relation to this period because adopting baroque techniques is not a neutral choice, but a rejection of the classical, and can be seen as a move toward multiplicity over singularity; confusion over purity, and transparency over illusion; in other words, postmodernism (for further discussion of this see Chapter II). In Peter Greenaway’s Postmodern/ Poststructuralist Cinema (2001), Paula Willoquet­Maricondi and Mary Alemnay­Galway also highlight the importance of seventeenth­century Dutch painting, arguing that the use of Frans Hals’ painting ‘The Banquet of the Officers of the St. George Civic Company’ (1616) in The Cook, the Thief, His Wife & Her Lover is not postmodernism as mere duplication of past styles taking the form of pastiche which is complicitous with the dominant ideology of consumer capitalism as Frederic Jameson has argued (1983: 111­125), but rather, as “a self­conscious and self­
implicating critique of a bourgeois ideology of consumption whose early manifestations Greenaway locates in the seventeenth century” (Willoquet­Maricondi & Alemany Galway, 2001: xix). In this study they also explain some of Greenaway’s thematic consistencies: “landscape, water, death, sex, language, the body, and flight ... are visual and thematic elements that occur with such frequency that they are best described as signature elements” (2001:4­5). Whilst these observations may be true, in themselves, they do not give great insight into Greenaway’s larger purpose; since they are internal to the mimetic worlds created in the films, they do not significantly inform an understanding of Greenaway’s films on a formal level. Alan Woods’ 1996 study, Being Naked Playing Dead: The Art of Peter Greenaway, is certainly one of the most thorough and convincing of those that regularly relate Greenaway’s work to similar trends in the world of fine art. Woods of course acknowledges the influence of the major art cinema directors upon Greenaway’s work, but focuses significantly greater analysis upon painting, justifying this approach by explaining that “perhaps because contemporary cinema itself, whether European or American, commercial or art­house, has largely lost its excitement (and, with it, its importance to theory), there seems to be no equivalent set of continuing dialogues between Greenaway and contemporary film directors” (1996: 13). Whether one agrees with the initial speculation about the seeming demise of cinema or not, it seems undeniable that there really are no major contemporary film directors operating in a comparable way, and whilst some may posit Derek Jarman as an equally important contemporary auteur, it is clear that the approaches of each director are markedly different; Woods in fact explicitly argues that Jarman’s work is massively inferior and does not merit a comparison of any depth whatsoever (ibid). Throughout his study Woods identifies many affiliations between Greenaway’s films and the work of fine artists from a wide variety of periods, including Richard Long, Mark Boyle, Hamish Fulton (in relation to Greenaway’s early films), Georges de La Tour, Januarius Zick (The Draughtsman’s Contract, 1982), Johannes Vermeer, Dan Flavin (A Zed and Two Noughts, 1985), Agnolo Bronzino, Piero Della Francesca (Belly of an Architect, 1987), the Pre­Raphaelite movement (Fear of Drowning, 1988), Frans Hals, the Dutch still­life tradition (The Cook, the Thief, His Wife & Her Lover, 1989), Titian, Giorgio Barbarelli da Castelfranco, Sandro Botticelli, Giovanni Bellini (Prospero’s Books, 1991), Antonio da Crevalcore, Vincent Desiderio (The Baby of Mâcon, 1993), Kitigawa Utamuro and Katsushika Hokusai (The Pillow Book, 1996). Woods picks apart and internally relates the many facets of Greenaway’s work in the same way one would analyse the oeuvre of any major traditional artist, grouping his observations in order to highlight important unifying themes. These include water (which Woods explains as always related to bodily fluids and functions, including birth, copulation and death, as well often being contained and used to reflect light), photography (relating to Cindy Sherman’s ‘history portraits’, Muybridge’s ordering of chaos, and Godard’s conception of Vermeer as proto­filmmaker) and symmetry/ perspective (in relation to compositional choices made in painting: the off­centre as representative of the secular and the relationship between framing versus the flat of the canvas). Woods’ observations stem from a broad and intimate knowledge of the history of art, and offer many fascinating comparisons from which to gain new insight into Greenaway’s work, but one may feel that in reading such in­depth and detailed study, it is easy to become distracted from contemplating that work in a larger sense; that one’s mind becomes awash with hundreds of themes and evidences of artistic influences, to the extent that although each and every one may be both pertinent and interesting, they appear directionless; without a central purpose. Perhaps it is wrong to expect a grand, unifying direction to emerge from the many examples of Greenaway’s work, but in order to ascertain whether Greenaway exists within the fine art tradition, or merely comments upon it, it is essential to move beyond the mere identification of artistic comparisons and struggle with the question of what purpose lies at the very core of his artistic intention. ­ CHAPTER II ­
In order to discern the way in which Greenaway utilises artistic influences it is helpful to ascertain his ideological standpoint. He is clearly interested in many forms of artistic culture from a diverse range of periods, including the Classical, the Renaissance, the Enlightenment, the Romantic period, the Modern age (often labelled ‘the extended nineteenth­century’), and of course, the Postmodern culture in which many artists operate today. However, although it is interesting to play ‘spot­the­reference’ and collect a comprehensive catalogue of Greenaway’s artistic influences, it is in fact both more intriguing and more important to study the way in which he turns these influences to his own ends. As Woods explains, Greenaway does not want to simply use superficial resemblances, and doesn’t want to be ‘painterly’ in the sense of being merely picturesque, but rather wants to use cinema as a continuation of painting (1996: 78) , so it seems germane to study his work in a similar fashion. Although Greenaway is interested in various artistic periods, it is obvious that his own work does not sit happily alongside that of the Pre­Raphaelites, or the Dutch masters for instance, despite the apparent connections, which can in fact turn out to be no more than superficial similarities when his films are considered on a macrocosmic, formal level. Greenaway’s early films (such as the first appearance of the Tulse Luper character; Vertical Features Remake, 1978) can be placed within a structuralist filmmaking movement that emerged in the UK during the 1960s and 1970s (exemplified by the work of the London Filmmakers Co­op), and therefore could be described as Modernist film. Many critics have used the term ‘modernist’ to describe Greenaway (including Alan Woods [ibid] and Peter Woollen [1993]), and it is easy to see why. Many of his films combine an awareness of formal concerns with a sense of doubt; the questioning of truths and objectivity, which has been characteristic to modernist art since its conception. As Paula Willoquet­
Maricondi and Mary Alemany­Galway explain:
“The trend in modernist painting, from the Impressionists on, was also toward an increasing acknowledgement of the subjective character of knowledge..... This shift from an external, objective to an internal, subjective focus led to a succession of stylistic movements, each operating according to artificial, self­reflexive rules, which facilitated the deployment of a number of modes of synthetic abstraction” (2001: xv).
