The Pillow Book

The Pillow Book

Use my body like the pages of a book. Of your book.

Peter Greenaway is another director that the list seemed to want to have a requisite number of their films to represent him, in his case two. In adding one of his earlier works, Drowning by Numbers (which I haven’t gotten to yet), they removed the latter of his, The Pillow Book. Now, having not seen Drowning by Numbers, I can’t attest as to why that was added and this removed, but as for this one’s removal, I can perfectly agree with it. This is certainly a unique film to experience; it’s just making out what you’re experiencing that’s the problem.

Pretty much as soon as the opening titles ended, from then on I wasn’t sure what to think. Clips superimposed in boxes on the screen, often in the middle of other clips, semi-transparent images layered on top of each other, cutaways to the written text of the Pillow Book itself, with accompanying narration in both Japanese and English; this is what served as the main plot of the film, or rather, the way in which the film presented whatever the plot was. I was reminded often of the book House of Leaves, and its unconventional approach to telling the text of the narrative; if ever House of Leaves should be made into a film, I’d want Peter Greenaway to make it, because he’s essentially got the presentation style down with this film. Now, that comparison aside, it didn’t make for a simple watch, to put it mildly; I was a half hour in when I almost gave up and resorted to the Wikipedia entry just to find out what the hell was going on, but I decided to remain stalwart, wanting to experience the film as it is, and hoping things would clear up somewhat by the end. They didn’t; the film merely swayed from one side to the other, before coming round full circle in its confusing presentation and lack of common storytelling techniques. Now, having a lack of storytelling techniques can be a positive thing, but Greenaway is not the exception that proves the rule (to use that phrase incorrectly); such storytelling techniques are in place because they work, dammit, and if you’re going to go deliberately outside the box, you can’t be concerned with actually telling a story, like this one was. Now, for what I did get; the film, for lack of a better word, fetishizes the concept of writing and body painting; probably 80% of the actual action in the film consists of people writing calligraphy on each other, and most of the other 20% is people trying to relay their feelings and reactions towards writing on each other. An odd concept for a film, but odder concepts have existed, so I’ll let that slide. It was also a surprise to see Ewan McGregor in this; he was pretty good, and this must’ve been one of his earlier roles, before Trainspotting catapulted him into prominence.

As soon as the film ended, I immediately went to the Wikipedia article, which cleared up a good amount of the fogginess, but the fact that I had to in the first place was inexcusable. If a film is so caught up in the style of the presentation, rather than actually conveying the story it wants to tell, then nobody is going to receive said story, and the whole point of making the film is rendered moot. The Pillow Book is the prime example of this folly; that’s all there is to be said. Watch this, if anything, for the unique presentation style it gives, which is truly one-of-a-kind, but if you’re watching hoping to get a story or narrative or plot or anything else out of it, you’ll wind up too confuddled to ascertain anything of relevance, aside from bits and fleeting scraps, which are essentially worthless without the core of the story. I don’t know what to expect from Drowning by Numbers, but I can only hope it doesn’t fall into the same pitfalls at this.

Arbitrary Rating: 5/10

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