Summer 1996

Bodies, text and motion

Peter Greenaway’s new film, The Pillow Book, is his most sophisticated essay in graphic cinema

In Peter Greenaway’s film Prospero’s Books there is a scene in which, with quill pen on parchment, and in a strong formal hand, Prospero, the exiled Duke of Milan, scratches out the word ‘Boatswain’. We see him write and we hear him speak. Four times he says, then shouts, the word, using the colloquial form ‘bosun’, playing with its sonorous qualities until the sound is abstracted and seperated from its meaning, breaking a connection already loosened by the discord between spelling and pronunciation. It’s a game children play, finding strangeness – arbitrariness – in everyday words.

This is the kind of stick on which Peter Greenaway likes to chew, a little perturbation in the smooth course of communication, an odd conundrum of the post-structuralist kind. A favourite quote is Jacques Derrida’s ironic epigram, ‘the image always has the last word’; a favourite paradox that, in a medium in which the image is paramount, almost all films, he says, are illustrations of a pre-existing text. Throughout his career, Greenaway has claimed to be exposing this contradiction by letting the words from which a film has been composed intrude upon the screen in handwriting, typewriting and calligraphy. He first played on the duality of text and image in Dear Phone in 1977 – in which the entire script is recorded on the screen – and he has made writing a central theme of his latest full-length feature, The Pillow Book, a film about sex, death and calligraphy.


William owen, design writer, London

Read the full version in Eye no. 21 vol. 6, 1996

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