Pitfall (1962)

Needing to wipe Vampire Rock from my mind, I quickly bumped-up Hiroshi Teshigahara’s Pitfall (Otoshiana) to the top of my need-to-watch pile. For those wondering, that pile currently consists of over 200 DVDs, most of them sitting in a crate in my basement. Pitfall quickly replaced the awful taste of Vampire Rock with the bitter truth that we may all potential victims in a world without heart.

Teshigahara’s work is relatively new to me and his films are finally becoming available to the west. What I had read of his work was more in reference to his collaborations with screenwriter Kodo Abe and composer Toru Takemitsu. Criterion Collection is releasing a box set of the three films this trio worked together on. Though they bind the films together under Teshigahara’s name and not his collaborators as if beholden to the aueter theory.

Pitfall is an existential ghost story. A miner and his young son set off in search of new employment. A man in a white suit and hat lurks behind them. In an abandoned mining camp the young boy watches has his father is murdered. The only other witness is an again woman who willing lies about what she saw for a small amount of cash. The murder man’s soul wanders the camp, mingling with other ghosts, and trying to bring his killer to justice. Newspaper reporters discover a striking similarity between the dead man and a local union leader. Even the union leader finds the resenblience uncanny. He worries that another union boss is out to murder him, while that union boss fears some is trying to frame him. Quickly a case of mistaken identity and murder turns into an industrial conspiracy to tear apart the two unions.

Teshigahara combines a documentary realism with poetic, nightmare imagery to create a hybrid vision that is both real and surreal, as if straddling two worlds or two planes of existence. Hand held camera and rapid zooms inward on points of action mimic the voyeuristic eye of cinema verite while controlled camera movements and meticulously composed static shots present humans lost in sparce, overwhelming landscapes to tight close ups, macro in scale, but full of transcendent wonder and depth. Together the two styles bridge the gap between the land of the living and the dead. Most interesting is the slightly sped-up action, as if shot at less than the 24 frames per second average, that creates a higher sense of tension.

Adding to the tension is Toru Takemitsu’s discordant score further drives home the message that life is neither predictable nor transparent. Notes and noises of music concrete enter and leave scenes unexpectedly. The music does not merely mimic the action, but rather it contains a life of its own, free from the actions within the frame.

I am unfamiliar with of Kodo Abe’s original story, upon which Pitfall or The Pitfall as it is known in the United States. There are elements of Kafka and Beckett, but Hamlet also comes to mind, that is if Hamlet were told from his father’s point of view. Madness , in this case, is reserved for the dead, unable to name their killer.

I am often skeptical of stories that us supernatural elements to express situations of human struggle. Teshigahara, however, treats his apperations as plainly as he does the living. The ghosts who inhabit the old mining town continue with their daily labors, their physical burdens define their souls. The miner tries to tell the living who has murdered him, but his voice is unheard, just as it was while he was living. Even in death, nothing changes.

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