993 (125). Dracula / Horror of Dracula (1958, Terence Fisher)

Screened December 4, 2009 on Warner Brothers DVD in Brooklyn NY TSPDT rank #995 IMDbWiki

For this film I felt less interested in my own thoughts than in those of  two of my earliest friends in the world of online cinephilia.  Back when I was a regular on the IMDb Classic Film board, Lee Price (Lee-109) and Christianne Benedict (Chris-435) were among the most knowledgeable and engaging peers, especially on the subject of horror films.  In fact they were contributors to the anthology Horror 101.  (Some of you may also know Christianne from our wonderful video essay on The World According to Garp; and Lee was behind the 100 Directors of Animated Shorts). So I thought to call them up and ask them what they thought of this film. What follows is 25 minutes of awesomeness. You can listen to the .mp3 here or right-click to download. Here's an index of topics for easy reference:

0:00 - Setting template of Hammer horror and post-'50s horror movies 6:24 - What do Hammer's Dracula and James Bond have in common? 8:20 - What Christopher Lee brought to Dracula 11:35 - Sex, vmpires and Victorian women 14:15 - Bram Stoker's paranoia 16:00 - Favorite Dracula films, and why no movie yet has gotten Dracula right 18:00 - What Hammer introduced to the Dracula myth and to the movies


The following citations were counted towards the placement of Dracula among They Shoot Pictures 1000 Greatest Films:

Evelyn Caron-Lowins, Positif (1991) Tomas Fernandez Valenti, Dirigido Por (1992) All-Time Movie Favourites (Book) Independents and Others: British Prestige (1975) Chicago Film Critics Association, The 100 Scariest Movies of All Time (2006) Cinescape The Top 100 Sci-Fi, Horror & Fantasy Films (2000) Danny Peary Guide for the Film Fanatic: Must-See Films (1987) Empire The 50 Greatest Horror Movies Ever (2000) Halliwell's Top 1000 Films (2005) Taschen Books Movies of the 20s-90s (2003-2007) The Guardian 1,000 Films to See Before You Die (2007) Total Film 50 Greatest British Movies Ever (2004) Various Critics Book - 501 Must-See Movies (2004) Various Critics Book - 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die (2004) They Shoot Pictures Recommended Films


One month prior to the commencement of filming, Producer Anthony Hinds submitted the draft script to the British Board of Film Censors for approval. The Board Reader's report contained complains about 'the uncouth, uneducated, disgusting and vulgar style of Mr Jimmy Sangster' and noted wryly: 'Why do vampires need to be messier feeders than anyone else?'.

The points of objection were summarised by John Nicholls, Board Secretary for the British Board of Film Censors. They requested that all women should be 'decently clad' and reminded Hammer that sex should not be emphasised in a horror movie. Additionally, the Board demanded that vampires' teeth should never be seen to sink into the neck, that Dracula should not fling the vampire woman across the room by her hair, and that stakes should be used 'out of frame' - shots of the vampires after staking or their screams during the act should be omitted. On viewing a black and white rough cut of the movie, the Board requested that the staking of Lucy, Dracula's seduction of Mina and the final disintegration of Dracula had to be either omitted entirely or significantly edited.

Managing Director of Hammer Studios, James Carreras wrote to the Board, asking for a compromise over certain shots, reminding them that the X certificate they were seeking would automatically prevent anyone under the age of 16 from seeing the film, that the dedicated audience would expect a certain amount of 'horror' and that the cuts the Board had requested would remove the very thrills the audience wanted to see. By the time the final colour edit was ready, the Board had been worn down to the point where they found only two shots objectionable; the gushing of blood during Lucy's staking, and a shot in the final scene of Dracula clawing his face off. These scenes were removed and Dracula was finally granted a BBFC 'X' Certificate in April 1958, but with a stern warning from John Nicholls to Anthony Hinds that he should never attempt to get similar material passed by the Board in the future.

Unsurprisingly, many critics were vitriolic in the extreme towards Dracula. CA Lejeune, writing for The Observer, was particularly damning:

I regret to hear that it is being shown in America with emphasis laid on its British origin, and feel inclined to apologise to all decent Americans for sending them a work in such sickening bad taste.

She added that although the poster advises you 'Don't Dare See It Alone!', she would 'prefer not to expose a companion to what seems to me a singularly repulsive piece of nonsense'.

Similarly, the Daily Telegraph's critic believed that Dracula was too nasty a film, even for adults:

This British film has an 'X' Certificate. This is too good for it. There should be a new certificate - 'S' for sadistic or just 'D' for disgusting. However, despite the largely negative press the movie received, there were a few critics who saw the merit in Hammer's production. Dudley Carew in The Times extolled:

Mr Christopher Lee makes a saturnine and malignant Count... and the part is played straight, as melodramatic parts should be played. Altogether this is a horrific film, and sometimes a crude film, but by no means an unimpressive piece of dramatic storytelling.

- BBC h2g2


Yesterday, sporting a somewhat redundant title, "Horror of Dracula," the durable old boy himself arrived from England to take up residence at the Mayfair. Perhaps the constant hunt for hemoglobin is slowing our villain down, for this time there are strong indications that the once gory plot is showing definite signs of anemia.

Say this for "Horror of Dracula," however, it does have its exotic aspects. It was filmed in vivid color, which makes its "undead" all the more lurid. Perhaps more disturbing is the fact that all of its principals speak with impeccable Oxonian accents, even though they appear to be citizens of some unnamed Transylvanian community.

For the record, the ominous Count's king-sized canines put their fatal trade marks on three luckless victims: John Van Eyssen and Carol Marsh and Valerie Gaunt, a pair of damsels who look delectable enough in diaphanous shifts to turn the head of a red-blooded observer. Christopher Lee is grim but not nearly so chilling as Bela Lugosi in the title role, and Peter Cushing is proper and precise as the meticulous researcher who finally turns our monster into dust.

This can't be the end, however. We bet the price of admission to the Mayfair against a sprig of garlic flowers (vampires hate 'em) that some moonlit night Count Dracula will rise again with the aid of another intrepid producer.

- A. H. Weiler, The New York Times, May 29 1958


Dracula – usually better known under its American retitling, The Horror of Dracula – is the cornerstone of the Hammer Films legend. Although The Curse of Frankenstein (1957) the year before was beginning of Hammer’s success, The Horror of Dracula was the one that set Hammer on the map and marked the beginning of Hammer’s domination over the horror scene for the next fifteen years. The Horror of Dracula’s status, certainly in Anglo-horror fandom, is sacrosanct and its importance near-mythic. The essence of what the Hammer film was all about is here – the darkly magnetic presence and aristocratic haughtiness of Christopher Lee; the commanding, straight-arrow rationalism of Peter Cushing; the florid shock hand of director Terence Fisher; the essential British repressions of sexuality and convention that Anglo-horror would pierce a stake right through; and the laughably dated shocked critical outcry.

Where then to view The Horror of Dracula today? Hammer films, particularly the early ones, have regrettably not dated well. Today their pace seems slow; the shocks that caused such a critical outcry (and then quickly transformed into the expected mainstay of this particular genre) seem absurdly mannered, even laughable. The rich and floridly colourful sets seem flat and stagebound and James Bernard’s celebrated scores loud and unsubtle. Yet The Horror of Dracula holds undeniable effect. One must understand exactly what it represented to audiences back then. To an audience that had been raised on the Bela Lugosi Dracula (1931) and the cardboard, melodramatic figure that Dracula became among the Universal monsters lineup in the 1940s,The Horror of Dracula must have had an incredible shock value. For one it was in colour – which meant that one could see the blood in its rich, overripe scarlet detail – and that alone made it an immediately different film to the Bela Lugosi version. For another it was not as stagebound as the Lugosi version – within the rather static sets, Terence Fisher’s camera is kinetic and alive, always on the move.

As an attempt at adapting Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1897), The Horror of Dracula isn’t any better or worse than any other version. Screenwriter Jimmy Sangster liberally sacrifices parts here and there for the economy of plot and budget – out go Renfield and the asylum (although these later appeared in Hammer’s Dracula – Prince of Darkness [1966]). Gone too is the magnificently ambient opening journey to Castle Dracula, the pursuit climax and set-pieces like the crashing of the Demeter. Gone too is Dracula as a supernatural being – “It is a common fallacy,” says Van Helsing, “that vampires can change into bats and wolves,” which conveniently does away with having to create costly effects sequences. (Although said fallacy seemed to have been disproven by later films). Despite the liberties he takes with Bram Stoker, Jimmy Sangster nevertheless preserves the essence of the book.

- Moria

Britain's Hammer Studios was the first to bring Count Dracula to the screen in living, blood-red color. Reteaming Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee, the stars of Hammer's 1957 hit Curse of Frankenstein, director Terence Fisher created what is arguably the best Dracula film out of the legion that have been made in the past 70 years. Lee, as had Bela Lugosi almost three decades before, fashioned a horror icon from Stoker's vampire for a whole new generation of international movie audiences.

While Horror of Dracula is seminal in the character's film canon, it's hardly faithful to the literary source. Only a bare outline of the original novel serves as the basis for Jimmy Sangster's economical script. Most of the characters have been jettisoned, notably Renfield, and the entire story takes place in Eastern Europe rather than shifting the main action to England. No sea voyage for Drac here, no lunatic asylum. Vampire hunter Van Helsing (Cushing) is nothing at all like the character in the book. Rather than an eccentric, thickly-accented Dutchman, Cushing plays the character as a younger man of action, quick-thinking and resolute, more scientist than mystic. Even with Lee's charismatic turn as Dracula, it is Cushing — one of the finest, most underrated actors in English language cinema — who carries the film with his intelligent, energetic portrayal of the Count's great nemesis.

Hammer detractors often chide the studio's films for their leisurely narrative. Horror of Dracula, clocking in at a compact 82 minutes, is briskly — at times even breathlessly — paced, especially when compared to the slow-as-molasses 1931 Lugosi version. The caliber of acting, handsome set design and marvelous use of color belie the movie's relatively low budget. Because of budgetary constraints, in fact, many classic elements of the Dracula story had to be dropped; the real reason the Count never turns into a mist or a bat in this version is because it was simply cheaper for him not to have these powers. (The script has Van Helsing dismissing such transmogrifications as a "common fallacy" about vampires.) Interestingly enough, it's because this Dracula cannot shapeshift that he comes across more as a terrifying, flesh-and-blood monster — to be grappled with at close quarters only at great peril to the hunters — than some ethereal, blood-drinking ghost in formal wear. The two moments that stand out in this regard are the confrontation at the castle, wherein the Count is first revealed as the undead creature he truly is, and the exciting battle between Van Helsing and Dracula at the climax. (The latter was used as a pre-titles sequence for 1966's Dracula — Prince of Darkness.) Any "monster kid" who grew up watching horror movies on TV in the '60s and '70s has these sequences emblazoned in their memory forever. It's primarily due to them that for many, (including me) the name "Dracula" immediately evokes an image of a feral, snarling Christopher Lee — not Bela Lugosi in a tux.

- Brian Lindsey, Eccentric Cinema

In a way, Lee’s Dracula is a missing link between the classic cinema vampire and his more contemporary brethren, who are often portrayed almost like human beings suffering from an uncontrollable addiction. Earlier horror films had emphasized Dracula’s allure by portraying the vampire almost like a hypnotic phantom. Bela Lugosi’s performance, in the 1931 DRACULA, emphasized the character’s foreign qualities and an uncanny otherworldliness that made the Count seem separate from humanity even while he moved unobtrusively among it. Lee’s portrayal, on the other hand, erases most of the character’s spooky nature (aided by the script, of course): in HORROR OF DRACULA, the Count does not turn into a bat or a cloud of mist; he seems more real, more physical – a flesh-and-blood being that the audience can more easily believe in. In a sense, he humanizes the vampire, not by making him sympathetic but by making him walk the Earth almost like a mortal – a super-powered, undying mortal, to be sure, but one subject to physical laws that limit his movements, just as they limit ours.

While advancing the Count’s evolution, Lee also captures some hints of Dracula as he appeared in novel Dracula. Author Bram Stoker’s physical description of the Count emphasizes not hypnotic fascination but physical strength. He is tall, his face a strong aquiline with a thin nose and a cruel-looking mouth. The literary character may be a fascinating monster, but he is definitely a horrible one. The air of cultured aristocracy (emphasized by Lugosi) is definitely there, especially in the early scenes at Castle Dracula as the Count plays charming host to his hapless guest, Jonathan Harker; however, this air is merely a deceptive cloud hiding the monstrous lining. Sophisticated he may be, but Stoker’s Dracula is better defined by the pride he exhibits when boasting of leading troops in warlike fury to fend off foreign invaders.

The more overt suggestions of savagery were absent from Lugosi’s Dracula, who never bared his fangs and seldom lost his temper (although he does snarl once or twice). Lee was afforded the luxury of allowing the character’s monstrous side to show more fully. Abetted with dripping fangs and red contact lenses, Lee portrays Dracula’s ferocity to the hilt. Also, in keeping with the novel, Dracula is never naively accepted into the society of his victims; instead, after the characterization is established in the opening scenes at Castle Dracula, he becomes almost a background character, infiltrating his victims’ homes like some sinister spy from beyond the grave.

Steve BiodrowskiCinefantastique Online

It is difficult to overemphasize how integral Technicolor is to the identity ofHorror Of Dracula. Murnau and Browning engaged the spiritual elements of the Dracula story, and black and white stressed the Victorian character of these films. This is an oversimplification, especially in the case of Nosferatu, in which the supposedly helpless woman acts in a way that is both enigmatic and heroic. Still, it is valid up to a point, and helpful in discussing Hammer's astonishing series of horror films. Preposterous and impossible to dislike, these films reveled in the sheer gaudiness of Technicolor, and it is fitting that the first shot after the opening titles features dripping red blood. And I'm not sure if blood has ever been so suggestively red.

Because, really, everything in this picture is terribly suggestive. Consider Dracula. We have moved from Schreck's compelling repulsiveness to Lugosi's eccentric whatever-it-is to the very handsome and very tall Christopher Lee. That is, Horror Of Dracula is a very sexy movie. Sex certainly existed in Browning's picture (remember Mina's attempt at seducing Jonathan), and the finale of Nosferatu can be viewed sexually (although it would be blasphemously reductive). Here, however, Dracula and his victims are eroticized so blatantly that they almost jump off the screen. The subtext (that if you have weird sex with tall handsome strange men your soul is damned) is so obvious that it doesn't really qualify as subtext, and it is subverted by the constant British camp of the film. The players are unquestionably having a hard time keeping a straight face, and there is real, clear artistic joy in their attempts to make something this absurd work. There is nothing conservative or cautionary about this film; for these filmmakers blood is clearly as arousing as the low necklines.

This extends to Peter Cushing's iconic and truly brilliant performance. As Van Helsing, Cushing both embodies the stereotypical English gentleman (he is as effeminate as the best of them) and transforms it, giving the character an assertiveness that goes beyond the merely intellectual. He has real physical presence, and no one doubts that he would thrust a stake through Lucy's or Jonathan's heart. Lee's physicality is even more impressive, and although he has few lines, he seems to rush through them, as if he's more comfortable dominating the scenes through presence alone, or outrageously smearing his face with blood.

DoniphonThe Long Voyage Home

Most shocking – and successful – of all, however, is 'Horror of Dracula'’s handling of the original novel's latent eroticism. What was once sub-textual is here foregrounded, and there is now no doubt that the film’s women enjoy Dracula's advances. Indeed, in preparation for his nocturnal visits, the “victims” even open doors, remove crosses from their necks and arrange themselves artfully on their beds! This complicity highlights the fact that film’s menfolk are mere cuckolds, and paints their frantic efforts to stop Dracula as the laughable last stand of injured male pride. This is ‘Dracula’ as projected through the prism of Chaucer’s ‘Miller’s Tale’.

Yet these designs have much more serious undertones. Take, for example, the scene in which Mina Holmwood (Melissa Stribling) speaks to her husband, Arthur (Michael Gough), on the morning after her first encounter with Dracula. Gone is the dour housewife of previous scenes to be replaced by a more vivacious, sensual and – if her smiles are any indication – happier woman. This sparkling transformation indicates that the true enemy of the piece is the stifling Victorianism which has previously crushed Mina’s femininity and squandered her well-being. This interpretation is bolstered by Peter Cushing's wolfish and ambiguous turn as Van Helsing. Obsessed by his pursuit of Dracula and unmoved by the numerous stakings that he has to perform, Van Helsing is one of the screen’s most brutal and efficient reactionaries.

In contrast to all previous portrayals, then, Dracula actually catalyses life, and it is Arthur, Van Helsing and their fellows who preside over the true realm of the undead; a realm contoured by the same stuffy mannerisms and values that sadly prevailed in post-War Britain, at the time when the film was made.

In the end, the overall transaction isn’t bloodless for the viewer, and this is what may explain 'Horror of Dracula''s timeless appeal as a fright picture. Indeed, the film sets out to vandalize all preconceptions, conventions and comforts, particularly those that must have been held by contemporary audiences. Rather than portray Van Helsing's battles with Dracula as a straightforward tale of good versus evil, Fisher recasts the monster as a counter-cultural hero, and one whose values would soon make furtive progress during the upheaval and sexual revolution of the Sixties. However, that the changes of those years were to be largely undone by the forces of conservatism demonstrates that Fisher was right on yet another count: Van Helsing always wins in the end.

Pete HoskinDVD Beaver


Horror of Dracula appeared at a pivotal time in British culture when it began to move away from the repressive world of the early 1950s – depicted in Mike Leigh's Vera Drake (2004) – and towards a different type of life (an era aptly evoked and encapsulated by the subsequent mantra of British Conservative Prime Minister, Harold Macmillan; “You never had it so good”). During this period, Britain experienced a more consumerist lifestyle, a youth culture influenced by Hollywood cinema and rock-and-roll, the aftermath of the 1956 Suez Canal crisis, and the “Angry Young Man” movement in British theatre. Horror of Dracula can be understood as horror's response to this turbulent social change. But, as an early example of Hammer horror, it contains conflicting cultural values.

Like the often critically despised films of The Archers and Gainsborough melodrama, Horror of Dracula offered contemporary viewers the taboo cinematic elements of spectacle and excess that offended establishment definitions of the proper “realist” nature of British cinema. In his pioneering study A Heritage of Horror, David Pirie recognised that Hammer horror represented the return of a repressed Romantic British literary tradition, with Christopher Lee's Count Dracula reincarnating Byron's Fatal Nobleman as a Vampire . When Lee speaks his first lines, he not only extinguishes the Universal Studios legacy of Bela Lugosi, but also returns the Count to his rightful place in British culture. But unlike Lugosi, Lee is definitely one of “us”. As in Bram Stoker's original novel, the Count speaks perfect English and does not need to struggle with his vowels. Lee's Dracula also evokes hidden desires within his victims, collapsing those British ideological barriers of repressive sexuality and “good taste”.

