Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

June 23, 2008


Filed under: Film — louisproyect @ 7:56 pm

For an interesting mixture of Marxist politics and surrealist film-making techniques, I recommend Hiroshi Teshigahara’s 1962 “Pitfall” (Otoshiana) that I rented from the estimable Netflix. Teshigahara is best-known for “Woman in the Dunes”, the movie that followed this, his first feature. “Pitfall” is based on a stage play by Kobo Abe, the Japanese novelist and long-time collaborator of Teshigahara who wrote the novel that “Woman in the Dunes” is based on. Abe was a member of the Communist Party while Teshigahara belonged to an artist’s circle called “Night Association” that Abe founded. Like Communists everywhere in the world in this period, Abe was beginning to become disenchanted. The screenplay for “Pitfall” reflects an artist in transition, while “Woman in the Dunes”, a more fully realized work of art, reflects a post-political outlook.

“Pitfall” not only combines class struggle politics with surrealism, it also includes other styles and genres including a ghost story reminiscent of “Ghost” (the Patrick Swayze/Whoopie Goldberg vehicle), a film noir detective story, the French new wave, and Italian neo-realism. Teshigahara was bursting at the seams creatively when he made his first movie.

The main character in “Pitfall” is Otsuka (Hisashi Igawa), an itinerant coal miner not that much different from those in China today who were dramatized in the excellent “Mine Shaft”. He is followed from mine to mine by his young son who is totally dependent on him after what we assume was the death of his mother. Unlike the father and son pair in “Bicycle Thief”, there is no love lost between the two. His father pays little attention to the boy who trails after him mutely like a pet dog. The father is fixed entirely on survival and his big dream is to work in a union site.

A possible job offer leads father and son to a desolate coal mine next to a ghost town, the result of the bosses picking up and moving elsewhere. The only person left in town is a woman who operates a run-down candy store crawling with ants that evoke those crawling across the pocket watch in Salvador Dali’s “The Persistence of Memory”. This suggests the influence of Luis Bunuel, who worked with Dali on “Un Chien andalou”. As we shall see, it is not just the surrealist Bunuel who influenced Teshigahara but also the Bunuel of “Los Olvidados”, a film whose leftist director uses to project despair rather than hope for radical transformation.

Not long after Otsuka shows up, he is directed to the site of new mine just down the road by the candy shop owner. While walking on a path through some tall reeds toward the workplace, he is accosted by a mysterious man in a white suit who stabs him to death. Almost immediately after dying, Otsuka reappears as a ghost and begins a search to discover why he was murdered. We soon learn that he looked exactly like the president of a miner’s union in the next town who was the intended target of the assassination. We are soon introduced to the union official (also played by Hisashi Igawa) who fears that his chief rival in the miner’s union will be falsely accused of the murder. The two men travel to the ghost town and become embroiled in further killings and ghostly manifestations.

Teshigahara weaves actual footage of coal miners and their hungry and desperate families into “Pitfall” to establish his sympathy for the workers, but do not expect a neo-realist call to arms. Mirroring a growing sense of futility in Japan, “Pitfall” ends on a bleak note not much different from Luis Bunuel’s “Los Olvidados”, the powerful study of youthful criminals in Mexico City.

However, all of the social and political concerns are almost secondary to the real ambition of Abe and Teshigahara, which is to create a narrative that operates on the level of a dream—or a nightmare. For example, much of the film consists of truly disquieting images such as dogs in the distance walking across the top of an immense coal slag heap, suggestive of the dancers being lead by Death in the final scene in Ingmar Bergman’s “The Seventh Seal”. To put it one way, “Pitfall” has enough material in it to keep a film studies seminar busy for 5 years at least.

Just a couple of sentences about Kobo Abe’s “Woman in the Dune”, which is discussed in an interesting article by Mutsuko Motoyama that appeared in the Autumn 1995 “Monumenta Nipponica”. It gives you a good sense of the disaffection of the Japanese intelligentsia during the crisis of Stalinism in the late 1950s.

Like many European surrealists, especially Andre Breton, Abe was drawn to revolutionary politics. He believed that avant-garde politics and art went hand in hand. Abe belonged to an artist’s group close to the party that sought to unite surrealism and socialism. Vladimir Mayakovsky was one of their idols. Somehow, this group with Communist sympathies was not dissuaded by the fact that the Russian poet took his own life in despair over the USSR’s failings to live up to its original ideals.

In 1951 Abe was organizing literary circles among factory workers, a far cry from his professional training as a physician. In a memoir of that period, he said that he wished to “associate with workers as closely as possible.”

As was so often the case, Japanese Communist artists and intellectuals ran afoul of the party leadership. In 1962, 28 writers were expelled. They were invited to recant but Abe remained defiant. He was just not ready to forsake his artistic principles to political exigencies, especially when he was growing more distrustful of Stalin. Participation in a writer’s conference in Czechoslovakia in 1956 opened up his eyes to the limits of artistic freedom in the Soviet world. This discontent grew after the USSR invaded Hungary in 1956, but not to the extent that it prevented him from disassociating himself from Sartre who had publicly condemned the invasion.

With “The Woman in the Dune”, the break with politics is thorough. His imagination would no longer be held hostage to party ideology. The captivity in this novel (and movie) is in the sand dune, an existentialist symbol reminiscent of the rock that Sisyphus is condemned to eternally push up a mountain in Camus’s “The Myth of Sisyphus”. In “The Woman in the Dune”, the protagonist has to shovel sand from the bottom of a dune each day in the same manner.

Despite their disenchantment with the organized left, neither Teshigahara nor Abe became typical capitalist apologists of the kind that sprouted up during the Cold War. Teshigahara eventually left film-making behind and devoted himself to Ikebana, the Japanese art of flower arrangement. (His father was a legendary artist in this field.) He did make “Summer Soldiers” in 1972, a movie that is sympathetic to an American GI deserter opposed to the Vietnam War. Meanwhile, Abe returned to the existentialist beliefs of his youth, exploring deeper questions of the meaning of life that will persist even after socialism is victorious everywhere.

1 Comment »

  1. BTW…here is trailer:

    Comment by Erik Carlos Toren — June 23, 2008 @ 8:29 pm

RSS feed for comments on this post. TrackBack URI

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

Blog at WordPress.com.

%d bloggers like this: