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

I admit I let this incredible statement go unchallenged. You have to imagine all of this coming at you in clipped British speech with the force of a fire hose. Yet here in the interview this very smart man was fully engaged and in high good spirits. I never felt coerced, just hurried along to the next level of Greenaway's vaulting ambition. There was really nothing for it but to reinvent cinema.

"Cinema is dead, long live the cinema," Greenaway went on. "I would argue that all literary, all aesthetic endeavors last about 100 years. It's been endemic in Western art." He cited and gave examples from art history -- frescoes, tempura painting. "You could say in film that you have 100 years, that's three generations, the father, the son, and the grandchild: Eisenstein creates, Orson Welles consolidates, and Godard throws away.

"And then as always in human affairs you start with a whole new technology. I think we've reached that point. Who today is examining the basic groundwork of the cinema experience? We see pastiching, we see variations on a theme. And also basically we now have a massive English-language-based monoculture all over the world, so that Hollywood films come out of Beijing and Tokyo. We need to reinvent -- we need to grasp the nettle and take enormous amounts of risk, and there's a whole brand-new technology that we must not be culturally snobbish about, we must take up those reins and go on forward. The next three or four decades will be the basis of the real invention of ground-zero cinema. Two quotes: Picasso said, 'I do not paint what I see, I paint what I think.' And Eisenstein, the greatest filmmaker who ever lived, goes to California and he meets Walt Disney and he says, 'Only you make true films.' Both ground-zero situations."

I protested about the recurring, perhaps inescapable tug of storytelling in the cinema. Did Greenaway see getting around it as absolutely necessary?

"I think it is," he replied. "Just as melody disappeared from music in the 20th century, I think it's about time we dumped narrative. Narrative is the curse, I suppose introduced by Griffith many, many years ago. It's become part of the ritual of cinema-making, and it needs to be questioned very seriously. It's like the introduction of virgin birth to Christian mythology -- completely unnecessary, but if you're a good Catholic now you have to believe in it.

"So I use many devices deliberately to reduce the power of narrative: number counting [Drowning by Numbers], color [The Cook, the Thief, His Wife, and Her Lover], the alphabet [A Zed and Two Noughts]. I think that we do these things at our peril. I don't want to condescend or patronize, but I also don't want to end up in the wilderness. I want to make mainstream cinema, I don't want to be an underground movie-maker, I don't want to exist in an ivory tower. I suppose the arrogant position is that I want the largest possible audience for my experiments.

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