Michael Sicinski on A Zed & Two Noughts
Time has been unkind to Peter Greenaway. This is ironic since, around the release of The Pillow Book (1996), Greenaway remarked in an interview that he “didn’t want to make films with an expiration date stamped on the can.” And when one looks at many of his films, it’s plain to see that he’s fascinated, besotted even, with the art of previous centuries, work that has thus far stood the test of time. The 18th-century utopian architect Étienne-Louis Boullée was a central figure in Greenaway’s The Belly of an Architect (1987). The Cook, the Thief, His Wife and Her Lover (1989) borrowed much of its visual design from High Renaissance painting, and the screenplay was inspired by Englishman John Ford’s 1626 Jacobean play ’Tis Pity She’s a Whore. The Pillow Book was adapted from the Heian-era Japanese diary of the same name, written by Sei Shōnagon. And eventually, Greenaway entered his own century, making films inspired by the likes of Fellini (8½ Women, 1999) and Eisenstein (Eisenstein in Guanajuato, 2015).
When I was 17, a high school friend of mine named Michael Stuckey invited me over to his apartment to watch A Zed & Two Noughts (1985). He said he thought I’d like it. It was not only the first Peter Greenaway film I’d seen, but also really the first “art film” I’d encountered. At that time, I was pretty invested in “important” middlebrow fare—Oscar winners, prestige pictures, sweeping biopics. This was the first time I’d ever really considered filmmaking as a set of visual and aural decisions, a system that an artist was creating to convey certain kinds of information beyond mere narrative. I was young. It took a film as aggressively “directed” as Zed to make me reflect on cinema itself. This work of this British filmmaker struck me as a transmission from a richer, more refined world, where language was sculpted and surfaces were blindingly luminous.
I only just discovered that the title definitively omits the word “and” in favor of a proud, fastidious ampersand. In some ways Zed is as fine an example of Greenaway’s work as any other, since certain aspects of his style that he established early on have persisted throughout his career. If anything, Zed is even more Greenaway-like, since its expansive, symmetrical stage sets and overwritten curlicues of discourse demonstrate how the filmmaker is still struggling with the shift from experimental to narrative cinema. It’s a film that deconstructs itself, even more than it intends to. You can see the seams, and this helps us understand what Greenaway’s work is ultimately about, and why it isn’t as well regarded as it once was. The reliance of outside texts and reference points is not only artlessly overt—it can strike a viewer as bound to a particular moment in film history, when cinema argued for itself on the basis of its having mastered a particular syllabus.
Once upon a time, this kind of intertextuality was called “postmodernism,” but that is a concept to which time has also been unkind. At the height of Greenaway’s popularity in the 1980s and early ’90s, it was considered somewhat novel for a work of art to foreground its rehearsal of previous artists’ aesthetic strategies. The idea that “nothing is ever really new” was itself a new idea, as post-structuralist philosophies—the writings of Roland Barthes, Jacques Derrida, and Michel Foucault, especially—began wending their way into non-academic parlance. Greenaway was one of a handful of filmmakers whose best-received work coincided with that burgeoning consciousness among the cognoscenti that all writing is rewriting, all cinema is a mélange of earlier, competing discourses.
This was, of course, nothing especially new, since many of the most important artists of the 1960s exemplified this so-called postmodern condition. In film, Godard is probably the clearest example, and his most popular work coincided with the period of Warhol’s dominance in the visual arts. But one can go back even further, considering the influence of Bertolt Brecht’s Epic Theater on Godard, of Duchamp and the Dadaists on Warhol, or even the role of musical pastiche in the compositions of Kurt Weill or Stravinsky.
Postmodernism, the assertion that there’s nothing new under the sun, was itself another reassertion of older strategies that were every bit as self-conscious and derivative as those of Godard, Warhol, or Greenaway. And in a way, the era of postmodernism ended by scoring a decisive victory. You’re unlikely to find very few serious writers dropping the P-word outside of the world of architecture (where it has a very particular historical meaning). The novelty wore off of the idea that all artwork is burdened by history, but the idea certainly persists. It has become standard operating procedure, a basic understanding of how all aesthetic and philosophical ideas emerge.