Although Greenaway’s films can therefore be linked with modernist art, it is an oversight to classify him exclusively as a modernist filmmaker. Jean­François Lyotard has described modernist aesthetics as “sublime”, because they explore unrepresentable concepts through abstraction; that is, “through an emphasis on form and avoidance of content” (1979: 81), and whilst it is true that Greenaway exercises far greater focus on form than mainstream directors, that is not to say that he completely negates content, or even avoids it at all. In fact, his feature films of the 1980s move progressively toward an aesthetic characterised by an excess of content, culminating with the dense neo­Baroque imagery of The Baby of Mâcon (Greenaway, 1993, Electric Pictures).
Some of Greenaway’s most significant films can be firmly placed within a Baroque tradition, such as The Cook, The Thief, His Wife and Her Lover and The Baby of Mâcon, which feature the sustained use of the allegorical and the emblematic, the direct referencing to Seventeenth­century Baroque art, music and architecture, the thematic obsession with cycles of life and death, sex and corruption, and the stylistic use of thick, textural excess and the bizarre; all features associated with Baroque art. A modern understanding of Baroque is informed by the Nietzschian distinction between the Dionysian and the Apollonian; a distinction that can act as a useful tool in order to read art history. Although the adoption of Baroque styles may seem regressive and conservative (simply because it is a style associated with the Seventeenth­century), the way in which Greenaway has embraced them can be seen as progressive because it is used in order to reject the classical, which in filmic terms means to reject the mainstream; the classical narrative at the heart of the Hollywood tradition. Where classicism (epitomised by the “great awakening” (Gombrich, 1960: 99) that occurred through the revolution in Greek sculpture and painting during the sixth and fifth century B.C.) strives for purity, singularity, realistic illusion and the search for transcendence through the Platonic ideal form, Greenaway chooses comparative visual and thematic confusion: multiplicity, artificiality, allusion, openness of interpretation and allegory.
Craig Owens describes allegorical work as:
“synthetic; it crosses boundaries.... This confusion of genre, anticipated by Duchamp, reappears today in hybridization, in eclectic works which ostentatiously combine previously distinct art mediums” [emphasis added] (Owens, 1992: 58)
In Ursprung des Deutschen Trauerspeils (The Origin of German Tragic Drama), Walter Benjamin describes the allegorist as either “sultan” or “sadist” (Benjamin, 1928), who “enjoys enormous power by virtue of his humiliation and dismemberment of the corpse of the cultural past” (Elliot and Purdy, 1997: 73). Such arguments can be used to criticise Greenaway, on the grounds that he is an elitist filmmaker, with an hostile view toward ‘mass culture’ and a tendency to represent ‘high culture’ in a nostalgic fashion. However, it is important to understand that Greenaway’s representation of past ‘high culture’ is not one­dimensionally favourable, as Elliot and Purdy point out; “Greenaway tends to dwell on ‘high’ culture’s often crudely material underpinnings, particularly the sources of wealth and power that manipulate and control its production and circulation” (1997: 20). Also, as Willoquet­Maricondi and Alemany­Galway argue, it is important to note that Greenaway borrows from and is interested in contemporary, ‘low’ culture equally (2001: xviii). It would be especially hard to argue that Greenaway has an adversarial position in relation to popular culture in light of the Tulse Luper project, which is very much a part of (and comments upon) modern technology and culture. This point becomes even more clear when Greenaway is considered as a postmodern artist. In Peter Greenaway’s Postmodern/ Poststructuralist Cinema, Paula Willoquet­Maricondi and Mary Alemany­Galway argue for a sensibility in Greenaway that is:
“self­reflexive, parodic, rooted in the historical world, unresolvably contradictory; that
problematizes history and knowledge; that is not nostalgic in its revisiting of the past;
that does not claim epistemological authority” (2001: xiii).
Whereas modernist art often involves the search to create new systems of understanding, combined with a questioning of the predominant ‘order’ (in a classical or Enlightenment­era sense), postmodern art is often more contradictory, more parodic, and therefore it “still instils that order, but it then uses it to demystify our everyday processes of structuring chaos, of imparting or assigning meaning” (Hutcheon, 1988: 7). Greenaway himself explains the reasoning behind this: “I mock those universal systems like the alphabet and the number structures I use as an alternative and support to the narrative, because.... they are only man­made devices” (Samson, 1995: 12­13). The way in which Greenaway pushes epistemological doubt to its extreme results in an acceptance and exploitation of paradoxes and contradictions, a definitively postmodern trait that seems to conclude Greenaway to be a postmodernist ideologically, but how can we define his aesthetics?
Greenaway’s visual style can at once be seen as both modernist and postmodernist simultaneously. This apparent paradox in fact highlights one of Greenaway’s key methods; in which a bricolage of forms and texts can be combined, not in a heteroglossic sense, but simply allowed to sit next to one another, to “coexist without merging” (Willoquet­Maricondi & Alemany Galway, 2001: xv). Greenaway’s modernist aesthetics centre on the concept of using “systems of organisation and ... serial structures in order to disrupt classical narrative and conventional viewing expectations” (ibid), while his postmodernist aesthetics involve the usage of bricolage, collage, an overriding emphasis on doubt, not certainty, and a feeling of “textual overspill” (Street, 1997: 180). I will now study the ways in which these aesthetics are articulated in The Tulse Luper Suitcases.
In screenings and interviews Greenaway has indicated that he sometimes sees himself as a “cubist filmmaker” (<­tulse­luper­suitcases­guest­review
>), and ever since his discovery of the aptly named post­production software ‘Graphic Paintbox’, he has made the gap between filmmaking and painting ever smaller. Cubism was an attempt to simultaneously question three­dimensional representation in art and to suggest new alternative means with which to do so. In Art & Illusion (1960), Ernst Gombrich argues that cubism was the most radical attempt to undermine the traditional illusionistic reading of painting. Cubists firstly challenged the traditional painterly illusion of reality by pulling objects apart; reducing them to geometric shapes and almost entirely removing colour, so that our perception of objects in an illusionistic, ‘real’ space is disrupted: this is known as ‘Analytic Cubism’. The second movement, ‘Synthetic Cubism’, did the same, but was more focused on bringing the objects back together, in synthesis, to create structures that were simultaneously integrated and yet composed of forms which retained their identity as individual objects apart from the whole. This process can also be seen as a way in which to capture the way in which we look at the world, and objects within it; firstly, we have two eyes, creating a duality of vision from which emerges depth, and secondly, we move around objects, pick them up, rotate them, so that our mental image of that object is in fact a collage of all those different viewpoints, rather than a two­dimensional, static image. To reflect this, the cubist would depict an object from different perspectives at the same time, creating the disquieting effect it is most recognisable for.
