Lesson Plan: Peter Greenaway’s Vertical Features Remake

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Ian here—

This particular lesson came late in my “Avant-Garde Film and Video Art” course, late enough where it could act as a sort of a postscript on many of the movements we had talked about so far in the course. Thoughts on structural film, narrative, and theories of play below!

From Structures to Narratives

I began this lesson with a quick overview of the flight from experimental short filmmaking to independently-produced feature films that several filmmakers in Canada, the US, and the UK were making at the time.  Shirley Clarke is perhaps the filmmaker that most embodied this trend, with her shift from avant-garde cinema in the form of shorts such as Bridges-Go-Round (1958) to becoming a major figure in the New American Cinema independent feature scene with films such as The Connection (1961).

But by the mid-1970s, this became more of a trend—especially among women filmmakers in the avant-garde. In Canada, Joyce Wieland made The Far Shore (1976). In the UK, Sally Potter made Thriller (1979). In the US, Bette Gordon and Lizzie Borden made Variety (1983) and Born in Flames (1983), respectively.

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There were multiple overlapping reasons why these women transitioned from the world of the experimental filmmaking to the world of independent feature filmmaking around this time. Part of it was an assessment—certainly not unfair—that the avant-garde scene was hopelessly a “boys club.” There was a lot of backlash against structural film becoming the dominant mode of experimental filmmaking, as well. The avant-garde, according to these filmmakers, had become too invested in permutations on simple formal experimentation. It had lost its radical edge. It had no investment in politics. And, in its jettisoning of the human element of narrative, it had lost the ability to speak to people—and thereby send radical messages to people—outside the small bubble it inhabited.[i]

Not all of the filmmakers making this transition around this time were women, however. Peter Greenaway also fits in here. However, the reasons Greenaway had for breaking away from experimental cinema had very little overlap with the reasons of Wieland, Potter, Gordon, or Borden. In place of these filmmakers’ dreams of building a new feminist community, Greenaway’s attitudes toward feature filmmaking show a tendency toward masculine conquest. Greenaway’s dissatisfaction with small-scale experimental cinema in part came from a belief that it was too small of a world to make a real difference in film aesthetics. If you consider yourself a major artist who truly wishes to supplant dominant cinema, Greenaway’s thought process was, then you can’t just work on a tiny scale. As Eisenstein did, you need to use the form of the feature film—preferably, with the backing of state money, if possible.

Vertical Features Remake (1978) comes before Greenaway made the leap to feature filmmaking. It is still an experimental short film, but in it, you can already see his dissatisfaction with the form rising up and disrupting the proceedings.

We didn’t watch any British experimental films in my course before arriving at this one, so I gave my students a quick historical primer. Much as the US experimental filmmaking scene had been overrun by structural film at this particular historical moment, the UK scene was the home of a movement known as structural-materialist film. Following guidance of filmmakers and theorists such as Malcolm Le Grice and Peter Gidal, figures associated with the London Filmmaker’s Co-op combined the minimalist formal experimentation of US structural film with the political underpinnings of Marxist materialism. (We could say that, if US structural film was a manifestation of Greenbergian modernism, UK structural-materialist film followed political modernism.[ii])

This is the moment in which Greenaway entered UK experimental filmmaking. Even if he never quite fit in with the scene, he was at least certainly familiar with the tenets of structural-materialist filmmaking. Later, in 1988, he spoke in interview about this historical moment:

When I started to make films, there was a tendency everywhere—especially in Europe but also in some parts of the U.S.—a sort of agreement among the experimental directors to create films without any action. … [I]f you have no story to tell, you need to come up with another method by which to organize the material.[iii]

You can see the influence of this moment everywhere in Vertical Features Remake. There is, of course, the conceit of Tulse Luper’s film itself, with its structural organization around vertical features. Then there are the graphs that Greenaway includes at various points throughout the film:

