The Man Who Viewed Too Much
9 June 1997

The Pillow Book

Written and directed by Peter Greenaway
Rating: ***

Chronicle of a Disappearance

Written and directed by Elia Suleiman
Rating: ** ½

Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery

Directed by Jay Roach
Written by Mike Myers
Rating: ** ½

Brothers in Trouble

Directed by Udayan Prasad
Written by Robert Buckler
Adapted from the novel Return Journey by Abdullah Hussein
Rating: ** ½


Written and directed by Neils Arden Oplev
Rating: *

Ratings are on a four-star scale

It's just about impossible to listen to Peter Greenaway talk about his work for more than five minutes without experiencing an intense desire to punch him in the jaw. In interviews, he's liable to make such irritating, condescending remarks as "I would say there has been no cinema yet. Nobody has yet made a film" and "I find cinema extremely boring. The exciting, investigative things are not happening in cinema, although they continue to be happening in painting. Certainly in literature, and in still photography, too; but it's very, very rare indeed to find an exciting film." Implicit in such comments is the notion that only he, Greenaway, is striving to take advantage of the unique possibilities that film offers, and that everybody else -- Scorsese, Campion, Jarmusch, Cronenberg, Zhang, you name 'em -- is a backward-thinking Neanderthal hopelessly and pathetically trapped in the narrative quagmire inherited from literature. Indeed, Greenaway routinely speaks of the movies with such vitriol that one wonders why on earth he would deign to toil in such a trivial, unrewarding medium.

What's most irritating, though, about all of this highfalutin', pretentious claptrap is that the guy has something of a point. Truth is, Greenaway is unique; love him or hate him, you can't deny that there's nobody else out there doing anything remotely like what he does -- at least, not in the mainstream (which Greenaway, just barely, does inhabit, mostly thanks to the success of The Cook, the Thief, His Wife & Her Lover seven years ago). Employing unorthodox visual tropes, frequent onscreen text, varying aspect ratios, multiple images layered one atop another, and conceits that vary from the merely eccentric (the sequential numerals that pervade Drowning by Numbers) to the incomprehensibly bizarre (the "Violent Unexplained Incident" that causes avian-related mutations in 19 million people in The Falls), Greenaway is the point man for the narrative avant-garde. (The adjective "narrative" is crucial: however much Greenaway may sneer at directors who depend upon literary precedent, most of his own work is inextricably tied to the same traditions and conventions, however tangentially. He and, say, Stan Brakhage [who makes genuinely abstract movies] are essentially working in different media.) He's obnoxious and arrogant, but at least he has cause; while there may be, as I would argue, many more accomplished filmmakers working today, there is certainly nobody half so ambitious.

Greenaway's latest movie is entitled The Pillow Book; it was preceded by The Baby of Mâcon, which never found a distributor in the United States and which even rabid Greenaway fanatics tend to find repugnant. (I haven't seen it.) I feel confident that Greenaway would never admit that he cares how his pictures are received by critics and the public, and perhaps he truly doesn't; still, it's interesting that his follow-up to what is easily the most universally reviled film he's yet made is, by his standards, almost formulaic. For the uninitiated, The Pillow Book is an ideal introduction to his work, the cinematic equivalent of Peter Greenaway's Greatest Hits: visually, it repeats more than expands upon the technical innovations he developed for Prospero's Books (1991), and an elaborate revenge motif late in the film calls to mind the final banquet in The Cook, the Thief.... Longtime aficionados, on the other hand, may be a bit disappointed to find their favorite maverick in something of a holding pattern. I haven't yet seen all of Greenaway's films, but this is the first one I've seen that struck me as familiar.

