Almost to provocatively demonstrate that his films defy any usual classification, Peter Greenaway's latest film, REMBRANDT'S J'ACCUSE premiered at the International Documentary Film Festival 2008 in Amsterdam. Although Greenaway himself called his film a 'documentary' in his talk during the Q&A that followed the film's screening, the least one can say is that it is most certainly not a documentary in the familiar sense. In this film Greenaway analyzes Rembrandt's probably most famous painting - according to Greenaway the fourth most famous painting in the world, after Da Vinci's Mona Lisa and The Last Supper and Michelangelo's paintings on the ceiling of the Sixtinian Chapelle in Rome - The Nightwatch, completed in 1642, as a piece of evidence in a murder case. Greenaway sets out to demonstrate that Rembrandt staged and composed the Amsterdam militia group that is the subject of the painting in such a way that every visually literate contemporary of his could not but read it as an indictment of the two central figures in the painting, captain Frans Banning Cocq and lieutenant Willem van Ruytenburch who Rembrandt accuses of the murder of Banning Cocq's predecessor captain Frans.
At first sight the film is a curious mixture of Dan Brown's The Da Vinci Code and an Agatha Christie thriller in which in the final scene inspector Hercule Poirot lays out his evidence and reveals the culprit. In this case, however, the evidence does not consist of a forlorn cigarette butt, a lost hair or the trace of a tiny mistake, but of the visual cues Rembrandt provided in his painting of the 32 members of Amsterdamse Cloveniersdoelen militia who were involved in the conspiracy to murder their previous captain. Unlike Christie, Brown, and, for that matter, Eco who rekindled the genre of the historical detective with his novel The Name of The Rose, Greenaway makes his case not by telling the story of a detective who discovers the story of the crime, but by building a compelling argument that consists of exactly 31 steps. Since this number coincides with the number of men portrayed in the painting minus Rembrandt himself, one may rightfully ask oneself whether this number is motivated by the internal logic of Greenaway's argument or whether the build-up of his argument is made to fit the number of suspects on trial (and it should maybe also been seen as a secretive nod to Alfred Hitchcock's THE 39 STEPS (UK, 1935) in which a man gets wrongly accused of the killing of a counterespionage agent). The very arbitrariness of the number of his arguments - a motif well known from his other films - rises the question how reliable Greenaway himself is in his self appointed roles of detective, prosecutor, and judge at the same time.
However, wondering whether Greenaway investigates the presumed murder case as a historian or as a fictional fabulator seems to be missing the point. If the film is not quite a documentary, it isn't a piece of fiction in the vein of THE DA VINCI CODE (Ron Howard, USA 2006) or THE NAME OF THE ROSE (Jean-Jacques Annaud, Fr/It/BRD 1986) either. REMBRANDT"S J'ACCUSE is rather a pedagogical introduction into the art of reading and interpretating visual arts, which include not only painting, but also the art of the moving image, cinema. Greenaway, who during most of the time addresses the spectators of his film in an insert or otherwise explains and comments in voice-over what is to be seen on the screen, assumes the role of Rembrandt who is one of the only two characters in the painting who directly look at the spectator. As Rembrandt in The Nightwatch, Greenaway looks the spectator straight into the face, and since Greenaway repeatedly invokes Rembrandt's predilection for irony, pastiche, and mockery one must be prepared to take Greenaway's reconstruction of the murderous conspiracy as much as a joke as Rembrandt intended the whole staging of The Nightwatch to be (although, according to Greenaway, Rembrandt payed dearly for it). One may assume that Greenaway sees his film on Rembrandt's masterpiece as much as a pastiche and a radical innovation at the same time of the now popular genres of the historical thriller and contemporary forensic police investigation series such as the American CSI NY and English TV series like WAKING THE DEAD - the latter specialized in 'cool cases' as is the case at hand in Greenaway's film - as Rembrandt's The Nightwatch was a pastiche and radical innovation of the military portrait.
Greenaway accepts and encourages his film spectators to accept the outreaching (left) hand of captain Banning Cocq as an invitation to enter the scene of this mid-seventeenth century company. However, Greenaway does not offer his spectators an immersive experience in a cinematographically reconstituted Amsterdam of its Golden Age. REMBRANDT'S J'ACCUSE is more akin to what since Al Gore's AN INCONVENIENT TRUTH (USA 2006) has become known as 'PowerPoint Cinema' than to 3D VR simulations. Greenaway favours the flatness of the painting canvas and the cinema screen over the depth of the perspectival illusionism, and - as Rembrandt who stressed the shallowness of the stage on which Banning Cocq's company was arranged and the theatricality of the whole set-up by placing the group in front of a very non-Dutch arch and dressing his characters in quite exotic costumes - Greenaway emphasizes the stagedness of the few live action scenes by placing his actors in almost bare settings, having them address the camera, (and having them speak English, which is a particularly alienating experience for Dutch viewers like myself), and staging his scenes flatly in front of the camera rather than staging 'in depth' on the axis perpendicular to the camera's lens. The only exterior scene in the film is shot in a typically non-Dutch - rather English - landscape as well, as if Greenaway sought to avoid any suggestion of 'realism', just like many a seventeenth century Dutch painter incorporated rocks, mountains and vegetation in their landscapes that were borrowed from Italian landscape paintings.