When throwing these up on the screen, I make a point that Greenaway’s background was in painting, so in some ways we can see these colorful marker drawings as an extension of that practice. They also, however, could simply be visual plans that Greenaway made, for this film, or another. These sorts of visual “graphs” or “scores” of films can be found in the working papers of many filmmakers operating in this particular historical moment of systematic and structural formalism. For instance, here’s a diagram made by US filmmaker Bill Brand for the editing system of his film Moment (1972):[iv]

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And here’s Austrian filmmaker Kurt Kren’s “systemic score” fro 48 Köpfe aus dem Szondi-Test (1960):[v]

film-scores-1-kurt-kren

We can see family resemblances here between the work these filmmakers were doing, and “Tulse Luper’s” notes and diagrams in Vertical Features Remake. But Vertical Features Remake marks a significant break from the type of filmmaking pursued by Brand or Kren (or Le Grice, or Gidal). In the same interview quoted above, Greenaway continues, marking out his break from the filmmaking pursued by his contemporaries:

So I searched as it were for universal structures—like the alphabet. Or mathematical equations or perhaps number series. It wasn’t meant to be taken seriously, it was more like pleasurable play or a crossword puzzle. But I soon realized that the outcome was a dry, static kind of cinema so I started to tell stories again. Stories, thus, found their way back into the structures.[vi]

Vertical Features Remake, I argue, is a strange hybrid film that perfectly exemplifies the artistic break Greenaway was feeling at the time. How better to describe the film than “stories finding their way into the structures”? The actual “remakes” of Tulse Luper’s film are so rigidly regimented, such a perfect encapsulation of the tendency of filmmakers of this era toward abstract structuring principles. And yet, although they highlight occasional moments of beautiful cinematography and fancy editing, they’re not what draws us in as viewers. What draws us in is the complex, and increasingly absurd, developments within the film’s framing device, as disagreements emerge between the film’s sketchily-drawn characters.

Play and/as Excess

Here’s a moment where I like to draw from a seemingly completely unrelated body of knowledge—theories of play, which I have absorbed as part of my study of videogames. The way that Greenaway describes the emergence of stories in his cinema—and, indeed, the very way that Vertical Features Remake operates—reminds me quite a bit of two prominent definitions of play found in the canonical literature on play and games.

First a definition from Roger Caillois. (Since Caillois was writing in French, there’s not a stark linguistic division between “play” and “game” as their is in English. This is actually his definition of “le jeu,” or “game.”):

The game consists of the need to find or continue once a response which is free within the limits set by the rules. This latitude of the player, this margin accorded to his action is essential to the game and partly explains the pleasure which it excites. It is equally accountable for the remarkable and meaningful uses of the term ‘play,’ such as are reflected in such expressions at the playing of a performer or the play of a gear, to designate in the one case the personal style of an interpreter, in the other the range of movement of the parts of a machine.[vii]

Next, a definition of play from Katie Salen and Eric Zimmerman (who, writing in English, can very cleanly separate “play” out from the concept of “games”):

Play is free movement within a more rigid structure. At first glance, this definition might seem a little spare and abstract for such a rich and complex topic such as play. But it is an extremely useful way to think about the design of play. Where does the definition come from? Think about the use of the word ‘play’ in the sense of the ‘free play’ of a gear or a car’s steering wheel. The ‘play’ is the amount of movement that the steering wheel can move on its own within the system…. Play emerges from the relationships guiding the functioning of the system, occuring in the interstitial spaces between and among its components.[viii]

In both of these definitions, you have the idea of a “set of rules,” or a “rigid structure.” Then, you have the act of play, which navigates the rigidity of these rules/structures, allowing some sort of “free movement” or “personal style” within the structural limitations surrounding it.

And in Vertical Features Remake? We have the structuring devices that mark it as part of the lineage of “structural” or “structural-materialist” filmmaking. But in between the highly structured sections of the film, a story emerges, barely bursting through in the limited amount of latitude presented by the film’s organizing systems.

