The following article, which originally appeared in the April 20, 1990 issue of the Chicago Reader, without any star rating, is the only time I can recall writing at length in the Reader about an American TV series. (An edited version of this piece appears in a 1995 collection edited by David Lavery for Wayne State University Press, Full of Secrets: Critical Approaches to Twin Peaks). From a vantage point of almost two decades later, I wouldn’t be as quick today to insist that David Lynch’s work is devoid of any social commentary. What he has to say about the Hollywood community alone, especially in Inland Empire (2006), shows that he’s no longer as detached as he was.–J.R.
Directed and written by David Lynch, Mark Frost, and others.
With Kyle MacLachlan, Michael Ontkean, Piper Laurie, Joan Chen, Madchen Amick, Dana Ashbrook, and Richard Beymer.
In my opinion, the first problem–the most important problem in our world—is the problem of dissemination, and it’s the conception of this dissemination that may lead to catastrophe. . . . The way it’s used now, the influence of the masses leads to nothing but the scattering of material. For example, think of a liter of wine: it’s certainly sufficient when shared by three or four people. But if we want this same liter of wine to be shared by one thousand people, we have to put water in it, and then it’s useless. We have to wonder whether something like this doesn’t happen in the process of dissemination. —Jean Renoir, 1957
“Wars, conflict—it’s all business. One murder makes a villain, millions a hero. Numbers sanctify, my good fellow.” The remark of Monsieur Verdoux to a reporter near the end of Charlie Chaplin’s 1947 feature finds a striking application in the media’s response to David Lynch over the past 13 years. When the remarkable and independent Eraserhead, his first and by all counts most artistic feature, received its world premiere at Los Angeles’s Filmex on March 19, 1977, the review in Variety was far from enthusiastic. “Dismal American Film Institute exercise in gore,” ran the headline, adding, “Commercial prospects nil.” The review conceded that this “sickening bad-taste exercise” had “good tech values (particularly the inventive sound mixing), but little substance or subtlety. . . . Lynch seems bent on emulating Herschell Gordon Lewis, the king of low-budget gore.”
Two and a half years later, after Eraserhead had gone on to achieve some success as a midnight feature, it opened for a week’s run at New York’s Cinema II. It did dismal business, and the New York Times gave it a review that was every bit as hostile and dismissive as the one in Variety, calling it “murkily pretentious,” “interminable,” and “sophomoric.” But over the past decade, Lynch has gradually learned how to expand his audience by working in more popular forms—in The Elephant Man, Dune, Blue Velvet, and now, watering down his eccentricity and artistry still further, in the TV miniseries Twin Peaks, the pilot of which was broadcast on ABC on April 7. And the response of both the media and his audience to this development has been little short of rapturous.
“The year’s best show!” crowed the cover of Entertainment Weekly; “the wingdingiest thing to make it onto network television in many a full moon,” echoed Ken Tucker in the same magazine. “An erotic watershed in the history of broadcast TV,” claimed Amy Taubin in the Village Voice. “As in a Fellini film, strange moments abound,” wrote Timothy Carlson in TV Guide. And in the New Yorker Terrence Rafferty called it “an exhilarating ride, at once scary and mysteriously tranquil, like the children’s nighttime journey down the river in The Night of the Hunter.” This followed a favorable comparison of Twin Peaks to Buñuel’s The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie, in which Rafferty went so far as to imagine Buñuel turning his film into an extended TV series as well.
It’s hard to quarrel with the enthusiasm of the TV reviewers. In the context of mainstream television, even diluted Lynch is a welcome jolt. But when movie critics start comparing Twin Peaks to art films, it’s time to wonder whether someone—critic or reader—is being sold a bill of goods.
Though it seems reasonable enough to regard Lynch, the director and cowriter (with Mark Frost) of the pilot, a surrealist, linking him with the Latin surrealism of a Buñuel (or even the Latin semi-surrealism of a Fellini) is a grotesque kind of shorthand, one that pares away most of what makes both filmmakers distinctive. The drier Belgian surrealism of painters like Paul Delvaux and Rene Magritte [see below]—bourgeois surrealists whose nearest well-known American equivalent might be Edward Hopper—is much closer to Lynch’s turf, as is the Belgian filmmaker Chantal Akerman. All these artists excel in taking familiar bourgeois settings and situations and eroding them with creepy undertones, a lingering sense of disquiet—a tactic that is quite different from inflating them into cartoons (Fellini), turning them into poetic fairy-tale landscapes (Charles Laughton’s The Night of the Hunter), or exploding them (Buñuel).
