It would be easy to dismiss Antonio Gaudi, a documentary on the Catalan architect composed almost entirely of visual meditations on his surrealist-tinged buildings (and which opens BAM’s Hiroshi Teshigahara retro), as snob’s eye candy, stoner background A/V for the NPR set. But aside from the occasional tourism-promo wade through bland local colors (every street fair is different, every street fair is the same), it’s the antithesis of the passivity that mars similar artist montages. In Antonio Gaudi’s vital, discursive 72 minutes, Teshigahara and his cinematographers draw out the most idiosyncratic details of Gaudi’s often astounding buildings, and frame their structural oddities against the Barcelona skyline, forging a treatise on the potential for strangeness within the urban landscape. (It’s no wonder Antonioni used Gaudi’s buildings for Jack Nicholson and Maria Schneider’s first meetings in The Passenger.)
This is, after all, the director most famous for the hothouse erotic allegory Woman in the Dunes, a movie similarly insistent about its otherness. Within the premise — an etymologist on a field trip ends up trapped in peasant woman’s hut at the bottom of a sand pit — Teshigahara’s close-ups isolate the shifting sands of the location and the undulating anatomies (covered in sand and grit) of the two principals. Whether clawing up the side of the pit or pawing at each other (actions undertaken with roughly equal desperation), all their existence seems to be a process of grasping at abstractions.
Woman in the Dunes was made with Teshigahara’s two most internationally known collaborators, composer Toru Takemitsu and novelist/scenarist Kobo Abe. Their 60s films, especially high-gloss face-transplant-as-metaphor-for-free-floating-identity-in-today’s-society position paper The Face of Another, exemplify the particular kind of cold modernism that now seems to have died with the decade. Takemitsu’s dissonant scores and Abe’s narrative experiments feel of a rigorous piece not just with Face’s sterile futurist design, but with the radical institutional feel of, say, Alain Resnais. (Face is also, it’s often noted, close kin to Frankenheimer’s Seconds.)
But none of Teshigahara’s European counterparts got their fingernails as dirty as he does in his debut. Part surreal murder mystery — in which the multiplying deceased helplessly follow the course of the investigations of their own murders, at the hands of a fastidious, white-suited angel of death — and part bitter-ironic satire of mining union politics, Pitfall’s long lenses lay out a stripped-bare postwar industrial landscape — the most frighteningly concrete abstraction Teshigahara ever conjured.