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A new DVD of Hiroshi Teshigahara's Antonio Gaudi puts two men's art on display.
The Criterion release of Antonio Gaudi is a significant and interesting one for at least a couple reasons. First, it is one of the few feature length works from Hiroshi Teshigahara that is not in equal parts a product of novelist/playwright Kobe Abe. The Teshigahara completist (if there is such a thing) would be remiss to pass up a double-disc version of his only feature-length documentary, for Teshigahara's exposure to Gaudi's work supplies many of the aesthetic inspirations that would shape the artistic design in his film oeuvre. Second, as a Criterion release, it's another novel entry into the restoration group's collection. The inclusion of the film -- at its heart a narratively experimental semi-doc but also an audio-visual catalog -- is yet another reminder that Criterion's significant agenda is in expanding the traditional film canon. The transfer is typically excellent, maybe even exceptionally so: see here for a far better comparison of the before and after images than my measly words can describe.
The double-disc treatment, usually random in its selection (what, no "Special Edition" for Melville's Le Samourai, yet one for the somewhat inferior Red Circle?), is here more welcome and worth the obscene price tag than usual. This might be one of the first extras discs that benefits a viewer to watch before the actual feature film. There's no commentary track, for the inclusion of one would be to undermine the very project that Teshigahara sought to undertake -- a documentary without a chattering narrator, which tells its argument through visual juxtapositions and montage. Included instead on the disc is a set of documentaries on the life and work of Gaudi. One is by Teshigahara himself, in silence and 16mm, another by doc vet Ken Russell. The best of the lot is a BBC hour-length crash course on Gaudi which -- despite the ostentatious narration by Robert Hughes -- is a nice history of the Catalonian architect's personal religious beliefs that inspired and energized his creative efforts.
To watch the extras first is also to appreciate the accomplishment of Teshigahara's tone poem -- his visual inventiveness and variation of atmosphere in analyzing Gaudi's artworks. The filmmaker's confidence in his form and structure is bounds beyond his first short doc, Hokusai. Gaudi is revered for his experimental designs and excesses, but the artist adhered strictly to traditional forms and designed his buildings to exist as complete wholes. Gaudi's work has leant itself to many an interpretation since his death in 1926, and while Teshigahara works his own vision around Gaudi, the surrealist imperatives are largely absent. No phallic symbolism from Gaudi's chimneys, a la Dalí/Buñuel.
Granted, some of Teshigahara's visual themes can be still observed. For example, his obsession with orifices, holes, pits, and other gaps in the buildings of Gaudi is no less prevalent than in the gaping maws of Pitfall or Woman in the Dunes, or in the crevices peeking out from Tatsuya Nakadai's mask in Face of Another. Teshigahara, like his contemporary Kaneto Shindo, displays a fear as adroit as Shakespeare for the nausea induced by these bottomless mouths.
But any sexual readings here are subsumed beneath the director's concern for Gaudi's organic unity. The film's brief narration tells us that Gaudi, who became an increasingly religious man, had an obsession for incorporating plants, insects, and animals from nature into his artwork, letting his buildings give off the impression less of construction by beams and banisters, and more the idea that they grew up naturally from the ground, sprouting and defying gravity like towering trees and sinewy vines.
Teshigahara's concern for a similar portrayal of organisms was reflected not only in the art design of his films and his (and his pioneering father Sofu) ikebana flower arrangement, but also in his bamboo installation -- cavernous tunnels, fields, and forests of pattered bamboo strips giving off the impression of a flowing sea of wood. I was fortunate enough to see Teshigahara's artwork in a museum exhibition in the prefecture of Saitama, Japan last year, and the museum, surrounded by the lush greenery and ponds of an Omiya park, was befitting of the work inside -- grotesque but vibrant flower arrangements, bamboo shooting like sprinklers from a centerpiece, mounds of clay molded into twisting, coiling shapes like overgrown tree roots. Comparing that scene to the sterility of a 2007 Tokyo exhibition of Le Corbusier's architecture during the same time, one can appreciate the concern for simple human pleasure both Gaudi and Teshigahara possessed. If only contemporary Japanese architects had followed Gaudi more than Corbusier, many a sullen city dweller would have been spared the vulgarity and soullessness of modern Japanese architecture. (At an equally monstrous cost, no doubt; Gaudi's buildings were funded by the open pockets of outrageously wealthy patrons).
