Copyright © 2012 by James Clark
This widely recognized to be surreal film (from 1964) less widely but no less magnificently reveals an Impressionist infrastructure about its climb toward the “more real.” It does so, right from the first frames, first coming to microscopic and delicate focus upon the skeleton of an insect and then a cluster of grains of sand of various shapes, shadings and textures. Then it gives us a universe of sand, a tidal roll of sand dunes, caught from various perspectives and in various intensities of sunlight, some of them melding land and sky into a radiant void. The steep ridges and their gentle patterns drawn by winds through the eons tease us toward some species of regal sufficing.
But that reverie is promptly dislodged by the waddling scramble of a figure with sensible hiking gear and a net to snag flying insects, one dimension of his multifaceted zeal for bugs of all kinds, especially those thriving in desert sands. He snaps a photo of a caterpillar and then deposits it into one of his cluster of containers. Then we are brought eye to eye with a dragonfly, and we see him prodding a scorpion. Also materializing as part of this arrangement, as if from the same subterranean maw, is a scrawny and sullen little man who presumes to grant the visitor the freedom to explore those majestic regions with a sea shimmering in the distance—“… as long as it’s not an inspection…” Having thus dodged, for a while at least, one of the larger scorpions the primordial terrain holds in store, the vaguely clownish geek resumes his odd constitutional, and we see him conjuring out of the gorgeous rills of the landscape a gorgeous woman and ruminating on her distance from him. “Men and women are slaves to their fear of being cheated… You criticize me for asking too much [of social existence]. But the facts speak for themselves.” This prediction-bolstered, rather priggish installation of trust in the human sphere (during the credits we hear the hustle and impatient car horns of the City) from our fancier of simpler life-forms hits us as not only incongruous amidst the mysterious, precisely unpredictable environment, but offensively so—like the polluting scraps of garbage he’s offended by, in the tidal range of the sea. Sitting in a shattered life-boat almost buried in sand, he smugly reams through all the apparently foolish security devices getting in the way of child-like serenity. (He had assured the little cop with a head-band, sprouting small, cloth antennae where it was knotted, that he was far from one of those suspicious, intrusive types, being in fact a teacher on a brief school holiday.) Having dozed off, he is brought back to his heavily filtered reality by the crusty little patrol and a couple of similarly in-bred denizens of the resort. They note he has missed the bus (already we know it wasn’t the first such disconnect), but they know just the place for him to spend the night. Bucked by these Samaritans in scorpion-country, he happily follows their directions to climb down a rope ladder (as if at the hands of some kind of benign-because-lowly spiders) to a ramshackle house at the bottom of a huge sand pit, where a woman lives, rallied by the not actually hard to detect as such violent locals (unless blinkered by a loopy ideology), in terms of, “Hey you old hag!” The city slicker continues to make their day by exclaiming, “This is quite an adventure!”
Though the narrative provides many such ironic twists, they are but adjuncts to an experience of unusual visceral force reaching out to us from the startling mobility of these dunes, freed in their essence by the inspired camerawork of Hiroshi Segawa. En route to his bed and breakfast, the tutor of trust passes by, obliviously, a sweeping knoll of sand etched with feathery patterns. As soon as we see the hostess, we feel, in her high cheekbones, the finely rounded though mottled skin of her face, and especially her large and tentatively welcoming eyes, an affinity by her, with that remarkably delicate land mass. That would make more sense of a graphic design—one of many primeval images interspersed with the credits—in the form of an eye amidst ridges (striated lines) of sand, streaming outward. Asleep that night, her taut nude body (she sleeping in the nude because the moistly clinging sand would create rashes were one to lie clothed for long) and pebbled skin (as creating an arresting impression in attenuated highlighting), frosted with smudges of sand, takes us back to the beauties of the afternoon.
