Director Peter Greenaway has been saying for some time now that "cinema is much too rich a medium to be left to storytellers." These are obviously the words of a man who's never sat through one of those films advertised with the tagline "from two of the six writers of Scary Movie". But underneath his characteristic bluster, there's a genuine point: one that he made more clearly in a recent video interview, where he suggests that the way Martin Scorsese makes films now is pretty much identical to the way D.W. Griffith was making them a century ago, technology notwithstanding. We've been using the same cinematic grammar for virtually the whole of the life of the medium, and Greenaway thinks it's about time we found something new to do with it.
When Greenaway pronounced the death of cinema in 2002, it was as part of the initial promotion for a multi-media project called The Tulse Luper Suitcases. Since 2004, the cinema part of that project - a trilogy of feature films - has been slowly making its way around the global festival circuit, avoiding any sort of commercial release (except for a Spanish DVD of the first film, which you can pick up second-hand from Amazon using the link at the bottom of the page if you're curious). The fact that its first public screening in London wasn't until March 2007 may be indicative of something or other, but I'm not quite sure what yet.
The central character in these three films, Tulse Luper, has popped in and out of Greenaway's oeuvre since the 1970s. He has the same relationship to the director that Kilgore Trout has to the writer Kurt Vonnegut: an alter ego storyteller figure, on the periphery of many narratives without ever becoming a protagonist, acting as a useful vehicle for any loose story ideas that his creator can't get a full novel or movie out of. Luper dabbled in structuralist filmmaking in Vertical Features Remake, mapped out the journey of A Walk Through H, and was part of the unspeakable avian conspiracy at the heart of The Falls. But once Greenaway started getting a degree of commercial success with The Draughtsman's Contract, Luper disappeared from his movies. Until now, at a time when, frankly, that commercial success is fading fast.
Luper was born in 1911, making him 92 years old at the opening of the first film, The Moab Story. 92 has long been a significant figure in Greenaway numerology - the 92 chapters of The Falls being the most obvious example - and it's a major feature of this trilogy. 92 is the atomic number of uranium (Luper being referred to more than once as a child of the atomic age): the number of speaking characters in the three films: and the number of suitcases that Luper fills with assorted emphera during his life. It's a life spent mostly in captivity, drifting from one jail to another, until by the end he's telling people that his occupation is 'professional prisoner'. Broadly speaking, The Moab Story follows Luper up to the outbreak of the Second World War, its sequel Vaux To The Sea covers the war years, and From Sark To Finish looks at what came after that. This being Greenaway, certain repetitive themes emerge: Luper's dalliances with a succession of unsuitable women, the influence of his childhood friend Martino Knockavelli, and his obsessive urge to collect and classify everything. Hence the suitcases.
There's not much to be said about the story, as most of the interest is in the way it's told. The illustration at the top of this page is fairly typical of the films' look: dramatic footage (the young Luper running through his neighbours' back yards) mixed up with library film of the period, topped off with some text captions, plus a narrator telling you more information from inside an insert box. (You can see a dodgy approximation of the result here.) But apart from the odd bit of CGI scenery, this is all Greenaway is offering us as the future of cinema: using digital picture-in-picture tools to add closeups or narrative embellishment without having to cut away from his long shot. Nothing wrong with that, except that he was using exactly the same techniques to layer information within the frame in 1989, when he collaborated with Tom Phillips on A TV Dante. Back then, it was extraordinarily innovative, and you could almost argue that Greenaway invented the grammar of the CD-ROM. But nowadays, all multimedia presentations look like this: the 15 years between Dante and Luper have merely allowed the technology to develop to a level where he can render these effects convincingly on a big screen.
I haven't mentioned many character names or any cast members so far, and there doesn't seem much point in doing so, because Greenaway appears to have lost all interest in the simple pleasures of character and performance that gave such an edge to his masterpiece The Cook, The Thief, His Wife And Her Lover. The meandering, picaresque narrative isn't a problem in itself: he used that approach to great effect in The Falls, overloading the film with dozens of discrete stories, and even absorbing earlier films of his into the main narrative (a trick that Suitcases also attempts with some of Greenaway's non-Luperverse films like A Zed And Two Noughts). In stark contrast, there are huge swathes of this trilogy where bugger all of interest is happening. Curiously, most of those dull patches are in the first film, less of them are in the second, and fewer still are in the third, leading you to believe that this could be one of those rare trilogies that actually gets better as it goes along. Until you reach the penultimate section set on the Soviet border, which goes on and on and on and hammers a games-playing metaphor into the ground.
The problem with The Tulse Luper Suitcases is that as an experiment, it isn't nearly experimental enough. For all Greenaway's boasting about new ways of making movies, there's next to nothing here that he hasn't done before in one of his earlier films - either visually in A TV Dante, or narratively in The Falls. To throw his criticism of Martin Scorsese back in his face, the way he makes films now is pretty much identical to the way he was making them almost two decades ago, technology notwithstanding. Parts of Suitcases look very pretty, but other parts are excruciatingly dull, and - worst of all - it's almost totally devoid of the dry verbal wit that Greenaway does best.
To be fair, this was always advertised as a multi-media project, and I'm judging it solely on the cinema component. Theoretically, there are 92 DVDs of the suitcase contents still to come. Also out there are an exhibition of the suitcases (which you can imagine working well as installation art by leaving much of the story to the viewer's imagination), a art book (with its own accompanying website), a VJ set based around hacked-up footage from the three films (which might at least mean we just get the good bits), and a couple of large-scale web environments retelling the story of Luper in a different order. Maybe the internet route is the best way for Greenaway to explore his narrative experiments - except Steven Spielberg did it first with the web game for A.I., and Nine Inch Nails are currently pushing the medium into astonishing new directions. Greenaway's good on the theories, but he's got a fair way to go to put them into practice.