Is this too far afield? Perhaps—but their are more definite connections one could draw, if one wishes. Greenaway’s later feature film Drowning by Numbers (1988) uses the descriptions of the rules of various made-up games as a structuring principle. And perhaps I’m stretching, but I’m struck by how the name Oisinger, one of the film’s many quickly-mentioned characters, is homonymous with Huizinga (as in Johan).

To take us back into more familiar waters for a film scholar, we could say that the logic of Vertical Features Remake inverts the usual concept of cinematic excess. When it first circulated in 1970s film theory thanks to figures such as Roland Barthes and Kristin Thompson, excess was that which could not be contained by the film’s narrative system, that which escapes motivation, and runs free.[ix] In Vertical Features Remake, I would argue, the narrative is the excess! It is, after all, the stuff that bursts from the seams of Tulse Luper’s elaborately planned formal systems, the stuff that’s unmotivated by Vertical Features‘ compositional strategies. In a mainstream Hollywood film, excess might be that which escapes the system of the narrative, but in a formalist experimental film, excess is that which escapes the film’s abstract structuring principle … including, in this case, narrative.

From Structural Constraints to Budgetary Constraints

Finally, I get into the film’s story itself. How do we know that it is a story? At what point do we fully start taking it as a fictional narrative, complete with characters who have jostling motivations?

Here, I found myself at a disadvantage. Back when I first saw Vertical Features Remake as an undergraduate, I found it to be hilarious. Greenaway’s humor in this film was completely on my wavelength, and he actually became a large influence on my own video works. However, across the two sections of this course I taught in Spring 2016, I found this not to be the case with my students. The film’s sense of humor was far too dry for them. At best, they realized that there was considerable fabulation going on in the film, but didn’t find it to be particularly funny. At worst, they didn’t understand the film to be engaging in any fictional storytelling at all: they took it to be a rather dull documentary on an artist they had never heard of, and had no interest in.

It looked as if I needed to take a step back, and begin from the beginning. The premise of Vertical Features Remake, I remind students, is that a vaguely-defined group, the Institute of Restoration and Reclamation, is engaging in a serious archival project surrounding the papers of the artist/researcher Tulse Luper. (Actually, the group is alternately referred to as the Institute of Restoration and Reclamation and the Institute of Reclamation and Restoration, which is perhaps our first sign that something is up.) Along the way, the group has seen it fit to reconstruct Luper’s lost film Vertical Features, guided by a small amount of discovered footage that apparently survived, as well as copious notes by Luper on the film’s structure (including an increasingly absurd meditation on the visual features of the number “11”).

Now, such a restorative project is not unimaginable. Archival studies of art history are often quite ambitious. As examples, I pointed out to students recent in-depth studies of the chemical composition of Van Gogh’s paint, as well as an an impressive media-archeological effort to rescue some digital artwork from Andy Warhol off of old Amiga Computer floppy disks. There is, however, a big difference between these studies and the one proposed in Vertical Features Remake: they are both devoted to two of the most famous artists of all time. Nobody’s ever heard of Tulse Luper. Even if they knew nothing else about the film, this should immediately be reason to suspect that what they’re watching is a work of fiction, rather than a genuine documentary about an ambitious archival project. (Of course, those with more knowledge will pick up on additional details, such as the fact that Dear Phone, the title of one of Greenaway’s earlier films, is listed as a project of Luper’s.)

Once I had established that we should be suspicious of the film’s seeming documentary format, I called attention to the ways in which Greenaway constructs a narrative out of what is, in the end, a shockingly small amount of material. The film is, in a way, a master class on how to present a narrative under the most severe budgetary constraints imaginable. The film is extraordinarily efficient: all we really have is the landscape footage itself, the voice of the narrator, some footage of the shooting script, some drawings and figures by Greenaway, and a very small selection of photographs.

