"It was meant to be an acted metaphor. It became a bloody reality": Goltzius and the Pelican Company.
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The play’s the thing: Peter Greenaway’s Goltzius and the Pelican Company

Critics and audiences may have long given up on British painter-turned-director Peter Greenaway, but his sensuous, smart, arty films are asking questions few others would dare to contemplate.

Goltzius and the Pelican Company (18)
dir: Peter Greenaway

If one were called on to explain to a young cinemagoer now the position in the 1980s of the British painter-turned-director Peter Greenaway, it might be helpful to say that he combined the intellectual mischief of Slavoj Žižek, the formalist precision of Wes Anderson, the provocations of Lady Gaga and the commercial appeal of chlamydia.

His reputation was made in 1982 with his second feature, The Draughtsman’s Contract. So vital was it to have a take on this period puzzle that the Evening Standard ran a two-page feature canvassing opinion-makers on what the film might possibly mean. His 1985 follow-up, A Zed & Two Noughts, about zoologist twins whose wives perish in a car crash caused by a swan (no, really), held the record at one swanky London cinema for the most walkouts in a week – until it was beaten by his sumptuous and disgusting 1989 thriller The Cook, the Thief, His Wife and Her Lover. Greenaway’s house style involved painterly, pedantically-detailed compositions, a creepily gliding camera and surging Michael Nyman scores. There was cannibalism, sexual degradation and, in one disturbing instance, an acting role for the comedian Jim Davidson.

Alan Parker, another British director from the period whose stock has plummeted, was so repulsed by Greenaway’s cinema that he promised to decamp to the US if he was allowed to go on working. Greenaway did continue making films – Goltzius and the Pelican Company is his 15th – but audiences stopped watching them.

He delivered his harrowing masterpiece, The Baby of Mâcon, in 1993 but critics decided they had reached peak Greenaway. That film depicts 17th-century actors crossing the line between performance and reality as they mount a morality play. The notorious sequence in which a woman is raped by 208 men at the behest of the Church prompted the Guardian to label it “one of the most misogynistic films of all time”. On the contrary, it is as admirable in its staging and control as it is unequivocal in its condemnation of religiously sanctioned abuse.

Goltzius and the Pelican Company revisits some of the ideas and iconography of that widely loathed picture, minus the 208 men. Once again, the action takes place before an on-screen audience that applauds the floor shows mounted for its delectation. We are in the court of the Margrave of Alsace (F Murray Abraham, best known for his role as Salieri in Miloš Forman’s Amadeus). The painter Hendrik Goltzius (played by the former Dutch poet laureate Ramsey Nasr) arrives in 1590 to seek funding for a printing press in order to produce an edition of the Old Testament brimming with candid illustrations. To sweeten the deal, Goltzius agrees for his company of workers to perform six biblical scenes for the Margrave exploring sexual taboos, from incest (Lot and his daughters) to paedophilia (Potiphar’s wife and Joseph). As in The Baby of Mâcon, life starts trespassing on to the stage. Woe betide the actor called upon to play John the Baptist.

Greenaway has likened the origins of printing to the beginnings of the internet, comparing the illusion of limitless sexual exploration promised in both cases. With its disquisitions on free speech, prompted by the violence doled out to the company’s playwright, Boethius (Giulio Berruti), the film is not short on examples of pertinence. Visually, Greenaway has always been prescient: long before we were all opening tabs within windows within panels within screens, he foresaw the aesthetic texture of the future with his 1991 film Prospero’s Books, in which Paintbox computer technology made possible overlapping text and images. We think of James Cameron or Pixar Animation Studios as being at the vanguard of CGI but Greenaway shouldn’t be Photoshopped out of that snapshot.

Text in the new film is layered on to bodies that shimmer with ripples of light from unseen water, while multiple images play out in compartmentalised boxes. Miniature lectures on the history of art bring the picture perilously close to PowerPoint territory at times. The sense of jeopardy in the action (not to mention equal-opportunities nudity) rescues it from the purely academic.

Audiences not won over previously by Greenaway are unlikely to undergo a conversion with Goltzius and the Pelican Company. I wonder, though, if the director’s experience of having been roundly rejected accounts for some of the rueful, new-found hurt discernible in his usually dogmatic voice. Near the end of the picture, Goltzius says mournfully of his production: “It was meant to be an acted metaphor. It became a bloody reality.” It can’t be a coincidence that Greenaway has returned to the play-within-a-film format of his most hated work to denounce the hypocrisy of those who claim to prize intellectual and artistic inquiry only to yank up the drawbridge when reality bites.

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

This article first appeared in the 02 July 2014 issue of the New Statesman, After God Again

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The radio station where the loyal listeners are chickens

Emma Hills, the head chicken trainer at Giffords Circus, knows what gets them clucking.

“The music is for the chickens, because of course on the night the music is very loud, and so it needs to be a part of their environment from the very start.” Emma Hills, the head chicken trainer at Giffords Circus, is standing in the sawdusty ring under a big top in a field outside Stroud as several rare-breed chickens wander freely around boxes and down ramps. They are the comic stars of the summer 2017 show, and Emma is coaxing them to walk insouciantly around the ring while she plays the early-morning show on Radio 1.

It’s the chickens’ favourite station. There seems to be something about its longueurs, combined with the playlist, that gets them going – if that’s the word. They really do respond to the voices and songs. “It’s a bit painful, training,” Emma observes, as she moves a little tray of worms into position as a lure. “It’s a bit like watching paint dry sometimes. It’s all about repetition.”

Beyond the big top, a valley folds into limestone hills covered in wild parsley and the beginnings of elderblossom. Over the radio, Adele Roberts (weekdays, from 4am) hails her listeners countrywide. “Hello to Denzel, the happy trucker going north on the M6. And van driver Niki on the way from Norwich to Coventry, delivering all the things.” Pecking and quivering, the chickens are rather elegant, each with its fluffy, caramel-coloured legs and explosive feather bouffant, like a hat Elizabeth Taylor might have worn on her way to Gstaad in the 1970s.

Despite a spell of ennui during the new Harry Styles single, enthusiasm resumes as Adele bids “hello to Simon from Bournemouth on the M3 – he’s on his way to Stevenage delivering meat”. I don’t imagine Radio 1 could hope for a better review: to these pretty creatures, its spiel is as thrilling as opening night at the circus. Greasepaint, swags of velvet, acrobats limbering up with their proud, ironic grace. Gasps from beholders rippling wonder across the stalls.

Emma muses that her pupils learn fast. Like camels, a chicken never forgets.

“I’ve actually given up eating them,” she admits. “Last year I had only two weeks to train and it was like, ‘If they pull this off I won’t eat chicken ever again.’ And they did. So I didn’t.” 

Antonia Quirke is an author and journalist. She is a presenter on The Film Programme and Pick of the Week (Radio 4) and Film 2015 and The One Show (BBC 1). She writes a column on radio for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 25 May 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Why Islamic State targets Britain

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