Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Kiarostami Until 1987

Everything you'll want to know about Abbas Kiarostami on the blogosphere of late is probably to be found at The House Next Door with Keith Uhlich's coverage, including an excellent interview that blows away the Solomon one I ranted about below. Consider my material supplementary. Kiarostami's films often repeat themselves, structurally, gesturally, semiotically. But to point out this obvious fact is perhaps also to suggest a uniformity of tone and style that simply isn't there: seeing the early works (from the pre-Koker days) simply widens our eyes to Kiarostami's capabilities, his range, even as it simultaneously presents deeper burrowings into the obsessions, pathways, and tics of the AK oeuvre.

To wit: a toothache in The Traveller (1974; sometimes referred to as Kiarostami's first feature; the boy hero, who spends the running time of the film contriving to see a soccer match in Tehran, has a toothache and wears a cloth sling around his head), which is expanded upon in Toothache (1979), an uncomfortable educational film which accompanies its dentist lecture with the sounds of its own boy protagonist's squealing and moaning as he submits to the drill in the dentist chair just off-screen. Disorderly or Orderly (1981), which seemed to be a favorite with the MoMA crowd, sets the stage for Fellow Citizen (1983), which seemed to agitate the same crowd. The latter film is nicely "explained" or "prompted" by the former, however, in that the dialectic between order and chaos, authority and liberty, truth and lie starts to blur, and the subjectivity of any given person--i.e., viewer--starts to bubble up more heavily for us. Our responses are simply inscriptions of our own boredom or aesthetic sense or pragmatic considerations. Kiarostami's cinema, for our cerebral cortices, is sometimes analogous to an optical illusion that illustrates to you what you think you see but which your eyes & mind are only "filling in." It's not a lesson per se, no more than it is a message, and consequently only those who go to these films looking for nice containable messages from this (presumed?) nice containable foreign director are to be disappointed, confused, stymied. And those who are otherwise too bored with what's going on are free to leave their seats. Kiarostami, more than most directors, seems not to be upset when audience members have nasty or exasperated reactions to his work, because he's not so hung up on the importance of his Hallowed Authorial Vision as such. A great variety of reactions or non-reactions are valid.

I'm going to allow myself a digression here: as I told a few companions before one of the programs, I simply have to part ways with people who think that being boring, or failing to "capture" a viewer's attention, is the worst possible sin for a film, or any work of art. Do some people not believe in viewer agency!? The viewer is always free to look away, daydream, leave the theater, turn off the television. Boredom is something that exists between film and viewer, whether borne of purpose or merely ineptitude in a work. Maybe people who get angry about films that don't entertain them are just sour because they didn't have the willpower to up & find something better. (Life is short, why sit in misery?) One can say, of course, 'I thought that Film X was so boring!' but I just don't understand being angry or offended about it, which is the vibe I have gotten sometimes from people who don't like Kiarostami. (Compounding this is sometimes the charge--never an argument, mind you, just the unadorned assertion--that he's necessarily pretentious and so is everyone who praises him.) I hardly need or expect everyone to like Kiarostami, of course. But it's really hard for me to handle kneejerk condemnation for an artist whose work has meant so much for me over several years, and, on top of that, an artist who seems to be a genuinely generous and forthright individual. (Not that it matters for the quality his art--just that it's too bad his intentions & reputation have to suffer slander.) Now, something that is sociopolitically offensive or harmful--those films are what I'd rather direct the venom towards. Slowness, I can live with; meanderings and tangents and irresolution, I can live with. I'm fine with quite a few variations of the theme we might all choose to call "boredom."

At any rate, Fellow Citizen is 52 minutes of a traffic cop listening to people's reasons/excuses for entering a certain section of downtown Tehran, which had just recently instituted a no-cars policy. (These seem to be fairly commonplace in many metropolises of the world--I remember first hearing about a thing a few years ago, a successful institution in Bogotá--though I don't know if I've heard of any firsthand in America, the Land That Hates Pedestrians. Can anyone confirm or deny?) Though not, perhaps, likable, the film is successful in achieving its goals, I think, which are suggested above. Another thing I found interesting about this film, like Toothache, is that I'm not sure the extent to which it is a nonfiction work.

And characters in The Experience (1973) repeat in The Wedding Suit (1976), two films with interlocking characters and settings. The Experience is very interesting as a sort of tactile film, b&w and subtly color-tinted, and edited in an elliptical, forceful way. It's 60 minutes, and by some definitions could qualify as AK's first feature, before The Traveller, which is less prickly in terms of form and structure, but certainly one of Kiarostami's richest films in terms of traditional character psychology and dramatic mood: for me it proves to some detractors that the director doesn't make slow-paced repetitive landscape films because he's simply inept at making linear plot-based ones.

A particular highlight of his earlier work, I thought, was Recess ('72; probably in my three or four favorites from pre-1987), a very opaque and fascinating film about a boy's flight from a few unpleasant experiences. The last couple of shots were knockouts: very lonely and powerful.

The Chorus ('82) is probably Kiarostami's most purely beautiful early film film in terms of color, light, and texture. It's a very simple little movie, the sort of thing that you could see winning a special jury prize for 'Best Foreign Short Subject Piece of Appealing Low-Key Humanism.' An elderly man wanders through his town, removing his hearing aid as he deems convenient, such as when he arrives home and doesn't want to hear the jackhammering outside his windows. His granddaughter wants to visit him after school, but he can't hear the buzzer, so she gets a "chorus" of schoolgirls together to yell for his attention. That's not what's important here, though. What's important is the way Kiarostami films light, really getting its play on walls and through windows, getting the clarity of bright colors in his characters' clothing, capturing the swaths of tans and grays that adorn the village walls.