Having established the main features of cubism, it is easy to see how Greenaway’s cinema shares many aesthetic and philosophical links with the work of artists such as Picasso and Braque. In order to question the singular focus of character­centred narration in classical cinema, Greenaway has chosen to present the viewer with a screen awash with multiplicity, in which suddenly appear small inset boxes, frames within frames, featuring head and shoulder portraits of a variety of mysterious people who comment on the main screen action. Added to this are other layers of imagery, filmed, written, painted, and digitally created, which are overlayed, sometimes bleeding or merging into the main screen, often semi­transparent, sometimes comprised of text; handwritten or typed; often fragments of the script or notations informing the audience of information outside of the mimetic world (captions often define the images we see ­ “audition tapes”, “location shoot” etc.). By analytically pulling apart the aspects of the filmmaking process, that process is rendered transparent, giving the audience no option but to admit that the film is, as all films are, a fabrication.
The rich layers of image and dialogue can be seen to act in a syncretic way also; by offering different perspectives of the same locations, people and events, which play out simultaneously, on the same screen, whilst retaining their presence as an individual voice or viewpoint. In her 2008 essay ‘“Noises, Sounds and Sweet Airs”: Singing the Film Space in Prospero’s Books’, Holly Rogers argues that whilst this can be seen as an experimental technique, “the insertion of a frame to suggest a character’s altered state, or a different point of view, was a device common in early cinema and can be seen as early as Santa Claus (Smith 1898) and Histoire d'un Crime (Pathé 1901)” among others (examples identified in Marie­Louise Hillcoat, 2004). Despite this, Rogers concedes that what is different, “is the continual insertion of frames within frames” (ibid), a disorientating plurality of images, many of which seem disconnected and unrelated to the narrative; unexplained, and floating on the screen without placement in mimetic time or space. Although we may draw a conceptual link between Greenaway and the Cubists based on their concern to question notions of perception through analytic and synthetic multiplicity, it should be noted that they have by no means the same visual results. Whilst for the Cubists visual game playing was still rooted in observance from nature, that is, the world around us, Greenaway’s method of visual composition is rooted more in a notion of visual organisation. So whilst the work of the Cubists, no matter how dislocated or abstracted, still generates an eventual holistic impression of something – a table­top arrangement, a figure – Greenaway’s film resembles the sum of its parts, like a video notice board, or wall chart perhaps. So although the Cubists used collage in their work, it essentially remained an artistic technique, whereas in the work of later artists such as Rauschenberg and Dubuffet, collage was used as a formalistic focus point; the medium became the message to a greater degree. I will discuss Greenaway’s adoption of collage and its conceptual significance in greater detail in Chapter IV: Reading Greenaway Through Cultural Theory.
Several academics have described Greenaway’s visual prolificacy as being an example of “hypermedia” (Peeters, 2005; Donaldson, 1998; Bolz, 1992), a term which describes the multilayered nature of modern media (excluding mainstream cinema) such as websites (with multiple frames, banners, buttons and pop­up advertising), the computer desktop environment (with multiple windows and applications being used simultaneously) and some television broadcasts, such as news channels (with multiple frames displaying news stories in video images and text, auxiliary frames displaying weather reports or stock market information, and rolling ‘ticker’ bars displaying headlines). These media forms have inspired Greenaway, who asks why these techniques are welcomed and understood on television or a personal computer, but not in the realms of the feature film, or indeed, in the wider world of cinema at all. Greenaway is keen to embrace technological revolutions, and wants his projects to appeal to “new audiences.... who have essentially grown up with a computer” (BBC Cambridge interview ­ <>). Many would argue that the reason for this is that cinema is a greater platform for artistic expression than the internet and television (since it has greater potential to create an overwhelming experience for a captive, focused audience), that it has the capability to show images of intense beauty and scale, and should not be lowered to the visual standards of inferior aesthetic mediums. However, embracing hypermedia techniques does not necessarily reduce any of the beauty of film, and can open up possibilities that could in fact be seen as fulfilling cinema’s potential. When Jean Epstein wrote about the magic of cinema ­ which he called photogenie – he said: “The photogenic moment is a component of space­time variables. This is an important formula. If you want a more concrete translation, here it is: an aspect is photogenic if it displaces itself and varies simultaneously in time and space” (1974: 140). Greenaway’s cinema could be interpreted as a fulfilment of this definition, because its elements are constantly displacing each other in a free interplay of movement both through time, and the visual space of the screen. II – AURAL ANALYSIS
With such a rich visual world, it can be hard to imagine where music fits in to The Tulse Luper Suitcases project, but – as often is the case with avant­garde cinema – it is in fact intensely musical. Music fills every corner of the project, and certainly plays a significant role in the films. In three minutes of film at the beginning of The Tulse Luper Suitcases, Part One: The Moab Story, from 0:00:30 to 0:03:30, we are presented with seven short ‘auditioning’ scenes, each one featuring different music. The music is used in a variety of ways in each scene, whether gently residing in the background subsumed under an avalanche of voices (0:01:30), working in tandem with visual accents (0:01:17), supplementing the repetitious visual rhythm (0:01:04, 0:02:27, 0:02:39) or providing odd loops that work in counterpoint to the imagery (0:03:03), we are never sure what’s coming next, where it is all leading, or what it all means. Although the music does mirror and therefore support the images, it does not serve a classical purpose, that is, it does not help the audience in any way into the film; to ease their understanding and acceptance of what they see, but rather adds to the aesthetic sense of confusion provided by the visual imagery. The way in which the music changes equally as abruptly and seemingly randomly as the images serves not to smooth and paper over the cracks, but to highlight them, and thus intensify our sense of dislocation.
