Screened May 25 2009 on Sony Classics DVD

TSPDT rank #931 IMDb Wiki

Largely received with diffidence upon its initial release, Peter Greenaway’s tour de force can now be respected as a bold vision of movie art in the multimedia age. Taking inspiration from Japanese courtesan Sei Shonagon’s 17th century novel of the same title, Greenaway tells a story of a Japanese-Chinese woman’s efforts to transform her childhood fixation on bodily calligraphy into a career as a writer, while avenging her father’s sexual humiliation at the hands of his publisher. These themes of the artist’s struggle to express herself while taking revenge against the abuses of the older establishment are nothing new to Greenaway’s filmography (see The Draughtsman’s Contract, The Cook, The Thief, His Wife and Her Lover). What is new is a distinctly feminine narrative voice that enhances the innate sensuality of the project; an unabashed mixing of languages and cultures in a stew of chic global mongrelism; and a hypnotic flow of screens within screens and texts used as creative adornment. (The film toys with foreign film viewing conventions, foregoing subtitles for some scenes in Japanese while deploying them elsewhere in ways so artistic you wonder why no one else bothers).

Early reviews expressed dismay at the film’s stylistic audacity, dismissing the multi-screen displays as more akin to CD-ROMs, Power Point slideshows, or computer windows than to cinema. A dozen years later, the falseness of this dichotomy is plain to see, and the foolish puritanism of this way of defining cinema may account for what’s held back the medium’s evolution, while the Internet has all but revolutionized people’s audiovisual experience of reality, not to mention art. Besides, it’s not that Greenaway turns his back on the more established approaches to sculpting his images: a uniquely filigreed lighting design constantly redefines interior spaces and turns interiors into walls of illuminated text. Whether through old or new school techniques, one can only hope to have more films that are as curious about exploring the sensual experience of cinema.

WOULD YOU LIKE TO KNOW MORE?

The following citations were counted towards the placement of The Pillow Book among They Shoot Pictures, Don’t They? 1000 Greatest Films:

David Robson, The Cinematheque Top 10 Project (2005)
John Greyson, PopcornQ (1997)
Jorge Gorostiza, Nickel Odeon (1997)
Michaela Boland, Sight & Sound (2002)
New York Times, The Best 1,000 Movies Ever Made (2004)

The Pillow Book tribute site by Tama Leaver offers The text of The Blessing from The Pillow Book,
some images from the film, some recommended readings directly on The Pillow Book, related readings more broadly on Peter Greenaway, and a list of the most useful of the web resources on the film and Greenaway (this entry notwithstanding).

A list of quotes from the film, taken from a multi-page site of Peter Greenaway quotes

PeterGreenaway.org.uk boasts an entry with many photos from the film

Trailer for 1996 UK release:

Trailer for 1997 US release:

PROMINENT REVIEWERS

Greenaway, whose work includes “The Draughtsman’s Contract,” “The Cook, the Thief, His Wife and Her Lover” and “Prospero’s Books,” uses an essentially Japanese technique. He likes to build up his images in layers, combining film and video, live action and paintings, spoken narration and visual texts. He shoots in color, b&w, and subtle tints. Here he tells a lurid story of sexuality, fetishism and betrayal, in an elegant and many-faceted way.

One of the most elegant parts of the film comes toward the end, as Greenaway illustrates the pages of Nagiko’s pillow book. She has used each part of the body for the appropriate texts, even writing on ears and tongues, and here the words (Japanese, English, printed, spoken, Kanji) take on a sort of mystical, abstract quality. The talkies chained pictures to words; Greenaway finds a way out by using words as pictures. Greenaway once said something that perfectly describes his work: “I don’t make pictures that have a sell-by date.” Most new American movies have a limited shelf life. They’re put in the theaters to sink or swim. If they haven’t sold in a week or two, they’re yanked like stale bread. Greenaway’s notion is that his movies stand outside the ordinary distribution channels. You may see them today or in 10 years, as you choose. And when you are ready.

- Roger Ebert, The Chicago Sun-Times, July 4 1997

As ”The Pillow Book” carries its strange preoccupations to their fullest expression, it’s clear at times that the emperor is as naked as the the actors who bear Nagiko’s writing. A core of surprising banality lies at the heart of this daughter’s drive to reinvent and avenge her father, but then plot is never the essence of Mr. Greenaway’s work. The film is best watched as a richly sensual stylistic exercise filled with audaciously beautiful imagery, captivating symmetries and brilliantly facile tricks. Traces of the filmmaker’s supercilious misanthropy, as in his views of vulgar Americans and the Yiddish language, are also part of this mix.

- Janet Maslin, The New York Times, June 6 1997

Any Greenaway film is a complex word-and-picture game–of stories within stories, images within images, like a Chinese puzzle box. The director also insists that his actors throw themselves, soul and especially body, into his complex revenge scenarios. Wu is a fine, supple tabula rasa; McGregor (Trainspotting) shows again that he is one of the boldest, most charming young actors.

It’s lovely that, in an age when pop culture dances with the dunces, someone has the mandarin urge to arouse and test his audience. Lovelier still when, as in The Pillow Book, text and texture meet so exquisitely. Sex is a visual art, Greenaway says, and writing is a matter of life and death.

- Richard Corliss, Time

A Japanese calligrapher marks his daughter Nagiko’s every birthday with two rituals: he paints a greeting on her face, and then his sister reads from Sei Shonagon’s ‘Pillow Book’, a 10th century diary of reminiscences, observations, and list upon list of exquisite, precious and graceful things. Nagiko (Wu) grows up with a fetish for calligraphy – demanding that her lovers paint hieroglyphics on her flesh. She keeps a pillow book, too, but her lists reflect a growing frustration. Then an affair with a bisexual British translator, Jerome (McGregor), opens up possibilites. Jerome’s scribbling cannot satisfy her, but he offers his own body as her canvas. They fall in love, and he strips to present her texts to his gay lover, a publisher. This is as defiantly esoteric as any of Greenaway’s films, and as visually dense as Prospero’s Books, with frames within frames, computer graphics, subtitles, projections and superimpositions all vying for the eye in a sumptuous, seamless collage of gold, red and black. The result is ravishingly gorgeous, but such aestheticism is itself a kind of perversion, an idea embodied in Nagiko. The actors are models, fetishised objects, and sometimes they seem utterly at a loss, but, by way of counterpoint, this is also both a very intimate, sensual film, and a torrid, lurid melodrama, full of passion, jealousy, hatred and revenge.

