Peter Greenaway's Nightwatching and Rembrandt's J'Accuse
This Sunday, June 3, the L.A. Filmforum will host the long-overdue Los Angeles premiere of Peter Greenaway's Rembrandt's J'Accuse (2008) at the Spielberg Theatre (which is housed inside of the Egyptian). And two weeks later, on June 17, Nightwatching (2007) will finally be given its premiere at the same location. Both of these films are essential and vital works of contemporary cinema that must be seen.
Greenaway deeply and profoundly believes in the power of images to reflect the world back at us at a heightened level of perfection, drawing attention to details and events that we may have missed during the daily goings-on of life. Images hold the keys to the mysteries in/of life. Similar to 1982's The Draughtsman's Contract, in which an artist paints the clues to a murder in a series of landscape portraits, Nightwatching takes Rembrandt's The Night Watch and the mystery and conspiracy that surrounded the occasion of its painting as its subject matter. Rembrandt (played by a superb Martin Freeman, who, though better known for his comedic abilities, is quite the dramatic actor) is commissioned to paint a portrait of the Amsterdam Musketeers Militia. However, while he is in the process of preparing to begin the drawing, the head of the Militia is killed in a dubious shooting accident. Soon Rembrandt begins to unravel the plot and realizes the death may not have been an accident, and that many of the painting's subjects may have had a nefarious hand in the tragic event. And so, he decides to paint The Night Watch as an indictment of murder as well as other debaucheries and nefarious activities. For example, Rembrandt includes the the figures of Rambout Kemp's illegitimate daughters -- one of whom Kemp reportedly disfigured by throwing a scalding hot pot of water in her face.
Much like The Night Watch itself, the backgrounds of Greenaway's tableaux are often filled with shadows and darkness, and he favors long distance shots of large groups of people gathered in an unruly row across the screen. The constantly encroaching darkness befits a story that reveals Holland's wealthiest nobles to be immoral slime who think nothing of raping little girls at an orphanage or murder. Greenaway relies on static shots, zooms in and out and lateral camera movement, lending the film an almost theatrical feel in its stripped-down camerawork. And while the story is bleak indeed, it is not told without Greenaway's characteristic wit and dry humor.
Rembrandt's J'Accuse, Greenaway's follow-up to Nightwatching, is a documentary on the painting, which examines 33 of the work's mysteries. (Such as: Why is one of the musketeers loading a musket that appears to be upside down? Why are there 13 pikes in the background?) Greenaway's voice-over dominates the film as the camera pores over every inch of the canvas, honoring the immense intricacy of this painted image and serving as a tonic to Greenaway's own j'accuse, which he articulates early on in the film: "Most people are visually illiterate. Why should it be otherwise? We have a text-based culture. Our educational systems teach us to value text over image, which is one of the reasons why we have such an impoverished cinema. Just because you have eyes does not mean to say that you can see." With this film Greenaway teaches us to see.