Pitfall/Woman in the Dunes/The Face of Another
1962/1964/1966Director: Hiroshi Teshigahara
Cast: Tatsuya Nakadai, Hisashi Igawa, Eiji Okada
ntonioni, chronicler of all things vanished, is gone; an appropriate fate, I guess—not that there was much choice. RIP, buddy.
Antonioni, Antonioni, Antonioni! And Resnais. In their prime 60s work, zeitgeists of the art-house era, only subjective consciousness can create any contingency between the past and the present, and one person and another—and in Antonioni’s films, the characters barely have consciousness. But they are always searching—to try to make someone’s death or disappearance have an impact on their life, to break out of their subjection to the landscape, to regain what is lost and what, as in the ending of La Notte, they’re not even sure existed. Antonioni’s characters never can believe in any reality except that which they can see in front of them, and identity can only be asserted physically. “People disappear every day,” they say in The Passenger. “Every time they leave the room.” Pure existentialism, of course. As in the ending of L’Eclisse: the world goes on; as in the entirety of Red Desert: people become victims to the civilization they’ve wrought.
Hiroshi Teshigahara, whose primary trade in life was flower decoration, was clearly influenced, alas. An alleged member of the commercially-branded “Japanese New Wave,” Teshigahara’s free-floating portraits of missing persons are all existentialist pictorialism without any of the unleashed anger and free-for-all blitzkrieg dynamics of his colleagues like Nagisa Oshima and Seijun Suzuki. Though, like Shohei Imamura and the others, Teshigahara takes an entomologist’s detached eye to his subjects (bugs come up repeatedly), the effect is less one of critical distance than of disinterestedness; unlike the people in Antonioni, Resnais, Oshima, Suzuki, and Imamura, Teshigahara’s protagonists aren’t so much trying desperately to fight their way out of their director’s surroundings as they are trying to pose useless philosophical conundrums.
The easier examples here from Teshigahara’s trilogy of disappeared persons (all written by the real auteur, Kôbô Abe, and now given deluxe treatment by the Criterion Collection, which pairs each film with a superior video essay by the great programmer James Quandt) are Pitfall and The Face of Another, which both play like punchy Twilight Zone riddles, but longer, and without the momentum. Pitfall combines an array of show-off effects for the simple story of a man who’s murdered, another man who looks just like him, and the ghost of the first man who seems to get confused as to which of the two men he is. With the possibility of such resurrection and doubling, death begins to appear inconsequential; the dead go on living amongst themselves, with the added bonus of being able to watch the real world as well. The Face of Another follows a similar line, in which (in a plot nearly identical to Kim Ki-Duk’s recent Time) a scarred man gets a mask, becomes a new man, and decides to seduce his wife.
Once again the dead man lives, although this time he has the ability to affect a world that, in typical existentialist fashion, is unable to take any notice of him, when he spends so much of his time behind bandages. Once again, the hero attempts to assert his place, finding out that his identity only matters physically—with the new mask, he is free to become someone else, and unable to be himself. When labels don’t matter, he declares, we’re all strangers to each other: the motto of all three movies, all of which concern the evisceration of an identity.
Pitfall is so full of useless stylistic twists from newsreel footage to Cocteau-like camera tricks that, once the premise is up, it’s never as uninteresting as it should be, and the same goes for Face of Another. Featuring a minimalist doctor’s office that looks like it was built on a glass soundstage, with only the essential furniture to evoke the location, Face is full of such tasty flourishes that don’t really signify anything, including a doctor’s voice-over near the start (“inferiority complexes are holes in the psyche, and I fill them”), a clever series of visual doublings, and the unending pulp philosophizing of the protagonist (“getting drunk may very well be a mask itself”), whoever he may be.
In all these ways, Woman in the Dunes, the middle entry of this loose trilogy, is the opposite of both the other films. Here, a nameless man inexplicably imprisoned in a sand pit in the desert by Deliverance-like Japanese rednecks does try to escape his surroundings and regain his past in civilization, although, as Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr. pointed out at the time, his ultimate discovery of freedom in capitulation to the sand life with a woman is totalitarian nonsense. Where Pitfall and Face are loose, Woman is austere, without the overt philosophizing (though the silly message once again is clearly that we are only who we label ourselves as being).
Nothing more than a two-and-a-half-hour portrait of digging sand, with occasional pauses for sex and escape attempts, Woman is proof of Teshigahara’s adamant inability to draw tension out of conflict (and of his extreme ability to evoke the boredom of his characters), but his decorative abilities serve him at last: in particular, his always fine eye for strange textures makes the sand on his actors’ skin look like nuclear stubble. But setting is as far as his talent goes. The confined space works well with the endless time (that everyone loses track of quickly), but Woman, for all its mainstream lovers (perhaps because it is an allegory—though we are all trapped, it is useless to try to dig ourselves out—easily decoded by anyone), isn’t much more than an extended screen-saver. Compare to the tension and mystery James Benning finds in his brilliant, recent Ten Clouds—which only depicts clouds—and wonder what the hell Janus Films is doing with Cruel Story of Youth.
This Hiroshi Teshigahara collection is now available on DVD.
By: David Pratt-Robson
Published on: 2007-08-07