Discussion about Greenaway continued until The Baby of Macon was released in 1993, but then things fell oddly silent. Part of this could have been due to fatigue with the excesses of his vision but more likely it had to do with the fact that in the States we couldn’t see the movie. Negative reviews in the UK focused on its deliberately objectionable material, which includes misogyny, gang rape and the exploitation of a child set inside a church. This killed any chance of distribution in the US. It still has never been released on home video in America, though surprisingly it’s currently available on Amazon Prime. But at the time, all we knew of it were its most salacious moments, which indicated, to the enthusiasts among us, that perhaps Greenaway was doing the same old thing, offering provocation for its own sake but to lesser effect. The visual style was said to recall The Cook, et al‘s in its use of tracking shots following characters in long unbroken takes. As pleasing as this style can be, it felt like a retreat after Prospero’s Books‘ experiments with layering multiple images onscreen. It wasn’t until years later that I discovered The Baby of Macon‘s style was in fact an elaboration of the detailed tableaus created for Greenaway’s 1993 television film Darwin, which can be seen here:
Beginning with1989 of The Cook, The Thief, His Wife and Her Lover, British director Peter Greenaway had a streak of commercial success (in relative terms) and serious critical attention that would have been the envy of any filmmaker, let alone one as interested in challenging imagery, structures and ideas as Greenaway. He once said “I want the largest possible audience that I can find – but, of course, on my terms.”
I was in film school in the early nineties and at that time Greenaway was the contemporary director to reckon with. The images influenced by the history of painting; the self-conscious use of color and composition; the films structured according to systems other than the narrative like numbers, stages of evolution or the alphabet; the fascination with or perhaps fatalist acceptance of the ubiquity of cruelty; the deliberate use of anti-realistic stories coupled with an anti-psychological approach to character: his work could feel liberating, challenging or annoying. If you didn’t like his work, you had to have your sharp reasons why. His name was the one you knew would come up eventually in every cafeteria or barroom discussion of film if it lasted long enough. I remember arriving late once to meet my friends at a bar only to be greeted by the sight of them engaged in an argument I could tell was a few quick comments away from getting personal and nasty.
“Oh God, don’t tell me they’re arguing like this about film again.”
“Worse,” my friend Sam said with a smile. “Greenaway!”
Greenaway’s next feature after The Cook, et al. was Prospero’s Books, an adaptation of Shakespeare’s The Tempest. Released in 1991, it combined previous literary adaptations and costume dramas with what at that time was the cutting edge multimedia visual language of advertising, graphic design and the new media of the computer. The film’s frequent layering of several frames of images is a precursor of website design. Though set in the early 17th Century it’s very much a film of the information age to the point that some found it too baroque and complained there was too much to see.
Greenaway’s take (from Being Naked, Playing Dead by Alan Woods.): “People could accept what happened in The Cook, The Thief, his Wife and Her Lover but not in The Baby of Macon, not only because of its taboo subject matter, but because The Cook also had a sense of distancing irony, and that sort of irony is not present in The Baby of Macon, it’s eradicated, scraped away…I saw time and time again that the film’s political incorrectness, in a moral climate that has changed and hardened in the four years since The Cook, made audiences uncomfortable and embarrassed about their participation as viewers.” I would add that in The Cook, et al, the violence and cruelty is aimed at adults, with the exception of a boy who works in a kitchen. The scene in which he is the victim of torture is the most difficult to watch in the film. In addition to “distancing irony,” The Cook et al also has a happy ending in which the oppressed get revenge on those who have wronged them. In The Baby of Macon, women and children are the victims of cruelty and the film ends with the titular child dead, his body dismembered for holy relics, and a woman destroyed by an unholy trinity of male-dominated institutions: the church, the military and the crown.
Actually, that’s how the play within the film ends, not the film itself. Greenaway was inspired by Peter Brooks’ film of Peter Weiss’ Marat/Sade in which the film viewer watches a play about the French Revolution performed by the patients in a mental institution. Similarly, the viewer of The Baby of Macon watches a play staged in an Italian church in the 17th Century but set in a small French village two hundred years before. There’s a famine in the land, disease is rampant and the women are barren. When a beautiful child is born to an ugly old woman, it is taken to be a miracle. The child’s sister is quick to seize on this opportunity and exploits him, playing to people’s religiosity by selling his blessings. It becomes a time of plenty: crops improve, there’s plenty of food and other children are born. This arouses the anger of leaders of the Church who use a tragedy as an excuse to take possession of the child. They then exploit him and sell his blessings. The sister smothers the child but a local law states that virgins cannot be executed. A young prince, who is both in the audience of the play and interacts with the characters, suggests the sister be raped so that she’ll lose her virginity and can then be executed.
If Marat/Sade exists on two levels, that of the story itself and that of the inmates who are staging the play, then The Baby of Macon exists on multiple levels, an exponential increase. There’s the story within the play, then there’s the story of the actors who are performing, then there’s the story of the audience watching it, particularly the aforementioned young prince who comments on and influences what happens on stage (and therefore the story?) Then there is the larger audience who watch and know the play well enough to recite lines like in church or at The Rocky Horror Picture Show. Finally there is the most abstract level, that of the ideas and concepts that Greenaway plays with.
What is real and what is theater? The viewer moves between these various levels, each presented as real as the others, yet sometimes contradicting them. One of my early frustrations with the film was that I couldn’t make it “work.” I was relieved to finally read Greenaway’s statement in the introduction to the script that it deliberately doesn’t work as a single coherent story. The contradictions are intentional. You’re not supposed to think you’re watching “real people” in a consistent world because he’s not interested in realism but in ideas, arguments, debates and provocations. It’s akin to David Lynch’s Inland Empire, albeit with completely different aims. Lynch’s film doesn’t present a reality but is (I think) about the worlds, the mindset an actress travels to in order to prepare for a role. If Marat/Sade is similar to Mulholland Dr. in that it has two contradictory but equal levels of existence, then the shifting between various worlds seen in The Baby of Macon can be compared to Inland Empire.
It’s this intertwining of different worlds that gives The Baby of Macon its queasy power and most infamous scene. At the point of the story in which the sister is to be raped by a group of soldiers to make her fit for execution, it’s made plain that the actress playing her is actually sexually assaulted repeatedly onstage. (This makes it among the first in the trend of European films in which scenes of women suffering sexual violence are presented as endurance tests for the audience; other examples would include Gaspar Noe’s Irreversable and Lars Von Trier’s Breaking the Waves and Dogville.) It’s at this point the movie becomes Julia Ormond’s rather than Peter Greenaway’s. Since the assaults happen offscreen, they are represented by a game of skittles: large pins, 208 of them, one for each rape, arranged in a geometric pattern. After each man finishes, a pin is knocked over. But all of that business is put to shame by the sound of Ormand’s screams. Her desperate cries go somewhere beyond art into that which can not be reconciled. Why is the audience at the play watching this? Why is the audience of the film watching it? The mind attempts to find some reason – aesthetic, instructive, moral – some context for exposing ourselves to this and other displays of suffering. I’m not sure there is one.