- Time Out Film Guide

Despite its arresting visual style, its wave after wave of creative and hypnotic images, “The Pillow Book,” as its name hints, slowly but inexorably leads to sleep.

There can be no doubt that Greenaway, working as usual with veteran cinematographer Sacha Vierny (who shot both “Hiroshima Mon Amour” and “Last Year at Marienbad” for Alain Resnais), is an exceptional visual stylist with an aesthetic that prides itself on being self-consciously artistic.

But “Pillow Book” demonstrates, as do the others, the limits of style as a filmmaking be-all and end-all. A director who communicates sparingly with his actors if at all, Greenaway doesn’t notice or care about the dramatic weakness of his films. If they look spectacular, as they inevitably do, that is enough for him.

In this, Greenaway can be seen as the art-house equivalent of blockbuster-oriented French director Luc Besson, whose “The Fifth Element,” the most expensive film ever made in Europe, is similarly contemptuous of all but the flimsiest forms of emotional connection. For these directors and the audience they appeal to, surface sensation is all that matters.

- Kenneth Turan, The Los Angeles Times

I can’t say that I’ve ever entertained fantasies of writing on someone’s body. But Peter Greenaway’s The Pillow Book does, at least, succeed in making it look like an erotic activity. Greenaway has always been an armchair fetishist of the perverse, a kind of English De Sade in tweed. His movies, notably The Cook, The Thief, His Wife & Her Lover, feature mutilation, cannibalism, and an extremely haughty brand of sexual power tripping. Yet all the nasty business is filtered through layers of ”literate” avant-garde puffery.

In the ’90s, Greenaway has shown a unique gift for getting actors who are on the verge of stardom to cavort in the buff. In The Baby of Macon (still unreleased in the U.S.), Ralph Fiennes and Julia Ormond tussled like nude wrestlers, and now Ewan McGregor displays his. . .uh, considerable gifts on camera. Sad to say, The Pillow Book‘s mood isn’t sustained. The film gets bogged down in a cryptic revenge plot, and the ugly side of Greenaway comes out of hiding (you won’t want to see what happens to Ewan McGregor’s skin). For a while, though, it’s a true erotic caprice.

- Jim Ridley, The Nashville Scene

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Admirers of Peter Greenaway – and I trust a few remain despite the blink-and-you’ll-miss-it release of his last, grossly misunderstood film The Baby of Macon – will be in for a shock from his new film. In The Pillow Book, there are aeroplanes. There is pop music. And – are you sitting down? – there is a healthy generosity of spirit. After all these years! It’s rather like finding that Santa Claus does exist.

There’s immense warmth, too, in Greenaway’s fluid eroticism. The camera enjoys the elegant motion of the hairs of a brush as they caress smooth plains of skin. Even the ink itself has presence, emerging from a man’s mouth like a long black tongue, or snaking into a plughole as though it were a sash of hair.

Everything about The Pillow Book suggests that Greenaway is progressing. He has written a film in which a woman searches for positivity – “things which make the heart beat faster” – and finds it. That gives a fair indication of where this once misanthropic artist is heading. He’s moving forward now, not inward.

- Ryan Gilbey, The Independent

Music video for song “Blonde” by Guesch Patti, from the film’s soundtrack.

ADDITIONAL INSIGHTS

The Pillow Book is one of Greenaway’s more thoughtful features: a multi-layered, mind-massaging tale that is at once highly literate and deeply erotic. Greenaway’s heroine is Nagiko (Vivian Wu), a young Japanese woman, and his story spotlights how she develops the desire to have her body painted and thus transform herself into a living, breathing work of art. As he weaves his tale, Greenaway explores the relationship between art and eroticism. At one point, Nagiko declares, “I was determined to take lovers who would remind me of the pleasures of calligraphy.” Among the filmmaker’s other concerns are father-daughter bonds, and how the past relates to the present.

The Pillow Book is (yet again) stunningly photographed by Sacha Vierny; the images are dazzling, and there is abundant use of split screens and other visual devices. Part of the dialogue is in Japanese and is translated not so much by traditional subtitles as calligraphy, which blends into Greenaway’s imagery and becomes an integral part of the film’s overall design. Indeed, watching the film is the equivalent of viewing a moving painting.

Saul Frampton, updated by Rob Edelman, Film Reference.com

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One of the most accomplished chapters in Peter Greenaway’s quest to turn movies into books, this 1997 feature may be the writer-director’s metaphorical autobiography. Atypical for Greenaway in its emphasis on drama and linear narrative, this audacious and seamlessly successful formal experiment provides a revealing glimpse into the emotions of a filmmaker who usually keeps a vast intellectual distance between himself and his material. The story chronicles a woman’s ambition to redress her father’s exploitive relationship with his publisher and establish herself as a writer–and both endeavors are understood by Greenaway in psychoanalytic terms to be variations on the same theme. The filmmaker’s picture-in-picture techniques merge with the painstaking production and sound design, editing, and use of subtitles–as important for how they look as for what they say–to add several dimensions to the medium of cinema. The result is a lucid exposition of Greenaway’s idiosyncratic ideas about transcending the medium and a compelling narrative with empathic characters that reveals the sexual nature of something not often associated directly with sexuality–the act of writing.

