I’ve been thinking about Abbas Kiarostami a lot lately, primarily because no else seems to be. With a new film on the festival circuit, the once unassailable front runner of the Iranian New Wave has been getting less press than the forthcoming GI Joe movie*. Perhaps this was always the case, as Kiarostami occupied a precarious space between critical accolades and mainstream indifference (see also: Godard, Zhang-ke, Hou, etc.). But it would seem that even that most reliable barometer of cinephile taste, Film Comment, has declared Kiarostami passé – Gavin Smith himself has stated that Kiarostami’s “moment has passed”. But is this a case of a once great filmmaker who has simply “lost it”? Or is it something else all together?
Maybe part of the problem is that we never really understood Kiarostami in the first place. Once it was decided that some kind of “new wave” was happening, there was an automatic context with which to place his films, and social/political issues could be trotted out as window dressing, obscuring a failure to grapple with the actual films themselves. So rather than following the filmmaker where he wanted to go, we’ve instead seemingly ostracized him for not doing what we want him to do, what we were already comfortable with. As I recall, his film ABC Africa didn’t make much of a splash, and his follow up feature, Ten, was actively loathed in most mainstream quarters. From that point on, Kiarostami has, for all intents and purposes, become an experimental filmmaker. Certainly, there was always something different there, even in his most blatantly narrative features – the based-on-fact recreations and mobius-strip narrative of Close Up, the real-life disaster back drop of Life And Nothing More… that snakes backwards to involve real players in his previous film, Where is the Friend’s House?, the Brechtian, video-shot coda of Taste of Cherry, and always the emphasis on location shooting and non-professional actors. In hindsight, it shouldn’t have seemed so radical that Kiarostami would shift to the extreme formalism of Ten, or the essayistic collections of miscellany that are 10 on Ten and Five (Long Takes Dedicated to Ozu). It is these last two features that interest me the most, perhaps because they don’t seem to interest anyone else.
Pace Jonathan Rosenbaum, the notion of a simultaneously “incomplete” and “interactive” cinema seems most instructive to what we might currently designate “late period” Kiarostami (here’s to many more years, and the hopeful potentiality that what I refer to as “late period” will eventually become “mid-period”). With regards to narrative, one can trace a line of increasing disinterest, from Ten to 10 on Ten to Five (Long Takes Dedicated to Ozu) to Around Five: The Making of… (I hasten to add that while dvd distributors have relegated 10 on Ten and Around Five to the margins of simple supplemental features, they are in fact important films in and of themselves, akin to Filming Othello, Scenario du film Passion, and even Histoire(s) du Cinema, ripe for discovery and inclusion into the canonical filmography proper). Yes, narrative has been largely replaced by actuality - Kiarostami has eschewed standard film grammar (the genius of the system indeed) for a new kind of narrative, predicated on real time and a kind of temporal naturalism. In other words, he has devalued that most basic unit of functionality – plot based storytelling – alienating large sectors of the critical community that rely solely on story to hang their hats.
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“The disappearance of direction. That’s what is at stake: the rejection of all elements vital to ordinary cinema.”
“If anyone were to ask me what I did as director on the film (Ten), I’d say, “Nothing and yet if I didn’t exist, this film wouldn’t have existed.”
Kiarostami in interview
Ten is, as the title suggests, ten segments, each showing the same woman driving her car with a passenger. These passengers include her petulant son (who appears in four segments), a prostitute, an elderly woman, a female friend who she is going out to eat with, and a young woman (who appears twice, first going to, then returning from, a shrine). That our driver is a young woman, attractive, recently divorced and now remarried carries with it an implicit political and feminist point of view – the woman’s young son being an obvious stand in for an immature patriarchy that chastises her repeatedly for her unabashed expression of individuality.
Plot and political subtext aside, what irks most people is Kiarostami’s formal vigor – the film consists of two simple camera set ups, one pointed at the driver and the other pointed at the passenger. Kiarostami will occasionally cross cut between the two angles, although he’ll also allow long scenes to pass with only one view, while either passenger or driver exist only as an off-screen voice. A sampling of the critical derision this method garnered in the mainstream press, courtesy of that great barometer of middle brow taste, Roger Ebert: “Anyone could make a movie like Ten. Two digital cameras, a car and your actors, and off you go… but if this approach were used for a film shot in Europe or America, would it be accepted as an entry at Cannes? I argue that it would not. Part of Kiarostami's appeal is that he is Iranian, a country whose films it is somewhat daring to praise. Partly, too, he has a lot of critics invested in his cause, and they do the heavy lifting. The fatal flaw in his approach is that no ordinary moviegoer, whether Iranian or American, can be expected to relate to his films. They exist for film festivals, film critics and film classes.” That such a bold gambit would even be attempted in a European or American feature is debatable, and certainly no apparatus exists with which to distribute such a feature. But is it the artist’s fault that his work becomes ghettoized, relegated to the one place that can, however tentatively, express support for such a film? Obviously Ebert doesn’t think to question the system itself, and in the meantime manages to criticize said festivals, critics who might dare support the film (clearly in Ebert’s mind an affectation) and ever-elitist film schools. Never mind the construction of this hypothetical “ordinary” moviegoer, a dubious assumption on his part. There’s also an implied anti-intellectualism in the criticism, pitting “normal” against those fancy festival bound critics – in one fell swoop Ebert demonizes the fringe elements of his own profession (sorry Rosenbaum, Jones, Kehr, Martin, Hoberman, etc).
