Flesh and ink

The director of "The Cook, the Thief, His Wife and Her Lover" talks about sensationalism, nudity, the death of cinema, his passion for lists, his new film, "The Pillow Book," and his big plans for the Internet.

Published June 6, 1997 4:02PM (EDT)

director Peter Greenaway thinks most movies are empty and sentimental -- and that includes art-house pictures, which Greenaway treats with as much disdain as mainstream Hollywood products. Since the success of his 1982 feature "The Draughtsman's Contract," Greenaway has crafted a string of visually extravagant movies, rich to the point of gluttony, and usually quite dark. They're also unapologetically experimental and erudite, not always the healthiest combination at the box office. Nevertheless, he's won himself an ardent cult audience, and achieved at least one succès de scandale.

Greenaway's best known film, "The Cook, the Thief, His Wife, and Her Lover" (1989) mixed a savage critique of Thatcherite excess with generous helpings of sex and nudity -- all of it ending in an infamous cannibalism scene. Along with Philip Kaufman's "Henry and June" and Pedro Almodovar's "Tie Me Up, Tie Me Down," "Cook, Thief" wound up saddled with the notorious, newly-minted NC-17 rating, which led to long lines of sensation-hungry filmgoers at the few urban theaters willing to screen the movie. (Don't look for it at your neighborhood Blockbuster, though.) His other films include "A Zed and Two Noughts" (1985), "Belly of an Architect" (1986), "Drowning by Numbers" (1998) and an adaptation of "The Tempest" called "Prospero's Books" (1991). His 1993 movie "The Baby of Macon," extreme even by Greenaway's standards, was never released commercially in America and remains unseen even by many of his most dedicated fans.

He may have taken some lessons from that film's demise. If the early reaction is any indication, Greenaway's latest movie, "The Pillow Book," is likely to be his most popular ever and just might win over some of his detractors. It's an adaptation of an erotic 10th century Japanese literary classic called "The Pillow Book of Sei Shonagon," which Greenaway sets in contemporary Japan and Hong Kong. In the film, a model and aspiring writer named Nagiko (Vivian Wu) attempts to win over her publisher by sending to his offices a series of men whose bodies she has covered from head to toe with exquisite calligraphy -- a kind of sexually-charged, high-concept book proposal. The male lead, played by Ewan McGregor ("Trainspotting"), is a bisexual translator named Jerome who spends most of the film with his uncircumcised penis flapping in the wind. Despite occasional flashes of morbidity, "Pillow Book" is Greenaway's warmest film. It uses a lush and remarkably innovative visual style, which the director says he partly cribbed from television.

In person, Greenaway is an intellectual dynamo: energetic and opinionated, with a flair for the contrary. Salon caught up with him in San Francisco, where he'd come to promote "The Pillow Book" and an upcoming retrospective of his films.

Most of your films have been saturated in Western culture and its history. What prompted this foray into the East?

Well, I had spent a considerable amount of time in the past three pictures, starting with "The Cook, The Thief, His Wife and Her Lover," in an ever more claustrophobic European situation. I was making all sorts of references to 17th century baroque and its use of sex, violence and sensationalism, and making lots of comparisons with now, although whether those comparisons were fully understood by my audiences is highly debatable. After that, we'd been engaged in a trilogy that starts with "Prospero's Books" and then goes to "The Baby of Macon" -- and there was meant to be a third movie, a story about necrophilia. All the actors were going to be over 65, because I wanted to utilize some amazing actors in the U.K. Because our budgets were very small, and because it's about necrophilia, it meant the prosthetics bill would have been huge, so I needed to shoot most of the film in the dark, so people couldn't see what I was doing. So -- all over 65, necrophilia and in the dark doesn't sound like a very good idea for financiers. So we twisted in the wind a bit and I wound up pulling a script off the shelf, which originally I'd called "Flesh and Ink." I'd written it in '84, I think.

In the East you have this notion of the calligraph, the hieroglyph and the ideogram. The history of Japanese painting is exactly the same as the history of Japanese literature. Here, absolutely conjoined, is the idea of image and text, in bed, magnificently copulating together. I want to use this as a metaphor. Many, many years ago, I came across this extraordinary book called "The Pillow Book of Sei Shonagon," written by a woman. It's important to say that "Pillow Book" the film does not illustrate "Pillow Book" the book; but I have taken certain ideas from it. One, I suppose the most interesting, is there are two apotheoses in life which are always, ultimately, dependable: one is literature, the other is the flesh. Sooner or later we're going to be magnificently stimulated by both those things. So here's a movie that is really, right at base, a celebration of sex and text, of literature and the flesh. The basic driving force is that every time you see flesh you see text, and every time you see text you see flesh. That's the main theme, the main self-indulgence, the main excitement.