This distinction is important because Surrealism as an organized movement began largely as social protest, with Buñuel one of its most committed members throughout the span of his career. (To imagine Buñuel turning one of his most corrosive masterpieces into a TV series is roughly tantamount to imagining Eisenstein directing one of the Rambo sequels.) Lynch, by contrast, has never shown the slightest inclination toward social commentary, much less protest. Eraserhead, a very private meditation about fears concerning sex, procreation, and parenthood, is founded on a certain biological determinism that is pessimistic and conservative in its implications, with no hint of any social analysis in sight. The Elephant Man and Dune, both of which were inherited by Lynch and based on books, are a little harder to judge, but neither seems very engaged with the social aspects of its material; the fake piety of the former and the awkward, mechanical exposition of the latter both suggest that Lynch was essentially mining the stories for opportunities to “do his thing.” Lynch’s social orientation becomes much clearer with Blue Velvet, and now Twin Peaks: it consists basically of an infatuation with 50s small-town America and its dirty little secrets, coupled with a view of women that essentially regards them as either madonnas or whores. A nostalgic regression, in short, to the worst aspects of the Eisenhower era—the site of his adolescence—represents the sum of Lynch’s social agenda, which is light-years away from that of Luis Buñuel.
If I’ve singled out Terrence Rafferty for attack, it’s only because his review expresses the desire to liberate Twin Peaks from its ideology even more nakedly than the other forms of hype I’ve encountered. There’s something wistfully, desperately, and quintessentially American, as well as postmodernist, about collapsing a Marxist anarchist devoted to the overthrow of bourgeois complacency (and, initially, of civilization itself) into a formalist with no interest whatever in altering the status quo. (”I couldn’t care less about changing the conventions of mainstream television,” Lynch remarked in an interview published in the London newspaper the Independent last November; he repeats the same sentiment in the current issue of Elle, and there’s no reason to doubt his sincerity.)
Under the circumstances, it seems useful to point out that with a sheriff and a federal agent as its principal charismatic male buddies, a sentimentality about homecoming queens that borders on gush, a Reaganite preference for the wealthy over the poor (and for WASPS over everyone else), and a puritanical Peyton Place brand of sociology, Twin Peaks is ideologically no different from other prime-time serials; if it is supposed to be leading us to the promised land, it is still hauling the worst of our 80s and 90s baggage along with us. Lynch’s attitude toward this baggage, moreover, seems not so much committed as expedient. One might simply say that he’s an artist who likes to hang his work—his arresting compositions, weird ideas, and haunting sounds—in the biggest museums he can find; prime-time TV, baggage and all, offers the biggest museum in the world.
The distance traveled by Lynch in prestige from Herschell Gordon Lewis to Buñuel and Fellini is certainly not a matter of any increase in craft or artistic maturity—or, rather, it is only if one identifies these values exclusively with a capacity to reach a wider audience. It can be argued, for instance, that the absence of Alan Splet on Twin Peaks—the prodigious sound technician on Lynch’s previous features—points to a corresponding shrinkage in the originality, range, and effectiveness of Lynch’s aural palette. And seen more generally in terms of Lynch’s career as a “pure” artist following his own bents, Twin Peaks is in many ways as much of a step down from Blue Velvet as that film was from Eraserhead.
But context has a way of changing everything; as Chaplin’s Verdoux puts it, “Numbers sanctify,” and because we live in a culture where it’s generally considered more important for watered-down wine to reach a thousand people than for the pure stuff to reach three or four, the progressive watering down of Lynch’s art has generally been applauded. The two-hour Twin Peaks pilot wound up reaching almost 20 million households, roughly twice the number watching any competing show, and the first regular one-hour episode, four nights later, nearly tied in ratings with the popular sitcom Cheers. The fact that a media blitz helped to gain the show its initial audience only serves to intensify the process of Lynch’s upgrading—giving the hype some of the aspects of a self-fulfilling prophecy.