- Lisa Alspector, The Chicago Reader

While there’s nothing especially groundbreaking or difficult to grasp in The Pillow Book, Greenaway’s experimentation here still has the power to alienate audiences who aren’t prepared for what the film offers. As has been true in his past efforts, there are copious amounts of full frontal nudity, and it seems that lead actors Vivian Wu (The Joy Luck Club) and Ewan McGregor (Trainspotting) perform half of their scenes without any clothes on. Nevertheless, by keeping the audience at arm’s length, Greenaway manages the impressive feat of de-eroticizing the nudity.

For the most part, the director seems more concerned about technique than narrative and character development. The plot functions more as a series of markers for Greenaway’s stylistic riffs than a necessary aspect of the movie. Indeed, The Pillow Book is so visually arresting that it’s capable of holding our attention for two hours largely on the strength of its images. There are pictures-within-pictures, French song lyrics rolling across the bottom of the screen, multiple aspect ratios, color bleeding into black-and-white scenes, and other intriguing methods of composition. Even simple shots, such as a swirl of ink-saturated water being sucked into a drain — a color image that’s all black-and-white — can be striking. And, for those who enjoy a little bafflement, there’s a sequence near the end where the dialogue is in Japanese, but Greenaway intentionally does not use subtitles.

There’s something admittedly fascinating about the way Greenaway explores this mixture of calligraphy and the human form. However, as unique as this combination may be, it’s actually one of The Pillow Book‘s few original ideas. Other directors may hesitate to venture into such unfamiliar territory, but Greenaway has been here before. In its approach to sexual obsession, art, and revenge, The Pillow Book often recalls The Cook, The Thief, His Wife and Her Lover, sometimes almost to the point of cannibalization. Visually, however, The Pillow Book erupts in a manner that causes The Cook (which was stylistically memorable in its own right) to pale in comparison.

- James Berardinelli, Reel Views

If The Pillow Book demands that we feast our eyes on a literal “body” of written work, the technological aspirations on display are even more fascinating than the reams of human flesh. Like Prospero’s Books, The Pillow Book is a film made in layers, opening windows on top of windows and placing frames within frames. (Don’t wait for the video.) Subtitles appear and disappear on the screen, rendered in fancy script that translates the original Japanese. The backdrop for the opening scenes is page after creamy page of Japanese writings, presumably taken from the titular volume, and sex between Jerome and Nagiko is quite nicely played out behind a smaller cinematic window featuring erotic Japanese artwork that underscores the literary appeal of sex. When the disparate layers of sight and sound actually coalesce to creating something fresh and overwhelming, it’s enough to take your breath away. Elsewhere, The Pillow Book is simply ponderous — as smugly indulgent an exercise in style as you’re likely to see in a movie house this year. Most tellingly, the film is stimulating but never seductive. The audience is kept at a remove from the action, never allowed to feel intimacy with the characters or even with the subject matter.

Arguing that cinema is a 100-year-old technology nearing the end of its natural life span, Greenaway claims in interviews that he’s striving toward a new way of telling cinematic stories. But in that, his hubris is nearly as annoying as his audacity is gratifying. The presence of Vierny makes for an unflattering comparison — working with Resnais and the writer Alain Robbe-Grillet, Vierny was a party to a theoretical deconstruction and interrogation of cinematic narrative itself that Greenaway is no doubt aware of. Regardless, The Pillow Book‘s pretty stylistic tropes seem to exist only for their own sake. Interestingly, I found myself missing the stately elegance of Michael Nyman’s scores for The Cook, The Thief and Prospero’s Books. (After all, with such a lovely score, Greenaway might even have gotten away with the wantonness of The Baby of Macon.) Instead, the selection of music for The Pillow Book is both portentous and jarring — who would have thought that U2 would ever show up on the soundtrack of a Greenaway film?

Finally, I sense a feeling of duty that belies The Pillow Book‘s moments of quiet beauty and tragedy. After dishing out visual poetry, an uncharacteristically traditional narrative, and dazzling but icy visual stylings for about half the film’s length, Greenaway once again turns on his audience with a spiritedly grotesque sequence involving a suicide and the exhumation of a spurned lover’s grave. But after the ensuing virtuosic presentation of 13 different bodies painted with 13 different “books,” this bizarre tale reaches a rote, unconvincingly optimistic conclusion — you get the sense that, for the first time, this most contrary of directors may give a damn whether the general audience cares for his film. Worse, the effort may be in vain — for a film that takes such a painterly approach to the canvas of a nude body, The Pillow Book itself is cloaked in too many stiff layers of ostentatious experimentalism.

-Bryant Frazer, Deep Focus

The inherent drawback of The Pillow Book is that it requires two viewings to unravel the complex web of past/present, image/word and life/death. Typically, the first encounter reveals a fabulously attractive but empty film, obtuse, confused and pretentious. It’s only on the succeeding attempt that the pieces snap into place and the story takes shape (the delicate construction then becomes obvious). The key to this transformation is that all of the secondary prompts can be recognised when the main picture has been seen before (and it’s in these visual fragments that fleeting but vital clues are given). With thought and effort expended upon the plot behind the images, clarity awaits. Once this point is reached, The Pillow Book unfurls like a flower in the dawn, baring a tale of power, resonance, closure and great (if subdued) emotion.

- Damian Cannon, Movie Reviews UK

Vivian Wu, in particular, deserves praise for her enthralling performance. She infuses the protagonist with a wonderfully sophisticated sensuality and a distant severity that are sure to captivate the moviegoer. Moreover, while her character, Nagiko, is a vain, manipulative, and self involved individual who is, consequently, unsympathetic as a person, she is, because she is so unlikeable, absolutely perfectly suited to eliciting an emotional reaction from the viewer. By presenting the moviegoer with such an unpleasant character, Greenaway frees him from sympathizing with a particular individual and allows him to concentrate on the emotions evoked without connecting them to particular objects. The viewer is filled with sorrow because of the events depicted and feels compassion as such. Without having a specific object towards which his compassion is directed, his emotions are universalized and come to encompass all persons, even one as unsympathetic as Nagiko. Thus, because it is centered upon such an individual, the film elicits a far more intense emotional response than it would have had it been focused on a more likeable person.

