On the Film Version of Kobo Abe’s novel “Woman in the Dunes” & the Passing of Robert Osborne

So I’m sorry to say I just heard the news that the great emcee of Turner Classic Movies, Robert Osborne, has passed away at the age of eighty-four. He was like the Walter Cronkite of Old Hollywood classics. He always introduced himself at the start of a film intro, “Hi, I’m Robert Osborne,” and had a great knack for being both a fan, supporter, and comrade-in-arms. He wasn’t a critic in the style of Siskel & Ebert (thank god), but more of a friend of the films he championed. TCM won’t be the same without him. But it’s still a surprisingly good venue for watchable films. Last weekend TCM showed the 1964 classic film version of Kobo Abe’s novel Woman in the Dunes (1962), which managed to recreate the surreal beauty of the novel in cinematic form—not an easy achievement. It’s the kind of film they call hypnotic: long-duration shots of sand dunes and sand shifting, the hapless Japanese widow trapped in her hovel constantly shoveling sand, having to prop an umbrella over the dinner table to keep the sand out of their food. At one point the eerie beauty of her sand-covered nude body is heightened by the black-and-white cinematography as the disturbed, trapped teacher-man looks on. (He goes to this seaside village to study insects and is trapped in a dune-pit, forced to live with the widow, whom he eventually gets pregnant, and when he can finally escape, he chooses not to.) Their fates are an obvious riff on the Sisyphus myth, but so particular and specific, and culturally unique, that it doesn’t feel shopworn or trite. I’d like to think that Robert Osborne chose Woman in the Dunes personally, a last thumbprint on the content of Turner Classic Movies.

About williamjcobb

William J. Cobb is a novelist, essayist, and short fiction writer whose work has been published in The New Yorker, The Mississippi Review, The Antioch Review, and many others. He’s the author of two novels—The Fire Eaters (W.W. Norton 1994) and Goodnight, Texas (Unbridled 2006)—and a book of stories, The White Tattoo (Ohio State UP 2002). He has reviewed books for the Dallas Morning News, the Houston Chronicle, and the New York Times. He lives in Pennsylvania and Colorado. He may be contacted at wjcobb@gmail.com.
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