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

Greenaway came across the original Pillow Book some years ago. The reflexive list-maker reeled off its attractions: "It predicated maybe four areas of fascinating interest to me. One is the notion of creating what to us must seem like science fiction" -- Heian Dynasty court life -- "so privileged, so

hinged by etiquette and ceremony. Second, I suppose if you have seen many of my movies basically it's the woman on top. Most of the dramas are organized by her activity. Thirdly, I'm basically a learned clerk, so therefore there's the way that Sei Shonagon herself wrote, cataloged, and organized material. Fourthly, I suppose there's a way that the actual fragmentation of the original novel, which is part contemplation, part list-making, part narrative, constantly changing its perspectives, also is a template for me to organize this particular breach in space" -- that last phrase Greenaway's term for his movie.

Besides these essentials, there was the added thematic pull of the story itself. "She suggested that life would be miserable, wretched, desperately impoverished without the notions of literature and flesh, [a notion that is] just as valid now as it's ever been. So this movie is really just a self-indulgent exercise into this business of sex and text. That's the proposition. Wouldn't it be nice again in a non-narrative sense to contemplate these apotheoses of human activity? The plot, characterization, the background, the structure is all there to service and delight in these two phenomena. It's all very simple -- it's about this woman who likes in her lovers to write on her body. Every time you see flesh you see text. Every time you see text you see flesh."

At this point I made a real effort to get Greenaway to respond spontaneously. I asked him about the intricate graffiti that can be found on bus stops all over San Francisco. Did the director take any interest in graphics from the street? Indeed, he was nonplused.

"Relevant to The Pillow Book?"
"Well you have these indecipherable hieroglyphs all over the place." He leapt on my monocultural faux pas. "Wrong! They're not indecipherable. If you know the codes, you understand." This is true but beside my intended point of the sheerly graphic appeal graffiti has to outsiders. I was quickly buried in a torrent of words about all the languages used in his film: Heianan Japanese, contemporary Japanese, Filipino, Korean, Vietnamese, Chinese, even some ancient European tongues, all of which appear drawn on one character or another at some point in the movie. (Though Greenaway admitted that he knew none of the Asian languages used in the film.)

Greenaway then moved on to detail the film's several cinematic languages: restrained black-and-white photography modeled after the traditionalist Japanese director Yasujiro Ozu, "kung fu Hong Kong urban poetry where things happen without explanation," and "ER-NYPD Blue hand-held cinematography."

I then asked Greenaway about a specific element of his cinematic language, his penchant for inserting smaller screens or boxes within the larger motion picture screen: "I'm groping for a way of thinking of your films as pure artifice, as boxes within boxes -- correct me if I'm wrong, but you reject the Bazinian worldview of film as a window onto the real world."

I was referring to Andre Bazin, the French film theorist. Greenaway replied: "I'm anti-Bazin in this respect, yes, very much. I think that cinema is an extraordinary technological aesthetic that should retain a certain language. There's screens and there's screens and there's screens. If you watch one of my movies it's a very self-conscious activity. You're not looking through a window, through a Renaissance illusionistic window; we are in some senses in front of an artifice which very deliberately and very self-referentially is of the performance. So if you watch it it's a filmic experience I hope, insofar as any artifice can be isolated in that way."

I said, "So instead of a window on the world, it's an insert box."
"I think [our current] philosophical information age, which is now dependent on ideas of lateral thinking instead of lineal thinking, would allow for this sort of fragmentation of the frame. I think also the concept of what I would call the Casablanca syndrome of our forefathers is a very limited artificial device, predicated on 19th-century literature, which gave us psychological narratives with a beginning, middle, and end and a notion of chronology. I think that is now decidedly old-fashioned and not particularly relevant to human experience.

"Narrative is incredibly artificial," he continued. "When we walk down the street our experiences are a mixture, an amalgam, of the present tense but also of memory, also of fantasy, also the imagination. We are nothing; we can make no sense of that jar of water unless we have a sense of memory. So the notion here, which we have also explored in Prospero's Books, is to deliberately find a way of fragmenting the cinematic experience so that it can deal with tense, it can deal with scale, it can deal with notions of memory. [Greenaway did similar things in British TV movies on Dante and Mozart.] My heroes in this are Abel Gance, who in Napoleon used multiple screens, [but this] was in many ways a cul-de-sac, because he could not develop it any further. We had to wait until now when the technology was developed to again fragment the screens. And also Alain Resnais very much -- Last Year in Marienbad [Resnais' detached 1961 puzzler] is the only really intelligent movie that has ever existed."

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