Prospero's Books
A Film by Peter Greenaway


Prospero's Books, a new film from Peter Greenaway, is a bold experiment. Although it isn't entirely successful, it certainly has moments of real transcendence, and opens up new directions for film.

Based on Shakespeare's The Tempest, the film has a wealth of good material to start from. The interwoven plot of this Elizabethan drama seems startlingly modern in this treatment. Greenaway tells the story following the original script, but using overlapping images of the past and present, flashbacks, dream sequences, and the unique power of film to integrate reality and various levels of imagination, in a way that adds tremendous intensity and depth to his interpretation of the play.

The great success of Prospero's Books lies in this remarkably creative use of the imaginative abilities of film. The exceptional appeal of movie animation has always been its ability to make the impossible happen, but this has rarely been exploited in live action films except as "special effects". In Greenaway's film, as in animation, the transition from the real to the imaginal, from the ordinary to the impossible is often seamless.

The camera, the cinematic process itself, is a character, expressing through its changes of style, point of view, and the images it presents an emotional and psychical response to the story that is being presented. We do not simply see the story unfold. We see and hear the inner processes, the images and reactions of the narrator to the story he is telling.

The story that is being told is not the focus of the film. Instead, the focus is the process of telling the story, which starts with the story itself, but expands to include a relationship between the storyteller and the listener. What Greenaway is creating here is something like the departure that expressionist painting made from representationalism. We are offered an opportunity not only to watch the story, but to experience it from Greenaway's point of view and to respond.

Gaugin's expressive use of color is not intended to be seen as a literal copy of the colors of nature, and Van Gogh's energetic brush strokes are not an imitation of his visual experience but a reaction, and interaction with it. In the same way, Greenaway attempts here to create a new language of film that goes beyond the merely surreal to explore the multiple layers of reality that we condense into what we define as our "experience".

This is done in a variety of ways. Often, in superimposed images, we see a particular episode being acted out in the center of the frame, within a border that is an image of Prospero's condition as he is telling the story, and simultaneously we see the narration being written, and hear the words being spoken as they are being written!

By shifting the emphasis back and forth between these shifting levels, and between our various senses, Greenaway manages to overwhelm the ordinary sense of "seeing a film," and shift the normally passive and receptive role of the audience to an active role of keeping balance and actively responding to images he creates.

Greenaway works like a composer of music. Individual notes have no inherent "meaning," but connected in certain ways, played at certain tempos, on particular instruments, they have the power to evoke strong feelings for an audience. The images of Greenaway's film work, on one level, in a similar fashion.

At first the endless images of nakedness that surround and permeate the whole film seem like a sort of Busby Berkeley in the buff, but soon the sense of nudity, like a word repeated over and over, loses it usual sense of significance, and becomes just an image, as the word becomes just a sound.

Another apt metaphor might be that of poetry, where the sound and rhythm of the words may make as much of an impact on us as their "meaning". Greenaway seems to be struggling to go beyond the literal meaning of his visual and aural images, beyond even their "symbolic" meaning, and to confront the audience with an actual experience, including his presentation and our response to it.

His effort is amply supported by an enthralling performance by Sir John Gielgud. The difficult Shakespearean dialogue yields up its poetic magic to his straightforward delivery that makes it sound almost conversational. Without apparent effort or "acting," he presents an outer image of the character that reflects in diverse and subtle ways the inner experiences we witness.

Gielgud's characterization is the center around which all of the swirling, confusing, conflicting images revolve. Without the concentration and coherence of his performance, this film might have dissolved into a meaningless random presentation of images, like Greenaway's earlier attempt in The Cook, the Thief, His Wife and Her Lover.

Of course, like any experiment, there are things that don't work. Some of the images are too clearly defined- they become prosaic rather than transcendent, like the angels in a Christmas pageant. Some of Greenaway's personal obsessions- boy sopranos, and a fascination with maggots and excreta- that carry over from earlier films seem out of place here, although some - the image of pages from books raining down like leaves- work very well.

Some of the images (the birth of Caliban for instance) seem to be bizarre and outrageous just in order to shock. Perhaps Greenaway thought this would be necessary to dynamite the audience out of the trenches of their assumptions of what was and was not possible on film, but I found it distracting and a little condescending.

The richness of the images, that often fill the screen with detail from edge to edge, and are far too much to be "seen" in the ordinary way, does not always work. The disorientation this overload of impressions creates sometimes serves the progress of the film, but at other times seems to be produced like a trick, to manipulate the audience when Greenaway doesn't know what to do next.

But above all, what bothered me was the lack of humor. Greenaway's vision of The Tempest managed to find new depths in the serious considerations of the play- the contrast betweens man's civilized and uncivilized impulses- but ignored all the humor and foolishness that makes the play such a pleasure. The ballet and acrobatics of the spirits never feel playful and light. Ariel's tricks seem vicious and spiteful, vindictive, without a hint of merry prankishness.

Even the characters of Caliban, Trinculo and Stephano, who are the -albeit somewhat black- clowns of the piece, are played strictly for their degradation and debasement, and not at all for the all too human foolishness and weakness that Shakespeare pokes fun at in the original.

Prospero's Books is not a light evening at the movies. It is a difficult and challenging experience, confusing and sometimes unpleasant. It is a daring and exciting departure for film, if a bit too serious and self-conscious. It is a vivid piece of storytelling in its own right and a glimpse into one of the possible new directions movies may take in the next decades.

That's my take on it. What's yours?