The Pillow Book arouses a sense of terrible tragedy, but the film’s sadness is imbued with a wonderful beauty. Instead of creating a vision of a world of boundless torment and inevitable misery, Greenaway exposes the loveliness underlying even sorrow. In doing so, he ultimately evokes feelings of peace, contentment, and an enjoyment of beauty. Having guided the viewer through the charms and pleasures of existence, and through its tragedies and horrors, the director reveals to him both what is to be loved and what is to be endured, as well as reminding him that each is to be appreciated. The result is a happy sense of calm and repose rather than an experience of despair.

- Keith Allen, Movie Rapture

The Pillow Book lists two directors of photography, three production designers, four costume designers, and two calligraphers in the opening credits, and indeed, the movie comes closer than any other to constituting its own elaborate, absorbing museum—one where you’re encouraged to sniff and caress the artwork, to strip the clothes off the models, to run the paint along your tongue like it’s a spice. This unparalleled mise-en-scène, the creatively embedded frames, and the arresting sonic mix of Japanese pop, monastic chants, and avant-garde rock together yield a new kind of movie, a three- and almost four-dimensional environment. Customary film grammar hardly accounts for how the movie works, either when it’s scoring or when it’s flailing, and if its structural repetitions ultimately grow a bit tedious, its fearless peculiarity and almost aphrodisiac blend of skin, music, and curvaceous lettering make it worth digesting in multiple doses, even if they’re small ones.

- Nick Davis, Nick’s Flick Picks

There seems to be a determined effort to be witty, even if the humor is not scaled to what the story is saying.

The result is a startling film with gorgeous photogenic shots, superimpositions, amazing computer graphics, a splash of intriguing gold and red color patterns, but with everything ending up so perverse and lost in a melodramatic intimacy that even the scenes that do mean something still seem to be too absurd to really mean much. But the film did have plenty of fire, hatred, passion, jealousy, and mystery. For those who like to see a film that is both unique and unforgettable: this one’s pure Greenaway.

- Dennis Schwartz, Ozu’s World Movie Reviews

A list of splendid reasons to watch THE PILLOW BOOK: for its beautiful images; for its power to send eyes, ears and brain spinning; for its moments of emotional warmth (more frequent than some of Greenaway’s other films); because it is extravagantly pretentious and unashamedly arty; because it is awesome, rich and strange.

- Julian Lim, The Flying Inkpot

To differentiate time and place, Greenaway shot The Pillow Book in three different speeds: slow for Japan in the 1970s and ’80s, very slow for the same country a thousand years earlier, and frenetic for contemporary Hong Kong.

- Mark Harris, Straight.com

Perhaps the motto for this film should read: soon to be playing in film school Deconstruction 101 classes everywhere.

- Matthew Hays, Montreal Mirror

I have seen the future of movies, and it is picture- in- picture.

INTERVIEWS WITH PETER GREENAWAY

How did you first discover The Pillow Book?
I was trained as a painter. And while my European, London-based training very sensibly, very obviously accentuated Western art, I was particularly interested in all that painting at the end of the 19th century, which had a very strong Oriental influence. Painters like Gaugin, Van Gogh and Toulouse-Lautrec were very much interested in that sort of world. It was no particular requirement of my educational background to examine the literature as well, but just out of curiosity I did. And I worked my way back through the Edo period all the way right back to the Heian and found this extraordinary book. I was very much aware that a whole series of women were writing at this time and in some senses creating the Japanese language, writing quietly in their very dark interiors, incredibly circumspect in their thousand and one robes, not allowed to move, basically being, I suppose, wombs, and nothing else. So it was really a personal discovery.

I understand that you’re an advocate of film as an autonomous medium. Yet Pillow Book is based on an ancient Japanese text.
One shouldn’t start a discussion of this film by referring to a set text because the origins of the project are much deeper than that, and respond to, I suppose, my general sense of anxiety and disquiet about the cinema we’ve got after 100 years — a cinema which is predicated on text. So whether your name is Spielberg or Scorsese or Godard, there’s always a necessity to start with text and finish with image. I don’t think that’s particularly where we should organize an autonomous art form. That’s why I think that, in a way, we haven’t seen the cinema yet, all we’ve seen is 100 years of illustrated text.

My films are very much based on the notion of the grid. The grid has determined the paintings of Mondrian, Jasper Johns, and is relative to the notion of 20th century art, which is intimately related to the edges of the frame, it’s a very frame-conscious notion. That’s another whole ballgame which I would like to continue to explore. The screen is only a screen is only a screen; it’s only an illusionary space and I would quarrel seriously with Bizan on the knowledge that cinema is a window on the world. It is not. It is an artificial construct which is contained within its own conventions and devices, and I think we should acknowledge that in a very self-conscious way.

