Argo (2012, Ben Affleck)

A fair pick to win all the oscars: a based-on-true-story thriller about a daring Hollywood-assisted hostage rescue with a happy ending. Affleck casts himself as a world-weary CIA hostage expert working for Malcolm’s Dad, who teams up with movie producers Alan Arkin and John Goodman to rescue U.S. embassy workers in newly Ayatollah Khomeini-run Iran hiding out at the Victor Garber-led Canadian embassy.

Comic book legend Jack Kirby did storyboards for the fake movie that the CIA pretended to be shooting while collecting hostages. Shot full of 1970′s grain by Rodrigo Prieto (25th Hour, Frida, Broken Embraces) and edited by William Goldenberg, who was double-nominated for Zero Dark Thirty (and won for this).

This is Not a Film (2011, Jafar Panahi & Mojtaba Mirtahmasb)

Set up to be a doc of house-arrested filmmaker Panahi by his documentarian friend Mojtaba Mirtahmasb, with Panahi explaining and roughly staging the next film he would have made if the authorities had let him (coincidentally[?] to be filmed inside a house, concerning a girl who is not allowed to leave). But Panahi cuts off the play-acting and gets philosophical, showing scenes from his work and telling us that if films could be explained, they wouldn’t have to be made. He then takes over the not-film, finally picking up the camera, following a maintenance man outside to a small-scale replay of Offside‘s finale. Throughout, there are definite signs that either this movie was much more cleverly planned than it’s meant to appear, or that Panahi’s life is full of happy coincidences and unplanned art. Either way, I’d been afraid that this would be a movie solely acclaimed because of its subversion, its very existence as political protest, which would’ve been enough, but was delighted than the entire work justifies its Cannes-acclaimed reputation.

Panahi’s daughter’s pet iguana provides the special effects, an unseen neighbor who needs a dog-sitter so she can participate in the celebratory new-year fireworks provides humor, and Jafar’s phone conversations with his attorney provide context on the project.

Panahi attempts to use the internet inside Iran. “Wherever you go, it’s blocked. Most websites are filtered. The rest don’t say anything.”

Mirtahmasb: “Take a shot of me, so in case I’m arrested there will be some images left.”

Panahi’s next film was going to be made with Mohammad Rasoulof, who now suffers the same political fate as Panahi and filmed his own response while out on appeal, Goodbye, which hasn’t made it to video yet.

M. Peranson in Cinema Scope:

Of special note… is Panahi’s bootleg DVD collection, which features the Ryan Reynolds-in-a-coffin film Buried facing us, clearly placed there to make a point.

The work feels completely effortless but my money says it’s an elaborate sound and image construction: though it claims to be a day in the life of Panahi, Mirtahmasb explained in interviews that the film was shot over four days.

A Separation (2011, Asghar Farhadi)

Red-haired Simin wants to leave Iran for unspecified (possibly so this movie would not get banned) reasons and take her 11-year-old daughter Termeh (Sarina Farhadi, the director’s daughter), but Simin’s husband Nader won’t leave, has to take care of his senile father. So she wants a divorce to carry out her plan without him.

Intrigue: the new maid Razieh is doing a shitty job watching Nader’s father. When he comes home and sees dad on the floor, tied to the bed and barely breathing, he shoves her out the door – then she and her husband Hodjat sue him for causing her miscarriage. Razieh and Hodjat aren’t a completely unsympathetic couple. He keeps pointing out that he’s less educated than Nader, and has anger issues, so doesn’t stand a chance in legal debate. But his wife turns out to be lying – she was hit by a car while chasing Nader’s escaped father, which caused her miscarriage. Nader isn’t a mean guy, keeps offering a settlement, but Razieh is trying to paint him as a criminal. After the whole ugly court battle is settled, the divorce is still on, and Termeh has to choose which parent she’ll live with, cue the credits.

Good drama, and interesting look at the Iranian legal system (their interrogator is Babak Karimi, an editor who worked on Tickets and Secret Ballot).

The House Is Black and other shorts

The House Is Black (1963, Forugh Farrokhzad)

I’ve seen this a couple times before, and there’s really nothing to be said. Farrokhzad brings poetry to a leper colony, with thrilling results. It sits alongside Sans Soleil and Resnais’s 1950′s shorts as a supreme example of the possibilities of the personal documentary form. Katy was happy to watch it, and cringed from the images less than I thought she would.

