Sunday, June 22, 2008

Building mood: Hiroshi Teshigahara's tour of the architecture of Antonio Gaudí is a sublime study in strangeness

With its broad, undulating surfaces and proto-Cubist mosaics of broken tile, its membranous mugwump spires and smooth spinal railings, its leaf storm motifs and, most of all, its ubiquity of knotty tree imagery, the work of Catalan architect Antonio Gaudí (1852-1926) seems designed to forever inspire pause in passersby, to de-stabilize our sense of passively moving through discreet, utilitarian physical boundaries. When he first laid eyes on Gaudí’s work in the spring of 1959, Hiroshi Teshigahara felt a surge of creative empowerment, later crediting the work with endowing him with an understanding that, like those between shelter and open spaces, the boundaries between artistic disciplines were meant to be questioned. It was a pivotal realization in the development of this most distinctive Japanese filmmaker—and a debt eventually paid in filmic homage.

Antonio Gaudí (1984) is an endlessly striking, audaciously hypnotic, deeply contemplative documentary study of Gaudí’s legacy, which is spread throughout Barcelona and the surrounding countryside: the Santa Teresa School, with its lithe, ovular arches; the Park Güell, with its oceanic outlines, sprawling gardens and serpentine benches; the Casa Batlló, with its skeletal formations that are said to represent the story of St. George and the Dragon; the Church of Colònia Güell, with its cavernous crypt resembling the interior of some massive sea creature; and the great, unfinished Sagrada Família, which has got to be the most tremendously bizarre, subversively sensuous place of Christian worship ever erected. Teshigahara’s cameras explore each of these places, the austerity of the filmmaker’s aesthetic beautifully complimenting the irregular and fantastically intricate aesthetic of the architect.

The film’s comprised almost exclusively of imagery and music, with little in the way of commentary or even titles to interrupt the reverie of looking, scouting, tracing. Context is not developed through biographical, historical or political facts—which can be easily found elsewhere—but rather through revealing how Gaudí’s ostentatious structures interact with the places they inhabit and the people who inhabit them. Among the film’s most inspired depictions of human activity are the images of crowds performing sardana, the ancient circle dance. Curiously, they are depicted without their accompanying music, rendering their motions primordial, trance-like, quite funny.

Above all, with Antonio Gaudí Teshigahara honours his undying awe for his favourite architect through the careful cultivation of a profound sense of utter strangeness, juxtaposing what we see and hear in such a way that it builds up a sort of roiling disquiet. Some of the glacial traveling shots arguably recall the technique of Stanley Kubrick, but more specifically they align themselves with like sequences in Teshigahara’s earlier films, such as those that focus on the weirdly sinister, ever-collapsing sands in Woman in the Dunes (64). There is finally no attempt here to place Gaudí’s work into settings that would make it easily digestible. Teshigahara’s tour of these places is happily resigned to seeing their forms as alien things—and for this reason, Antonio Gaudi makes a terrific double bill with Metro Cinema’s other feature of the week Fantastic Planet (73).

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