The Ruse of Tribute: Vanity and Legacy in The Belly of an Architect

Memory is only important to the living; preservation of art or artifice, while living, is only preparation for possible legacy. Then history begins, and is in the hands of younger strangers. Other artists perhaps don’t think of legacy; they know they will be remembered and, if not, the work was complete as much as possible, and death doesn’t report to them on continuing popularity.

Novelist Sherwood Anderson’s concept of the Grotesque was that of a person so singular in their obsessions that they effortlessly and unbeknownst to themselves, became monstrous, parodies of human passion and inspiration. Peter Greenaway’s maddening and beautiful films are often illustrative of the grotesquery involved in vanity and the seeking of notice for one’s work; Greenaway is himself clearly as sympathetic to the grotesque as any of his characters. Nowhere is the passion and pathos of vanity more apparent than in 1987’s The Belly of An Architect, in which each character, whether artist, suitor or local fool wraps themselves in themselves; their sense of the self’s place in history is epic only to themselves, gorgeous ruins like those in the Rome in which the story is set. Greenaway bares light on souls who are monuments to their own monstrosity.

American architect Stourley Kracklite (Brian Dennehy) is in Rome with his feckless wife Louisa (Chloe Webb) to oversee a centennial exhibition in honor of Etienne-Louis Boullée, an obscure 18th century French architect whose major works were never completed. While there, he develops stomach problems, and an obsession with the stomach itself and the gastrointestinal maladies that beset the Emperors of Ancient Rome. Amid frantic photocopies of the Caesars’ guts and a diet of fruit only, Kracklite is assailed by the youthful derision of the Italian financial backers (one of whom seduces Louisa) and the growing sense that not only is he the only one who appreciates Boulle’s brilliance, but the only one who appreciates his own. He descends into fantasies of being poisoned by his wife (ala Livia, Augustus’s wife), writing letters to Boulle asking about his stomach issues, and morbid walks among the statues with a sympathetic doctor, who blandly obliges Kracklite’s desire to know how each of them died. The answer he more often than not receives: they died screaming.

You can imagine what ensues: Kracklite, disgraced by his wife’s infidelity and having the exhibition taken from him and put in the hands of his wife’s lover, kills himself on the opening day of ceremonies. He dramatically falls backwards, in Christ-like pose, out a window just as the his wife, having cut the official ribbon, falls on stage and induces birth. He leaps to his fate as the first cries of his child are heard. But did he hear them? It is a surreal, pretentious, absurd, over the top finale, one that will either cement one’s sympathy for Kracklite or prove the final straw in an almost two hour sadistic joke by Greenaway.

Either way the viewer responds, the aftertaste is unsettling. You get that the sadism and cruelty in Greenaway’s films are savored by the director, and to enjoy this is collusion. But what gorgeous sadism! The cruelty inflicted on his leading roles (I’m thinking not only of Kracklite but also the main characters in Prospero’s Books and The Cook, The Thief, His Wife and Her Lover) is usually deserved and more than is deserved. It is that unsettled feeling that reveals Greenaway’s brilliance: we too, as viewers taking sides, as people vulnerable to the same vanity and betrayal, are grotesques, as the director is only too happy to remind us.

Boullee was probably a genius in his own eyes, his unmade works epic and eternal because they were, unmade, always becoming, pending; contrast with the eternal, ossified statuary of the classics—the grotesquery and perversion of decline now made ideal and heroic through representation. Kracklite tragically buys into both methods of eternity, hedging his bets against the inevitable historical irrelevance of his home and shopping center designs. He also represents a parallel aspect of pending success: the need for the artist to believe, to some degree, in the value of their work. Not every Boulle has a Kracklite convinced of his genius.

Like the way we try and reconstruct history through pottery shards, bones and signs of ritual, we also leave clues behind as to who we might have been, who we thought we were, as well as who we ended up being. For most of us, that play is an internal performance, the physical evidence contradictory and fragmentary. In The Belly of An Architect, we see a man whose ambition, failure, bad taste, weakness and surrender are flayed open against a bright backdrop of marble and the lights of pointless and cynical tribute.

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