But the framed orientation of film seems to almost contradict the free-flowing nature of Japanese text. Why merge the two together?
I was drawn to the hieroglyph, because it is both an image and a text. The Oriental notion of culture is not divisive like ours is in the West, where we separate the painters and the writers, and that is very appealing to me. You would think that cinema would be the ideal place to put these two things together. Yet all cinema is predicated on the notion of being text-driven and not image-driven. There are very, very few films that I can think of that have actually created true cinema. Last Year In Marienbad, perhaps, is about the closest I can feel. It approaches a notion of real, true cinematic intelligence. It is not a slave to text. It is not a slave to narrative. It deconstructs all these phenomena and creates a product which is truly and absolutely cinematic because it cannot exist in any other form. Whereas the majority of cinema can always be explained in other mediums, which is a true indication, I feel, that it hasn’t yet reached that essential autonomy. But maybe I’m being very churlish and impatient. Cinema’s only 100 years old and I’m talking about languages and calligraphy which are 4,000 years old and the history of painting, certainly in Europe, is at least 2,000 years old. So maybe my impatience is unfair.
I noticed that the use of hieroglyphs in The Pillow Book strays slightly from your previous use of systems. What drew you to use the hieroglyphs as your main focal point of The Pillow Book?
I wanted to explore the possibility of metaphor or a module for the reinvention of, or a search for, the cinema. Why can’t we bring image and text together in a way that the hieroglyph has? I mean, you might argue that we are already talking about a system of communication whose days are numbered because the whole world now is horribly slated on the notions of the Western alphabet and the conveniences of the computer and the fax machine. But I am very much interested in the gestural notion, the highly physical idea of the hieroglyph, which is made by the body and not made by a machine. I can draw a figure of a man, and that single gestural movement which is made by the body can express the notion of man in a thousand different ways in terms of its masculine or feminine nature, whether it’s bold, or rich or poor or decaying or dying, etc. I can’t make the letter ‘A’ do that in the same sort of way. There’s a great excitement about the sheer visual energy that’s contained in this sort of idea. So that takes me back to this extraordinary book again, The Pillow Book of Sei Shonagon. It was diary or journal which used to be kept inside the wooden pillow that the Japanese used to lay their heads on when they went to sleep at night. The Pillow Book has certain characteristics which excited me, so without any attempts to illustrate the book in any way, I took some of its sensitivities, primarily where Sei Shonagon said, “Wouldn’t the world be desperately impoverished if we didn’t have literature and we didn’t acknowledge our own physicality?” And the movie’s just about that. It’s all an excuse for me to indulge, in a thousands different ways, on lots of different levels, in a celebration of text and sex. When you see the sex you see the text. When you see the text you see the sex. It’s sort of an ideal way to bring together these two extraordinary high points of our experience.

So you’re trying to draw a parallel between the human body and the creation of text?
Lacan in his famous French essay from 1953 talks about how the body makes the text. And I would facetiously answer in this film if the body makes the text then the best place for that text is back on the body. I’m not serious in that, it’s metaphorical. But what he does argue is how the mind is influencing the arm and the arm is influencing the hand and the hand the pen and paper. So the body makes the text, very, very physically. Now, in the 20th century, although you have written text here, ultimately your product will be typed up on keyboards, so we’ve broken that magic connection by this mechanical reproduction between the notion of physically making a mark that signifies. Which leaves us lots of other propositions. Let’s suppose, as our new Prime Minister in Great Britain has promised, that every child of 5 will be given their own free computer. Does this mean in three decades we won’t need to learn to handwrite anymore? And then what happens with the collapse of our physical energy? We’d all be totally and absolutely bereft.

Is that why you employ such video techniques as overlays, insets, shifting screens, and freeze frames in your films such as Prospero’s Books and most recently in The Pillow Book?
Why should the devil have all the best tools? There’s a way in which television now — and though we could all be very critical about its social and political uses and its dumbing down and its appalling, I suppose, mediocrity of presentation — is actually at the same time developing the most extraordinary post-production technology. Very amazing ways that I could put you inside of a glass, stick you on the moon, I can change your sex, I can do absolutely anything to the visual world now. And it seems so tragic to me that so many filmmakers are making movies up against this extraordinary revolution with one eye closed and two hands tied behind their backs. Why is this the case? Why do we feel somehow so dubious about the shock of the new? Why, as I suppose again that Godard suggested, do we look up at cinema, but we look down at television. But then I’m English and I come from the golden land of television, so maybe I should be careful of my criticism. But we keep talking, keep paying lip service to the multimedia revolution. We should try and do something about it, harness its energies, utilize it, try and make the artifacts for the next millennium. Again, alas, Woody Allen suggests if you’re going to choose heroes, choose the very best ones. There is a way that we ought to be able to become Picassos and Michelangelos on our own, to utilize this vocabulary. I don’t say that lightly, because I think the whole democratic processes of art desperately have to change. We now have very post monarchical systems in the democratic Western world, but our artistical renaissance is still very much predicated on Stravinskys, and Spielbergs, and we have to break all that down and become very much associated with the social and political ideals of democracy. We should all become film directors.

- Interviewed by Spencer H. Abbott

Lawrence Chua: You’ve been very critical of a kind of cinema that’s based specifically on conventions of the 19th century novel. How is the relationship between text and body different in The Pillow Book? In showing the pleasures of the text, aren’t you also running the danger of reducing the body to a narrative?

Peter Greenaway: Maybe drawing an intense concentration onto the conditions of cinema and its relationship with a notion of image and text is a good way to do the very opposite. Perhaps we have to progress slowly. John Cage suggested that if you introduce more than twenty percent of innovation into any artwork, you immediately lose 80 percent of your audience. He suggested this might remain the case for a subsequent fifteen years. He was being optimistic. We have to travel slowly, since I want to continue making movies. They’re expensive. I don’t know why they have to be so expensive, but that’s the way things are. They’re also complex collaborations. I can’t make movies on my own. I think we have to travel at a certain pace, to accommodate the introduction of radicalism or exploratory ideas embracing both old and new technologies.

LC You’ve said that one of the ideas that fueled this reductive story was a fetish, perhaps a sexual fetish. How do you imagine and image that fetish, because for me the fetish is something that, like the novel, emerged entwined with the history of colonial expansion. You can see that throughout The Pillow Book. On a very superficial level Nagiko and the Publisher take pleasure in the white body of Jeremy and not in other black bodies. Certainly not in the body of the photographer, Hoki, whose dark skin Nagiko dismisses as unsuitable for her calligraphy. For me, the fetish that is expressed in The Pillow Book is a residue of the colonial encounter. It’s a reminder of how text has been used to distinguish the civilized from the savage mind.

