© 2017 by James Clark
We live in one of those eras where whole nations (or nation-links) have been widely regarded as irredeemably perverse and evil. Over the years, Catholics, Jews, Communists, gays, Japanese, Germans, etc. have been subjected to fierce and massive opposition. Therefore, when approaching a film notable like, Abbas Kiarostami (1940-2016), a rare artist refusing to cut ties with (though not a supporter of) militant Islam (within Iran), there is a special preparatory requirement to make very clear that our stalwart is, first and foremost, a citizen of the contemporary world, which is to say, the secular, cosmopolitan world.
In view of this, we’ll put forward a glimpse of the heart of Kiarostami’s work, a glimpse which Michelangelo Antonioni would be touched by, not to mention many other modern filmmakers.
Only an artist alerted to an imperative of dynamics brooking no capitulation to ancient enthusiasms would find necessary that those enveloping thrusts comprising Roads of Kiarostami take the spotlight. Kiarostami’s eventual semi-exile (the regime being happy about his festival winnings, but increasingly suspicious about the content of the material and therefore suspending any further financing), whereby his final two films—Certified Copy (2010) and Like Someone in Love (2012) were produced in, severally, Italy and Japan—comprised a distress that the oddity (uncanniness) he had romanced from the days when Persian Iran was Muslim-Lite had been targeted by a stream of volcanic, though tempered, spleen. But in our film today, Close-Up (1990), that ingredient of nausea is abated. Our special investigation of this surreal saga, then, has to do with those winning roadways and their comedic (Jarmuschian) whimsy remaining a viable navigation even where Paterson-like thought-police pose challenging roadblocks.
Therefore, we put into abeyance the convolutions of this narrative, in favor of that spectacular jigger of mirth which constitutes, in flash-back, the onset of the bemusing difficulties hogging most of the attention. In Jarmusch’s Stranger than Paradise (1984), Eva, bored with snowy Cleveland (and, before that, bored with antiquated Hungary), can’t resist getting taken for a ride to exotic Florida by her deadpan and big-talking cousin, Willie. In Kiarostami’s delighted reinvention of that sputtering shot for the stars, he brings to our consideration the lady of a bourgeois house in Tehran, Mrs. Ahankhah, boarding a local bus on her way to a very predictable home, and—bus experience lacking the heights of Persian excitement—she’s more than merely tolerant of a fellow-swarm (Hossein Sabzian), reading in the seat next to her, from a book he’s just bought, pertaining to the hot auteur, Mohsen Makhmalbaf, and his hit, The Cyclist, and going on to tell her that he is the golden globe who wrote the screenplay in question and directed the film and (with the lady urging, “I hope we [particularly herself and her film-arts-avid two sons] meet again) soon declaring that he’d love to put her and the rest of her family into a new creation. (Herewith we have not only the useful precedent of Jarmusch; but also Federico Fellini’s The White Sheik (1952), where a bored honeymooner, Wanda, runs off (as against a visit to the Vatican, with her far less volatile groom) to play a part in a photo-comic shoot starring a big-talking celebrity the romantic aspects of whom she has been crazy about for years.) Though Mrs. Ahankhah does not take her marching orders, as Eva does, from Screamin’ Jay Hawkins and his “I Put a Spell on You,” she does, in the presence of the rough-edged fellow-passenger, come into a realm of fantasy. (“Please take it. I wrote it… If you like, I’ll autograph it,” the big talker proceeds. She, like Wanda, cues up her windfall to settle her mind about the implausibility: “Famous directors have their own cars…” (He’s researching new scenarios.) She also rushes his way, due to her sons’ having graduated as engineers but only having found less impressive work, the notion, “My boys will be thrilled!”