On reaching her house, the teacher applies drops to his eyes, the first of many such treatments for the myopia that clearly stands at chronic proportions. And in fact he has virtually no heart for the dunes or the woman tracing the possibility of a kinship with the dunes. He tends to regard her first with ridicule—for her notion that the sand could be wet. “A moist desert? No! A desert is dry!” Then he apprehends in her a source of disgust, on realizing that the rope ladder has been removed, he can’t leave the pit and she had something to do with his confinement. “You’re holding me captive!”/ “I’m terribly sorry!” In his initial testing of the leeway for climbing out, his faltering traction includes provoking rivers of sand pouring over him like a waterfall. That would be only the beginning of an upheaval centered upon continuous states of moist and dry, moving and static, living and dying, loving and hating. On flying into a rage and binding a gagging her, there emerges for him a juncture where, though he marvels at her complicity in this crime, he realizes she’s allowing herself to be brutalized by the scorpions out of (from his perspective) laudable loyalty to her simple (and thus somehow sacred) place of birth. (“This village has real local spirit.”) Just before he tied her up, she sang a song, “What’s that sound? A demon’s voice…splish, splash…” and she offered to rub the sand from his body, intently regarding the ranges of skin on his back. Then she asked, “Shall I massage you?” only to be brusquely dismissed by him, in sick bay due to an abortive escape bid. Here is the moment his spite leads him to overpower and shackle her; but, it is such a pointless gesture and he is so nearly prostrate with shock, he soon releases her, with his stock-in-trade discounting of advancedness in others “I’m not doing this out of sympathy, but because I’m sick of your face [staring at me].” As her persistence with noting the benefits of such a prison drives him to another breaking point, he begins to trash the room, and in her struggle to stop him he wrestles her to the floor, his hand on her breast. This little breakthrough soon subsides; but now, as their local spirit, primed by sexuality was coming into more viable sync, her having, when bound, asked him to scratch behind her right ear, and gone on to ask for, “Water please,” and gulped at the spout of a kettle containing their fast-dwindling water ration, haunts him to the point of asking in turn for creature comforts. “Shall I brush off the sand?”
Their lovemaking from out of this ultimate miasma not only welds into place for us the morphology of land mass and body mass at the heart of this cinematic (desert) floral display, but it also posts a benchmark to guide our beholding how cruelly this vantage point unravels in what is to come. It begins with the loaded question (for the city-hater), “Aren’t the city girls prettier than me?” As he rubs her, she closes her eyes and laps up the emergence of that splish-splash, scarred by her folk tune. Accompanying the close-up, high-illumination compounding of richly-textured and richly-toned earth at camera angles often reaching through the wide gaps of their shelter, is a musical motif—heard at the film’s opening promenade—of jagged, high-pitched strings. Both weave to the freed pulse of largeness their relationship hitherto barred. They make their way to the sand-covered floor, and in close-ups they caress each other’s body and face, the blackness of their hair—hers sweatily streaked across her face, as if driven by a gale—setting in relief their fatigue-damaged faces, luxuriating in a rare respite and responding with gentle kisses, and also framing the weight of their bodies. The sense of the cut from there has been arranged from the early seconds, about an hour before this—a huge ridge of fine-grained sand, with semen-like ripples playing down its slope. Then we see a crow’s face in profile, its feathers and other features glistening with pristine energy. Their love has evoked an acute kinship with worldly entities in the form of kinetic emanations, especially the stalwart heartiness of wild creatures.