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Pumzi (2009, Wanuri Kahiu)

Usually a young aspiring filmmaker will make a short to prove her abilities before moving on to more expensive feature-length films, but Kahiu’s feature drama From a Whisper predated this slick, expensive-looking 20-minute sci-fi film.

Between watching this and Hello Dolly, we are having an unintended WALL-E tribute week. Story goes that Asha lives in a tightly-regulated base in a post-WWIII wasteland. No plant life grows outside, all water is obsessively recycled and rationed, and each resident has to generate their own daily portion of electricity via exercise machines. An outsider sends Asha a soil sample that seems able to sustain life, and when the authorities try to suppress her discovery, she sneaks outside, treks through the desert to the origin point of the soil sample, plants a tree and shelters it with her body. But then we’re confused by the final shot, aerial pull-out beneath the PUMZI title, which appears to show her lonely tree off to the east and a vast forest to the west.

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Entr’acte (1924, René Clair)

Twenty-minute film shown during intermission at a play with music by Erik Satie. Clair pulled out all the cinematic tricks he could think of – flashy editing, speed changes, superimposition, stop-motion. He brings the camera on a rollercoaster and positions it under a glass table on which a dancer is leaping.

There is kind of a story – a man with a bird on his hat gets shot, falls off a building. After his funeral procession goes wrong, he pops out of the coffin then makes the pallbearers disappear. Also: Marcel Duchamp plays chess with Man Ray. Ah, early surrealism, how I love it.

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Nothing But Time (1926, Alberto Cavalcanti)

“This is not a depiction of the fashionable and elegant life…”

“…but of the everyday life of the humble, the downtrodden.”

A city-symphony short, portraying the work day, after hours, early morning, leisure, crime, etc. – a visual, non-narrative social issues movie with mournful music. It’s nice to watch, but the message seems to come down to “gee, it sucks to be poor.” I dig the montage of vegetables becoming garbage the next day

Crazy split screen – all these puzzle pieces are in motion:

Best shot: inside a man’s steak dinner you can watch the cow being slaughtered:

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Shelagh Delaney’s Salford (1960, Ken Russell)

A slightly strange blending of the omniscient documentary and an artist-interview film – an invisible narrator talks about Delaney in the third person then she responds. It’s shot like an interview, but more like a drama in parts, the camera already in her house when she opens the door and comes in like an actress ignoring it. The opposite effect when the crew follows her into town to the market, where every single person stares at the camera.

It’s exciting to explore Ken Russell’s early work, but the heart of the movie is Delaney and her words. Unfortunately she speaks mainly in cliches about the life and heart of the city, which doesn’t make me anxious to see her plays. Delaney wrote Lindsay Anderson’s The White Bus and was a huge influence on The Smiths.

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From Spain to Streatham (1959, Ken Russell)

A boy plays along with Elvis Presley’s record of “Hound Dog,” thus ensuring that this little film will never see a DVD release. I wonder where that boy is now, and if he’s pleased with himself.

A ten-minute survey of the national craze over guitars, an appropriate short subject for Russell, who loved classical music and was bemused by rock. It moves from kids destroying an old piano in a courtyard to an older kid jamming on his guitar to a professional music school to a teacher in prisons, religious singers on a street corner, and so on.

“Where are the tambourines of yesteryear?”

The Wind Will Carry Us (1999, Abbas Kiarostami)

Kiarostami’s The Traveler (1974) and the shorts I’ve seen from the 70′s all focus on children, life journeys and lessons learned. From Close Up in 1990, running through the Friend’s Home / Life and Nothing More / Olive Trees trilogy and the end of Taste of Cherry (1997), Kiarostami seemed to be making great movies while reminding us that they’re movies, showing aspects of their production, and combining fact with fiction. With Olive Trees and Taste of Cherry (and possibly again a decade later with Five and Shirin), he seemed to be valuing poetry over story, philosophy and nature over characters, making more artistically beautiful films before the DV reality of ABC Africa and Ten. Beginning with those two movies in 2001, he seemed to be making documentaries, or at least highly manipulated films that looked like documentaries, until returning to more traditional fiction features with the latest, Certified Copy, which actually contains multiple layers of fiction. I’m laying all this out in order to try and figure where The Wind Will Carry Us belongs. It’s clearly the culmination of his increasingly poetic, but still somewhat traditional storytelling period, and the last film he’d make with a 35mm film crew for a while. It also carries on the long tradition of casting elementary-school-aged boys in lead roles.

