ARTS: WIZARD OF ODD

Ask Peter Greenaway a question, and he'll respond with a lecture on Eisenstein, the Internet, or the evils of narrative cinema. The effect is spellbinding - but what lies behind the flow of smooth talk and sumptuous imagery?

Prospero's cabbalistic cave lurks down an alley, just off a rumbling main road in west London. There the sorcerer concocts his spells in a potting shed, beneath a sign which identifies this as the headquarters of Luper Productions. Tulse Luper is Peter Greenaway's skittish, elusive alter ego: once a child's imaginary playmate, now a company logo. Greenaway also occasionally adopts the persona of Thrope - "short," as he sourly explains, "for misanthrope". Both aliases serve as the cover for another secret self. Aloof, abstracted, ruling over a personal kingdom of technological magic which makes the flabby, irregular human world beyond his domain look dull and ugly, Greenaway is actually the supercilious wizard in The Tempest, played by John Gielgud in his film Prospero's Books.

You enter the grand vizier's potting shed at your peril. A notice pinned to the door warns off "Avidseekers", and is signed "The Vue". It is addressed, in plaintive retrospect, to the burglars who made four visits while Greenaway's new film The Pillow Book was being edited - using Avid computer software - on the premises. Perhaps the cryptic jargon was lost on them; possibly they overlooked it, since on each occasion they avoided the flimsy front door and entered through a skylight, following the path of some plants which send their tendrils snaking down from the roof. Despite their repeated visits, they took nothing. It is as though Prospero is stalked by the spectres he himself has dreamt up.

It may have been the clammy alley and the damp gloom of the shed, but Greenaway is an eerie, unsettling figure. You seem to be meeting him by moonlight, like Oberon, another of Shakespeare's sinister magicians; he radiates chilliness. In person, he is not quite there. Or at least he gives the impression that he would rather not be. His eyes erase you, anxious to retreat behind a view-finder, or one of those perspective glasses employed by the landscape painter in The Draughtsman's Contract. Throughout our conversation, he studied his familiars - abused dolls, the cage of a papier-mache bird, a life-sized dummy with blotched purple skin - and took stock of the dented cans of film where his magical creatures are coiled on celluloid. Mostly he perused a list on the wall behind me, which with obsessive orderliness had broken down the universal jumble of phenomena into a series of archetypes, tabling the names of actors who might impersonate them. There was a column for Christs, and another for dwarfs, with notes about the hats each might wear. There were even details of a casting call for corpses.

GREENAWAY looks at the world like a mortician. The hero of Drowning by Numbers is a coroner, with a precociously morbid son; Death in the Seine, made for French television, trawls corpses from the river; A Zed and Two Noughts deals with vivisection and surgical butchery. His new film, The Pillow Book, couples necrophilia with aestheticism. A Japanese woman writes calligraphic lyrics on the bodies of her lovers. One young man inscribed by her dies; he is exhumed and flayed, his skin dried out and folded up as parchment. The 10th-century Japanese courtier Sei Shonagon compiled a list of precious objects in her own Pillow Book, which was Greenaway's source; to her treasury of Zen pebbles and sumptuous fabrics, he adds a man who is cut, sewn and pasted into a text.

Corpses suit Greenaway because they are obligingly inanimate, like those inset stills of Sei Shonagon's favourite things which often threaten to turn The Pillow Book from a moving picture into an album of exquisite photographs. "This," Greenaway proudly pointed out, "is my second film with the word 'book' in the title. I believe, like Lacan and Derrida and the French philosophers, that text is primary. I'm a visualist, but my images are text. Lists fascinate me because they break the world down into an artificial order, like encyclopaedias. I display the objects; you supply the verbs. It's like John Cage's games with musical time, his attempt to write music which is motionless. I offer the argument with irony, of course." Greenaway's talk is as riddling as the admonition to the burglars on his front door. The hermetic soliloquy is sealed against intrusion by his proviso that he is being ironic, and does not mean what he says. The abstruse names on the reading list - Lacan, Derrida, Cage - also intend to intimidate anyone avidly seeking a clue to his motives.

I persisted, and asked about a formal quirk which perplexed me in The Pillow Book and its predecessors. How can there be a cinema of objects without verbs to mobilise them? Shouldn't films be moving pictures? Otherwise aren't they beautiful portraits of corpses? "I began my career as a painter," said Greenaway, "and I think of painting as a far more radical and adventurous art than film. I work like Picasso, who said that he didn't paint what he saw but what he thought. So I am," he added with a sapient smirk, "not unconscious of the contradiction. Of course paintings don't move. But sooner that than the heinous narrative which DW Griffith inflicted on the cinema, in the very same period when the Cubist painters were exploring sequence as an alternative to story-telling. I blame Griffith for a notion which has done as much harm to the art of film as the cult of virgin birth has done to Roman Catholicism." Here there should really have been a puff of smoke and a muffled explosion. Greenaway's fugitive eyes even briefly revisited my face, to check on my response to this intellectual conjuring feat. The soliloquy then resumed. "My lists and alphabets, the numerology in Drowning by Numbers, are attempts to find a visual order which does not depend on narrative. In The Pillow Book, I suggest we should reinvent the cinema on the example of the hieroglyph: a word that's also an image."

