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Vol. 5, No. 1

105 Years of illustrated Text
by Peter Greenaway

The Pillow Book was a film made in 1996 to throw another stone in the pond of my anxiety that we have not seen any cinema yet. We have only seen 105 years of illustrated text. And recorded theater. And theater is primarily a matter of text. In practically every film you experience, you can see the director following the text. Illustrating the words first, making the pictures after, and, alas, so often not making pictures at all, but holding up the camera to do its mimetic worst. Though Derrida said the image has the last word, in cinema, we have all conspired to make sure the word has the first word. Godard said that once you have that check in the bank, that check you earned by bamboozling the bank manager into being impressed by your text, then throw that text away and start all over again. An object conceived and perceived in words is going to stay that way. And if that really really is the case, and it works in words, why waste time and patience and money making the conversion?
     Now, all of this is a sort of treacherous thing to say in a magazine dedicated to narrative in the movies-dedicated in fact to that very uncomfortable premise that in the movies you have apparently got to have text before you can have pictures. Which is bad. Because cinema is not an excuse for illustrated literature. But then I am primarily a painter, and my prejudice is that painting is the prime visual art and the very best painting is non-narrative.
     So it is good to say all this in the enemy camp-is this the enemy camp? Of course it is not, because we know this to be that state of things in the cinema we have arrived at after 105 years of striving for better things. In a strange way, the desire to manufacture this magazine is proof of what I am saying. Because we all know that literature is superior to cinema as a form of storytelling. It empowers the imagination like no other. If you want to be a storyteller, be an author, be a novelist, be a writer, don't be a film director. Cinema is not the greatest medium for telling stories. It is too specific, leaves so little room for the imagination to take wing other than in the strict directions indicated by the director. Read "he entered the room" and imagine a thousand scenarios. See "he entered the room" in cinema-as-we-know-it, and you are going to be limited to one scenario only. The cinema is about other things than storytelling. What you remember from a good film-and let's only talk about good films-is not the story, but a particular and hopefully unique experience that is about atmosphere, ambience, performance, style, an emotional attitude, gestures, singular events, a particular audio-visual experience that does not rely on the story. Besides, nine times out of ten, you will not remember the story. And if you do, and you tell it, and you are talking in words, then you are back to literature, and the cinematic experience is not communicated that way. Because for the moment we have not found anything better, and because we are lazy, the narrative is the glue we use to hold the whole apparatus of cinema together. There is much to say that D.W. Griffith, proud manufacturer of Intolerance, took us all in the wrong direction. He enslaved cinema to the nineteenth-century novel. And it is going to take a hell of a lot of convincing to go back, right the wrong, and then go forward again. But I have hopes. I do really believe that we are now developing the new tools to make that happen. Tools, as Picasso said of painting, that will allow you to make images of what you think, not merely of what you see, and certainly not of what you read.
     However, you have got to go very slowly. John Cage, composer, painter, and all-round thinker and cultural catalyst, said that if you introduce twenty percent of novelty into any artwork, watch out-you are going to lose eighty percent of your audience at once. He said you would lose them for fifteen years. Cage was interested in fifteen-year cycles. But he was hopelessly optimistic. The general appreciation, for example, of Western painting has got stuck around Impressionism, and that was 130 years ago, not fifteen years ago.

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