Let me ask you about the body and nudity ...

Aha, the classic American question!

Well, I think there's a new twist to it this time -- what has struck me about your past films is that in the middle of all this extravagance you've tended to revel in the plainness of the unadorned, naked human body. Now that's there to a certain extent in "Pillow Book" -- but you're also clearly making the body beautiful in this film.

Well I would have liked to have thought that my vocabulary, the notions of corporeality, the idea of physicality, the naked and the nude (the naked being guilty, and the nude exhibitionist) -- I would have liked to have thought that those sorts of ideas permeate all my movies. But inevitably there's a different tack each time. If you take "A Zed and Two Noughts," it's basically about putrefaction and decay -- OK, for some people that's ugly. English television is full of natural history programs -- David Attenborough -- and all those natural history programs support the notion that the world is a beautifully extravagant place, arranged for us, as an audience. But any Darwinist, any ecologist, any environmentalist will know we have to have both sides of the coin: death/life, putrefaction/growth.

This new film is very much about display. Nagiko's dilemma is: Should she find a good calligrapher who happens to be a good lover, or should she push hard for a good lover who happens to be a calligrapher? Already you've got the notions of body and mind working very hard there. Maybe now I've found the ideal combination, an awareness of the ephemerality of the body, but also seeing if I can balance that with very positive feelings about it as well.

I mean nudity is the natural state, but in most cinema people take their clothes off -- or rather a woman takes her clothes off -- as a prelude to sex. And that tends to leave an awful lot of us out -- I mean, the embrace ought to include us all. I was trained as a painter, so thanks to the five years I drew or painted the human nude, I have no particular anxieties about that. In Western art the nude, Christ on the cross, these are the big images, which are seen by people every day, going back all the way to preliterate societies.

The one American in the film is a fat obnoxious slob. Should we be offended?

Can I be let off the hook a little bit by the fact that he was played by an American actor? He was based on observations that -- hell, I'd better be careful here, hadn't I? Well, the original white man who went to Japan was regarded as fat, hairy and he stank, because the Japanese are not very hairy, they don't perspire very much and they tend to be small, androgynous people. There's a built-in historical and cultural situation going on there. For me what's interesting is not how you view the East, but how the East views you.

Why a female protagonist?

That's particularly interesting because I think it's about language ... it was the women, sitting in their dark little houses, as basic concubines for the pleasure of men, who were inventing the Japanese language. That's where it came from, it came from the female writing, not from the male writing. What became Japanese was the privatized language of the country, spoken basically at home. That's what finally produced the fully fledged language. It was exactly the same in England.

This is a very striking film visually: You're trying things that no other director is trying. I've heard you call your approach a version of the television language. What do you mean by that?

I'm going to be very jingoistic and nationalistic and say that English television is the best in the world. Through accidents of creation in England we always regarded it as a medium of education, whereas I think most of the world regards TV as basically a medium of entertainment. We can complain bitterly about the content in television systems all around the world -- the massive dumbness and use of formula and so on -- but in terms of visual phenomena it's a most extraordinary language. We can now manipulate the world so easily electronically, so that the visual in television is in some senses on the up and up while the content seems to be on the down and down. Why should the devil have all the best toys? Let's use that language.

Specifically, what are you borrowing from television? Certainly the use of small frames within the larger frame.

Also the possibility of changing the color. It's an attempt to use conventions about what we feel about black and white, conventions about color. You know, it's still felt that truth is best seen in black and white, and color deals with ephemera. There's also the much older convention that black and white is somehow in the past and color's in the present. You can tweak this very, very easily on television; it's different to do it in terms of control in a normal film laboratory.

What are your feelings about the state of contemporary film?

Well I don't go to the cinema very much, because I find it boring and uninteresting. When I do go and see something which is amazing, then I'm filled with a great sense of envy and jealousy. So my cinematic viewing experiences are always very negative. I remember seeing [David] Lynch's "Blue Velvet," which I thought was a magnificent film, some years ago now, of course. I pay it the highest compliment by saying I wish I'd made it myself. In a sense I think it's already too late: Cinema is an old technology. I think we've seen an incredibly moribund cinema in the last 30 years. In a sense Godard destroyed everything -- a great, great director, but in a sense he rang the death knell, because he broke cinema all apart, fragmented it, made it very, very self-conscious. Like all the aesthetic movements, it's basically lasted about 100 years, with the three generations: the grandfather who organized everything, the father who basically consolidated it and the young guy who chucks it all away. It's just a human pattern.