This intertextuality has become a fundamental part of contemporary cinema, and that may have something to do with why so many cinephiles have lost interest in Peter Greenaway. His films often seem to be struggling to assert their own complexity, operating as a web of interconnected reference points and aesthetic homologies. At the time of his art-house ubiquity (1988–96—the run from Drowning by Numbers through The Pillow Book, roughly), a common critical brickbat wielded against Greenaway by unimpressed critics was that the films were “dry” and/or “academic.” In retrospect, this seems to me an attempt for critics to struggle with Greenaway’s overt, self-conscious, even self-satisfied deployment of visual, literary, mythical, and cinematic allusions.
No doubt some of these critics were also responding (negatively) to Greenaway’s hyper-formalism. But in many ways, both of these elements were aspects of the same impulse. Greenaway’s compositions and art direction were usually derived from various moments across art history: a Vermeer or Gainsborough here, a Rembrandt or Rauschenberg there. And as one might expect, a cinematic style that self-consciously reconstructs the style of painting, whether of the Old Masters or late modernist collage artists, is going to stick out, be unavoidably legible as a deliberate form of visual communication.
Greenaway’s films, both visually and textually, were blatantly artificial, exaggeratedly composed, and defiantly allusive. And in this blatant erudition, one could perhaps perceive the lurking anxiety of influence, an attempt to take control of the history that Greenaway felt overpowered by. It may be reductive to think of this as uniquely British, although despite his being a Welshman, Greenaway’s work always betrayed a fastidious Oxbridge sensibility, a self-serious mirror image to the equally obtrusive namedropping one finds in Monty Python.
But more than this, one can sense the fraught and unresolved relationship that Great Britain has to the Continent. In the eighties, this was particularly pronounced because postmodernism was a direct result of French and German philosophy (Baudrillard, Lyotard, and Benjamin, most notably). Aside from its homegrown Marxist lineage, at the time best exemplified by Raymond Williams, Great Britain’s philosophical traditions (liberalism, utilitarianism, empiricism) did not offer a great deal of help in explaining the social and artistic ruptures of the sixties and seventies. Like his compatriot Derek Jarman, Greenaway adopted European cultural analysis as a way to provincialize Britain, to subject the nation to critique while at the same time mitigating its intellectual isolation. In contemporary terms, Greenaway’s cinema is the opposite of Brexit, an attempt at a full and unapologetic “Brentrance” into the larger expanse of European culture.
One of the many possible reasons why Greenaway has fallen out of fashion is that some viewers never appreciated his conceptual borrowings from structural film. Early works like Vertical Features Remake (1978) and The Falls (1980) adopted various approaches—alphabetical order, mathematically derived shot length, modular construction—that were no doubt off-putting for those unfamiliar with the work of Hollis Frampton, Malcolm Le Grice, or Owen Land. Greenaway has acknowledged Frampton in particular as a major influence, and the wider availability of Frampton’s films (thanks largely to an extensive home video box set by Criterion) may well prompt a reconsideration of Greenaway, especially his earlier films.
There’s also the fact that Greenaway’s work flies in the face of the dominant modes that have defined much of art-house and festival culture for the last several decades. From the “master shot” school to that now-popular sobriquet “slow cinema,” we have seen a widespread adoption of a Bazinian aesthetic of the real. In recent years, Greenaway has not only avoided that “house style” but also has doubled down on his commitment to artifice. From The Pillow Book onward, including recent efforts such as Eisenstein and Just in Time, his contribution to the 3x3D omnibus, Greenaway has embraced digital technology and computer compositing to create films of overwhelming visual complexity. Any given image onscreen is usually bi- or trisected by frames within frames, images within images, most of them moving in competing directions.
The apex of Greenaway’s bombardment-style of film art is his three-film, multimedia rabbit hole The Tulse Luper Suitcases (2003-04). The first film in the series played at both Cannes and Toronto, and it wasn’t roundly rejected so much as shrugged at. Viewers dismissed the film as Greenaway doing his “Greenaway thing,” assaulting the viewer with far more information than one could ever take in, no matter how many times one was willing to view it. Adding to the general indifference was the maddening mise en abyme of self-reference within the Tulse Luper films. Luper, the main character in these non-narrative excursions, is a fictional character who has been referred to in nearly all of Greenaway’s films, to the point that one could reasonably consider Luper a pseudonymous avatar for Greenaway himself, his own bottomless, navel-gazing Antoine Doinel. In the end, the Tulse Luper project fizzled, despite its admirable ambition. In fact, the first two films were released in Spain and the Netherlands only; the third was completely undistributed. By the time Greenaway was prepared to issue the ancillary material (novels, installations, interactive websites), audiences were obviously clamoring for less.