Exaggerated thrills do in fact constitute a veritable implosion defining one of the two phenomena which Kiarostami sends our way with sensuous panache and thematic wit. The film begins with a sensationalist/ journalist, Farazmad, accompanying two military police, in order to cover the fraud’s arrest at the home of Mrs. Ahankhah (more accurately known, in line with customs confusing to us—as is a local police force run by the federal government—as Mrs. Mohensie) and her quasi cinema pre-production family artists, roped in by way of Hossein having obtained the phone number of the thrilled boys, from which the troupe forms up at a theatre showing The Cyclist, as a first step to more magic. The SWAT trip has been made in a taxi for the sake of not alerting the supposed hardened criminal, another nod to big-deal, Willie, and his excursion to supposed wild things. (Kiarostami’s trade-mark setting of the interior and immediate exterior of cars having much to do with Jarmusch’s motif as to automotive [mis-] adventures.) “Things might be tricky,” the sensationalist hopes, not having a clue about how really tricky this matter is. We would soon be privy to the law and order timbre of Tehran, by way of Kiarostami’s interviewing the police captain and hearing the latter maintain, “As you can see, we’re very busy here…” We can see, as the interview proceeds, more than a dozen officers standing about, eavesdropping on the welcome novelty the interview represents. That picture of drift includes a trooper re-lacing his boots, and thereby providing another bemusing diversion.
Unimpressive sensationalism hits the jackpot, though, in one area we might overlook, namely, Hossein, the sputtering powder keg, whom the judge, in hearing him defend his bizarre trespassing, declares his reality to be “a case of petty fraud.” Before casting some light on the defendant’s erudite sophistry, it does, I think, make a lot of sense to hear from his mother (in a hijab, but still revealing her vigorous rural roots), who petitions the court to “forgive” him. She cites his unemployment, forcing her to support them all. (“The first seven years were peaceful; then his wife began complaining about the poor housing, and she left with one of their two children.”) Perhaps, like Mrs. Ahankhah’s college grads, he does some odd jobs; but, like them, his heart is not there (though Mrs. Ahankhah does at one juncture point out that the mechanical engineer has become a going concern in his bakery sideline). Hossein derives from a far more modest socioeconomic strata; but he lacks not only certification but a will to forego that fantasy fixation upon his entitlement to crafting “thrilling” cinematic discoveries. During his long-winded moment in a court being, from his perspective, a more sombre jumbotron usually touching off any number of well-rehearsed, orgasmic ingratiation, he insists that as sublime as it could get would be his showing, as an actor, his pain as elicited by an unforthcoming horde of public enemies. The filmmaker he impersonates, Mohsen Makhmalbaf (b. 1957), was an ardent supporter of the populist theocracy coming to power in 1979. He was an outspoken enemy of those, like Kiarostami, who had produced something other than hurtin’ sagas, when the Shah was nudging the country into the modern world. Kiarostami, then (almost miraculously fending off that tsunami—but a tsunami comprising those finding diversion in watching someone tying his shoe-lace), would find in his coverage of the trial itself and the more or less bombastic self-dramatists being part of that “petty” blip, a way to, while seemingly giving a break to the pains of marginal energies, quietly disclose that second phenomenon transcending the farcical first—that first which Jarmusch pinpoints as “jerking off.”
Hossein, after a lenient imprisonment of a few days, tearfully meets his hero, good old Mohsen (invited by Kiarostami to bring his celebrated skills to the architectonic of who walks and who talks), and heads off behind the auteur of The Cyclist’s moto (under the other than teary camera of the master of ceremonies, who tracks the ride under the auspices of a deliberately sputtering sound-system). The salt of the earth stop at a flower market, where the one who was told by his hero, “Stop that!” [blubbering] has chosen a bouquet of yellow blossoms, setting off a stern demand, “Not yellow!” At the now-familiar locked gates of the victims of the scam, the latter part of the ride being restored to unhindered kinetic possibility of a world without excuses, the celestial figure chirps into the security phone, “You’ll see him in a different light!”