Farzad:

The story is elliptical, and the filmmaking reminds us of this, specifically by hiding a couple of main characters from the camera. There are only about ten speaking roles, and three of them are men who are never seen, always perversely hidden around a corner or down in a hole. Behzad (as IMDB calls him – can’t remember if anyone used his name in the film) arrives at a town in the hills with two companions (never seen), is met by his young guide Farzad. He’s here for a secret reason, asking lots of questions about an old woman confined to her home (also never seen). Everyone in town calls him Engineer, but we get no proof that he is or is not an engineer. He camps out, waiting for the old woman to die, gets a phone call every few days to check on his progress, during which he has to run to his car and drive to the top of the mountain for better cell reception.

At top of the mountain is a hole, in which is a man (never seen) digging a ditch to specs provided by an engineer. Behzad never reveals his identity to this man, but refers to being his boss to somebody else later, playing the role of engineer. The visitors spend weeks in town, Behzad is frustrated, gets angry with Farzad then visits him at school to apologize. Part of the frustration is that he can’t seem to score milk, asks around but never gets any until the ditch-digger’s girlfriend takes him to her underground milking cavern (!), retrieving a bucket of milk while listening to the engineer recite poetry. It’s then that I realized how weird this movie is, how the strangeness has creeped up until this scene almost doesn’t register as unusual.

The old woman dies, and Behzad photographs the funeral procession of women from his car. Is this what he has come to do? Is he a reporter? Was this worth a month of the three men’s time? The movie alternates between repeating routines (driving up the hill when the phone rings) and surprising moments (a woman across the way doesn’t let giving birth interupt her daily routine, the man atop the hill’s ditch collapses on him), and the dialogue is peppered with poetry and philosophy. Photographically, it’s got the winding roads from Taste of Cherry, a man shaving into the camera-mirror as seen in Certified Copy, and probably plenty more I didn’t recognize. The title is a line from a poem by Forough Farroukhzaad (The House Is Black). Movie won second place at Venice to Zhang Yimou’s provincial Not One Less – I’ll bet some people besides me have wondered at that decision.

S. Foundas rounds things up neatly:

An “engineer” (who turns out to be a kind of filmmaker) travels to a remote Kurdish village with the intent of photographing the funeral rites of a dying 100-year-old woman, and the witty, haunting, poetic film that follows is about his — and Kiarostami’s own — struggle to complete that mission, to capture something of real life on film without violating its essence. Kiarostami himself has not worked on film since, preferring the more portable and less invasive technology of video. Call it the first true movie of the digital revolution.

A.O. Scott:

It’s easy enough to expound on the spiritual and moral importance of opening oneself to experience – “prefer the present,” the doctor says, offering a Farsi version of an injunction familiar to readers of Western New Age self-help literature – but it is a rare artist who can prove it. You don’t watch The Wind Will Carry Us so much as dwell in it.

Sorry to overquote J. Rosenbaum, but he has by far the most interesting things to say:

This film — one of Kiarostami’s greatest and in many ways his richest to date — has reportedly not yet passed the Iranian censors … I’ve heard a rumor that the title sequence is the main source of contention. … My guess is that the cellar scene is provocative mostly because it taps into the sort of emotions and sensations that are stirred by poetry. According to Elaine Sciolino’s recent book Persian Mirrors: The Elusive Face of Iran, “Simply put, poetry for Iranians is religion, a religion as powerful as Islam.” It’s hardly exceptional that Kiarostami, who published a collection of his beautiful landscape photographs in Europe last year, shortly afterward published a collection of his poems in Iran — many of them haikulike images, like sketches for moments in his films.