PG I think there’s also a subsidiary text in the notion of the Madame Butterfly complex. The film sets off an association with the Western fetish for the notion of the Oriental, which was not only relative to the celebrated opera but to general 19th century ideas of sexual exploitation of colonial imposition. I would like to think that we have negotiated that particular hurdle by indeed throwing the idea of the Western exploitation of the East on its back. We start with a heroine who begins as the page, but she indubitably ends up as the pen. She takes the responsibility into her own hands and reverses the strategy on her predatory masters, developing a knowledge of her own identity. Those notions may be relative to your theory of colonization.

LC Or body and mind. I was struck by the way that you understood Sei Shonagon’s original text. You were talking about how many writers in world literature today are challenging the idea of what the story is, of what narrative actually is, and Sei Shonagon’s text predates the arrival of the 19th century novel by almost a millennium. In many ways it may be the first form of Japanese vernacular literature. At a time when Japanese literature was written almost entirely in Chinese, Sei Shonagon wrote in this very vernacular form for which she was mercilessly critiqued. How does the vernacular inform your idea of cinematic language?

PG There are resonances. For example, we use just one Yiddish word in the film, when Jerome writes the word “breasts” on the appropriate anatomical part on our heroine. It’s interesting also that Yiddish was a 19th century vernacular language, which in the latter part of the century began to develop a written form. That has certain parallels with the creation of the Japanese language. There’s something about Sei Shonagon’s use of the diary form with its continual fragmentation of narrative ideas which is so completely different from her exact contemporary Murasaki who wrote the famous The Tale of Genii, which in some senses precedes the notion of the English, French or Russian grand saga novel. So I suppose if we were to regard The Tale of Genii being more associated with Tolstoy or Zola, we could think of Sei Shonagon as much more related to Baudelaire. We tried very hard in the film to represent this fragmentation in the different ways we used black and white, high color, low color. We borrowed not just the notions of the creation of a new language as she was doing in the year 995, but also made correspondences to what the creation of a new language would be about.

So the film itself is very much a palimpsest of what’s happening now at the end of the 20th century with the fragmentation of the relationship between cinema and all the post-televisual medium: the CD-Rom, the Internet… 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. There is a way that our contemporary vernacular in the business of making images has become television. Godard suggested that there is a disastrous cultural snobbism about television. Indeed, we physically and metaphorically look up to cinema but look down at television. But in terms of what MTV has to offer with the video clip, with the use of the talking head, that continual change of perspective of time, event, idea, action and intended use of tense, there is a brand new vernacular language which is being developed day by day almost incidentally and accidentally, much as I suspect in the way that the early Japanese language was created by Sei Shonagon. She was often accused, certainly by her contemporaries, for her excessive use of Chinese quotation. Television certainly recreates or reprises or “quotes” the celebrated so-called fossilized forms of cinema. Television, shall we say, takes cinema as the Japanese vernacular did the Chinese language of the 10th century. We have new languages that are attempting both to erode the old languages, but also to deliver like a phoenix, knowing that the new languages have to be a combination of the old and the new.

LC There is a moment in the movie where the writing slips, where the paper that the texts are inscribed on shifts gender and Nagikio becomes the writer and passes into a kind of agency. At the Digiforum in Rotterdam last year, you talked about the erosion of the artist, where not art but communication stands at the center oft he creative endeavor. Could you talk a bit more about what you meant by that?

PG I suppose it’s to do with the idea of audience participation and interactivity. I’ve chosen to put most of my ideas of the last 15 years into cinema which is a very passive medium. Far more passive than literature for example. There is a way that now the western world ascribes to notions of democracy. There is a way in which our art, our culture is still remarkably concerned with notions of absolutism. Renaissance ideas of the artist as king. So we still genuflect before figures like Picasso and Le Corbusier and Stravinsky, whereas our general political systems are far more sophisticated in terms of interactivity. I do think that one of the things that these new languages will give us is a necessary shift away from the notion of the artist as some Nietzschean supergod and we’ll make the whole process of cultural rapport far more democratic. We ought to consider this seriously and not hide behind the notions of artist’s egotism and embrace these notions of interactivity not frivolously, but very seriously indeed.

LC For me the potential of interactivity is more about dialogue, a response to perfect translation, a space between the screen and the audience where antiphony is possible.

PG The cinema we have now has precious little space for dialogue. There’s a way the audience bows before the screen and puts their imagination in the hands of the cinema maker. I suppose my particular anxiety also is related to the phenomenon that you can look at the Mona Lisa for two seconds, two minutes, two days, two hours, two centuries if you so feel fit, which gives you, the viewer, the circumstances for a true contemplation, rumination, expansion of your imagination. Having been trained as a painter I can understand that view point, but having spent so many years being a cinema practitioner I can see the opposite, and have found it to be so unsatisfactory. Many activities I would now take into making three dimensional cinema by curating exhibitions. I’m fascinated by the idea of a film as an exhibition, and the exhibition as a film. It brings in notions of time and space in ways which the cinema cannot possibly handle. My enthusiasm is for the notion of the exhibition as an art form in itself using the new technologies and an expanded cinematic vocabulary. A lot of people are engaged in this in lots of ways, sometimes on the periphery, sometimes as a prime concern. Very shortly the notion of Jurassic Park and Mission Impossible will certainly end up looking like an early 19th century lantern-slice experience.

- Lawrence Chua, Bomb Magazine

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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.

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.

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.

- Interview by Christopher Hawthorne for Salon.com

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Greenaway’s use of the body as a canvas makes the surface as unique as the marks placed upon it. Not only does this incorporate the performance aspects of theater into the calligraphic process, it also creates a product that is irreproducible. The same text written elsewhere would have a profoundly different effect. “From a Japanese point of view, the unique manuscript is far more a part of their experience than it is over here,” he says. “It is the West that invented the printing press, after all. In Japan, the one-off was held as a sacred sort of talisman, the basic icon of which was the actual physical mark of the author, and its form was as significant as what that author had to say.”

