Starting Over Fresh
At the end of a nearly 25-year-long stretch of heightened technique and skyscraping technology, cinema--at least for American audiences--seems to have banged itself against the guardrail, 360'd several times, and landed upside down in a heap. (You can hear the radiator's terminal hiss.) Between our skill at moving time and space, reproducing inconceivable catastrophes on film (without real physical objects!), jamming the storytelling fast-forward button to the breaking point, and switching tones faster than Sally Field's Sybil hijacking a Ma Bell switchboard, we can do it all--faster, harder, and better, from the sublime (Professor Emeritus Martin Scorsese and Head Coach Oliver Stone) to the ridiculous (Michael Bay, sliding another quarter into his arcade video game).
But it makes our heads hurt. And we're tired. How many whiplashing, remote-controlled corkscrew pans can your neck muscles take? How many computer-edited skips through Fight Club episodes can your neurons stand without snapping? And beyond the coarse, endocrine responses we have to this work (like the wholly unconscious erection I was given by the trailer for Jerry Bruckheimer's upcoming Gone in 60 Seconds--a response I swear was driven more by montage than Angelina Jolie), what's left? Do we learn anything more of what it is to be born, to struggle, to live and love and die in our 71.3 years on this earth? Hollywood-driven cinema has left us like coke bingers, exhausted but too wired to sleep. The response? As Julianne Moore's motherly porn queen Amber Waves says to binge king Dirk Diggler at the end of Boogie Nights: We all have to begin again, baby.
So this is why the Iranian cinema appeals to us so profoundly in this moment. And let's hold off on the rhapsodics long enough to note that there's more than a whiff of racism to this statement. A half-century ago, a quintessentially racist movie critic named François Truffaut derided the work of a now-acknowledged giant, describing the films of the great Indian director Satyajit Ray as "UNESCO cinema." (For those who grew up under the elder George Bush, this is the equivalent of "'We Are the World' cinema.") American cinema is technological and shallow; Iranian cinema is "natural" and profound. American cinema is commercial and headless; Iranian cinema is spiritual and humanistic, a combination of St. John's wort, echinacea, and cayenne pepper in one potent tablet.
There's truth to the stereotypes, but keep in mind these caveats: "Natural" also generally means primitive, and the films of Iran's canonical masters Abbas Kiarostami and Moshen Makhmalbaf are as inward-spiralingly complex as a short story by Jorge Luis Borges. And there is the suggestion in one's rush to the healthy humanism of Iranian film that somehow this stuff is for us, like wheat germ ground with loving hands. But it's not. If anything, these filmmakers' works serve as subtle State of the Union addresses, flying miles below the stringent radar of Iranian censorship. They represent what is otherwise unrepresentable about Iran to Iranian people (as when Makhmalbaf shoots a series of women as black-clad hands reaching around a door--faceless, anonymous, shying away). The films do a remarkable job of turning what may be one of the most demonized nations on earth (to Americans, anyway) into what looks, physically, like the most paradisiac place in movies.
What makes a great Iranian movie such an object of joy is that the filmmakers find occasion for bottomless contemplation of the simplest events. One of the most remarkable sequences in contemporary cinema is the opening of Kiarostami's Where Is the Friend's House? in which a child is browbeaten almost beyond belief by a teacher for having forgotten his notebook. The scene sets up the plot in standard, Joel Silver-action-movie terms, but Kiarostami's direction of the children and the teacher takes the scene somewhere that's literally beyond words--not even Bresson's and Dreyer's renderings of the interrogation of Joan of Arc come up to the ankles of Kiarostami's scene. In Taste of Cherry, Kiarostami's other masterpiece, a man gives rides to a series of people who gently try to talk him out of his planned evening activity: suicide. The contrast between the rational approach to living or dying inside the car, and the rapturous (and sometimes rapturously ugly) landscape of Iran outside the car, is electrifying, as if Shelley's "The Triumph of Life" had been translated into pure cinema.
Makhmalbaf, the second-most-praised Iranian director, is being represented at Oak Street Cinema by a weeklong double feature of his films A Moment of Innocence (1996) and The Silence (1998). Makhmalbaf doesn't have Kiarostami's gift of sculpting scenes that look so gently hewn and offhand as to appear "just like life." Nor does he have Kiarostami's way with the image itself (though both of them work on budgets that would make America's most famous "independent filmmakers" choke on their craft-service muffins). Still, Makhmalbaf's films are overwhelmingly pleasure-giving all the same. Borrowing the filmmaker's own eloquence on his behalf, I'll quote his description of the difference between Iranian and European "art films":
If someone is sitting in Europe and everything is easy for him, he doesn't focus that much on life. As compared to someone who is living somewhere where his life is in danger as a result of war, or an earthquake, or a flood, or a civil war. That person cherishes life, just like when one opens a pomegranate and tries to savor every single seed in it.
The notion of affirmation of life has a bad name in Western cinema--it suggests Anthony Quinn as Zorba the Greek, twirling and exhorting us to live! But in Makhmalbaf's cinema, affirmation is euphoric--erotic and loftily exalted in the same breath. In The Silence, a blind boy (Tahmineh Normativa) tries to blot out the sounds that delight him--from the rappings of pan makers to Beethoven's Fifth--and to help his mother earn the rent. At the end of the movie, the rent remains unpaid, but the boy, Khorshid, has graduated to a world of total imagination and ecstasy--a world where the beggars and pottery hawkers of his small town are thundering out Beethoven. (The Fifth Symphony has not been used so deliriously since Sam Fuller's Verboten!) A scene in which Khorshid's little girlfriend Nadereh (Nadereh Abdelahyeva, the most luminous child actress in recent movies) puts cherries on her ears for earrings and petals on her nails for polish, dancing to Khorshid's percussive tune, may be the most sheerly epiphanic movie moment of the last few years. (Kevin Spacey's American Beauty lecher should be drowned in Makhmalbaf's exquisite handful of rose petals.)
A Moment of Innocence shares with Kiarostami's films an apparent trend in the Iranian cinema: a fascination with the process of moviemaking and with all things "meta." It's as if the filmmakers neurotically felt unworthy of this highfalutin machinery; it feels so alien to them that they have to make movies about their alienation from these contraptions. In Innocence, a real event from 20 years ago, in which a teenage Makhmalbaf stabbed a Royalist cop, is repeated as Makhmalbaf is about to make an autobiographical film about his youth. But the cop he actually stabbed shows up at auditions.
Innocence is both slyly complex and hamhandedly didactic. (The climactic image--some find it mighty powerful--is the equivalent of a dove tweeting atop a cannonball.) The best moments--the cop teaching the actor playing his younger self how to be a tough guy--suggest the ways in which art might and might not redeem history, which is always seen in the most intimate, personal terms. But there are a lot of, shall we say, pregnant props. One wonders how American critics who routinely bash Oliver Stone and Spike Lee fell for Makhmalbaf's crash of symbols.
I'll probably burn in hell for saying this, but I sometimes feel grateful for Iranian censorship. On one hand, it's absolutely evil: That scene with the little girl dancing in The Silence was cut from all Iranian prints of the movie. But on the other hand, it forced these master filmmakers toward certain stories and subject matter: namely, How does one go on being human? Iranian cinema isn't the go-go Hong Kong cinema of the Eighties and early Nineties. And as a result, today we have several new Jean Renoirs and Yasujiro Ozus--instead of 20 new Walter Hill clones. Maybe Tipper Gore isn't so bad after all.
A Moment of Innocence and The Silence screen at Oak Street Cinema for one week starting Friday.
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