Tuesday, May 29, 2012

That Load-Bearing Wall is Alienating Me: Hiroshi Teshigahara’s Antonio Gaudi and Other Examples of Architecture on Film

There are certain directors who distinguish themselves by their remarkable use of architecture, above and beyond the necessities of basic scene-setting or even of visual beauty.  The directors of this type who first come to mind are Jacques Tati, Michelangelo Antonioni, and Tsai Ming-liang.  Tsai’s work is especially engaged with the ways in which his characters find themselves enmeshed in their urban landscapes.  Some of his best films are devoted largely to the exploration of buildings, like the apartment complex in The Hole (2000) or the single apartment in Vive L’Amour (1994).  Tsai’s perspective on urban architecture seems to owe a great deal to Antonioni, as they both see in urban landscapes the inescapable signs of modern man’s alienation; one need only recollect the image of Monica Vitti lost within the industrial wasteland of 1964’s Red Desert, Antonioni’s first color film, to understand the Italian auteur’s dissection of the relationship between humans and architecture.

However, Antonioni’s landscapes don’t speak merely of “alienation;” they are also hauntingly beautiful.  According to Geoff Dyer’s book-length essay Zona, Andrei Tarkovsky didn’t care for Red Desert, as he thought that “Antonioni got so seduced by ‘Monica Vitti’s red hair against the mists’” that “the color has killed the feeling of truth.” That’s a bit harsh.  But have you seen Monica Vitti’s red hair against the mists?  It’s hard not to be seduced, and I see nothing wrong about that.  Red Desert is by far my favorite among Antonioni’s films, which are a pretty “mixed bag,” as far as I’m concerned, but that belongs to another blog post.

Tsai takes Antonioni’s aestheticization of potentially bleak urban landscapes even further.  For Tsai, massive apartment complexes—while perhaps emblematic of a broader sense of alienation—provide a wonderful refuge for his hero, Hsiao-kang. (The protagonists of every Tsai Ming-liang film are named Hsiao-kang and are played by Lee Kang-sheng.  Hsiao-kang is Lee’s real-life nickname).  This is especially the case in Vive L’Amour, as Hsiao-kang seeks to withdraw from Taipei by hiding out in the empty apartment that sits at the heart of the film.
The trope of Hsiao-kang as squatter is taken up again in 2006’s I Don’t Want to Sleep Alone, which finds Hsiao-kang in Kuala Lumpur, savagely beaten by thugs and whisked away to an abandoned building to be nursed back to health by a Bangladeshi migrant worker (the two never speak to each other, ostensibly because of the lack of a common lanuage; in fact, Hsiao-kang never speaks at all in this movie.  This isn’t that unusual for Hsiao-kang or for any character in a Tsai Ming-liang movie, for that matter.  They are not a talkative bunch).  The lower levels of the building become flooded, which calls to mind the ceaseless rain of The Hole and is in sharp counterpoint to 2005’s The Wayward Cloud, in which Hsiao-kang and the denizens of yet another apartment complex confront a Taiwan in the grips of a devastating drought.  In all of these movies, Tsai films the architecture of the buildings with a seemingly intuitive feel for the way they appear on film; he almost abstracts them from their context, and you find yourself looking at a lovely arrangement of shapes that could potentially end up signifying nothing beyond themselves.  But they always do (signify things beyond themselves, that is), because Tsai also sees in the architecture an exteriorization of his characterss mental states (often states of alienation) which is comparable to the way in which Akira Kurosawa famously reflected his characters’ emotions through the weather (Toshiro Mifune is always the harbinger of a storm).

What got me thinking about architecture on film was Hiroshi Teshigahara’s 1985 documentary Antonio Gaudi (which I watched this evening), which seems to take the filming of architecture and reduces it to its purest form.  Antonio Gaudi is a largely wordless film, and consists almost entirely of Teshigahara’s camera panning through the various Gaudi-designed buildings that pepper Barcelona.  Without any verbal narrative to place things in context (for example: “Gaudi designed this building in such and such a year; his wife had just died and his patron was, etc, etc”), we must draw our meaning almost solely from the architecture on view.  I say “almost,” because the film is accompanied by a score by Toru Takemitsu (who, slight exaggeration, scored every Japanese movie made during his adult life) and the score, by turns elegantly baroque (or rather, Baroque) and surreal (electronic noise like what one finds in the “music” of Karlheinz Stockhausen), and this score provides the viewer with certain basic emotional cues.

In such a stripped down movie, Teshigahara is forced to let architecture speak, and in so doing he shows how architecture can speak in other, broader cinematic contexts (by which I mean, movies where the architecture is not the exclusive focus).  Teshigahara’s filming of Gaudi’s architecture (I don’t know how to separate them in the opinions I’m drawing here) is alternately beautiful, sensual, unsettling, or often some combination thereof.  I must confess myself to be not a huge fan of Gaudi as an architect.  His works are the sort of thing that would work well as painting or sculpture, but I should think it would be difficult to live in them; I could say the same thing of Le Corbusier’s concrete brutalist monstrosities, although for different reasons.  Le Corbusier’s buildings are just cold and inhuman.  Gaudi’s buildings have warmth, but it’s a pulsating, surrealistic warm; the humanity they convey is unstable and disturbed, and I don’t know that living in them long-term would have a good effect on the mind. Or perhaps their surreal impact diminishes with time and one becomes accustomed to them.
The Gaudi movie is an unexpected entry in Teshigahara’s somewhat small filmography, which includes such classics as The Woman in the Dunes and The Face of Another.  Although perhaps it’s not so unexpected when one looks at the prominent role of architecture in The Woman in the Dunes (1964).  This masterpiece, based on the Kobo Abe novel of the same name and with a screenplay by the novelist, depicts the travails of an amateur entomologist who finds himself trapped at the bottom of a large pit amongst a sea of sand dunes, his only company the woman who lives there and his only shelter her house.

The woman is faced with the Sisyphean task of daily shoveling back the sands that never stop encroaching on her house.  Not surprisingly, we see a lot of the house, and the house’s relationship to the sand and the people and their relationship to it is of the utmost importance.  We can see in this film Teshigahara’s mastery of the use of architecture for narrative and aesthetic purposes.  Whether or not he’s a master of “architectural cinema,” like Antonioni or Tsai, is a question for which I do not yet have an answer.  I would like to see more of his films first.  Hopefully the Criterion Collection, which has released four of them in the U.S. (Antonio Gaudi and, before that, Pitfall, The Woman in the Dunes, and The Face of Another in a box set) will provide American cinephiles with access to the rest of his oeuvre.  It must be smaller than Ozu’s, and Criterion has already done an admirable job of making that available to us in it’s entirely (or almost its entirety, anyway; feel free to contradict me in the comments section if I’m missing something).  Perhaps a Teshigahara Eclipse collection would set the matter to rights.

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