Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Peter's Redux: "Rembrandt's J'Accuse" (2009)

I recently sat through Peter Greenaway's film "Nightwatching," a messy biopic/thriller/bore telling the story of Rembrandt and his famous painting "The Night Watch." I trashed the film, and did not like it. Then, I noticed a documentary on the two disc special edition (Region 1) of "Nightwatching." The documentary was titled "Rembrandt's J'Accuse," and in it, Greenaway himself brings to light all of his conspiracy theories that he failed to dramatize in the main film. This documentary should have been the work released to film festivals and theaters around the world.

The film opens in front of the building where the painting hangs, and Peter Greenaway appears in a small box in the middle of the screen, where he spends the rest of the film presenting his case (in a fantastic bit of film narration). Using other works by Rembrandt and his contemporaries, Greenaway identifies thirty-four mysteries about the painting that he plans to discuss and solve. Before you bolt for the remote (as I almost did), each "mystery" is mercifully, briefly presented. Greenaway then uses scenes from "Nightwatching," plus new footage of him questioning the film's actors while they are still in character, and comes up with a strong case for Rembrandt's painted murder accusation, and how the conspirators eventually got the upper hand, ruining the master.

Why, oh, why wasn't this film the centerpiece of Greenaway's "The Night Watch" project? This film is infinitely more interesting than "Nightwatching." While Greenaway still comes off as pompous (this society is "visually illiterate" thanks to our text-based upbringing), this 100 minute enhanced discussion and lecture flew by. I learned more here than in any other documentary I have seen about artists, although my 17th century knowledge was infantile since I gravitate to documentaries about Dali and Warhol.

The use of the actors playing their "Nightwatching" roles is a wonderful idea, and Greenaway seems to be enjoying the interaction. He was sure to include some of the other film's nudity and profanity to keep the college students awake, but I thought using carefully chosen scenes from the first film only illustrated how badly that thing had to be edited. I remembered all the scenes shown, and they made more sense now that they are put into context.

Watching "Rembrandt's J'Accuse" before "Nightwatching" might be a better idea. Greenaway's indulgences are difficult to decipher, but are more palatable here, even if his main thrust is still a bit flimsy. On an ironic side note, after trashing this stupid text-based society of ours (which might explain his meandering screenplays), I noticed his name was misspelled on both the first film's DVD onscreen menu, and the special edition cover box, when trumpeting his interviews about the film. Now THAT is funny! (* * * *) out of five stars.