Thursday, 2 February 2012


A film nervous with the anticipation of something?

Though the something never arrives, at least not the something one might expect from the grating, almost metronome-like soundtrack, or the framing of shots, which imply The Third Man (1949) via shades of early Godard, or some similar tale of espionage suggested by these street level observations and the European locale. The amplification of the 'dubbed' sounds, at least initially, seem to play against a natural expectation for a certain kind of drama, or 'pay-off', in the dramatic sense. The ticking sound, like a ticking clock, counting the minutes, or a time bomb, like with Hitchcock, from Sabotage (1936) to Saboteur (1942). However, the dramatic reveal that we're anticipating turns out to be something else, unrelated, but no less remarkable! An explosion, not in the sense of a terrorist attack, but as an actual emotional revelation felt within the experimentation of the form.

The creative associations that are forced upon the work by this juxtaposition of sound and image create a sense of drama that would otherwise be nonexistent, and this, effectively, is the point.

Like Greenaway's later film, The Draughtsman's Contract (1982), this is a film about the relationship between the viewer and the work itself. While the later film would employ a dramatic device made famous by Antonioni in his masterpiece Blow-Up (1966) - in which an artist creates a work that reveals, on closer inspection, the clues to a terrible crime - the approach to this particular film is less narrative, more subjective. Here the audience adopts the role of the Draughtsman, or the unnamed photographer of Antonioni's film. However, unlike the two characters there, we (the individual spectator) haven't created this work, but are being invited by the filmmaker to look at it, to study these shots, these recurring moments in time, with the same restlessness, the same obsessive curiosity. At first it all seems fairly mundane; geriatrics and hesitant children shuffling through near-vacant streets. Without the soundtrack in place, these images would seem uneventful, perhaps even routine.

Intervals directed by Peter Greenaway, 1968-1973:

In the act of closely examining these shots, the audience begins to project their own ideas and interpretations onto them, drawing consciously or unconsciously on a familiarity with the machinations of a genre (or the general conventional presentation of cinema) to invent their own scenarios, to justify Greenaway's experiment in an attempt to anchor it to some kind of recognisable context or theme. This, as an experiment, is directly related to the specific way that we, as audiences, experience films; an experiment in the art of looking and seeing, but also in allowing the film (and the filmmaker) to manipulate the way we receive information through the combination of sound and image.

In the majority of films this is hidden; part of the great magic act that filmmakers use to dazzle their audience, creating moments of comedy and drama, terror and suspense from a seemingly simple cutting between scenes, characters and situations. With Intervals, Greenaway wants to expose the lie, expose the tricks that these storytellers use to manipulate the emotions of an audience. Here these cyclical street-scenes (presented as the 'Intervals' of the title) that repeat several times, each time with subtle variations on the soundtrack, are intended to push the viewer into analysing their own subjective interpretation of the images, and what these images might suggest.

While the earlier experiments with sound create an atmosphere of tension or suspense - something slightly ominous or threatening, again, like a ticking clock, counting down the seconds to some actual devastation - the wave of orchestration that breaks and pulls the images back from the brink of catastrophe (and back towards something more conventionally cinematic, in the Hollywood sense), creates a feeling in the viewer of our senses or perceptions being altered, subtly or not so subtly, by the experimentation with the form. Here we have the same images, the same streets and people appearing again and again, and yet our interpretation of these events is transformed, significantly, by the specific choice of soundtrack. This, in a very Greenaway stroke, is the essence of cinema at its most creative and unashamedly deceptive.