As the central character Nagiko matures, she begins to travel outside of her culture to sample new alphabetic traditions, seducing calligrapher after calligrapher by offering her body as a page. As the alphabets pile up, she becomes a sort of living Tower of Babel, with the babble of 20 tongues about her. As the director said, “In a sense I really have gone to the edge in terms of total comprehension, because I would demand of my audience that they could speak 10th-century Japanese, contemporary Japanese, a little Filipino, some Vietnamese, Manchu, Mandarin, Cantonese, Latin, Sanskrit, etc. Now, that audience doesn’t exist.”

For Greenaway, this is not only a statement about the problems of communication, but is also “a social and political act” coming out of his feelings that, “Before long the world’s cinema will all be made in English. It’s happening now. In Spain for example, 50 percent of all the productions are being filmed in English. A language is a culture, and if you lose it, it’s a bit like cutting down the South American rainforest; it’s totally unreclaimable.”

Greenaway is also very interested in having the audience pay attention to the language as a sound. “I deliberately did not translate the Japanese,” he says. “So you as an audience are forced to listen to the cadences, the rhythms, the characteristics of the language.”

- Yves Jaques, The University of Washington Daily

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ABOUT THE PRODUCTION DESIGN

Besides making movies, Greenaway has also worked extensively as a painter and visual artist, curating exhibitions and museum installations across Europe. Some of the ideas and techniques he has employed in these installations, specifically involving lighting effects and projections, have been brought to the production of The Pillow Book. And the person most responsible for their adaptation to film is Reinier van Brummelen, a Dutch gaffer who has worked on many of Greenaway’s films, and who also lit an opera he directed, Rosa, a Horse Drama.

But van Brummelen wants to make one thing clear: Director of photography Sacha Vierny is the one who is really responsible for the look of The Pillow Book. Vierny, a veteran of French New Wave classics such as Alain Resnais’ Hiroshima, Mon Amour, Last Year at Marienbad, Muriel, and La Guerre Est Finie, Luis Bunuel’s Belle de Jour, and films for Marguerite Duras, Bertrand Blier, and Raul Ruiz, has shot every Greenaway movie since A Zed and Two Noughts, in 1985. But Vierny, who is in his 70s, is disinclined to talk. He will only praise, via fax, van Brummelen’s abilities as an “artist who manipulates light and the computer,” adding that he wishes he could have shot films for Georges Melies and a young Orson Welles.

Van Brummelen’s background is firmly in film, including every Greenaway feature since Drowning by Numbers, in 1988, and his own projects as DP. “I sort of rolled into the other type of work through Greenaway,” he says. “He was asked to do a curatorial exhibition in a museum. He had the idea to do something special with the lighting, and out of that grew bigger and bigger installations which are more and more light-conscious and theatrical, with lots of mood changes, and synchronized to sound. Those exhibitions were a lot of times about water, and playing with projections.”

Van Brummelen has a more collaborative role with Greenaway on the curatorial exhibitions, while on the films he is usually assisting Vierny in giving the director what he wants. But there is never any question about who, ultimately, is in charge of the image. On The Pillow Book, where the Super 35 format made the frame more flexible, there is even evidence that Greenaway is wrestling some visual control from the cinematographer during postproduction. “He reframed a lot of shots in the editing process,” says the gaffer. “That’s done a lot in commercials and things which go through digital. But he did it on this and it was all finished off optically. The raw stock was really raw stock–it’s for the director to play on it. Some of that magic of the cinematographer–’this is the frame, and that’s what it’s always going to be’–is changing.”

On the other hand, van Brummelen marvels at Vierny, who goes along with Greenaway’s innovations and supports them in the continuing spirit of avant-garde. “It’s interesting that someone like Sacha, who is not a young dog, but who is an old master, is involved in such things. It’s pretty amazing that of all the cinematographers I have worked for as a gaffer, he is the most modern, the most fresh, and the one to take the most risks and to try the weirdest things.”

- John Calhoun, Live Design Online

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ABOUT THE SONY DVD

Deriving his inspiration from Sei Shonagon’s literary “pillow book,” Greenaway has fashioned an elusive series of vignettes combining text, flesh, and eroticism into an uneasy but ultimately transcendant whole. Fortunately, the DVD edition preserves the nuances and colorful schemes of his compositions very well. Letterboxing pursits will balk at the claim on the packaging that the film, “while filmed in multi-aspect ratios, has been re-formatted to fit your TV.” In fact, this is the same fullscreen transfer supervised by Greenaway himself which first debuted on British video some time ago. Like much of his television work, The Pillow Book was created with digital Japanese technology and involves layer upon layer of images interacing in various aspect ratios (ranging from anamorphic Cinemascope to 1.33:1). This version looks far more satisfying than the film’s theatrical showings at 1.85:1, which constantly lopped images and subtitles off at the top and bottom of the screen. Occasional shots framed at even slighter aspect ratio than 1.66:1 seem slightly clipped on the left side of the screen (notably the end titles and an occasional title card), but this in no way affects the compositions. This is a marked contrast to Greenaway’s other digital Paintbox epic, Prospero’s Books, which was shot hard-matted at 1.66:1 and completely collapsed under Fox’s pan and scan video transfer. The Dolby Surround tracks for Pillow Book are also very effective and show off the eclectic soundtrack (ranging from Buddhist chants to techno) with plenty of directional presence. The DVD also includes the fairly explicit U.S. theatrical trailer.

