Nightwatching by Peter Greenaway

Greenaway has commented that cinema did not begin in 1895, it began in the 17th century when painters began experimenting with lights. In Nightwatching, Greenaway visually uses the aesthetics of Rembrandt’s paintings for lighting and colour choices in order to re-create one possible solution to the mystery surrounding Rembrandt’s commissioned painting Nightwatch. Through his film, Greenaway postulates that Rembrandt not only ridiculed the thirty one soldier militia of the Amsterdam Home Guard, but he also hid an allegation of murder and child exploitation. For this reason, Greenaway argues that this painting ultimately led to the demise of Rembrandt’s career.

Greenaway’s companion piece, a stylized video essay titled Rembrandt’s J’accuse provides context and focus to his film Nightwatching. In J’accuse, Greenaway critiques today’s visual illiteracy, by providing us with a detailed analysis of his own interpretation of Rembrandt’s Nightwatch. Greenaway justifies his interpretation by using historical sources and by highlighting numerous details in the painting. Through his analysis, he is providing others with tools in order to fight visual illiteracy. Greenaway claims this is one of the reasons we have such an impoverished cinema. Ironically, J’accuse, does not leave the realm of text based cinema.

“What was cinema? rows and rows of people sitting still (and who in any other human occupation sits still for 120 minutes?), all looking in one direction (the world is all around you – not just in front of us), in the dark (man is not a nocturnal animal). With a cinema with characteristics like this, perhaps the sooner dead, the better.” – Peter Greenaway’s Toward a Re-Invention of Cinema (Cinema Militans Lecture 28/09/2003)

Contrary to Greenaway’s opinion, I feel that people sitting still, all looking in one direction, in the dark is the exact reason cinema is not a “passive elitist medium”. Staring at a screen in the dark allows the spectator to be free of distractions for 120 minutes thus allowing the viewer to fully contemplate the image. This is one of the only mediums whose natural environment fosters active spectatorship. However, I agree with Greenaway that classical cinematic techniques and the traditional cinematic viewing experience needs to be re-invented. For instance, the premiere of Nightwatching at the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam next to the actual Nightwatch painting with a special installation designed to cast light on the characters portrayed in the famous work is an excellent example of a new cinematic context. Despite this minor discrepancy, I am glad that filmmakers like Greenaway continue to experiment with the classical cinematic form.

– Clint Enns


From UPTOWN Magazine June 25, 2009:
Blurred vision
Peter Greenaway’s Nightwatching offers an unfocused look at Rembrandt and the story behind his most famous painting

Foregoing recent avant-garde mannerisms and returning to the lush sensuality present in his 1990s productions of Prospero’s Books and The Pillow Book, director Peter Greenaway examines the life of Rembrandt during a period of insecurity and turmoil which resulted in his most famous painting, The Night Watch.

The Dutch artist is played by Martin Freeman (from the U.K.’s version of The Office). Far from being a traditional biopic, Greenaway picks up when Rembrandt is already a successful artist, comfortably married to Saskia (Eva Birthistle), a dignified woman who initially gained his hand due to a smart business decision.

When Saskia becomes pregnant, Rembrandt agrees to a hefty commission to paint all 17 members of the Amsterdam Civil Guard. Soon after, the Guard’s Piers Hasselburg (Andrzej Seweryn) is killed by what is officially put on record as an accidental musket shot, though Rembrandt suspects otherwise. This leads to the artist’s unveiling of a labyrinthine conspiracy concerning Captain Frans Banning Cocq (Adrian Lukis) and an orphanage under the Guard’s supervision that’s being used in a child-prostitution ring.

Greenaway posits that Rembrandt’s ultimate condemnation of the Guard’s actions comes courtesy of his artistry and the mammoth Night Watch painting itself. Unsurprisingly, the militia guards are livid upon first inspection of the work, but Greenaway paints himself into a corner, so to speak, by allowing this third-act confrontation to come far too early. After that, Greenaway’s film rambles on for another 30 minutes with absolutely nowhere to go – save for some further rumination on Rembrandt’s madness.

Freeman is adept in the dramatic setting, even though he doesn’t readily embody the whirlwind force Greenaway suggests Rembrandt had been. Though a number of other Brit actors take up the central supporting roles (notably Toby Jones), the majority of the cast is from Poland, where the film was shot.

Nightwatching is hugely theatrical. Greenaway re-dresses the same set again and again, the camera pointing in the same direction as if the frame was a proscenium arch. Given that the finished painting plays fluidly with hot spots of light and creeping shadow, Greenaway appropriately chose to adopt it as his stylistic muse, using the same golden-hued colours for his own palette.

However, while splendid to look at, Greenaway’s film is erratic and vague in its aims. Perhaps the director’s intended companion piece (alas, not showing), Rembrandt’s J’accuse, in which he discusses the many different theories on the messages contained within The Night Watch, would shed better light on this unfocused film.

– Aaron Graham


~ by cineflyer on July 1, 2009.

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