The Text, the Film, the Director, and His Talk

Peter Greenaway on The Pillow Book, the death of narrative, and the end of cinema as we know it

"A lot of people feel The Pillow Book is the most successful movie I've made," said a deliberately ironic Peter Greenaway. "It's a film about young people, it's a getting of wisdom, it's a love story, it happens essentially in the present tense. And you can add another factor: It has almost a feel-good ending, it has a happy ending."

But it's all an illusion. "They've fallen into the trap," he said. "They've become suckers for the [lure] of the dominant cinema" of the day. Peter Greenaway has a sharp, formidable look on him that has bitten hard into his rather average-looking features -- the result, one supposes, of a quarter-century's intensely focused work upon what once must have been a "typically English" face. The prolific filmmaker and artist was speaking during a short visit in town to promote his newest film, The Pillow Book, which opens Friday for a two-week run at the Castro Theater. The Pillow Book is a sharp formal advance along the lines laid out in his audacious Shakespearean adaptation, Prospero's Books, in 1991. It's full of skin and penises and boxed images inset inside of other images. The sex in this film is literally graphic -- it's a film about a woman obsessed with calligraphy who's especially fond of having her lovers, and others, write in ink upon her skin. It's also, briefly, quite violent; and yet it's more emotionally involving than most of Greenaway's other work, a good term for most of his puzzle-box output being "chilly."

The director himself was less chilly than tightly wound. Greenaway registers like a champion tennis player ready and anxious to pound back, with ferocious velocity, any question sent over the net to him. He was unfazed in the face of the fifth or sixth interview he'd given that day, with four more to go. This was hardly stressful to this experienced self-promoter, who once gave 82 interviews in two days at Cannes.

Greenaway knows exactly what he wants to say, and given any chance will launch into a prepared spiel -- the above-quoted testimony to The Pillow Book's appeal was a complete change of subject from the question I'd asked him. I did my best to knock him off his standard pitch and elicit some spontaneous responses. It wasn't easy, and as you'll see by interview's end I was drowning by numbers.

Greenaway greeted a question about the novelistic source of his new movie by dismissing its importance. The Pillow Book was a journal of court life written 1,000 years ago by Sei Shonagon, a royal lady-in-waiting in Heian Dynasty Japan. "Let's depart a long, long way from the notion of the actual Pillow Book as a work of art," said the director. "Because I certainly believe in an idea of cinema which we haven't seen yet. Cinema always seems to be an illustrated text. The dominant cinema is still producing stupid films like The English Patient. Why on earth do we bother to turn a work of literature into a film? Why do we feel such a cultural lack of confidence in cinema to support itself? Cinema absolutely should not be an adjunct to the local bookshop."

The way the word "stupid" snapped off Greenaway's tongue it was clear he enjoyed putting the needle to his fellow filmmakers. But after all, he allowed, "There's no point in my complaining and whingeing about it after 100 years, 103 years now. We should do something about it. We should aim for at the very least a cinema [that reflects] a perfect symbiosis between the notion of text and the notion of image. I think in all my cinema I consciously look for ways and means of organizing this. I'm basically anti-narrative in the cinema because I think narrative is not well-serviced by film. If you want to be a storyteller be a writer, where the potential is so much greater."

A favorite Greenaway device is putting words in various guises on the screen. "I would also argue very much that the image should be king," he said. "We should organize our world of ideas about ourselves and our total environment and all the philosophies therein in visual terms, not textual terms. So I consciously found devices or sort for devices which in some sense would pin the narrative or reduce the narrative potentiality, and here in The Pillow Book I suppose my focus of interest will be the notion of the Japanese hieroglyph, which is both an image and a text, at one and the selfsame time."

Throughout the interview Greenaway lapsed into the present tense, sharing his thought processes directly. You too can walk the path of genius.

"The history of Japanese painting is very much analogous to Japanese literature," he continued. "We have a fortress mentality in the West where we've separated the two. In the calligraphic, gestural, very physical hieroglyph, there's a possibility of finding a template, a metaphor, for some joining together of these ideas. If I use such a Japanese metaphor I think I should be obliged to consider where they came from, and therefore make the project associated with Japanese culture."

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