Sunday, 30 September 2018

The Greenaway Alphabet

A Pip Off The Old Block

The Greenaway Alphabet

Directed by Saskia Boddeke

2017 Netherlands
Raindance Festival Screening 29th September 2018.

Wow... what an utterly charming film.

The Greenaway Alphabet is a documentary, it is said, about the film-maker/artist Peter Greenaway... although I’m sure that it’s designated as such merely for the convenience of cataloguing the type of film it purports to be (something I suspect, with his affinity for lists and categorisation, Peter Greenaway himself would approve of). What it actually is, in fact, is more an exploration of the artist in relation to his 13-16 year old daughter Pip Greenaway (depending on when various parts of the film were presumably shot or... possibly... when Peter remembers the age of his daughter with any degree of accuracy).

Now, I always liked Greenaway in my teenage years and, very specifically, three films he made in relatively quick succession, all of which will eventually get reviewed on this blog (I have the Blu Ray upgrades, just not a large measure of that man-made phenomenon mistakenly known as time), those being A Zed And Two Noughts, The Belly Of An Architect (my favourite) and Drowning By Numbers (which I well remember seeing at the now defunct but always splendid Lumiere cinema  in St. Martin’s Lane, when it was released into the wild back in 1988). I remember the soundtracks CDs to those films were a common musical background whenever I was working on various art and design projects at College.

Later on, the director’s work slowly disappeared from my life as I didn’t have time to keep up with him but those three films in particular were very much a part of me by then. Interviews with other people and first hand accounts from various collaborators made me begin to think of Greenaway as “a bit of a nutter” in later years but, what this ‘documentary’ does is show us that the man/artist is far from the awkward behemoth some of those collaborators made him out to be and is, instead, a quite interesting and warm human being... as is his daughter Pip, who is seen interacting with him and asking all the right questions to allow her father to reveal himself without the barriers perpetually going up. That is to say... all the wrong questions, which is what makes them so right.

The film is shot, with a lot of love evident in every frame, by his wife and mother of Pip, Saskia Boddeke. She is a multimedia artist in her own right and has collaborated with Mr. Greenaway a fair amount too. The documentary is partially shot, it seemed to me, in a way which might have... only at times... been reminiscent of Peter’s moviemaking with things a bit like the multimedia paintbox of delights movie that is Prospero’s Books. And, of course, the greatest result of their collaboration, their wonderful daughter Pip, is evident in most of the film too.

The film starts off by going through the words and concepts associated with Peter Greenaway as explored by him and his daughter as an alphabet, starting at A, going through to B and, a little way in, deviating from the expectations of the order of the piece by going to a later letter before coming back to one which we covered earlier and then missing out a whole bunch of others. It actually reminded me of the infuriating... but fun... red herring style appearances of some of the 1-100 numbers hidden throughout the frames of Drowning By Numbers but the lovely director Saskia was there at the screening (with Pip in the audience to answer the odd question too) and she explained that it was never her intention to shoot every letter but merely to use this as a starting point, so to speak, to the journey of the film. The title was always going to be The Greenaway Alphabet, however, in memory of the this being ‘a thing’ in the Greenaway household when Pip was growing up.

And I have to say that the film completely surprised me. Not only is it warm and engaging (far more emotionally warm than a typical work by her husband, I would say) but it’s also a lively, visual spectacle too, as the director juxtaposes various images and situations against each other to make sometimes startling visual metaphors, utilising drawing over the images and moving split screen segments to enfold the viewer in an experience which feels, by the end of the movie, something much more than the sum of its parts.

The Q & A at the end of the session was quite interesting and informative about the way different countries reacted to the various screenings. For instance, Saskia pointed out that the mostly British audience for this screening was much more staid and serious than in some countries where the quite wonderful humour of the piece elicited much more emotive reactions... but I guess the sourness of our self expression here is what makes a British audience what it is. So the Q & A was certainly illuminating, although there was an awful moment when one person in the audience suggested that the film was coming from a perspective of  white privilege in the arts. Well, when you have a cast, effectively, of two people... there’s not really much you could do about the racial mix, which I think is what that particular audience member was trying to relate, much to the bafflement of the director (and disenchantment of the rest of the audience, most of whom were probably equally perplexed by this odd question, which seemed almost a non-sequitur in the context of the film we had just watched).

And I don’t have much more to say about The Greenaway Alphabet... not anything I could think of as a valuable criticism, in any case, since the film is just perfect the way it is. I honestly hope this film gets the critical attention and monetary awards it so readily deserves. I would love to have this thing on a nice Blu Ray disc and would hope to watch it again if I ever got an opportunity. It’s almost certainly going to be one of this year’s top ten movies in my end of year list and I would urge any fan of Peter Greenaway... or of art and its importance to the warmth of the family unit... to try and hunt down this film and take a look. A short review for a truly wonderful piece of cinema. This is the only film I saw at this year’s Raindance festival but, honestly, I’m so glad I chose this one. I certainly wasn’t expecting to enjoy it as much as I did... truly remarkable.

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