I call special attention to the outsized amount of work the photographs are doing in making it seem like the film actually has a cast of characters. Take, for instance, Lephrenic and Fallast, two figures who are either art historians undertaking their own archival investigation of Luper’s work, or contemporaries of Luper serving as expert advisors to the project (it is enormously unclear, as the film seems to assume that we’re already aware of some of these figures). Here is their respective on-screen representations, whenever their names are mentioned:

Are we really supposed to believe that these were the best stock photos available for art historians, or think tank members, or whoever these people are supposed to be? The longer you spend looking at them, the more their strangeness and unsuitability for the task becomes evident. What is Lephrenic driving? Some sort of tractor, or earth-roller? Was he a farmer? Did Henri Cartier-Bresson take Fallast’s go-to file photo? The film is not only low-budget and lacking a real cast (no talking heads here), but it flaunts its own evident seams. Nowhere is this more evident than in the following passage, which precedes the third remake of Vertical Features, where Greenaway just gives the whole game away:

Given how disconnected my students found themselves from the film’s sense of humor, if I teach it again in the future I will most likely alter the context in which I do so, to provide more of a guide of how they should enter into viewing it. The way in which its photograph-cast operates would fit well into my lesson on irony and lies in the cinema, given that it has the same “ersatz captions” construction of some of the examples I list there. Following the connection I draw above, one could also integrate it into a lesson on cinematic playfulness, pairing it with films such as Joyce Wieland’s A and B in Ontario (1967/1984), Robert Nelson’s Bleu Shut (1970), Hans Richter’s 8 X 8 (1957), or, if one wanted to venture outside of the postwar avant-garde, Vsevolod Pudovkin’s Chess Fever (1925).

[i]. This historical moment is well-covered by Paul Arthur, “The Last of the Last Machine?” in A Line of Sight: American Avant-Garde Film Since 1965 (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2005). The specifics of Joyce Wieland’s particular position and development are outlined in Lauren Rabinowitz, “After the Avant-garde: Joyce Wieland and New Avant-gardes in the 1970s,” in Points of Resistance: Women, Power & Politics in the New York Avant-garde Cinema, 1943–71 (Second Edition, Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2003).

[ii]. In fact, the London Filmmaker’s Co-op scene is one of D.N. Rodowick’s reference points when outlining politically modernist theories of cinema. See “Anti-Narrative, or the Ascetic Ideal,” in The Crisis of Political Modernism: Criticism and Ideology in Contemporary Film Theory (Second Edition, Berkeley: University of California Press, 1994).

[iii]. Buchholz, Hartmut and Uwe Kuenzel. “Two Things That Count: Sex and Death.” In Peter Greenaway: Interviews. Edited by Vernon Gras and Marguerite Gras. Jackson: University of Mississippi Press, 2000. Pg 54.

[iv]. I have reproduced this from Le Grice, Malcolm. Abstract Film and Beyond. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 1977. Pg 135.

[v]. Le Grice, Abstract Film and Beyond, pg 98.

[vi]. Buchholz and Kuenzel, “Two Things That Count: Sex and Death,” pg 54.

[vii]. Caillois, Roger. Man, Play and Games. Translated by Meyer Barash. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2001. Pg 8. (I am indebted to Xinyu Dong’s fascination with this particular passage, and especially the rapt attention she gave the phrase “play of a gear,” for drawing in my mind the connection between Caillois’ definition of le jeu and Salen and Zimmerman’s definition of play.)

[viii]. Salen, Katie and Eric Zimmerman. Rules of Play: Game Design Fundamentals. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2003. Pg 304.

[ix]. Barthes, Roland, “The Third Meaning,” in Image, Music, Text (New York: Hill and Wang, 1977). Thompson, Kristin, “The Concept of Cinematic Excess,” in Narrative, Apparatus, Ideology: A Film Theory Reader, edited by Philip Rosen (New York: Columbia University Press, 1986).

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