Wednesday, 31 August 2011

Pitfall (1962) - Hiroshi Teshigahara

Yet another entry in what feels like the bottomless pit of genius Japanese 60's cinema. Despite having owned this film for years, it's taken me forever to get around to watching it for some reason. Pitfall (or Otoshiana to give it's Japanese title), is one of those films that packs an awful lot into it's brief (97 minutes) running time. Flitting between disparate genres - ghost story, murder mystery and gritty union drama to name the main three, it somehow manages to stay cohesive, never veering too far off the path it started out on. Add to that doppelganger characters, murders, twists and moments that will make you gasp for air, all set to one of those great atonal jazz scores that never turn up to buy anywhere, and you know you're in for an interesting evening. Teshigahara lays everything out in such a way that the audience should have no problem following the story. Understanding what they saw is another thing entirely though. It's not as tricksy as say Usual Suspects, it just stays with you, rolling around your mind while the undertones of it become apparent. So here goes…

Well right from the opening credits it's obvious that this is going to be a stylish affair, the first image we see is that of two adult men and a small boy running and hiding. They're obviously on the run from something or someone and look like they are wearing everything they own. I'm not sure if we ever really discover just what or who they're running from, but it turns out they are drifting from town to town (or mine to mine to be precise), trying to find work and some sort of stability. What the men don't know is that they are being shadowed by a man in a white suit. The boy clocks him straight away, but says nothing to his father. None of these three characters is given any sort of name, but the third cog disappears from the story when the father and son head off to a remote deserted mining town (which we later discover is literally a ghost town), when he is given a note and map saying that there is work for him there if he wants it. All the while the white suited man is close behind.

And to be honest that's where I'm going to leave the synopsis since anything more would spoil what is a brilliantly scripted film. On the surface the film is a equal parts murder mystery/ghost story, underneath though it's about the modernisation and economic boom that Japan was going through at that moment, and the effect it had on those that weren't swept along by it. Or at least that's how I read it. It's very much a film about duality (it reminded me a lot of Performance in this way), the white suited man (capitalism personified), pitted against the worker (who dreams only of working in a mine with a union). This dualism is carried over in the cinematography, which is the starkest black & white rather than black & grey as is so often the case. Teshigahara's blacks are as black as coal (just look at the mountains that surround the small town), while the whites burn into your retinas, making it difficult to forget what you've just seen.

Teshigahara doesn't take the easy route though, there's a constant refusal to focus on just one persons story, even though ultimately all the strands come together. Pitfall (great pun title by the way), has almost every character secretly observing another character doing something despicable, so much so that it brings to mind those other two great voyeuristic classics The Pornographers and Peeping Tom. That's the kind of company this film is keeping. There's an ambiguous rape scene that is filmed so tightly on the bodies that it becomes claustrophobic and confusing, it's hard to tell just what is going on. I'd say it's one of the best of these types of scenes I've seen in a film, since it's so uncomfortable to watch. Which brings us back to that voyeuristic element again.

Teshigahara obviously thinks through his camera positions carefully since every angle feels perfect. He also films in a variety of different ways, so there are really long takes and typical dolly shots mixed in with hand held camera, sudden whip pans and crash zooms. At one point there is a huge pulsating growing liquid circle superimposed over the film, it feels experimental without the painful viewing that 60's experimental films can sometimes be. It doesn't feel as obvious as someone like Godard say, who seems to have more fun with these kind of things. Teshigahara seems more considered in his approach, more Japanese I guess. I like the way that once the characters in the film become stuck in the town, so do we. It's almost like a genius Japanese version of British oddball TV show Sapphire & Steel, that has been shot through with a social conscience worthy of Ken Loach. The last shot of the film (the boy running) not only brings the film full circle but is reminiscent of the last shot of 400 Blows.

Of course like all subtitled films it's hard to gauge how good the vocal acting is. I mean I can't tell if a line is delivered well or not, it all sounds fine to me, but then I can't think of a time when I've ever bemoaned a foreign film for this. The physical side of the acting is superb, Hisashi Igawa in particular is stunning. He plays three characters (sometimes two in the same scene), and not once are you in any doubt just which of them he is. I love the icy cool of Kunie Tanaka too as the man in the white suit, but best of all is Kazuo Miyahara as the son in what would be his first and last film. Kids are always a huge obstacle to overcome for any director I can imagine, Miyahara has quite a bit to do, although not much to say. Just like Antoine Doinel at the end of 400 Blows you can't help but wonder what happens to this poor little guy who has been through so much. Of course we know what happened to Doinel, but this kid has stayed with me since the film ended, in much the same way that the smell of a fire lingers long after it's been extinguished.

A word of warning for those (like myself) that are sensitive to animal cruelty, you see a frog being pulled apart, it's not on the screen for long, but it's real and you'll never forget the image once you've seen it. I don't mean that in a good way either.

Having only ever seen Teshigahara's documentary about Gaudí before this, I had absolutely no idea of just what I was in for. I have two other films by him along with a handful of shorts sitting on a shelf just begging to be watched. Plus I have the whole of Saturday to myself. What would you do in my shoes?

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