published June 6, 1997
photo: Mark Guillaumot
"It seems so tragic to me that so many filmmakers are making movies up against this extra-ordinary revolution with one eye closed and two hands tied behind their backs."
-- Peter Greenaway
|A perennial art house cinema favorite, Peter Greenaway has consistently challenged filmgoers with dynamically intense visual experiences. Originally trained as a painter, Greenaway delved into film during the mid '60s, eventually gaining worldwide critical acclaim for his 1982 feature film The Draughtsman's Contract. Since then, he has unleashed hallucinatory color explosions (The Cook, The Thief, His Wife, and Her Lover) and ambitious collisions of video trickery and film (Prospero's Books). Whatever the case, Greenaway has always managed to stretch the perceived boundaries of cinema. His latest cinematic experience, The Pillow Book, explores the relationship between the physical realm of written text and the sensual realm of sex. Even as The Pillow Book makes its way onto America screens, Greenaway is already moving full ahead with his next project, Tulse Luper's Suitcase, an ambitious multimedia extravaganza incorporating television, video, film and CD-Rom. Spencer H. Abbott talked with the venerable Mr. Greenaway about sex, text and the multimedia revolution.|
|How did you first
discover The Pillow Book?
I was trained as a painter. And while my European, London-based training very sensibly, very obviously accentuated Western art, I was particularly interested in all that painting at the end of the 19th century, which had a very strong Oriental influence. Painters like Gaugin, Van Gogh and Toulouse-Lautrec were very much interested in that sort of world. It was no particular requirement of my educational background to examine the literature as well, but just out of curiosity I did. And I worked my way back through the Edo period all the way right back to the Heian and found this extraordinary book. I was very much aware that a whole series of women were writing at this time and in some senses creating the Japanese language, writing quietly in their very dark interiors, incredibly circumspect in their thousand and one robes, not allowed to move, basically being, I suppose, wombs, and nothing else. So it was really a personal discovery.
I understand that you're an
advocate of film as an autonomous medium. Yet Pillow
Book is based on an ancient Japanese text.
A supreme example is The English Patient. Why would anybody spend so much time and energy and money to make a product like that which is just perfectly well in a book? That makes it highly questionable in regards to, "do we really feel confident that cinema is an autonomous medium that can create its own product?" Why do we have to keep running off to the bookshelf all the time? But that's an extreme example. Whether your name is Godard or Woody Allen, there's still a way we have to start the text. If I'm going to get a movie started, I have to start with text and I eventually follow through by publishing that text as a book. The whole situation is full of paradoxes and contradictions. But again, I'd like to believe with Godard, once you've written the text and you've found the money and you've got your stranglehold over the producer, you throw the text away.
Unfortunately, circumstances as they are at this present time don't allow us to do that, and I proselytize for an autonomous cinema, which is essentially image-based, not text-based. So my search all the time, and not just for this film, but other films as well, is to find alternative systems for organizing the material. The Cook, The Thief, His Wife, and Her Lover is based on a color-coding system. Zed and Two Nought is based upon the alphabet, Drowning By Numbers stands for itself. There are other ways of trying to find taxonomies or strategies or ways of organizing material which I personally would liken to 20th century painting.
My films are very much based on the notion of the grid. The grid has determined the paintings of Mondrian, Jasper Johns, and is relative to the notion of 20th century art, which is intimately related to the edges of the frame, it's a very frame-conscious notion. That's another whole ballgame which I would like to continue to explore. The screen is only a screen is only a screen; it's only an illusionary space and I would quarrel seriously with Bizan on the knowledge that cinema is a window on the world. It is not. It is an artificial construct which is contained within its own conventions and devices, and I think we should acknowledge that in a very self-conscious way.
But the framed orientation of film seems to almost
contradict the free-flowing nature of Japanese text. Why
merge the two together?
|I noticed that the use of
hieroglyphs in The Pillow Book strays slightly
from your previous use of systems. What drew you to use
the hieroglyphs as your main focal point of The
I wanted to explore the possibility of metaphor or a module for the reinvention of, or a search for, the cinema. Why can't we bring image and text together in a way that the hieroglyph has? I mean, you might argue that we are already talking about a system of communication whose days are numbered because the whole world now is horribly slated on the notions of the Western alphabet and the conveniences of the computer and the fax machine. But I am very much interested in the gestural notion, the highly physical idea of the hieroglyph, which is made by the body and not made by a machine. I can draw a figure of a man, and that single gestural movement which is made by the body can express the notion of man in a thousand different ways in terms of its masculine or feminine nature, whether it's bold, or rich or poor or decaying or dying, etc. I can't make the letter 'A' do that in the same sort of way. There's a great excitement about the sheer visual energy that's contained in this sort of idea. So that takes me back to this extraordinary book again, The Pillow Book of Sei Shonagon. It was diary or journal which used to be kept inside the wooden pillow that the Japanese used to lay their heads on when they went to sleep at night. The Pillow Book has certain characteristics which excited me, so without any attempts to illustrate the book in any way, I took some of its sensitivities, primarily where Sei Shonagon said, "Wouldn't the world be desperately impoverished if we didn't have literature and we didn't acknowledge our own physicality?" And the movie's just about that. It's all an excuse for me to indulge, in a thousands different ways, on lots of different levels, in a celebration of text and sex. When you see the sex you see the text. When you see the text you see the sex. It's sort of an ideal way to bring together these two extraordinary high points of our experience.
So you're trying to draw a parallel
between the human body and the creation of text?
It's sort of ironic that you chose to explore this
notion of physicality through the largely passive medium
Is that why you employ such video techniques as
overlays, insets, shifting screens, and freeze frames in
your films such as Prospero's Books and most
recently in The Pillow Book?
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