It's too early to tell, as I write this, but it's entirely possible that The Pillow Book will become Greenaway's second commercial success. There are two reasons for such financial optimism: first, that the plot, skeletal though it may be, is one of Greenaway's most easily accessible; second, that said plot involves two young and beautiful actors, Vivian Wu and Ewan McGregor, practicing calligraphy on one another's totally naked bodies. True, the nudity, however copious, is no more erotic than usual in Greenaway's films (which is to say, not very), and the prospect of then-rising star Ralph Fiennes and still-possibly-rising star Julia Ormond sans clothing didn't help secure a stateside release for The Baby of Mâcon. But in the latter case there were extenuating circumstances -- namely, what befalls Fiennes and Ormond while they're exposed, the grisly details of which I'll kindly spare you -- and Cinepix, The Pillow Book's American distributor, is doing its best to attract neophytes with coy promises of brainy soft-core pornography. The film's decidedly anti-sensual air of clinical detachment will likely disappoint many of the couples who'll wander in because My Best Friend's Wedding was sold out, but a few others may perhaps be intrigued enough to investigate Greenaway's back catalog, which is as worthy a reason for the film to exist as any.

As it happens, The Pillow Book is often immensely enjoyable for its own sake, even if its pleasures remain largely on the surface. Greenaway crams so much visual information into each frame -- sometimes there are as many as half a dozen tiny picture windows obscuring the primary image -- that there's a danger of sensory overload; imagine yourself standing in front of a bank of television sets in a department store, each one tuned to a different channel, and trying to follow all of them at once. "Aiggh!" is one possible reaction, and "Please can we go look at the towels now?" another; if you relax, though, and simply allow the kaleidoscopic whirlwind to wash over you, without fretting that you might "miss something" (you won't), the effect is hypnotic. So, too, is Greenaway's use of recurring images, dialogue, and music (you'll hear the sampled fanfare that precedes U2's "Daddy's Gonna Pay For Your Crashed Car," for example, no fewer than three times), which transform what is really a fairly simple tale into something almost talismanic.

The story, which is generally of minimal importance to Greenaway, revolves around the title volume, a sort-of diary alternating sexual anecdotes and lists of minutiae, which is reportedly a real book dating from the end of the first millennium. As a child, Nagiko (played by several actors, with Wu taking over when the character reaches adulthood) listens with rapt attention as her aunt reads the book aloud to her at bedtime; later, she combines her passion for eroticism with her love of calligraphy -- the latter inspired by her father, who ritualistically painted her name upon her face every year on her birthday. She seeks a man who is both an ideal lover and a brilliant calligrapher, but settles for Jerome (McGregor), a "scribbler" (her derogatory term) who convinces her that she ought to pick up the inkpot, and offers himself as her canvas. But there's an impediment to their union: Jerome is also sexually involved with an elderly publisher, who happens to be the same publisher who spent years blackmailing and abusing Nagiko's father.

If that last twist strikes you as a bit soapy, you're not alone. As always in Greenaway's work, there are moments in The Pillow Book that startle and amaze, but perhaps none so surprising as the one in which I realized that Greenaway actually expected me to care about the relationship between Nagiko and Jerome. Character, like plot, tends to be secondary in his movies, and his lack of interest is apparent in the functional-but-no-more performances he elicits from great actors like Brian Dennehy, Juliet Stevenson, Helen Mirren, and Tim Roth. (Michael Gambon, in The Cook &c., is a notable exception, as he's playing a man so outrageously despicable that the frame can barely contain him.) Vivian Wu is allegedly a huge star in her native country, but all that she's required to do here is look petulant while naked. (Occasionally, for a change of pace, she gets to look petulant while clothed.) Ewan McGregor, meanwhile, is one of the world's hottest young stars -- he's just been signed to play the lead role in the new Star Wars trilogy, fer chrissakes -- and yet the charisma and intelligence he fairly radiated in Shallow Grave and Trainspotting are nowhere in evidence in The Pillow Book, largely because his function is to look vaguely smug while naked. I found both of them intensely boring...which was fine, most of the time, because the movie is only superficially about them anyway. About two-thirds of the way through, however, Greenaway unexpectedly and uncharacteristically attempts to crank up the emotional stakes, and a couple of scenes that I imagine were supposed to be powerful and affecting came across as simply ludicrous. "Stop banging on the door, you shallow, underdeveloped cipher!" I was tempted to yell at one point. But decorum prevailed (I didn't want my girlfriend to punch me in the jaw).

The final third of the film consists of the aforementioned revenge plot, which is as formally brilliant as it is dramatically tedious, and thus more or less evens out. (My favorite, and I bet everybody else's, too: The Book of Secrets.) I felt a bit disappointed as the closing credits began to roll, but it was the same variety of disappointment I felt at the end of Secrets & Lies -- cheerful resignation that this one wasn't the masterpiece I'd hoped for, but "merely" a fine, respectable, thoroughly diverting addition to an important and still-growing oeuvre. The horror! The horror!

