Peter Greenaway by Lawrence Chua

BOMB 60 Summer 1997
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Vivian Wu in Peter Greenaway’s The Pillow Book. All photos by Mark Guillamot. Courtesy of Cinepix Film Properties.

A few years ago at the Toronto Film Festival, a press screening of Peter Greenaway’s Prospero’s Books had been scheduled first thing in the morning. It was the kind of festival planning that almost guaranteed an intensely grumpy, sleep-deprived hangover for the rest of the day. Fueled by coffee fumes, shielded by sunglasses, we dutiful critics nonetheless filled the tiny theater in seconds and rolled our heads back as the lights dimmed. The flood of images pushed some of us into sleepy reveries; others into alert antagonism. After the screening, I ran into a Taiwanese critic, one of the most important opinion makers in world cinema today. “I liked it,” she said, then added confidentially, “I fell asleep. But that doesn’t mean it wasn’t a good film.”

Today I recognize the architecture in Greenaway’s films (The Draughtsman’s ContractA Zed and Two NaughtsIn the Belly of an ArchitectThe Cook, the Thief, His Wife and Her Lover, among them) as the kind of fantastic worlds that I wanted to escape into when I used to sneak into revival cinemas as a high school student to watch Pier Paolo Pasolini’s The Arabian Nights or The Canterbury Tales. Both Pasolini and Greenaway have given expression in their films to an architecture of dreaming, a place where space can escape the demands of narrative, where interior and exterior flow together, structure combines with surface, dreams with reality, flesh with technology. These were the rooms, the palaces, libraries, bodies and worlds I wanted to inhabit. The spaces where, it seemed, anything was possible—the possibility of telling one’s own story outside of the often pretentious stories unfolding on screen, of falling in love with whomever one wanted. Anything.

The Pillow Book is no exception. Like any film by Peter Greenaway, the images in The Pillow Book are sensual and rich enough to sustain many narratives. One is the story of Nagiko (Vivian Wu), a young woman who passes into agency through writing. Another is an Oedipal fantasy of her father, a successful novelist, using her skin as a writing surface. Yet another is her involvement in a love triangle with Jerome (Trainspotting’s Ewan McGregor) and his lover, a handsome but unscrupulous sex- and literature-hungry publisher (Yoshi Oida). Set in Kyoto and Hong Kong at the edge of the 20th century, The Pillow Book is also an “Oriental-philic” homage to the diary written by Sei Shonagon, a noblewoman at the Heian court a thousand years ago. The historical Pillow Book was a highly mannered vernacular “fuck journal”: a collection of reminiscences, amorous adventures, lists and literary quotes related in a laconic, almost modern style. In Greenaway’s hands it becomes a work of science fiction as he investigates, through his own fetishistic attachments, the allure of the written word. He has captured the lushness of the page, the seduction of reducing the body to a text. Our dreams to a book.

Lawrence Chua What was your emotional attachment to the narrative in your film, The Pillow Book?

Peter Greenaway It’s a rather strange question for me since I’m not very interested in narrative in the cinema. I don’t think the cinema is a particularly good narrative medium. My interest, I suppose, would concentrate on other notions that the film represents. If you want to be passionately attached to narrative then be a writer, not a filmmaker. But this is indeed the second film I’ve made which has the word “book” in its title. So I’m certainly very interested in metaphors like “the body is a book, the book is a body,” but a book can be about a myriad of things other than narration. There is a way in which I have no particular support for the idea of dramatizing a work of literature, so I’m always surprised that after a hundred years, when cinema perhaps ought to know better, we can still award a movie like The English Patient nine Oscars. What on earth is the point of translating a work of literature, which sits perfectly well on the page into a cinematic illustration? Why do we have to have text before we can have image?

My cinema has been trying very hard to invest a lot of energy and imagination into the notions of strong and effective pictorial communication, and The Pillow Book, I hope, is another example of that. The story is very reductive, very simple. It can be summed up very quickly in the suggestion that it is a fable about a young woman who wants her lovers to write on her body. The origins for me don’t rely in any particular desire to make a storytelling activity, but to be interested in the metaphor.

In Asian calligraphy, we have the possibility of an image being a text, a text being an image at one and the same time. Wouldn’t this be a good way to consider the possibility of a reinvention of cinema? I believe that cinema is in need of reinvention. In the West we have continually separated the image and the text, and one would imagine that cinema would be the ideal place in which to remarry these two notions. But alas, it does not seem to have been the case. The Pillow Book is another attempt to readdress my particular anxiety or disenchantment about a cinema which is primarily text before it can be image.

