Monday, March 18, 2013


The last time I made an appearance on Warren Wade Anderson's Inside The Phoenix (an excellent podcast you should all be up on by now) we got in to a mildly heated, although friendly, debate about a few misunderstood masterpieces here on PINNLAND EMPIRE (most notably The Brown Bunny & Soderbergh's Solaris). We didn't quite see eye to eye on those films but the dialogue between us was great. That's the beauty of misunderstood masterpieces - one person may consider a certain film to be a work of art while another may consider it to be an abomination. Given Warren's passionate stance on misunderstood works like The Brown Bunny and his knowledge of cinema I gave him the opportunity to write about his own misunderstood masterpiece here on the site.


When I was asked to make my contribution to PINNLAND EMPIRE’s MISUNDERSTOOD MASTERPIECE series, I was asked to write about Peter Greenaway’s first feature film, The Draughtsman’s Contract but I believe The Pillow Book is his most refined and original work; originally, can be defined as something created, undertaken or presented for the first time. This could be done in an instance where all the components of the undertaking are new or in an instance where the juxtaposition of familiar items are presented in a new way. Peter Greenaway’s film The Pillow Book represents the latter definition. Now, I realize that this might be a controversial statement for many people because, it’s an obscure film that has never been placed on any publication’s notable list, contemporary filmmakers have not cited it as an influence on their work and it has not won any consequential awards. With all that said, the film is an original because it foreshadowed the way we currently engage art and culture. This foreshadowing was built on three familiar components of filmmaking.

The first component was constructed in the story. Writer/Director Peter Greenaway was inspired to write the screenplay after reading a translation of The Pillow Book of Sei Shonagon in 1972 and again in 1984. The book recalls the personal observations and musing of 990s court life by Japanese Lady in waiting, Sei Shonagon. At the time of Greenaway’s second reading of the book, he wrote a screenplay treatment called 26 Facts About Flesh and Ink. In the treatment he delineates the life of a one thousand year reincarnation of Shonagon, Nagiko. In section D of 26 Facts, Greenaway wrote: “The contemporary Sei Shonagon is passionate to the point of abnegation about literature, about words, about writing, authors, poets and men-of-letters. She keeps a cupboard, a large, eighteenth century European cupboard, stocked to overfill with a vast array of pens and inks, but there is no paper in the cupboard. Her body is the paper”. In the final 1994 screenplay, The Pillow Book became the story of a Kyoto born model, Nagiko (played by Vivian Wv) living her early adulthood in 1990’s Hong Kong. At an early age, she develops an obsession with The Pillow Book of Sei Shonagon from her Aunt and fetish for writing on skin from her father. After much searching, she eventually finds a lover, an Englishman (played by Ewan McGregor), who shares her love of writing. Together they embark on an endeavor which leads to tragic consequences.

The next integral part of the film is the unmistakable work of Cinematographer Sacha Vierny and Greenaway’s knowledge of art history. Vierny is known for a number of very notable films, including, Hiroshima Mon Amour, Last Year At Marienbad and Belle de Jour. In this thirteenth collaboration with Greenaway, he uses interior lighting techniques to capture Nagiko’s life from the age of four to the age of twenty eight, switching from stark black and white to cold blues and warm sepia tones in color. The life of Sei Shonagon was often drenched in outdoor light to complement the colorful costumes of that era. While films like John Huston’s Moulin Rouge, Vicente Minelli’s Lust For Life and Peter Webber’s Girl With A Pearl Earring particular tones or shots are based on works for a painter, The Pillow Book is bathed in references from multiple painters and calligraphers. As a graduate of Walthamstow College of Art (now known as the University of East London) and a practicing artist, Greenaway brings his knowledge of calligraphic writings, the works of Ando Hiroshige, Katsushika Hokusai and Kitagawa Utamaro to life in very provocative ways. Examples of calligraphic writings are most poignantly shown in scenes where different lovers write on her body in mutiple languages. Scenes of copulation between Nagiko and Jerome are posed to match erotic Utamaro compositions. Instances of exposition utilizes Hiroshige and Hokusai prints as guides to stage Nagiko’s modeling on catwalks and the moments after Nagiko’s kidnappers fled the scene of the crime in Hong Kong.

The last original component of this film is the editing. Mr. Greenaway, Along with editor Chris Wyatt uses the concept of a picture book as a framing device to compose the non-linear narrative of Shonagon’s life (along with anecdotes from her book) and the linear story of Nagiko. They also use, color and tonal changes and spilt screens to make this esoteric film visceral. The spilt screen technique have been apart of cinema since the silent era, in films like Abel Gance’s NAPOLEON, in modern times, we remember the bank robbery scene in Norman Jewison’s The Thomas Crown Affair, The Who’s performance in Woodstock and the phone call scene in When Harry Met Sally. The Pillow Book transform split screen from a technique to an indispensable part of the story. It becomes a means to bring the audience into the use of diaries to express secret thoughts and books to express oneself publicly. Secret thought is evident in the scene where Nagiko’s aunt reads Section 016 of The Pillow Book to her: “A lover on his second night - time visit”. It’s also shown in the scene in which Nagiko’s Japanese husband becomes so offended by the content of her diary that he burns it. Public expression is shown when Nagiko pens her first book of thirteen on Jerome’s skin and sends him to display his naked body and her work to her father’s publisher.

I must admit, that the unforgettable conceit of the film, the Cinematography rooted in Japanese culture and the multi-layered narrative of this work made an indelible mark on me. It introduced me to a Japan beyond the Akira Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai, Yojimbo and Ran. After The Pillow Book I began to seek out films like Hiroshi Teshigahara’s Woman In The Dunes and Antonio Gaudi, Takeshi Kitano’s Sonatine, Fireworks, Brother and Outrage. I also opened my mind to books on Hiroshige, Hokusai and Okakura Kakuzo’s The Book of Tea. While this film was an epiphany for me, it is gift for us all because it presupposed the way we all currently use the internet and production software. We sit in front of a screen consuming multiple threads information by expanding and collapsing smaller screens with Google Chrome, Apple Safari, or Internet Explorer. We enhance photos with Photoshop and create virtual three dimensional objects with Autocad, Maya and 3d Studio. Although Peter Greenaway’s The Pillow Book was originally a homage to a courtesan’s tenth century diary, the means of creating it became an echo to a rich future.


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