In order to get a clear sense of what Twin Peaks is actually up to, one must consider both its authorship and the open-ended nature of the series. Only the pilot and episode number 2 (the third installment counting the pilot, to be shown April 19) were directed by Lynch; he cowrote the pilot and first two episodes with TV veteran Mark Frost, and he and Frost served as executive producers on all seven episodes, which means they supervised and approved all that they weren’t directly involved in. Frost wrote episodes 5 and 7 single-handedly and directed 7; the other directors in the series include film editor Dwayne Dunham (1), who edited the pilot; Tina Rathbone (3), who directed the recent Zelly and Me (in which Lynch costarred); Tim Hunter (4), whose best-known directorial credits are Tex and River’s Edge; and cinematographer Caleb Deschanel (6), who directed The Escape Artist.
Several separate endings to the series have already been filmed by Lynch, and the question of which one will be used on American TV largely depends on whether or not the series becomes a regular show in the fall. The pilot is currently available on video in 13 other countries in a version that’s 18 minutes longer, including an epilogue set 25 years in the future. When and how this longer version of the pilot will become available in the U.S. is not yet clear, but what is clear from various overseas reviews is that the epilogue leaves a good many plot questions hanging; although the torturer and murderer of Laura and other female victims is revealed, the resolution has been described as “arbitrary,” and one that leaves a lot of red herrings in its wake. (The epilogue, moreover, to judge from descriptions in both Monthly Film Bulletin and Cahiers du Cinéma, is more avant-garde and less explicable in narrative terms than anything in the pilot.)
Lynch’s major achievement in all this is that he plays strictly by the dubious rules of his elected genre and still finds numerous opportunities to display his quirky humor and other forms of aesthetic distancing. The results are both formulaic and goofy—a far cry from the overall coherence of an Eraserhead (or a Feuillade serial, to cite another of Terrence Rafferty’s strained comparisons), but certainly a bright development in a moribund genre, and a story that sets up enough mysteries to get some genuine momentum going. (Whatever my doubts or misgivings about the series as a whole, I expect to stay plugged in through the final episode on May 24.)
The novel elements of the two-hour pilot have little to do with basic aspects of the characters or plot; rather they are matters of mise en scène and certain areas of emphasis involving quirks in the characters and plot. One of my favorite quirky moments occurs close to the beginning, following a credit sequence comprising tranquil views of the fictional northwestern town of Twin Peaks. Pete Martell (played by Lynch regular Jack Nance) discovers the nude body of a tortured and murdered teenage girl named Laura Palmer wrapped in plastic beside a lake; he calls the sheriff’s office in shock, and the sheriff’s secretary Lucy (Kimmy Robertson) summons the sheriff (Michael Ontkean)—who happens to be named Harry S. Truman—to the phone in the following manner: “I’m going to transfer it, the phone on the table by the red chair—the red chair against the wall. The little table with the lamp on it—the lamp that we moved from the corner? The black phone, not the brown phone.”
This totally inessential and daffy piece of confusion injected into a grim (if generic) moment is an early signal that Lynch’s auteurist identity is mainly going to proceed neither with nor through the plot, but at oblique angles to it. This is pretty much the pattern that he follows throughout the pilot—carving out little pockets in the mechanical plot and creating shapely formalist designs inside them. Where these designs differ most from those in his previous pictures is in his willingness to adapt them to the purely narrative dictates of the serial form. If a fluorescent light splutters over Laura’s corpse in the morgue, creating a typically Lynchian visual and rhythmic pattern, there’s a line of dialogue by an attendant (”I think it’s a bad transformer”) that serves to account for it. If a gigantic elk’s head covers much of a table in a small room where the sheriff and federal agent Dale Cooper (Kyle MacLachlan) are about to examine the contents of Laura’s secret safety-deposit box, you can be sure that someone—in this case a bank assistant—will naturalistically justify this anomaly as well (”Oh—it fell down”). Even the brief oddball appearance of Johnny Horne (Robert Davenport)—a 27-year-old in an Indian headdress who grieves over Laura’s absence by slowly beating his head against a doll’s house—is eventually rationalized or “justified.” He is only half accounted for in the pilot, but in episode 1 his kid sister Audrey (Sherilyn Fenn) explains to Cooper that her brother, whom Laura used to tutor, is still in the third grade and has “emotional problems.”