Tony Williams, Senses of Cinema

Having hit the jackpot with The Curse of Frankenstein, Britain's Hammer Films updated another monster classic with this 1958 Dracula remake, which distinguished itself from earlier efforts with its dripping blood, bared fangs, women's cleavage, and compulsive gong banging on the soundtrack. This Grand Guignol treatment bowled people over in the 50s, and it still yields some potent shocks—the sudden cut to a rabid Christopher Lee in tight close-up during Dracula's first attack is particularly hair-raising. Peter Cushing carries most of the ho-hum script as Dr. Van Helsing, though the well-lit color photography, central to the Hammer formula, can't compare with the shadowy magnificence of Nosferatu (1922) or Dracula (1931).

Dave KehrThe Chicago Reader

From the late ‘50s through the ‘70s, no one did horror like England’s Hammer studios, and the crown jewels in their terrifying oeuvre were the gothic Dracula pictures starring the incomparable Christopher Lee as the blood-sucking prince of darkness. Horror of Dracula (also known simply as Dracula) marks Lee’s first turn as the Count, as well as Peter Cushing’s initial performance as the indefatigable vampire hunter Van Helsing, and it’s likely the most tantalizingly creepy entry in this series of cinematic nightmares.

- Nick Schager, Lessons of Darkness

Much of the film's power lies in the haunting images presented, many of which have gone on to become the best-known and most definitive cinematic images of vampirism of all time: The opening of Dracula's eyes as nighttime falls; the flowing cape as Dracula strides down the walkway from the castle; the swirling leaves that announce the Count's arrival on the veranda outside Lucy's bedroom; and of course Dracula's unforgettable demise at the film's climax. While much of the atmosphere is due to Fisher's direction, it is important not to underestimate the contribution of other key elements of the Hammer ensemble. Jack Asher's eerie lighting combines brilliantly with Bernard Robinson's sets, and James Bernard's score superbly heightens the sense of terror, sexuality and fairy-tale fantasy that is at the centre of Fisher's vision.

David RattiganDictionary of Hammer Horror

Fisher is an extremely detail-orientated director and is the master of lighting and makeup. As Chris Lee was still quite young for the role of dead-since-before-Columbus-set-sail vampire, Terence used lighting and makeup to focus on Chris Lee’s more pronounced physical features while effectively hiding his more youthful attributes. Also, he is one of the few directors who effectively uses Chris Lee’s Sasquatchian height as an advantage. The audience is treated to several “towering” camera angles of the vampiric menace throughout the film which could possibly be some of the creepiest moments captured on celluloid.

Jenn DlugosClassic-Horror.com

The Germanic eagle that fills the screen in the first moments of Fisher's remake of Todd Browning's 1931 "Dracula" resets the cultural barometer. No longer toying solely with the idea of outsiders and cultural subversion, "Horror of Dracula" is almost explicitly a post-World War II film, and it deals with Nazism.

Among Fisher's characters, the debate is not so much over belief in the supernatural, but more importantly over the need to act in the face of evil. Van Helsing spends little time trying to scientifically justify vampires – a la Browning's incarnation of the character -- Cushing's Van Helsing outright asks Holmwood what he is prepared to do in the face of the Count's onslaught. He describes the wider-reaching consequences of inertia. The equation is simpler and more imperative.

While "Horror of Dracula" absolutely represents a bloodied and visceral entry in the genre - Fisher's use of fluid and effects is pronounced for the time - it poses a more challenging addition to canon in that it is a political "Dracula." With blunt and uncomfortable words and pictures, Fisher opens the annals of recent history to his audience and asks if the vampire myth can any longer be about strangers creeping into bedchambers. He recommends, it seems, that Dracula is now the aggressor crossing national and moral borders.

James O'BrienCinescare

Hammer's Dracula made much more explicit the seduction-rape fantasy that underlies vampire mythology. Christopher Lee is not a horrid ghoul like Nosferatu. He's an aristocrat like Lugosi, but more of a contemptous brute than someone who'd attend the opera. Lugosi's ladies trembled in uncomprehending fear, and their menfolk gallantly did their best to protect them. In Horror of Dracula, the female victims openly enjoy their master's visits, throwing wide their windows and lying back on their beds in anxious anticipation. They conspire with Dracula against their own fathers and husbands for the privilege of being savaged by the haughty, feral vampire king. The result is an artistic and commercial triumph over the censor: technically, all that's happening is that necks are being bitten, but what viewers experienced were sensual, mostly consentual rape scenes. This is still Christopher Lee's greatest performance, combining his knack for elitist hauteur, with his excellent pantomime skills. After a decade of mostly inappropriate casting, he shows unmistakable star power, commanding the screen with every appearance.

For victims, Horror of Dracula provides a trio of actresses who create portraits of eroticism rarely attempted by later 'liberated' vampire films. Valerie Gaunt was a token victim in The Curse of Frankenstein, but with just a few seconds of screen time as Dracula's bride, she etches a vibrant picture of duplicitous female wiles. The obsessive lust that comes over her eyes as she gets face-to-jugular with Jonathan Harker is unforgettable. Carol Marsh made film history starring with Richard Attenborough ten years earlier in the crime drama Brighton Rock; here her teen tragedy is played out in the Victorian era. To get her way, she falls back on childish petulance, but we read her precocious sexuality loud and clear. When she throws the doors open, the midnight chill enters her bedroom with the falling leaves (beautiful, but dead), yet she doesn't care ... the all important HE is coming. She awaits Dracula as if he were a teenaged lover - only sexier.

Melissa Stribling's Mina is even more interesting. She's first seen as a prim and conventional housewife, content to stand anonymously behind her bourgeois husband. But when Mina starts her affair with Dracula, the change is remarkable. She blooms to life, and her eyes and smile betray a satisfaction that doesn't come from keeping the silverware polished, or lighting Arthur's cigars. When she receives Dracula in her bedroom, breathless and dumbstruck, the scene is pure domination and submission.

Glenn EricksonDVD Savant

There was more to Hammer's version of Dracula than sexual innuendo and graphic violence. In addition to the extra shadings given the character of Dracula and the nature of his menace, Jimmy Sangster's screenplay,Terence Fisher's direction, and, especially, Peter Cushing's performance as Van Helsing, Dracula's obsessive nemesis, brought out heretofore untapped resonances in that character as well. In most screen versions of Stoker's book (indeed, in the book itself), Van Helsing is portrayed as an aging, kindly Dutch physician whose knowledge of the undead comes in very handy when the time arrives to bring the story to a close. In Horror of Dracula however, Van Helsing assumes a dominant role--and an unsettling one. Terence Fisher later said of the character: "An individual who never goes out without his hammer and stake is hardly a sensitive soul."

It is Van Helsing, much like Dr. Frankenstein, who comes of as the real villain of the piece. The Count, like Frankenstein's creature, has no free will and acts mainly out of instinct. In most versions of the story (as in the book), Dracula leaves Transylvania in search of new victims. In Horror of Dracula he leaves only after his domain has been intruded upon and his "bride" destroyed by Van Heising's surrogate, Jonathan Harker. He then seeks out Lucy to replace her and, when she too is destroyed (by Van Helsing) turns his teeth on Mina, sealing his own doom.

--from Horror of Dracula DVD supplementary material, Warner Bros., 2002. Posted by Eric B. Olsen on A History of Horror

The first scene in the library, when Dracula enters with a leering, blood-smeared face, is one of the greatest and most influential shock scenes in movie history. Audiences leaped when he hissed his challenge, but the challenge was really to moviemakers: let's see you jokers top THIS. "The Curse of Frankenstein" opened a door; "Horror of Dracula" went through the door with a confrontational confidence. There had never been a vampire movie remotely like this before, and audiences the world over were ready for it.

Horror movies changed direction after "The Curse of Frankenstein" and "Horror of Dracula" the next year. Not only were now both Cushing AND Lee established as horror stars and Hammer as a pre-eminent horror studio, but the Grand Guignol horror elements of both films were an affront and a challenge. As writer David Pirie has pointed out, sometimes more IS more; classically, not showing the horrifying elements in horror movies was the way to go, and horror movies were made in the visual style of German cinema of the 1920s. But Hammer movies were emphatically mid-twentieth century, vividly gruesome, packed with energy and sex, and altogether something different. The changes they began have never faded away; horror movies today would not be what they are without the impact of Hammer.

- Bill Warren, Audio Video Revolution

Fisher, as much as any single person, is the reason that Hammer became known for the remarkable quality of its Gothic horror. Now, we can argue whether Gothic horror is quite as exciting as the stylistic magnificence of German Expressionism, and stylistically, the Hammer Dracula simply can't compete with Nosferatu or Vampyr (or even Universal's Dracula, which is otherwise an exemplar of everything wrong with early sound filmmaking) for the title of "most visually exceptional vampire movie". We'll take that as given. Still, the Hammer Gothic style, at is best, is essentially without peer, and it was never better than in Fisher's hands. Despite a tendency towards being overlit, Dracula is a visual feast of rich production design, shot to its fullest effect in a series of unassuming but inevitably correct camera angles (which tend to be just slightly wider than you'd think, and so we're constantly aware of the space of the film), and a nearly breakneck pace that allows not a single moment of flabby excess.

As long as I've got this marvelous love-in happening, let's wrap it up with the final member of the Hammer horror dream team: Jimmy Sangster. Responsible for basically all of Hammer's best scripts, Sangster's work in Dracula isn't quite as good as his screenplay for Curse of Frankenstein; it's at least somewhat of a liability that Dracula is offscreen so much, and that when he appears at the end he's dispatched so quickly, and Holmwood and Harker are nothing but ciphers, no matter how well-acted. But the core of Dracula is pure genius; to the best of my knowledge, it's the first example anywhere of vampirism as a scientific problem, and as a result the story's Victorian setting has never been exploited quite the same way. In Sangster's hands, Van Helsing reaches his apotheosis as a character, devoted to the scientific method and as intelligent and competent as he could ever be. He's the great vampire hunter, because he represents the forces of modernity and the Enlightenment marching against superstition and fear, and if the nugget for that metaphor was already present in Stoker's novel, it never came close to being so beautifully expressed as it was in this film, as opposed to Van Helsing's traditional representation as a crackpot mystic with a proclivity towards leg-humping.

- Antagony and Ecstasy


This Warner release's anamorphic transfer is – like the disc's Dolby Digital mono soundtrack – serviceable enough. The print is clean; colours are rewardingly vibrant; and detail is sufficient, if perhaps a little hazy. The prime disappointment is that the 1.78:1 framing crops the film's original 1.66:1 aspect ratio.

Extras are limited to the film's theatrical trailer and a couple of text features (cast/crew biographies and 'Dracula Lives Again!', which chronicles the production's history).

There has been talk that Warner are to revisit their Hammer properties and release them in more lavish editions. Whilst this would certainly be welcome in the case of 'Horror of Dracula' – if only to afford the film an OAR presentation – this disc's faults are not so great as to prevent it from being a worthy stop-gap.

- Pete Hoskin, DVD Beaver

For such a crucial horror title, Horror of Dracula has not fared very well on home video. Much of its original luster has been dulled by muted and cropped video transfers, as well as a notorious laserdisc pressing which omitted part of a gruesome staking at the 55-minute mark. (For the record, all three stake hits and the blood-spewing are here on the DVD, though upon close analysis the reinstated footage appears to be lifted from a different and slightly more degraded print.) Though the film still betrays its age at times, Warner's anamorphic transfer looks comparatively polished and boasts some wonderfully striking colors; reds are appropriately saturated and balance nicely with director Terence Fisher's skillful incorporation of blue and gold into the set design. Flesh tones are also noticeably improved, and the graininess which has become part of the film's video fabric has been thankfully decreased. Resolution looks impressive on a standard monitor but when blown up to home theater size, detail can be quite soft in numerous shots, particularly the studio-bound exteriors. As with the theatrical prints, facial details sometimes appear blurred and overall the film will still look dated to those expected a crisp, megabudget Warner restoration on the order of North by Northwest. The film elements look clean and free from wear. As with their release of The Mummy, the decision to letterbox the film at 1.78:1 will no doubt ruffle a few feathers; the framing lops off as much on the top and bottom as it adds to the sides, but the compositions look more spacious and evenly composed than the claustrophobic full frame version. However, viewers with 16:9 capability may find the headroom awfully tight if their set overscans to 1.85:1, which shears off too much headroom for comfort. The mono audio is limited by the dated materials but sounds robust enough, with James Bernard's thunderous score coming through passably if lacking the stomach-rumbling bass that characterizes his theme on the CD soundtrack. Considering the past track record of Hammer titles on DVD it wouldn't be outrageous to expect a special edition treatment for a title this important, but alas the only extras are the familiar theatrical trailer (in much better shape than on previous compilations) and a few cursory text supplements hopping through the Hammer-Dracula history. Given Lee's fluctuating opinion on discussing his Dracula appearances, his absence here isn't too surprising, but a few goodies to put the film in context (or even a simple gallery) would have been a welcome gesture.

- Mondo Digital



Official Hammer Films Site

The Unofficial Hammer Films Site

Dictionary of Hammer Horror by David Rattigan - invaluable resource with dozens of Hammer-related entries

The Hammer Horror Crypt - Site boasting synopses and hundreds of photos for each Hammer production

AMC.tv has an interactive feature to allow people to vote up or down their favorite Hammer horror films.

Hammer Horror Posters - NSFW

More useful sites can be found on Hammer House of Horrors

Notwithstanding the works of Satyajit Ray and Sergei Eisenstein, few foreign independent influences have had as broad an effect on American cinema as England's Hammer Films Limited. Some might find that a far-reaching proclamation, but I'm confident that there's ample evidence to bear this out.

The Creature (Christopher Lee) attacks Baron Victor Frankenstein (Peter Cushing) in The Curse of Frankenstein (1957).

Having gone into television production in the 80s before closing its doors for good, Hammer nonetheless remains the most successful British film studio ever, producing more than 200 features over five decades. The studio is best remembered for its thrillers, particularly gothic and singularly British retellings of Universal Studios classic monster franchises - Dracula, Frankenstein, the Mummy and the Werewolf. Martin Scorsese,Steven SpielbergGeorge Lucas and Francis Ford Coppola are just some of the more apparent filmmakers to have borrowed a few of their more lurid tones (and actors) from Hammer's colourbox. Hammer produced far more than horror films over their long run, but here I will focus on their more exploitive, though no less artful, genre pictures.

- Jeremy Wheat, Hammer House of Horror

Be sure to read "What I Owe to Hammer Horror" by John Potts in Senses of Cinema

971 (113). The Pillow Book (1996, Peter Greenaway)

Screened May 25 2009 on Sony Classics DVD TSPDT rank #931 IMDb Wiki

Largely received with diffidence upon its initial release, Peter Greenaway's tour de force can now be respected as a bold vision of movie art in the multimedia age. Taking inspiration from Japanese courtesan Sei Shonagon's 17th century novel of the same title, Greenaway tells a story of a Japanese-Chinese woman's efforts to transform her childhood fixation on bodily calligraphy into a career as a writer, while avenging her father's sexual humiliation at the hands of his publisher. These themes of the artist's struggle to express herself while taking revenge against the abuses of the older establishment are nothing new to Greenaway's filmography (see The Draughtsman's Contract, The Cook, The Thief, His Wife and Her Lover). What is new is a distinctly feminine narrative voice that enhances the innate sensuality of the project; an unabashed mixing of languages and cultures in a stew of chic global mongrelism; and a hypnotic flow of screens within screens and texts used as creative adornment. (The film toys with foreign film viewing conventions, foregoing subtitles for some scenes in Japanese while deploying them elsewhere in ways so artistic you wonder why no one else bothers).

Early reviews expressed dismay at the film's stylistic audacity, dismissing the multi-screen displays as more akin to CD-ROMs, Power Point slideshows, or computer windows than to cinema. A dozen years later, the falseness of this dichotomy is plain to see, and the foolish puritanism of this way of defining cinema may account for what's held back the medium's evolution, while the Internet has all but revolutionized people's audiovisual experience of reality, not to mention art. Besides, it's not that Greenaway turns his back on the more established approaches to sculpting his images: a uniquely filigreed lighting design constantly redefines interior spaces and turns interiors into walls of illuminated text. Whether through old or new school techniques, one can only hope to have more films that are as curious about exploring the sensual experience of cinema.


The following citations were counted towards the placement of The Pillow Book among They Shoot Pictures, Don't They? 1000 Greatest Films:

David Robson, The Cinematheque Top 10 Project (2005) John Greyson, PopcornQ (1997) Jorge Gorostiza, Nickel Odeon (1997) Michaela Boland, Sight & Sound (2002) New York Times, The Best 1,000 Movies Ever Made (2004)

The Pillow Book tribute site by Tama Leaver offers The text of The Blessing from The Pillow Book, some images from the film, some recommended readings directly on The Pillow Book, related readings more broadly on Peter Greenaway, and a list of the most useful of the web resources on the film and Greenaway (this entry notwithstanding).

A list of quotes from the film, taken from a multi-page site of Peter Greenaway quotes

PeterGreenaway.org.uk boasts an entry with many photos from the film

Trailer for 1996 UK release:

Trailer for 1997 US release:


Greenaway, whose work includes "The Draughtsman's Contract," "The Cook, the Thief, His Wife and Her Lover" and "Prospero's Books," uses an essentially Japanese technique. He likes to build up his images in layers, combining film and video, live action and paintings, spoken narration and visual texts. He shoots in color, b&w, and subtle tints. Here he tells a lurid story of sexuality, fetishism and betrayal, in an elegant and many-faceted way.

One of the most elegant parts of the film comes toward the end, as Greenaway illustrates the pages of Nagiko's pillow book. She has used each part of the body for the appropriate texts, even writing on ears and tongues, and here the words (Japanese, English, printed, spoken, Kanji) take on a sort of mystical, abstract quality. The talkies chained pictures to words; Greenaway finds a way out by using words as pictures. Greenaway once said something that perfectly describes his work: "I don't make pictures that have a sell-by date." Most new American movies have a limited shelf life. They're put in the theaters to sink or swim. If they haven't sold in a week or two, they're yanked like stale bread. Greenaway's notion is that his movies stand outside the ordinary distribution channels. You may see them today or in 10 years, as you choose. And when you are ready.

