Film Reviews

No Rest for the Literary

British filmmaker Peter Greenaway sits near a window in the dining room of a Hollywood hotel; he indicates a man walking down the sidewalk outside. He's about to explain his use of multiple imagery in his new film, The Pillow Book--distinguishing it from the conventional notion of the split screen.

"That guy is walking along the street there in the present tense, seeing what's around him," the writer-director begins. "But [the man is] using his memory, his imagination, making sense of what that tree is because he knows what a tree is in his subconscious from ages ago from being a kid, and so on. We're talking about imagination, memory, the present tense and fantasy--all in one frame. I believe this is far more relative to the way we appreciate the world."

This comes after Greenaway has rattled off a chronicle of multiple imagery, from Abel Gance's silent Napoleon to The Thomas Crown Affair and television news programs. Greenaway seems never to stop talking or making points about aesthetics, art history or myriad numbing arcana. If you're familiar with the 55-year-old filmmaker's long-standing fascination with lists, catalogues and detailed order from his '70s short films such as H Is for House, Windows and Dear Phone, you can sense his mind whirring involuntarily over this unwitting passerby's imagined life story. An inventory of other trees, perhaps? Sidewalks--maybe a history of urban planning in general? Throw in a richly detailed schema of the exact path of the man's stroll, and statistics about street signs. Voila! It's a movie--call it P Is for Pedestrian.

One thing's sure as our subject heads toward a distinctive nearby location, Mann's Chinese Theater: None of Greenaway's self-consciously arty, intellectually intimidating, wickedly designed films will ever play there. Such spectacles as The Draughtsman's Contract, Drowning by Numbers and Prospero's Books, to name a few, are forever destined for our country's art houses and film festivals. The ones that find distributors, that is. Even with the commercial success of his blackly comic 1989 film The Cook, the Thief, His Wife & Her Lover, U.S. distributors remain tentative--1993's The Baby of Macon, a garishly staged period piece about child exploitation steeped in the baroque, finally received its Hollywood premiere only a few weeks ago at an American Cinematheque retrospective. And Macon even stars Julia Ormond and Ralph Fiennes.

Greenaway's films are the definition of an acquired taste--quasi-surrealist fare at its most annoying or resplendent, depending on the cineast you're talking to--but his work will always inspire a spirited discussion of the form's possibilities. "I've been accused of creating visual indigestion," he remarks, "but that's predicated on the fact that you can always go back and look again." Multiple viewings are practically mandatory for his followers: His tendency to cram art-history references, bewildering factota and visual flourishes into practically every shot makes for an experience that uniquely qualifies as both a rush and a meditation.

It's as though his early years as a trained painter, art aficionado and documentary-film editor for the Central Office of Information were exacting their revenge on his audience. For Greenaway, though, it's more of a be-all-you-can-be methodology: "It's perfectly accessible and reasonable to look at poetry and music and the novel many, many times," he says. "Otherwise, you're never going to understand all its nuances, plotting, significance and subtleties. So why shouldn't we treat cinema the same way? Make demands on cinema?"

Greenaway is, after all, the organizational joker who created 92 fictional dossiers of disaster victims for his three-hour pseudodocumentary The Falls, who slyly featured the numbers one through 100 in sequential order throughout his 1988 film Drowning by Numbers, and who color-coded the sets of The Cook, the Thief, His Wife & Her Lover. He also plans to rewrite the 1,001 tales of Scheherazade for the Internet this fall with the ambitious, almost ludicrously scoped The Tulse Luper Suitcase. His planned world-size, transcontinentally shot epic about totalitarianism will be, when completed, an eight-hour film and a 16-hour TV series, and it will coincide with the release of two CD-ROMs and go up on the Internet for 1,001 days. It's a millennium project if ever one existed, and Greenaway hopes to start shooting in October.

"I'm looking for the sort of James Joyce/Finnegans Wake cinematic equivalent--the notion of not only making a compendium of the different ways one can make cinema, but actually having to change the language in order to embrace that," he says. Plus, "I need more elbow room." In the end, Greenaway is the avant-garde filmmaker as a mad British clerk, Bunuel as bookkeeper.