And where do you fit into that pattern?

Let's keep me out of this! For me, the three big guys of the history of cinema would be Eisenstein, who virtually made the language, Orson Welles, who consolidated it, and then Godard, who threw it all away. But each of those people was very much influenced by the guy who went before, and you'll find that Godard's admiration for Orson Welles is extraordinarily high, and Orson Welles' admiration for Eisenstein is extremely high. So they're working in tandem, if you like, they're the three big conspirators: Let's make, let's perfect, now let's chuck it away.

"The Pillow Book" is a very accessible film, easily your most accessible since "The Cook, The Thief." Do you still have hopes of breaking through commercially?

I think -- initially unself-consciously, but maybe in a more self-aware way now -- I've tended to make films on the A-B-A-B-A-B principle. The A film was a little more commercial. Not because I planned it that way, but because it turned out that way; and that way I could get aesthetic credit and certainly financial credit in the bank, and that allowed me the space to be more experimental. So it was A-B-A-B until suddenly I made two Bs in a row, which are "Prospero's Books" and "The Baby of Macon," and my credit in Europe began to be more and more dubious. I still think there was a certain respect for the filmmaking, but the audiences would have probably gotten smaller, and it would have probably been much more about me making films for the converted as opposed to the unconverted, so it was almost a necessity to make another A picture. We probably have succeeded in that. The final proof in the pudding is that my producer already has all the money for the next project.

Does making what you call an A film, an accessible film, does that mean the film is necessarily warmer? This one seems a little more tender.

I do admit that in a way there's a new sort of tenderness about some of the relationships here which maybe has not existed before. I always think that if you deal with extremely emotional, even melodramatic, subject matter, as I constantly do, the best way to handle those situations is at a sufficient remove. It's like a doctor and a nurse and a casualty situation. You can't help the patient and you can't help yourself by emoting. And I don't think cinema is intended for therapy, so I object also to that huge, massive manipulation which is perpetrated on the public. I want to regard my public as infinitely intelligent, as understanding notions of the suspension of disbelief and as realizing all the time that this is not a slice of life, this is openly a film. It's a series of representations. I want you to keep your mind awake as well as your heart. Some people think my movies are incredibly emotionally engaging, and some people walk out of the cinema after five minutes because they can't get a hold on the emotions.

Can you describe the process on the set of having to cover the actors' bodies every day with this elaborate calligraphy?

It takes a long time, and a lot of these Japanese calligraphers were great perfectionists. The feeling is that you must only draw a character once. You can't rub out, you can't erase, and if it all goes wrong you have to strip the body down and start all over again. So it would take a long time, as you can imagine. If we wanted to start filming by about 11 o' clock in the morning, we'd start putting up the set much earlier, and there'd be rehearsals and lighting to do, so Ewan McGregor and Vivian Wu would have to get up at about 4 in the morning, and we'd bring them drowsy and comatose and still half asleep, put them on a hard bench of some kind so that their body was in full view of the calligraphers, probably turn on the heat lamps, since we were shooting in the [Japanese] outback a lot of the time, in the freezing winter. And four calligraphers would start on the feet and work up, and maybe two would start on their head and work down. The process might take up to five hours, but I think both of the actors would say it was a halfway enjoyable experience, and that all of us should have a go at it.

I suppose the closest thing that we've got in Western culture to this idea of writing on the body is the tattoo. Have you got any tattoos?

Oh, no. The thing about tattoos is that they're permanent. I took this film to Munich and also to Jerusalem -- either side of the Holocaust -- and there is a very negative association in both places with the idea of writing on the body. Not only in terms of numbering and so on but all those housewives who turned human skin into lamp shades, and gloves, and even bound books with human skin. And the film deliberately tries to get away from all that negativity. I mean, it deliberately shows you that this is not abusive, it is using ink, and repeatedly during the film it gets washed off. So this notion of the skin was as an open palimpsest on which to write. This actually changes in the end, when you see Nagiko nursing her child, and she has tattooed the final message that she wrote on the cadaver that was a turned into a book: sort of in memoriam, and also to say 'This is the last time ever,' she has done her body painting, that is over now. She's now into a whole new approach in regarding herself as a fully fledged writer.

Like many of your films, this one is very concerned with listing, and cataloguing. What kind of thematic appeal does that sort of thing hold for you?