I ventured to defend Griffith. Surely his chases, jumping across space between different, convergent actions - or, in Intolerance, eliding centuries to make Babylon and contemporary America collide - were Cubist experiments of the kind which Greenaway proposed as his own prerogative? And didn't Intolerance long ago pre-empt Greenaway's grand idea about hieroglyphs? The universal language of cuneiform is lost when the Tower of Babel falls; the messianic Griffith believed that its secret was revived by cinema, the Esperanto of images. Greenaway smiled as if he had foreseen and disposed of my objections, but did not answer them. He dealt in the same way with protests at a recent German screening of The Pillow Book: "When the critics there saw the young man's skin peeled off and bound as a book, they all thought of Jews being made into lampshades." So how did he appease them? "I pointed out that this was something I had not been unconscious of," he said serenely.

I explained the problem which my over-taxed eyes have with his films. Paintings keep still so you inspect them; books can be read at your own tempo. But film charges indefatigably on at its fixed speed of 24 frames a second. The richness of Greenaway's images works against the natural volatility of the medium. In Drowning by Numbers, I spent so much effort seeking out the numerals hidden in the decor that I lost track of and interest in the people. In The Pillow Book, I wondered how it was possible to watch a film about calligraphy without understanding Japanese.

"May I suggest," said Greenaway, like a sorcerer dealing with a dim-witted apprentice, "that you've not gone far enough? We really have so little visual education in our society. My work relies on a degree of repeatability. I expect the viewer to play the game; I'm very ludic, myself. You should go back and re-read, as you would with a book. Put the video into reverse, study films on CD-ROM. People using the Internet freeze frames in my early movies and blow them up so they can read the titles of books on the shelves behind minor characters!" Technology here abets the magic of Prospero. Ariel casts spells by paralysing characters, as if freezing them inside a frame. Greenaway grinned at the thought of all his acolytes in cyberspace, investigating the mysteries absconded in the grainy dots they have enlarged, gladly applying the pause button to their own lives while they pondered his conceits and conundrums. I didn't dare to tell him that the films I loved best were westerns. The big sky, the open air, the galloping horses: size, speed, energy, all of which are excluded from Greenaway's private, static island.

THE INTERNET of course suits Greenaway's solipsism. "Only one person can use it at a time; it's the same with CD-ROM. What the art of film has to do is get rid of the camera, to abandon this heritage of mimesis. And then we can think about getting rid of the cinemas too. My next film is going to be eight hours long, so it's not likely to be shown in the multiplexes." Did he have no nostalgia for those grand, dim hangars of fantasy, with their sweet reek of popcorn and their back rows devoted to sexual adventure? Greenaway remembered the traditional cinema with a disdainful curl of the lip. "Naturally I'm interested in something that's bigger and noisier than I am." He did not need to add that he offered this argument ironically. "Cinema is not a social activity. It turns man into a nocturnal animal. We choose to sit there in the dark, watching shadows on a screen. That's what my films are - they are not slices of life, like something by Ken Loach." He shuddered slightly at the thought of Loach, or life, or both of them.

Why call cinematic images shadows? They could equally well - given a director with a different temperament, like the sun-worshipping Griffith - be described as beams of light, emanations from glowing flesh. But that sense of kindred, which should make films so intimate and intoxicating, no longer exists for Greenaway. "Our technology has removed us from the physical world. When I painted, I got my hands dirty. Now, behind the camera, I have a much cleaner job." Perhaps the gruesome post-mortem operation in The Pillow Book is a fable about his view of his own art. The celluloid on which light writes its images is called "pellicule" in French, which means "little skin". To make a film is to strip from things the membrane of appearance, and to preserve that thin, dead integument. Hence, despite their barrage of ideas, the decorative superficiality of Greenaway's films. Maurice Denis instigated modernism in painting by pointing out that pictures were not actually representations of biblical tableaux or rustic anecdotes; they were simply coloured marks on a flat plane. A hundred years later, Greenaway is making a similar claim about the cinema. But abstraction comes more naturally to painting. You can only arrive at an abstract cinema by getting rid of the camera, so obstinately attracted to human beings, who - equally obstinate - keep on straying outside the frame.