Behind Gaudi's impossibly ornate designs is the idea that human beings must live and be happy in the buildings behind his designs. He not only oversaw the construction, but also its details right down to the interior decoration, resulting in an organic design that was reflected through a similar organism in the design process. Gaudi built homes, and the film makes sure to capture that: people consistently populate the buildings, houses, and parks of the film. Teshigahara's team instinctively understands that houses without humans to inhabit them are conceptually useless. The director and his talented DPs set a remarkable stage on several scales: the people who inhabit the buildings, the buildings which inhabit the lively town, the body of architecture which takes its inspiration from the craggy mountains and valleys surrounding it. The one smaller scale missing is these supposedly equally inventive interiors: glossing over the covers, it would have been nice if Teshigahara burrowed down and documented the detailed insides.
One does not have to be an architectural aficionado to warm to Antonio Gaudi (or Antonio Gaudi for that matter). I certainly am not, but I found Teshigahara's approach to be accessible to both curious and dedicated followers. His most common method is to pan over a corridor or hallway and come to rest at a spot, much like how a tourist would wander through an art gallery, with pauses much like the mind's eye: close-ups that focus on the most bizarre aspect of the panorama, which is sometimes a spire or chimney stack so high up that you can only wonder what it looks like from below. Sometimes this is revealing, and sometimes it seems too easy, and sometimes it seems like Teshigahara is trying to tell us this is the natural way to see things, as if his camera wasn't a mediator. In other words, sometimes, this doesn't really work, and the majesty of some buildings doesn't give off the impression on film of their real-life counterparts. It's hard stuff, giving off that "as if you were there" quality in cinema, but the pan/close-up approach is too formulaic to capture the spontaneity of real-time observation. Far more effective is the balanced interspersion of Spanish grottoes and churches, environs which subtly suggest that Gaudi's natural sources were drawn from his surroundings.
It's wonderful how Teshigahara follows the patterns of the architecture, all of which is comprised of nary a typical, symmetrical line, yet is in no form asymmetrical either. The sprawling Park Guell, one of the more predominantly featured complexes in the film, is filled with such wavy terraces which snake their way across a garden of sand, and the mosaic is devotedly captured and given a form of fluid movement by the camera. The technique registers an emotional impact from architecture akin to dramatic tension -- when the camera pans back, it's startling to see the park in its size and totality. The suspense of the scenes builds and climaxes in these sorts of revelations, but it should be mentioned that this effect is helped in large part by the score. Though Abe is absent, Teshigahara's longtime composer Toru Takemitsu isn't, and his mood pieces and waltz-like ballads do a lot to shift your perspective on these works.
There are a number of spectacular buildings, but the climax of the film -- as well as Gaudi's life -- is the towering spirals of Sagrada Familia. Constructed over the course of Gaudi's life -- especially his last 15 years -- and in the heart of Barcelona, the cathedral was originally designed as Gaudi's attempt for us mere mortals to ask penance for our sins (and as it was not completed in Gaudi's lifetime, is still being designed to this day). Rising out of the flatness of Barcelona like two Towers of Babel (or like two soil-incrusted drills poking out of the urban detritus), it's a behemoth that the film makes a point of anthropomorphizing. The camera trembles when underneath the structure, which swells and expands underneath the sun in alternating rhythms. It's all camera tricks, and yet it's the best example of the film's getting to what might be the heart of a Gaudi structure. Not merely content to look at but instead distill a structure's essence through a separate artistic vision -- for a few brief moments the film exhibits evidence of the spiritual sublimity of one daring artist filtered through the experimental lens of another.
Date Posted: 3/21/2008