In some ways, although confusing, it is possible to see the music as being consistently located, in a geographic sense. For instance, the Borut Krzisnik composed piece ‘Creeping’ is used for the audition of Passion Hockmeister (0:01:05) and Julian Lephrenic (0:02:27), for the “Sunrise Archive” collection (0:16:09), the location shots for Episode 2 (0:17:06), throughout the desert scenes (0:22:00) and in the Moab prison (0:39:40), all of which occur in the same geographic location, in the desert of Moab in Utah. However, the way in which this relatively short (3 minutes 45 seconds), repetitive and seemingly arbitrary piece of music is used so consistently through these scenes is challenging in itself. Firstly the music seems unrelated to the location (it does not through its own means conjure images of the desert), and secondly, it does not change in any way to parallel the action on screen; it does not comment on events or attempt to intensify the emotional impact upon the audience. This ambivalent use of music can further remove the audience from relating to the images on screen, and in its refusal to change in tandem with the images, can be seen as a negation of the role of the classical soundtrack; it exists as music, but simultaneously, as a negation of musical effects; it may as well be radio static. It would be an oversight to not examine the actual style of the music, which can relate to film images in itself, regardless of how it is edited into the final film. The score in the Tulse Luper films was composed by Borut Krzisnik, a contemporary Slovenian composer, who combined a traditional symphonic style with influences from Slovenian folk tunes, popular music, carnivalesque patterns and digitalised instrumentation techniques. This last factor creates the effect of a ‘super­real’ orchestra, in which instruments are manipulated to sound close, reverberated, natural, false, or sometimes, harshly clipped and gated. On a macroscopic level, this music relates to the film’s images through its postmodern eclecticism and distortion of traditional representations of orchestral reality. On a more microscopic level, the music features an emphasis on repetition and repetitious development, and so mirrors the visuals through its use of contrapuntal melodies, which emerge and reappear unpredictably. In this way the music is not archetypically fugal, but gives a feeling akin to a ‘Disassociative’ or ‘Psychogenic’ fugue, to borrow the medical terms. This means that melodies can appear and disappear as if forgotten, and then reappear later as if unaware they had already been played. This musical amnesia relates very closely to the use of image in the Tulse Luper films, in which images can appear, layered upon each other and be repeated, echoed or simply forgotten, to either be picked up later or left to disappear completely with no explanation. Although at first listen, the soundtrack may seem relatively classical, at least in its instrumentation, it is, through its fragmented approach to composition, in opposition to Hollywood tradition, in which, as Caryl Flinn argues in ‘The Utopian Function of Film music’ (1992), Romantic music is used to create an impression of utopian restoration by “conjuring forth the lost qualities of aesthetic wholeness”. III – THOUGHTS
In many ways The Tulse Luper Suitcases, Part One: The Moab Story is a very unwatchable film. Despite a relatively simple story, the plot – as in many Greenaway films – seems to constantly implode, overloaded by the sheer weight of excess, articulated not through allegorical neo­baroque abundance as in other Greenaway films such as The Baby of Mâcon, but through the multiplicity of images and sounds (and the confusing relation between them) that drift weightlessly through filmic space, and yet collect in the corners of our minds, so that it becomes difficult to determine between what is significant, and what has merely remained as visual and aural clutter. However, we must remember to shed our mainstream watching habits and approach the work formally. It soon becomes clear that, just as in Hollywood films, nothing is incidental, albeit in a very different sense. Greenaway makes the film difficult to watch because he is not trying to capture a mimetic ‘realism’, but to reflect life in an experiential sense: life is difficult, it is chaotic, and it is hard to understand. Vernon Gras argues that “the recurring allegory, metaphor or subtext in all his films, underlying their more immediate and superficial action, is the inevitable failure of whatever ordering principles his protagonists engage in” (1995: 124). Woods picks up on this theme, explaining that the Deuce brothers in A Zed and Two Noughts were “destroyed by the very system of representing the world they so puncticiously established; their investigation ends in failure because the world refuses to be constrained by artificial discourses, and nature overcomes the limits of their devices and desires” (1996: 2). In the same way, so in Cook, Thief, Michael, the scholar, dies by books, and Albert Spica, the monstrous restaurateur, dies by food, whilst in The Draughstmans Contract, the draughtsman’s demise is brought to fruition through the medium of his drawings. Greenaway shows that the need to create taxonomies is important, but also equally that they have a need to be destroyed; it is as important to create art as it is to simultaneously break down its conventions and illusions. This is a truth which is more relevant to the Tulse Luper project than any other: the film explains to us that life cannot be simply reduced to systems or catalogues; the process is, in that sense, pointless, and yet, it is this impulse to examine and order existence that makes us human, and is in fact the process of the fine artist. Though life may be hard and chaotic, through contemplative thought and imagination we can learn ways to transcend the struggle, of reaching to grasp the Other. Tulse Luper does not present a utopian vision of escape, but allows us the opportunity for intellectual transcendence, at least for a while. Whereas mainstream cinema aims to comfort us, Greenaway aims to challenge us, and to therefore remind us that it is the challenge of life that keeps us imaginative, intelligent, and creative, and only by accepting the ‘easy way out’ do we fail to enliven our “twofold nature” (Johnson, 2002: 113), that is, our human duality of being simultaneously physical beings whilst possessing the capability to stretch imaginatively beyond our material confines. It is through contemplation that we can awaken “our definitive sense of exceeding the physicality of being” (ibid); that which truly makes us human. Through the rejection of illusory realism, Greenaway outdoes Hollywood cinema on two counts, for not only does he achieve a closer semblance to reality in an experiential sense, but he provides the audience and the medium with a real possibility of transcendence; the film escapes its material sense of particularity precisely because it does not seek to reproduce the patterns that dominate our everyday lives (Johnson, 2002: 129).