These preferences emerged in Greenaway's praise of Eisenstein, "for me the greatest director". When I asked what exactly he liked about Eisenstein, he replied, "He was polyglot, a polymath - I'm often accused of anal retentiveness, but he too controlled everything." Yes, but apart from the global culture and psychic quirks they shared, what did he admire about Eisenstein's films? He responded with a lecture on montage, and the way it "gives resonance to images". It struck me as odd to praise form while ignoring content. Montage, like all of Eisenstein's technical innovations, was a model of revolution; the jittery rhythmic exhilaration matched the accelerated tempo of history. "None of that matters," said Greenaway impatiently. "The Battleship Potemkin is a film about some bad meat." Revolution is a pretext for the director's exhibitionism. Aware that he might have overstated, Greenaway made a concession. "All right, so all great art is propaganda. But when you look at the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, do you remember the Council of Trent?" Maybe not - still, if you don't think about religion and its effort to render the world intelligible, then the ceiling is just a specimen of florid interior decor. Accepting Greenaway's premise, I asked what his own art propagandised for. "For the fact," he said, "that the world contains a multiplicity of things, and of colours." As gospels go, this is a good deal less nutritious than Eisenstein's liberating ideology.

The heroine of The Pillow Book escapes to Hong Kong and becomes a fashion model, teetering down a catwalk on vertiginous heels. "In feudal Japan, there was an elite of five thousand people, supported by five million invisible toilers. I wanted to find an equivalent today to the artificiality and etiquette of the court. That's why I introduced fashion: those women on their 20-inch heels are martyrs to elegance. Sei Shonagon had the same snobbery. In her book, she asks indignantly why beautiful snow should fall on ugly people." That question perplexes Greenaway too. Joan Plowright answers it for him in Drowning by Numbers when she placidly murders her husband. She sees this as an act of aesthetic cleansing: she did it, she explains, because he was fat.

"The body which kisses also farts," shrugged Greenaway. Nevertheless his work executes its own aesthetic revenge on a physical existence which the cinema customarily celebrates. The Cook, The Thief, His Wife and Her Lover concludes with judicial cannibalism. For his Viennese exhibition "100 Objects to Represent the World", he was, he says, "privileged to exhibit a severed head". Yet this gruesome "viscerality," as he calls it, is meant to be playful, fictitious, hollow. "You may be more literal than I am, but there are two things in the cinema that I never believe - death and copulation. I want to point out the artifice of cinematic death." So much for our mortal agony, and the tears we generously shed when Garbo expires. Copulation, as choreographed by Greenaway, has the same frigid falsity. I asked about his preface to the press release for The Pillow Book, which muses that: "There are two simulations in life guaranteed to excite and tease - sex and text, flesh and literature." I was hoping for a riff on cybersex, quite the rage in Japan. "Can I look at that?" asked Greenaway, who had never set eyes on the ex cathedra statement attributed to him. He then confirmed that simulations should have been stimulations. But typos are trouvailles, and his discomfiture perhaps disclosed that, for him, there is not much difference between the two conditions.

Viscerality yields to virtuality, and twinned, writhing bodies fade into transparent wraiths. "Yes, with virtual reality we have come to the end of the illusionist line. That's what I like about cinema. Like the baroque, it's empty, it's all show. There's nothing there." Prospero's visions evaporate, and the food cycle in The Cook, The Thief, His Wife and Her Lover leads inevitably to evacuation in the privy. A Zed and Two Noughts concludes in a row of empty, aerated zeroes. Greenaway takes desolate delight in his nihilism: he enjoys cancelling out the art he practises. Orson Welles, a magus reduced to the status of a card sharp, also called himself a fake, but he did so more winningly, with an appeal for our forgiveness. Less contrite, Greenaway accuses the so-called real world of fraudulence, but exempts himself. During our conversation, he commemorated the centenary of cinema by erasing all its achievements to date: "I don't think we've seen any cinema yet." We must patiently wait, he implied, until he created it. "My next film will end in Manchuria, where we'll unearth the lost city of Kubla Khan. That will be my commentary on Welles's Xanadu in Citizen Kane. But now I must go. I am off to Israel to talk about The Pillow Book." It was not surprising to discover that he was about to take flight. His talk is a tempest, and like the spurious maelstrom conjured up by Prospero, it consists very largely of over-heated air.

Before emplaning, he performed a last feat of cosmic legerdemain. "Here's my pen," he said, producing it from his pocket with a whiff of abracadabra. "It's made of metal and plastic. Metal gives you guns and battleships; plastic is polymers and all the synthetic alternatives to nature. It has a clip: that involves fashion. And it's a machine, a writing implement. By association, it contains everything. If I threw it across the room, like the ape with the bone in 2001, it would reach to the edge of the universe." Well, I thought, not quite...

No wonder that the burglars, even after repeated forays, stole nothing. Despite his encyclopaedic ambitions, Greenaway's is a small world, as stifling as the interior of Tulse Luper's suitcase, inside which the next eight-hour film will be set. It is Onan's empire: a place of strict psychological monopoly. Emerging from the alley, I was happy to find the uproarious traffic still trundling back towards unvirtual Hammersmith.

! 'The Pillow Book' (18) opens on 8 Nov.

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