Such arguments have existed for as long as modern art, although one doesn’t suspect Ebert relating his reservations to similar bromides against Duchamp or Pollock or Twombly or Rothko (my kid could paint that indeed).
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“What exactly is a documentary, as opposed to the other kinds of movies that we make? I finally decided that if you just attach the camera to the top of a bull’s horns and let him loose in a field for a whole day, at the end of the day you might have a documentary. But there’s still a catch here, because we’ve selected the location and the type of lens that we want.”
“making something simple requires a great deal of experience. And, first of all, you need to understand that simplicity isn’t the same as facility.”
One can hardly imagine Ebert’s ire at Five (Long Takes Dedicated to Ozu), if only he had bothered to see it (Rotten Tomatoes lists about 50 reviews for Ten, and only two for Five, compared to around 220 for Transformers 2). Consisting of five long takes (of course), Five delves even deeper into the murky waters of authorial signature, or the lack thereof. Even more so than Ten, this is a film in which Kiarostami seemingly does nothing, and yet it would not exist without him. We see a piece of driftwood laying on the beach, waves crashing around it. And the camera sits there, and we watch. Eventually the wood splinters into two pieces, one of which gradually drifts back into the sea. This process takes around 9 minutes or so. Another scene involves bystanders walking back and forth through the camera’s view for several minutes, followed by a scene in which a gaggle of ducks does likewise (a humorous symmetry). We also see a pack of dogs as they awake with the sunrise, while the image very gradually blows out to striking white. The final long take is an epic shot that defies a simple written synopsis. The camera appears to be pointed downwards towards a body of water. It is nighttime, and only the moon’s wavering reflection on the water’s surface punctuates the darkness. The reflection periodically disappears, although it is not clear if this is because clouds are passing over it, obscuring the light, or if Kiarostami is fading the image in and out. It eventually starts to rain, the drops forming fascinating patterns as they strike the surface of the water, and gradually the sun begins to rise. This is the longest of the five takes, and the gradual accumulation of details, revealing what it is exactly that we are looking at, as well as a dense sound design of ambient noises, creates a sense of total envelopment in the moment. In a perverse sense, each scene does have a kind of narrative logic, with a beginning, middle and end, as well as the occasional ‘climax’ – the drift wood breaking in two, the sun rise, an approaching storm. The film demands patience, but one is rewarded by the simple pleasures of natural beauty and a calming, meditative tone. Adrian Martin has written: “Of course, there is work, profound work, underneath Kiarostami's productions. But the 'exercise' of his capacity for art-making comes, as he puts it, from practising the act of 'seeing' – with his eyes, not in the first place with any representational apparatus. Kiarostami's laziness – tales abound of his ability to walk away from projects in which he quickly loses interest, or the 'squandering' of his best ideas by simply speaking and not writing them down, musing as he travels from one location to another – is a kind of openness, an 'availability' to the world. What he learns to see, to notice, can then be immortalised, swiftly and effortlessly, in the framing of a photo or the composition of a poem. Aesthetic time is, for him, a matter of captured moments.”
10 on Ten goes some ways towards explicating much of the process of 5, at last as much as it explicates Ten, and exists as a kind of Kiarostami primer. And what an invaluable little film, the very definition of a ‘sketch’, that allows us to spend time with a master – I can’t think of many other documents of its kind. Of course, suggesting that someone watch a film to explain another film might strike some as too much ‘heavy lifting’, but only if one refuses the notion that a filmmaker’s body of work is in constant conversation with itself. 10 on Ten follows Kiarostami as he travels the roads used in filming Taste of Cherry, while he speaks plainly about his process, from casting, writing and shooting, as well as his philosophical and political concerns. Clearly, his movement away from traditional narrative is a bold assertion of political purpose, freeing him from ‘the clutches of production, capital and censorship’. He also speaks rhapsodically about the advent of digital cameras, and reveals the gradual process of his adapting to them – an interesting aside, that the controversial digital coda of Taste of Cherry was originally shot on film, which was then damaged while being processed. The end of the film is actually video rushes they had shot before running the 35mm camera.
It has been mentioned more than once that Kiarostami’s recent work belongs in a gallery, not a movie screen. True, Kiarostami has dabbled with installation pieces, and the slow pace and formal rigors of Five, in particular, would not necessarily be out of place projected on the wall of the MCA. But what does it mean that we have to decide where to place the work before even beginning to deal with the work itself, on its own terms? And what does it mean that we constantly allow this to happen? Similarly, who decides, and at what point, what is ‘difficult’ and what is not? Clearly, it is inarguable that any film deemed ‘difficult’ becomes a kind of work, and is therefore no longer pleasurable. A silly syllogism, and one that reeks of anti-intellectualism, but I fear it is one of those self perpetuating ‘truths’. Perhaps one demands the context of a specific institution to provide an entry point to difficult films, when one really only needs the eyes with which to look. That, ultimately, is the value of a Kiarostami film - that he helps us reinvest importance to such a seemingly simple act as watching.
*I suppose this dated reference reveals how long this piece has been gestating, as well as my complete lack of working method and sporadic free time. Even more depressingly, I could have made reference to any number of other disposable by-the-numbers product that comes and goes, leaving nary a trace on the cultural landscape. Does anyone remember Whiteout? How about, I don’t know, Pandorum or A Perfect Getaway? And yet, for a brief amount of time, this stuff generated more words and more press in the process of disappearing than Kiarostami has in the last few years.