- Roger Ebert, The Chicago Sun-Times, July 4 1997

As ''The Pillow Book'' carries its strange preoccupations to their fullest expression, it's clear at times that the emperor is as naked as the the actors who bear Nagiko's writing. A core of surprising banality lies at the heart of this daughter's drive to reinvent and avenge her father, but then plot is never the essence of Mr. Greenaway's work. The film is best watched as a richly sensual stylistic exercise filled with audaciously beautiful imagery, captivating symmetries and brilliantly facile tricks. Traces of the filmmaker's supercilious misanthropy, as in his views of vulgar Americans and the Yiddish language, are also part of this mix.

- Janet Maslin, The New York Times, June 6 1997

Any Greenaway film is a complex word-and-picture game--of stories within stories, images within images, like a Chinese puzzle box. The director also insists that his actors throw themselves, soul and especially body, into his complex revenge scenarios. Wu is a fine, supple tabula rasa; McGregor (Trainspotting) shows again that he is one of the boldest, most charming young actors.

It's lovely that, in an age when pop culture dances with the dunces, someone has the mandarin urge to arouse and test his audience. Lovelier still when, as in The Pillow Book, text and texture meet so exquisitely. Sex is a visual art, Greenaway says, and writing is a matter of life and death.

- Richard Corliss, Time

A Japanese calligrapher marks his daughter Nagiko's every birthday with two rituals: he paints a greeting on her face, and then his sister reads from Sei Shonagon's 'Pillow Book', a 10th century diary of reminiscences, observations, and list upon list of exquisite, precious and graceful things. Nagiko (Wu) grows up with a fetish for calligraphy - demanding that her lovers paint hieroglyphics on her flesh. She keeps a pillow book, too, but her lists reflect a growing frustration. Then an affair with a bisexual British translator, Jerome (McGregor), opens up possibilites. Jerome's scribbling cannot satisfy her, but he offers his own body as her canvas. They fall in love, and he strips to present her texts to his gay lover, a publisher. This is as defiantly esoteric as any of Greenaway's films, and as visually dense as Prospero's Books, with frames within frames, computer graphics, subtitles, projections and superimpositions all vying for the eye in a sumptuous, seamless collage of gold, red and black. The result is ravishingly gorgeous, but such aestheticism is itself a kind of perversion, an idea embodied in Nagiko. The actors are models, fetishised objects, and sometimes they seem utterly at a loss, but, by way of counterpoint, this is also both a very intimate, sensual film, and a torrid, lurid melodrama, full of passion, jealousy, hatred and revenge.

- Time Out Film Guide

Despite its arresting visual style, its wave after wave of creative and hypnotic images, "The Pillow Book," as its name hints, slowly but inexorably leads to sleep.

There can be no doubt that Greenaway, working as usual with veteran cinematographer Sacha Vierny (who shot both "Hiroshima Mon Amour" and "Last Year at Marienbad" for Alain Resnais), is an exceptional visual stylist with an aesthetic that prides itself on being self-consciously artistic.

But "Pillow Book" demonstrates, as do the others, the limits of style as a filmmaking be-all and end-all. A director who communicates sparingly with his actors if at all, Greenaway doesn't notice or care about the dramatic weakness of his films. If they look spectacular, as they inevitably do, that is enough for him.

In this, Greenaway can be seen as the art-house equivalent of blockbuster-oriented French director Luc Besson, whose "The Fifth Element," the most expensive film ever made in Europe, is similarly contemptuous of all but the flimsiest forms of emotional connection. For these directors and the audience they appeal to, surface sensation is all that matters.

- Kenneth Turan, The Los Angeles Times

I can't say that I've ever entertained fantasies of writing on someone's body. But Peter Greenaway's The Pillow Book does, at least, succeed in making it look like an erotic activity. Greenaway has always been an armchair fetishist of the perverse, a kind of English De Sade in tweed. His movies, notably The Cook, The Thief, His Wife & Her Lover, feature mutilation, cannibalism, and an extremely haughty brand of sexual power tripping. Yet all the nasty business is filtered through layers of ''literate'' avant-garde puffery.

In the '90s, Greenaway has shown a unique gift for getting actors who are on the verge of stardom to cavort in the buff. In The Baby of Macon (still unreleased in the U.S.), Ralph Fiennes and Julia Ormond tussled like nude wrestlers, and now Ewan McGregor displays his. . .uh, considerable gifts on camera. Sad to say, The Pillow Book's mood isn't sustained. The film gets bogged down in a cryptic revenge plot, and the ugly side of Greenaway comes out of hiding (you won't want to see what happens to Ewan McGregor's skin). For a while, though, it's a true erotic caprice.

- Jim Ridley, The Nashville Scene


Admirers of Peter Greenaway - and I trust a few remain despite the blink-and-you'll-miss-it release of his last, grossly misunderstood film The Baby of Macon - will be in for a shock from his new film. In The Pillow Book, there are aeroplanes. There is pop music. And - are you sitting down? - there is a healthy generosity of spirit. After all these years! It's rather like finding that Santa Claus does exist.

There's immense warmth, too, in Greenaway's fluid eroticism. The camera enjoys the elegant motion of the hairs of a brush as they caress smooth plains of skin. Even the ink itself has presence, emerging from a man's mouth like a long black tongue, or snaking into a plughole as though it were a sash of hair.

Everything about The Pillow Book suggests that Greenaway is progressing. He has written a film in which a woman searches for positivity - "things which make the heart beat faster" - and finds it. That gives a fair indication of where this once misanthropic artist is heading. He's moving forward now, not inward.

- Ryan Gilbey, The Independent

Music video for song "Blonde" by Guesch Patti, from the film's soundtrack.


The Pillow Book is one of Greenaway's more thoughtful features: a multi-layered, mind-massaging tale that is at once highly literate and deeply erotic. Greenaway's heroine is Nagiko (Vivian Wu), a young Japanese woman, and his story spotlights how she develops the desire to have her body painted and thus transform herself into a living, breathing work of art. As he weaves his tale, Greenaway explores the relationship between art and eroticism. At one point, Nagiko declares, "I was determined to take lovers who would remind me of the pleasures of calligraphy." Among the filmmaker's other concerns are father-daughter bonds, and how the past relates to the present.

The Pillow Book is (yet again) stunningly photographed by Sacha Vierny; the images are dazzling, and there is abundant use of split screens and other visual devices. Part of the dialogue is in Japanese and is translated not so much by traditional subtitles as calligraphy, which blends into Greenaway's imagery and becomes an integral part of the film's overall design. Indeed, watching the film is the equivalent of viewing a moving painting.

Saul Frampton, updated by Rob Edelman, Film Reference.com


One of the most accomplished chapters in Peter Greenaway's quest to turn movies into books, this 1997 feature may be the writer-director's metaphorical autobiography. Atypical for Greenaway in its emphasis on drama and linear narrative, this audacious and seamlessly successful formal experiment provides a revealing glimpse into the emotions of a filmmaker who usually keeps a vast intellectual distance between himself and his material. The story chronicles a woman's ambition to redress her father's exploitive relationship with his publisher and establish herself as a writer--and both endeavors are understood by Greenaway in psychoanalytic terms to be variations on the same theme. The filmmaker's picture-in-picture techniques merge with the painstaking production and sound design, editing, and use of subtitles--as important for how they look as for what they say--to add several dimensions to the medium of cinema. The result is a lucid exposition of Greenaway's idiosyncratic ideas about transcending the medium and a compelling narrative with empathic characters that reveals the sexual nature of something not often associated directly with sexuality--the act of writing.

- Lisa Alspector, The Chicago Reader

While there's nothing especially groundbreaking or difficult to grasp in The Pillow Book, Greenaway's experimentation here still has the power to alienate audiences who aren't prepared for what the film offers. As has been true in his past efforts, there are copious amounts of full frontal nudity, and it seems that lead actors Vivian Wu (The Joy Luck Club) and Ewan McGregor (Trainspotting) perform half of their scenes without any clothes on. Nevertheless, by keeping the audience at arm's length, Greenaway manages the impressive feat of de-eroticizing the nudity.

For the most part, the director seems more concerned about technique than narrative and character development. The plot functions more as a series of markers for Greenaway's stylistic riffs than a necessary aspect of the movie. Indeed, The Pillow Book is so visually arresting that it's capable of holding our attention for two hours largely on the strength of its images. There are pictures-within-pictures, French song lyrics rolling across the bottom of the screen, multiple aspect ratios, color bleeding into black-and-white scenes, and other intriguing methods of composition. Even simple shots, such as a swirl of ink-saturated water being sucked into a drain -- a color image that's all black-and-white -- can be striking. And, for those who enjoy a little bafflement, there's a sequence near the end where the dialogue is in Japanese, but Greenaway intentionally does not use subtitles.

There's something admittedly fascinating about the way Greenaway explores this mixture of calligraphy and the human form. However, as unique as this combination may be, it's actually one of The Pillow Book's few original ideas. Other directors may hesitate to venture into such unfamiliar territory, but Greenaway has been here before. In its approach to sexual obsession, art, and revenge, The Pillow Book often recalls The Cook, The Thief, His Wife and Her Lover, sometimes almost to the point of cannibalization. Visually, however, The Pillow Book erupts in a manner that causes The Cook (which was stylistically memorable in its own right) to pale in comparison.

- James Berardinelli, Reel Views

If The Pillow Book demands that we feast our eyes on a literal "body" of written work, the technological aspirations on display are even more fascinating than the reams of human flesh. Like Prospero's Books, The Pillow Book is a film made in layers, opening windows on top of windows and placing frames within frames. (Don't wait for the video.) Subtitles appear and disappear on the screen, rendered in fancy script that translates the original Japanese. The backdrop for the opening scenes is page after creamy page of Japanese writings, presumably taken from the titular volume, and sex between Jerome and Nagiko is quite nicely played out behind a smaller cinematic window featuring erotic Japanese artwork that underscores the literary appeal of sex. When the disparate layers of sight and sound actually coalesce to creating something fresh and overwhelming, it's enough to take your breath away. Elsewhere, The Pillow Book is simply ponderous -- as smugly indulgent an exercise in style as you're likely to see in a movie house this year. Most tellingly, the film is stimulating but never seductive. The audience is kept at a remove from the action, never allowed to feel intimacy with the characters or even with the subject matter.

Arguing that cinema is a 100-year-old technology nearing the end of its natural life span, Greenaway claims in interviews that he's striving toward a new way of telling cinematic stories. But in that, his hubris is nearly as annoying as his audacity is gratifying. The presence of Vierny makes for an unflattering comparison -- working with Resnais and the writer Alain Robbe-Grillet, Vierny was a party to a theoretical deconstruction and interrogation of cinematic narrative itself that Greenaway is no doubt aware of. Regardless, The Pillow Book's pretty stylistic tropes seem to exist only for their own sake. Interestingly, I found myself missing the stately elegance of Michael Nyman's scores for The Cook, The Thief and Prospero's Books. (After all, with such a lovely score, Greenaway might even have gotten away with the wantonness of The Baby of Macon.) Instead, the selection of music for The Pillow Book is both portentous and jarring -- who would have thought that U2 would ever show up on the soundtrack of a Greenaway film?

Finally, I sense a feeling of duty that belies The Pillow Book's moments of quiet beauty and tragedy. After dishing out visual poetry, an uncharacteristically traditional narrative, and dazzling but icy visual stylings for about half the film's length, Greenaway once again turns on his audience with a spiritedly grotesque sequence involving a suicide and the exhumation of a spurned lover's grave. But after the ensuing virtuosic presentation of 13 different bodies painted with 13 different "books," this bizarre tale reaches a rote, unconvincingly optimistic conclusion -- you get the sense that, for the first time, this most contrary of directors may give a damn whether the general audience cares for his film. Worse, the effort may be in vain -- for a film that takes such a painterly approach to the canvas of a nude body, The Pillow Book itself is cloaked in too many stiff layers of ostentatious experimentalism.

-Bryant Frazer, Deep Focus

The inherent drawback of The Pillow Book is that it requires two viewings to unravel the complex web of past/present, image/word and life/death. Typically, the first encounter reveals a fabulously attractive but empty film, obtuse, confused and pretentious. It's only on the succeeding attempt that the pieces snap into place and the story takes shape (the delicate construction then becomes obvious). The key to this transformation is that all of the secondary prompts can be recognised when the main picture has been seen before (and it's in these visual fragments that fleeting but vital clues are given). With thought and effort expended upon the plot behind the images, clarity awaits. Once this point is reached, The Pillow Book unfurls like a flower in the dawn, baring a tale of power, resonance, closure and great (if subdued) emotion.

- Damian Cannon, Movie Reviews UK

Vivian Wu, in particular, deserves praise for her enthralling performance. She infuses the protagonist with a wonderfully sophisticated sensuality and a distant severity that are sure to captivate the moviegoer. Moreover, while her character, Nagiko, is a vain, manipulative, and self involved individual who is, consequently, unsympathetic as a person, she is, because she is so unlikeable, absolutely perfectly suited to eliciting an emotional reaction from the viewer. By presenting the moviegoer with such an unpleasant character, Greenaway frees him from sympathizing with a particular individual and allows him to concentrate on the emotions evoked without connecting them to particular objects. The viewer is filled with sorrow because of the events depicted and feels compassion as such. Without having a specific object towards which his compassion is directed, his emotions are universalized and come to encompass all persons, even one as unsympathetic as Nagiko. Thus, because it is centered upon such an individual, the film elicits a far more intense emotional response than it would have had it been focused on a more likeable person.

The Pillow Book arouses a sense of terrible tragedy, but the film's sadness is imbued with a wonderful beauty. Instead of creating a vision of a world of boundless torment and inevitable misery, Greenaway exposes the loveliness underlying even sorrow. In doing so, he ultimately evokes feelings of peace, contentment, and an enjoyment of beauty. Having guided the viewer through the charms and pleasures of existence, and through its tragedies and horrors, the director reveals to him both what is to be loved and what is to be endured, as well as reminding him that each is to be appreciated. The result is a happy sense of calm and repose rather than an experience of despair.

- Keith Allen, Movie Rapture

The Pillow Book lists two directors of photography, three production designers, four costume designers, and two calligraphers in the opening credits, and indeed, the movie comes closer than any other to constituting its own elaborate, absorbing museum—one where you're encouraged to sniff and caress the artwork, to strip the clothes off the models, to run the paint along your tongue like it's a spice. This unparalleled mise-en-scène, the creatively embedded frames, and the arresting sonic mix of Japanese pop, monastic chants, and avant-garde rock together yield a new kind of movie, a three- and almost four-dimensional environment. Customary film grammar hardly accounts for how the movie works, either when it's scoring or when it's flailing, and if its structural repetitions ultimately grow a bit tedious, its fearless peculiarity and almost aphrodisiac blend of skin, music, and curvaceous lettering make it worth digesting in multiple doses, even if they're small ones.

- Nick Davis, Nick's Flick Picks

There seems to be a determined effort to be witty, even if the humor is not scaled to what the story is saying.

The result is a startling film with gorgeous photogenic shots, superimpositions, amazing computer graphics, a splash of intriguing gold and red color patterns, but with everything ending up so perverse and lost in a melodramatic intimacy that even the scenes that do mean something still seem to be too absurd to really mean much. But the film did have plenty of fire, hatred, passion, jealousy, and mystery. For those who like to see a film that is both unique and unforgettable: this one's pure Greenaway.

- Dennis Schwartz, Ozu's World Movie Reviews

A list of splendid reasons to watch THE PILLOW BOOK: for its beautiful images; for its power to send eyes, ears and brain spinning; for its moments of emotional warmth (more frequent than some of Greenaway’s other films); because it is extravagantly pretentious and unashamedly arty; because it is awesome, rich and strange.

- Julian Lim, The Flying Inkpot

To differentiate time and place, Greenaway shot The Pillow Book in three different speeds: slow for Japan in the 1970s and '80s, very slow for the same country a thousand years earlier, and frenetic for contemporary Hong Kong.

- Mark Harris, Straight.com

Perhaps the motto for this film should read: soon to be playing in film school Deconstruction 101 classes everywhere.

- Matthew Hays, Montreal Mirror

I have seen the future of movies, and it is picture- in- picture.


How did you first discover The Pillow Book? I was trained as a painter. And while my European, London-based training very sensibly, very obviously accentuated Western art, I was particularly interested in all that painting at the end of the 19th century, which had a very strong Oriental influence. Painters like Gaugin, Van Gogh and Toulouse-Lautrec were very much interested in that sort of world. It was no particular requirement of my educational background to examine the literature as well, but just out of curiosity I did. And I worked my way back through the Edo period all the way right back to the Heian and found this extraordinary book. I was very much aware that a whole series of women were writing at this time and in some senses creating the Japanese language, writing quietly in their very dark interiors, incredibly circumspect in their thousand and one robes, not allowed to move, basically being, I suppose, wombs, and nothing else. So it was really a personal discovery.

I understand that you're an advocate of film as an autonomous medium. Yet Pillow Book is based on an ancient Japanese text. One shouldn't start a discussion of this film by referring to a set text because the origins of the project are much deeper than that, and respond to, I suppose, my general sense of anxiety and disquiet about the cinema we've got after 100 years -- a cinema which is predicated on text. So whether your name is Spielberg or Scorsese or Godard, there's always a necessity to start with text and finish with image. I don't think that's particularly where we should organize an autonomous art form. That's why I think that, in a way, we haven't seen the cinema yet, all we've seen is 100 years of illustrated text.

My films are very much based on the notion of the grid. The grid has determined the paintings of Mondrian, Jasper Johns, and is relative to the notion of 20th century art, which is intimately related to the edges of the frame, it's a very frame-conscious notion. That's another whole ballgame which I would like to continue to explore. The screen is only a screen is only a screen; it's only an illusionary space and I would quarrel seriously with Bizan on the knowledge that cinema is a window on the world. It is not. It is an artificial construct which is contained within its own conventions and devices, and I think we should acknowledge that in a very self-conscious way.