What emerges from the pilot is a kind of ongoing working arrangement between bourgeois surrealism and conventional narrative—a relationship that probably reflects to some degree the collaboration between Lynch and veteran TV writer Frost. (This ambivalent structure is both reflected and to some extent mediated by Angelo Badalamenti’s Morricone-like wallpaper score, providing a highly emotional main theme that alternately comes across as “sincere” and as somewhat facetious, as well as some drier and more noncommittal stretches featuring cool jazz.) Some of this same pattern can be found in the collaboration between the characters Dale Cooper and Harry S. Truman as they pursue the mystery together, forming a duo that suggests Sherlock Holmes and Watson (a link explicitly acknowledged by Truman in the first episode), the eccentric artist-detective and the square straight man who marvels at his deductions—except in this case it is the supersleuth, Cooper, who serves as unofficial narrator, continually speaking into a small cassette recorder to an unseen secretary named Diane.
This sort of evenly poised aesthetic balance—or, if one prefers, schizophrenia—between weirdness and normality is regrettably upset in episode 1, directed by Dwayne Dunham from a script by Frost and Lynch; here the series reverts to a mise en scène that is much closer to TV norms. Although the opening shot features an elaborate and extended pan around Cooper’s hotel room that proceeds down his entire body as he hangs by his feet from a ceiling bar, the overall effect is more fancy than artistic. Much later in the episode, a couple of subjective shots from the viewpoint of Laura’s grief-stricken mother—a sudden superimposition of Laura’s face over the face of her best friend, and an almost subliminal flashback glimpse of a strange fellow who may or may not be the killer—are marginally effective without being either beautiful or hallucinatory in the Lynchian manner. Even more regrettable, though not surprising, Dunham’s direction of the actors, while competent enough on a conventional level, squelches much of the spooky wit in the dialogue. With six more episodes to go—and even more if the show turns into a regular series by fall—Cooper’s improbable deductive powers and his obsession with restaurant food like cherry pie are already becoming a bit tiresome and flat, like the unvarying bits that are virtually de rigueur in an ongoing serial format. Lynchian details still crop up in the story at regular intervals—a fish in a coffee maker, a cigarette planted like a candle in a slice of cake, the second appearance of a rather mystical character known as the Log Lady—but without Lynch to realize them on screen, they lose much of their punch and vibrancy. By the time we get to the third episode, which does without Lynch’s direction and his writing, it is altogether possible that Twin Peaks will have become a soap opera with relatively little distinction at all.
ABC’s willingness to experiment with a show like Twin Peaks comes at a time when network TV, feeling the heat from both cable and video rentals, is clearly in trouble with a shrinking audience. The question of whether Lynch and Frost’s show may help to turn the tide by encouraging more experimentation is an important one, but it shouldn’t be confused with an appraisal of Twin Peaks in relation to Lynch’s other work, or even an appraisal on its own merits. Having at this point seen only a third of the nine hours produced so far, I obviously can’t pretend to make any final judgments on the whole, but the precipitous decline in overall quality between the pilot and first episode is not encouraging.
Part of what so far seems to make the show a “winner” in terms of contemporary taste is its distance from humanism, a quality that can also be found in Peter Greenaway’s current art-house hit The Cook, the Thief, His Wife & Her Lover. This distance is correctly perceived as a certain kind of artistic freedom. Both Lynch and Greenaway started out as painters who turned to experimental filmmaking before they adopted more mainstream narrative tactics, and both can be described as formalists whose imaginative freedom largely consists of their capacity to work outside the moral categories that restrict most forms of humanist fiction. In other respects they are quite different—Lynch is intuitive and poetic while Greenaway is intellectual and systematic—but the recent fascination of both filmmakers with violence, eroticism, cruelty, and suffering, unaccompanied by the usual varieties and amounts of empathy, give their latest works a cold, pornographic luster whose widespread morbid appeal is surely telling us something about the temper of our times.
I’m not sure what it says about me to admit that I find Lynch’s brand of antihumanism, which is characterized by the preoccupations of male adolescence, a lot more alluring than Greenaway’s, which is characterized to the same degree by the preoccupations of a middle-aged male. (Even the name of Lynch’s town and show can be read as a horny male teenager’s term for female breasts.) I’m certainly bored stiff by most of the teenagers in Twin Peaks, apart from the giddy and sexy amorality of Audrey Horne, but the adolescent eye trained on the other characters is something else again—it makes the corruption of adults look fresh because it is viewed as if by someone who is innocent enough to be discovering corruption for the first time.