LC You’ve been very critical of a kind of cinema that’s based specifically on conventions of the 19th century novel. How is the relationship between text and body different in The Pillow Book? In showing the pleasures of the text, aren’t you also running the danger of reducing the body to a narrative?

PG Maybe drawing an intense concentration onto the conditions of cinema and its relationship with a notion of image and text is a good way to do the very opposite. Perhaps we have to progress slowly. John Cage suggested that if you introduce more than twenty percent of innovation into any artwork, you immediately lose 80 percent of your audience. He suggested this might remain the case for a subsequent fifteen years. He was being optimistic. We have to travel slowly, since I want to continue making movies. They’re expensive. I don’t know why they have to be so expensive, but that’s the way things are. They’re also complex collaborations. I can’t make movies on my own. I think we have to travel at a certain pace, to accommodate the introduction of radicalism or exploratory ideas embracing both old and new technologies.

LC Yet narrative is not easy to abandon. I’d question also if it’s even worth abandoning. I know that narrative is often used as a kind of dull sword against intellect: a Cartesian battle between the matter of storytelling and the mind of ideas. But isn’t there some other way to imagine narrative that doesn’t interfere with ideas or aesthetics? That is somehow true to its complex interdependence on those things. There is a story to The Pillow Book, regardless of …

PG Yes, there is a very reductive, fable-like story that doesn’t have much truck in some senses with notions of well constructed narrative. It doesn’t fit the general circumstances of what we would call the Casablanca narrative syndrome. But yes, there is a story. I would aim for a cinema which tries to be non-narrative, but just like the obligation to believe in virgin birth if you are a Catholic, a filmmaker is obliged to believe in narration if he pursues cinema. Most audiences around the world go to the cinema to be told stories. I don’t necessarily think that that’s the best way to organize the cinematic experience, but as of now that is the cinema that we are saddled with. I ought to also acknowledge that among many writers and authors around the world there is a large reconsideration of what we mean by narrative. So authors and writers who are not even remotely interested in cinema are certainly readdressing those problems in terms of world literature.

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Vivian Wu with “Calligrapher” in Peter Greenaway’s The Pillow Book.

LC You’ve said that one of the ideas that fueled this reductive story was a fetish, perhaps a sexual fetish. How do you imagine and image that fetish, because for me the fetish is something that, like the novel, emerged entwined with the history of colonial expansion. You can see that throughout The Pillow Book. On a very superficial level Nagiko and the Publisher take pleasure in the white body of Jeremy and not in other black bodies. Certainly not in the body of the photographer, Hoki, whose dark skin Nagiko dismisses as unsuitable for her calligraphy. For me, the fetish that is expressed in The Pillow Book is a residue of the colonial encounter. It’s a reminder of how text has been used to distinguish the civilized from the savage mind.

PG I think there’s also a subsidiary text in the notion of the Madame Butterfly complex. The film sets off an association with the Western fetish for the notion of the Oriental, which was not only relative to the celebrated opera but to general 19th century ideas of sexual exploitation of colonial imposition. I would like to think that we have negotiated that particular hurdle by indeed throwing the idea of the Western exploitation of the East on its back. We start with a heroine who begins as the page, but she indubitably ends up as the pen. She takes the responsibility into her own hands and reverses the strategy on her predatory masters, developing a knowledge of her own identity. Those notions may be relative to your theory of colonization.

There’s a suggestion here that we have impoverished ourselves in the West for all sorts of reasons—good, bad, indifferent, accidental, and intended—of the notion of the calligraphic text. The calligraphic text is essentially made by the body. There are many arguments in French philosophy in the last forty years that have constantly demonstrated that it’s the body that makes the text. I have ironically suggested, if the body makes the text, then the best place for that text is back on the body. It is suggested we should preserve that particular relationship where the body, through its brain, shoulder, arm, hand, pen, and paper makes the calligraphic gesture, and if we break that particular relationship, as indeed perhaps we have done ever since the invention of printing, and certainly now at the end of the 20th century when most people develop their ideas on a keyboard, we have quite savagely broken the umbilicus between the notion of the body and text. Maybe at our peril. We have a film that deals with a very new television language examining a very old calligraphic language, which is at least three thousand years old—and embodies all of our contemporary anxieties about the idea of severance of body and text.

LC Or body and mind. I was struck by the way that you understood Sei Shonagon’s original text. You were talking about how many writers in world literature today are challenging the idea of what the story is, of what narrative actually is, and Sei Shonagon’s text predates the arrival of the 19th century novel by almost a millennium. In many ways it may be the first form of Japanese vernacular literature. At a time when Japanese literature was written almost entirely in Chinese, Sei Shonagon wrote in this very vernacular form for which she was mercilessly critiqued. How does the vernacular inform your idea of cinematic language?