Gene Youngblood was born only seven weeks after Peter Greenaway, and so grew up in the same era of cultural and technological changes that proved so influential to so many creative minds emerging during the 1960s. Although separated not only by the Atlantic ocean, but very different upbringings and approaches to film, these two young thinkers would come to independently develop similar ideas about cinema, influenced significantly by changes in the art world. Like Greenaway, Youngblood was in favour of film being emancipated from the notion of illusory realism, and in his famous book Expanded Cinema (1970), he outlines the ways in which he believes cinema can begin this emancipatory process, and in doing so, become a fine art form in the purest sense. I will now focus on the second part of this study, entitled ‘Synaesthetic Cinema: The End of Drama’, and explain how relating Youngblood’s ideas to Greenaway’s films (especially the Tulse Luper project) can help us understand the conceptual­art­
historical and socio­cultural significances in what Greenaway is trying to achieve. Firstly, it is important to understand that Youngblood’s conception of art – similarly to Greenaway’s work in the 1960s and 70s – is heavily influenced by changes in the art world that indicated an increased level of importance in the formal characteristics of an artwork; a conceptual process most forcefully catalysed by the work of pioneering early twentieth century art movements such as Cubism. This viewpoint, which can be categorised as modernist, places importance on the medium as prime communicator of the message; film art, through developments in technique, enabled the “gradual development of a truly cinematic language with which to expand and further man’s communicative powers and thus his awareness” (Youngblood, 1970: 75). This expansion of humanity’s collective awareness can be seen as the true purpose of fine art, as explained by Herbert Read:
“Art never has been an attempt to grasp reality as a whole – that is beyond our human capacity; it was never an attempt to represent the totality of appearances; but rather it has been the piecemeal recognition and patient fixation of what is significant in human experience” (1965: 18)
Youngblood believes that what is significant in human experience, and thus what makes humanity unique among all species, is the “awareness of consciousness, the recognition of the process of perception” (1970: 76). Already, in the linkage between formal characteristics of art and its ability to unveil the processes of perception, we can see a deep connection between Youngblood’s theories and Greenaway’s work. Youngblood, as a cultural commentator of deep insight, realised that changes in the scientific and technological world had profound effects – at a conceptual level – upon the socio­cultural landscape, and therefore not only upon how people navigate it, but upon how artists, as cultural cartographers, go about mapping their responses to it. Youngblood explains that:
“Synaesthetic cinema is the only aesthetic language suited to the post­industrial, post­literate, man­made environment with its multi­dimensional simulsensory network of information sources. It’s the only aesthetic tool that even approaches the reality continuum of conscious existence in the nonuniform, nonlinear, nonconnected electronic atmosphere of the Paleocybernetic age” (1970: 77).
Put simply, Youngblood explains that it is important that artists embrace technological changes in order that their work is relevant to the world in it’s current, most advanced state, and cinema (specifically of the Synaesthetic kind, which is essentially visually abstract, non­linear, non­narrative cinema practised by filmmakers such as Stan Brakhage) is the only medium through which artists could do this. Youngblood noticed a change in human thinking that occurred in the twentieth century, exemplified by changes in scientific and artistic theory (science and art being the twin ends of a philosophical spectrum that represents the most advanced thinking of humanity at any given point) that indicated a move away from the search for certainties, towards an acceptance of seeming inconsistencies; of chaos. Youngblood explains that “the new artist and the new scientist recognise that chaos is order on another level, and they set about to find the rules of structuring by which nature has achieved it” (1970: 76), which could almost perfectly explain Greenaway’s artistic standpoint. This idea is particularly noticeable in Greenaway’s modernist paintings from the late 1960s (coincidentally when Youngblood was writing Expanded Cinema) such as Computer Vocabulary, Stellarscape: Verticals, Stellarscape: Semicircle and Star Grid (all 1968, see Appendix for images), in which Greenaway self­consciously places numbering or divisional structures over stars or brush strokes as an absurdist comment upon the task of cataloguing natural chaos.
This shift in thinking away from certainties also involved a move towards an increased acceptance of the paradox as a method of understanding. For example, twentieth century advances in quantum mechanics led scientists to accept that, although it seems contradictory, we can satisfactorily conceive of light as both a particle and a wave. Youngblood theorises this change as a move from the age of “bistable logic” (yes/no, either/or) to one of “triadic logic” (yes/no/maybe, both/and), a change that is significant in all areas of culture, not only scientific theory (1970: 81). Understanding this shift can, for instance, help us to understand the move toward abstraction in fine art; since when objective certainties are abandoned, our reality becomes based not on singular truths, but on the relations that exist between different possibilities. This concept was central to artists and art theorists working at the forefront of modern art during the first half of the twentieth century, such as Piet Mondrian:
“As nature becomes more abstract, a relation is more clearly felt. The new painting has clearly shown this. And that is why it has come to the point of expressing nothing but relations” (Mondrian, 1945: 50).
Since this new kind of art communicates meaning in a new way, it requires a new method of understanding to be established between artist and viewer, based upon ‘Synaesthis’, which Youngblood explains as: “the harmony of different or opposing impulses produced by a work of art. It means the simultaneous perception of harmonic opposites” (1970: 81). This means that the viewer must become not only aware of the relations held within the art work; “the relations of the conceptual information and design information within the film itself graphically”, but also “the relation between the film and the viewer at that point where human perception (sensation and conceptualisation) brings them together” (1970: 82). The concept of an art of relations is relevant to all of Greenaway’s work, but as a formal guiding principle in terms of his major filmic output, it has become most centrally articulated in the Tulse Luper project. In art­cinema tradition, the concept of generating meaning through interrelating elements has been explored through the development of editing techniques, specifically montage. However, it will soon become clear that the traditional notion of montage is ill­suited to explain what is happening in the kinds of abstract film defined by Youngblood as ‘Synaesthetic cinema’, as well as Greenaway’s particular technique of using interrelating elements. Therefore, we shall now turn to a consideration of collage; a technique which Youngblood believes to be uniquely able to embrace two important concepts: syncretism, and metamorphosis. II ­ SYNAESTHETIC COLLAGE AS GESTALT­FREE PERCEPTION
Syncretism can be defined as the ability to comprehend a total structure rather than simply understanding or analysing single elements. This does not mean to say that one viewing syncretically is ignorant of those individual elements, but rather that they are regarded as interrelating parts of a synthetic whole. This ability has been noticed in children, who differentiate shapes or objects by instantly appreciating the whole (Ehrenzweig, 1967: 9), and it is no coincidence that many modern artists, including the Cubists – and Picasso in particular – expressed the wish to be able to see and draw like a child. Although the idea of actually achieving the “innocent eye” is a logically impossible myth (Gombrich, 1960: 264) this idea is still helpful because it does indicate the fact that our methods of perception can be trained and altered by the kinds of visual stimuli we engage with. Youngblood argues that conventional narrative cinema conditions filmgoers, leading to the entropy and atrophy of their natural syncretistic faculties, which explains why they would find it difficult to understand Synaesthetic cinema (1970: 82). Conventional cinema does this by guiding our vision to certain areas upon the picture plane – predominantly through directed lighting techniques and tricks of camera focus – in order that the viewer is more smoothly carried through a linear narrative, but also, importantly, to maintain the illusion of reality. For instance, by mimicking the focus of the eye, heavy use of depth­of­
field (a technique that has in fact become more common in contemporary cinema) increases the likelihood of Gestalt perception, which, through establishing a clear foreground and background, draws us into the illusory depth of the cinema screen, where we can be happily ignorant of our processes of perception. Syncretic perception, in opposition, is Gestalt­free perception (Ehrenzweig, 1967: 19­20), because if the meaning of Synaesthetic cinema derives from its relations, and structure and content are synonymous (Youngblood, 1970: 85), then each and every part is equally important in the generation of meaning; there is no ‘meaningful foreground’ and ‘non­meaningful background’ as there is in Gestalt perception. This method of generating meaning through the simultaneous perception of “harmonic opposites” (ibid) in a confused total field serves to mark Synaesthetic cinema as specifically collage, distinct from the filmic tradition of montage.
