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After Prospero’s Books flopped and The Baby of Mâcon failed to find a U.S. distributor, you might think that director Peter Greenaway would be pleased that his latest feature, The Pillow Book, has been deemed commercial. So that’s the first question I ask the compact, black-clad director during an interview while he’s in town for the new film’s Filmfest DC screenings.

“Would you think it was extremely arrogant of me,” he responds amiably, “to say I couldn’t care less?”

“I think in all honesty I have to make films for myself. Of course, that is an extraordinary, preposterous position, because cinema needs audiences to make it work. But ultimately, I suppose, I need audiences only to make the next film—rather, to have an effect on the last film.”

This seems candid, but it can’t be entirely true. Otherwise, why would Greenaway make this American tour, when he admits he should be working on 100 Objects to Represent the World, an opera that will premiere in August in Salzburg? “I’ve selected 100 objects that I believe are sufficient to explain everything that exists in the whole wide world,” explains the list-minded director, who professes mild embarrassment at admitting that he is writing both the libretto and the music.

Perhaps Greenaway made the trip because no one else can adequately interpret his dense, visually lush films. Discussing The Pillow Book, which was inspired by the diary of a 10th-century Japanese lady-in-waiting, he’s always at least one step ahead of me.

“I was fascinated I suppose initially by the Japanoiserie, the Chinoiserie of the end of the 19th century as it affected people like…Van Gogh and Gauguin,” expounds Greenaway in a style that would seem professorial if not for its breathless enthusiasm. “I read and I read and I read, gradually, working backwards historically, until I came to this extraordinary book by a woman, written 1,000 years ago, called The Pillow Book of Sei Shonagon. I will hastily add that if you were to read the book, you would find very little in my film that was related directly to her.”

The director discovered Sei Shonagon some 30 years ago, when he was a London art student. Since then, he’s come to see Asian art as addressing an essential problem of Western aesthetics: the separation “of text and image, painting and literature, into two opposed and often quite antagonistic camps.”

“I’ve always imagined that surely if ever these two opposing camps should come together, they should come together in cinema. But I was very much aware—again, many many years ago—that the notion of the hieroglyph, or the Oriental character, somewhat answers that question, because the calligraphic image is a text, and vice versa. So I imagined it might be very useful to experiment, if only to make a dissertation about cinema, to see if we could use this as a metaphor.”

“But,” he continues, “I felt I could not possibly use the metaphor of a Japanese hieroglyph in Washington, or in London. I would have to take it back to its source. It would have to be a Japanese tale. So my delight in this extraordinary journal kept 1,000 years ago by a woman, and also my desire to see if it’s possible to reinvent cinema in a different metaphorical way—necessarily these two things came together.”

Initially, Greenaway didn’t intend to make The Pillow Book, which he originally wrote in 1984, after The Baby of Mâcon. Instead, he planned a third in his trilogy of “baroque” films, which he describes as “historical movies conveniently in claustrophobic spaces. The ceilings were coming down lower, the walls were coming in, the pictures were getting darker and darker and darker.”

“Prospero’s Books was about the uses and abuses of magic; The Baby of Mâcon was about the uses and abuses of superstition, faith, religion; and the third part was going to be about the uses and abuses of war. The plot line was basically about an anatomist in 1610, when the whole of Europe was laid waste by the 30 Years’ War, so there were corpses all over Europe from Oslo right down to Istanbul. And this particular anatomist believed that the human soul—I think this is just about believable in 1610—was a physical organ like the spleen or the liver or part of the cortex to the brain. And he felt, rather naively, if he could ever find it, he could perform an operation and eradicate evil. So he spends the whole film—would-be film—rummaging around in corpses.”

“Because our movies are made for very small sums of money, I would never be able to afford extravagant sums to make all these artificial corpses—because even I would not be allowed to use real corpses. I also believe that it’s the old men who construct the antagonisms and send the young men off to war, and I was fascinated by the extraordinary pool of old actors in England—Alec Guinness, [John] Gielgud—who hardly ever get an opportunity to really show their stuff anymore. So the characteristics of this movie were”—he reports with obvious delight—”all the cast over 65, almost the entire film in semidarkness, and about necrophilia. So you can imagine how difficult it would be ever to raise the money.”

“So we took out of the cupboard this idea that I’d been working on for a very very long time, which initially was called simply Flesh and Ink. Also, we did a lot of post-production on Prospero’s Books in Tokyo, and I began again to revitalize some of my ideas about the excitement of making images in the East, as opposed to the West. For example, the frame dominates the Western way we compose an image, but in the East there is no frame; there’s no requirement for a frame, no necessity for a frame. So those sort of things were beginning to fascinate me again.”