The particular ethics of The Wind Will Carry Us consist largely of Kiarostami reflecting on his own practice as a “media person” exploiting poor people: Behzad may be the closest thing in Kiarostami’s work to a critical self-portrait, at least since the hero in his highly uncharacteristic 1977 feature Report. The most obvious marker of this autocritique is Behzad’s cruelty when, during a moment of angry frustration, he kicks a turtle onto its back and leaves it stranded, though the turtle manages to right itself as Behzad drives back down the hill.

By concentrating on the death of a century-old woman in the year 1999, Kiarostami also seems to be making some sort of millennial statement — something that possibly means less inside Iran, which has a different calendar. By comically divvying up his world into media “experts” and peasants — moguls with cellular phones and ordinary working people — he’s raising the issue of who owns this world and who deserves to.

Buy from Amazon:
The Wind Will Carry Us DVD

The Traveler (1974, Abbas Kiarostami)

Qassem is always late for school, never does his homework, slacks off to play soccer. Things get out of hand when he decides to attend a big game in Tehran (about four hours northeast of his town – thanks, google maps). He steals money from his mother, borrows a non-working camera from his friend and scams every kid at school, claiming to be taking their portraits, then sells his soccer gear and hits the city.

Once there, he has to buy a ticket from scalpers, but he gets into the stadium. Realizing the game won’t start for hours, he goes walking in the city, finds a grassy spot and takes a nap. He dreams of getting caught cheating at school, of all the kids in town ganging up and beating his ass. Wakes up at dusk, having slept through the game – last shot is him running through the empty stadium.

You can almost hear the narrator from Two Solutions to One Problem asking us whether Qassem deserved to see the game. The movie puts some fun hidden commentaries on Qassem’s state of mind in his schoolwork – another kid reciting a story in class might as well be narrating Qassem’s daydreams (“Kuzat had just one thought: to escape with all his might”), and a vocabulary drill hits on “outlaw, discipline, ambition,” and on the final word he gets inspired to sell his soccer goals for the last bit of money he needs to make his trip.

Criterion calls this Kiarostami’s first feature – it’s 74 minutes, while Experience the previous year was 60 – but Senses of Cinema calls them both “short features.” Semantics! It’s funny that SoC talks of Kiarostami leading the Iranian New Wave, since I couldn’t stop thinking of The 400 Blows during this movie.

Qassem with his parents:

Also watched some early shorts…

Breaktime / In Between Class (1972)

More elliptical story than Bread and Alley or Two Solutions for One Problem. Dara kicks a ball through a window at school, gets punished. He kicks another kid’s ball out of play, escapes punishment. Then he goes for a walk to the highway. There must be something I missed. Sharply photographed, with some tricks you don’t see much in Kiarostami films: a moving crane shot and a slow-motion effect. No dialogue except for the written intro.

The Chorus (1982)

Oh my god, this one is my favorite. Opens with guy in a horse cart galloping through the alleys, but our hero is the old man with a hearing aid who slows him down. Good to see that even in Iran a favorite past time of elderly men is throwing crumbs to flocks of pigeons. Our guy goes home and removes his hearing aid due to obnoxious road work outside, then can’t hear when his granddaughter is at the door. More and more kids gather outside to help her shout to be let in, until finally he looks out the window.

Buy from Amazon:
Close-Up/The Traveler: Criterion Blu-ray

Ten / 10 on Ten (Abbas Kiarostami)

I think I get Ten, that it’s a discussion between everyday people about their real problems, somewhat politically charged but mostly a realist drama minus much of the drama, with two digital cameras bolted inside a car. He says the story could be anyone’s story, and that anyone’s story would be worth filming for a movie. I didn’t dislike it, but I prefer Kiarostami’s other work, or the kind of scripted social dramas that Jafar Panahi makes (or made, since he’s currently in prison).

At the center of the movie, a mother gets in terrible arguments with her son who resents her for divorcing his father. We also have scenes (exactly ten total, each with countdown leader) with the woman’s sister, a prostitute who accidentally hops into the car (the most contrived part of this realist experiment) and an old woman hitching a ride to pray (the least contrived – reportedly she was really hitching a ride, and had no idea she was appearing in a movie).