But the framed orientation of film seems to almost contradict the free-flowing nature of Japanese text. Why merge the two together? I was drawn to the hieroglyph, because it is both an image and a text. The Oriental notion of culture is not divisive like ours is in the West, where we separate the painters and the writers, and that is very appealing to me. You would think that cinema would be the ideal place to put these two things together. Yet all cinema is predicated on the notion of being text-driven and not image-driven. There are very, very few films that I can think of that have actually created true cinema. Last Year In Marienbad, perhaps, is about the closest I can feel. It approaches a notion of real, true cinematic intelligence. It is not a slave to text. It is not a slave to narrative. It deconstructs all these phenomena and creates a product which is truly and absolutely cinematic because it cannot exist in any other form. Whereas the majority of cinema can always be explained in other mediums, which is a true indication, I feel, that it hasn't yet reached that essential autonomy. But maybe I'm being very churlish and impatient. Cinema's only 100 years old and I'm talking about languages and calligraphy which are 4,000 years old and the history of painting, certainly in Europe, is at least 2,000 years old. So maybe my impatience is unfair. I noticed that the use of hieroglyphs in The Pillow Book strays slightly from your previous use of systems. What drew you to use the hieroglyphs as your main focal point of The Pillow Book? I wanted to explore the possibility of metaphor or a module for the reinvention of, or a search for, the cinema. Why can't we bring image and text together in a way that the hieroglyph has? I mean, you might argue that we are already talking about a system of communication whose days are numbered because the whole world now is horribly slated on the notions of the Western alphabet and the conveniences of the computer and the fax machine. But I am very much interested in the gestural notion, the highly physical idea of the hieroglyph, which is made by the body and not made by a machine. I can draw a figure of a man, and that single gestural movement which is made by the body can express the notion of man in a thousand different ways in terms of its masculine or feminine nature, whether it's bold, or rich or poor or decaying or dying, etc. I can't make the letter 'A' do that in the same sort of way. There's a great excitement about the sheer visual energy that's contained in this sort of idea. So that takes me back to this extraordinary book again, The Pillow Book of Sei Shonagon. It was diary or journal which used to be kept inside the wooden pillow that the Japanese used to lay their heads on when they went to sleep at night. The Pillow Book has certain characteristics which excited me, so without any attempts to illustrate the book in any way, I took some of its sensitivities, primarily where Sei Shonagon said, "Wouldn't the world be desperately impoverished if we didn't have literature and we didn't acknowledge our own physicality?" And the movie's just about that. It's all an excuse for me to indulge, in a thousands different ways, on lots of different levels, in a celebration of text and sex. When you see the sex you see the text. When you see the text you see the sex. It's sort of an ideal way to bring together these two extraordinary high points of our experience.

So you're trying to draw a parallel between the human body and the creation of text? Lacan in his famous French essay from 1953 talks about how the body makes the text. And I would facetiously answer in this film if the body makes the text then the best place for that text is back on the body. I'm not serious in that, it's metaphorical. But what he does argue is how the mind is influencing the arm and the arm is influencing the hand and the hand the pen and paper. So the body makes the text, very, very physically. Now, in the 20th century, although you have written text here, ultimately your product will be typed up on keyboards, so we've broken that magic connection by this mechanical reproduction between the notion of physically making a mark that signifies. Which leaves us lots of other propositions. Let's suppose, as our new Prime Minister in Great Britain has promised, that every child of 5 will be given their own free computer. Does this mean in three decades we won't need to learn to handwrite anymore? And then what happens with the collapse of our physical energy? We'd all be totally and absolutely bereft.

Is that why you employ such video techniques as overlays, insets, shifting screens, and freeze frames in your films such as Prospero's Books and most recently in The Pillow Book? Why should the devil have all the best tools? There's a way in which television now -- and though we could all be very critical about its social and political uses and its dumbing down and its appalling, I suppose, mediocrity of presentation -- is actually at the same time developing the most extraordinary post-production technology. Very amazing ways that I could put you inside of a glass, stick you on the moon, I can change your sex, I can do absolutely anything to the visual world now. And it seems so tragic to me that so many filmmakers are making movies up against this extraordinary revolution with one eye closed and two hands tied behind their backs. Why is this the case? Why do we feel somehow so dubious about the shock of the new? Why, as I suppose again that Godard suggested, do we look up at cinema, but we look down at television. But then I'm English and I come from the golden land of television, so maybe I should be careful of my criticism. But we keep talking, keep paying lip service to the multimedia revolution. We should try and do something about it, harness its energies, utilize it, try and make the artifacts for the next millennium. Again, alas, Woody Allen suggests if you're going to choose heroes, choose the very best ones. There is a way that we ought to be able to become Picassos and Michelangelos on our own, to utilize this vocabulary. I don't say that lightly, because I think the whole democratic processes of art desperately have to change. We now have very post monarchical systems in the democratic Western world, but our artistical renaissance is still very much predicated on Stravinskys, and Spielbergs, and we have to break all that down and become very much associated with the social and political ideals of democracy. We should all become film directors.

- Interviewed by Spencer H. Abbott

Lawrence Chua: You’ve been very critical of a kind of cinema that’s based specifically on conventions of the 19th century novel. How is the relationship between text and body different in The Pillow Book? In showing the pleasures of the text, aren’t you also running the danger of reducing the body to a narrative?

Peter Greenaway: Maybe drawing an intense concentration onto the conditions of cinema and its relationship with a notion of image and text is a good way to do the very opposite. Perhaps we have to progress slowly. John Cage suggested that if you introduce more than twenty percent of innovation into any artwork, you immediately lose 80 percent of your audience. He suggested this might remain the case for a subsequent fifteen years. He was being optimistic. We have to travel slowly, since I want to continue making movies. They’re expensive. I don’t know why they have to be so expensive, but that’s the way things are. They’re also complex collaborations. I can’t make movies on my own. I think we have to travel at a certain pace, to accommodate the introduction of radicalism or exploratory ideas embracing both old and new technologies.

LC You’ve said that one of the ideas that fueled this reductive story was a fetish, perhaps a sexual fetish. How do you imagine and image that fetish, because for me the fetish is something that, like the novel, emerged entwined with the history of colonial expansion. You can see that throughout The Pillow Book. On a very superficial level Nagiko and the Publisher take pleasure in the white body of Jeremy and not in other black bodies. Certainly not in the body of the photographer, Hoki, whose dark skin Nagiko dismisses as unsuitable for her calligraphy. For me, the fetish that is expressed in The Pillow Book is a residue of the colonial encounter. It’s a reminder of how text has been used to distinguish the civilized from the savage mind.

PG I think there’s also a subsidiary text in the notion of the Madame Butterfly complex. The film sets off an association with the Western fetish for the notion of the Oriental, which was not only relative to the celebrated opera but to general 19th century ideas of sexual exploitation of colonial imposition. I would like to think that we have negotiated that particular hurdle by indeed throwing the idea of the Western exploitation of the East on its back. We start with a heroine who begins as the page, but she indubitably ends up as the pen. She takes the responsibility into her own hands and reverses the strategy on her predatory masters, developing a knowledge of her own identity. Those notions may be relative to your theory of colonization.

LC Or body and mind. I was struck by the way that you understood Sei Shonagon’s original text. You were talking about how many writers in world literature today are challenging the idea of what the story is, of what narrative actually is, and Sei Shonagon’s text predates the arrival of the 19th century novel by almost a millennium. In many ways it may be the first form of Japanese vernacular literature. At a time when Japanese literature was written almost entirely in Chinese, Sei Shonagon wrote in this very vernacular form for which she was mercilessly critiqued. How does the vernacular inform your idea of cinematic language?

PG There are resonances. For example, we use just one Yiddish word in the film, when Jerome writes the word “breasts” on the appropriate anatomical part on our heroine. It’s interesting also that Yiddish was a 19th century vernacular language, which in the latter part of the century began to develop a written form. That has certain parallels with the creation of the Japanese language. There’s something about Sei Shonagon’s use of the diary form with its continual fragmentation of narrative ideas which is so completely different from her exact contemporary Murasaki who wrote the famous The Tale of Genii, which in some senses precedes the notion of the English, French or Russian grand saga novel. So I suppose if we were to regard The Tale of Genii being more associated with Tolstoy or Zola, we could think of Sei Shonagon as much more related to Baudelaire. We tried very hard in the film to represent this fragmentation in the different ways we used black and white, high color, low color. We borrowed not just the notions of the creation of a new language as she was doing in the year 995, but also made correspondences to what the creation of a new language would be about.

So the film itself is very much a palimpsest of what’s happening now at the end of the 20th century with the fragmentation of the relationship between cinema and all the post-televisual medium: the CD-Rom, the Internet… French intellectuals have criticized the film, saying The Pillow Book is not a film, it is a CD-Rom. I could think of no higher compliment. There is a way that our contemporary vernacular in the business of making images has become television. Godard suggested that there is a disastrous cultural snobbism about television. Indeed, we physically and metaphorically look up to cinema but look down at television. But in terms of what MTV has to offer with the video clip, with the use of the talking head, that continual change of perspective of time, event, idea, action and intended use of tense, there is a brand new vernacular language which is being developed day by day almost incidentally and accidentally, much as I suspect in the way that the early Japanese language was created by Sei Shonagon. She was often accused, certainly by her contemporaries, for her excessive use of Chinese quotation. Television certainly recreates or reprises or “quotes” the celebrated so-called fossilized forms of cinema. Television, shall we say, takes cinema as the Japanese vernacular did the Chinese language of the 10th century. We have new languages that are attempting both to erode the old languages, but also to deliver like a phoenix, knowing that the new languages have to be a combination of the old and the new.

LC There is a moment in the movie where the writing slips, where the paper that the texts are inscribed on shifts gender and Nagikio becomes the writer and passes into a kind of agency. At the Digiforum in Rotterdam last year, you talked about the erosion of the artist, where not art but communication stands at the center oft he creative endeavor. Could you talk a bit more about what you meant by that?

PG I suppose it’s to do with the idea of audience participation and interactivity. I’ve chosen to put most of my ideas of the last 15 years into cinema which is a very passive medium. Far more passive than literature for example. There is a way that now the western world ascribes to notions of democracy. There is a way in which our art, our culture is still remarkably concerned with notions of absolutism. Renaissance ideas of the artist as king. So we still genuflect before figures like Picasso and Le Corbusier and Stravinsky, whereas our general political systems are far more sophisticated in terms of interactivity. I do think that one of the things that these new languages will give us is a necessary shift away from the notion of the artist as some Nietzschean supergod and we’ll make the whole process of cultural rapport far more democratic. We ought to consider this seriously and not hide behind the notions of artist’s egotism and embrace these notions of interactivity not frivolously, but very seriously indeed.

LC For me the potential of interactivity is more about dialogue, a response to perfect translation, a space between the screen and the audience where antiphony is possible.

PG The cinema we have now has precious little space for dialogue. There’s a way the audience bows before the screen and puts their imagination in the hands of the cinema maker. I suppose my particular anxiety also is related to the phenomenon that you can look at the Mona Lisa for two seconds, two minutes, two days, two hours, two centuries if you so feel fit, which gives you, the viewer, the circumstances for a true contemplation, rumination, expansion of your imagination. Having been trained as a painter I can understand that view point, but having spent so many years being a cinema practitioner I can see the opposite, and have found it to be so unsatisfactory. Many activities I would now take into making three dimensional cinema by curating exhibitions. I’m fascinated by the idea of a film as an exhibition, and the exhibition as a film. It brings in notions of time and space in ways which the cinema cannot possibly handle. My enthusiasm is for the notion of the exhibition as an art form in itself using the new technologies and an expanded cinematic vocabulary. A lot of people are engaged in this in lots of ways, sometimes on the periphery, sometimes as a prime concern. Very shortly the notion of Jurassic Park and Mission Impossible will certainly end up looking like an early 19th century lantern-slice experience.

- Lawrence Chua, Bomb Magazine



Why a female protagonist?

That's particularly interesting because I think it's about language ... it was the women, sitting in their dark little houses, as basic concubines for the pleasure of men, who were inventing the Japanese language. That's where it came from, it came from the female writing, not from the male writing. What became Japanese was the privatized language of the country, spoken basically at home. That's what finally produced the fully fledged language. It was exactly the same in England.

What are your feelings about the state of contemporary film?

Well I don't go to the cinema very much, because I find it boring and uninteresting. When I do go and see something which is amazing, then I'm filled with a great sense of envy and jealousy. So my cinematic viewing experiences are always very negative. I remember seeing [David] Lynch's "Blue Velvet," which I thought was a magnificent film, some years ago now, of course. I pay it the highest compliment by saying I wish I'd made it myself. In a sense I think it's already too late: Cinema is an old technology. I think we've seen an incredibly moribund cinema in the last 30 years. In a sense Godard destroyed everything -- a great, great director, but in a sense he rang the death knell, because he broke cinema all apart, fragmented it, made it very, very self-conscious. Like all the aesthetic movements, it's basically lasted about 100 years, with the three generations: the grandfather who organized everything, the father who basically consolidated it and the young guy who chucks it all away. It's just a human pattern.

And where do you fit into that pattern?

Let's keep me out of this! For me, the three big guys of the history of cinema would be Eisenstein, who virtually made the language, Orson Welles, who consolidated it, and then Godard, who threw it all away. But each of those people was very much influenced by the guy who went before, and you'll find that Godard's admiration for Orson Welles is extraordinarily high, and Orson Welles' admiration for Eisenstein is extremely high. So they're working in tandem, if you like, they're the three big conspirators: Let's make, let's perfect, now let's chuck it away.

"The Pillow Book" is a very accessible film, easily your most accessible since "The Cook, The Thief." Do you still have hopes of breaking through commercially?

I think -- initially unself-consciously, but maybe in a more self-aware way now -- I've tended to make films on the A-B-A-B-A-B principle. The A film was a little more commercial. Not because I planned it that way, but because it turned out that way; and that way I could get aesthetic credit and certainly financial credit in the bank, and that allowed me the space to be more experimental. So it was A-B-A-B until suddenly I made two Bs in a row, which are "Prospero's Books" and "The Baby of Macon," and my credit in Europe began to be more and more dubious. I still think there was a certain respect for the filmmaking, but the audiences would have probably gotten smaller, and it would have probably been much more about me making films for the converted as opposed to the unconverted, so it was almost a necessity to make another A picture. We probably have succeeded in that. The final proof in the pudding is that my producer already has all the money for the next project.

Can you describe the process on the set of having to cover the actors' bodies every day with this elaborate calligraphy?

It takes a long time, and a lot of these Japanese calligraphers were great perfectionists. The feeling is that you must only draw a character once. You can't rub out, you can't erase, and if it all goes wrong you have to strip the body down and start all over again. So it would take a long time, as you can imagine. If we wanted to start filming by about 11 o' clock in the morning, we'd start putting up the set much earlier, and there'd be rehearsals and lighting to do, so Ewan McGregor and Vivian Wu would have to get up at about 4 in the morning, and we'd bring them drowsy and comatose and still half asleep, put them on a hard bench of some kind so that their body was in full view of the calligraphers, probably turn on the heat lamps, since we were shooting in the [Japanese] outback a lot of the time, in the freezing winter. And four calligraphers would start on the feet and work up, and maybe two would start on their head and work down. The process might take up to five hours, but I think both of the actors would say it was a halfway enjoyable experience, and that all of us should have a go at it.

- Interview by Christopher Hawthorne for Salon.com


Greenaway's use of the body as a canvas makes the surface as unique as the marks placed upon it. Not only does this incorporate the performance aspects of theater into the calligraphic process, it also creates a product that is irreproducible. The same text written elsewhere would have a profoundly different effect. “From a Japanese point of view, the unique manuscript is far more a part of their experience than it is over here,” he says. “It is the West that invented the printing press, after all. In Japan, the one-off was held as a sacred sort of talisman, the basic icon of which was the actual physical mark of the author, and its form was as significant as what that author had to say.”

As the central character Nagiko matures, she begins to travel outside of her culture to sample new alphabetic traditions, seducing calligrapher after calligrapher by offering her body as a page. As the alphabets pile up, she becomes a sort of living Tower of Babel, with the babble of 20 tongues about her. As the director said, “In a sense I really have gone to the edge in terms of total comprehension, because I would demand of my audience that they could speak 10th-century Japanese, contemporary Japanese, a little Filipino, some Vietnamese, Manchu, Mandarin, Cantonese, Latin, Sanskrit, etc. Now, that audience doesn't exist.”

For Greenaway, this is not only a statement about the problems of communication, but is also “a social and political act” coming out of his feelings that, “Before long the world's cinema will all be made in English. It's happening now. In Spain for example, 50 percent of all the productions are being filmed in English. A language is a culture, and if you lose it, it's a bit like cutting down the South American rainforest; it's totally unreclaimable.”

Greenaway is also very interested in having the audience pay attention to the language as a sound. “I deliberately did not translate the Japanese,” he says. “So you as an audience are forced to listen to the cadences, the rhythms, the characteristics of the language.”

- Yves Jaques, The University of Washington Daily



Besides making movies, Greenaway has also worked extensively as a painter and visual artist, curating exhibitions and museum installations across Europe. Some of the ideas and techniques he has employed in these installations, specifically involving lighting effects and projections, have been brought to the production of The Pillow Book. And the person most responsible for their adaptation to film is Reinier van Brummelen, a Dutch gaffer who has worked on many of Greenaway's films, and who also lit an opera he directed, Rosa, a Horse Drama.

But van Brummelen wants to make one thing clear: Director of photography Sacha Vierny is the one who is really responsible for the look of The Pillow Book. Vierny, a veteran of French New Wave classics such as Alain Resnais' Hiroshima, Mon Amour, Last Year at Marienbad, Muriel, and La Guerre Est Finie, Luis Bunuel's Belle de Jour, and films for Marguerite Duras, Bertrand Blier, and Raul Ruiz, has shot every Greenaway movie since A Zed and Two Noughts, in 1985. But Vierny, who is in his 70s, is disinclined to talk. He will only praise, via fax, van Brummelen's abilities as an "artist who manipulates light and the computer," adding that he wishes he could have shot films for Georges Melies and a young Orson Welles.

Van Brummelen's background is firmly in film, including every Greenaway feature since Drowning by Numbers, in 1988, and his own projects as DP. "I sort of rolled into the other type of work through Greenaway," he says. "He was asked to do a curatorial exhibition in a museum. He had the idea to do something special with the lighting, and out of that grew bigger and bigger installations which are more and more light-conscious and theatrical, with lots of mood changes, and synchronized to sound. Those exhibitions were a lot of times about water, and playing with projections."

Van Brummelen has a more collaborative role with Greenaway on the curatorial exhibitions, while on the films he is usually assisting Vierny in giving the director what he wants. But there is never any question about who, ultimately, is in charge of the image. On The Pillow Book, where the Super 35 format made the frame more flexible, there is even evidence that Greenaway is wrestling some visual control from the cinematographer during postproduction. "He reframed a lot of shots in the editing process," says the gaffer. "That's done a lot in commercials and things which go through digital. But he did it on this and it was all finished off optically. The raw stock was really raw stock--it's for the director to play on it. Some of that magic of the cinematographer--'this is the frame, and that's what it's always going to be'--is changing."

On the other hand, van Brummelen marvels at Vierny, who goes along with Greenaway's innovations and supports them in the continuing spirit of avant-garde. "It's interesting that someone like Sacha, who is not a young dog, but who is an old master, is involved in such things. It's pretty amazing that of all the cinematographers I have worked for as a gaffer, he is the most modern, the most fresh, and the one to take the most risks and to try the weirdest things."