You’ll definitely never see him in a different light—that incipient light which Mrs. Ahankhah displayed in the bus. From Kiarostami’s perspective, the only different light that matters has to be light-years distant from moralist caretakers. Close-Up brims with multi-layering, self-serving verbosity. Its Antipode, which, in the best of all worlds, would be its salient antithesis, is a phenomenon of sensuous dynamics absolutely or nearly silent. The way this latter sphere comes to bear confirms the film as part of an agile reflective task to convene a full-scale consideration of what has not, to date, been taken into account. (During the trial, the defendant pleads, “My love of art should be taken into account.”) After the journalist’s non-stop gabbing in the taxi— “It’s a hot news item!” [as hot as all those wonderful YouTubes keeping people up all night]—the taxi driver, waiting for the arrest to take place, has some quiet time. He had mentioned being a former air force pilot, on which the populist newsman rattled off a dopey formula which carries a sense far beyond populism: “Air forces on the ground; ground forces in the air…” (The latter also, on seeing the location of the scene of the crime, poses the unintentional wisdom implicit in, “How strange, my greatest story should take place on a dead-end!”) The cabby steps out to the deserted road and soon his eye catches the long-range presence of jet-streams coming from each wing of a big jet, against a deep-blue sky. Dynamic cogency that requires no hype. From a pile of rubble by the curb, he finds a discarded bouquet of tiny flowers (by contrast with the huge spray ferried by the two revolutionaries to the family more or less dreaming the Persian Dream). His final bit of free-time involves nudging with his foot an aerosol cylinder having lost its jet. It jauntily rattles downhill, a reminder that air forces on the ground can stage a kinetic rally of ground forces in the air. (This Heraclitean dialectic comprising another aspect of the Persian Dream. Kiarostami has found an actor who resembles the Shah of Iran to play the part of a grounded high-flyer.) Farazmad, the dispenser of smallish dreams—his headline off the presses in deliberate cliché-style reading, “Bogus Makhmalbaf Arrested”—scrambles door-to-door along the street where the Ahankhahs live, trying to find a tape recorder to use in covering the official incarceration. As he enacts this let-it-all-hang-out idiom, he, in his frenzy, kicks into the air that aerosol can, sending it along that trajectory as before; and the promise therewith of some improvement revisits us at a level of wit and wisdom only one of the greatest filmmakers could manage. (One later rare shining moment occurs during the police raid, as seen from inside the comfortable home. There are a few graceful trees in the yard, their golden autumnal leaves being a relief from the virtually non-stop gracelessly calculated opportunism. We learn that Hossein—dead to anything living—moots cutting them down during the “pre-production.”)
A frequently floated interpretation of this subtle filmic disclosure is to enthuse about the methodology of filming an actual event by including those who lived it. (“Based on a true story,” the credits point out.) The nub of this insistence is to construct, in the Makhmalbaf style, a great heart stirring in the midst of marginalization, having become a slam-dunk for the patrons of hot docs. In Kiarostami’s interview at the jail with Hossein, pertaining to filming the trial, he asks, “Is there anything I can do for you?” “You could make a film about my suffering,” he quickly replies, failing to have well perceived or cared that that is not the kind of film Kiarostami wants to make. (During that interview, our helmsman asks if the prisoner knows his body of works. Hossein’s affirmative lacks any enthusiasm for a mode of production clearly intent on energies he does not wish to experience. Solidifying this impasse is the filmmaker’s reply to the request to construct a vanity vehicle. “I can’t promise anything…” The gulf separating the two figures captured by Kiarostami’s camera in the visitor’s area of the prison could be said to center upon the ego-drenched melodrama of The Cyclist, wherein an Afghan refugee in Iran stages a sensationally self-destructive 7-day marathon bicycle exhibition with a view to gaining funding for the sake of his critically ill wife. So sold on the ultimacy of that intent, Hossein insists the lesser-in-his-eyes obscurantist convey to his superior that “The Cyclist is part of my life!”
