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.
So, bearing all this long-term anxiety in mind, the first provocation with the film The Pillow Book is that it is called The Pillow Book. Never put the word "book" in a film title. I have done it twice. Deliberately. (Prospero's Books was the other.) If only to draw attention to my anxieties. What itches, needs scratching.
Pillow books were a genre literature in Japan for over a thousand years. In the beginning they were bedside diaries kept in a drawer in your wooden pillow, to which you added important considerations before going to sleep with, so to speak, your head on them; then they became aphrodisiacs for sleepless lovers, and then they became sex manuals for bored lovers, and then they became sex primers to initiate the innocent. The film The Pillow Book could be thought of as functioning on all four levels; it offers what you might say are the profound thoughts, it hopes to titillate sexual fantasies, it demonstrates new ways to do it, and it offers you a checklist of the basics.
The particular pillow book I chose to pay homage to, though not at all to illustrate, was a classic written by a tenth-century royal courtesan, Sei Shonagon. It is a loose book, impressionistic, hardly coherent as a continuous narrative. It is full of descriptions of court life, and the retelling of court gossip and descriptions of fashionable shrines and how to get there by the most elegant means. It is a piece of writing replete with those typical Japanese wistful and melancholic evocations of ephemerality. It was written a thousand years ago almost exactly to the year the film was made, and it was written by a woman. To be literate a thousand years ago in the West was pretty uncommon; to be literate and a woman, very unlikely; to be literate, female, and quite brilliant, a well-nigh Western impossibility. Sei Shonagon feels modern, almost a proto-feminist in such a paternalistic age that women at court stayed, for the most part, silent and still and available indoors all their lives. She said much, and she said two electrifying things from the still darkness of her domestic prisons. She said them of course very much in her own way, but she said there were two things in life that were absolutely essential, and life would be unbearable without them: the sensuous body and literature. My crude summation would be sex and text. Both have the X factor. She said them with longing and her longing stayed with me. How can we arrange to have these two desirable items, and how can we arrange to have them always together?
Well, I tried, at least to make them as indivisible as possible for the length of a film. The plot, characters, and dialogue of The Pillow Book are mine. Not Sei Shonagon's. Why illustrate a great piece of writing whose very advocacy and evocation and efficacy lies within its very existence as writing? I am paying homage to a great piece of writing, not illustrating it, not even interpreting it. Not illuminating it. A good filmmaker should be a prime creator-a composer, not a conductor.
The desire to celebrate Sei Shonagon and her thoughts about sex and text, and the anxiety that we have not seen any cinema yet, but only 105 years of illustrated text, need a vehicle of organization. Conventionally, in the sort of cinema we have had so far, though hopefully will not need to have in the future, we apparently need to make that vehicle a narrative. Our thoughts are essentially of the contemporary, but we are nothing without memory and comparison, so I constructed a two-tiered narrative of the present and of the past. In the beginning was the word, and a very young Japanese girl has a birthday greeting written on her body by her father. So comprehensive was this gesture of love and ownership and blessing that the Japanese girl, maturing in the 1990s, wants her lovers to write on her body in a similar fashion. She, like me, learns that text and sex were also desirable commodities for that paragon of Japanese classic authorship, Sei Shonagon. Armed with Sei Shonagon's good sense and wise desires, our heroine searches to find out whether a good calligrapher can indeed be a good lover, and can the opposite also be true? The film engages in her search. It is a catalogue movie, with a list of sexual and calligraphic encounters intertwined. Sex and text in one. All the film purports to do is deliberate on this one idea, and all its cousins and relatives. What, why, how, when? Is the body an alphabet? Can flesh really be paper? Is there immortality in text? Is the spine of a book the same as the vertebrae of a man? What is the word-price of fleshly love? Can text be jealous? Can books fuck with books and make other books? Is blood ink? Is the pen a penis whose purpose is to fertilize the page? Can she who was the paper become the pen? And if the body has made all the signs and symbols of the world, passing from thinking brain to moving arm to gesturing hand to stiff pen on silent paper over thousands of years, what now-when we all write on keyboards? Have we severed a most important link? Is there ever now going to be a necessary evolutionary future for letters and words? And if words were made by the body, where is there a better place to put those words than back on the body?
The film has written and spoken dialogue in twenty-five languages-English, French, Japanese, Mandarin, Cantonese, Vietnamese, Latin, Hebrew, necrotic Egyptian . . . and it has written calligraphic text on paper, wood, and flesh, on flat and curved surfaces, vertically and horizontally, on both living and dead flesh, in neon, on screens, in projection, as sub-title, inter-title, and sur-title, as High Art and low art, as advertisement and banker's check and registration plate, on photograph, on blackboard, as letter correspondence, as photocopy facsimile, and spoken, chanted, and sung, with and without music . . . a mocking challenge. You want text? Cinema wants text? Cinema pretends to eschew text? Then we can give you text to mock that smug suggestion that cinema thinks it is pictures.
Enough. Where are there models for a more perfect image-text marriage?
Japanese hieroglyphs may be a good model for reinventing the desperately-in-need-of-being-reinvented cinema. The history of Japanese painting, the history of Japanese calligraphy, and the history of Japanese literature are the same-all grow and have grown together; what you see as an image you read as a text. What you read as a text, you perceive as an image. This was certainly my major aim and model in the film The Pillow Book. Get the Titanic sailing correctly before you worry about the deck chairs. Indivisibility between text and image. Eisenstein saw the possibilities back in the 1920s. His theories of montage assimilated the dual image-text role of the Oriental ideogram. No middlemen. Image and text come together hand in hand. Cinema does not seem to have wanted to learn from such an encouragement. We have encouraged ourselves to need perhaps too many middlemen, too many translators. Most of them lazy. My fictitious Japanese lover's less-than-great calligrapher is Ewan McGregor's Jerome, a translator. St. Jerome was the first major translator of text for the modern world-though his business was to convince us about Christianity. What is it that cinema is trying to convince us of? Christianity and the cinema both desire happy endings. Heaven and a golden sunset. Perhaps, sadly, in the end, cinema is only a translator's art, and you know what they say about translators: traitors all.