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Better is the documentary 10 on Ten, or I should say it’s better to watch them both together, as A.K. explains in-depth his thoughts on filmmaking, actors, writing and so forth. The doc opens where he shot the end of Taste of Cherry, the hill with winding paths and the distictive trees, which overlooks the streets of Tehran, where he shot Ten. He talks about the immediacy of video, its portability and ability to capture natural performances, which he used by accident in Cherry after the final scene was botched by the film lab, then halfway on purpose in ABC Africa. “This camera allows artists to work alone again.”

He no longer writes screenplays, just sketches his movies over a few pages. “I only remain faithful to the original idea of the film, and even that is not something you can be sure of. When I write a full and accurate screenplay, I’m no longer interested in making it, and usually hand them over to colleagues.” Hence Crimson Gold the year after Ten came out. The shocker is the last chapter of 10 on Ten, a miracle of an ending involving ants in a hole in the road, reviving my faith (shaken by Ten) that A.K. can make cinema out of anything.

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E. Hayes:

Ten centres on a divorced woman and her relationship with her son, Amin. The actress Mania Akbari is herself a divorcee, and Amin is her own son. We watch the son, without inhibition in the way today’s children can be with parents, caught between his separated mother and father in their battle for possession, self-possession and respect. Through the mother’s struggles with the child, a little tragedy is played out. Pride and possessiveness make communication hideously painful. Meanwhile, various aspects of womanhood are embodied by the women who catch a lift with Akbari. This is a drama of the deferred nature of human fulfilment – a tragedy most people in any audience are all too able to identify with, in any country.

lead actress Mania Akbari:

This film, in my opinion, talks about how relationships today are empty and distant from love. All women in the world, and men for that matter, thirst for love. This film isn’t anti-men. Relationships have become transactions, have become materialist. I think this is what the film shows.

Agnès Varda shorts

Plaisir d’amour en Iran (1976)
An expanded version of Pauline and Darius’s trip to Iran in L’Une chante, l’autre pas. Pauline and a narrator comment on the sensuality of Persian architecture. I would’ve liked it if the feature had been edited more rhythmically like this short (or if the picture quality had been as good).
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Du Coté de la Côte (1958)
Fun, half-hour exploration of tourism along the coast, more gentle than Vigo’s À propos de Nice and simpler than a Marker travelogue.

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“These parks, overpopulated with merry people attracted by the Latin shore, foreshadow the dead people seeking eternal rest there. In both cases, space is limited because of its good quality. It is a well-rated coast.”

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Les Fiances du pont Mac Donald (1961)
The short within Cleo from 5 to 7 is apparently considered its own little film. “I wanted to provide a little relief for Cleo. … So I thought at the beginning of the third part of the film, where films often have a lull, a weakness, a slow-down … I would introduce something uplifting. My other goal was to show Jean-Luc Godard’s eyes. At the time, he wore very dark glasses. We were friends, and he agreed to this little story about glasses in which he must take them off and reveal his big, beautiful eyes, like Buster Keaton’s.”
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Ulysse (1982)
This was fantastic. Varda finds an old photo of hers, taken in 1954, and investigates. What was she thinking about at the time? What were the models in the photo thinking? She looks them up and asks. Agnes: “This almost painful investigation taught me so much about what an image says, what it says to each of us, and what it cannot say. It merely represents.”
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AV: “How does she see her own goat image? Without making animals talk, like in American cartoons, or defining memory as a rumination of mental images, may I suggest that there is an animal ‘eatingmagination,’ a self-predatory imagination?”
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Salut les cubains (1963)
Months after Cleo from 5 to 7 opened, Varda went to Cuba to photograph the country’s inhabitants for an exhibit which opened in Havana (introduced by Raul Castro!) before it moved to Paris. She also made this film out of the photos, narrated by Michel Piccoli. Subjects include the Castros, famous national artists, workers, dancers, posters and drawings and artworks. She creates action sequences, animating the photos, best of all with this guy dancing for the camera.
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Mentions Marker’s Cuba Si, which came out a couple years before. In her introduction, Varda says twice that “we must place it in the context of 1962,” since the Cuban dream society didn’t turn out the way the French leftists hoped it would. Interesting that she made such a happy, idealist film as this, then her next feature would be the happiness-breakdown of Le Bonheur.
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These last two were reissued in the 2004 collection Cinevardaphoto with a third, current short about a teddy bear collector, but somehow I didn’t have subtitles for that one. If Cleo from 5 to 7 and L’Une chante, l’autre pas revealed Varda’s kinship with the filmmaking of husband Jacques Demy, these shorts represent a definite (and oft-mentioned) kinship with Chris Marker, and either of them could stand alongside his best documentaries. The commentaries are more personal, less consciously witty. The images are wonderful, and the sense of investigation, of images and memory, the psychology of the films puts them on the Marienbad and La Jetee side of the new wave fence… my favorite side.
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Elsa la rose (1965)
A portrait of Elsa in the words of her husband Aragon, who has spent their entire relationship writing and publishing poems about her. Varda calls them a “famous couple and fervent communists.” Elsa is filmed as Aragon imagines and remembers her, says she repeated the exercise with her own husband for Jacquot de Nantes. In voiceover, Piccoli reads the poems as fast as he can, a hilarious idea. First movie Lubtchansky and Kurant shot for Varda.
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Elsa: “The readers of these poems expect me to be 20 years old forever. As I cannot satisfy this need for beauty and youth that the readers have, I feel guilty and it makes me unhappy. That’s what’s terrible, they’re not just for me.”