PG There are resonances. For example, we use just one Yiddish word in the film, when Jerome writes the word “breasts” on the appropriate anatomical part on our heroine. It’s interesting also that Yiddish was a 19th century vernacular language, which in the latter part of the century began to develop a written form. That has certain parallels with the creation of the Japanese language. There’s something about Sei Shonagon’s use of the diary form with its continual fragmentation of narrative ideas which is so completely different from her exact contemporary Murasaki who wrote the famous The Tale of Genji, which in some senses precedes the notion of the English, French or Russian grand saga novel. So I suppose if we were to regard The Tale of Genji being more associated with Tolstoy or Zola, we could think of Sei Shonagon as much more related to Baudelaire. We tried very hard in the film to represent this fragmentation in the different ways we used black and white, high color, low color. We borrowed not just the notions of the creation of a new language as she was doing in the year 995, but also made correspondences to what the creation of a new language would be about.

So the film itself is very much a palimpsest of what’s happening now at the end of the 20th century with the fragmentation of the relationship between cinema and all the post-televisual medium: the CD-Rom, the Internet … French intellectuals have criticized the film, saying The Pillow Book is not a film, it is a CD-Rom. I could think of no higher compliment. There is a way that our contemporary vernacular in the business of making images has become television. Godard suggested that there is a disastrous cultural snobbism about television. Indeed, we physically and metaphorically look up to cinema but look down at television. But in terms of what MTV has to offer with the video clip, with the use of the talking head, that continual change of perspective of time, event, idea, action and intended use of tense, there is a brand new vernacular language which is being developed day by day almost incidentally and accidentally, much as I suspect in the way that the early Japanese language was created by Sei Shonagon. She was often accused, certainly by her contemporaries, for her excessive use of Chinese quotation. Television certainly recreates or reprises or “quotes” the celebrated so-called fossilized forms of cinema. Television, shall we say, takes cinema as the Japanese vernacular did the Chinese language of the 10th century. We have new languages that are attempting both to erode the old languages, but also to deliver like a phoenix, knowing that the new languages have to be a combination of the old and the new.

LC But that process is not unique. That hybridization, mestizaje, dialectic, whatever you want to name the process that makes language, is continual. In describing those languages as “new,” aren’t you also reinscribing this idea of a linear notion of history and language?

PG We must indeed be careful when talking about newness and novelty. As Borges says, everything new immediately creates its own predecessor. There have been many examples: Abel Gance’s fragmentation of image and continuity in the multiple screens of Napoleon 1929, Alain Resnais’ Last Year at Marienbad and Hiroshima Mon Amour. The one completely novel characteristic in this film is the reconsideration of the aspect ratio. I was trained as a painter. A painter’s language allows a painter to select his own aspect ratio, proportion, size, and frame according to content. By and large that has not been possible in the cinema, perhaps even more impossible in television, but with the new technologies we can address that problem. Gance certainly knew what he was doing, considering all sorts of very expansive vocabulary, treating the past, present and future all in one plane, considering the notion of the close up, the wide shot, the portrait, the still life, all in one frame. There’s a way in which particular technologies in 1929 didn’t allow him to continue. We now have the technologies which would make this particular manipulation possible, and in terms of fashionable concepts like “multi-media” and “interactivity,” these ideas are in some strange way embraced by the potentiality of not simply reproducing the syndrome of one finite frame which repeats its format chronologically from a beginning to an end, but gradually insisting that the cinema screen should break up, fragment not only in terms of pace, of architecture, and of space, but in the whole lateral way of thinking which is becoming endemic of our attitude towards the notion of ideas at the end of the 20th century. So away with the notions of linear cinema, let’s embrace the potential of a much more lateral thinking cinema. I’d like to think that not only this film, but the film we made two years ago, Prospero’s Books, was also an attempt to consider these ideas.

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Director Peter Greenaway.

LC I’m interested in how your ideas of a lateral cinema have reconfigured ideas about architecture and space. In Prospero’s Books interior and exterior flow together. In The Pillow Book, structure and surface are integrated. Have these televised vernacular languages we’ve been speaking about opened up new ways for you to think about space and architecture in the frame? Is it the technology that’s opened up those ideas for you?

