Call it art-film nostalgia, but every newly forgotten, newly resurrected “classic” from the post-Truman era of international cinema still looks as bold, brave, and original as the next. BAM’s retro on Japanese modernist Hiroshi Teshigahara proves the point, and not just with Woman in the Dunes (1964). Exactly the sort of confrontationally metaphoric movie that got heads buzzing in the day, Woman is both fearsomely tactile and abstract, with an ideogram for a plot: An unsuspecting teacher (Eiji Okada) becomes trapped in an enormous dune pit and is kept there by a pack of mysterious villagers. In the pit with him, dumbly going about the Sisyphean task of shoveling away the sand that perpetually threatens to engulf them both, is a servile woman living in a driftwood shack; she is essentially the perpetual-motion device that prevents the villagers’ home from being buried, and he is her designated helpmate.
The harrowing dead-end existentialism belonged to avant-garde novelist-scripter Kobo Abe, who played Emeric Pressburger to Teshigahara’s Michael Powell with three more outlandish concepts, including Pitfall (1962), a hot-tempered, pro-labor murder mystery centered on a deunionized coal-mining town and its population of murdered ghosts; and the intensely futurist The Face of Another (1966), in which Japanese New Wave icon Tatsuya Nakadai plays a burned man with emotional issues who, once he’s given a temporary prosthetic face, constructs a new identity and sets about seducing his own wife. (This, the same year as Frankenheimer’s Seconds.) The series also lavishes a one-week run on Teshigahara’s Antonio Gaudí (1984), an observant, Abe-free doc about the Spanish architect’s work that belongs wholly to Gaudí, whose extraordinary, fearsomely surrealist century-old buildings still seem years ahead of our time.
Another mid-century phenom has been uncloseted, at Film Forum: Marcel Camus’s Brazilian romance-fable Black Orpheus (1959), an almost irrationally infectious retelling of the Orpheus-Eurydice chestnut set during carnival and feverish with hip-swiveling hustle, exploding local color, and sleeve-worn heart. True, the movie’s massive international success may’ve been partially due to the raw energy of South American partying, but because it’s naive and folk-ish, Camus’s film remains a revivifying experience—and a mid-winter oasis. Born and bred in France, Camus made other films, and lots of French TV, but Black Orpheus may still be the greatest one-hit-wonder import we’ve ever seen.