Réponse de femmes (1975)

“Women must be reinvented.”
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Agnes has a few minutes to state the case of all women, socially and politically. Lots of nudity, which she points out is not exploitative unless used to sell a product or titillate viewers.

Coming attractions (when I’ve got subtitles): Black Panthers (1968)
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The Lady (1992, Dariush Mehrjui)

This film was banned by Iranian authorities for no declared reason, then released six years later, uncut, again for no reason. Also no reason why, a decade later, its director came to Emory to present it in person followed by a confrontational Q&A. Screening was packed – must’ve been every Iranian-Atlantan in that building at once.

Banoo (Miriam, “The Lady”) is left by her international-businessman husband (who has been having an affair abroad with a younger woman), frightened to be in the huge house by herself. Meanwhile, her neighbor the groundskeeper and his pregnant, sick, bitchy wife, are kicked out of their shack and she invites them to move in. They invite other family members, including a friendly young woman with babies, and one of their fathers, Khan Salar, a good cook but a habitual liar and thief. The maid quits and the poor family takes over the rich house (a la Viridiana). Banoo is pleased with her new family, and they have a lovely feast of a dinner one night, the peak of happiness in the movie.

After that, it’s all downhill, mostly because Khan Salar starts stealing everything in the house and selling it with his crooked partner, while Banoo retreats upstairs into a daze and stops eating or talking to anyone. She’s friends with a doctor, who says he always wanted to marry her, but she acts strangely cold towards him in the second half and never tries to get his non-medical help. Finally the husband comes home, pays off everybody to leave permanently, and tries to fix up his wife.

Also watched 30-minute Dear Cousin Is Lost from a 2000 compilation film (involving M. Makhmalbaf), which the director claims is his favorite work because it’s more freeform, with a more experimental narrative than his others. A movie is being filmed, but the director is fretting over the shot of an actor on a high tower at the beach, yelling for him not to allow the despair of the sunset to reflect in his eyes. Actor, meanwhile, spaces out on his long-lost girl who disappeared into the sea. She reappears as a ghost, wanders around with him while the movie crew wonders why their actor has just died up on the tower. As paramedics are rising to bring his body down, he returns, wakes up. I don’t think the director gets his shot, though. Oh, and there’s dream-logic stuff about stealing electronic equipment and getting in fights.

Director got upset at people who think the characters in the movie represent all of Iran, who suggest the lead female character wasn’t strong & independent enough, and who ask what he thinks of other Iranian filmmakers, but still managed not to come off as cranky. I enjoyed the interview and the movies.

Ezzatolah Entezami (played old guy Khan Salar) starred in M. Makhmalbaf’s Once Upon a Time, Cinema the same year, and Mehrjui’s debut feature The Cow in 1969. Guy who played the doctor is better known as a cinematographer – shot Offside, The Wind Will Carry Us, Salaam Cinema, and the short we just watched. Banoo herself only in a few other movies, including Mehrjui’s earlier Hamoun. Screening was dedicated to Khosro Shakibai, an actor who played the lead(?) in the short and the husband in The Lady, who died in July of this year.