Greenaway's keen satirical fiddling with order from chaos was cemented as a young editor in the '60s, cutting together three statistics-happy documentaries a week for the British government on everything from the sheepdogs of South Wales to the Japanese restaurants located in Ipswich. "It's the vanity of statistics," explains Greenaway, who lives in London with his wife and two daughters. "The idea that if you get the figures right, you can prove anything."

The control and manipulation of data, words and ideas is a big theme in Greenaway's work, starting with his short films and extending to the features: the deceitful class games in his 17th-century-set mystery The Draughtsman's Contract; the culture war waged by Michael Gambon's vulgar husband in The Cook; the 13 books Nagiko writes on the flesh of men in The Pillow Book that are used as a tool of vengeance.

Though convinced that the tyranny of neat narratives--the Casablanca syndrome, as he calls it--has to be chucked out for cinema to recover from "a hundred years of illustrated text," Greenaway has perhaps his best shot at accessibility since The Cook with The Pillow Book. It has a few things in common with The Cook: The film's a satisfying revenge yarn, albeit less grotesque; it displays a sophisticated wit and literary appeal; and it has a healthy throughline of sex and nudity. But it is easily his most intimate and even uplifting film, if for the simple fact he set out with The Pillow Book to "celebrate and delight in the phenomena of sex and text."

Greenaway's springboard is a thousand-year-old book by Sei Shonagon, a Japanese lady in waiting of the Heian Dynasty imperial court. Shonagon's pillow book was a private diary of lists, memories and sexual adventures infused with wit and imagination--a woman after Greenaway's own heart. The film is a modern variation on Shonagon's passion for literature and sensuality, using the idea of calligraphy on skin to effect a kind of highbrow erotica. Vivian Wu plays Nagiko, a modern-day Japanese woman who discovers that her sexual identity stems from a memorable birthday ritual growing up. Her father, a children's-book writer and calligrapher, would paint a birthday greeting on her face while her aunt read her passages from Shonagon's pillow book. Nagiko grew up keeping her own diaries, but when her husband, the nephew of her father's gay publisher, burns them in a rage of intolerance, she leaves him and flees to Hong Kong.

As Nagiko struggles to become a published author, she finds herself seeking erotic satisfaction in a succession of calligraphers who write their texts on her body. When she meets an Englishman named Jerome (Trainspotting's Ewan McGregor), he suggests she use his body as a canvas, and the two fall in love. The film then becomes a lover's paradise of eccentricity and inky naughtiness, staged by Greenaway with a warmth and tactility he has rarely explored before.

Tragedy strikes, though, when Nagiko sends a text-decorated Jerome to her father's old publisher, who becomes so enamored that he and Jerome become lovers, too. Nagiko explodes with jealousy, but it is Jerome who cannot bear the pain of losing Nagiko, and he commits suicide. Nagiko then embarks on an elaborate revenge to undo the publisher and restore for herself a lasting, loving memory of Jerome.

Even with the blatantly technical devices Greenaway uses in The Pillow Book, from the multiple imagery to the varied aspect ratios and color changes, the film is overall his friskiest accomplishment. This has not a little to do with the boldness of the nudity and the carnal appeal of the conceit. Greenaway is even content to revel in the movie's beauty without feeling a need to make additional aesthetic "comments"; in other words, he has learned how to chill without being chilly.

There's less of the packed-to-the-gills sensation that his Tempest reworking, Prospero's Books, had. But the richness of The Pillow Book is nonetheless enhanced by Greenaway's stylistic noodling. The added images--be they Nagiko's childhood memories or a cubist-style perspective--are layered effortlessly, like dream fragments in gift boxes. When joined with repeated use of a hand-held camera (atypical for Greenaway) and a modern Europop score, the vibe feels contemporary in a way the director's work has never been before. The forced pageantry of past Greenaway films has been abandoned for something intimate, less cold and distant. He even manages an effective allusion to the Easternness of the great Japanese filmmaker Yasujiro Ozu in the film's quieter, more ruminative moments. For once, Greenaway has found an intellectual harmony between the high tech and the heart. \

The Pillow Book
Directed by Peter Greenaway; with Vivian Wu, Ewan McGregor, Yoshi Oida, Ken Ogata and Judy Ongg.


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Robert Abele