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September 03, 2002

DVD Journal: "8 1/2 Women"

Michael Blowhard writes:

Dear Friedrich --

My Sadist-within ran away with me last night (it happens occasionally), and I made the wife sit through Peter Greenaway's "8 1/2 Women" -- on DVD, thankfully, so we were able to riffle through the movie quickly. (Have you noticed how DVDs turn movies into something like books? Linear and/or nonlinear -- it's up to you. If you want to taste-test instead of submitting to the whole one-course-after-another process, go right ahead.)

Have you checked out any Greenaway? He has his loyalists and fans; I find his films about as annoying as can be. He's theoretical and presentational, like a too-brilliant-for-his-own-good professor putting together an art installation. Here, he seems to want to fuse Baroque opera practice with Kabuki, and both with the most up-to-date (ie., incomprehensible) ArtForum theory.

greenaway 2.jpg Baroque Kabuki?

His fans love that he's "challenging" (he certainly is), find his imagery beautiful, and love his hyperintellectual approach to story, which they seem to enjoy as a stinging rebuke to the usual squaresville approach. (Do you understand the contempt a lot of semi-sophisticates feel for straightforward storytelling? I don't. Or rather, I do, and ain't it a pity.)

There's a gaudily narcissistic quality to his movies. He makes you feel stupid (he's so smart!) and superior (because you're sitting at his table) at the same time, which I guess has its appeal. He lays on the grotesquerie (sudden, strikingly repulsive closeups), yet it's all very strict and controlled.

greenaway 4.jpg

"8 1/2 Women"'s story is about a rich father and son who, having lost the family's mother and having gone to see "8 1/2," set out to surround themselves with women (one is pregnant, hence the half). But mainly what you're watching are avant-garde hijinks, spiced with a slashingly-defiant and confident lot of nudity and sex talk. (It's set in the present, but it feels like everyone in the film is wearing a perruque, and overdoes the rouge and cosmetic facial moles.)

Almost unwatchable, is my verdict, not because Greenaway isn't talented (he is), and his movies aren't impressive (they are), but because I hate his sensibility, which I find inhuman. He reminds me of a far-out academic architect, whose highbrow reputation is based on incomprehensible MIT Press-published musings and who impresses the likes of the Times' Herbert Muschamp. Ie., lauded and admired because he's so impossible and difficult. He makes Kubrick, to whom his work bears a little resemblance (presentational, intellectual), seem like a hustling, garrulous guy-next-door.

A question runs through my brain as I think about Greenaway's movies: why do I find the kind of thing he does fairly easy to take at the theater? I don't mind sitting through the occasional (as in once every five years) Robert Wilson production at BAM. I'm able to sit there thinking, ahhhh, Euro-state-subsidized avant-garde theater, let's see what they're up to now. But when the same thing is given to me in the form of a movie, I find it offputting.

I'm not sure how to answer this question. Ideas? I keep falling back on the idea that there might be something about movies that makes you want an easier acceptance of the cheap and easy. But then I remember how much I enjoy some really lofty, high-falutin' movies -- Godard, for instance.

What do I find enjoyable about Godard and dislike about Greenaway? Is it the aggressiveness of Greenaway's attack? The way everything in his movies is a stinging rebuke to easy pleasure? And how can I like actual baroque opera and dislike Greenaway? Hmm. Well, artificial as it can be, baroque opera does also tend to the lowdown and luscious -- it isn't theoretical, at least not in a hypermodernist way.

An Intellectual's Strict Fantasia

What I think my dislike of Greenaway boils down to is this: I dislike his professorial, more-difficult-than-anyone, twee intellectual preening aggressiveness. He rubs your nose in his brilliance, and seems to expect you to be grateful. I remember a party I went to some years back. It was full of academics and it was a nightmare. The profs couldn't help themselves; they were all competing for "smartest in the room" awards. I find watching a Greenaway movie like being trapped at such a party.

Greenaway might be the world's most charming guy, and might be wonderfully outgoing company. (He does somehow manage to scare up money for his films, and to attract first-rate performers.) But his films feel like the product of a tiresome intellectual prick. He's the new Alain Resnais -- and, come to think of it, one of his cinematographers on "8 1/2 Women" is Sascha Vierney, who used to shoot Resnais' movies.

greenaway 8.jpg

That said, I applaud the artiness of his movies, their grown-upness, and especially his defiant use of lots of male and female nudity. In "8 1/2 Women," you get some good looks at the lead male actors (like I care, but what the heck, and fair's fair, etc), as well as at Polly Walker (a dark-haired/sensual/classy Jacqueline Bisset type), and Toni Collette, who I always find fascinating.

A question for the day -- heck, a question I always enjoy thinking about: why will a performer take his/her clothes off in one movie and not in another? Current semi-answer: They seem to need to feel good about the project and about the director. (They aren't just doing what they do for the money; they aren't just hookers. I find the fact that making this point is so important to performers charming and touching.) Greenaway has a knack for putting an art frame around what he does, and the performers give themselves over in shocking and bold ways. Good for him; good for them.

Now, if only I enjoyed the damn movies...



posted by Michael at September 3, 2002


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