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Director works 'magick' with Bard in 'Books'

He is a most precise man, choosing his words with care, saying exactly what he thinks and letting you know he has thought about it a good deal. And with precision and great intellectual clarity, Peter Greenaway makes films that shock, infuriate, confound and bedevil his audiences.

There was "The Cook, the Thief, His Wife, and Her Lover," with its graphic images of sex and cannibalism. "The Draughtsman's Contract," with its living statues in the garden, and the suggestion that human lives were being plotted out on a grid by some kind of occult architect. There was "Drowning By Numbers," with its story of three women, all with the same name, drowning three men, all with the same name, while objects in the landscape (cows, trees) were methodically numbered from one to 100.

And now here is this gorgeous new Greenaway film named "Prospero's Books" that looks unlike any other film ever made, that stars Sir John Gielgud and surrounds him with a thousand naked bodies, that luxuriates almost obscenely in a sensual examination of medieval manuscripts and typefaces, illustrations and printing techniques. This is a film that really cries out for the stop-frame capacity of a laser disc machine, so that every shot can be examined as if it were a printed page.

Greenaway, who I met at the Toronto Film Festival in September, talks like a university lecturer and gives the impression he would rather dine alone than suffer bores at his table. He is not like other film directors, does not share their language, their interests, their tastes. His films cheerfully contrive the most unsettling combinations of the physical and the cerebral - all of the plumbing of digestion and reproduction, cheek by jowl by genital with politics and philosophy.

Let me try to describe "Prospero's Books." It is a lavishly beautiful film inspired by Shakespeare's "The Tempest," which is the story of a magician named Prospero who is cast away on an island with his books, his daughter Miranda, and the magick by which he conjures spirits out of the air. Greenaway subtly follows the outlines of "The Tempest," and uses a lot of Shakespeare's language. But this is not a film of the play.

Instead, his interest is in the books that Prospero brings to the island. "Knowing I lov'd my books," Prospero tells Miranda, "he furnish'd me from mine own library with volumes that I prize above my dukedom." What were those books? Greenaway examines what he imagines was in Prospero's library - illuminated manuscripts of science and astronomy, biology and astrology, theology and magick, alchemy and other occult texts.

In showing them, Greenaway uses computer special-effects techniques to create a many-layered image on the screen. The closest parallel would be with those biology texts we used to have in high school - the ones with the transparent plastic leaves, each one portraying one layer of the body, so that you see the skin, and then the lower layers of the epidermis, and then plunge down, down, to the juiciest mysteries of the liver and the kidneys. The latest technology

In a typical sequence of "Prospero's Books," Greenaway will begin with Gielgud on the screen, perhaps joined by some of the many nude spirit-figures who inhabit the movie, and then a transparent layer will appear on top of the first image, showing the outlines of scientific drawings or the lettering of an old manuscript, and then other layers will appear or slide away, suggesting the many levels of his knowledge and the depths of his secrets. All of this looks as elegant and mannered as the most exquisite medieval manuscript, and is achieved by the latest techniques of high-definition television and computer paintbox programs.

"I've always been interested in a great sense of corporeal reality," Greenaway said. "Cinema basically examines a personality first, and the body afterward. Obviously, we see Robert Redford's chest, and Madonna's buttocks, but there's a way in which the sheer corporeal reality of the body is somehow not attuned to what the characters are doing. Cinema doesn't connect with the body as artists have in 2,000 years of painting, using the nude as the central figure which the ideas seem to circulate around. I think it's important to somehow push, or stretch, or emphasize, in as many ways as I can, the sheer bulk, shape, heaviness, the juices, the actual structure of the body. In `Prospero's Books,' for example, we have cast a thousand extras, supposedly coming out of the imagination of Prospero, but related with a Renaissance painting with nude figures."