- John Calhoun, Live Design Online



Deriving his inspiration from Sei Shonagon's literary "pillow book," Greenaway has fashioned an elusive series of vignettes combining text, flesh, and eroticism into an uneasy but ultimately transcendant whole. Fortunately, the DVD edition preserves the nuances and colorful schemes of his compositions very well. Letterboxing pursits will balk at the claim on the packaging that the film, "while filmed in multi-aspect ratios, has been re-formatted to fit your TV." In fact, this is the same fullscreen transfer supervised by Greenaway himself which first debuted on British video some time ago. Like much of his television work, The Pillow Book was created with digital Japanese technology and involves layer upon layer of images interacing in various aspect ratios (ranging from anamorphic Cinemascope to 1.33:1). This version looks far more satisfying than the film's theatrical showings at 1.85:1, which constantly lopped images and subtitles off at the top and bottom of the screen. Occasional shots framed at even slighter aspect ratio than 1.66:1 seem slightly clipped on the left side of the screen (notably the end titles and an occasional title card), but this in no way affects the compositions. This is a marked contrast to Greenaway's other digital Paintbox epic, Prospero's Books, which was shot hard-matted at 1.66:1 and completely collapsed under Fox's pan and scan video transfer. The Dolby Surround tracks for Pillow Book are also very effective and show off the eclectic soundtrack (ranging from Buddhist chants to techno) with plenty of directional presence. The DVD also includes the fairly explicit U.S. theatrical trailer.

- Mondo Digital


"It seems so tragic to me that so many filmmakers are making movies up against this extra-ordinary revolution with one eye closed and two hands tied behind their backs." - Peter Greenaway

Scorning cinema as being mere 'illustrated text', Greenaway brings his artistic values, intellectual esoterica, visual richness and documentary approach to movies. They often result in intellectually stimulating, obscure, pretentious, bizarre and beautiful visual feasts with metaphors, clues, cerebral puzzles, symmetries, lists, numbers, puns, obsessions and nudity galore. His movies are usually layered or self referential and cannot be watched as simple entertaining narratives. He likes to explore abstract concepts comprehensively, dissecting all of their facets and extremes in a very detached way. Another of his passions is exploring new ways to deconstruct a narrative and tell a story, using multi-layered multimedia to obsessively explore the details of an event or scene. Even his lesser movies have striking visuals, beautiful painting-like photography, and intriguing, precise strangeness. Not included here is his somewhat ordinary drama 'Belly of an Architect', and numerous shorts and artistic documentaries, many of which are esoteric, over-obsessive bores with some impenetrable intellectual humor. A fascinating and unique film-maker.

- Zev Toledano, The Worldwide Celluloid Massacre

There are contradictions in Greenaway's works, a fact that seems to openly provoke divided opinion. Some would suggest that the fecundity of his vision and intellectual rigor are the stuff of great cinema; others, while admitting his originality, would still look for evidence of a deeper engagement with film as a medium, rather than as a vehicle for ideas. Lauded in Europe, under-distributed in the United States, loved and reviled in his own country, Greenaway is, nevertheless, in an enviable position for a filmmaker.

Saul Frampton, updated by Rob Edelman, Film Reference.com

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.

- Mike D'Angelo, The Man Who Viewed Too Much

- Richard von Busack, Metroactive

The French have loved Peter Greenaway for 20 years, ever since his film The Draughtsman's Contract was released. The only British films we encountered at the time were social commentaries or nonsense comedies - Ken Loach or Monty Python. And here was something completely different: a UK director who put art before entertainment (we have always loved that) and was clearly immensely cultured (we adore that as well).

· Jean Roy, The Guardian

No, I don't much like Greenaway, thank you very much - though I did enjoy The Draughtsman's Contract. It may just be that Greenaway is too smart, too wicked, too artistic for the British. I mean, he is nakedly pretentious - and the dread of being pretentious is a British disease that can lead to such things as the amiable but monstrous self-effacement of, say, Stephen Frears, who might be better off if he ever said: "Me!"

I know the vital texts in this matter, and I agree with them - indeed, I am a hearty "Hear! Hear!" rumbling up from the back benches on the musical farts of a good Simpson's lunch. I remember how Ken Russell asked: "What is it about Greenaway's films that make the flesh crawl? I think it's his apparent loathing of the human race." And then there was the fine and noble John Boorman, who once lamented the director's seeming lack of doubt, as well as "the sadism, the sex-hating, the food-hating, life-hating, child-hating, woman-hating, excrement-loving" in his work.

To be very fair, Boorman saw things to admire in Greenaway: "prodigious skills". He thought that the director had high abilities in the musical, the visual and the architectural. But he was not cinematic. I feel very much the same way, and it's important to note that being spectacular and obsessed with movement is not necessarily "movie-like". Yet I'm bound to admit that when it comes to doing dirt on life, or being obsessed with odious people, the movies as a whole have rather come to Greenaway's aid.

For isn't it the case nowadays that most pictures are made by people who hate or fear other people, and who have no faith in the better things of life? Yes, I exaggerate a tad, but still, the mindless nihilism of so much film-making only points up how original, how piquant, how vicious, how masterly the cruelty in Greenaway can be. For who could ever call this gloating thinker "mindless"?

So, yes, I hate Peter Greenaway's films. They make me feel the need to take a long hot shower - but then, I usually feel that way. And meanwhile, let me whisper this: we need him; he is a thrilling, insolent corrective to so much "Englishness". I fear he may be necessary.

- David Thomson, The Guardian

969 (111). Song of Ceylon (1934, Basil Wright)

screened May 23 2009 on British Film Institute Region 2 DVD (courtesy of Cindi Rowell) TSPDT rank #930 IMDb Wiki

Ever since Robert Flaherty aimed his camera at an Inuit named Nanook, the documentary film has had to contend with its multiple and often conflicting functions: as an authentic representation of reality, as a vehicle for conveying ideology, as a work of art.  While many documentaries of the past may seem quaint on all three fronts through today's eyes, they are no more problematized than contemporary works. As a distributor of contemporary Chinese documentaries, I see these issues figuring as prominently in many of the films I review as in works dating back 75 years, whose presumptions towards objectivity or sophistication belie prejudices in perception, culture and aesthetics. Such a work is Song of Ceylon.

Conceived under the supervision of British documentary godfather John Grierson as a propaganda piece for British commercial tea interests, Song of Ceylon all but transcends its colonialist industrial premise. It's a bona fide work of art that celebrates the lives and values of native Sri Lankans while actively questioning the impact of the tea industry on their way of life. The film is blessed with an uncommonly musical sense of editing rhythm, lyrical camera movements that are rare for documentaries of any era, and best of all, a dense soundtrack that mixes native songs, nature sounds and industrial noise into what could work as a stand-alone audio drama.

At the same time, the film can't fully overcome its thoroughly Western orientation even as it attempts to celebrate its subjects and critique the colonial forces threatening to alter their culture. The problems can be summed up in the selection of a British travelogue text from 1680 to serve as the film's primary narration. It's a poetic attempt to connect the way of life captured on film to an idea of an eternal Eden, to which the colonialist forces of commerce play antagonist. But the notion itself is a sentimental fiction that projects a romantic view of native life rather than letting it speak on its own terms (this despite having a man with a South Asian accent read the British text as a play for authenticity). The four-part narrative begins and ends with a cinematic tribute to Buddha, presented as an Oriental analogue to Christ for introducing spiritual civility to a land of pagans; again, another projection of Western meaning upon Eastern forms. In its attempts to critique the prejudices of Western colonialism only to arrive at new ones, the film becomes what may be the first work of neo-colonialist cinema.

But there's no denying the sheer brilliance of the filmmaking on display, especially the third section, which takes documentary into a political and artistic dimension that's years ahead of its time. It's a dense montage that juxtaposes the imagery of the Sri Lankans laboring in various capacities against the sterile geometries and clanging electronic transmissions of a trade office coordinating their efforts. The incongruence of these two worlds - bodily vs. bodiless work - is so jarring that Eisenstein couldn't have done a better job articulating the alienation of labor in cinematic terms.

All in all, Song of Ceylon is a rare film whose aural and visual rhythms and textures fully immerse the viewer into a singularly cinematic experience, regardless of its relationship to the reality being represented.

WATCH SONG OF CEYLON in its entirety on YouTube:


The following votes were counted towards the placement of Song of Ceylon among the 1000 Greatest Films according to They Shoot Pictures, Don't They?

Colin Young, Sight & Sound (1962) Edgar Anstey, Sight & Sound (1982) Kumar Shahani, Sight & Sound (1992) Paul Rotha, Sight & Sound (1982)

No mere documentary, Song of Ceylon (originally released in England in 1934) has been described by some observers as a meditative experience and by others as "innovative, lovely, lasting." With the utmost respect (and a refreshing lack of "white man's burden" condescension), director Basil Wright offers a fascinating study of the Ceylonese people, their day-to-day existence and their ages-old customs. Of special interest is the film's emphasis on Buddhism, as manifested in the country's ancient sunken temples. Amidst this reverent splendor is an undercurrent of sadness, as the film shows how the West had already begun to commercialize Ceylon. Without taking anything away from Basil Wright, who not only directed but handled all the cinematography, it must be noted that Song of Ceylon was the brainchild of John Grierson, better known as "The Father of the British Documentary." It is currently available in video as part of a collection of Grierson productions, including Drifters (1929) and Industrial Britain.

- Hal Erickson, All Movie Guide

Made by the GPO Film Unit and sponsored by both the Empire Tea Marketing Board and the Ceylon Tea Board, Song of Ceylon is one of the most critically acclaimed products of the documentary film movement. It was hailed at the time of its release by author and film critic Graham Greene as a cinematic masterpiece, and received the award for best film at the International Film Festival in Brussels, 1935.

The film is a sophisticated documentary, notable for its experimentation with sound. It features crucial input from Alberto Cavalcanti, who helped with the soundtrack, as well as composer Walter Leigh, who experimented in the studio to create a number of sound effects.

The film's soundtrack was carefully put together in a studio because technical limitations precluded the ability to record synchronised sound. Leigh constructed a number of 'exotic' sounds, reflecting ceremonial practice and interweaved them with anthropological narration. At times these sounds are disconcerting in the way that they are used: gong sounds, for instance, are treated and manipulated to increase their harshness. The most striking use of experimental sound occurs in the third section of the film, which depicts the effects of telecommunications systems on the native lifestyle. A montage of industrial sounds and electronic waves are mixed together, creating an expressive, yet rather dissonant, sense of the encroachment of modernity.

The third section of the film is the most disconcerting of the four sections and initially contrasts with the other sections. Yet overall the film is structured in a 'circular' manner, emphasising that continuity can occur despite the onset of an initially alien way of life.. The first two sections focus on native rituals and working practices, always stressing the Sinhalese in relation to their natural environment. The modernity of the third sequence initially implies that nature and tradition are endangered by advanced industrialism, but in the last section we return again to the natives partaking in another ceremony, while industrial sounds become merged with the 'traditional' sounds.

Ultimately, then, Song of Ceylon imparts the message that nature and native traditions can coexist harmoniously with modernity. The film proposes a benign, rather than ruthless, message of progress, stressing the benefits of technological innovations. At the end of the film, the camera pans over palm leaves, while a gong sound is also heard, reprising images and sounds featured at the start.

- Jamie Sexton, Screen Online

One of the finest achievements of the British documentary movement was Basil Wright's Song of Ceylon, which has been called the world's finest example of lyrical documentary. The film's theme, as its producer John Grierson described it, is "Buddhism and the art of life it has to offer, set upon by a Western metropolitan civilization which, in spite of all our skills, has no art of life to offer."

Graham Greene, reviewing the film when it played as the second feature in a London art theatre, described it as having an "air of absolute certainty in its object and assurance in its method." He singled out shots of birds in flight as "one of the loveliest visual metaphors I have ever seen on any screen." Wright later said that he had seen the birds at the end of a day's shooting, when the light was practically gone; he made his assistant unpack the cameras and get out the telephoto lens, though at the time he had no idea how the shots would be used.

Song of Ceylon

The film's narration was taken from a book written by Robert Knox in 1680, which Wright had discovered by chance in a store window. At the last minute, Wright inserted four titles which prescribes the film's symphonic structure: "The Buddha," "The Virgin Island," "Voices of commerce," and "The Apparel of the Gods." The first section, extremely slow, follows pilgrims up a mountainside to pray. The second shows the daily life of the people. "Voices of Commerce" juxtaposes two systems of labor, with the sound track ironically quoting British stock market prices and the arrival and departure times for ships while Ceylonese natives gather coconuts and tea leaves by hand. The last section returns to the religious and cultural life as it had been lived by the Ceylonese people centuries before the arrival of the British.

Not everyone responded favorably to the film's poetry and beauty. Variety's reviewer called Song of Ceylon "a shade too arty," despite its "splendid camera work." John T. McManus, in the New York Times, attributed the film entirely to John Grierson (without mentioning Basil Wright's name) and seemed bothered by what he called the film's "basic aloofness." He objected not so much to the film ("beautiful job. . . striking in photographic values. . . painstaking in composition and montage") as to its approach. "It certainly deserves the prizes it has won, but there are prizes it could not win," McManus concluded. The same could be said, however, for any film which, like Song of Ceylon, is one of a kind.

Basil Wright summed up his feelings about the film in this way: "I think Song of Ceylon is the work of a young man exposed for the first time to an oriental as opposed to occidental way of life, and to a very impressive and convincing oriental religion . . . . Without any question it's the only film I've ever made that I can bear to look at." Wright directed or co-directed some 25 other documentaries (including the celebrated Night Mail, with Harry Watt, and World without End, with Paul Rotha). He was also author of many film articles and reviews, as well as two books—The Use of Film and The Long View.

Cecile Starr, Film Reference.com

Song of Ceylon, Basil Wright the principal creator, is one of the accepted masterpieces of documentary. Sponsored by the Ceylon Tea Propaganda Board (Ceylon today is Sri Lanka), it is first of all remarkable in being so fully and freely a work of art while doing so little to sell the sponsor's product, perhaps even subverting its main goals. It may be even more remarkable, within the body of early British documentary, as a highly personal work, which, furthermore, emphasizes matters of the spirit. It is a moving hymn to a native people, their work, their ways, and their values in conflict with imposed requirements of modern commerce.

Formally, in aesthetic terms, Song of Ceylon is the most complex and sophisticated artwork of British documentary of the 1930s. Though it contains exquisite images of a golden time and place, not unlike those of Flaherty's Samoa in Moana, Wright's discovered Eden has a discordant note accompanying it.

The commentary is drawn from a 1680 book on Ceylon by the traveler Robert Knox. It provides an appreciative description of traditional life, which we see and also hear in reverberating gongs, native music, and rhythmic chanting to the dancing. In the third sequence, entitled "The Voices of Commerce," the discord erupts. Images of the indigenous and traditional are here accompanied by deep whistles of seagoing freighters, Morse code beeping on the wireless, English voices dictating business letters and listing stock market quotations. This medley of sound, plus a musical score suggesting an Eastern modality composed and conducted by Walter Leigh, was supervised by Cavalcanti. In addition to Wright's principal role, Leigh, Cavalcanti, and Grierson, to one extent or another, were all involved in the creation of the whole, which can astonish and delight audiences as much today as it did when first shown.

- Jack C. Ellis, Betsy A. McLane, A New History of Documentary Film. Published by Continuum International Publishing Group, 2005. Pages 66-67

“The anthropological text is performed both like a musical score and a theatrical ritual….The film engages the viewer in the cinematic body as spectacle…” Trinh T. Minh-ha, Discourse, Quoted in Women Make Movies

Song of Ceylon is the first great realization of the classic documentary texts of the 1930s. Exemplifying a new form of expression, it announces a period of experimentation that would produce the movement's most interesting films. The film is extraordinarily complex, much more complex than one could anticipate from a young filmmaker working within a newly formed and largely amateur production unit. In 1933 Wright, by his own admission, was still a neophyte in many respects, and, like the genre itself, open to a variety of experimental tendencies. Wright explicitly recognizes two crucial influences: the work of American documentarist Robert Flaherty and of Brazilian/French filmmaker Alberto Cavalcanti, both "marginal" innovators who, in the early 1930s, conserve the spirit of experimentation apparent in their earlier silent films.

Song of Ceylon is also complex because it embodies the political contradictions the documentary movement assumes by its position within the British state apparatus. On the one hand, the British documentarists identified themselves as socialists with a "socially progressive outlook"; on the other hand, they worked within a conservative state bureaucracy that demanded restraint and self-censorship. It is not surprising to find, therefore, that Song of Ceylon is, in many ways, a dissonant text, the locus of conflicts of an ideological nature. Moreover, Song of Ceylon, commissioned by the EMB and the Ceylon Tea Propaganda Board, raises the colonial question: how are British filmmakers to position themselves with regard to British exploitation of its colonies?

- William Guynn, "The Art of National Projection: Basil Wright's Song of Ceylon" Published in Documenting the Documentary, edited by Barry Keith Grant and Jeannette Sloniowski. Pages 83-84.

Once a routine entry on lists of the all-time ten best films, Wright’s Song is rarely sung anymore for its perceived chauvinism, although Wright may be ironically undercutting chauvinistic notions voiced in the late seventeenth-century text (by Robert Knox) that the film’s narration draws upon. Everyone agrees that the film is lyrical.

The opening tests the possibility of Wright’s irony. Ceylon’s “dark forest,” which the narrator (quoting Knox) says existed “since ancient times,” plants the land and its people in the symbolical “darkness” of ignorance, backwardness. But the accompanying tracking shot through forest is most striking for shafts of intense sunlight! The narrator proceeds to describe natives as making themselves “prostrate to the Devil” at night; but the accompanying image of grotesquely masked figures dancing in fire-lit darkness is sufficiently fantastic to suggest a dream, one perhaps lodged in the “civilized” Western mind that, we cannot help but note, presumes a literal belief in the Devil! In any case, the narration explains that Buddhism replaced such devil-worship as the film moves from night to day and from gaudy, pulsating closeups to orderly long-shots. We suddenly realize that the devil-dance is a performance, a reconstruction.

- Dennis Grunes

Song of Ceylon shows the land, people, and their customs, and most important of all, integrates many aspects of Singhalese life into the film, so that one is left with an impressionistic, but also seemingly accurate, picture of a foreign land. In accomplishing this, it also manages to avoid the cliches and predictable juxtapositions of the travel film genre. Technically, it makes significant advances in the use of combined dissolves, superimposition of visual images, and counterpoint sound. Altogether, it is a film of refined composition, restrained impact, yet rare power.

- Richard Meran Barsam, Nonfiction Film: A Critical History. Published by Indiana University Press, 1992. Page 93.

