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By the Numbers

The Pillow Book
The Word Made Flesh: Vivian Wu allows her back to become the stuff of a calligrapher's dream in 'The Pillow Book.'

Director Peter Greenaway's 'Pillow Book' is another exercise in count-it-out cinema

By Richard von Busack

LIKE A HEADMASTER counting out strokes of the cane, British director Peter Greenaway uses numbers to order the incidents in his movies. This indexing is the skeleton under the flesh of his films, flesh that has always sinned and must be chastised.

In The Draughtsman's Contract (1982), an artist named Mr. Neville (Anthony Higgins) is hired for a series of 12 drawings. Drowning by Numbers (1988) includes 100 numbered clues on screen. There are 23 drownings--by numbers, yet--in Greenaway's short documentary Death in the Seine (1988).

There are seven days and seven menus in Greenaway's most famous film, The Cook, the Thief, His Wife & Her Lover (1989, and hereinafter acronymed, Greenaway fashion, as TCTTHW&HL). Prospero's Books (1991) tells of how Shakespeare's magus Prospero was accompanied by exactly two dozen of his books while in exile. In the little-seen The Baby of Macon (1993), a woman is sentenced to be raped exactly 208 times.

His latest film, The Pillow Book, updated from a classic of 10th-century Japan, tells the story of a dilettante writer, Nagiko (Vivian Wu), and her lover, Jerome (Ewan McGregor). The story advances in discrete segments as the calligraphic Japanese characters from 13 "books" are painted on 13 nude bodies.

Greenaway gives his films structure through cataloguing and enumeration. And so, following his example:

[line]

Two comprehensive and elegant sites devoted to
Peter Greenaway: site one and site two.

Lots of information about Greenaway's film
Prospero's Books.

Official site for The Pillow Book.

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Six Reasons Why I Hate Peter Greenaway's Movies and One Reason Why I Like Them

Reason 1: I hate the fact that his movies have a reputation as erotica.

The Pillow Book, which mingles body parts and the written word, is being sold as a movie about sensuality, though in interviews, Greenaway uses the phrase "de-romanticized sex." With the exception of TCTTHW&HL, Greenaway's portrayal of sex is more than just "de-romanticized"--it's desexualized. Sex in a Greenaway movie takes place under the shadow of Jacobean penalty.

For having an affair in TCTTHW&HL, Helen Mirren is buffeted by rotting meat and maggots in the back of a locked truck. A nude Ralph Fiennes is punished for his lust by being gored by a bull in The Baby of Macon. In The Pillow Book, the character known only as the Publisher (Yoshi Oida) seems to be oblivious of a man he's using sexually--as if they were sharing seats on a bus.

One can be a terrible misanthrope and still think sex is really something, but outside of Mirren's emoting, the sex in Greenaway's films is like watching beetles.

Reason 2: I hate Greenaway's movies because of the way he degrades his actors.

Julia Ormond nude and covered with blood in The Baby of Macon. Michael Gambon squandered in TCTTHW&HL --a humorless version of the exploding Mr. Creosote in Monty Python's the Meaning of Life. John Gielgud's voice vandalized with a three-second delay echo in Prospero's Books. The take-a-number rape scene in The Baby of Macon.

I watched them all with the knowledge that getting mad at Greenaway was just playing into his hands.

Reason 3: I hate Greenaway's films because his work isn't as innovative as most of his fans think.

The color-coding of the rooms in Les Hollandaise, the restaurant in TCTTHW&HL, was the same idea that made the 1964 Masque of the Red Death exciting. The human statuary in The Draughtsman's Contract was more impressively used in the 1946 Boris Karloff movie Bedlam.

Greenaway's tableau vivant--actors assuming the positions of paintings--is exciting in small doses but not really any more innovative than a Lompoc art-appreciation society posing itself as Washington Crossing the Delaware.

Reason 4: I hate his films because they're missed opportunities to illuminate interesting parts of history.

TCTTHW&HL is, I suspect, an allegorical film commemorating the 200th anniversary of the French Revolution. Likewise, The Draughtsman's Contract is set in the 1600s. Greenaway's salient point as a filmmaker is his expert use of set dressing and costuming. You can hate his movies while admiring their historical authenticity.