Filmic montage was pioneered by the filmmakers and film theorists now categorised as the ‘Soviet Realists’, operating in the early twentieth century. Two major strains of montage have emerged from that time, summarised as Eisenstein’s ‘atomic’ theory of montage­as­collision, and Pudovkin’s view of montage­as­linkage. Youngblood believes that Synaesthetic cinema subsumes both theories, explaining that: “there’s no conflict in harmonic opposites. Nor is there anything that might be called linkage. There is only a space­time continuum, a mosaic simultaneity” (1970: 85­86). Montage in the Soviet Realist tradition creates meaning through the relation of discrete elements of film edited together, so that meaning is generated at the points of collision or linkage between a line of building blocks ordered end­to­end, say, along the x­axis, read in a linear fashion. Collage takes this one­dimensional structure, and adds the second dimension, so that blocks may be added on top of each other, creating points of relation – and therefore generating meaning – along both the x and the y­axis. Furthermore, this means that unlike traditional montage, synaesthetic collage results in no obvious moments of collision or linkage, since it cannot be read linearly, and is “conceived and edited as one continuous perceptual experience... [it] is, in effect, one image continually transforming into other images: metamorphosis” (ibid). This metamorphic mode is significant to Youngblood’s conception of Synaesthetic cinema as ‘pure’ art because it is these clear moments of collision or linkage that enable montage to not only generate meaning, but drama. André Bazin described montage as “the dramatic analysis of action” (1967: 39), so to create a cinema that is non­narrative, one must avoid the structural element of drama, and therefore montage itself.
This is the point where Greenaway’s work most clearly begins to deviate from what we have so far understood as Synaesthetic cinema. The Tulse Luper films do show a metamorphic style, in which discrete elements blend together and change in a multi­dimensional way, however there are still moments of clear breakage, collision and linkage, which suggests a simultaneous use of montage. I would argue that Greenaway uses both collage and montage techniques in much of his work (primarily considering the Tulse Luper project of course) because as interested as he undoubtedly is in creating non­linear cinema and formal artistic concerns, he is unwilling to negate drama because the formal, conceptual­art side of his personality is dragged far away from complete abstraction by a deep and irrepressible fascination with subject matter. However, in the Tulse Luper films, Greenaway uses drama and subject matter in a similar way to Samuel Beckett, where the subject matter is still present (it is not, in an artistic sense, abstract), but is “reduced to an anecdote in terms of both dramatic function and social criticism”, creating a kind of drama in which “the determinate negation of content becomes its principle of form” (Adorno, 1970: 354). It is now necessary to explain how Greenaway could be able to subsume content within a greater formalistic technique, without losing a grip on subject matter entirely.
Synaesthetic filmmakers reduce the depth­of­field to “a total field of nonfocused multiplicity” (Youngblood, 1970: 85), which in turn enforces contemplation of visual relations through a negation of specific subject matter. Whilst The Tulse Luper Suitcases similarly forces the viewer to consider a multiplicity of interrelating elements, Greenaway achieves it the other way around; by presenting the viewer with a total field of equally focused multiplicity. This is because Greenaway has deep interest in exploring more than just formal concerns; he is not interested in just making ‘art for art’s sake’, but wants to explore many other kinds of subject matter – historical, aesthetic, personal – in one rich, synthetic space. It is therefore helpful to see Greenaway’s adoption of collage as related not to a Greenbergian concept of the artist purely and abstractly emphasising the flat of the canvas (or cinema screen), but rather as informed by Steinberg’s conception of the ‘flatbed picture plane’. In Other Criteria, Leo Steinberg explains that the axiom through which all Western art has traditionally been conceived as operating within is one which posits the artwork in relation to the upright human posture; the top of a painting “corresponds to where we hold our heads aloft; while its
lower edge gravitates to where we place our feet” (1972: 61). This has remained true even through the developments of Cubism and Abstract Expressionism, since the collages of Braque and Picasso still refer to implied acts of vision (they depict things we may once have seen), and even Pollock, despite the fact he executed his famous ‘drip’ paintings horizontally on the floor, would stand and consider his works tacked up on the wall; as vertically oriented compositions (ibid). In contrast, art which works within the axiom of the ‘flatbed picture plane’ (a term derived from the horizontal flatbed of a printing press) uses a “pictorial surface whose angulation with respect to the human posture is the precondition of its changed content”, an orientation that Steinberg views as “the characteristic picture plane of the 1960s” (ibid). This concept can be seen as strongly articulated in the work of Robert Rauschenberg, whose ‘combines’ allude not to observed matter, seen as through a window, but to organised matter, as if scattered upon a tabletop, a studio floor, a map, a chart, or even a catalogue. This radically alters the painted surface so that is it no longer an “analogue of a visual experience of nature but of operational processes” (1972: 62).
Perhaps the most significant point to be taken from Steinberg’s theory is that this change is not merely a stylistic change in compositional aesthetics (although that is significant in itself), but that the reorientation of the picture plane is “expressive of the most radical shift in the subject matter of art, the shift from nature to culture” (ibid). This point is incredibly important, and relates fully to the work of Greenaway; an artist who is fascinated by culture; whose interest in exploring culture through his work can only be described as obsessive.
