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.”

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. [page]

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.”

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.” [page]

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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