A similarly fresh and alien quality is imparted to the grief that the adults of Twin Peaks display after the discovery of Laura’s body. The tears of the sheriff’s deputy, both of Laura’s parents, and the high school principal are lingered over with a kind of numb, abnormal curiosity that suspends the narrative well past the point of conventional movies, much less soap opera. (Laura’s mother Sarah receives most of this attention, and her initial crying even provokes one of Lynch’s formalist pirouettes—a slow camera movement from an overturned phone down its cord to the dangling receiver.) Some of the teenagers, notably Donna and James, are shown crying at some length as well, but these stretches are usually more recuperable as prime-time tearjerk material, while the wailing grown-ups are converted more into slightly uncanny art objects, regarded with the same kind of inquisitiveness that a 13-year-old might have about, say, an exotic beetle. This singular angle of vision has been part of Lynch’s equipment from the beginning, and it surely says a lot about both him and his audience, not to mention his country, that Twin Peaks would be–and may even, by the end of the series, turn out to be–as flat as stale beer without it.
Part of the brilliance of Raul Ruiz rests in his capacity to take on routine documentary assignments for French television and turn them into mind-bending fictions. That’s what happened with this provocative hour-long 1984 film about an actor at the 1983 Avignon Theater Festival; it ingeniously balances reporting on an actual event with Ruizian yarn spinning. Even more impressive is the accompanying 20-minute 1980 short Le jeu de l’oie (Snakes and Ladders) — which was commissioned to promote a map exhibition at Paris’s Pompidou Center — an awesome and hilarious metaphysical fantasy with the tattiest special effects this side of Edward D. Wood Jr., and one of the most purely pleasurable works in the Ruizian canon. Taken separately or together, these gems provide a perfect introduction to the imaginative and labyrinthine universe of a prodigious filmmaker. Ruiz, a graceful and easygoing commentator on his own work, will introduce the films and answer questions at the Saturday screening. (Film Center, Art Institute, Columbus Drive at Jackson, Friday, April 20, 6:00, and Saturday, April 21, 6:15, 443-3737)
From the Chicago Reader (April 13, 1990). — J.R.
THE COOK, THE THIEF, HIS WIFE & HER LOVER
* (Has redeeming facet)
Directed and written by Peter Greenaway
With Richard Bohringer, Michael Gambon, Helen Mirren, Alan Howard, and Tim Roth.
On the face of it, this movie seems to have a good many things going for it. Although he was born in 1942, Peter Greenaway is still probably the closest thing that the English art cinema currently has to an enfant terrible. A former painter and film editor who started making experimental films in the mid-60s, he achieved an international reputation with The Draughtsman’s Contract in 1982; he went on to become a star director and cult figure in Europe with several TV films and three more features that had considerable success in both England and France as well as on the international festival circuit — A Zed & Two Noughts (1986), The Belly of an Architect (1987), and Drowning by Numbers (1988) — although they have had only limited circulation in the U.S. A fair number of my film-buff friends swear by him, and he is commonly regarded as the most “advanced” art-house director currently working in England.
Greenaway’s latest feature makes sterling use of many of his longtime collaborators: Sacha Vierny, one of the best cinematographers alive (working here in ‘Scope), whose credits include Hiroshima, mon amour, Last Year at Marienbad, Muriel, Belle de jour, and Stavisky, as well as films by Raul Ruiz and Marguerite Duras; composer Michael Nyman, a sort of neoclassicist who has worked for everyone from the Royal Ballet to Steve Reich to Sting; and production designers Ben Van Os and Jan Roelfs, former interior designers who have worked in the Dutch film industry since 1983. His cast is unquestionably a distinguished one: Helen Mirren, for instance, has appeared in such films as Age of Consent, Savage Messiah, O Lucky Man!, Excalibur, and Pascali’s Island, while Richard Bohringer played a lead in Diva, and Michael Gambon played the starring role in the British miniseries The Singing Detective. The costumes were designed by French fashion designer Jean-Paul Gaultier, a Greenaway fan who agreed to work on the film for free.
None of these contributions, moreover, can be regarded as wasted: the film is beautifully lit, dressed, upholstered, mounted, acted, shot, scored, and color-coordinated. Why then do I find it so tedious, mechanical, and even conceptually ugly — downright irritating, in fact? Irritation, to be sure, can be an important tool to an avant-garde artist, but only if it serves as a lever, projecting the viewer into something else — a fresh perception or idea, a new definition of beauty or truth or, at the very least, content. But the irritation provoked by The Cook, the Thief, His Wife & Her Lover leads me nowhere. It’s as if Greenaway had all this artistry, including his own, at his disposal and created nothing but a dead piece of meat, for no reason in particular — unless it’s to express his contempt for his audience.