Song of Ceylon won enthusiastic plaudits at the London Film Society and went on to successful theatrical showings. Perhaps the Ceylon Tea Propaganda Board was delighted with it: the film put the Board on record as fervently admiring the Ceylonese and their culture. It made clear the role of tea as an imperial link. To others it may have suggested exploitation. Without question, the film made the rising British documentary movement known throughout the world.

- Erik Barnouw, Documentary: a History of the Non-fiction Film. Published by Oxford University Press US, 1993. Page 93.


Wright attempted in Song of Ceylon to give expression to the distinctive texture of modern life. In so doing, he created a symphonic poem. For he sought not only to uncover the different rhythms of the modern world, but to explore their interconnection through the construction of a complex whole. As the film's title suggests, Wright took a village in Ceylong as his focus; but in celebrating its rhythms of spiritual and material life, he revealed, simultaneously, its existence within an extended world of trade and commerce. Moving effortlessly between inside and outside, past and present, rural and urban, religion and commerce, the village and the world, Wright weaves together overlapping, intersecting and cross-cutting currents. As one critic wrote: '[Song of Ceylong] is a very important attempt at creating a picture of an entirely strange life, from the native rather than the foreign point of view, and to express the tempo of that life in the texture of the film itself.' The formal inventiveness of Song of Ceylon, the skillful use of the new medium of sound as a counterpoint to visual sequences and text, thus mirrors the complex and fluid world which Wright evokes through the substance of the film itself.

Wright's concern with complexity and movement in his 1935 work may be considered as a continuation of the tradition associated with the European and Soviet film-makers, such as Ruttman, Cavalcanti, Ivens and Vertov. During the 1920s, this group established a new genre, the city symphony. It was uniquely cinematic, and the use of montage represented a profound rejection of conventional forms derived from a literary aesthetic. Taking the city as a focus, these film-makers gave expression to the modernist fascination with speed, movement, machines, structure and process; and, for them, the cinema was an integral part of this new industrial, mechanised world. The camera itself moved as a machine, and as an advanced scientific instrument it could transcend human limitation. Cinema was celebrated as an industrial product, at the site of both production and consumption; the complex social relations embodied in cinema mirrored the characteristic features of the modern age.

But Song of Ceylon also marked a new departure in the tradition of the city symphony, not least because its centre was not the city per se. Although the film's formal qualities and construction owe much to Berlin - Symphony of a Great City (Ruttman), The Bridge (Ivens) or A Man With a Movie Camera (Vertov), its distinctive feature is the humanism of its vision. For, in important ways, Song of Ceylon echoed the poetic humanism most associated with the work of Robert Flaherty. If, on the one hand, the city symphony films were criticised because the people in them were turned into mere cogs in a vast industrial machine, objectified and dehumanised by an omniscient camera eye, the limitations of Flaherty, on the other hand, stemmed from his refusal to address movement or change at all. Wright, however, achieved a new synthesis, fusing the romantic lyricism of Flaherty with the intellectual brilliance of Ruttman.

- Anna Grimshaw, The Ethnographer's Eye: Ways of Seeing in Anthropology. Published by Cambridge University Press, 2001. Pages 127-128

It is not difficult to discern the traces of Flaherty and Cavalcanti in Song of Ceylon; the film is in fact full of photogenic effects which recall their work: 1) framing - the selection of position and angle - that results in special compositional effects; 2) manipulation of light and shadow for studied effects of comparison or contrast; 3) expressive use of superimpositions and dissolves; 4) camera movements which are either repeated or protracted so that they take on a self-conscious rhythm; 5) editing that brings out the poetic quality of a scene or links phenomena in unexpected, but visually coherent, associations...

By its musical title, Song of Ceylon evokes the symphonic documentary, with which it shares several textual problems. The unity of place is even more nebulous in Wright's film than in the symphonic documentary - most of it takes place "somewhere" in Ceylon. Moreover, the linear concept of time is suspended, since one of the concerns of the film is to evoke the timelessness of traditional Ceylonese life. Finally, the film abandons the notion of the individual human agent. The "actor" may appear in a cluster of shots showing a specific action - we see several views of a young man climbing a palm to harvest coconuts, for example - but he never reappears beyond the confines of the sequence. Consequently, there is little sense of continuity of action as performed by individual human agents.

In Song of Ceylon, editing is truly an art, since it demands the conspicuous intervention of the "filmmaker" who articulates shots on the basis of paradigms that are not already given and that the text must work to establish. Song of Ceylon, like symphonic documentaries, makes use of a complex visual rhetoric to link the shots in figurative or conceptual relationships. Continuity is often established through the artifice of form: repetition of camera movement, repetition of motifs, repeated dissolves. To the extent that they are liberated from narrative necessity, images are opened to other principles of association and therefore to other kinds of meaning. In the closing sequence of Part I, for example, figurative comparisons between the motifs are suggested through the formal device of a consistently moving camera. We see birds taking flight, Buddhas erect and reclining, and progressively more open landscapes - images that do not suggest a coherent physical place but transcendence, an ascent toward the divine. In Part III, which describes colonial exploitation of Ceylonese labor, the visual track is structured conceptually through a series of oppositions between the traditional and the modern, represented in alternating sequences: a segment describing the harvesting of tea by manual labor, for example, is followed by three shots of industrial machinery. This conceptual dissonance also occurs within certain sequences: an ocean liner appears as an unexpected insert within a sequence showing the harvesting of coconuts; inversely, an incongruous elephant disrupts a sequence devoted to describing commercial telephone and telegraph communication.

Song of Ceylon thus produces a grand rhetorical opposition between the realm of the divine, nature and unalienated labor on the one hand, and the crass realm of colonial exploitation on the other. Ceylonese life, as the film represents it, constitutes in this regard an admirable resistance to the debasing effects of colonial exploitation. The Ceylonese emerge, in their photogenia, as idealized beings, particularly in the film's third part, "The Virgin Island." They are in tune with the elements: a young boy's bathing takes on an ecstatic, ablutionary character; a fisherman casts his net into the sea as his son applauds from shore, his expressive hand abstracted in close-up against the sky. The motions of work produce vivid kinesthetic effects - the stages of the potter's work are sensitively observed and analytically edited. The painterly composition of the shots suggests their harmonious plenitude: fisherman repairing their nets are set out in depth against the background of their beached boat, the sea, and the sky. Moreover, this kind of aesthetic effect is meant to communicate a political dimension, for, as the voice-over informs us, labor remains a noble occupation among the Ceylonese, to whom wage-slavery is unknown: "But husbandry is the great employment of the country, and in this the best men labour. Nor is it held any disgrace for men of the greatest quality either at home or in the field if it be for themselves. But to work for hire, with them, is reckoned for a great shame, and very few are here to be found who will work so." Indeed, work is seen as a shared social activity, and, the film suggests, the Ceylonese make little distinctions between work and leisure. Women wear radiant smiles as they grind the grain, children fulfill the serious social obligation of practicing traditional dance, the fisherman casts his net over his son in a playful gesture of fatherly affection...

In Song of Ceylon we see the Art of National Projection caught in fundamental ambivalence. Commissioned as a work of propaganda to present positive images of the British Commonwealth, the film produces instead an ecstatic evocation of a paradise nearly lost. Rather than discovering in the world of commerce and its colonial outposts new representations of humanness and beauty, Song of Ceylon produces a critique of the whole enterprise of National Projection, stigmatizing the British presence as callous and exploitative. However, Song of Ceylon also reveals another basic ambivalence, this time toward the subjects it claims to represent. In "speaking for" the Ceylonese, the film reduces them to silence. It appropriates their images and subjects them to the distortions of exoticism. They become, in effect, terms in a discourse of protest against the reality of social relations in the industrial era.

- William Guynn, "The Art of National Projection: Basil Wright's Song of Ceylon" Published in Documenting the Documentary, edited by Barry Keith Grant and Jeannette Sloniowski. Pages 90, 91, 92, 94, 97-98.


Understandably, not all of the short films present are in excellent condition. Time hasn’t been too kind to many of the prints and even more so to their soundtracks. Yet the BFI should be applauded for the transferring of these materials and, indeed, for making them available to the DVD buying public (ignoring the fact that other labels, such as Panamint, have been issuing GPO discs – and videotapes – for a number years). As such whilst we must cope with hissing soundtrack (my only major complaint as sometimes this can become overbearing) and damaged film stock, the clarity and contrast of the imagery is never less than superb and we can feel comfortable that we are seeing these films in the best possible condition. Needless to say original Academy aspect ratios are adhered (without the unnecessary use of window-boxing the image, thankfully) as are the intended mono soundtracks. Hard of hearing English subtitles are also available on each of the films where applicable, and they similarly find their place on the additional material.

Though only two extras appear on the disc, both are welcome inclusions. The first, On the Fishing Banks of Skye, is a 1935 production directed by John Grierson and believed to be his last such credit. It’s featured amongst the extras firstly owing to its extremely rare nature and secondly because it doesn’t quite live up to his previous Drifters and Granton Trawler, both of which did much the same job. That said, the presence of Grierson himself as narrator ups the interest value as does the fact that many of us will be seeing this short for the very first time. The other addition is an intriguing little promo reel for the GPO Film Unit, featuring newly filmed material with the intention of giving us a look behind-the-scenes, as it were (though it’s far too tongue-in-cheek for that), plus fleeting looks at some of their productions. The fact that many don’t actually feature on this particular volume gives it the added quality of whetting our appetite for future volumes, which quite frankly can’t come soon enough! As already noted, there’s also the 76-page accompanying book which is easily the equal of that included in the Land of Promise boxed-set and can’t help but make the overall price of this package seem an absolute bargain. All told, a superb collection.

- Anthony Nield, DVD Times


I took a documentary class taught by Basil Wright who did “Song of Ceylon”. That really gave me a sense of direction. I remember having a conversation with Wright and he explained to me how he made “Song of Ceylon”. He told me you have to focus on a subject and always treat it with dignity and humanity. It was something I needed to hear. “Tell your story” is what he said.’

- Charles Burnett, interviewed in The Guardian

The humanitarian poet of the British documentary movement, Basil Charles Wright was born into a wealthy liberal family in Sutton, Surrey, on 12 June 1907. After attending Sherborne School he studied classics and economics at Cambridge University. Intending to become a creative writer, he fell under the spell of Europe's advanced cinema and began to make amateur experimental films with his own camera. In London his interest in the aesthetics of film-making was fed by screenings at the Film Society.

Impressed with one of Wright's efforts, John Grierson hired him in November 1929 as the first recruit at the Empire Marketing Board Film Unit; they remained lifelong associates. Initially Wright edited existing footage to fit EMB purposes, most elaborately in Conquest (1930), designed to show industrial technology's role in the development of North America. Russian montage habits influenced the cutting, though better indications of Wright's mature work appeared in films made from his own material: The Country Comes to Town (1931), a hymn to food manufacture in the countryside, and O'er Hill and Dale (1931), documenting the lambing season on the Cheviot hills. In The Long View, his history of cinema, Wright used as an epigraph Grierson's phrase 'All things are beautiful if you have got them in the right order', and these modest films - observant, precise yet lyrical - launched Wright's own search for the most perfect order, the most beautiful things.

In 1933, the year when the EMB film-makers metamorphosed into the GPO Film Unit, Grierson sent Wright to the West Indies and Ceylon to shoot material for packaging into promotional one-reelers. In Windmill in Barbados (1933) especially, evocative photography blended happily with fluid editing and authentic sounds, though the aesthetic triumph masked Wright's struggle, here and elsewhere, to puncture the official line by criticising colonial exploitation. The trip to Ceylon, with John Taylor as assistant, duly generated its own one-reelers, but the principal outcome was The Song of Ceylon (1934), Wright's most acclaimed and personal film: a four-reel symphony of images and sounds, forged from the director's newly-born passion for the Orient and the Buddhist religion. The four sections evoke Sinhalese life and culture in images photographed and edited with immense finesse, shaped within a montage-driven circular structure inspired by the magic circle of the Buddhist mandala. The film is also notable for its complex soundtrack, recorded in close collaboration with the composer Walter Leigh, brilliantly juggling native and Westernised music, spoken commentary, and the shivers of reverberating gongs in unexpected, disjunctive combinations of sound and image.

If Wright had found 'the right order' in The Song of Ceylon, the order proved difficult to recapture in films with less exotic subject-matter. As his career developed, he became increasingly sucked into producing, never his favourite task, though he made vital contributions to major films, including Night Mail (d. Harry Watt, 1936) and A Diary For Timothy (d. Humphrey Jennings, 1946). In 1937 he formed the independent documentary unit Realist Films. The first year's crop included Wright's Children at School (1937), a three-reel report on state-supplied education in Britain, its facts and analysis enlivened by the director's sensitive eye and the camerawork of A. E. Jeakins, henceforth a regular collaborator. The Face of Scotland (1938), made for the Films of Scotland scheme, avoided pretty scenery-gazing for a poetic treatment of hardy lives and a challenging environment.

Writing, lecturing and administrative work kept him from directing during the Second World War. He produced official propaganda films through the Grierson-dominated Film Centre and, following earlier experiences with World Film News, helped found and edit Documentary News Letter, the movement's chief mouthpiece during the 1940s. After briefly serving as supervising producer at the Crown Film Unit, in 1946 Wright founded International Realist - a name in line with his strong conviction in cinema's power to spread understanding. Waters of Time (1951), his first major post-war film, made with Bill Launder for the Festival of Britain, looked no further than the Port of London; but its mastery of its topic was typical, along with the balance between lyric poetry and practical fact. World Without End (co-d. Paul Rotha, 1953), a survey of UNESCO's work in Thailand and Mexico, proved less visually appealing but better fitted the International Realist template. In his remaining output, Wright's love of Greek culture inspired Greece The Immortal Land (1958) and a shorter survey of Greek sculpture. The Stained Glass at Fairford (1956) surveyed a Gloucestershire church's medieval windows, while A Place for Gold (1960) celebrated the craft of its sponsors, the Worshipful Company of Goldsmiths. All imparted their material crisply, sometimes poetically, though with little sign of the creative heat that had generated The Song of Ceylon - the masterpiece made when Wright the artist had not yet given way to Wright the public servant. In retirement, Wright gathered his experiences and knowledge into his personal history of the cinema, The Long View, published in 1974. He died in London on 14 October 1987.

- Geoff Brown and Jamie Sexton, Screen Online

Many thanks to Kathryn MacKenzie for her assistance with this entry on Song of Ceylon

966 (108). Bad Timing (1980, Nicholas Roeg)

Screened April 17-18 on Criterion DVD in Berlin, Germany TSPDT rank #926 IMDb Wiki

A fairly simple break-up story told through a dizzyingly baroque narrative flashing back and forth, Bad Timing is a buzzing paradox, revealing Nicolas Roeg at his most controlled and most unhinged; this study of a relationship on life support is both coldly clinical and emotionally raw, sometimes in the same scene. Roeg slices and shuffles his film like a puzzle, putting the viewer in an obsessive mystery-solving mode not unlike that of Art Garfunkel's psychoanalyst researcher Alex as he tries to impose order on Milena, a wild-eyed, beautifully impulsive Theresa Russell.  The two have next to no romantic chemistry, which is just as well since the film aims to be the ultimate depiction of breaking up in all its brutal truth. It's obvious that the two have next to no business being together: Russell as a wolverine of an aimless twentysomething wishing for unbound adulthood but who falls apart without a steady paternal presence; Garfunkel (impressively understated) as a intellectual whose attempts to convey rational authority give way to smugness and acts of male insecurity. But the leads give in fully to the frustrations of their characters, making their frequent miscommunication painfully compelling, especially in the erotic charge to their desperate attempts to connect.

The eroticism of disconnection is also scored brilliantly through Roeg's associative editing: Garfunkel's raising of a cigarette in one shot recalls a similar moment in another (him catching Russell lighting up with another man) and whose emotional subtext (jealousy, insecurity) loops back to the first. The piece de resistance is one of the most unromantic yet cinematically sexy love scenes ever filmed, cutting between Alex and Milena's emphatic fornicating and a comatose Milena undergoing a bloody tracheotomy on an operating table.  She's is a numb body being vivisected, not unlike like her dead-end relationship under the surgical scalpel of Roeg's editing.

Bad Timing is as obsessed with sex as Don't Look Now was with death, substituting the moody gothicism of Don't Look Now's Venice with a Vienna that evokes a Freudian commingling of civilized living and ominous sensuality. In both cases, the strenuous leaping to and fro of the narrative leads to a stark naked moment of confrontation where one's dark dreams erupt into full enactment: in the case of Bad Timing, a climactic rape scene of unapologetic frankness, ugly, brutal, and heartbreaking.



The following citations were counted towards the placement of Bad Timing on They Shoot Pictures list of 1000 Greatest Films:

Dominik Graf, Steadycam (2007) Frank Arnold, Steadycam (2007) Lee Hill, Miscellaneous (2004) Simon Ward, Independent Cinema Office (2005) David Thomson, Have You Seen...? A Personal Introduction to 1000 Films (2008) Sight & Sound, Fistful of Five: Amour Fou (2006)

Wonderful Bad Timing photo essay from Rotating Corpse that showcases Theresa Russell's many looks and the often exquisite compositions.

Nicolas Roeg's Cuisinart cutting strains to create the impression of meaning in this rather dishonest 1980 thriller about a Freudian psychiatrist's destructive involvement with a mystery woman. Apparently the decision to jumble the time scheme was made after shooting was completed, which may explain the mysteriously misplaced emphases in the playing, yet the film's real problem is Roeg's willingness to sacrifice the logic of situation and character to facile shock effects. In his way he isn't much different from the director of Friday the 13th.

- Dave Kehr, The Chicago Reader

When a film is structured like a puzzle, qualities that are merely bewildering can be made to seem mysterious, if only for a while. Nicolas Roeg, who habitually structures his films this way, has again relied on jumbled time sequences, allusive cutting and a wealth of similar techniques to give ''Bad Timing/A Sensual Obsession'' its suggestive, secretive air. But ''Bad Timing,'' unlike Mr. Roeg's ''Performance,'' ''Walkabout,'' ''Don't Look Now'' and ''The Man Who Fell to Earth,'' has a ponderous, trumped-up feeling. It lacks the shimmer of Mr. Roeg's best work. And it manages to seem both weighty and insubstantial.

The problems of ''Bad Timing'' can be traced, in part, to a screenplay that ascribes equal importance to all the incidentals of the love affair; they also stem from Mr. Roeg's confidence in the shaky proposition that these two characters hold a fascination for his audience. Dr. Alex Linden, played by Mr. Garfunkel, and Milena Flaherty, played by Miss Russell, are too often an unremarkable team. Alex, a celebrated professor of psychology, encounters Milena at a party, where she looks drunk and behaves brazenly; this is virtually her constant condition during the course of the film. ''If we're going to meet, it might as well be now,'' she says, blocking the doctor's exit with her leg. ''Why spoil the mystery?'' asks he. With that, they are off and running.