First-Graders ('84) has to be Kiarostami's most Wisemanian (-seeming?) film; in fact it would make an intriguing double-bill with the American's High School. The extent to which its scenes were staged interests me. Solution No. 1 ('78) takes what appears to be a bit of a Kiarostami signature--somebody propelling an object (ball, can) down a street--and magnifies it into a film, as a bellbottomed man's "solution" to getting a spare tire onto his car somewhere in the mountains. It has a tight, spare singlemindedness that was very appealing.

On Bread and Alley ('70) I have nothing really to say, except that it's a fine little film of extremely modest ambitions. One of the people I was chatting with at the Kiarostamis that day--was it you, D-Kaz?, my sieve-for-a-memory is failing me; perhaps it was Brian B.--expressed my own feelings perfectly: the film felt familiar, like something that might have shown on a PBS children's show even in America. I have fascinating ruminations that Sesame Street bought US television rights to Bread and Alley and I saw it when I was 3. So Can I and Two Solutions for One Problem (both '75), Colors ('76), and How to Make Use of Leisure Time. Painting ('77) are also very modest films, these very short didactic pieces, that illustrate Kiarostami's playful conceptualism in very quick brushstrokes.

And lastly, a note on delineations--I have used 1987 as the date to demarcate "early" Kiarostami from "mature" Kiarostami, which is not only roughly correlative to his switch to feature filmmaking, but also indicative to the availability of his films in the West, or at least in the United States: the pre-1987 films have almost no presence. But I just saw Homework tonight, and my impression is that that film is really "Kiarostami's Numéro deux," the one where he changed a lot of gears in the middle of a career and really reconsidered most of his assumptions about filmmaking. Conceptually speaking, I think 1989 is maybe a more accurate date than '87 for bifurcating the Kiarostami corpus. Perhaps in later years we'll consider--with confidence--Ten or Five another major transition point.


Daniel Kasman said...

A terrific piece Zach. I found this retro very fulfilling, most especially in the discovery of the early Kiarostami stuff. But really I liked it all, and I was relieved and pleased to find Kiarostami one of the least pretentious "art-house" directors I've become acquainted with--the humility, humanism, and simplicity of all the work was refreshing.

A couple minor corrections: that PBS comment wasn't me! But I liked that film a lot, especially the way it hung onto the child's face as he waited for a solution to reveal itself so that he could pass down the alley. And the "toothache" of The Traveler was fake! The kid put on the bandage to fool his teacher when he was running late, and later when he enters the principal's office and realizes his mother is there is subtly takes the bandage off.

I'm with you 100% on the boredom issue. A number of the director's films from this first period of his work seem to emphasize repetition beyond the "point" being made: Homework, First Graders, and Fellow Citizen. Really though the films are just interested in the myriad of reactions people can have to similar situations, and the one way to bring across this subtlety is through such temporal length.

Anonymous said...

The PBS comment was me, and I stand by it wholeheartedly.

I third the boredom issue (FELLOW CITIZEN was infuriating, but liberatingly so), and would offer HOW TO MAKE USE OF LEISURE TIME: PAINTING as an example of the duration/repetition concept as well. The narration in that film was so specific, so minute, and so detailed that I couldn't help but view it as somewhat self-parodic, of a piece with the drowned-out, droning dentist of TOOTHACHE.

ZC said...

Daniel, thanks for the corrections--the toothache was fake, definitely, I hadn't forgotten but in referring to its semiotic repetition (i.e., the cloth around the head) I suppose I elided the fact that it's a diegetically false pain ... in contrast to what seems to be quite real pain in Toothache! Definitely, this retrospective has been really fulfilling, specifically the chance to see these rare early works (I'd already seen every feature from 1987, save Through the Olive Trees, which I finally caught too). And one may find AK any number of things, but I agree with you, pretension isn't one of them. That's such an over- and ill-used word. It means putting on heirs, veiling things for purposes of self-aggrandizement. "Boring" or not, Kiarostami is one of the most forthright and open-ended directors on the planet! He provides one very good example of how to go about making unpretentious and not-particularly-bourgeois art cinema in the midst of a system full of unsavory things--not only the Iranian Islamic fundamentalism people like Deborah Solomon love to zero in on, but even the moneyed global festival circuit ...

Brian, thanks for clarifying. Is Painting parodic? Probably--but I wouldn't say it is in any ironic way, would you? It's the sort of parody that doesn't draw dividing lines--i.e., it's not as though some people will "get it" and others will take the film as a straight instructional video (both levels are open to any viewer). A very Kiarostamiesque way to express comical detachment.

Sachin said...

This comment is more than 4 years late Zach but your words here are something that I have echoed many times but I have never really understood the rationale behind the anger:

One can say, of course, 'I thought that Film X was so boring!' but I just don't understand being angry or offended about it, which is the vibe I have gotten sometimes from people who don't like Kiarostami.

I have seen this vibe many times over the last few years and in all cases regarding World Cinema where the pace was not suited to a particular audience member's liking. In my experience, such reactions have been at Film Festival movies only. People that were annoyed at the pace of some World Cinema films got quite hostile and I found them to take their anger out at the festival itself and programmers who booked the movies in the first place. I suppose it was easier to direct the anger at the festival as the director was not always present. Yet, I have never seen anyone get annoyed at a multiplex no matter how boring or bad the film would be. People who may get upset at some film at a multiplex will still return the following week but I found that people who were not happy with a film festival selection were less likely to venture to see another film there that year or even the following year.

My experiences are local only but this is something that has baffled me. I wish I had come across your words much earlier. It might have prepared me better :) Thanks for writing them down.