I've just spent far too long trying to think up a clever conclusion, and I concede defeat. This review is late, and it's over, and that's all there is to it. Cope.

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Actually, I just inadvertently provided myself with a perfect segue, because that's exactly how I felt about the much-heralded Palestinian film Chronicle of a Disappearance: I saw it, it's over, and that's all there is to it. A friend of mine considers it a masterpiece, the best film he's seen so far this year, and Film Comment's Gavin Smith concurs, calling it "extraordinary...complex, mischievously subversive." I have absolutely no idea what they're so excited about. By that I don't mean simply that I disagree; I disliked Dead Man, for example, and merely tolerated Fargo, but I can understand why others might think them works of genius. Chronicle of a Disappearance, on the other hand, seemed to me so perfectly genial, so downright lackadaisical, that I have to assume that I simply missed the point, whatever it may have been. As masterpieces go, this one is mighty low-key.

The film is divided into two parts. The first, entitled "Nazareth Personal Diary," consists entirely of simple vignettes -- individually often amusing or intriguing, but cumulatively signifying very little. For example, there's a funny and charming bit involving a dog playing with a bucket; it made me laugh, but what idea or sentiment writer/director Elia Suleiman intended it to convey -- other than "Dogs are just as cute in Palestine as they are everywhere else in the world" -- is a mystery to me. Other bits, such as one in which a gift shop employee repeatedly props up a small plastic camel, only to watch it fall down again every time, are equally slight...mildly amusing, but no more. Then there are simple moments of stasis, most of which involve people sitting in front of the aforementioned gift/souvenir shop, The Holyland, doing not much of anything. The wind spins the postcard rack around and around, and the camera gazes, mesmerized. "In these ineffable privileged moments," reads the blurb in the New Directors/New Films program, "the people onscreen seem to be waiting for something that never comes." Yeah, like a narrative, or a point.

That's not quite fair of me, though. At times, I can see what Suleiman is aiming for; the scenes at The Holyland, where the proprietor bottles "holy water" to be sold to western tourists, are subtly accusatory, and the constant repetition and general sense of aimlessness are no doubt intended to viscerally illustrate the impotency and hopelessness that many Palestinians feel concerning their lot in life. The strategy works, and I certainly felt their pain and confusion...but I also got the idea in a hurry, and in the absence of the kind of verbal pyrotechnics and dazzling gamesmanship Beckett provides for Estragon and Vladimir in Waiting for Godot -- or at least a visual equivalent thereof -- I became impatient for somebody to do something -- or, failing that, for the film to conclude.

My prayers were answered while the projector was still running. In the second section, "Jerusalem Political Diary," something of a story emerges, involving a young Arab woman who might or might not be a terrorist. Unfortunately, I couldn't make heads or tails of it, perhaps because I lack the necessary socio-political background. What's more, this subplot (if "subplot" is the correct word, which it probably isn't, since there isn't really a primary plot to which this one could be considered subordinate, unless you call a series of vignettes featuring zero forward motion a plot, which I don't, and yes, I have been reading David Foster Wallace recently, why do you ask?) is frequently interrupted by -- or frequently interrupts -- still more self-contained episodes depicting the quietly alienated denizens of Suleiman's hometown, making the two-part structure and personal/political dichotomy seem a bit specious.

The town's denizens, incidentally, include a character named Elia Suleiman, played by Elia Suleiman, as well as "Elia Suleiman"'s parents, portrayed by Elia Suleiman's real-life mother and father. I wasn't aware of this (possibly) autobiographical element until hours after the film had ended, but learning it clarified my frustrations with and misgivings about the film: watching Chronicle of a Disappearance, more often than not, is like watching a good friend's vacation footage (assuming that your good friend wields a camera with the austerity of a Bresson, rather than charging around national landmarks like Oliver Stone astride a jackhammer, as is more typical). You're prepared to indulge your friend, because you like him, and because he's eager to share his experiences with you. And you're not entirely bored, because your friend is intelligent and fascinating and perceptive (that's why he's your friend, n'est-ce-pas?), and managed to capture several moments that genuinely enthrall you. After half an hour or so, however, you're watching more dutifully than passionately, and idly hoping that maybe the projector bulb will blow out soon. 'Cause the truth is, other people's travels just aren't that interesting.