The movie certainly tries to be shocking and provocative — originally assigned an X by our rating system, it now has no rating at all — yet it is so lacking in soul that despite its audacity it seems like it could have been programmed on a computer. In one of his interviews, Greenaway has suggested that the film is supposed to be an attack on Thatcher England and conspicuous consumption, yet his vision is so doggedly and exclusively upper-class, here and elsewhere in his work, that this strikes me as rather feeble, or at the very least a prime example of the pot calling the kettle black. If Thatcher England is the movie’s target, some alternative to Thatcher England — if not explicit, at least implied — is necessary for this attack to have any meaning; but there is not even a hint of such an alternative anywhere in sight. To all appearances, Greenaway thrives on his hatred too much to imagine anything that might exist outside of it.
The film’s slender plot has a point of its own to make that is worth examining. (Readers who plan to see the film and don’t want to know the story’s outcome are advised to stop here and come back later.) A brutal, loutish gangster with social aspirations named Albert (Gambon) dines nightly at his own huge, expensive French restaurant called Le Hollandais, accompanied by his battered wife Georgina (Mirren) and various henchmen, as well as a shifting set of associates and cronies. Over the course of ten evenings (each heralded by a separate menu), Georgina makes eye contact with a quiet, solitary diner and bookworm named Michael (Alan Howard), makes love with him in the ladies’ room, and then, with the assistance of the chef (Bohringer), has sexual encounters with him in various pantries between courses.
Eventually, a girlfriend of one of the henchmen spills the beans to Albert, who stabs the informant with a fork and goes on a rampage, threatening to kill Michael and eat him. The chef manages to spirit the lovers, both nude, away in a refrigerated truck full of decaying meat and seafood. They go to Michael’s book depository, where they hide out; the chef sends a boy over with a meal for them, and Michael invites the boy to borrow any books he’d like. When the boy returns to Le Hollandais with the dirty dishes, Albert tortures him to find out the couple’s whereabouts, which he eventually discovers by seeing a bookplate in a borrowed book.
When the couple learn that the boy has been hospitalized, Georgina leaves to pay him a visit; then Albert and his stooges arrive at the depository and, after stuffing Michael’s nose and mouth with pages from his books, they kill him. Georgina finds Michael’s body, and after spending the night with his corpse, she visits the chef and persuades him to cook Michael for Albert to eat. Albert arrives at the restaurant, where Michael’s entire body is served to him on a platter. Georgina forces him at gunpoint to consume a single mouthful, then she shoots him dead, saying “Cannibal!” over his body.
Given all the excess that precedes this climax — including an opening sequence that shows Albert stripping a debtor in the restaurant parking lot, smearing him with dog shit, then pissing on him, and Albert’s virtually nonstop physical and verbal abuse of everyone in sight — the viewer may feel a little cheated that the villain’s comeuppance consists of only a single forkful of human flesh. It would have been more consistent with the film’s overall tactics if the totally repulsive Albert had been forced to clean his plate, even though it might have further strained the audience’s goodwill and patience. But a more drawn-out ending would have removed some of the pithy irony of Georgina’s closing epithet. It is an epithet that is clearly meant to rebound on the audience — with a good deal less irony.
It’s true that Greenaway hasn’t held us at gunpoint for the preceding 125 minutes, but he’s used enough heavy high-art artillery to cow us into submission nevertheless. Here are his major weapons:
Theater. The film is framed by the opening and closing of theatrical curtains, and Greenaway has been at pains to explain that his principal model for the story was the Jacobean revenge tragedy, with particular reference to John Ford’s ‘Tis Pity She’s a Whore.
Painting. The centerpiece of the dining room in Le Hollandais is an enormous painting by Frans Hals, Banquet of the Officers of the Saint George Civic Guard Company (1614), which functions as an ongoing cross-reference to Albert and his entourage.
Music. The cherubic boy who delivers the meal to Georgina and Michael in the book depository is a dishwasher who happens to be a soprano as well; Michael Nyman’s striking score features many choral passages, with the boy generally featured as live soloist whenever the camera glides past him in the kitchen.
