The last two years have been very good to Japanese art-house darling Hiroshi Teshigahara. Unfortunately, he's been dead for the last eight.
Until July of 2007, the name Hiroshi Teshigahara meant nothing to me. However, that month Criterion released a superb trilogy of films (Face of Another, Woman in the Dunes, Pitfall) by the Japanese director. It was then that I realized what I had been missing. I watched the three films rabidly and pored over the special features and the bonus disc included in the set. Still, I wanted more.
In March of this year, Criterion again stepped up to bat and released another long out of print Teshigahara classic, Antonio Gaudi. While not as essential a work as the former three, it is nonetheless a playful and contemplative film that does justice to both Gaudi's sculpture and architecture, but also - and perhaps more pointedly - it distills Teshigahara's filmic vision down to its essence.
In viewing this film, I realized that this was the perfect pairing of director and subject, however unlikely that may seem for those familiar with both artists' work. Although Teshigahara and Gaudi reside at opposite stylistic poles, and come from incredibly different artistic backgrounds, the clinical - not cold - eye of the director lingers over the sensual, simultaneously earthy and alien forms of the architect, and we feel that we are exploring new ground. The long takes and slow pans that Teshigahara employs force the viewer to see what the director wants us to see - perhaps the perfect example of the power of cinema to hold and arrest the gaze of the audience. Teshigahara approaches the works of Gaudi with a reverential eye, and not only highlights the stunning forms, but also goes on to create his own sort of art. By showing in close up the sinewy and undulating forms of Gaudi's work, he removes them from their immediate context and renders them abstract, forcing us to reconsider not only what we are seeing directly on screen, but its place within the larger work.
Teshigahara's preference for narrating a film with imagery rather than dialogue is again on display here. In fact, the few brief instances of a character speaking in the film are rather jarring. The end goal of both architect and filmmaker is to speak through images and forms, light and shadow, solid and void - in this sense, Teshigahara, like Gaudi, succeeds wonderfully. And by contrasting certain scenes at the film's outset - Spain's deeply religious rooting is shown through church frescoes and sculptures, and Spaniards dancing in the town square, eating, working, dealing in the market and generally going about their daily lives shows the secular way of life - Teshigahara effectively describes a cultural background rich in both the sacred and the profane, the cultural background which deeply influenced the work of Gaudi.
Throughout Antonio Gaudi, we see many recurring visual motifs, such as the spiraling, shifting, snaking shapes that so entranced Teshigahara as well as the entomologist (played by Eiji Okada) in Woman in the Dunes. The director seems genuinely captivated by the architecture as would be any tourist, and even though we have seen the buildings before, whether in pictures or on-site, Teshigahara's wonder of discovery translates beautifully and we feel as if we are seeing Gaudi for the first time. Teshigahara's is a foreign eye discovering and revelling in the forms that surround him. If you also keep in mind the difference of the Japanese and Spanish artistic traditions, Teshigahara's austere, minimalist filmmaking compostions layered over Gaudi's everything-in-the-mix aesthetic is all the more impressive. Imagine John Cage or Philip Glass recording an album of Beck songs and you see where this could have gone terribly wrong.
And speaking of music (what a segue), the film's otherworldly score that sounds like it could have been created by Herzog faves Popul Vuh mixes with classical compositions to set up the works on display. There is often a sense that we are being taken on a guided tour of a spaceship, or through one of the many rooms in Willy Wonka's chocolate factory.
I began wondering, about 60 hypnotic and awe-filled minutes into the film, why exactly is it that we are drawn to architecture? Not only Gaudi, but, to use an example with more currency and relevance to us, why have the newly finished ROM and AGO structures caused so much hoopla in town? Is it the superstar architects themselves? Is it simply that we like to look at pretty things, and consequently feel better about ourselves for living in a more "beautiful" city? Bragging rights? I came to realize that Gaudi's work, and as the utmost extension of that, architecture, sculpture and art, allow me, personally, to see and touch mankind's capacity for creation and desire to dream. In gazing upon these finished structures, these living dreams, we can see and feel those fleeting intangibles, the manifestion of which eludes all but a tiny portion of us. Teshigahara's film allowed me to realize that, and I am grateful for the experience.