PETER GREENAWAY FEATURE
Sex, death and Japanese calligraphy are the staple ingredients of Peter Greenaway’s latest ﬁlm. The director talks to Trevor Johnston about putting art into cinema. Portrait by Chris Blott.
t’s got sex. a particularly unabashed Ewan
McGregor partaking of it. fashion. pop
music and more oriental chic than Wong
Kar-Wai and Comme Des Garcons put
together. The Pillow Book — a meeting of
stylish Japonaiserie. cutting edge digital technology and characteristic Greenaway conceptual overload — is the new movie that shows the thinking man’s thinking man making some sort of accommodation with an arthouse audience that likes to have its belly tickled before it does any kind of intellectual fetchwork.
The man himself ruefully describes his last movie. The Baby 0/ Macon (‘a passionate movie with a lot to say about voyeurism. sex and sensation’. he maintains) as ‘a critical collapse’ — surprise success in Poland
efforts ink-brushed onto a series of men’s bodies.
With something ofthe macabre playfulness of The C ook. The T/tieﬁ His Wife And Her Lover. and more of an emotional undertow than we’ve come to expect from the Greenaway oeuvre. it’s certainly a film to set his reputation right back on track again. Particularly rich is the digitally overlaid encyclopaedic display which toys with the notion of exquisite ranks of Japanese hieroglyphs as both word and picture at the same time.
‘The history ofJapanese art is also the history of Japanese calligraphy.’ he adds. nev er one to withhold any aspect of his apparently endless erudition from public exposure. ‘After a century of cinema. the issue of image and text hasn’t
a certain amount of his aesthetic and intellectual preoccupations. Judging by the weight of trafﬁc on the internet spurred on by the man and his work. there are certainly viewers prepared to assess and reassess the films with all the exhaustiveness its maker insists goes into their construction.
‘I don’t know if there is an ideal audience for The Pillow Book.’ he says. ‘beeause they’d have to understand contemporary English. read and speak both modern and 10th century Japanese. get the smattering of French and Yiddish. and cope with the Latin texts and the Egyptian hieroglyphs in there at the back somewhere. I can assure you.’ at which point his voice deepens for no-l’m-not-bullshitting-you emphasis. ‘that all those things are put in there
with real purpose to comment on what’s
‘I don’t know it there is an ideal audience for The Pillow Book. They’d have to understand contemporary English, speak both modern and 10th century Japanese and get the smattering
happening on screen. Are there less than a couple of hundred people in the world who might get it all? Who knows. After all. what did Christ say? You only need one
notwithstanding — which threw all his plans out of kilter. Scratched from the running went Augsbergensﬂlr/t. a ‘grim’ historical me’lange of death and
necrophilia that took place entirely in the
dark with a sixtysomething cast. Back into
the frame came a scenario he’d first penned back in l984. inspired by The Pillow Book of Sci Shonagon. a 10th century collection of aesthetic reﬂections. erotic musings and diary entries penned by one of the women at the Japanese court. and ripe for revision after the support he’d received from sundry Tokyo academics and writers while doing the post- production work on Prospero 3' Books.
‘Of course. you have the spectacle of a non- Japanese speaking foreigner trying to adapt one of their most cherished literary classics.’ reﬂects an all-in-black ﬁlmmaker as he conspicuously fails to get his Walkman to tape our conversation beside mine. ‘but the attitude of the Japanese I spoke to. polite as they always are. was that if I made a hash of it then I was only a foreigner anyway. but if it worked then it might be of some interest to them. On that basis. and also in avoidance of a deeper, darker critical pit than the one I already found myself in, now seemed like the right time for this particular Pillow Book to come into focus again.’
The result however. moves further beyond literary adaptation than even Prospero’s Books. conjuring up a story set IOOO years or so later than the original Sei Shonagon. where another Japanese woman writer (Shanghai-born Vivian Wu’s model Nagiko) exercises her obsession with sex and calligraphy — it comes from her dad. who painted on her face and got buggered by his publisher. though not necessarily at the same time - via a rapturous. ill-fated affair with Ewan McGregor’s Hong Kong-based translator and the subsequent appearance of her literary
at French and Yiddish . . .
really been sorted out. and given that most of the films we see are merely illustrated texts in one way or another. you could argue that we haven’t seen any real cinema yet. Japanese calligraphy has managed to combine the two for years. however: you read the text and it’s an image. you look at the image and you’re reading a text. It’s a template for potential cinema practice.’ Greenaway himself freely admits he makes films for ‘me’ and ‘me’ only. hoping that an audience that shares a certain proportion of his cultural and educational background will share
Call it pretentiousness. if that’s all you can call it. but Greenaway certainly puts his work where his mouth is. With eleven films in twelve years. an lcarus exhibition on the way for Barcelona in February. an opera 100 Objects To Represent The World fOr 1997’s Salzburg Festival. and the next film project The Tulse Luper Suitcase also planned as an eight-hour TV series. a CD-ROM and an Internet site. his productivity continues to stagger.
The Pillow Book opens at the Glasgow Film Theatre and Cameo C inema, Edinburgh, on Fri 8 Nov. -
Between the shoots: Vivian III II the Pillow Book
The List l-l4 Nov 1996 11