Woman in the Dunes -1964-

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Directed by Hiroshi Teshigahara. 148 mins.

***MINOR SPOILERS (albeit through the lens of my interpretation and relatively free of specific plot details. And it probably won’t make sense unless you’ve seen the film.)***

Worth my time? Yes. (Watched on DVD)

If Pitfall was a walk into the abyss, Woman in the Dunes is a permanent vacation. I don’t know which genre this film is conventionally described to belong – it defies clean categorization – but it comes closest to being a horror movie. It truly* scared the shit outta me. Here’s why:

(Note: The following italicized portion digs into my personal thoughts regarding issues such as rights, freedom, obligation, and oppression. I don’t mean to preach, but I must touch on them so that the reader understands why the ending frightened me when it may not frighten others so such a degree. If you don’t care why I had such a reaction to the ending, feel free to skip it.)

A fellow film fan (whom I deeply love and respect) informed me that once could interpret the film’s ending as upbeat. After all, the once-tormented protagonist finds contentment and a measure of newfound ingenuity. To me, this was one of the more frightening endings to any movie I’ve recently seen. The protagonist has been broken; once defiant in the face of oppression, he is now compliant, relishing in the little victories of self-sufficiency. He has been broken like a wild animal sold to the circus.

 Granted, one could argue that everyone (myself included) falls somewhere on the spectrum of institutional domestication, whether that institution be a relationship, a family, a job, a country, a religion, etc. The protagonist is more “free,” one could argue, because he is no longer dependent on his job, or the union to which he belonged, or the bills he had to pay. However, I don’t categorize all constraints to my actions as “oppression.”

 True, my weekly schedule has restrictions because I must commute to work. However, this restriction has not been unduly thrust upon me. I made a contract with an employer that we both view as mutually beneficial. Some may retort that I (or, more likely, someone in more dire conditions) am a “wage slave.” But to say that a job amounts to wage slavery implies that the employee in question has a right to receive x amount of income. On the flip-side of rights are obligations. If I have the right to receive x, someone else has an obligation to provide me with x. I fundamentally disagree that anyone has an obligation to provide me with a living. Their refusal to do so is not a violation of my rights and is, therefore, not oppressive. In a similar vein, I was born without wings, restricting the mobility that I would otherwise have. But am I being oppressed by lack of wings? No, because I have no fight to them. Again, constrained options does not always signify evidence of oppression.

 I also take issue with the claim that self-sufficiency (such as the kind the protagonist exhibits) demonstrates that someone is free from depending on others. I have heard this trope many times in my life, and I call bullshit on it. Self-sufficiency is not freedom – it is poverty.

 Think of all the items you use and consume in a given day. How many of them could you make by yourself? How would you even begin to build a single pencil? I wholeheartedly reject the premise that one must acknowledge his/her dependence on others and accompanying oppression, or else live life as a recluse or a hermit. The capacity for cooperation and interdependence is what makes humanity beautiful. The trick is to make sure that these relationships are increasingly voluntary and decreasingly coercive.

 Plus, the protagonist still seeks the praise of the villagers, so even his self-sufficiency if done for the sake of others. In my opinion, such a state of affairs is no different than the institutions from which he supposedly escapes.

The film is even more hauntingly beautiful than Pitfall. Extreme close-ups of sand glisten like precious stones, and the sliding of the dunes encroaches like some sort of alien slime. Collective action (the large quantities of tiny grains of sand in this case) adds up, that’s for damn sure. Woman in the Dunes also gets lotsa bonus points for making great use of its single, cramped setting without ever getting boring or feeling stagey.

–Teshigahara likes his bugs something fierce.

*Thankfully, not literally.

(Seen and originally written on 2013-01- 23)