Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Woman in the Dunes (1964)

Hiroshi Teshigahara's 1964 collaboration with novelist and screenwriter Kobe Abe has at its core a central premise so ubiquitous, so mythic, that one can only conclude that it must resonate with something primal in our understanding of the world.  A figure or figures leaves their home and familiar social surroundings, setting out for the countryside, the unexplored.  They may be driven by fear, occupation, or curiosity.  Along their way they find a beacon of the familiar in this territory, a semblance of what they've left behind and are drawn to it -- the home of another.  But rather than finding a recreation of the social order they recognize, the familiarity is a trap which now imposes terrifying new rules upon them -- rules that resist all attempts at reason or logic.  From Hansel and Gretel to The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, this premise ignites our most terrible nightmares about the foundation upon which we build our lives.  Shifting sands, indeed.

Eiji Okada plays a man, unnamed until the film's final frames, who is out to make the most trivial of marks upon the world.  A schoolteacher by trade, his passion is amateur entomology.  He's coming to a desert area of Japan on his three-day holiday to find a particular kind of beetle.  He knows there are many variants; if he can find a new one previously unnamed his name will appear in guidebooks for others like himself to see.  He'll gain a kind of immortality if he can just find that bug no one has ever found before.

When he loses track of time daydreaming and misses the last bus back to town, a local man he encounters offers to try to find him a place to stay in the nearby village.  Eventually he's taken to the home of a local woman who is willing to put him up for the night.  And what a home!  Barely more than a shanty, it's set deep within a sandpit so that villagers have to help him scale a rope-ladder down cascading walls of sand just to reach it.  In defiance of the usual dictum not to look down, Okada is cautioned not to look up, unless he wants a face full of sand.

There he encounters the titular woman, played by Kyoko Kishida as a thin veil of calm wrapped around a bundle of nameless fears.  She welcomes him into her home and waits on him obsequiously, even as he berates her ignorance and naivety.  Not that he's cruel, necessarily, at least in the beginning.  But he is firmly of the belief that the world conforms to basic natural rules, and is shocked to find this woman, living in a pit, speaking of sand as if it was the world.  A destructive force, it doesn't merely bury everything under its shifting currents -- it rots it.

Slowly, piece by piece, the extent of this man's plight is revealed.  They eat under umbrellas when indoors to block the sand that pours from cracks in the roof.  When he asks for a bath, he's told he'll have to wait until the day after tomorrow.  "The day after tomorrow?" he asks with shocked laughter.  "I'm only staying the night."  He might as well have dared the night sky with a proclamation that nothing could possibly go wrong.  In the morning, the rope ladder is gone, and he begins to get the drift...

Even a much more thorough description of the plot would give you little idea of what to expect from this truly cinematic wonder.  Because here, Teshigahara is far more concerned with texture than he is with form -- often literally.  Potent eroticism, a terror almost Lovecraftian in its connection to madness, and the sheer banality of routine manual labor are all sculpted out of the same medium.

The film begins with extreme close-ups of grains of sand that fill the screen; we're being introduced right away to the true main character of the story.  This technique of the extreme close-up is used repeatedly, first on the sand, then the bugs being sought, and finally (and most profoundly) on the skin and features of the man and woman sharing this claustrophobic living space.  Seen at such a distance, the appearance of humanity is little different than the dunes themselves.  Roger Ebert writes, in his Great Movies entry on this film "It is not so much that the woman is seductive as that you sense, as you look at her, exactly how it would feel to touch her skin."  Truth.  No film I've seen has created such an illusion that my sense of touch was being engaged as this.

In its construction, Woman in the Dunes borders the avant-garde without ever truly leaving the conventions of narrative film.  The soundtrack is composed not of music, but of jarring sounds and discordant strings of notes.  Is that the clatter of a film projector we hear in the background of the quiet home?  I was reminded at times of the work Lynch would do 13 years later in Eraserhead.  Yet later, as Okada tries to escape the pit and finds himself lost among the dunes, pursued by a cluster of lights that hide the shapes of those that carry them, I was reminded of nothing so much as the famous sugar cane scene from Val Lewton's I Walked With a Zombie.  Teshigahara is not afraid to play with all the toys in his sandbox, if you'll excuse the choice of metaphor.  Yet despite his experimentation, and the difficult tone he strikes throughout, this film is not a chore -- no medicine that has to be choked down.  The film remains seductive and hypnotic from first to last frames; I couldn't have taken my eyes off it had I wanted to.

Because this movie is made from such primal material, it is ripe for reading within a variety of critical schools.  I'm sure that Marxist theorists have claimed this as their own; when the man asks "do you shovel sand to live or live to shovel sand?" it's hard not to think in terms or labor and its exploitation.  Likewise, gender theorists will find much to work with in this mockery of married life that the two find themselves in.  To me, however, this film is too big to fit in any of those kinds of boxes.  It's a strangled howl of frustration at an absurd world, aimed not at our intellect, but at our subconscious.  If we try to come here armed with reason, like Okada, we'll find ourselves alone and unprepared, and the ladder drawn up behind us.

Perhaps the most terrifying element in this film is that it ends on a glimmer of hope.  If our life is this absurd, our plight this perilous, is there anything scarier than the ease with which we set aside our plans for escape, how little it takes to distract us, or the fact that if we just don't look up we might find ourselves content with out lot?

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