Judge Joe Armenio would like a whole garden full of Hiroshi Teshigahara's cinematic ikebana.
"Everything comes from the great book of nature; human attainments are
an already printed book."
Hiroshi Teshigahara's 1984 film Antonio Gaudi, a nearly wordless contemplation of the works of the Catalan architect (1852-1926), is an interesting film, but for me it's more interesting as an idea. How did the leftist postwar Japanese avant-garde become influenced by the outlandishly ornate designs of an austere Catholic and Catalan nationalist? It's become a cliché to say that an especially illuminating DVD release is a "film school in a box," but Criterion's Antonio Gaudi is an art history lesson in a box, a chance to dip into a number of fascinating intellectual currents and cross-currents, to see with new eyes the work of two unique and genre-crossing artists.
Facts of the Case
In 1959 Teshigahara traveled to Spain with his father, Sofu, a sculptor and master of ikebana (flower arranging). While in Barcelona they saw and were impressed by the work of Gaudi, and Hiroshi shot some 16mm footage of Gaudi's work and their surroundings (the footage is included as an extra in this Criterion edition). In the 1960s Teshigahara, with the assistance of the novelist Kobo Abe and the composer Tore Takemitsu, made a series of films which are remarkable for their aggressive visual inventiveness and slippery, confounding narratives (Criterion released Pitfall, Woman in the Dunes, and The Face of Another in a 2007 box set). 1964's Woman in the Dunes remains his most famous film (a 2008 cinephile can only sigh for the days when such an arch-modernist provocation could cause a stir in the wider film world), but my personal favorite is his debut, the wildly stylized, sui generis murder mystery/ghost story/labor film/existential meditation Pitfall.
After this burst of cinematic creativity Teshigahara spent most of his time on other areas of the visual arts. Antonio Gaudi marked a return to filmmaking, but not to narrative; aside from one stray line of dialogue and a single interview near the end of the film, Teshigahara is content to explore Gaudi's work without talking about it. He comments on the work with his camera, lingering over a sculptural detail, using long shots to show Gaudi's bulging, undulating, wildly unusual designs in their context, concentrating not only on the artist but on the city and the landscape that inspired him. The style is not designed to draw attention to itself; there are none of the abstract close-ups or lightning-quick montages that we see in Sculptures by Sofu-Vita, his earlier short film on the work of his father (discussed below). Occasionally he pulls out for a long shot, showing us Gaudi's work in the context of Barcelona. We see details in a rhythmically paced series of medium shots. Several times the camera prowls hypnotically, through the remarkable Park Guell or an apartment building. He finishes with Gaudi's unfinished masterpiece, the Sagrada Familia church. The music, by Takemitsu, Kurodo Mori, and Shinji Hori, alternates between the stately and the quietly, subtly creepy, sometimes playing up the majesty of the architecture, sometimes emphasizing its odd, menacing quality. At one point the sound of waves takes over the soundtrack, reminding us that nature was Gaudi's great inspiration. For this fan of Teshigahara's more aggressive 1960s films, it's a bit of a frustrating experience, lovely but also a bit reverent and tepid, as if Teshigahara is holding back his own creativity out of regard for his subject.
The first disc of this two-disc set contains only the film and the original theatrical trailer. This edition replaces an out-of-print Image release from 1999, and is by all accounts a significant improvement (I haven't seen the older DVD); Criterion presents the film in its original 1.33:1 aspect ratio and the transfer is impeccable. The second disc contains the extras that make this release exceptional, establishing the relationship between Gaudi and Teshigahara. In a 13-minute video interview architect Arata Isozaki, a longtime friend of Teshigahara and the production designer on The Face of Another, describes his own interest in Gaudi. He says that he and Teshigahara were interested in Gaudi because his reverence for nature resonated deeply with traditional Japanese aesthetics, but his ornate style differed wildly from the Japanese preference for straight lines and simplicity. Gaudi's work allowed Teshigahara and Isozaki to resolve the tension between those aspects of Japanese culture which they respected and those which they saw as a stylistic straightjacket. Isozaki also talks about Teshigahara's later years, suggesting that the artist felt a responsibility to continue the teaching work of his father, but was frustrated at having to spend his time on the administrative duties involved in running a school.