What does soon transpire (due to Kiarostami’s intervention with the court to expedite a court date) is the product of Hossein’s many years of portraying himself as, first of all, a directorial genius—on the basis of a deluge of saccharin films from many sources (Makhmalbaf’s The Cyclist being a recent craze, released in 1989)—and, in a whimsical pivot, an even more gifted actor. The Ahankhah family spokesman for the plaintiff is the (double-threat) arts-enthusiast-civil-engineer who describes incidents where the pious charismatic very much harbors monetary predations upon the star-struck affluent, by which his long purgatory could be ended. With “rehearsals” underway, there comes a moment when Hossein, leaving for home, asks the now-accuser for a ride on the youngster’s motorcycle, a gambit drawing from the fantasy-auteur a threat that, were the kid to get into a crash, thirty or forty of his cronies would ransack the tidy home. This quip engenders a chuckle; but then the opportunist asks for and receives 2000 tomans for travel expenses and contingencies he’s not inclined to describe. “I needed it,” he maintains to the judge. His argument that the fraud (from the perspective of others) is essentially a failure to understand that he is indeed at the heart of cinematic verity— “I really was him” [Makhmalbaf]—is delivered with soap opera keening and self-pity. After a day with the star struck family, during which he feels their “respect,” including their still vague consideration to fund the scenario for the up-coming hit, The House of the Spider, he describes himself being “confident” on the basis of the multiple “trust.” But, every melodrama needing a shot of conflict, he tells the assembly (at one point he tells Kiarostami that he’s his audience), “I had to shed that role” [on leaving the “set”] … I was still the same poor guy… I developed a complex” [about living the hero of Makhmalbaf’s The Cyclist and not being able to thrill the world with rare skill], which “audience” Kiarostami would describe as bathetic, if he were not making his statement in film action.
Within Hossein’s desperate obsessions, there may obtain jets of sterling possession having nothing to do with Makhmalbaf’s plodding and occasionally murderous self-importance. Just as kicking an aerosol can can hardly be understood as engaging a cycle of creative sensibility, the predatory quagmire Hussein has chosen to settle for has virtually nothing to do with art as an elicitation to a lifetime of vigorous daring and buoyant joy, which (given the fondness for antiquity) must always seem strangely new. At the beginning of the interview with the family of unwelcome notoriety, Mr. Ahankhah tells Kiarostami, “I don’t know what your intentions are…” We, having been given the opportunity to contemplate a case of pettiness far outstripping the con man who would maintain he is above jerking off, can come to terms with the vast outrage darkening world history while still, as with the lady of the house, keeping options open, such as they are.
We’re left thinking not of the presumptuous pest, but the far more nuanced maturity of Mrs. Ahankhah. After her first coming aboard Hossein’s vision of 1001 Nights—from her purchase, forestalling the deadly boredom of her family and circle—she fades into the background. Sitting, silently, in the court, she seems to have startlingly aged (with far more grey hair apparent than on the day when she first saw some daylight in the situation of Hossein). Within the domestic scene visited by Kiarostami, the stilted and phoney self-promotion by the men relegates her to the function of servant. Her husband brags, “I knew from the start exactly what was going on. And I always had the situation well under control. I led Mr. Sabzian along, as a lesson to my children…” The prissy civil engineer reams off a river of excuses and others’ faults to impress upon the notable that he’s an overlooked treasure. He denounces the lack of “raw material” as a factor of the poor employment picture. (The irony of a dearth of “raw material” far more appreciated by the interviewer than the interviewee.) He slaps down the only remark that day his mother finds to hold promise, concerning his brother’s beginning to find value in his bakery management work, with the vacuous snobbery, “I prefer artistic work to selling bread… My brother didn’t study all those years to sell bread…” He finds outrageous that the reporter (getting something right for a change) has portrayed them as simple folk. And that brings us back to the lady of the house and her apparent dead-end.
Kiarostami, like Jarmusch, knows that the gift he can generate with his films is as much about the alert viewer than the dazzling architectonic Hossein being, in addition to his fixity of primitivism, near [close-up] and yet so far. The taxi driver, being brought up to speed by the reporter about the identity theft of the filmmaker, declares, “I don’t have time for movies. I’m too busy with life…” And yet his readiness to track dynamics far surpasses the cinephile’s going nowhere, within the purview of what a movie means to Kiarostami. Asking for directions to that dead-end which may not be entirely a dead-end, they come to a couple of pointed conclusions: “Ask an adult.” And, confronted by a farmer taking his livestock to market, “We’re off to see a turkey of our own.” Mrs. Ahankhah mentioned enjoying The Cyclist. She didn’t add that it was a highlight of her life. Where would such superior judgment go, in a place like Tehran? Houdini-like Kiarostami had his ways. The already straitjacked lady might decide, after the farcical fling with Hossein, to cut back on her viewing (migraines being so useful). Were she ever to encounter a Kiarostami film, would she become intrigued? Were she never to see another film, her being on the spot would not be over.