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IN BRIEF: Mike Myers plays both protagonist and antagonist in Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery, his hit-and-miss spoof of both the spy pictures and the sexual permissiveness of 1960's London. The perpetually randy title character grew tiresome in a hurry -- the penis enlarger gags and cheerful requests for 'shagging' never seem to end -- but his nemesis, Dr. Evil ("I didn't go to evil medical school for six years to be called Mr., thank you"), is an inspired creation: diabolical mastermind as bored civics teacher. (He's also a dead-on parody of Saturday Night Live honcho Lorne Michaels, but the performance is hilarious with or without that perceptual fillip.) The dialogue Myers wrote for Dr. Evil is clever enough -- his incoherent biographical monologue at a group therapy session is unforgettable -- but it's really the mannerisms that had me in stitches; whether he's murdering one of his henchmen, blackmailing the planet, or asking his teenaged son to give him a hug, he invariably sports the same doleful, vaguely perplexed expression, and evinces the same weary, pleading if he knows his plans are bound to backfire, but can't quite remember why, and so feels obligated to forge ahead anyway. I literally could not stop laughing every time he appeared onscreen (to the consternation of my fellow moviegoers, who were waiting for actual jokes), but I rarely even chuckled when he was absent. Worth seeing cheaply. I wish I could be more enthusiastic about Brothers in Trouble, a well-intentioned English melodrama about the travails of illegal immigrants (mostly from Pakistan, in this case), because it's a subject that deserves a wider audience than it generally finds. (Even La Promesse, for all its intelligence and compassion, doesn't really find time to investigate the lives and livelihoods of the foreigners who funnel through its exploitative labor network.) Unfortunately, it's something of a clunker. The first half, which depicts in meticulous, loving detail the arrival and gradual semi-assimilation of Amir (Pavan Malhotra, superb), is both expert and engrossing, eschewing narrative in favor of a kaleidoscopic portrait of a fragile community. When the plot finally does kick in, though, it's a doozy: a perky, enmity-inspiring white lass (Angeline Ball, very perky indeed) begins an affair with unofficial clan leader Hussein (the great Om Puri, underutilized), leading to bitter rivalries, recriminations, murder, madness -- the works, and all of it about as credible as an average week of As the World Turns. (My girlfriend, otherwise a paragon of good taste, is inexplicably a longtime devotee, so I have to endure plot summaries every now and again.) Also, while I agree that Return Journey (the title of the novel upon which the film was based) is a singularly boring moniker, I'd like to know who the hell thought Brothers in Trouble was a significant improvement? Here's a handy rule of thumb: If they weren't sharp enough to think up a memorable title, they probably didn't spend nearly enough time on the script, either. (See any Steven Seagal picture for confirmation.) What is it with the Danes and those damn yellow filters? Portland was produced by Lars von Trier's company, Zentropa Entertainments, and it features the same hideous, washed-out, sulphurous look as his bizarre 1984 debut, The Element of Crime. (If you have a yellow plastic cup handy, peering out of your window through it will do nicely as an approximation -- I just tried it myself, and experienced a powerful feeling of Dane-jà vu.) (Sorry.) If only writer/director Neils Arden Oplev possessed even an iota of von Trier's considerable talent. Alas, his hackneyed good brother/bad brother tale is so brutally, casually, pointlessly nihilistic that it made me physically ill; I'm often tempted to walk out of movies due to garden-variety boredom, but it's not often that I consider walking out in unadulterated disgust. Oplev has nothing meaningful or trenchant to say about the human condition -- he just thinks it's cool to have his brooding, hip protagonist respond to a woman's sincere declaration of love by punching her repeatedly in the face (among many other similar delights). Fuck you, Oplev...and please, please let this be the worst film I see this year.

Next time (in all likelihood): A massive post-relocation rundown, including Face/Off, Men in Black, Ulee's Gold, Hercules, and way too many others.