Hiroshi Teshigahara, the first Asian film-maker to be nominated for a Best Director Oscar, is today best remembered for his quartet of collaborations with the novelist Kōbō Abe: Pitfall, The Face of Another, The Ruined Map and Woman in the Dunes, the latter of which got the Academy’s attention. Criterion UK’s latest Blu-Ray sees him exploring an imagination no less hallucinatory and original than Abe’s, but ecstatic and Catholic where his old collaborator was paranoid and existential. It’s the Catalan architect Antoni Gaudí, subject of his 1984 documentary Antonio Gaudí (the alternate spelling is down to the differences between the Spanish and Catalan language, the latter of which had been suppressed under the then-recently deposed Franco regime).
The change of subject, from disturbing science fiction to architectural documentary, is less surprising than it seems. Teshigahara was a polymath; aside from directing he was a potter, a painter, a calligrapher and a practitioner of ikebana, the Japanese art of flower arranging. The latter art was the Teshigahara family business, and a short documentary about his father’s trade, Sculptures by Sofu-Vita, is included among the hefty extras. There is also an assembly of footage from Teshigahara’s first visit to Gaudí’s buildings in 1959, which is worth considering as a sketchbook of ideas for the 1984 film.
On its own, the earlier short Gaudí, Catalunya, 1959 is a home movie, a briskly edited compilation of images that caught Teshigahara’s eye on his visit to Barcelona. Watching it after the main feature, it’s fascinating how Teshigahara preserves its beguiling innocence in a feature-length film made 25 years later. Antonio Gaudí still has the feel of pure observation, a free exploration of the architect’s buildings with only two brief spoken passages to provide biographical information. A closer examination, though, will show that Teshigahara’s film has developed an architecture all of its own.
Without voiceover or even much archive material, Teshigahara explores Gaudí’s work in its cultural and historical context. He begins with Catholicism, with his three credited cinematographers zeroing in on the grisliest images of martyrdom to show that a certain graphical excess has always been part of Spanish religious expression. He takes the camera for a stroll down la ramblas, and shows folk dancers performing the sardana. Even when the film moves on to contemplating Gaudí’s buildings, we see people in the windows of Casa Milà, relaxing in Park Güell. The message is clear: these buildings, which seem at first like such rare, eccentric fairy-tale fancies, also function. People live and walk and eat there.
The soundtrack, by Teshigahara’s regular composer Toru Takemitsu, is similarly laden with information for those who care to decode it. Elsewhere on the disc there is a BBC documentary from 2003 – Antoni Gaudí: God’s Architect – directed by Mandy Chang in which the late Australian art critic Robert Hughes gives a typically sharp, opinionated explanation of Gaudí’s life, ideas and work. God’s Architect is a very enjoyable film but it’s telling how much harder Chang and Hughes have to work to get across ideas like the mixture of classicism and modernism in Gaudí’s work, or his obsession with natural forms. Teshigahara simply allows Takemitsu to overlay classical music with atonal ambient textures, or play the sounds of the sea over a shot of a building’s seashell-like curlicue. The same ideas are expressed without words but with perfect clarity.
Antonio Gaudí, then, is an essential purchase for those who value the silent-era dream of cinema as a universal communication tool, a thing that transcends nationalism and identity. This one quiet man, who never completed a building outside northern Spain, can inspire a Blu-Ray collection of commentary on his work from Japan, Australia – and Britain, not just in Chang’s film but in a short made for the 1960s art programme Monitor by no less a figure than Ken Russell. Russell’s fifteen-minute film isn’t one of his major early works but it does have one delectable moment. After the narrator Huw Wheldon laments that Gaudí inspired few imitators, Russell cuts from the astonishing, convulsive curves of Park Güell to a montage of dull brutalist flats, soundtracked by a mockingly off-key trumpet. The sentiment is a lot snarkier than anything in Teshigahara’s film, but the purely cinematic mode of expression would, I think, meet his approval.