History. Sean French, reviewing this film in the British magazine Sight and Sound, says, “The different rooms [in Le Hollandais] seem to represent different stages of history, an architectural mockery of human progress. The kitchen with its still lives and its fowl being dismembered is 18th century, the dining-room with its lush fabrics 19th century and the hi-tech bathroom late 20th.” Also, one of the pages stuffed into Michael’s mouth is the title page of a book called The French Revolution.
Color-coding. I quote now from the film’s press book, which is so explicit about the film’s intentions that it makes a critic’s interpretation superfluous: “The film features six rooms, each decorated and lit in a different color which symbolizes the kinds of actions which occur in that room: (1) the lavish restaurant dining room, where most of the verbal and physical abuse occurs, is blood-red, symbolizing danger; (2) the kitchen, where the lovers secretly meet, is jungle-green suggesting safety; (3) the parking lot, where the lovers flee, is a cold, ultramarine blue connoting the netherworld; (4) the lovers’ hideaway is gold to represent the golden age of learning and implying an Eden for the re-born innocents; (5) a children’s hospital ward which is the yellow of eggyolk and spring; and (6) the lavatories, where the lovers begin their affair, is the shadowless incandescent white of heaven.” Even Gaultier’s costumes sometimes change color to match the decor as the characters move from one room to another, followed by a laterally tracking camera.
Paradoxically yet characteristically, these heavy-duty art references are accompanied by dialogue that is relatively meandering and formless whenever it steps away from the film’s structural design. (Albert’s minor explosion of grief over his and Georgina’s childlessness, for instance, registers as an awkward attempt to cover up the absence of psychology elsewhere.) Greenaway’s obsessive reliance on structural systems — perspective (The Draughtsman’s Contract), the alphabet (A Zed & Two Noughts), numbers (Drowning by Numbers), and color-coding here — never functions as a means of exploration or discovery in the way that (for instance) the systems in Michael Snow’s experimental “structural films” like Wavelength, Back and Forth, and La Region Centrale do; they suggest the somewhat desperate tactics of a control freak who doesn’t really believe in or feel comfortable with narrative, but has to use it anyway to get his pictures financed and shown. They become, in effect, recipes for filming by numbers.
One can still enjoy Greenaway’s sarcasm and aesthetic eccentricity up to a point, if only because his intelligence, his art-history background, and his craft all provide a certain novelty in the art-film terrain that he has claimed since The Draughtsman’s Contract. That film had a pleasurable puzzlelike aspect and an intriguingly grim view of art patronage that fit in nicely with the handsome visuals and the cruel eroticism and wit, even if the laughter that greeted its showings often had an ugly and dehumanized sound to it. I got even more kicks out of A Zed & Two Noughts, my favorite Greenaway film, because of the sheer perversity, beauty, and complexity of its multifaceted conception. But I walked out of The Belly of an Architect, bored silly by the symmetrical center-framing and the turgidity of Greenaway’s preoccupation with midlife sexual crises, and even though I stayed to the end of Drowning by Numbers, I was just as bored by the mechanical jokes, conceits, and cruelties that made up the bulk of that film.
The Cook, the Thief, His Wife & Her Lover is in no way inferior to these last two films, though it’s highly likely that one’s attitude toward it will be determined by how many times one has already ridden through Greenaway’s narrow and maliciously nuanced structural exercises. If you would enjoy a sadistic filmmaker calling you a cannibal for sitting through two hours of attractively framed nastiness and abuse, you might find this picture to be right up your alley.
Greenaway’s frozen and aristocratic sense of irony — a major part of his equipment, and my major bone of contention — puts quotation marks around virtually everything that we see and hear; but without a context for this irony, we wind up responding to it as if it were a wallpaper pattern rather than an existential position, a dandified form of decoration that is too willful to be very funny, much less witty. If Greenaway were producing only wallpaper, I’d have no reason for complaint; by the same token, if making movies were a matter of academic achievement — showing how well he’s learned his lessons — I’d give him an A plus. Sergei Eisenstein once quipped of Lewis Milestone’s All Quiet on the Western Front, “It’s a good PhD thesis” — quite unfairly, in my opinion, because that film has both an emotional directness and an academic clunkiness that his remark overlooked, the precise opposite of what Greenaway has to offer. I couldn’t call The Cook, the Thief, His Wife & Her Lover a good PhD thesis because it has nothing serious to prove, but I wouldn’t hesitate to admit that it’s immaculately researched, conscientiously footnoted, and perfectly typed.