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"The Pillow Book" Press Conference
at the 1996 Cannes Film Festival

by Karen Jaehne

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Peter Greenaway is world-renowned for making films that are "difficult," so as not to say arcane. This one was about a girl who painted the bodies of her lovers with Chinese and Japanese ideograms. I really had only one question, so I didn't get to the press conference until about a half-hour into it.

As I entered the room from the front doors that are to the side of the stage where the famous actors and directors all sit, I could tell that the room was tense. It wasn't the loosy-goosy atmosphere of most Cannes press conferences where a woman stands up and announces herself, "Lea Bartholomew, MTV Beirut" before stating her question.

As I subsequently found out, an American journalist had asked Peter Greenaway about the use of nudity in the movie - both female and male. Greenaway proceeded to bite the poor guy's head off - beginning, "Only an American could ask such a stupid question!" This sort of thing always puts everybody else off, and the press conference moderator, French critic Michel Ciment, seemed to be asking all the questions. This is where I came in....

Greenaway: In 996 AD in Japan, a woman wrote a kind of diary called a Pillow Book in which she wrote her dreams and whatever....I came across such a book at the age of 16. It was a celebrated translation. I believe Coleridge cited it....

Karen Jaehne: Excuse me if this question has been asked earlier, but I must confess that I feel like I missed half the movie, since I cannot read Japanese or Chinese ideograms. And the story seems to be hidden in what she inscribes on her lovers' bodies. But you are so well known for your detailed research and your fastidious control over every aspect of your films, how did you learn Japanese and Chinese? Could you talk to us a bit about the process of learning those languages in order to use them visually?

Peter Greenaway: Well, that's very interesting, but I guess I must say I don't know any of these languages. However, I had an army of calligraphers to do the work, and I trusted them absolutely. Otherwise, I would never have made it.

Karen Jaehne: That's a lot of trust.

And frankly, dear reader, I can't help but think that, given Mr. Greenaway's contentious personality, one of that army of calligraphers wrote, "Screw you" in Japanese on somebody's butt.

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