It came as something of a shock when, after watching Peter Greenaway’s The Draughtsman’s Contract recently, I realized it was over 30 years old. I’ve seen it too many times to claim the shock resulted from finding something new in it. Rather, I was struck by how little it has dated, almost certainly because it was so “odd” to begin with. Greenaway’s combination of a pastiche of Restoration comedy, structuralist film conventions and blatant theatricality never provided the “just like life” illusion central to escapist film. The film’s idiosyncratic mixture assures a deliberate emotional distance which has enabled it to age gracefully. Datedness can’t throw you “out” of an experience you were never “in.”
That distance is central to understanding Greenaway’s work. When I taught in film school, he was considered the height of avant garde experimentation by the proudly parochial students (and, alas, most of the faculty) and just too extreme to be taken seriously. The very idea of producing intellectually provocative work was dismissed in the compulsion to manipulate people emotionally. Prompting people to think rather than to laugh or cry was just too foreign. Instead of rising to the challenges and opportunities opened up by Greenaway’s idiosyncratic method, he was blithely patronized. It was more or less the Godard phenomenon all over again: any suggestion of an approach beyond Hollywood’s must be bad.
That was in the ’90s when Greenaway was prominent and successful enough to be acknowledged, even if only to ignore. He got there because he was very lucky in his timing. He transitioned from hard core experimentation to stylized narratives like Contract just in time, at the tail end of the period when films and filmmakers were still valued for their uniqueness. Had he entered the scene only a year or two later, it would have been too late. The great postmodern reaction against individual expression would have closed the gates to anyone as innovative and challenging as Greenaway.
And yet, for all the technical razzmatazz in Greenaway’s films, what makes them challenging is not their elaborate surfaces. For that matter, Hollywood has never had any difficulty ingesting new technologies to freshen leftover content. Rather, it is using distinctive style and unusual material that makes his work unacceptable to audiences used to assembly line pablum. It is Greenaway’s attitude that turns off people, not his mannered style. Because he has been able to get major funding and distribution and to give his open contempt for popular appeal the shiny surfaces so dear to Hollywood, he becomes the ultimate pariah, precisely because he cannot be pigeon-holed as an amateur. He is blatantly, proudly smart and himself, which doesn’t sit well with the conformist mainstream.
Thus the paradox of a Draughtsman’s Contract. It continues to engross those of us inclined to like it basically for all the reasons larger audiences reject it. The very qualities that keep it from dating are what make most people detest it.