But straightaway (after the quick look at their peaceful sleep) he’s in agony from thirst and hunger, the upshot of his ragged rebellion against being made to join her in shovelling sand into containers to be hauled up by the large industrious insects comprising part of the staff of a brickworks. Here the danger of thinking to have nailed this work as an “allegory” (many critics seeming to have prized the term for its multisyllabic rather than cognitive features) becomes blinding. The creepy little crawler he meets on his ramble is galvanized by the prospect that the cops would be interested in the wider vein of sand—they are in fact miles from that pit seemingly at the hub of a village-supporting industry. On fashioning a grapple hook from a pair of rusty scissors, he manages a brief breakaway one night (landing him in quicksand, to be reclaimed by his weird masters) and the highlight, from the perspective of transparency, is his seeing (but typically not fathoming), on reaching the top, a large work crew on the horizon, carrying bulky containers that could only be filled with sand and/or bricks. The containers at the pit are on the scale of Bento boxes. What in fact is going on at that arena (and it would pay to go easy on the Sisyphus factor)? Surrealist novelist and screenwriter, Kobe Abe, was a gut-level miner, not a literary, name-dropping salonist. And his scenario comes clean at a point after the flubbed escape, and so after nearly all traces of true love have turned to dust, when the dreamer of ludicrous dreams—not those in which the beauties of the dunes and the sea visit him as never during his consciousness—(he was there to find a rare sand bug and consequently get his name crowned upon it) begs the guys on the pulley to let him see the sea for a few minutes every day. They come back with the whole village, masked and accompanied by drummers and torches, wanting to see him fuck her. The pit was their porn channel (with emphasis on SM), a bit of a letdown for urban escapists and their figments about innocent rustics and healthy ways. During the ensuant skirmish, she insists, “Just ignore them. We’re not perverts,” and he counters with, “It’s my only chance! Who cares, we’re living like animals anyway!” During the debacle, she punches his balls, leaving him out of the running, and, on her knees, she pounds the sand and cries. (There had been, we must remember, some transition to this point. She sees him scanning the ridge, and asks with dignified, bated enthusiasm, “You want to go home, don’t you?” Then, with that very low-wattage she tends to display, she proposes getting a radio down there. “You could hear about the world.” After her working a long night’s shift, he pours two glasses of sake and asks her to give him a warm bath. She’s dead tired, but lathering up the soap and touching his body is a great tonic to her, and her face comes to life. The dunes are once again in their limbs and on his back, and she cherishes beholding such a lovely mystery. She lovingly caresses him and squeezes his shoulders, and then we see winds turning a sand hill into a material thrust that is more than material. Here we should note the great work on the part of principals, Kyoko Kishida and Eiji Okada who almost incredibly thread a very tight dramatic needle ranging from their being often sadly arrested simpletons and yet suffused with mature capacity for pain and lucidity.)
In citing the wobble between largesse and littleness, we risk getting caught up in simplistic excoriation and missing the film’s remarkably sophisticated disclosures. For instance, there is a sequence of camera angles upon the various flows of sand that not merely evokes a restless inertia about primal dynamics but puts the viewer amidst a state of collapse that initiates a moment of recovery. The hapless teacher finds himself repeatedly defeated, often swamped, in trying to charge to the top, but the audience is thereby swept into regions of equilibrium unnoticed by the intellectual sensibility of a protagonist who can seriously enthuse, “If I find a variant, I’ll get my name in a field guide,” and who, in the early days of his imprisonment, absorbs and consoles himself with the calculative prospect, “I’ll write about it!” (Rations promptly arrive after that, wrapped in a newspaper, and he reads, being an armchair adventurer, “A coup d’état, huh?”) And though in his fear and outrage he’ll blurt out nonsense like, “I’m a teacher and something of a scholar;” “I’m not a bum. I’m a respected teacher. I’m registered by the City… I refuse to die like a dog,” the whole deadly set-up makes clear it’s far from bright to trot out such effete priorities in face of a physical logic precluding hitherto comforting stopgaps. But the habit of such smallness does take on a new complexion entirely consistent with the weighty powers coaxed into view by a director en route to becoming a flower arranger. And the strangely charming avatar of “local spirit” (as the unintentional comedian was being lowered to his new career, the talent scout assured him, “It’s very informal here”)—more than a little bit compromised by local informality—sets the pace for that recovery, however provisional. Her patter about the firing line she’s fine with comes larded with loads of underdog reasoning—“We’re so short of people… Young people don’t want to stay in the village. They can make more money in the city… and there are movies… The Youth League grows peanuts and tulips in the sand… The Union treats us very well. It pays for the rations [but they must be for a couple]… It helps to have hope…” On his firing at her some elementary skepticism, “Call the man in charge! I’ll tell him how ridiculous this is! You don’t owe these villagers a damn thing!” she goes into headbanger agitprop—“All the sand is here… They calculated that it’s cheaper this way…” After getting to know him better, she admits, “If it wasn’t for the sand no one would bother about me.” The SM site is unstable to the point where the house would be “swallowed up” were there not some suckers digging for their life. Her husband and daughter were crushed by an avalanche. The bodies of several of the teacher’s precursors are also unpleasantly partnered with the landscape. He had been told by his boastful conductors that the product the village exports at cut-rate prices bears an illegal range of components and thereby threatens many other lives. “That’s their business,” she tells him. Her business, soon becoming compelling to those reading Teshigahara’s narrative more from the torso than the head, is to see that “local spirit” reigns, because in resolutely caring for that which is near, one can have it all, an activation of the strange priorities of love. “There’s nothing for me to do outside.”
