Peter Greenaway
Peter Greenaway
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.
One shouldn't start a discussion of this film by referring to a set text because the origins of the project are much deeper than that, and respond to, I suppose, my general sense of anxiety and disquiet about the cinema we've got after 100 years -- a cinema which is predicated on text. So whether your name is Spielberg or Scorsese or Godard, there's always a necessity to start with text and finish with image. I don't think that's particularly where we should organize an autonomous art form. That's why I think that, in a way, we haven't seen the cinema yet, all we've seen is 100 years of illustrated 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 was drawn to the hieroglyph, because it is both an image and a text. The Oriental notion of culture is not divisive like ours is in the West, where we separate the painters and the writers, and that is very appealing to me. You would think that cinema would be the ideal place to put these two things together. Yet all cinema is predicated on the notion of being text-driven and not image-driven. There are very, very few films that I can think of that have actually created true cinema. Last Year In Marienbad, perhaps, is about the closest I can feel. It approaches a notion of real, true cinematic intelligence. It is not a slave to text. It is not a slave to narrative. It deconstructs all these phenomena and creates a product which is truly and absolutely cinematic because it cannot exist in any other form. Whereas the majority of cinema can always be explained in other mediums, which is a true indication, I feel, that it hasn't yet reached that essential autonomy. But maybe I'm being very churlish and impatient. Cinema's only 100 years old and I'm talking about languages and calligraphy which are 4,000 years old and the history of painting, certainly in Europe, is at least 2,000 years old. So maybe my impatience is unfair.

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 Pillow Book?
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?
Lacanne in his famous French essay from 1953 talks about how the body makes the text. And I would facetiously answer in this film if the body makes the text then the best place for that text is back on the body. I'm not serious in that, it's metaphorical. But what he does argue is how the mind is influencing the arm and the arm is influencing the hand and the hand the pen and paper. So the body makes the text, very, very physically. Now, in the 20th century, although you have written text here, ultimately your product will be typed up on keyboards, so we've broken that magic connection by this mechanical reproduction between the notion of physically making a mark that signifies. Which leaves us lots of other propositions. Let's suppose, as our new Prime Minister in Great Britain has promised, that every child of 5 will be given their own free computer. Does this mean in three decades we won't need to learn to handwrite anymore? And then what happens with the collapse of our physical energy? We'd all be totally and absolutely bereft.

It's sort of ironic that you chose to explore this notion of physicality through the largely passive medium of film.
Consider the circumstances of going to the cinema. You're seated. That's a prime disadvantage. You can't use your legs, you can't use your body, you can't move. So we're cutting down on our potential reactions to the world. You're in the dark. What the hell is man doing in the dark? He's not a nocturnal animal. So again you're circumscribed by cutting down your physicality. You're looking in one direction. French philosophers have told us always that the world is not just in front of us, it's around us. So we're cutting down on all of the potentialities of our physicality and our emotional and intellectual approach to the world, so I would agree with you. I think cinema is a very, very passive medium and that's its problem. That's one of the reasons why it's dying now, very, very rapid Exponential experience of another sort is demanding multimedia, is demanding interactivity. And cinema can't supply these things. I don't really think that there are any interesting filmmakers left. All the interesting people have gone to video and all the other forms of new media. So somebody like the American video artist Bill Rayola for me is worth 10 Scorseses.

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?
Why should the devil have all the best tools? There's a way in which television now -- and though we could all be very critical about its social and political uses and its dumbing down and its appalling, I suppose, mediocrity of presentation -- is actually at the same time developing the most extraordinary post-production technology. Very amazing ways that I could put you inside of a glass, stick you on the moon, I can change your sex, I can do absolutely anything to the visual world now. And it seems so tragic to me that so many filmmakers are making movies up against this extraordinary revolution with one eye closed and two hands tied behind their backs. Why is this the case? Why do we feel somehow so dubious about the shock of the new? Why, as I suppose again that Godard suggested, do we look up at cinema, but we look down at television. But then I'm English and I come from the golden land of television, so maybe I should be careful of my criticism. But we keep talking, keep paying lip service to the multimedia revolution. We should try and do something about it, harness its energies, utilize it, try and make the artifacts for the next millennium. Again, alas, Woody Allen suggests if you're going to choose heroes, choose the very best ones. There is a way that we ought to be able to become Picassos and Michelangelos on our own, to utilize this vocabulary. I don't say that lightly, because I think the whole democratic processes of art desperately have to change. We now have very post monarchical systems in the democratic Western world, but our artistical renaissance is still very much predicated on Stravinskys, and Spielbergs, and we have to break all that down and become very much associated with the social and political ideals of democracy. We should all become film directors.

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