The struggle between Alex and Milena has to do with her desire for secrecy and his desire to know her, and with the contrast between her wantonness and his reserve. As the film begins, Milena has attempted suicide, which would suggest that their effort to bridge their differences has been unsuccessful. (If the suicide attempt doesn't do that, it at least gives Mr. Roeg occasion to cut repeatedly to the operating table, where Milena undergoes a grisly tracheotomy, and to juxtapose her cries of ecstasy with gasps from the operating room.) However, the events that lead her to such a desperate measure have no discernible momentum. The film is so jumbled it lacks a steady rhythm, and the story offers few clear highs or lows.

Mr. Garfunkel does a very creditable job of conveying Alex's reserve, but there is little in his performance to suggest a man in the grip of an obsession. And Miss Russell, who has also made memorable appearances in ''Straight Time'' and ''The Last Tycoon,'' brings to her role a reckless physicality that is both overwhelming and overused. Miss Russell makes gestures that involve her whole body, gestures that are almost frighteningly carefree; she is also capable of making almost any kind of behavior seem lewd. Her performance is hugely effective for a while, but Mr. Roeg allows her to repeat herself, and eventually monotony sets in. She and Mr. Garfunkel are given ample opportunity to connect, but they never manage this. Even in its moments of greatest urgency, their affair remains lukewarm.

Mr. Roeg goes to great lengths to make ''Bad Timing'' as exotic as he can. In a typically strained flourish, Alex and Milena are transported to Morocco, a transition Mr. Roeg accomplishes by letting sand pour out of a hollowed-out stone in Vienna, then cutting to the desert. And Alex is driven to commit a crime of passion, which is meant to be shocking, but hardly seems disturbing at all. The crime is uncovered by a detective, played by Harvey Keitel, whose movements are carefully integrated with Alex's, as if to establish a parallel, a duet, a duel. Like too many aspects of ''Bad Timing,'' this point is elaborately detailed, repeated frequently, and barely of any interest at all.

- Janet Maslin, The New York Times, September 21, 1980

Bad Timing (1980) is one of Nicolas Roeg's least seen films. The studio, Rank, hated it, publicly disowned it and briefly banned it from its own cinemas. This is particularly unfortunate, since it is a pivotal film in Roeg's career. The experiments in non-chronological storytelling that stretch back to Performance (co-d. Donald Cammell, 1970) blossom here in a film which is, on first viewing, difficult to follow, but is ultimately extraordinarily insightful and moving in its painfully close examination of a destructive love affair.

Abandoning chronology, Roeg jumps around, taking cues from objects, pieces of music, habitual gestures and various artworks, all of which link one moment in time to another. This makes the film a little disjointed at first, but also gives the relationship more of a sensory impact, as we go from highs to lows with little warning. The explicit sex, a Roeg commonplace since Performance, is interesting here for how un-erotic it is. There is a disgust throughout, about sex and about the human body, frequently distorted in mirrors, glass and paintings - the key moment being the intercutting of a bloody operation on Milena's throat with a particularly passionate sexual encounter.

The film marks the third collaboration between Roeg and Anthony Richmond, and the cinematography of Vienna is suitably cold and oppressive, which contrasts well with the brief excursion to Morocco. Tony Lawson's editing is exemplary, fracturing the narrative without rendering the film incoherent. Also noteworthy is the soundtrack, which mixes Pachelbel, The Who, Billie Holiday and, most memorably, Tom Waits, whose poignant 'Invitation To The Blues' sets the perfect tone.

- Mike Sutton, BFI Screen Online

Bad Timing is a clear example of a film way ahead of its time. What seemed obscure in 1980 is now crystal clear, and we follow Roeg's non-linear cutting patterns without the slightest confusion... The boundaries of normal flashbacks are clearly marked, allowing no confusion between the past and present. Roeg doesn't use flashbacks in the normal sense, but adapts film grammar to express a flowing state of consciousness. Past events become alive as we recall them. Colors, actions and dialogues trigger specific memories. Through the clarity and richness of Roeg's vision, they take on patterns that encourage meaningful interpretation. Artworks, music and objects are woven into the memory-fabric. Roeg 'encourages' some of these patterns to comment on the neurotic love relationship of Alex and Milena - the Kilmt paintings, for example, that center on brooding, intertwined lovers. At other times our attention is drawn to details given compositional stress, such as the pattern in a bed spread next to Linden's conflicted face. How many of our memories of important places and events are inexplicably dominated by images of unimportant details like wallpaper patterns, or cracks in a tile floor?

The density of Roeg's visuals enables reality to be eclipsed by an ever-changing set of visual interpretations. Alex Linden looks at a room, which pops back in forth between tidy and messy states, with and without Milena's drugged body as part of the decor. In his jealous delirium, a glimpse of her face will trigger memories of earlier moments - enigmatic smiles, provocative pouting. Netusil finds some photographs lying on a table, and comes up with another incorrect interpretation to add to Linden's own. Also, entire scenes are warped by a character's subjectivity. Linden confronts Milena in a college corridor, and her close-ups alter radically to match his inner turmoil - the focus becomes shallow, the background diffused.

Roeg also elects to change subjective viewpoints when he shows Milena's back story with her sad Czechoslovakian husband Stefan Vognic (Denholm Elliott). Lest we think her a helpless victim in this psychosexual drama, we see Milena toying with Stefan's affections. She pretends to be concerned, when she's actually amused by her ability to walk away from a man so hopelessly in love with her. Milena cherishes her sexual freedom, whereas Alex is rooted in the need to possess her, to make her exclusively his. Alex doesn't realize that he already 'has' Milena as much as she can be 'had', and it's his damning flaw (shared by most men) that he wants excusive rights. The conventional Alex is obsessed with Milena and can't stand the thought of her being with someone else, an attitude that naturally drives her into the arms of others. The movie is less about bad timing then it is about bad sexual chemistry. During a trip to French Morocco the lovers are in total harmony. She's ready to see their relationship go on forever, just as it is. But he wants to hurry to a position of control - a bill of sale in the form of marriage. Milena accuses Alex of being greedy in love, of demanding too much. Her continual question is, "What do you want?" (spoilers follow)

Art Garfunkel's poised inexpressiveness is perfectly suited to an intellectual accustomed to hiding his feelings to the point where he's not sure he still has any. Theresa Russell's performance is outstanding and as brave as can be imagined - one can picture a thousand actresses terrified by her ability to be truly uninhibited. Harvey Keitel would seem to be a terrible choice for an Austrian policeman. He underplays the role so thoroughly, we accept him without question.

Bad Timing is perhaps the culmination of the 70s idea of a director's picture. Ex-cameraman Roeg expresses more with his camera and cutting than any dialogue script could - the characters' attempts to use words to psychoanalyze each another repeatedly fail. Inspector Netusil bears down with a rational approach to the truth, like a Monk who has never seen a manifestation of God but knows his lot in life is to keep searching. Roeg and his cameraman Anthony Richmond get the maximum from their images. The visually precise Bad Timing outpaces even Roeg's earlier 'masterpieces' The Man Who Fell to Earth, Don't Look Now and Walkabout.

- Glenn Erickson, DVD Savant

Nicolas Roeg's Bad Timing is one of the most harrowing looks at human relationships ever told as a movie. In terms of sheer emotion and fortitude it ranks with Ingmar Bergman's Scenes from a Marriage as a marvelous portrait of male-female relations, but it is far more cinematic than Bergman's film. The claustrophobic, hermetically sealed cinematography and performances are so strong, and the subject matter so compelling that the film will remain with you long after it finishes.

Art Garfunkel and Theresa Russell are stunning in the lead roles. Garfunkel is utterly convincing as Alex. He captures well the intellectual prowess of a psychologist and the primitive desire of men; the controlled aggression of Alex towards Milena is quietly portrayed in Garfunkel's performance. Russell is even more impressive, however, being utterly captivating every moment she's on screen. Her performance is filled with remarkable courage, but not merely because Russell is willing to display her body with tremendous candor. The strength in her portrayal of Milena comes from her willingness to play the emotional dichotomy of the character. Denholm Elliott and Harvey Keitel are also effective in their roles, though they receive little room to develop their characters. In terms of the narrative's focus on the disastrous relationship, the underdevelopment of the supporting characters is understandable. However, part of me wishes that Keitel's Inspector Netusil received more attention in order to make the final scenes stronger.

Bad Timing is another excellent study in human nature from Roeg. His unique visuals and storytelling style never feel forced, but aid the themes of the film. Indeed, the cinematography and production design are uncomfortable, but they reflect the events on the screen. This is not a picture interested in utilizing Vienna's beautiful scenery to achieve visceral effects; rather, Roeg and his crew prefer to externalize their characters through the film's look and sound. The music is an eclectic mix of classical music and pop songs of the 1970s, but it almost always strikes the underlying purpose of a scene.

Some viewers may be turned off by the emotionally exhausting experience of viewing this movie, while others will see it as a rewarding experience chronicling human flaws. I belong to the latter group, having been stirred by Roeg's film in a manner similar to Bertolucci's Last Tango in Paris. If you are willing to commit yourself to these characters, you'll find they provide a fountain if insight.

- Nate Meyers, Digitally Obsessed

For me, Bad Timing, Roeg’s tale of erotic obsession starring Art Garfunkel and his wife, the actress Theresa Russell, has always been less of an unqualified success... Screenwriter Yale Udoff said that he wanted the film to be “Antonioni with humor,” but Roeg’s finished piece is not funny at all. It’s queasily disorienting, a film that feels like a hangover in which the good times are only hazily remembered.

Seen, however, 25 years after its release and in comparison to Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut, which also invoked the Vienna of Sigmund Freud (that movie was based on Arthur Schnitzler’s Vienna-set novel Traumnovelle), Bad Timing seems the more truthful take on sexual obsession and the question of how much we can ever really know about a partner in a relationship.

- Scott Macaulay, Filmmaker

To hide the fact that this is all much ado about nothing (well, very little), Roeg cuts the film together so it's impossible to figure out what's going on until midway through the film. (Once you get there, you shrug -- "That's it?" -- and most viewers will tune out.) He also saddles the movie with subplots and side stories that never pay off: Milena is still married and her estranged husband (Denholm Elliott, the classiest thing in this movie) pops up from time to time. Milena is also under investigation by the American military, and Alex is called in to evaluate her file. Neither of these plots amount to anything. In fact, the whole government investigation thing is all but dropped midway through the movie.

Roeg was probably right to try to salvage the film this way, attempting to create a mystery with few other options left to him. But given his two leads, there's really nowhere special he could have gone. Russell is indistinguishable here than in nearly any other movie she's made, and Garfunkel, a bad actor of epic proportions, is impossible to believe as the lover of such a brazen hussy. Even Keitel overdoes it: It's impossible to believe he'd spend so much time trying to reconstruct this case (which ultimately turns out to be a question of rape), when the victim will be up and around in a few days to simply tell him what happened. Do cops in Austria have this much free time?

Roeg gives the film a unique look, and the snappy cutting at least gives it some energy. Less can be said for his penchant to suddenly zoom in on random objects in the frame (an out of focus lamp?), but as an example of what was both good and bad in 1980s filmmaking, Bad Timing is at least instructive.

- Christopher Null, Filmcritic.com

I didn't enjoy watching Bad Timing. It is, indeed, a sick film, sick to the core (though made by nonsick people for nonsick people, despite the famous quote). Its sickness will invade you as you watch it. If you've had a bad breakup, been a bad man or woman, or ever been with one, this film will open up old wounds and pour cheap liquor into them. It is voyeuristic, yet seems so personal that it makes you feel narcissistic. Even if you personally would never throw a mentally ill woman down onto the stairs and ravish her in front of her neighbors, Bad Timing makes you feel like you might. Top that uncomfortable dose of perceptive insight with an overly convoluted narrative and visual style, mix in a healthy dose of padding—Bad Timing becomes one bitter pill.

With that nastiness out of the way, let's step back a second and evaluate this thing clinically. Bad Timing is exceptionally multilayered; you could literally write volumes on the themes within its deeply nested plot. It is helmed by a great, if unfairly marginalized, director. Bad Timing is honest, gritty, and dense, with intense visual imagery. If you can get past the unwholesome core and irritating trappings, Bad Timing offers a challenging artistic experience.

In Bad Timing, Roeg elevates Walkabout's creepy Agutter riff into an in-your-face refrain. It is intentionally voyeuristic, intensely intimate, and highly creepy. Perhaps films should be judged solely on their own merit and not in comparison to similar works. Nonetheless, the temptation to compare Bad Timing to Walkabout is hard to ignore. Both films had intense sexual politics set within forbidding social environments. Both films highlighted voyeurism and victims. But Walkabout featured innocent victims who did not choose their circumstances. Bad Timing has the same undercurrents, but with consenting adults who are free to take different paths. If you took Kramer vs. Kramer's sunny interpersonal banter, then mixed in some psychological rape and the bunny from Fatal Attraction, you'd be close to the feeling you'll get from Bad Timing.

Despite Roeg's best attempts to keep us off guard, Bad Timing wears itself out by the middle act, which seems to go on forever. We're long past the point where we "get" Alex and Milena's interpersonal dynamic. Nonetheless, we must suffer through Alex's tedious path of clinical discovery, a side trip to Africa, several breakups and get-back-togethers, and exhaustive police questioning before the twist-riddled denouement arrives. It all piles on top of itself to make Bad Timing a draining journey..

Roeg graces these scenes with powerful visual style. Bad Timing is carefully rendered throughout, telling us what undercurrents are present simply through lighting and set decor. The interplay between characters and environment is nuanced and complex. It should come as no surprise that Criterion's transfer flawlessly captures this style. The famous 1970s film stock degradation, if it even exists in this 1980 print, has been erased. Colors are muted but saturated well, with deeper black levels than I expected. The detail is passed through without molestation. There are some strange blurred effects in the last few reels, and I cannot tell if these are intentional or not.

- Rob Lineberger, DVD Verdict


If something in the scheme of things has put them down for each other, then something else might equally have kept them apart—something called chance. As Roeg has said of their initial encounter at the party: “If he had left a little earlier or a little later—it’s just bad timing.” There are so many ambivalences in the scheme of things—so much shifting between the operations of hazard, choice, and predestination—and the dazzling, fragmented style of the film is designed to catch this play.

There’s play as well around the concept of “bad timing,” when it ceases to signal a romantic collision and becomes a matter of police investigation. A problem emerges—it becomes the framing drama for the story of the love affair itself—about Alex’s own timing, what he did and when, on the night that marked the convulsive end of their affair, when Milena was rushed to the hospital in a coma, from a drug overdose. This triggers the intervention of police inspector Netusil (Harvey Keitel), who is the third point in what becomes an unusual triangular relationship, as well as the man who owns a ball-in-a-maze puzzle to match Alex’s. There is a case to be solved here, but like the impasse that confounds Alex and Milena, Netusil also has his own identity puzzle to solve. In part, this is a doppelgänger story, but an incomplete one. The detective sees himself in the psychiatrist, but imperfectly reflected: the two men dress alike, but Netusil’s suit is, as Roeg puts it, “off the peg”; the policeman has a diploma from Harvard, but it’s for athletics. Netusil’s struggle—to better, to transform himself—seems almost to be a physical one, whereas Alex works only through mind games.

Roeg plays on the similarities between the two men in dress and mannerism, and in their disdain for the messiness of Milena’s life. But they have arrived at different points in life; at that moment they are, as Roeg puts it, “on opposite sides of the mirror.” For Netusil, “his demon was leading him somewhere else. I don’t know where he’d go, but I know he was in a lot of pain in the end, Inspector Netusil.” The name itself is a key. Roeg tells how it came from a visit to a painter friend, in the Ariadne Gallery, in Vienna. The owner of the gallery was Frederick Netusil, a Czech name. “He said, ‘Do you know what it means? It means “the man who didn’t know something.”’ And he laughed—that’s why he’s a gallery owner, because he doesn’t know about painting. I said, My inspector must be Inspector Netusil.”

Roeg’s achievement, through the seventies and eighties, was to construct a form that might not have approached Greed in physical length but whose glittering piecemeal construction was another way to create this density of suggestion. Many critics who only noticed the glitter accused Roeg of being merely a glorified cameraman, dressing up the job he had previously carried out for other directors. But photography is no more important in this scheme than editing and production design. The turn-of-the-century Viennese art world is part of the emotional texture of Bad Timing, the contrast between the romantic shimmer of Gustav Klimt and the psychological darkness of Egon Schiele.

Udoff has talked about how his and Roeg’s conceptions of the project did differ slightly in one respect. According to Udoff, some humor was lost. “I wanted to be the Antonioni with humor,” but Roeg’s drive was to make it more intense. “There was always a push to make Garfunkel really a heavy, to make him unbearable. As the script evolved, I got the feeling that Nic thought of himself as the Theresa Russell character, and I was, in his eyes, the Garfunkel character. Nic is always being pursued by the studios, by people with scripts, just as, in Garfunkel’s mind, Theresa is being pursued by all these people. And I think he felt, in a way, in his own career as a director, a fear of being devoured by people who want him to do their work rather than his work. That was, in a sense, what he saw in the Theresa Russell character. It’s in how he directed her.”

- Richard Combs, The Criterion Collection

The tragic reality of Alex and Milena’s affair is beautifully hinted at in the opening scene. As Tom Waits sings ‘An Invitation to the Blues’ (’She’s a moving violation from her conk down to her toes…’) on the soundtrack, Milena stands in a gallery, studying Klimt’s painting, The Kiss. At first, the artwork appears to be a study of an amorous clinch. But closer inspection reveals a chilling undercurrent: the man in the painting is passionately kissing the woman but his lover’s cheek is slightly turned, a disengaged gaze in her eyes. Klimt captures this fleeting moment forever. And in that suspended beat, the couple have never been further apart.

Like Klimt, Roeg is fascinated by these momentary incidentals. In his films, the edge of the frame, the split second is where the truth is hidden, or briefly held. This can be nothing more than a humorous aside: as in the scene where Alex meets with a tea-drinking diplomat to discuss the legalities of divorce in a foreign land. Roeg’s camera glimpses a bowl of heart-shaped sugar cubes: a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it cry for sweet love perhaps. But Roeg also uses these flashes for unsettling purposes. And he does so with devastating effect early on in Bad Timing.

Alex is stood talking to a nurse in the hospital corridor, while a team of surgeons try to revive Milena. Netusil is led by the night duty officer past Alex. The two characters have not yet been introduced: they are strangers. Alex briefly looks up at Netusil and in that fraction, Netusil winks directly at him. It is nothing but, at the same time, everything. A link is made between the two: they are now somehow complicit in the events about to unfold. It is random, dazzling and confrontational. Just like the film.

