Friday 19 April 2019

Easter break and future plans

I decided to allow myself an Easter break, partly to have some vacation and partly to think ahead of what I might want to do here on the blog.

The primary focus for now is Anatole Litvak, whom I am exploring and researching. There will also be some attention later on to Ida Lupino and Muriel Box; and Hollywood financial and box office developments in the 1970s.

These are all topics that have been brewing for a while and now I want to take them further, and see what I end up with. I will hopefully do something on the unmade films of Hasse Ekman as well, but whether that finds its way to the blog remains to be seen. And I have promised Self-Styled Siren to write something about Mauritz Stiller without Garbo. When I do it will definitely end up here.

I would also like to do something on Australian films prior to its New Wave in the 1970s, maybe in connection with the late films of Michael Powell. Check in here two weeks from now and see what I will begin with!

Friday 5 April 2019

The Pillow Book (1996)

As a fresh, young cinephile in the early 1990s I was convinced that Peter Greenaway was where the art of cinema peaked. The late 1980s/early 1990s was a special time in British cinema, with Derek Jarman, Ken Loach, Neil Jordan, Mike Leigh, James Ivory, Gillies MacKinnon, Greenaway and others doing steady work. Bruce Robinson's Withnail and I (1987) and Bill Forsyth's Local Hero (1983) should also be mentioned, and Sally Potter's Orlando (1992). Into that I grew up, calm in my peculiar understanding of Greenaway's pre-eminence. What I based this understanding on is unclear because I had not seen any of his films, that came later and then I was somewhat underwhelmed by them. But one I really liked, The Pillow Book (1996), and I decided to return to it this week. I find is as dazzling and marvellous now as when I first saw it. (I also really like Nightwatching (2007), Greenaway's film about Rembrandt.)

The arc of Greenaway's career moves from being an art student to making documentaries for Central Office of Information (COI), a part of the British government, and then in 1980 to make his first feature film, the massive undertaking The Falls. While he has the very distinct appearance and voice of an Englishman his filmmaking has since then usually been global in outlook and theme, and there is a strong Dutch connection. The Pillow Book is set in Japan and Hong Kong and inspired by a 10th century book called The Pillow Book, a collection of essays, poems, thoughts and impressions by Sei Sh┼Źnagon, who was a court lady in Kyoto. The film though is set mainly in 1997 (so it is set in the future with regard to when it was made).

The main character in the film is Nagiko, played by Vivian Wu. She is a woman addicted to calligraphy, especially calligraphy written on her own body, and is in search of someone who will be as good a calligrapher as a lover. Such a person is hard to find, and she looks both in Japan and Hong Kong, where she gets a job at a fashion house. She befriends an English guy, Jerome, played by Ewan McGregor, who works for a book publisher. He is also the publisher's lover but Nagiko and Jerome become lovers just the same, and writers on each other's skin, before jealousy tear them apart.

As usual with Greenaway, it is not the story that is the important part of the film. It is about ideas and about art, about looking and creating, about texture, about desire of various kinds, about sex and death and the naked body. In an interview when the film was released, Greenaway said "French intellectuals have criticized the film, saying The Pillow Book is not a film, it is a CD-Rom. I could think of no higher compliment." and this refers to the style of the film. There are layers of texts, screens, quotes and calligraphy; the dialogue involves at least four different languages (Japanese, Chinese, English and French); it changes from colour to black and white and back again; the frame changes in size and scope from one scene to another; still images and moving images appear simultaneously in the frame; and music, words and images complement or contradict each other all the time, creating something that aims to be uniquely cinematic, at least as Greenaway conceives of it. He is usually dismissive of conventional filmmaking as being insufficiently cinematic, and has named Last Year in Marienbad (Alain Resnais 1961) as a rare example of what he wants to see in film, something completely abstract and removed from written text. The cinematographer of Marienbad, Sacha Vierny, also shot Pillow Book and several of Greenaway's other films. We do not have to accept Greenaway's narrow idea of what is good or what is cinematic, but instead take great pleasure in experiencing how he puts all of his ideas into this film and creates an incredibly rich, provocative and beautiful conceptual work, a sort of narrative collage. It is a film to be experienced rather than talked about.

Greenaway however does like to talk, and the quote above is from an interesting interview he did for BOMB Magazine. You can read it all here.


Greenaway's filmmaking career has been interspersed with art installations, paintings, operas and other kinds of art works and in some ways it is perhaps more appropriate to speak of him together with artists like David Hockney or Lucian Freud than with other filmmakers. But we need not create these boundaries between the arts. The Pillow Book is a film which breaks down all boundaries between arts, cultures, texts, images, times, languages and bodies, and that should be an inspiration. In a way, as the world today seems to be increasingly about walls, barriers, tribalism and intolerance, there is something refreshingly politically radical in Greenaway's project here.