- Mondo Digital

ABOUT PETER GREENAWAY

“It seems so tragic to me that so many filmmakers are making movies up against this extra-ordinary revolution with one eye closed and two hands tied behind their backs.”
- Peter Greenaway

Scorning cinema as being mere ‘illustrated text’, Greenaway brings his artistic values, intellectual esoterica, visual richness and documentary approach to movies. They often result in intellectually stimulating, obscure, pretentious, bizarre and beautiful visual feasts with metaphors, clues, cerebral puzzles, symmetries, lists, numbers, puns, obsessions and nudity galore. His movies are usually layered or self referential and cannot be watched as simple entertaining narratives. He likes to explore abstract concepts comprehensively, dissecting all of their facets and extremes in a very detached way. Another of his passions is exploring new ways to deconstruct a narrative and tell a story, using multi-layered multimedia to obsessively explore the details of an event or scene. Even his lesser movies have striking visuals, beautiful painting-like photography, and intriguing, precise strangeness. Not included here is his somewhat ordinary drama ‘Belly of an Architect’, and numerous shorts and artistic documentaries, many of which are esoteric, over-obsessive bores with some impenetrable intellectual humor. A fascinating and unique film-maker.

- Zev Toledano, The Worldwide Celluloid Massacre

There are contradictions in Greenaway’s works, a fact that seems to openly provoke divided opinion. Some would suggest that the fecundity of his vision and intellectual rigor are the stuff of great cinema; others, while admitting his originality, would still look for evidence of a deeper engagement with film as a medium, rather than as a vehicle for ideas. Lauded in Europe, under-distributed in the United States, loved and reviled in his own country, Greenaway is, nevertheless, in an enviable position for a filmmaker.

Saul Frampton, updated by Rob Edelman, Film Reference.com

It’s just about impossible to listen to Peter Greenaway talk about his work for more than five minutes without experiencing an intense desire to punch him in the jaw. In interviews, he’s liable to make such irritating, condescending remarks as “I would say there has been no cinema yet. Nobody has yet made a film” and “I find cinema extremely boring. The exciting, investigative things are not happening in cinema, although they continue to be happening in painting. Certainly in literature, and in still photography, too; but it’s very, very rare indeed to find an exciting film.” Implicit in such comments is the notion that only he, Greenaway, is striving to take advantage of the unique possibilities that film offers, and that everybody else — Scorsese, Campion, Jarmusch, Cronenberg, Zhang, you name ‘em — is a backward-thinking Neanderthal hopelessly and pathetically trapped in the narrative quagmire inherited from literature. Indeed, Greenaway routinely speaks of the movies with such vitriol that one wonders why on earth he would deign to toil in such a trivial, unrewarding medium. What’s most irritating, though, about all of this highfalutin’, pretentious claptrap is that the guy has something of a point. Truth is, Greenaway is unique; love him or hate him, you can’t deny that there’s nobody else out there doing anything remotely like what he does — at least, not in the mainstream (which Greenaway, just barely, does inhabit, mostly thanks to the success of The Cook, the Thief, His Wife & Her Lover seven years ago). Employing unorthodox visual tropes, frequent onscreen text, varying aspect ratios, multiple images layered one atop another, and conceits that vary from the merely eccentric (the sequential numerals that pervade Drowning by Numbers) to the incomprehensibly bizarre (the “Violent Unexplained Incident” that causes avian-related mutations in 19 million people in The Falls), Greenaway is the point man for the narrative avant-garde. (The adjective “narrative” is crucial: however much Greenaway may sneer at directors who depend upon literary precedent, most of his own work is inextricably tied to the same traditions and conventions, however tangentially. He and, say, Stan Brakhage [who makes genuinely abstract movies] are essentially working in different media.) He’s obnoxious and arrogant, but at least he has cause; while there may be, as I would argue, many more accomplished filmmakers working today, there is certainly nobody half so ambitious.

- Mike D’Angelo, The Man Who Viewed Too Much

- Richard von Busack, Metroactive

The French have loved Peter Greenaway for 20 years, ever since his film The Draughtsman’s Contract was released. The only British films we encountered at the time were social commentaries or nonsense comedies – Ken Loach or Monty Python. And here was something completely different: a UK director who put art before entertainment (we have always loved that) and was clearly immensely cultured (we adore that as well).

· Jean Roy, The Guardian

No, I don’t much like Greenaway, thank you very much – though I did enjoy The Draughtsman’s Contract. It may just be that Greenaway is too smart, too wicked, too artistic for the British. I mean, he is nakedly pretentious – and the dread of being pretentious is a British disease that can lead to such things as the amiable but monstrous self-effacement of, say, Stephen Frears, who might be better off if he ever said: “Me!”

I know the vital texts in this matter, and I agree with them – indeed, I am a hearty “Hear! Hear!” rumbling up from the back benches on the musical farts of a good Simpson’s lunch. I remember how Ken Russell asked: “What is it about Greenaway’s films that make the flesh crawl? I think it’s his apparent loathing of the human race.” And then there was the fine and noble John Boorman, who once lamented the director’s seeming lack of doubt, as well as “the sadism, the sex-hating, the food-hating, life-hating, child-hating, woman-hating, excrement-loving” in his work.

To be very fair, Boorman saw things to admire in Greenaway: “prodigious skills”. He thought that the director had high abilities in the musical, the visual and the architectural. But he was not cinematic. I feel very much the same way, and it’s important to note that being spectacular and obsessed with movement is not necessarily “movie-like”. Yet I’m bound to admit that when it comes to doing dirt on life, or being obsessed with odious people, the movies as a whole have rather come to Greenaway’s aid.

For isn’t it the case nowadays that most pictures are made by people who hate or fear other people, and who have no faith in the better things of life? Yes, I exaggerate a tad, but still, the mindless nihilism of so much film-making only points up how original, how piquant, how vicious, how masterly the cruelty in Greenaway can be. For who could ever call this gloating thinker “mindless”?

So, yes, I hate Peter Greenaway’s films. They make me feel the need to take a long hot shower – but then, I usually feel that way. And meanwhile, let me whisper this: we need him; he is a thrilling, insolent corrective to so much “Englishness”. I fear he may be necessary.

- David Thomson, The Guardian