In discarding the frame, Greenaway also abandoned the claustrophobic sets for the streets of Hong Kong, “a violent, loud, vulgar, exciting, energetic place.” Though never known for his freewheeling approach, the director says he relished the challenge. “That the [Hong Kong] police now will never give you permission to film in the streets was itself an attraction. We always had to stand the second clapper-loader on the far corner to make sure the police weren’t coming.”

“In the film, there are three different types of filmmaking. There’s a sort of Ozu wide-screen, suppressed-emotion, very little physical activity—all the scenes are taken from a meter and a half off the floor, which is the eyeline of a person kneeling on a tatami mat. And there’s the sort of kung-fu magic-urban-cinema imagery, where things happen and you don’t need an explanation for them; lights appear, suddenly walls of books become projection screens, cupboards open mysteriously, all that sort of excitement that we’ve learned from the kung-fu movie. And then the third is the international, post-cinéma vérité, post-Nouvelle Vague, ER, NYPD handheld camera. I’ve tried to find a way to synthesize these somehow into a whole.”

The Pillow Book is a romance, although hardly a typical one, between a Japanese woman obsessed with calligraphy, Nagiko (Vivian Wu), and a bisexual English translator, Jerome (Ewan McGregor). “We’ve used the three basic tropes of contemporary cinema: It’s a love story, it has a feel-good ending, and it’s about the getting of wisdom,” confides the director. “So people say, ‘Ah, Greenaway at last has made an accessible film.’ But I think it’s just as layered, and just as complicated, as a lot of the other movies.”

Of course, Greenaway didn’t conceive his characters merely as flesh—they’re also text. He sees Nagiko and Jerome as the embodiments of Sei Shonagon and translator Arthur Waley: “The first man to translate her works into English meets her physically in the manifestation of her contemporary counterpart.”

This is a more complex reference, I admit, than occurred to me. I just associated the translator with St. Jerome, who first rendered the Bible in Latin.

“Exactly,” Greenaway agrees. “The father of textual manifestation for the Roman Catholic Church.”

Greenaway’s analysis of his use of a Chinese pop song, “Rose, Rose, I Love You,” is equally far-ranging. I suggest that its melodic motif is a reminder that Japanese culture is rooted in China.

The director concurs, but then adds, “Sei Shonagon’s position in terms of Japanese literature is fascinating. It’s a bit like Chaucer in terms of English literature—the first person who wrote [in] the vernacular. In Japan, the men all deliberately copied Chinese culture and wrote in this pompous, sort of Latinized Chinese. It was these women writing their diaries at home who were actually the basis, eventually, of the Japanese language. But every time Sei Shonagon wanted to say something original, she had to very hastily back it up with a Chinese proverb or a Chinese quotation. Not just in this film, but in many other films, I’m known as an inveterate quoter, so I thoroughly enjoyed what she was doing.”

The song, however, also has a personal meaning. “In the way that ‘Lili Marleen’ was used by Americans and Germans and English as a sort of song of Europe at that particular time, soldiers in Asia did for this song. I remember my father, who spent a lot of time fighting in that part of the world, singing this song in the bathroom in the morning when he shaved.”

Having made a film that some consider accessible, Greenaway is naturally planning one that’s overwhelming. He expects Tulse Luper’s Suitcase to be eight hours long and something of a return to the style of his debut feature, 1980’s The Falls, which is brilliant, hilarious, and virtually unwatchable. The upcoming project also reflects the director’s enthusiasm for the new media now available to him.

“We’re going to make it for the big screen, television, two CD-ROMs, and it’s also going on the Internet,” he announces. “One of the characters is determined to rewrite the 1,001 tales of Scheherazade for the end of the 20th century. I don’t want to waste time on the big screen telling you all these tales, but I’ll introduce them and you can go to the CD-ROM and pick them up one by one. Another characteristic of the film is that it involves the packing and unpacking of 92 suitcases. It’s really the story of uranium; uranium’s atomic number is 92. But again, I don’t want to spend all my time minutely packing and unpacking these suitcases in the big film. But you can go to the Internet for that information, or indeed the CD-ROM. I can talk about the grains of sand that are caught behind the lock on suitcase 39 without worrying in terms of the general narrative exposition that exists in the feature film.”

And what sort of “information” will be on the CD-ROM and the web site?

“If you’ve seen my movies, you know the best way to describe the information is probably ‘apocryphal.’ There’s a mixture, as always, of very verifiable facts and figures, but it’s all interwoven with a whole mass of fiction as well.” He smiles. “But then you could say that about the 9 o’clock news tonight on television.”—Mark Jenkins