Even apart from these two “sins” of Greenaway’s—the structuralist formalism and the unswerving commitment to an aesthetic of bombardment—I really do think that many film lovers have abandoned Greenaway because his overweening intellectualism often feels like the work of a precocious undergraduate working too hard to impress. As a viewer, I appreciated Greenaway most when I occupied that role myself, and it can be difficult to look back on those moments when our reach exceeded our grasp. I found a pleasing “smartness” in these films at the time, and while I certainly don’t think Greenaway’s work is phony or pseudointellectual, its whiz-kid ambition was easy for me to embrace at the time. This was cinema as ostentatious Gesamtkunstwerk.
In time, my initial attraction to these films yielded to subsequent rejection. As I became more immersed in the history of experimental cinema, I rankled at Greenaway’s overstuffed style. It came to seem uncinematic, Greenaway’s amoebic absorption of the sister-arts ultimately drawing attention away from film’s medium-specific capacities. This is no doubt intentional. Despite Greenaway’s admiration for Frampton, his late-’70s/early-’80s work (especially Vertical Features) overtly parodied the rigidity of structural film. Here was an artist no longer content to organize sequences of images and sounds; he wanted to reorder the world. In a sense, Greenaway’s compulsive referentiality was just one means of exerting control.
But it’s easy to forget that it took some time for Greenaway to delve into the sensory extravaganzas that became his apotheosis. The films that first brought him to wider attention, The Draughtsman’s Contract (1982) and A Zed & Two Noughts, are of particular note because they are, for all their virtues and vices, transitional for this director. One can see Greenaway struggling to figure out how to articulate his formal ideas within a narrative context, and some of the solutions he lands upon in these films will become recurring methods throughout his work.
In Contract, Greenaway creates a period narrative about art itself. The film is explicitly about the act of image-creation as a tool within the negotiation of sexual power. But in A Zed & Two Noughts, Greenaway throws all manner of grand themes into the mix, buoyed by overt literary and art-historical reference points. Zed is a film where structural cinema and postmodernism collide, resulting in a tone and atmosphere that is both beguiling and carceral. A film about identical twin zoologists (Brian and Eric Deacon) who become obsessed with decay following the deaths of their wives, Zed foregrounds cinema itself as an agent of death. We watch dead animals rot, carcasses picked clean in the “bug box,” maggots going to town of putrid zebra meat. And this process is directly linked to Muybridge’s time-lapse locomotion experiments, one of the direct precursors to the moving pictures. If cinema is “death at work,” as Bazin once said, Greenaway seems intent on proving the point—not by capturing the fleeting shadows of a world in motion, but instead using cinema as a clinical tool, showing us that in the last analysis, we are all dead meat.
Like the art-house version of a mid-’80s Dennis Miller monologue, A Zed & Two Noughts is chock-full of references. Vermeer is a prime conceptual engine in this film, but Greenaway also drops in mentions of the Venus de Milo, “Leda and the Swan,” Proust (Swann’s Way), Anaïs Nin, the performance art of Chris Burden, mid-’80s installation art, and even the long-running British sitcom Dad’s Army. (The dialogue contains two of that show’s catchphrases, most notably Andrea Ferreol shouting “You stupid boy!”) Large portions of Sir David Attenborough’s Life on Earth play in the background. Almost all the images (captured with the help of the great Sacha Vierny) are oppressively symmetrical, providing a Renaissance-flavored mise en scène against which Greenaway’s leaden prose spills forth from the performers’ mouths. There is not a single frame of Zed that could be mistaken for any world other than its own. It is as self-enveloped as a Barnett Newman painting, only it never stops talking.
So if Greenaway has become an unfashionable memory, a figure whose efforts are grudgingly admired but seldom liked, the question remains as to why. For me, I had to shun the films, and my jejune identification with them, in order to see them again, not as emblems of art-historical one-upmanship. At different times I have enjoyed, loathed, or tolerated Greenaway’s films. But regardless of my opinion of them, it was impossible to misconstrue their high-art aspirations. I think initially, I felt proud when I picked up the references; it was also the first time that elements like composition and cinematography leapt out at me, grabbed my lapels and demanded that I take notice of them.
When I became more cinema-literate, I looked back at these films and was nonplussed by my willingness to accept their self-importance at face value. In postmodernism, more was often considered better, and Greenaway’s obdurate maximalism felt like an invitation to a cinematic Mensa, a realm of arch misanthropy that could easily substitute for worldliness. Hans-Jürgen Syberberg, another major figure whose critical stock has fallen, is comparable to Greenaway in this regard, although the German director’s commitment to Wagner and ironic flirtations with fascism tend to ground his aesthetic, for better or worse. Greenaway’s art, by contrast, is a field of floating signifiers, as cluttered and sumptuous as the skies over Cappadocia.
