Three Great Things: Peter Greenaway

The iconoclastic British filmmaker, whose legendary debut, The Draughtsman's Contract, is out now in a 4K restoration, on some of his passions.

The Three Great things for me are Painting, History and Natural History. Big things, big ideas – suggesting limitless scope. And traveling far and wide, big and small. And when acting together really for me, I suppose, leave nothing out.

I began my career as a painter, I suspect because of an adolescent anxiety. My grandfather and my father had green fingers. Stick anything in the ground for them and it will grow. But in growing, it changes. Nothing stands still. I felt insecure that nothing stayed the same. I needed to stop the impermanence. Spring follows winter and summer follows spring. Leaves die, fruit rots. I wanted to fix things, hold them steady, record them, hold them fast. I decided that to draw things, events, objects – was a way to pin things down. All children can draw. So I drew everything. No doubt with naivety. From things seen to things imagined was not such a great step. I became excited by drawing ideas – maps, plans, diagrams. I still paint endlessly and the characteristics have not changed that much – still, in a way, maps, plans and diagrams now compete with systems, lists, list-making, strategies, alphabets, numerical games. And looking over the sixty-odd films I have completed and the countless films I have not, I can understand that they all start with the desire to draw them, fix them, pin them down.

There are downsides to this. I remember an unsympathetic Time Out film critic once said, “That’s what Mr. Greenaway does. He kills butterflies and fixes them with pins,” a suggestion that somehow I lost the notion of serendipity, the idea of fluidity, the desire to not let things go. There has to be a price to pay and a drawn image is, of course, never as exciting as a live image. Perhaps he understood the metaphor correctly. It is true there is still a determined effort to be exact, to leave little to chance, to conscientiously fill the frame with meaningful stuff. You can see that in The Draughtsman’s Contract. And the entomological idea is not so far off the mark. I collected insects since I was about 14. Charles Darwin, who also collected beetles, was my hero. He still is.

To create Art was my way of coping with my anxiety, so I thought, “If I’m going to do this properly, I ought to learn the trade,” and by the time I was 17 or 18, I had ambitions to become a painter. Against all parental opposition, I struggled to get to such a place. My cautionary parents were very fond of saying, “How on earth are you going to earn a living as a painter?” However, I fought and eventually ended up at art school, the place in the early ‘60s where I was introduced to virtually everything, including music, sex, love and cinema. The moving image was bountiful – it had 24 frames every second.

Natural History
With the acknowledgement that in nature nothing stays still, you better get used to it if you want to use it or be associated with it, be entertained by or fascinated by it. I painted landscapes. I lived in Essex, the county between London and the English Channel, and got to know that landscape along with Suffolk and Norfolk very well. Look at Drowning By Numbers. My father was a gifted amateur ornithologist and he would take me and my brother out on bird-watching trips. I would tag along, aged about eight, with a pair of binoculars strapped to my eyes and wearing rubber boots, trudging through marshes and forests in all weathers. He was fascinated by birds that live between freshwater and saltwater, so the beaches of northern Europe became a playground. I made many films in the next 20 years about beaches, water, sand and birds.

I didn’t get on very well with my father, but we kept a respectable distance from one another, and by osmosis I picked up large amounts of his observable and observed knowledge. I started collecting insects, which are, of course, what many birds eat, so before very long I was going through the countryside with a butterfly net and killing poisons, finding rare beetles in bogs and under logs – and assembling a large collection of insects. My finds were getting rare – irresponsible. I was big-game hunting on a small scale. Pursuing my interests, I journeyed to natural history museums in Western Europe, principally in France and Italy, and so my academic knowledge about the natural world began to grow.

It has been said that history is a branch of literature. And the most read history tends to be the well-written history, which is not necessarily truthful but highly subjective and often narcissistic. Why, after all, let the truth get in the way of a good story? Look at the films Amadeus and Gladiator. Julius Caesar and Winston Churchill, two of the most famous writers of history, could be said to make personal belief into historical truth. History cannot be visited by eye-witnesses, and tends to be written rather than painted, and tends to be written by the victorious, and is colored by “might is right.” But it is an almost non-ending bank of numerous narratives, plots and stories. No wonder cinema exploits its vagaries. We live with its creations.

We’re living in the year 2022 now, but why is it 2022? An absurd reason – because a child was born in an obscure Judean village about three thousand miles away from where I am now in Amsterdam, a city unknown in Judea two millennia ago. An arbitrary phenomenon hardly relevant to Muslims, Taoists or Buddhists. A very Western, Christian idea. I have often wondered, should we start again from the year zero? And if we do – from where should we start? How about from when man first landed on the moon, which is the first example of our strategy of leaving our own planet? We are nothing without memory. And though inexact, untruthful, and biased, history is collective memory.

Peter Greenaway’s debut feature, the flamboyant, lavish and inventive period piece The Draughtsman’s Contract, is out now in theaters in a 40th anniversary 4K restoration. A visual artist turned filmmaker, Greenaway has established a career making bizarre, intensely personal films, with his talents and obsession finding a platform in films such as A Zed & Two Noughts, Drowning by Numbers, The Cook, The Thief, His, Wife and Her Lover, Prospero’s Books and The Pillow Book and The Tulse Luper Suitcases.