The film’s denouement explores in what sense that notion of turning one’s back on world history is a travesty, and in what sense it can be ennobling. After the night they entertained the whole village, they settle into a constellation of two solitudes, she doing piecemeal beading in order to raise one thousand yen for the purchase of a radio and he reading comics (one that makes him laugh showing someone steamrollered and managing to say, “I keep smiling through thick and thin”). He dumps and burns his bug pin-ups and gives her the container for her beads. A trap (consisting of a little pit covered with paper, upon which are bits of fish) he hoped would capture a crow, to the leg of which he would—comic-book-style—attach an S.O.S. (she had warned, “Crows [like all soaring things] are too smart to be caught”), to his amazement functions like a well, fresh water appearing, by capillary action, from out of sands where it hasn’t rained in over three weeks. This galvanizes him to “perfect the technique,” and he runs extensive tests on it, with copious mathematical documentation. The day of his big discovery we see him doing a little dance of joy, a moment which capsulizes the concrete unrolling of the film as maintaining a handsome topspin despite the cave-ins of concentration and their suffocating eventuations. Though the village would have to have some serious water supply—the porn collectors, after all, provide them with potable water—he becomes obsessed with sharing his supposedly Nobel Prize level discovery with the local tormentors, to help them rise above their supposed distress. This would signal that, although he’s ditched his bugs, he’s merely replaced them with another form of bathetic self-promotion—a variant of the recurrent upward motions based on sand and so going nowhere. “Going nowhere,” that is, from the perspective of the exigency to get real about that calculative bent as firmly secured in the boonies as in the Tokyo he imagined trumping with relative ease. Watching him flounder in this way, we are put on notice that the manageable graces of small motives they briefly engaged in their purchase upon big motives cannot do without reverence for the monumental grandeur of vast landscapes, vast cities and vast histories. She had stressed to him, “I’m so afraid I’ll wake up alone again.” Now she whispers to herself, “I’m afraid,” her sense of fertile, earthy intercourse now threatened by biology rather than disloyalty. Soon she is immobilized and the gamesters, brought down to her out of his now disinterested and balanced concern, surmise (from a history with veterinarians) that, being clearly pregnant, she’s hit with an eccentric pregnancy (fruition off-kilter and failing to thrive). The scorpion we saw first has brought down the radio she worked for (not that far from the moonlighting of Selma, in Dancer in the Dark) and her fading lover turns it on for her as she’s being carried out of the house she never wanted to leave. “Want to take it?” he asks gently. She shakes her head, and her eyes only register fear and disappointment. As she’s lifted up by the pulley, she cries weakly, “No, no…” She looks back at him. His face shows only numbness.
Though she’s following the route of the devious loads of sand, her coming to this dead end is far from dead. Teshigahara’s compositional priorities share with us the dark and vivid amazement (appreciation) that life could arrange itself so bleakly. In the coda, he climbs up the ladder, untended, now that the starlet has called it a day. He stares at the sea and its purity of movement. The taste for its beauties that had drawn him into bug-like diminishment no longer animates his face and body. His plodding across the now dully lit beach, footprints bearing no linear magic, tells us much about his dead end. Back at the house he smiles at his reflection in the well. He tells himself that seeing the villagers’ response to his effort couldn’t be more apt. Then we’re shown by a printout the closing of his Missing Person Case by the Tokyo Police. Seven years have passed. The sheet of paper is a mini-desert with elegant tracing, a grand parting touch for devastation so exuberant we are drawn into its emergency—as we are by the devastation we’re left with, by von Trier’s Melancholia.