In The Pillow Book, Greenaway has another historical source: the Japanese classic of the same title by Sei Shonagon (born 965? C.E.). Like Greenaway, Shonagon is concerned with the enumeration of things. Both the modern filmmaker and the millennium-old writer are transported by art and the inanimate object. Both show a dismaying contempt for human beings except as the vessels of power and bearers of art. No wonder Greenaway sought her out.

The original Pillow Book is a disorderly notebook of occurrences--word-pictures of a summer morning or a night waiting for a lover, juxtaposed with paragraphs of fawning gossip. The book is a view of a life lived by rules of unequaled formality and etiquette, in which the time and day and points of the compass dictate behavior.

Greenaway has said that he was attracted to the almost "science fiction" world of Heian-era Japan, but he's thrown the book out, updated the story to the present and brought in a bloody revenge scene for the end.

Reason 5: I hate Greenaway's films because of his conviction that movies are lagging behind fine art.

In interviews, Greenaway claims that he wants to wean movies from "The 'I'm now going to tell you a story' school of filmmaking, which nine times out of 10 begins life as literature, an origin with very different concerns, ambitions and characteristics than those of cinema."

He wants to take a vivid popular art and reduce it to the self-enclosed, remote state of most modern art. But movies are not infrequently fine art already--in themselves and sometimes in spite of themselves. The mind often takes a piece of popular dumb-movie imagery--a scene, a line of dialogue--and grafts new meaning to it, even as it would construct meaning out of an abstract painting.

And there are always visual artists making commercial films who are as vital as any fine artists: from Josef von Sternberg to Tim Burton. Narrative certainly doesn't preclude their artistry. Greenaway's lack of interest in narrative, script and direction is what makes his work highly uninteresting for me; his movies are a sort of slide show, of which odd minutes are enjoyable, but you can't wait for the end.

But: I like Greenaway because he's an obsessed grade-A eccentric who obviously doesn't care what anyone else thinks.

Let's be fair when writing about a man who'll never be popular enough to be as awful as an Adrian Lyne or Sylvester Stallone. After all, The Pillow Book is, as Variety claimed, "not everyone's cup of sake." (Dear Variety, the Japanese are noted tea-drinkers; sometimes the homeliest metaphors are the best.)

The deliberate perversity of Greenaway's films is a strong contrast to cinema that aims to please and gross big. How does he survive? The world lost a great grant writer when Greenaway turned filmmaker. The Pillow Book, like Prospero's Books, sports the multimedia gimmicks that impress the dress-in-black crowd: calligraphied captions, insets and supratext. It's not so much a film as it is a big-screen CD-ROM.

By contrast, Greenaway's previous film, The Baby of Macon, is straightforward grisly narrative, rotting baroque settings, the same passages of music repeated over and over again, curtains opening and closing at the end of the movie ("It's only a show, folks"). And of course, the same ghastly punch line. The Baby of Macon had stars. It had murder. It was meant to be a money-maker.

Somewhere inside Greenaway is a director who wants to craft a hit at war with a voice that keeps asking, "Who wouldn't want to see a 10-minute-long gang rape?" And for this kind of wild misunderstanding of the popular audience, I salute him; he may be revolting, but at least he's not a sellout.

Revisiting his films, I felt the stirring of mixed emotions, down deep in the murk at the bottom of a vast pool of dislike. These stirrings quieted after a few moments sitting through one of his pictures.

Reason 6: It's always the same damned thing every time in his movies, no matter how thinly disguised with a few symbols.

Art with a capital "A" may be symbolized by the miracles of The Baby of Macon, the drawing abilities of Mr. Neville or the culinary skills of the Cook. It might be symbolized by the dead skin of McGregor's Jerome in The Pillow Book.

Always, always the same story: Humanity is just rotting meat with pretensions, but we know how to produce that precious commodity, Art. Unfortunately, this commodity is soon taken from the artist by wealthy, powerful filth. As revenge for their lack of talent, the powerful figures blind, bugger, rape, gut or skin the artist.

Greenaway's main theme is nothing more than an art student's tirade stretched into a two-decade-long career.


The Pillow Book (Unrated; 126 min.), directed and written by Peter Greenaway, photographed by Sacha Vierny and starring Vivian Wu and Ewan McGregor.

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From the June 12-18, 1997 issue of Metro.

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