Write on!

With Pillow Book, Greenaway finds a little heart among the details

British filmmaker Peter Greenaway sits near a window in the dining room of the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel; he indicates with his eyes a man walking along the sidewalk toward Hollywood Boulevard. In trying to explain his use of multiple imagery in his new film, The Pillow Book, and separating it from the conventional notion of the split screen, Greenaway bestows upon this blue-jeaned citizen the lead in a hypothetical Greenaway short film.

"That guy is walking along the street there in the present tense, seeing what's around him," the writer-director begins. "But [the man is] using his memory, his imagination, making sense of what that tree is because he knows what a tree is in his subconscious from ages ago from being a kid, and so on. We're talking about imagination, memory, the present tense, and fantasy--all in one frame. I believe this is far more relative to the way we appreciate the world."

This all comes, of course, after Greenaway has charmingly rattled off a quick chronicle of multiple imagery, from Abel Gance's silent Napoleon through The Thomas Crown Affair and television news programs. Greenaway never really stops talking or making points, it seems: His mind is a virtual database of aesthetics concepts, art history, and numbing arcana. Plus, if you're familiar with the 55-year-old filmmaker's long-standing fascination with lists, catalogs, and detailed order from his '70s short films such as H Is for House, Windows, and Dear Phone, you can picture his mind whirring involuntarily over what this unwitting passerby's imagined life story might be. Include a litany of different trees, perhaps? Also sidewalks--maybe a history of urban planning in general--thrown in with a richly detailed look at the exact route of the man's constitutional (oval-shaped? by what landmarks?) and statistics about street signs. Voila! Call it P Is for Pedestrian.

One thing's for sure as our subject heads toward one distinctive nearby location, Mann's Chinese theater: It's highly unlikely any of Greenaway's films will ever play there. His self-consciously arty, intellectually intimidating, wickedly designed spectacles--The Draughtsman's Contract, Drowning by Numbers, and Prospero's Books to name a few--are forever destined for this country's art houses and film festivals. The ones that find distributors, that is. Even with the commercial success of his blackly comic 1989 film The Cook, the Thief, His Wife & Her Lover--no small endurance test for the easily offended--his 1993 film, The Baby of Macon, a garishly staged period piece about child exploitation steeped in the baroque, received its L.A. premiere only a few weeks ago at an American Cinematheque retrospective. Macon even stars Julia Ormond and Ralph Fiennes--before either hit it big over here.

Greenaway's films are the definition of an acquired taste--quasi-surrealist fare at its most annoying or resplendent, depending on the cineaste you're talking to--but his work will always inspire a spirited discussion of the form's possibilities. "I've been accused of creating visual indigestion," he remarks, "but that's predicated on the fact that you can always go back and look again." Multiple viewings are practically mandatory for his followers: His tendency to cram art history references, bewildering factota, and visual flourishes into practically every shot makes for an experience that uniquely qualifies as both a rush and a meditation.

It's as though his early years as a trained painter, art aficionado, and documentary film editor for the Central Office of Information were exacting their revenge on his audience. For Greenaway, though, it's more of a be-all-you-can-be methodology: "It's perfectly accessible and reasonable to look at poetry and music and the novel many, many times," he says. "Otherwise, you're never going to understand all its nuances, plotting, significance, and subtleties. So why shouldn't we treat cinema the same way? Make demands on cinema?"

Greenaway is, after all, the organizational joker who created 92 fictional dossiers of disaster victims for his three-hour pseudo-documentary The Falls, who slyly featured the numbers one through 100 in sequential order throughout his 1988 film Drowning by Numbers, and who color-coded the sets of The Cook, the Thief, His Wife & Her Lover. He also plans to rewrite the 1,001 tales of Scheherazade for the Internet this fall with the ambitious, almost ludicrously scoped The Tulse Luper Suitcase. His planned world-size, transcontinentally shot epic about totalitarianism will be, when completed, an eight-hour film and a 16-hour TV series, and it will coincide with the release of two CD-ROMs and go up on the Internet for 1,001 days. It's a millennium project if ever one existed, and Greenaway hopes to start shooting in October.

"I'm looking for the sort of James Joyce/Finnegan's Wake cinematic equivalent--the notion of not only making a compendium of the different ways one can make cinema, but actually having to change the language in order to embrace that," he says. Plus, "I need more elbow room." In the end, Greenaway is the avant-garde filmmaker as a mad British clerk, Bunuel as bookkeeper.

Greenaway's keen satirical fiddling with order from chaos was cemented as a young editor in the '60s, cutting together three documentaries a week for the British government on everything from the number of sheepdogs in South Wales to how many Japanese restaurants were located in Ipswich. "It's the vanity of statistics," explains Greenaway, who lives in London with his wife and two daughters. "The idea that if you get the figures right, you can prove anything."

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