The films are singular for this very reason, and after years of skepticism, towards both Greenaway and my earlier appreciation, I have come to admire them again. At times they still seem flawed, perhaps a bit too arrogant and unapproachable. But after gaining some distance from these films, which were so formative for my thinking at the time of their release, I now see them as “self-consuming artifacts,” for borrow a term from Stanley Fish’s reader-response criticism. As overbearing as they can be, Greenaway’s films have a remarkable ability to position the spectator as dumbstruck, even immobilized before their all-encompassing sublimity. But unlike more traditional renderings of the Kantian sublime (from the vistas of the natural world, right up through Greenbergian painting), Greenaway’s cinema is a movable feast, always foisting more and more input onto the sensorium.
Because of this, I now see Greenaway’s best-known films as a logical extension of his early formalism. We are shown the dangerous seduction of hermeticism: self-justifying rationales and inner logics, the fear and anxiety of wanting to know everything, to display everything, to establish an audiovisual machine of taxonomies and systems. The never-ending will to know, and the danger of intellectual arrogance—these are evergreen problems, of course. But Greenaway’s films seem to speak to the crisis of technocracy and our waning faith in grand attempts to control our fate through greater and greater rationality. This is the cinema Adorno might have wanted, although he would almost certainly not have recognized it as such. Filmmakers like Haneke and Von Trier convey their seriousness through austerity, but Greenaway’s Rococo excesses displayed the intimate connection between authoritarianism and decadence.
Greenaway can show us that every scaffold will eventually collapse, that every numerical set has a component that doesn’t exactly fit but cannot be stationed anywhere else. If we found ourselves rejecting Greenaway at some point, it’s probably because we naively thought we could master the cinema, somehow capturing, imbibing, controlling everything. But I think we may have missed the point. Greenaway’s films are primarily about the quixotic attempt to figure things out, to solve the mysteries, great and small. But in the end, there is only death.
Though my personal connection to Greenaway—and A Zed & Two Noughts in particular—led me to think that I had overvalued this work and that my judgment was clouded, I have come to think differently about this. The connection remains strong but has become part of my broader sense of cinema’s relationship to our shared human ontology.
Two years after Michael Stuckey introduced me to Zed, he and I moved to the Bay Area to attend the San Francisco Art Institute. We lived together in a two-room flat in the Tenderloin. I dropped out after one semester and moved back to Houston; I eventually learned that I was not cut out for being an artist. Michael, meanwhile, remained at SFAI, becoming a sculpture major. But his promising career was tragically cut short. On December 20, 1993, Michael was killed in an alley near Fisherman’s Wharf. He saw a woman being attacked, went to help, and was stabbed in the heart, dying en route to the hospital. He was 23.
While we were at SFAI, Michael and I went to several on-campus screenings, including some of the first avant-garde films either of us had ever seen. Although I was mostly unprepared for the films I saw, conversations with Michael, along with other friends, helped me start developing a framework for thinking about these curious cinematic objects. In fact, this might have been the precise moment that I began having doubts about Greenaway, as it became apparent that others had achieved similar aims to his much more directly, without the excess intertextual baggage.
The last work of Michael’s I ever saw was a five-minute film he made for his animation class. The untitled work reflected Michael’s interest in John and Emily Hubley, but his images displayed a formal rawness and melancholy more akin to Paul Klee. The soundtrack was taken from an old cassette recording of Michael’s four-year-old brother making up a song about visiting his grandmother. It was instructive to me that a work of such simplicity could be as emotionally provocative as films with far greater resources. Again, Greenaway’s constant “more” was starting to look like less.
I saw Michael’s film a few months before he was killed. Looking back, I think this may be a reason why cinema has always been haunted by the shadow of death for me, well in excess of what Bazin had in mind. But at the same time, cinema has been connected to the instability of memory. We come back to films at different points in our lives, not only for the experience of recognition and new insights, but to reinscribe those old moments when we (who we used to be) confronted a work of cinema that itself has evolved, becoming an object of history as well as a node in ever-greater networks of signification.
In this respect, films and human beings are not so different. We change; we mutate; our meaning in the world shifts and evolves. And perhaps we never really die.