"Gaudi, Catalunya, 1959" can only charitably be called a "short film" by Teshigahara; Criterion doesn't go that far, referring to it as "footage" from Teshigahara's original 1959 trip to Spain. This rather shapeless 16mm footage covers some of the same ground as the 1984 film: the sardana dance, the Park Guell, La Sagrada Familia. He also includes some (silent) footage of Teshigahara and his father visiting Salvador Dali at his villa; Teshigahara pere prepares an impromptu flower arrangement for him.
"Visions of Space": God's Architect is an hour-long BBC documentary on Gaudi, hosted by the art critic Robert Hughes. I was a little skeptical, since these documentaries tend to be banally made and boringly laudatory, but Hughes brings a distinct point of view and a critical edge to his thoughts on Gaudi. The visual approach is nothing special, and adds nothing to the view of Gaudi we receive from Teshigahara; like most public-TV documentaries it features annoying music, pointlessly busy montages, and thuddingly literal images (as Hughes discusses Gaudi's disdain for the immorality of city life, we see some shots of present-day streetwalkers; thanks for the help). Hughes places Gaudi's work firmly in the context of his ascetic, conservative (Hughes would say "authoritarian") Catholicism, and the political debates of industrial Barcelona at the turn of the 20th Century. La Sagrada Familia is not just an aesthetic object but a political one, an attempt to turn back the clock, a place where one can escape from the debauched modern age in penance. Hughes points out the irony of the radical artist and the arch-conservative man, an architect whose designs prefigured Cubism but who took his own solace from the Church. This, I think, is another aspect of Gaudi's art which the Japanese avant-garde found resonant: the complicated interplay between tradition and innovation, between reverence and originality. Hughes' scepticism (which sometimes tends toward disdain) for Gaudi's religion and politics provides a valuable contrast to the perspective of the Japanese, but I think he goes too far when he says that the Surrealists were simply wrong in adopting Gaudi as a fellow sensualist and modernist; certainly the architect had no personal sympathy with the worldview of, say, Dali, but since when does the artist have sole custody of the meaning of his work?
Fans of British director Ken Russell will be glad to see a 15-minute program on Gaudi that he directed for the BBC program Monitor in 1961. It's fairly anonymous in style, and focuses on Gaudi as an innovator and proto-Cubist, anticipating the great art movements of the 20th century.
Sculptures by Sofu-Vita is a 17-minute film made by Teshigahara in 1963, at the height of his film career, focusing on the Gaudi-influenced sculptures of his father. Teshigahara begins with black-and-white footage of the sculptures being prepared for display and includes a voice-over by Sofu on the inspirations for his art. He then switches to color to focus on the sculptures themselves, rendering them even more abstract through close-ups and quick montages. As an investigation of pure cinematic rhythm, abstract shapes, and flashes of color it reminds me of the work of Stan Brakhage; as I mentioned earlier, it's a far more stylized work than the Gaudi film.
Finally, Criterion includes a 36-page booklet which features a new article by art historian Dore Ashton, author of The Delicate Thread: Teshigahara's Life and Art; the first translation of Teshigahara's reflections on visiting Spain in 1959; and a round-table discussion held between the Teshigaharas and several other Japanese artists after they returned from their trip. Ashton focuses on Teshigahara's disillusionment with what he saw as the unreflective leftism of the Japanese avant-garde, and his interest in the "total work of art," which in its pure contemplation of nature transcends medium and genre; he found a similar interest in Gaudi, and in the traditions of ikebana and the Zen garden.
Antonio Gaudi is an unusual release for Criterion, in that the subject is more famous than the director. They will doubtless sell a lot of copies to people who are interested in architecture but not necessarily in Teshigahara. For the cinephile it's a worthy release as well. The extras do an excellent job of focusing on both artists, and fans of the director can return to his 1960s films with a new awareness of this important director's preoccupations and interests.
Another worthy Criterion release. Not guilty.
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