It is here that we can fully understand the profound influence of R.B. Kitaj upon Greenaway’s work, an exhibition of which Greenaway viewed in 1963, with inspirational results:
“I suddenly saw this body of work that legitimised all I had hopes of one day doing. Kitaj legitimised text; he legitimised arcane and elitist information; he drew and painted as many as ten different ways on the same canvas; he threw ideas around like confetti, ideas that were both pure painterliness and direct Warburg quotation. There was unashamed political passion and extravagantly bold sexual imagery...” (Greenaway, 1991: 11)
The work of Kitaj, backed up by Steinberg’s theory of the ‘flatbed picture plane’, not only legitimised Greenaway’s interest in culture over nature, but provided him with the method with which to embark upon his artistic explorations. Collage is the only way in which Greenaway could combine a concern for formal modernity with a rich exploration of subject matter: traditional figurative painting (of the kind he was taught when studying mural painting at art college) was illusionistic and regressive, and yet abstraction (even rich, collaged abstraction exemplified by Youngblood’s conception of Synaesthetic cinema) meant a negation of subject matter. As Paul Melia explains in relation to Greenaway’s paintings:
“Collage emphasises arrangement; it is an aesthetic of conjoining that allows both the production of a vivid, flat surface – necessary at this time if one’s work was to count as, or at least look, modern – while at the same time enabling a vivid subject to be addressed. Having rejected narrative structures derived from literature, collage represented a distinctly modern technique with which he could structure his subject matter” (1998: 8)
Greenaway has used a collage aesthetic in almost all his paintings since the late 1960s, and although it has been implied in many of his feature films (through baroque excess), it only became a fully envisioned film aesthetic with the discovery of the post­production software ‘Graphic Paintbox’, which has led to the development of the new Greenaway style epitomised by The Tulse Luper Suitcases. However, the collage aesthetic is not quite enough to fully understand the ways in which the Tulse Luper project is structured in relation to modern forms of technology; for this we must turn to a more contemporary source of cultural theory.
Lev Manovich’s 2001 study, The Language of New Media, explores new, digital forms of media (which of course centre around computer technology) and attempts to read the ways they operate in relation to cultural history, with a focus upon art and cinema theory. Despite some difficult somewhat technical language (which is unavoidable on such a topic), the book is fascinating, and is certainly helpful for us to understand Greenaway’s recent work and the notion of collage in relation to digital technologies because it raises the concept of ‘database logic’ as the key form of cultural expression in the computer age (Manovich, 2001: 194). The computer scientist would define the database as “a structured collection of data” (ibid), which could arguably relate to any kind of book or film in the sense that they are a structured collection of building blocks (be it words, sentences, images or scenes). However, the crucial fact that databases are non­hierarchical and non­sequential in their method of organisation means that this concept relates only to non­conventional, non­narrative­centric works, such as Synaesthetic cinema, ‘flatbed picture plane’ collage, and The Tulse Luper Suitcases. In a database, there is no traditional sense of ordering, it is merely a collection of individual items, “where every item has the same significance as any other” (ibid). Of course, the Tulse Luper films do not completely avoid narrative, because, as we have noted, Greenaway would never be willing to completely negate subject matter, but what they do is to reconfigure narrative through database logic. The film is not so much a life story (although it does tell the story of Tulse Luper’s life) but a history of the twentieth century as the ‘uranium century’ (Noys, 2005), and all stems from the number 92, which has recurred through Greenaway’s career many times, and in fact originated from his miscounting of the number of parts in John Cage’s Indeterminacy Narrative (in which there are actually only ninety). This somewhat arbitrary number determines to some extent everything else that happens in the film, and sends Tulse Luper on a journey as absurd as the Borgesian encyclopaedia of objects which he collects in his 92 suitcases along the way (it almost goes without saying that each one contains 92 objects). This means that although the films do not completely negate cause and effect logic and narrative, the organising and structuring principle as a whole is explicitly and symbolically non­narrative (ibid).
The database structure is perhaps most effectively articulated on the website (, which, although unfinished, presents the project broken into hundreds of disparate elements; images, stories, dates, charts, maps, and information that can all be accessed in a non­sequential, democratic manner. This suggests that although the films do present the material in a narrative sense, they are really just one way of arranging the database; Greenaway’s ‘personal history of uranium’; a point which reminds us of Greenaway’s doctrine for the project: “there is no such thing as history, there are only historians”.
This point is further articulated through the online game ( and the live VJ events. The game effectively allows the user to become historian; by enabling one to rearrange and swap fragments of the films with other users, we are reminded that our sense of history is both personal and collective, but never definite. The VJ events not only allow Greenaway to take cinema out of the theatre, but, as a live event focused on the concept of ‘remixing’ filmic material, destroy the conception of film – or artwork – as artefact. By embracing new touch­screen technology Greenaway has also extended the visual language of collage into a new hypermediate dimension, in which fragments of visual and aural data can be plucked from any point in the database and arranged on a multiplicity of screens to work in different ways through both space and time. This kind of performance is, perhaps, the closest Greenaway has come to fulfilling the Wagnerian search for the Gesamtkunstwerk, and brings together these many different concepts in one live event: a synaesthetic sense of simultaneity and multiplicity of perception, synaesthetic metamorphosis, the non­narrative database, Gestalt­free collage, and ‘flatbed picture plane’ collage (almost literally, as Greenaway is able to manipulate discrete visual elements as if pushing cuttings or bits of paper around a table top). Perhaps most satisfyingly for Greenaway (evidenced by the fact that he has continued to perform VJ events several years after he has left the rest of the project behind), it not only allows him to experience the excitement of live performance and collaboration with a DJ, but enables him to take the position as ultimate auteur, or rather, performance artist; an organisational conductor figure who has almost infinite combinations of rich visual material at his fingertips. Although this authorial position seems to be in opposition to the idea of postmodern chaos, Greenaway is highlighting the history­making process as an organisational performance; parts of the story can be focused upon or left out the frame completely, almost at a whim. By continually repeating the performance (with different results) Greenaway is not only emphasising the sense of multiplicity inherent in the database form, but the multiplicity of different perspectives; there are an almost infinite number of possibilities from which a filmmaker or artist can choose, and when the excluded information is as important as that within the frame, it becomes clear that Youngblood’s (via Herbert Read’s) definition of the role of the artist is correct, and that through these events (and the project as a whole) Greenaway is not trying to tell the whole story, or instil order upon chaos, but is, in a truly postmodern sense, unveiling the process of perception and thus the subjectivity of knowledge.
I would like to conclude by introducing a consideration of Theodor W. Adorno’s theories on what can be considered ‘true’ or ‘authentic’ art within a capitalist society. As a neo­Marxist philosopher, Adorno is deeply critical of what he labels the ‘culture industry’; the system which exists to produce cultural goods in order to make money from gullible consumers who are distracted from the standardisation of products through tricks of pseudo­individualisation and trapped within a consumerist lifestyle by a sense of commodity­fetish and the relief provided by escapist entertainment. By buying into culture as entertainment, Adorno argues, the consumer reinforces society’s dominant ideology (consumer capitalism) and therefore does nothing to change the exploitative relations at the heart of that ideology. The film or music purchased therefore can be said to not serve the objective interests of the audience, but only to increase the likelihood of misery and alienation once the credits have rolled or the CD has stopped spinning. This may seem irrelevant, but whether one agrees with Adorno’s position or not, it is useful because he provides us with a method of gauging the extent to which we can consider cultural goods as art, or merely entertainment. He was also incredibly pessimistic about the possibility of meaningful art being produced in contemporary society, so if Greenaway’s Tulse Luper project can satisfactorily fit his conception of ‘authentic’ art, it is not unreasonable to claim that this study has achieved its aim in some sense at least.
