Thursday, September 27, 2007

The Pillow Book

As you may have noticed, in our last few entries we've departed from the more measured, "objective" approach I took in my essays on Arrested Development (2003-07) and Artists and Models (1955) in favor of immediate, opinionated commentary. Partly it was because of the film festival and because Heather has a completely different writing style from mine (it's not a competition!), but I would argue that the internet, by its very nature, lends itself better to reviews than criticism. CineAction, which comes out with a new issue only three times a year, has no presence on the internet at all, and while I still depend on Cinema-Scope to keep me informed, their website is merely a supplement to the print edition: it's updated quarterly, like the magazine, rather than weekly. (1)

To use a crude metaphor, the difference between a blog and a journal like CineAction is the difference between video and film. Like film, which has to be sent to a lab to be developed, print media is slow and cumbersome; but with a blog, I just had to hit 'Publish Post' and now any one with an internet connection can read this. If cinema is a long shot (Angelopoulos, Mizoguchi, Tarr), the essence of video is narcissism. (2) In other words, while an academic like David Bordwell or Robin Wood views things from a distance, reviewers are generally too caught up in the now to maintain any historical perspective, which no doubt accounts for the hysterical over-praise of certain films: I'm sure Sideways (2004) looks pretty good next to whatever else was playing at the multiplex that week, but next to an Albert Brooks or Buster Keaton, its timidity and mediocrity are inescapable.

Peter Greenaway began experimenting with video editing in the 80's with A TV Dante: The Inferno - Cantos I-VIII (1989), a ninety-minute video piece for British television co-directed by Tom Phillips, but it wasn't until a few years later that the technology developed allowing Greenaway to utilize the same techniques in film. A TV Dante is a major work, but his subsequent feature, Prospero's Books (1991), while often stunning, is so over-loaded that it never really engaged me either time I saw it: we get one striking image, then another and then another, and I couldn't remember any of them seven seconds later. Forget Memento (2000) (3), this is what it must be like to have short-term memory loss. (Heather, who's seen it four times--for school, not for fun--said it started to grow on her, but you'd have to ask her about that.)

The Pillow Book (1996) represents his most sophisticated application of the editing techniques he developed in the earlier films, once again layering multiple images on top of one another (unlike most filmmakers, who only edit horizontally, Greenaway edits vertically as well), but this time, a picture in a picture--one of the techniques Greenaway uses most often--serves to connect the characters with their past. When Jerome/Ewan McGregor paints his name on Nagiko/Vivian Wu, contained within the present moment is Nagiko's past: a birthday ritual in which her father/Ken Ogata would paint his name on the back of her neck. Later, when Jerome commits suicide, a guesture he's about to make is anticipated in a smaller frame at the bottom of the screen (needless to say, we instinctively read the larger image as more important), which reflects his feeling of disorientation.

The film was made the year before England returned Hong Kong to China, and while this is never mentioned in the film, I'd be very surprised if Greenaway didn't have this historic milestone in mind while making it: apart from the opening and closing sequences in Japan, almost the entire film takes place in Hong Kong, and even more than costume dramas like The Draughtsman's Contract (1982) and The Baby of Mâcon (1993), this is a film about history. The narrative moves between three different time frames and three different writers: tenth century Japan, when Sei Shonagon wrote her Pillow Book; post-war Japan, where Nagiko discovers her father is being blackmailed by his publisher/Yoshi Oida; and Hong Kong in the 90's, when Nagiko writes her own pillow book and plots revenge against the publisher.

In contrast with the other two periods, the scenes of Nagiko's childhood are photographed in black-and-white, which underlines the characters' connection to their past, and by extention, a dysfunctional patriarchy. (Although most of Japan was firebombed during the war, the decor and costuming in these scenes are deliberately old school.) The father's agreement with the publisher--namely, sex in exchange for publication--means that the entire family is dependent on his whims. He chooses for Nagiko a husband/Ken Mitsuichi whose passion for archery has obvious phallic associations. The husband is deeply threatened by Nagiko's interest in reading, much in the same way Spica/Michael Gambon was threatened by Michael/Alan Howard in The Cook, the Thief, His Wife & Her Lover (1989). When the husband burns her books in a rage, it's both destructive, severing Nagiko from her past and from history, but also liberating. She runs away to Hong Kong and supports herself with a number of odd jobs before she's discovered as a runway model.

