PROBLEM 0017: On Unpleasant Art via Peter Greenaway’s Tulse Luper Suitcases

In which the author addresses Unpleasant Art, because it exists and probably exists for a reason. Namely that humans are unpleasant. He uses Peter Greenaway’s Tulse Luper Suitcases as a prime example of Unpleasant Art that is worth engaging. Then he gets all serious because that’s what the author does at times like these. 


The various forms of Peter Greenaway’s The Tulse Luper Suitcases are on Netflix Instant Watch right now. This is a cause for celebration if you’re into the good kind of self-immolation. Just listen to the deafening roar of the world’s rejoicing! Okay, so the world was silent, but I was thrilled. Those “films” deserve to be at least available, in the same way that Cézannes deserve to be available (the two are more similar than you think). Look at your options: There is the trilogy of films , the 2-hour reduction, and a 16-part tv series. The trilogy is for those with stamina, the reduction is for the curious, and the TV series is for the binge viewer. Each one of them has a very admirable 1 to 2 stars on the Netflix scale of value, an honor rare for a master filmmaker. Whatever the myriad, unknowable reasons for those ratings, it is always good when a master seems to fail.

I confess, I have started watching these puppies at least a dozen times in the last decade but never really “got into them.” I couldn’t get into the “story” because there wasn’t really a narrative arc (though there were hundreds of stories/episodes throughout) and some of the conceits Greenaway used grated on me. But that’s Greenaway. He’s never been particularly fond of narrative cinema or other people’s expectations. He creates what he wants to create. I know this.

So I’ve watched them. Finally. They are much bigger than we realize. And they are very unpleasant. But also not. “Hurray for the paradox!” the author growls.


Luper-Moab-Jail-stillLet’s begin with the admirable.

Peter Greenaway is very fond of cinema and cinematography. He clearly has a respect for the stage. Painting is an obvious influence on his visuals, with its historical nudes and its ability to encapsulate the dramatic within the limits of a single frame. He uses music in a very Samuel Beckett way, with repetitions recalling prior repetitions and giving the listener a helpful cue. Sculptural light adds a drama that almost needs no acting, and yet the acting is acting in the purest sense of the word, complicated by naturalism, mannerism, and a rare dose of vaudeville. Space is always important to Greenaway, and motion through space (by light or camera) is critical to appreciating his work (although often that’s all people see). There are monumental locations, intimate scenes, and highly effective stage locations (his choice to open the films on an obvious sound stage with children recreating an attack may be enough to keep most people from continuing—a method used by Umberto Eco in The Name of the Rose to weed out readers who couldn’t handle the long haul—likewise used by Greenaway in the opening of The Cook, the Thief, His Wife, and Her Lover). His ironic use of text in the face of a text-based cinema gets raised to Pillow Book heights, but without the focus on beauty—these are typewriters, handwritten letters, and official documents rather than calligraphy and paper. Images overlap, collide, slide past one another, repeat themselves simultaneously, disrupting one another—at other times they blend into a perfect unified whole, demanding to be relished, a concession to the “zapper”, the remote control that Greenaway sees as the bullet that killed cinema. There is nudity, sex, death, torture, comedy, and once in a very great while, a sublimely beautiful moment.


And everything you want to see goes away very quickly.

Every text you want to read is quickly obliterated.

This is true of life. It is true of the Tulse Luper films. It is a work of abducted desire.

We stay away from Greenaway because his humanity tends to be just a little evil in his films—cold, heartless, greedy, violent, and in consistent pain. This keeps people away from his work as well, given that many acts are simply unfathomable in his films (honey smeared on genitalia to attract bees; a dentist torturing and killing an anesthetized patient; three Graces shooting a lonely man’s dog because…). But why shouldn’t he portray on an intimate scale a humanity that is capable of murdering six million people at a pop? Why shouldn’t he try to come to grips with a horrifying 20th century by attempting or exploiting catharsis in his own way (the chilling third act where the murdered Jews arrive in threes lasts longer than most filmmakers would ever dare). Why not? Why? Why not? Should artists not try? Should we castigate them because they admit that babies are dropped out of windows, that women are trampled upon, that men torture other men and themselves over gold? Over silver? Over lead? Over plastic? Over dirt?

Luper-Death-stillAnd to counter that he obviously did a bad job leading us to the sublime moments of his film because nobody will ever watch that far is not a good retort. Naughty, naughty. If we can’t be bothered, it’s not his fault. Greenaway is clearly not into seducing or tricking us into watching his films. He writes the invitations, but he throws unpleasant parties. We know that and decide not to show up.


And any artist who can’t help but create will see in the Tulse Luper Suitcases not only Peter Greenaway’s valiant, necessary abominations (nigh unto failure but not quite), but their own future abominations (and inevitable, valiant failures), because that is what happens—art leads us into ourselves and we are awful, beautiful, wondrous, hideous creatures who have awesome babies and great sex. We live, we die, and with any luck we have created. To create is less inevitable than decay, and that is the battle.

Greenaway exhausts himself with Tulse Luper. We exhaust ourselves in watching it. Fantastic! Thank you, Peter Greenaway. You have done something. There is no Netflix rating system that can convey the monumentality of that fact.