Film critics Bruce Reid, Richard T. Jameson, Kathleen Murphy, and Robert Horton debate and discuss the polarizing film The Neon Demon, the work of director Michael Cimino, and the unifying filmmaker Abbas Kiarostami in the July 2016 edition of Framing Pictures from Scarecrow Video.
These discussions are held in the screening room of Scarecrow Video on the second Friday of every month and are free to attend. The video appears a few weeks later on the Seattle Channel.
The August edition will take place on Friday, August 12 at 7pm at the Scarecrow Video Screening Room. More information at the Framing Pictures Facebook page.
We didn’t know it at the time but The Wind Will Carry Us (1999) was the end of a distinctive mode of cinematic engagement for Iran’s Abbas Kiarostami. He had won the Palm d’or at Cannes in 1997 for A Taste of Cherry and had become the figurehead for Iranian cinema for his unusual mix of fiction and documentary and gently self-reflexive filmmaking. After The Wind Will Carry Us, however, he entered into a period of documentary and experimentation that lasted a decade until Certified Copy.
The Wind Will Carry Us: 15th Anniversary Edition (Cohen, Blu-ray, DVD) revives this landmark film with a newly remastered edition and a Blu-ray debut. Like his previous films, he mixes professionals with amateurs and draws character from his location, here a remote village in the mountains where a TV crew arrives to film a funeral ceremony of a dying woman. A three day trip stretches into two weeks as the old woman begins to recover and the filmmaker (Behzad Dourani, the only professional actor in the cast) gets anxious as he’s eaten away by twin impulses: his wish for the old woman’s recovery and the mercenary hope for her speedy death so he can complete his project.
Kairostami’s rigorous style has always been sensitive to the rhythms of people and the details of day to day existence, and like his best films The Wind Will Carry Us unfolds with a remarkable fidelity to (or a convincing facsimile of) real time. What may be surprising to fans of his films is the dry humor that permeates the picture. To Western eyes the pace may seem glacial, yet it’s the very embrace of the time it takes to walk through the village or scramble up a hillside “short cut” that allows Kiarostami to explore the spaces between the words and the landscape that envelopes his characters’ lives. The culmination of such astounding visions is a celebration of the human spirit is nothing short of sublime. (If that final sentence looks familiar, it might be because it’s quoted on the back of the disc case from my original 2000 review in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer; I was inspired to revive it from this review.)
Features newly-recorded commentary by film critic Jonathan Rosenbaum and Iranian scholar Mehrnaz Saeed-Vafa, a 90-minute Q&A with director Abbas Kiarostami hosted and moderated by New York Film Festival director Richard Peña at the University of Indiana and a booklet with an essay be Peter Tonguette.
Like Someone in Love (Criterion, Blu-ray+DVD Combo, DVD) – After making his first dramatic feature outside of Iran with Certified Copy, a film shot in Italy with stars from France and England, Abbas Kiarostami hopped cultures once again, landing in Japan where he put together an odd, opaque, knotty little piece on love and affection and sex and desire that is a perfect fit with both the director and the chosen cultural milieu.
If you didn’t know it was Kiarostami behind the camera, carefully framing those scenes to keep your perspective limited like a bystander from compromised vantage point, you might think you’d stumbled across a brilliant young Japanese talent (with a sympathy for an elder’s experience) exploring the codes and assumptions and ambiguities of modern relationships in a complex social crucible. Rin Takanashi plays college girl and part-time prostitute Akiko, who has to cancel on her boyfriend for a last minute client, and Tadashi Okuno is the retired professor Takashi who hires her services and can’t decide if he wants to be sugar daddy or sage grandfatherly guardian. There’s something tender and yearning in his relationship with Akiko which gets more complicated when he tries to pass on advice to her jealous, hotheaded boyfriend (Ryo Kase), who really blows up when he discovers that Takashi is no doting family relative after all.
The films of Iranian master Abbas Kiarostami have always explored the complex relationship of cinema to the world it reproduces and recreates in a frame. To quote a line from Certified Copy, “It’s our perception that gives [art] value.” The film, which is also Kiarostami’s first film produced and shot outside of Iran, plays with our perceptions in playful and provocative and revealing ways.
Certified Copy is a truly cosmopolitan affair, with a goddess of a French leading lady (Juliette Binoche), a British opera singer (William Shimell) as his leading man, an Italian location and crew, and a meandering, introspective, fascinating conversation that slips between English, French and Italian. Kiarostami penned the screenplay himself, with Massoumeh Lahidji “adapting” and translating. Binoche plays a French-born antiques dealer and single mother in Italy (she’s never called by name in the film and is identified as “Elle” in the credits, which in French means “she”), at once pulsing with life and worn down by it. Shimell is James Miller, a British author and philosopher in Italy for the release (in translation) of his new book on art, authenticity, and value. He arrives at his press conference a calm, confident man, all reason and unflappable self-control, even when she arrives late and carries on a distracting conversation of gestures with her hungry, bored son. She arranges a kind of date with the handsome and assured author, driving him through the alleys of her small town through the countryside to a nearby village to view an “original copy” as they debate the meaning of authenticity. They can’t agree on anything, but there is something there.