Nagiko's career as a model is worth commenting on because the relationship between the model and a piece of clothing is much the same as the relationship between a piece of paper and what's written on it. It's a natural profession for some one whose fetish is having a man write on her skin. Her search for the perfect caligrapher-lover is a search to find a substitute for her father (early on, we see Nagiko attempt to perform the birthday ritual on herself using a Chinese typewriter and some lotion). Jerome's bisexuality is significant as he constructs himself as both the object and the subject, confounding binary gender roles. He writes on Nagiko and pushes her to write on him, later suggesting she try to have her poetry published. However, the only way for her to get into publication is to offer the publisher Jerome as a barter item; in more ways than one, the publishing world simply isn't interested in female writers.

After she has her revenge on the publisher, Nagiko sets fire to her posessions. In a voice-over, she muses "The first fire took me out of Japan. The second brought me back"--and by extention, brought her back to the past. The closing sequences in Japan are again photographed in black and white, and again the decor is old school, but now Nagiko has achieved something like empowerment. We see her surrounded only by other women with Jerome's baby and tattooed all over. Last night I saw David Cronenberg's Eastern Promises (2007) and in both films the symbolism is exactly the same: the tattoo, because it is permanent, represents the past, a secret code explaining a person's life story, and the child represents the future.

Superimposing a woman who lived at the beginning of the last millenium over one living at the end of it, The Pillow Book suggests something of a millennial statement, and as a film about what it means to be a woman at the end of the twentieth century, it's the closest thing in Greenaway's oeuvre to a feminist statement. It's also one of his most formally accomplished, using video editing techniques that often encourage amnesia (I would argue music vidoes and blogorrhea are at least equivilent if not inter-related) to underline the characters' connection to their past and to history. In other words, it's a movie that engages us both vertically and horizontally.

1. After reading this, Heather said she felt slighted, as if she were dragging me down. That's not what I meant at all; I simply meant to say that the pace of the internet isn't well suited to the kind of criticism found in journals like CineAction. Besides, all of my previous posts are significantly shorter than an academic paper would be, and the shift I mentioned was already evident in my essay against French-Canadian cinema. More to the point, what I liked most about Heather's entry on Inland Empire is how personal and immediate it is, and I deliberately wrote this essay in the second person, rather than an objective third person, in imitation of her writing style.
2. Rosalind Krauss, "The Aesthetics of Narcissism," Video Culture (Gibbs Smith, 1987), p. 179-191.
3. Pun intended.


  1. "If cinema is a long shot (Angelopoulos, Mizoguchi, Tarr), the essence of video is narcissism."

    This metaphor doesn't really work. Are you saying that the essence of cinema is a long shot? Because what we have here is you essentially saying the essence of cinema is a technical quality, and then saying that the essence of video is an ambiguous characteristic.

    Interesting thoughts on the Pillow Book. Did you read Greenaway into Jerome at all? I certainly did. I viewed Jerome's failure to truly engage Noriko as emblematic of Greenaway's failure to truly come to terms with the writing of Shonagon. I thought that the historical commentary was relatively unimportant to that.

  2. Well, as I mentioned in my footnotes, when I say the essence of video is narcissism, I'm building on the Rosalind Krauss essay--and there's a whole body of theory around the same subject--in which video is linked to narcissicism (it's all very Lacanian and a bit obscure, but I find it interesting).

    One of the pieces Krauss cites in the article is Richard Serra's Boomerang (which you can watch at, in which we see a woman listening to herself on a one-second delay. She'll be in the middle of a sentence or a word and forget what she was saying because the beginning boomerangs back, throwing her off. The immediacy of video, where you have instant playback, creates a situation where you're cut off from history. It's all about the Now (to borrow the title of a Lynda Benglis piece). I'm not explaining it very well, I know.

  3. Good call making La Passion de Jeanne d'Arc one of your top films. Watch it here online free: Movies Online

  4. At most testing to see if your annotation fuctinon works, supply doesnt!