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Japanese director Hiroshi Teshigahara, who carved out a substantial niche among art-film fans in the 1960s with his willfully bizarre and haunting tales of ordinary madness, is the subject of a long-awaited BAMCinematek retrospective.

"Man in the Dunes: Discovering Hiroshi Teshigahara," which plays Feb. 24 through March 19 at the Fort Greene theater, might be incomplete - only four of the director’s seven features are being shown, along with one of many documentaries he made during a fruitful career - but it is necessary viewing for anyone interested in the enduring, astonishing visions of a true cinematic artist.

Teshigahara, who died in 2001 at the age of 74, was something of a Renaissance man. Growing up as the son of a beloved and famous expert in the Japanese art of "ikebana" (flower arranging), Teshigahara’s creative life was never limited: along with being a screenwriter and film director, he was a sculptor, a painter, an interior designer, a ceramics maker and a stage director.

But it’s his films that are remembered most highly. And the one for which he is best known - that masterpiece of eerie sexual tension and psychological dislocation, "Woman in the Dunes" - was the second film in a loosely connected quadrilogy of madness and alienation that Teshigahara collaborated on with two of the foremost avant-garde Japanese artists of their time: novelist/playwright Kobo Abe and composer Toru Takemitsu.

When "Woman in the Dunes" was first seen on these shores after its initial release in 1964, it was in a 124-minute version that was shortened from its original 147 minutes. Happily, BAMCinematek will show Teshigahara’s original cut; although the version we’ve become used to is certainly a major achievement in its own right, seeing the expansive, two and a half-hour-long version that its maker originally intended is a breathtaking experience.

The title character of "Woman in the Dunes" lives at the bottom of a huge sand dune. After a male entomologist stays too long in the desert and is unable to return home, he ends up staying with her and becomes slowly enraptured by her.

The film charts the man’s simultaneous descent into madness and obsessive love as he becomes like the butterflies he studies - he is literally trapped by her wiles - but there is a difference: he willingly submits to her.

Shot in rapturous black and white, "Woman in the Dunes" (which closes the series March 17-19) has been brilliantly edited by Teshigahara to the otherworldly sounds of Takemitsu’s extraordinarily effective score. This is "modernist" music at its most emotionally charged - the rhythmic pounding of the percussion instruments is often juxtaposed with the romantic sheen coming from the string section, which creates an eerie aural complement to the bizarre onscreen goings-on.

Teshigahara’s partnership with Abe and Takemitsu bore fruit four times. Unfortunately their final collaboration, 1968’s "The Man without a Map," is not part of this series, but the other two rarely-seen films are part of the program.

"Pitfall" (March 3-5), Teshigahara’s 1962 debut feature, tracks the peregrinations of a mysterious white-suited man in sunglasses who murders members of a remote village freely and vindictively. His victims, who return as ghosts, are helpless to affect any change in the behavior of the living.

In "Pitfall," the director created the blueprint for his later work: luminous black-and-white photography, disturbing Takemitsu music - which, as always, utilizes silence as much as sounds - and the incredibly rich imagination of writer Abe.

In many ways, 1966’s "The Face of Another" (March 11-12) is the most memorable of the Teshigahara-Abe-Takemitsu collaborations.

Playing out like an extended but always compelling "Twilight Zone" episode, the movie follows a man disfigured in an accident, and what ensues after he receives a new "face" from his doctor in place of his own. (Interestingly, a similar case in France has been in the news recently.)

Played by Kurosawa regular Tatsuya Nakadai with his usual kinetic energy, the protagonist in "The Face of Another" is another of Teshigahara’s characters who devolve into a sort of insanity by encountering situations unlike any they’ve beheld before.

Playing off the "dual identity" theme, Teshigahara and his collaborators created another masterpiece of dehumanization, shown most unsettlingly in the sequence where Nakadai attempts to seduce his own wife with his new "face" - as another man.

Two more films round out the series. "Summer Soldiers" (1972; March 10) is the director’s not entirely successful attempt to see his own country through the eyes of two American soldiers serving in Vietnam, who go AWOL and decide to visit Tokyo.

The series’ opening-week film is "Antonio Gaudi," Teshigahara’s vibrant paean to the great Catalan architect whose amazing designs in his own hometown of Barcelona - including the flabbergasting La Sagrada Familia cathedral and Casa Batllo apartment complex - changed how architecture developed in the early 20th century.

Combining gliding tracking shots through Gaudi’s wondrous buildings with Takemitsu’s beguilingly offbeat musical score, Teshigahara’s "Antonio Gaudi" is the ultimate homage to both a great artist and art itself.


"Man in the Dunes: Discovering Hiroshi Teshigahara" plays at BAMCinematek, 30 Lafayette Ave. at Ashland Place in Fort Greene, Feb. 24 through March 19. Tickets are $10, $7 seniors. For a complete list of screening dates and times, see the Brooklyn Events Calendar, call (718) 636-4100 or visit the Web site at

Updated 4:00 pm, November 10, 2010
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