Many passages of the film do indeed look like a fleshy, muscular composition from Titian or Bellini, and there is an uncanny sense that Gielgud holds it all together and invests it with meaning, so that the movie is not simply an elegant orgy with dialogue by Shakespeare. Sir John at 86 is, like Prospero, an old man who has suffered much, learned much, and can use his knowledge to create magical effects. One of those is done with his voice - that great sonorous instrument. He does all of the speeches in the play. We are never much aware of that on a conscious level, and yet the fact that all of the people speak through his ventriloquism probably does register - and the result is that Prospero is the magician who brings them all to life.

Gielgud himself is unclothed at one point in the film, revealing a tone and musculature that would give pride to many a 50-year-old, and his energy level throughout the picture is extraordinary. Yet he is 86, and I asked if "Prospero's Books" was in some sense a farewell from him, as "The Tempest" was for Shakespeare.

"Well, 'The Tempest' was Shakespeare's last play, and a lot of people think that it's autobiographical," Greenaway said. "It was singularly appropriate for a man of 86, who has almost certainly come to the end of his theatrical career. This is a play which is not only about theatrical magic and illusionism, but is also a farewell to the same phenomenon, and I'm sure that it might almost be an obituary for Sir John himself. I don't think he'd mind me saying that."

What struck me, watching him, I said, was how much physical and verbal energy he has. He did not seem to be a man who was working on his last reserves.

"He had his 86th birthday on the set. He's of course played the piece about five times in a very long theatrical career. So, he knows the text extremely well. And he was very bright, very sharp, a great raconteur. He almost wanted to make this film more than I did, so he was a first-rate collaborator."

There was a great contrast, I said, between this film and Olivier's "King Lear," shot for television, which was obviously shot around his health and his physical condition. With Gielgud, you realize there's all of this vitality available.

"I deliberately wrote this film script with him in mind. There was no way I was going to undertake this project with anybody else, so I couldn't very well ask him to jump out of the pool and start swinging from the rafters. For many years, Sir John was unfairly explained as an actor from the neck up, but he certainly does have that beautiful, magnificent voice, and it was very integral to the strategies that we used. Our Prospero, like Shakespeare's, is a puppetmaster - he holds the strings to all the characters. He creates their lines, and if he creates them, he might as well say them, too." An expensive-looking film

"Prospero's Books" is a visually stunning film, and was obviously not inexpensive.

Greenaway smiled. "Would I surprise you by saying it cost about $2.3 million? Which is incredibly cheap."

Yes, you would. I would have guessed the effects alone would cost more than that.

"I want to continue to make personal movies, but I also want to make them with the most refined cinematic vocabulary I can find. So I've got to find a way to keep all of the parts of the film very much in control. As soon as the money begins to spiral, I will lose control."

A lot of the movie was shot in the high-definition television format, and then transferred to film?

"Yes. Without HDTV, there would have been no film. I've begun to provocatively make great claims for this new Guttenberg revolution, marrying television and computers. I really do think we're on the cusp here of something very exciting - and not just for cinema, but for television, and probably for book production, and certainly for photography, and, who knows, maybe painting. All over the world now these new technologies are being ripened, and HDTV is only one of them."

Your previous film upset a lot of people. I wrote a very favorable review for "The Cook, the Thief, His Wife & Her Lover," and then got a lot of mail from people who said they were incredibly offended by it. Was that your purpose?

Greenaway looked as if he had been asked such a question before.

"I sincerely believe," he said, "that if we are to take cinema seriously, it must be a platform for a discussion of ideas which some people find taboo. 'The Cook, the Thief' examines the extremes of human behavior, and in this respect, my heroes among filmmakers would be people like Bunuel and Pasolini, who were of very high cinematic intelligence, but tread on a lot of toes.

"Yes, we had a lot of violence in the film. Many quite popular films are filled with violence. I think the difference was that we showed the cause and effect of this sort of violent activity. It wasn't a Donald Duck situation where he gets a brick on the back of the head and gets up and walks away in the next frame. This was violence which keeps Donald Duck in the hospital for six months, and creates a trauma which he'll remember for the rest of his life."

Roger Ebert

Roger Ebert was the film critic of the Chicago Sun-Times from 1967 until his death in 2013. In 1975, he won the Pulitzer Prize for distinguished criticism.

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