- Ben Cobb, Electric Sheep

A corresponding sense of pressure-leading-to-fracture informs Roeg's visu­als. At first it looks in Bad Timing as if Roeg has gone for baroque, or, more ac­curately, for art nouveau. A Gustav Klimt portrait of a woman, her softly outlined head emerging from a razzle – dazzle mo­saic representing the sitter's dress, looms over the art gallery interior where Garfunkel and Russell meet. And it's not the film's last nod to that fin de siècle Aus­trian artist. Klimt was a painter who broke up the classical contours of oil painting into rainbow – hued fragments. In much the same way, Roeg has splintered and rear­ranged the linearity of orthodox movie storytelling.

If Klimt is a taking – off point for the film's style, the paintings of his pupil Egon Schiele add force and meaning to its content. Schiele's swirling expression­ist couples, bound in a morbid frenzy of lovemaking, were an offspring of art nou­veau, and it is no accident that Schiele's work is constantly glimpsed in the back­ground of Roeg's Vienna-set meditation on love and death.

The film's eye-blink editing and sudden juxtapositions create a running concatena­tion between Eros and Thanatos: Scenes of lovemaking between Garfunkel and Russell cut (in flash-forward) to scenes of Russell lying on the hospital operating table after her suicide attempt. And throughout the movie, structure is dictated less by the demands of linear chronology than by the polar attraction of opposite themes.

Furthermore, where Garfunkel and Russell are set against each other in the film, Garfunkel and Keitel – two ob­server-investigators – grow mysteriously together during the film as hero and doppelgänger, ghostly comrades. "One of the basic ideas of the film," says Roeg, "is observing, spying. In the scene where he lectures a university class, Garfunkel talks about the voyeur impulse. And he him­self, an analyst, is a spy of sorts. Every­body watches everybody. That's what we all do – not least film audiences. There's a voyeuristic appetite for detachment, for the vicarious, that's a key part of people's personalities. "

Roeg adds, "Keitel and Garfunkel in the film are really aspects of the same character. Keitel's a kind of alter ego. They're both watchers and analysts – men who want everything to be tidy, obedient, pliant to their wills."

This theme of moral manipulation runs right through Bad Timing. Allied to the film's recurring voyeur motif and to Roeg's use of erotic angles in the love scenes – the camera shooting over thighs or between legs – it virtually invites us to see an analogy with cinema itself, and perhaps with Roeg's own cinema in par­ticular. More than any living director, Roeg makes an audience feel that his film is not so much taking place on a flat screen, in finite space and time, as ex­ploding multidimensionally around them.

Roeg pursues this multidimensional­ism right from the beginning of his plan­ning on a film. I asked him if he story-boarded or meticulously prepared his films. He replied, "No, no, no, no. Not meticulously in that way. I like to get who the people are safely in my head, what their problems or their happiness or their sadness is from. After that, I like to keep a certain plasticity about them. Otherwise, they're no longer living. I like to keep them living right up to the time the print comes out of the lab."

- Harlan Kennedy, American Cinema 1980

To conclusively detail all this film’s stylistic quirks would be impossible in anything less than novella form.  As previously stated, flashbacks are integral to the film’s construction, and come in many forms: as quick two-or-three frame intercuts, as flashbacks within flashbacks and even flashforwards within flashbacks.  At one point Alex brutally reprimands Milena and then his mood abruptly changes...and we realize we’re watching the moments preceding the outburst we’ve just witnessed.  Disorientation seems to be Roeg’s overriding goal.  Note his preference for jarring music cues, in particular the song that plays over the opening shot: a view of a museum painting whose serene mood is broken by Tom Waits at most gravelly.  Waits’ voice is in turn cut off by the even more discordant tones of a siren...a perfect lead-in, it turns out, to a singularly bleak story.

- Adam Groves, Fright Site

"The ground that makes me nervous in Bad Timing," says Roeg, "the thought that makes me tremble, is that I don't want to see in this love affair that sentimental middle area that I think we all know. It's a real, very painful love affair. When one's in love, the moments of lyrical love are to me implicit in people's behavior. It's actually something in that other, pub­lic manner that makes you understand that they have those moments of lyrical love.

"I remember when I'd finished Don't Look Now, I was cutting it and looking at it. There's a love scene between Julie and Donald – it's only an interlude – and I wanted to see what I was doing with that scene, whether the intention was right. So I tried taking it out. Now, in that film the emphasis is on a state of mind; things aren't necessarily what they seem in life. Without that love scene, you never see them get happy together; they're always rowing, Julie's always grumbling and running beside this tall chap saying, 'You don't understand.' They seem so miserable all the time! But most people do seem miserable: Love is a very miser­able affair. And when I put that scene back in, suddenly you can't get confused about them. They're like a married couple. They are a proper married couple. They don't get up and open doors, they don't have candlelight dinners, but – in that scene after they've made love – he washes his toothbrush in her bathwater, she brushes up against him, he touches her. It makes you safe that they're happy, or, anyway, that they're real."

- Nicolas Roeg, interviewed by Harlan Kennedy, American Cinema 1980


Four days into the shoot his two tyro stars begged Roeg to let them leave, and he knew he was on the right track. "Theresa came first. She said, 'I don't think I'm up to this. I'm terribly nervous. Please let me leave.' I said, 'No. I won't let you. I'm glad you feel that way.' Then I asked Art in. I told them, 'This isn't like another movie. We're shooting fragments of scenes; there's nothing to rehearse. We're in a city none of us knows, an empty landscape. I must ask you to trust that I know where I'm going. It's a maze, but there is an end to it.' We had some Martinis, and they agreed. Somehow, it was a release. I felt all right about pushing them further and further."

One of the many emotional scatterbombs stumbled over was that Roeg and Russell fell in love (they later married). I wonder if the fearless chaos of her performance is what he fell for. "When you admire someone's work, you are amazed by who you think they are," he says. "But their real secret is masonic: they keep it right to the end. Very few people are prepared to let you all the way in - to Kafka's 'point of no return'. We went very far. As it turned out, not all the way. Theresa knew it was too dangerous. That's all in the movie."

It was worse for Garfunkel. Like his repressed character, he had little idea what was in store. "As we worked, I think he recognised a truth in his character's obsession in himself," says Roeg. "Then he had to decide whether to play it so people he knew would recognise it. It was like coming out. The actors were all nervous and guilty."

The actors' immersion into their parts became painful. At the film's half-way point, when Russell vengefully demands sex with Garfunkel on the stairs, and he looks up at what's on offer like a naughty schoolboy, fearfully grabbing her, her skin mottling and flushing, the old claims that there was real penetration on the set of Performance seem small beer: here, psyches are stripped. And soon the fever spread through the crew.

"Everybody was peeling themselves open," Roeg remembers. "It was a wild time, there was a great feeling of release - sexually, emotionally. It was exhilarating. I remember one day we shot for 24 hours. I think I was the one who said, 'I can't take it any more. I've had enough.' We were shooting six or seven days a week. It was claustrophobic - play the part, go to sleep, go back. I abandoned control, and something magical came in. Bad Timing began to live itself. I kept out of the way of its forcefield. It was a bit of suspended time. A parallel universe."

Everyone caught their breath when Garfunkel and Russell's characters took a break in Morocco. Shooting on the edge of the Sahara, they felt free, adventurous. But it was the calm before the storm - the long day, back in Vienna, spent filming the rape. It looks deeply uncomfortable - Russell's head hanging back from her bed, while Garfunkel tears her clothes with a penknife, and enters her over and over. Shooting it was "shocking", Roeg remembers. 'The actors were frightened when they realised the disgust you feel when you can't control yourself. It's an extraordinary, horrible crime, rape. And you don't often see the rape of the unconscious. Usually it's someone dragged screaming into the bushes. There's a lot of acting going on. There wasn't a lot of acting in that scene."

After a break, some of the crew reassembled for a final scene in New York. But Garfunkel's performance was distant. They'd left their parallel universe and couldn't go back. Roeg scrapped the scene. But he began post-production thrilled at the work they'd done, sure audiences would recognise the characters' emotions.

But, Roeg recalls, "it was received for the most part very poorly." At the first test screening in America, I was going to meet a friend, a quite well-known actor. Afterwards, he got into his car, drove it at me, and swerved off. He wouldn't speak to me for three years. I didn't realise till then how seriously people resent you holding a mirror to their face."

Keitel and Garfunkel became firm friends from the experience. Roeg and Russell returned to Bad Timing's themes in other undervalued work such as Cold Heaven (1993), in which Russell's half-dead, cuckolded husband recovers from the surgeon's scalpel to test their love.

- Nick Hasted, The Guardian


One of the most film-like transfers I have seen from Criterion.  I don't even think the screen captures give it true justice in this case. Everything seems perfectly balanced and exacting in the color dept. with a clean anamorphic, progressive transfer that produces a sharpness that appears acute. Extras speak for themselves - and I was most keen on the enigmatic Roeg being interviewed and discussing the film (I do suggest watching it after the film itself as it does give away a lot of the film's plot details). Theresa Russell comes across is a far better light as a serious actress than a lot of the T&A fluff that has become associated to her through her career. Strongly recommended DVD package from Criterion.

- Gary Tooze, DVD Beaver

The deleted scenes are interesting for historical context, but it is obvious why they were cut. The photo gallery and liner notes booklet seem to have taken uppers and turned into mega-gallery and super-booklet. The liner notes are particularly impressive, with an informative essay and a telling interview with Art Garfunkel from Rolling Stone, and more.

The interviews are the real heart of the extras. Theresa Russell is luminous and salty while discussing this soul-rending film. She seems refreshingly normal in comparison to the intensity she shows in her scenes. This is one of the most peppy, informative, and involving actor interviews I've seen. It goes on forever, and gets more interesting as the interview goes on. Roeg and producer Jeremy Thomas somehow manage to seem stuffy and maverick at the same time, which goes along with their jocular dismissal of the intense pain and frustration involved with Bad Timing's distribution. Their interview also goes on forever, and is as informative as Russell's but not as engaging. Maybe it has to do with Theresa's considerable screen presence, so the comparison is hardly fair. The point to take home is that this pair of interviews is as detailed as a full-length commentary, but even richer for the face time and stills from the production mixed in.

Roeg appreciators will be in heaven with this DVD package. This is one of his most hotly contested films, and it was a turning point for him artistically and commercially. For these reasons, Criterion's interest in the film is understandable. Nonetheless, some of the stylistic decisions are best left in the seventies—and it is a psychologically brutal film that will terrorize you if you've ever been in a bad relationship, or been the bad one yourself.

- Rob Lineberger, DVD Verdict


IMDb Wiki

Magician with a Movie Camera: Nicolas Roeg tribute at the 2009 British Academy of Film and Television Awards, with video clips of Roeg's acceptance speech, on-camera tributes by numerous directors and a tribute video by Steven Soderbergh

The following quotes are found on They Shoot PIctures' profile page for Nicolas Roeg:

"A former clapper boy, lighting cameraman and cinematographer who belatedly moved into directing, Roeg never seemed totally at ease in front of the camera (or, perhaps more accurately, beside it). His visuals are often wonderful, but his later scripts can be woeful, particularly in the case of Eureka (1983)...If this all sounds unduly critical, it shouldn't be taken as such, for Roeg's standards and his expectations of himself are high, and his is a genuinely eclectic talent which can provoke, puzzle and satisfy in roughly equal measures." -     Mario Reading (The Movie Companion, 2006)

"Nicolas Roeg is a visual trickster who plays havoc with conventional screen narratives. Choosing an oblique storytelling formula, he riddles his plots with ambiguous characters, blurred genres, distorted chronologies, and open-ended themes to invite warring interpretations." - Joseph Lanza & Rob Edelman (The St. James Film Directors Encyclopedia, 1998)

"From his directing debut Performance (made with Donald Cammell) onwards, Roeg deployed a fragmented, associative editing style to shift between reality and fantasy, fear and desire, past, present, and future in diverse genres...Excepting Walkabout and Don't Look Now, the results, while intriguing, have often lacked coherence; the narrative complexity and bold, baroque images can seem a gloss imposed on conventional stories." - Geoff Andrew (The Director's Vision, 1999)

"When I was 12 years old, my father said the most extraordinary thing to me. 'The day you're born is your only chance to really have tomorrow, because by the day after you've got yesterday.'"

- Roeg, interviewed by Richard T. Kelly for Film In Focus

"I  don't like the film business. I don't like the British film business. I don't like the American film business, I don't like the French, German … I don't like the film business. I like filming. I'm a filmmaker."

"I've always wanted to get my thoughts over in film visually, without the intermediary of literature. I actively prefer to be in the cinema, but not the cinema of literature, which is like Victorian picture books. Faced with that, I'd rather stay at home and read."

"Before the whole Gutenberg galaxy thing, storytelling was more intimate, more immediate – like film. Printing con­fined a story within a binding and imposed artificial limits. It made stories into lengths. But before that, in the oral tradi­tion, stories could continue forever. It's one of the basic concepts of living that stories are one great story of which all stories partake."

"When I was in India," Roeg con­tinues, "I watched storytellers on the street corner. They used a very different form from that postulated by the printed page. Although I couldn't understand a word, I was fascinated! The storyteller would entice his audience, first putting a hand in his pocket and then gradually taking out a packet of matches, then a candle, then a knife, and an old flower. And he talked, gradually telling a story of death – some old extraordinary raja, you know. And then the story would de­velop in his, and out of his, own person­ality – and that was the storyteller's life and world."

- Roeg, quoted in interview with Harlan Kennedy, American Cinema 1980

Another 1980 interview, from the Toronto Film Festival (where Bad Timing won the Audience Award) by Gerald Peary

Your work also has a marked juxtaposition of fantastic and realistic scenes. Is this unusual mixing of styles conscious or once again an intuitive thing?

Well, more a mixture of the two. At times I've consciously wanted to get within the 'mind' of the story, which has meant getting away from realism. In other times it has happened unconsciously, evolving from the situation, location or the direction of the performances, all of which have taken on an unreal state.

Do you bring any influences to bear when creating these juxtapositions?

I really liked the work of Michael Powell, and in particular films such as A Matter of Life and Death (1946) and Peeping Tom (1960). When you think of his work, it was also a mixture of realism and extravagance. I thought he was an extraordinary figure and a very daring director.

When you began experimenting with this gap between fantasy and reality, was 'realism' still deemed to be the 'accepted' form of British filmmaking?

Well, there was this idea of 'naturalistic' cinema, but it was very falsely realistic. It wasn't that true to the outside world because it was very controlled. You must remember that a film production is a living thing, as it is being shot it begins to have a life of its own. The director's role then is more like a jockey who is impatient to start the race; he just wants to go. But a film can never fully be controlled in any sense. Too much control kills anything!

- Interview with Roeg by Xavier Mendik for kamera.co.uk

"Everything has a price," reflects Roeg. "Is it the right price? I don't know. It depends what you want in life. I've never been rich and I've always done okay. The price I've paid is that I haven't been able to do all the pictures I'd have liked to do. That's the price. Maybe I've stuck with things too long that haven't been made, and the thing has exhausted itself or the idea has been done by somebody else. Sometimes people say to me, 'oh whatever happened to that old thing you were working on?' and I've dug it out, and found that its time has gone."

- interviewed by Matthew Sweet for The Independent

On the surface it would appear that Roeg has fallen distinctly out of fashion, but one only has to list the four films he made in the '70s to be reminded how important Roeg was and still is. In Walkabout (1971), Don't Look Now (1973), The Man Who Fell to Earth (1976) and Bad Timing (1980), Roeg rendered the very real and specific locales of the Australian outback, the canals of Venice, the American Southwest, and Vienna with both an appreciation for their exotic appeal and a dread of their terrifying unknowability. Behind all of these films is a question about landscape: how can we even think we can understand the ones we love, when we can't even feel at ease in the places we live in? To the chagrin of many critics, Roeg did not delineate this existential paradox with the austere moralism of Bergman or the godlike minimalism of Bresson, but instead seemed to revel in the beauty of this horrifying enigma. In Roeg's films, characters don't realise they are in hell because they have been having too much fun for the most part. And by the time they do realise what is happening, they have resigned themselves to the fact that they are past the point of no return. When I first became enamoured of Roeg's work as an overenthusiastic teen cinephile in the '70s, I called him a "romantic nihilist." I think the label still applies and I think this combination of overreaching expressionism and elegant despair is what makes him such a fascinating director.

- Lee Hill, Senses of Cinema Great Directors Biography

Dissolves were a technique used during the early days of cinema that lead viewers from one image to another without losing the audience’s train of thought. The logic, thus, was to ease the viewers into scenes without startling them by a cut. However, if executed properly, viewers can certainly follow a story that is cut and mangled. On example is in Bad Timing, where a young woman and a doctor have a relationship that goes terribly wrong. The film opens with the young woman is in the hospital, and we watch as a doctor dances around the questions posed by the police. During this sequence, the doctor remembers aspects of his relationship with the young woman; a fight, a look, them having sex, etc. By the end of the film, we can piece together what happened to this young woman; although it feels disjointed and erratic, it’s actually quite logical. Roeg pointed out that the film is constructed according to the shape of human memory and, thus, doesn’t develop as one complete story but, rather, in pieces.

Order is something that Roeg likes to play with frequently, especially the flash-forward. In Performance, Mr. Turner is shown early in the film, long before he’s introduced. We don’t hear any dialogue, nor do we encounter any other significant information about him. But a connection is being created here between Turned and Chaz. Roeg uses the flash-forward in a way to temporarily disrupt continuity, or to give the illusion that things are out of sync when, in actuality, they aren’t.

There’s a particular scene in Don’t Look Now where John and Luara are having sex, but while they having sex the continuity is intercut with them dressing right after and it goes from them having sex to each of them dressing and back and forth until both acts are completed. Here, the illusion of time is suspended between the couple having sex and then re-dressing, but the cutting blends together the time of the couple having sex and of them dressing into one time frame, comparing the routine of their having sex with getting dressed.

There’s a definite arc to Roeg’s early films - from a visual director who captured counter-culture and beatniks in Performance, to a director who blended images and content to convey story and emotion in Walkabout, and to a complete dismantling of how continuity works in relation to what we are seeing. Roeg’s early work is a testament to a strong visual story and the progression of someone who wants to astound the audience by making them not want to look away from what they are seeing.

- Meseret Haddis, Tisch Film Review

Video Essay for 922 (63). The Draughtsman's Contract (1982, Peter Greenaway) with Karina Longworth

Karina Longworth is the editor of SpoutBlog. Her writing has also appeared in FILMMAKER Magazine, The Huffington Post, Netscape, NewTeeVee, The Raw Story and TV Squad.