James is every inch the intellectual philosopher and enjoys the discussion as a kind of exercise, all romantic ideals and philosophical ideas, while Elle, far more emotionally invested, draws from her practical experience of living in the world. Over the course of the afternoon they flirt, spar and grow old together. When a chatty trattoria proprietor mistakes them for husband and wife, they simply segue into the roles and the outing becomes a portrait of a marriage fifteen years on. The transition is not exactly sudden or shocking — in some ways, it’s almost imperceptible, thanks to the graceful long takes and the easy rhythms Kiarostami’s style of heightened naturalism — but the tectonic shift is like a narrative earthquake that completely shifts the ground beneath their feet and our engagement with this characters. This is not some first date game from a nervous couple indulging in a little joke. Their whole relationship shifts with it: awkwardness and nervous chatter gives way to the rhythms and comfort of old habits and the disagreements of earlier conversations harden into frustration and exasperation over long-standing aggravations. As the afternoon date becomes a wedding anniversary, old patterns of arguments play out all over again in tetchy exchanges and emotional collisions, or so we can gather from the resignation of their responses.
[Originally published, with minor differences, in Seattle Weekly in 1999]
There are moments while watching a film by Abbas Kiarostami when I feel cinema being reinvented in front of my eyes. It’s a feeling that sneaks up through the surface modesty his features. On the surface Kiarostami appears to be working in a style inspired by films such as The Bicycle Thief and Rome, Open City, the shot-on-the-streets approach of Italian neo-realism, working non-actors and real life events into the fictions of their films. This documentary-style directness and simplicity isn’t surprising given his background of almost two decades making non-fiction shorts and features, but it’s really only a starting point for his cinema. Kiarostami’s richly layered style and structure belie the simplicity and immediacy of his films’ quiet surfaces to explore increasingly complex relationships between actor and character, story and the storyteller, presentation and audience. This style culminates in the power, beauty and dignity of his 1997 masterpiece A Taste of Cherry. You can see the development of the artist through his “Koker Trilogy,” three films pulled together not by character and story but place and theme. His development comes into sharp relief as he questions the very naturalistic roots of his first film.
Where Is The Friend’s Home (1987) is Kiarostami’s first and most conventional fictional feature, the tale of Ahmed (Babek Ahmed Poor), a schoolboy who discovers he’s accidentally taken home his pal’s notebook and travels to a nearby village (against the express orders of his mother) to return it. Impulsive, willful, stubborn, and shy, his face tightens in anxiety as he’s confronted, berated, and ignored by adults on his mission of honor. In an early scene, when the schoolteacher rips up his friend’s homework “to teach him a lesson” and sends the boy into tears, Ahmed looks off in pained discomfort, his teddy bear eyes searching for some neutral place to fix. On one level Kiarostami paints a society rooted in authoritarian demands, but on another he reminds how us kids get lost in the grown-up world of business and responsibility.
[parts of this were originally published in the Seattle Weekly, February 24, 1999]
In 1989 in Tehran, a movie mad unemployed printer named Ali Sabzian was arrested for impersonating the famous film director Mohsen Makhmalbaf. The family he had fooled was deep in rehearsals for his next “film” when they alerted authorities of their suspicions. “I loved playing that part,” confesses Sabzian in his trial. When the judge asks the Ahankah family if they will drop the charges in light of Sabzian’s apologies and explanations, one of the sons replies “I get the impression he’s still playing a role.”
These moments from the documented trial resonate through Close-Up, Abbas Kiarostami’s 1989 film of the event. Kairostami, best known to American audiences for Through the Olive Treesand the Cannes Film Festival Palme d’Or winning A Taste of Cherry, read about the story in the papers and convinced Sabzian and the Ahankah family to play themselves in a dramatic recreation. The case itself is hardly sensationalistic. Sabzian met Mrs. Ahankah on a bus and passed himself off as Makhmalbaf (the scene is recreated by the participants in the middle of the film and establishes an unusual bond between the two—when the police come to arrest him in a later recreation she steps up to stop them). It’s simple bit of role playing that Sabzian pushes into an elaborate charade when he proposes that the family act in his next film and becomes a frequent visitor to their house. Intercut with these extended scenes is the documentary record of the real trial (which Kiarostami convinced the judge to let him not only film but in some ways shape for the camera) and a series of on-camera interviews. What emerges isn’t so much a merging of the two forms as an inquiry into the very nature of cinematic representation.
According to a report from the Associated Press, Iranian authorities have released Jafar Panahi. He’s been freed on $200,000 bail, but his troubles may not be over. According to the report, the indictment (which is still sealed; the “crimes” he’s been accused of have still not been made public) will be sent up to a revolutionary court for future action. It seems clear, however that the pressure put on the government through petitions and, especially, the outspoken comments of Abbas Kiarostami and Juliette Binoche from their platform at the Cannes Film Festival was a significant factor in this measured victory.
UPDATE May 19: Jafar Panahi’s letter to Abbas Baktiari, director of the Pouya cultural center, confirms that he is on a hunger strike and explains the conditions of his treatment and the reasons for the action. Read the letter at La Regle du Jeu here.
May 18: At the press conference for the premiere of his new film at Cannes, Certified Copy, Abbas Kiarostami used his platform to discuss the imprisonment of Jafar Panahi and the Iranian government’s treatment of all filmmakers, according to a report on indieWIRE.
The occasion also brought conflicting reports on Panahi’s situation. Kiarostami reported that he had received word that the filmmaker may be freed today. “I got a message from Jafar’s wife and we’re hoping he might be freed today and, of course, if that does happen later today, that will be good news and hopefully I’ll be able to give that good news.” However, conflicting reports that Panahi’s sentence had, in fact, been extended by two months and that he was planning a hunger strike, also surfaced at the press conference.
Panahi had beenÂ invited to serve on the jury for this years Cannes Film Festival before he was arrested and imprisoned for unspecified crimes.