I suppose I am basically a clerk, a cataloguer. I like the reductiveness of that, I like the stripping down, the basic form of organization. In Genesis, Adam named everything. When you name a thing it becomes yours, you possess it. I think list-making procedures have been a very, very big thing in 20th century literature: James Joyce, [Georges] Perec, it's all listing, listing, listing. What is fascinating about the West vs. the East here is that we in the West somehow make lists with a great sense of seriousness. In 18th and 19th century science you get these guys like Linnaeus, who listed all the animals, all the plants, you get Darwin, who organized all the fossils, you get people who make periodic tables -- these are serious lists. Whereas here the writer makes lists of things that are red, things that are a little redder, things that are even redder still. It's about ephemerality, trying to grab a mist in a sense, in this nicely poetic way, something that cannot be attained, the unrealizable dream.

It also seems that listing and particularly counting for you is a way of messing around with the narrative.

These may be heretical opinions, but I don't think that cinema is a very good narrative medium. I think if you want to tell a story you should be a writer -- it's far more powerful. I think that cinema should be allowed to get on with other things. Take the big revolutions of the 20th century. Take music -- melody, the mainstay of musical experience for 3,000, 4,000 years, was shunted aside. Suddenly people like [Arnold] Schoenberg, with 12-tone music, with abstract notions of music, dumped melody so we could concentrate on all the other excitements in music. And the same thing happened in painting, everybody dumped figuration, so that -- especially here in America -- there was tremendous opportunity to discuss, and examine, and experiment with other things that painting should do.

Now is the time I think we should dump narration, we should no longer simply slay the whole vocabulary of cinema for the whole purpose of telling stories. I'm not against narrative, I enjoy storytelling. I do think that cinema has so much to offer outside the slavery of narrative. I would continue to push in that direction, though John Cage suggested if you introduce more than 20 percent of novelty into any artwork, you're going to lose 80 percent of your audience. And I want to go on making movies, so -- without any sense of condescension or patronage -- we have to work at a certain pace, otherwise I'm going to disappear into the outer darkness and never make another movie. And I want to make mainstream movies. This might sound very strange, but I don't want to live in an ivory tower, I don't want to be an underground filmmaker. I want to make movies for the largest possible audience, but arrogantly I want to make them on my terms.

What's next for you?

I'm working on this huge project that's going to be 18 hours long. It's called the "Tulse Luper Suitcase." Tulse Luper is a sort of alter ego I created many many years ago -- Tulse to rhyme with pulse, and Luper is the Latin for wolf. So he's the wolf on your pulse. And the metaphor for the film is that there's no such thing as history, there are only historians; it's about the subjectivities of history. It starts by discussing American fascism in 1933 in Utah, and finishes at the end of the Cultural Revolution in Manchuria, in China -- from one desert to another. A huge, enormous spread. But also it's the history of uranium, which is the ultimate American treasure, which has put you where you are. Now with the end of the Cold War, your treasure is being buried again, which relates to the origins of the Mormons, who are always looking for treasure. And I play all sorts of games with the mnemonics of USA and U for uranium.

It'll be released in several parts?

Well, we'll have to be fairly practical, so we'll probably make three feature films about two and a half hours each, probably to be released together, but all that needs to be arranged. As well as being a film it's also a TV series, two back-to-back CD-Roms, and we'll go onto the Internet as well. And there are strategies that relate to all these phenomena. Just to tell you one strategy, the atomic number of uranium is 92, so there are 92 suitcases that have to be packed and unpacked in this movie. I don't want to waste all that time on the big screen, but you can go to the CD-Rom and pack and unpack all these suitcases to your heart's content. You know, we could spend hours and hours just discussing the chalk dust at the bottom of suitcase 29. Another strategy: One of the characters wants to rewrite the 1,001 tales of Scheherazade, the beginnings of Western literature. Again, I don't want to waste all that screen time telling all these stories, but 1,001 days will probably be about the length of the manufacture and distribution of the film -- three years, from the moment we turn on the camera to the last Kuwaiti showing. On day one of the shoot, I'm going to start introducing each one of these tales on the Internet. Again, the ideal audience -- I don't know, in America, does it exist? Is there an audience out there that go the movies, watch TV, buy CD-Roms and are plugged into the Internet? It's not as though we're using the same information. Ultimately, it'll be one big global encyclopedia about this phenomenon of there's no such thing as history. We start filming Oct. 23, in Colorado.

By Christopher Hawthorne

Christopher Hawthorne is arts editor of the East Bay Express in Berkeley, Calif.

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