Curing visual illiteracy through lecture

Rembrandt J’Accuse

on October 23, 2009 by John P. McCarthy

With his didacticism knob dialed way up, Peter Greenaway analyzes Rembrandt’s painting “The Night Watch” in this formidable documentary-cum-seminar. Greenaway’s mastery of his subject matter and medium are impressive but there’s a certain dourness to the learned virtuosity displayed. The Welsh polymath, who has called Amsterdam home for over a decade, serves as a garrulous on-screen guide, always eager to reference his fixation with our culture’s visual illiteracy. Will he be cheered by the fact that, after an inevitably brief theatrical run, Rembrandt J’Accuse will unreel in perpetuity inside art history departments and academic settings?

Initially exhilarating, Greenaway’s more-pedantic-than-playful tone soon compels the viewer to sit still in what passes for a lecture-hall seat, allowing only your eyes and ears to move and take in the gush of information. In addition to offering narration in voiceover, Greenaway’s virtually disembodied chattering head appears throughout much of the film, set in a moveable frame that appears in various places on screen, most often dead center. After outlining his intentions, he stakes out his theoretical ground by declaring that most people in our text-based society are visually illiterate, a condition that accounts for our “impoverished and undernourished” cinema.

He proceeds to address 31 apparent mysteries about the well-known painting through close analysis of the canvas and by marshalling an array of historical material. His thesis is that Rembrandt used the painting, which falls within a Dutch tradition of military group portraiture, to accuse a handful of men of murder. He also stages multiple short, imaginary scenes with actors portraying Van Rijn (Martin Freeman) and his coterie, plus historical figures that appear in the painting. And though the bulk of the exposition is spoken, he does deploy layers of sophisticated visuals and special effects to illustrate his points.

The obvious irony of Rembrandt J’Accuse is that, while expertly wielding and manipulating images and while extolling visual over linguistic meaning, Greenaway has fashioned an extremely talky film. Intent on cramming in as much data as possible to make his case, he’s produced a word-dense piece. No doubt he’s aware of this dissonance yet it’s still curious that he has relied so much spoken explication. Even the dramatizations he inserts have a postmodern, text-based feel.

A second, more interesting source of consternation is that when all is said and shown, Greenaway didn’t make me care more about “The Night Watch” aesthetically—in the sense of heightening my appreciation of its artistic merits or, if you will, beauty. I assume that’s a category of judgment Greenaway is skeptical about, being quick to dispute the notion that an artwork or object has any purely aesthetic qualities. He’d be right insofar as a piece of art can be permanently separated from its other functions or traits—political and ethical, for example. Yet he might have talked more about Rembrandt’s painterly technique and process and about how the painting actually looks. Determined to make connections that are “real-world” and rooted in the 17th-century context, without hesitating to leap across time-periods when necessary, Greenaway focuses on Rembrandt as an ideological and social being and on “The Night Watch” as a political artifact.

What starts out as an audaciously polemical, radically inventive film project ultimately feels more like the most elaborate and earnest art history lecture ever delivered. Art historians will learn the most; even those Rembrandt specialists who take issue with certain particulars, dispute whether Greenaway has done any original scholarship, or who resent his foray into their field. On the other hand, filmmakers won’t glean much practical insight into their craft but will feel emboldened by Greenaway’s championing of visual signifiers.

Here’s another way of describing this divergence: Rembrandt J’Accuse brought to mind the state of filmmaking in the recent Ricky Gervais comedy The Invention of Lying, which is set in a parallel universe where dishonesty is unheard of and therefore every movie is a work of dull non-fiction. Greenaway’s heady piece qualifies as non-fiction but is lively enough to be deemed the greatest film of all time—in that imaginary world. Inadvertently perhaps, Greenaway exposes the fantastical idea that deceit and subterfuge have no place in rhetoric—whether verbal or visual, whether the goal is pedagogy or entertainment, or accusing someone of murder.

Distributor: ContentFilm
Cast: Martin Freeman, Eva Birthistle, Jodhi May, Emily Holmes, Jonathan Holmes, Michael Teigen and Natalie Press
Director/Screenwriter: Peter Greenaway
Producers: Femke Wolting and Bruno Felix
Genre: Documentary
Rating: Unrated
Running time: 86 min.
Release date: October 21 NY

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