Like Rembrandt, then, Greenaway places himself 'behind the scene' not to 'reveal' the artificiality of the artefact - a rather futile endeavour in this extremely media aware day and age - but to make sure that the spectator 'gets the message' that is encoded in the painting. However, whereas Rembrandt anxiously looks at the spectator to see if he or she takes the trouble to decypher the painting, Greenaway fully exploits the soundtrack Rembrandt didn't have at his disposal in order to instruct his audience. The film is a Greenway's j'accuse rather than a Rembrandt's, and if Greenaway seems to act as an investigator, prosecutor and judge on behalf of Rembrandt, he does so not so much in order to 'reopen' the cool case of the alleged conspiracy and murder by Banning Cocq and his company but rather to indict the 'visual illiteracy' that impedes contemporary audiences to see the painting otherwise than as a more or less faithful visual representation of a scene staged in front of the painter's eyes and to 'read' the painting instead as a text full with symbolisms, allegories, references and visual puns. As a kind of a belated McLuhanite, Greenaway bemoans the culture of the printed word and the concomitant predominance of abstract rationality and linear logic that replaced the image as the prevailing conveyor of spiritual or political messages. Cinema and television, rather than restoring visual literacy, reinforced the prevailing incapacity to 'read images' by adhering to visual realism and narrative logic, the rare exceptions being filmmakers and theoreticians like Eisenstein and Godard who stressed 'montage' and the symbolic potential of film rather than its capacity to photographically reproduce reality.
Greenaway, then, turns the cinema screen into a kind of a classroom blackboard on which he proceeds to dissect the 'text' of Rembrandt's painting. In this lesson in visual literacy, Greenaway does not follow a narrative pattern, but instead he breaks up the seemingly organic whole of the painting's visual representation into the aforementioned 31 fragments that he in a way organizes into 31 PowerPoint sheets on which these fragments are analyzed and discussed separately and in no compelling order - the separate parts of the painting could easily have been dealt with in any other sequence. Greenaway proceeds not unlike a puzzler who breaks up the seeming wholeness of the drawings that make up a rebus - a rebus is, after all, nothing but a 'text' encoded in pictures, or the psychoanalyst who breaks up the narration of a dream into separate, and isolated pieces and translates these literally into words. The for contemporary spectators perhaps surprising, but nevertheless very rewarding result is the emergence of a story that is much more fascinating, mysterious, suggestive and compelling than any attempt to reduce the painting's scene to a likeliness with a pre-existing scene.
Greenaway achieves this result by dissecting the painting into a relatively large amount of smaller units - the 31 fragments that he divides over his 31 'PowerPoint sheets' on the one hand, and by reconnecting these smaller units to a larger and almost indefinitely extendable context of seventeenth century commerce, politics, art history, weaponry, architecture, diplomacy and social history (e.g., the Amsterdam orphanages in the seventeenth century). That is, Greenaway turns Rembrandt's The Night Watch into a kind of a hypertext that consists of smaller 'lexia' as well as connections to other files and documents. In that sense, REMBRANDT'S J'ACCUSE is more 'new media' than 'film', or rather, in as far as Greenaway uses cinematographic means in order to create this hypertextual document, he 'accuses' cinema of not having explored and exploited its new media potential that was acknowledged by only very few filmmakers such as Eisenstein, Vertov, and Godard.
The hypertextual nature of this film provides an answer to the question whether the allegation of conspiracy and murder by Banner Cocq and Willem Ruytenburgh rests on any historical evidence. The sheer correspondence of the number of 'lexia' and the number of members of the depicted company already indicates the arbitrariness of this particular dissection of the text. Moreover, the basic idea of hypertext literature is - or rather, was since text based hypertext literature has been largely replaced by graphical computer games - that the readers/users create their own trajectories and discover or construe their own stories, that do not necessarily resemble any of the other readers' stories. Again, Greenaway takes Rembrandt's stance, who, as Greenaway explains, literally stands 'behind his story' in the painting without therefore guaranteeing its truth - Greenaway repeatedly stresses the poetic and painterly licence artists take. Greenaway similarly stands behind his 'dissection' and his 'itinerary' through the hypertext into which he has transformed Rembrandt's painting. But however authoritarian his presentation of the alleged crime may be, he exercises his authority to transmit a skill rather than a knowledge, a capacity rather than a truth: his 'j'accuse' is aimed at the murder of visual literacy by the culture of the printed word and cinema's complicity in this cultural crime.
If he concludes the film concludes an appeal to 'reopen the case', then this is an invitation to the spectators to apply themselves the skills Greenaway attempted to demonstrate and transmit again to Rembrandt's The Night Watch and to go and search for other clues and connections and maybe to come up with other surprising stories, and if not in Rembrandt's painting, then maybe in other visual artefacts.
The question is, however, how convincing Greenaway's case really is? For all its ingenuity, the film rests on the very classic narrative structure of the detective story which starts with the discovery of a dead body and the detective's suspicion that the deceased did not die of a natural cause. The reason Greenaway gives for his suspicion that Banning Cocq's predecessor was murdered is motivated by the narrative logic that Umberto Eco and others identified in Conan Doyle's stories of Sherlock Holmes as 'abduction' ("there must be a causal connection between the two events of the death of one person and the promotion of another person as his replacement"), and the rather arbitrary - "non-linear" - sequence in which Greenaway then presents his 31 arguments follows the convention of the detective story in which the detective discovers the evidence of the crime in an order that does not correspond with the sequence of events that led up to the crime. This non-correspondence of 'story' and 'plot' of the crime is a major source of suspense. Moreover, it takes Greenaway about the full length of the film to get Rembrandt's visual cues across - verbally: Greenaway speaks for about a hundred minutes almost uninterruptedly. His 'j'accuse', the indictment of contemporary word dominated culture as well as his condamnation of the narrative fiction film seems to follow a self-refuting procedure, or is this part of a typical Greenaway play of irony? Or is it just another indication that this 'J'Accuse' should not be taken too seriously? And isn't Greenaway exactly doing what was according to the classic writer and philopher Horatius, rediscovered and much appreciated in the Renaissance, the greatest task of the poet and artist, prodesse et delectare, 'to instruct and to amuse'?