In Aesthetic Theory (1970), Adorno brings forward in time a Hegelian question, in order to ask whether art can survive in late­Capitalist society, combined with a consideration of the Marxist question of whether art can actually bring forth significant change in the world. Although the second question must be left for another study altogether, Greenaway provides us with a positive answer to the first. The online Stanford Encyclopaedia of Philosophy gives an excellent summary of Adorno’s conception of art as explored in Aesthetic Theory:
“Adorno retains from Kant the notion that art proper ("fine art" or "beautiful art"—schöne Kunst—in Kant's vocabulary) is characterized by formal autonomy. But Adorno combines this Kantian emphasis on form with Hegel's emphasis on intellectual import (geistiger Gehalt) and Marx's emphasis on art's embeddedness in society as a whole. The result is a complex account of the simultaneous necessity and illusoriness of the artwork's autonomy”.
In order to fully understand the Tulse Luper project in Adornian terms, we also may combine this concept with some of Adorno’s earlier writing, which although focuses upon music, applies perfectly to other forms of art as well. Adorno believes that meaning originates from formal art through the relation of individual discrete elements to each other and to the work as a whole. This is important because if art must relate to society on a formal level, it must represent both the individual and the collective. He argues that in popular music (which we may apply equally to Hollywood cinema), these details become fetishised, and therefore perform a diversionary function; distracting the listener or viewer from appreciation of the whole (and the musician or filmmaker from writing in a holistic manner), and that therefore they “suspend the critique which the successful aesthetic totality exerts against the flawed one of society” (1938: 291). Additionally to this, Adorno also argued that the ‘authentic’ artwork must use the most advanced compositional materials at hand, therefore the artist must be aware that he is continuing a greater tradition based upon innovative transgressions, whilst making sure that because these innovative moments are not meaningful on their own, they must be integrated synthetically within the whole, rather than being served up as “diffuse culinary moments” (1938: 290). Hopefully, it is gradually becoming apparent how Adorno’s conditions can be applied to Greenaway’s Tulse Luper project. Through the technique of collage, the Tulse Luper films graphically embody the notion of the artwork as a synthetic whole composed of discrete, interrelating elements, from which meaning emerges in a formalistic manner. Viewing the entire project as Gesamtkunstwerk or “mega­
cinema” in a macrocosmic sense, one can see that this applies equally to all the different parts of it (the films’ graphical and aural modes, the website, online game and VJ performances) which relate to each other formally to make a synthetic whole bound by an overriding concept, or rather, multiplicity of interrelating concepts. As seen in the Tulse Luper films, this emphasis on form is necessarily related to a rejection of illusory realism. Adorno argues that:
“today art is most valid when it proves itself intransigent to the deception of realism, refusing to put up with all that is innocent and harmless. If it is to live on, it must elevate social criticism to the level of form, de­emphasizing manifestly social content accordingly” (1970: 354).
As an artist, Greenaway is aware not only of the illusory nature of representation and the subjective nature of knowledge, but also the “simultaneous necessity and illusoriness of the artwork's autonomy”, which is a point especially pertinent to a filmmaker working within an arguably industrial process. Greenaway proves that it is possible to create meaningful art even if one is in the ‘film industry’, because through financial autonomy one can step away from the dominant social ideology and take a critical stance.
Lastly, the Tulse Luper project shows that Greenaway is keen to use advanced, up­to­date materials, both in a conceptual sense (through adoption of the database form), a graphical sense (hypermedia methods of visual multiplicity in the films for instance) and a technological sense (through the use of the internet, advanced editing software and the various parts of technology that enable the VJ performances). To ensure that the art world does not become divorced from changes in contemporary society, I believe it is crucial for artists to embrace new technologies, and for the art world (in an institutional sense) to dispel the notion of fine artwork as artefact so that new technologies may be used by artists without them fearing that the loss of “aura” involved in moving from painting or sculpture to less tangible mediums such as video or internet­based work means a loss in value: it should be clear that art’s value is intellectual; it comes from what it says and how effectively it says it (in Marxist terms, its use­value) rather than its price (exchange­value). Artists like Greenaway need to be praised as such, for he shows that adopting new technology need not be seen as a compromise for modernity’s sake, but rather a whole new toolbox with which to expand the language of art. Since his realisation of the power of collage in 1963, Greenaway has consistently proved that it is possible to be modern and relevant in method without disregarding content, concepts, painterliness, the skill of the draughtsman, the human body, the natural world, beauty, horror, sex, death, myths, light, form, depth, illusion, composition and all the other elements that have always made fine art such a vibrant and challenging part of humanity. Greenaway has shown that art can – and should – branch into areas where its footing is unsure; intangibility should not be equated with a lack of intellectual depth; lack of ‘aura’ should not be equated with a lack of value; multiplicity does not mean a lack of cohesion; breaking conventions does not equate to a break in the continuation of art tradition; one may move eagerly forward not neglectful of, but propelled by a deeply passionate interest in art’s long and rich history. For these reasons, Greenaway should be considered a true artist, an artist whose body of work deserves a place not only in the history of film, or even film art, but in the history of fine art, in the broadest and most significant sense of the term. Bibliography
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A Zed and Two Noughts, Greenaway, UK, 1985
L'année dernière à Marienbad (Last Year at Marienbad), Resnais, France, 1961
L'Arrivée d'un Train en Gare de la Ciotat, Lumière, France, 1895
The Baby of Mâcon, Greenaway, UK, 1993
Belly of an Architect, Greenaway, UK, 1987
The Cook, the Thief, His Wife & Her Lover, Greenaway, UK, 1989
Det Sjunde Inseglet (The Seventh Seal), Bergman, Sweden, 1958
The Draughtsman’s Contract, Greenaway, UK, 1982
Fear of Drowning, Greenaway, UK, 1988
Hiroshima Mon Amour, Resnais, France, 1959
The Pillow Book, Greenaway, UK, 1996
Prospero’s Books, Greenaway, UK, 1991
The Tulse Luper Suitcases, Part 1: The Moab Story, Greenaway, UK, 2003
Vertical Features Remake, Greenaway, UK, 1978
Le voyage dans la Lune, Méliès, France, 1902

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