PG I think the prime interest is just the new ways of conceiving the notion of cinema. The cinema of the future is going to look much more like the pages of an encyclopedia. It’s going to be much more concerned with interactions, rather like sophisticated forms of vernacular advertising which are now extremely adroit at putting image and text together. The cinema of the future is going to embrace these notions and continually develop that sophistication of the comic strip which already influences the Internet page. All the film we’ve seen so far that have been influenced by the comics are in some senses remarkably naive. They haven’t taken what the comic book can really offer us, which are ideas of changing aspect ratio, of interaction of text and image in very sophisticated ways. This vocabulary has been developed all over the world in terms of the American, French, and the Japanese comic books, but they have not been embraced in cinema. So there is maybe another example of a local vernacular developing itself slowly to become a major language. All these pursuits are very much alive for me. I planned The Pillow Book with lots of diagrams—I was always going to fragment the screen in various ways—but as soon as we transferred the original super 35mm film onto tape and edited the whole movie on an Avid computer system, I was immediately struck by what the software could offer me. The diagrams for the original script became remarkably redundant because the complexities of the new languages were offering me so many other potentials. Since the information was undifferentiated, “objective” and infinitely maneuverable backwards, forwards, together, apart, segmented, chronology became irrelevant. Does the past have to come before the present? Does the future have to be ahead of the present? Literature is familiar with the experiments of James Joyce and Borges. Since cinema is so conservative and so slow, these notions already have been preordained in other media. So in some senses, despite my anxiety about cinema copying literature, we must keep our eyes and ears open to find other tropes and strategies in order to reinvest cinema with new, exciting late-20th century life.

LC There is a moment in the movie where the writing slips, where the paper that the texts are inscribed on shifts gender and Nagikio becomes the writer and passes into a kind of agency. At the Digiforum in Rotterdam last year, you talked about the erosion of the artist, where not art but communication stands at the center of the creative endeavor. Could you talk a bit more about what you meant by that?

PG I suppose it’s to do with the idea of audience participation and interactivity. I’ve chosen to put most of my ideas of the last 15 years into cinema which is a very passive medium. Far more passive than literature for example. There is a way that now the western world ascribes to notions of democracy. There is a way in which our art, our culture is still remarkably concerned with notions of absolutism. Renaissance ideas of the artist as king. So we still genuflect before figures like Picasso and Le Corbusier and Stravinsky, whereas our general political systems are far more sophisticated in terms of interactivity. I do think that one of the things that these new languages will give us is a necessary shift away from the notion of the artist as some Nietzschean supergod and we’ll make the whole process of cultural rapport far more democratic. We ought to consider this seriously and not hide behind the notions of artist’s egotism and embrace these notions of interactivity not frivolously, but very seriously indeed.

LC I’m not a big fan of democracy. It tends to obscure as much as a word like interactivity does about social process. Can you say more about what you mean by “interactivity?”

PG We keep talking about interactivity, but I still don’t think that we exactly know what we mean by these terms. It is a particular word for which everybody has their own particular interpretation. We all know for example on its basic level if I give you a film with five endings, your choice is predetermined by me. Maybe there is a point when in fact quantity becomes quality, but I’m not quite sure how we circumscribe those things.

LC For me the potential of interactivity is more about dialogue, a response to perfect translation, a space between the screen and the audience where antiphony is possible.

PG The cinema we have now has precious little space for dialogue. There’s a way the audience bows before the screen and puts their imagination in the hands of the cinema maker. I suppose my particular anxiety also is related to the phenomenon that you can look at the Mona Lisa for two seconds, two minutes, two days, two hours, two centuries if you so feel fit, which gives you, the viewer, the circumstances for a true contemplation, rumination, expansion of your imagination. Having been trained as a painter I can understand that view point, but having spent so many years being a cinema practitioner I can see the opposite, and have found it to be so unsatisfactory. Many activities I would now take into making three dimensional cinema by curating exhibitions. I’m fascinated by the idea of a film as an exhibition, and the exhibition as a film. It brings in notions of time and space in ways which the cinema cannot possibly handle. My enthusiasm is for the notion of the exhibition as an art form in itself using the new technologies and an expanded cinematic vocabulary. A lot of people are engaged in this in lots of ways, sometimes on the periphery, sometimes as a prime concern. Very shortly the notion of Jurassic Park and Mission Impossible will certainly end up looking like an early 19th century lantern-slice experience.

Lawrence Chua is a writer. He recently edited the anthology, Collapsing New Buildings (Kaya), and his first novel is forthcoming from Grove/Atlantic Press.

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Originally published in

BOMB 60, Summer 1997

Featuring interviews with Barry Le Va, Jane Dickson, John Lee Anderson, Lydia Davis, Judy Davis, Peter Greenaway, Roger Guenveur Smith, David Del Tredici, Alfred Uhry, and David Armstrong.

Read the issue
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