“What the Fuck Are You Doing in the Dark?”

At least, that’s what British filmmaker (media maker?) Peter Greenaway is asking in this interview on Dutch television. Essentially, Greenaway is arguing that traditional linear cinema is “dead,” its storylines and techniques utterly exhausted and that it should be replaced with a more interactive model based on the logic of the DJ or VJ. The interview repeats many of the arguments he made several years ago in his 2003 Cinema Militans lecture of 2003–including his claim that cinema died in September 31, 1983, with the mass marketing of the remote control–so this interview may be a few years old (oddly, no one has mentioned the fact that September has only 30 days). But it’s still interesting and entertaining to see Greenaway, whose films have frequently deployed non-linear or database aesthetics, speaking so passionately about the changes in our media landscape.

I’ve been working through some of these ideas for a while now as I move towards the completion of my book, and I think that what fascinates me most, especially in Greenaway’s case, is the will to declare cinema dead. In fact, Greenaway seems to relish standing over the dead medium of film with the murder weapon–the remote control–in hand as cinema is replaced by something else.  Greenaway also defines the cinema experience in a somewhat limited way, with passive viewers seated in a darkened auditorium looking in a single direction, which is of course, not how most of us experience movies today (most people watch at home on VHS, DVD, or TV in rooms that are not fully darkened), but I like that Greenaway is bringing issues of the body into movie watching because for all our discussions of rapt audiences being caught up in the images projected on the screen, watching movies in whatever setting is still a physical, or bodily, experience.

Thanks to Screen Grab and The House Next Door for the links.  Screen Grab also pointed to segments from a couple of Greenaway’s performances as a VJ at PICNIC in Amsterdam in September 2006 and at the STRP Festival also in 2006.


  1. Chris Said,

    July 15, 2007 @ 7:36 pm

    These are some interesting comments (from you and Greenaway). But you do have to bring up that Greenaway has never really relished traditional storytelling methods. His films are the proof of that — they’re full of seemingly random images, superimposed images, bizarre symbols, etc. He’s been actively working against traditional cinema for years. Not that this undercuts his point at all — I think I’m just pointing out that it’s not surprising to see him seeming “to relish standing over the dead medium of film with the murder weapon–the remote control–in hand.”

  2. Chuck Said,

    July 15, 2007 @ 7:53 pm

    I don’t agree entirely with Greenaway, and I should have made that much clearer. I think you’re right, Chris, that Greenaway is trying to make space for his narrative experiments, so his comments aren’t that surprising. I’m also skeptical of his arguments that the remote control changes how we interact with films (just because the remote control exists doesn’t mean we all want to chop up or fast forward through the movies we watch).

    I was thinking of Prospero’s Books and The Pillow Book, especially, when I described Greenaway as having a “database aesthetic.”

  3. Chris Said,

    July 16, 2007 @ 11:12 am

    I didn’t think you agreed completely. And I’m with you — he had some interesting points, but I also don’t agree 100%. The remote control argument — i agree; people are always fond of pronouncing the “death of” something. I don’t see the remote as that death. I do see the ipod and the DVR as potentially spelling doom for traditional movie watching/going… Time shifting movies has led to watching little bits of them and “jumping ahead”. I have done the “watching little bits at a time” — and though I can get through an entire movie like that, it’s not a rewarding experience, and I don’t have the same recollection of a movie (nor do I have the appropriate emotional of intellectual response).

  4. Chuck Said,

    July 16, 2007 @ 12:44 pm

    I’m less likely to finish a movie if I watch it in chunks, so I rarely do that. But I may be somewhat rare in that regard in that I can generally ensure that I can watch a movie uninterrupted if I choose (and therefore get that optimal viewing experience).

    I’m still torn about the potential effects of the video iPod. On the one hand, they can promote more personalized media experiences that are quite unlike the public experiences of moviegoing that I relish (I see 25-30 movies or more every year in theaters), but I’m less convinced that mobile video technologies will necessarily substitute for moviegoing as a practice.

    Still thinking about these ideas, but I think Greenaway’s an interesting reference point.

  5. Chris Said,

    July 16, 2007 @ 3:54 pm

    I’m not sure it will substitute, but with prices rising for seeing a movie in theaters, I wouldn’t be surprised either. My students seem to see less movies in the theater and don’t think twice about a movie as a “home experience” (i.e., DVD or iPod). And I don’t mind watching certain movies on on iPod, but then again, I’ve been going to the movies by myself for years.

    I watch movies in chunks out of necessity — I have four kids and can’t always find the time to finish a movie…

  6. Chuck Said,

    July 16, 2007 @ 4:18 pm

    I just experimented with watching a movie (The Candidate which I’d somehow never watched) streamed from Netflix, and I an see how that would be enticing, especially if they can find a way to offer a larger number of films that way.

    In terms of watching movies in chunks, I knew you had four kids, so I knew our experiences were different there.

  7. Chris Said,

    July 16, 2007 @ 4:32 pm

    I much prefer to watch a movie in the theater with no interruptions. It makes me think that, in spite of our preferences, we watch movies the most convenient way (as opposed to not watching at all). Though I prefer one way of viewing, I’ll accept another if it means it’s the only way I can watch. In the past, people didn’t have these other options. Now that they’re available, it’s inevitable that they’ll siphon off some viewership, because people just naturally get busier and busier…

  8. Chuck Said,

    July 16, 2007 @ 4:41 pm

    Yeah, I think it’s easy to forget just how few options were available for movie watching even as recently as the early/mid-1980s when VCRs and cable first became popular.

    And I think you’re right about the desire for viewing options being tied to busy-ness. When does all of this “free time” I keep hearing about finally start?

  9. gary freedman Said,

    July 23, 2007 @ 1:12 pm

    very fucking insightful.

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