Tehran Taxi (2015, Jafar Panahi)

Simply called Taxi (or Jafar Panahi’s Taxi) in the USA since lately we are allergic to descriptive or interesting titles (now playing: Joy, Room, Spotlight, Brooklyn, Trumbo). Panahi plays himself, driving a cab and secretly making a film with hidden dash cameras. It’s a smiling, upbeat comedy for the most part, with a bit of surveillance-state darkness at the end. He’s fond of injecting reality into his fictions, but he doesn’t blend them as completely as his countryman Kiarostami. We never believe for a minute that the dash-cams are capturing reality – each ride and conversation is too funny, poignant or perfect to have been accidental.

Panahi picks up a bootleg DVD salesman, who says all cinephiles (including Pahani’s own family) go through him for uncensored foreign films which are officially forbidden, his niece whose school project is to film something which follows all official rules, which she’s finding difficult, a guy and his young wife who were just in a motorcycle accident and she’s freaking that he might die without writing a will, in which case she’ll inherit nothing under the law. I’m seeing a pattern of protest in all this. Also a crime-and-punishment conversation, a lawyer… and two women who want to ritually release their fish, not sure what that’s about besides it reminding me of fish and ritual in What Time Is It There, which I watched the same month.

A. Cook:

This is a great film, one that, with minimal means, creates a sophisticated formal system that Panahi flourishes in and in such a way that for me surpasses Closed Curtain (though doesn’t touch This is Not a Film). It gets bonus points for being such a lively and lovely picture — one that’s excited to pay attention to every character who enters its frame. The dashboard camera setup makes for a simple and exquisite approach, the swivelling device capturing most of the film’s images. Just as lovely, however, are the formal digressions brought on by Panahi’s niece, who pulls out a camera of her own that the film then intermittently cuts to, reiterating the artistic and technological democracy that This is Not a Film first articulated: anything is cinema and anyone can make it using whatever they wish.

Won the top prize in Berlin, where it played with 45 Years, The Pearl Button and Knight of Cups. Hey Kino, let me know if you need a subtitles proofreader. Happy to help. If you’re not embarrassed by the Taxi subs, you ought to be.

Manuscripts Don’t Burn (2013, Mohammad Rasoulof)

Kasra is a writer being monitored by the government, secretly working on his memoirs, which include an incident when he and a bunch more writers were meant to be killed together on a bus. Khosrow is an amateur hitman with a sick kid at home, working with his heavier, more confident partner Morteza. They go around calmly tormenting and killing Kasra and everyone he knows in order to shut them up.

G. Cheshire:

In his striking earlier films, Iron Island and The White Meadows, Rasoulof deployed a distinct version of the visual lyricism and quasi-mystical symbolism of other Iranian films. Manuscripts Don’t Burn offers no such cinematic poetry. It is bluntly literal, almost shockingly so given the context … The kinds of killings depicted in the film appear to be based on the “Chain Murders,” in which roughly 80 Iranian intellectuals were murdered between the late ‘80s and 1998 … Rasoulof has done something that Iranians will instantly recognize: drawn a comparison between the Shah’s regime and the present one.

I keep mistakenly calling it Manuscripts Also Die.

Kandahar (2001, Mohsen Makhmalbaf)

Woman returns to Afghanistan to save her suicidal sister, but has trouble finding passage from Iran to Kandahar. Wiki says it’s partly based on true story, and the lead, Nelofer Pazira, played herself – although here she’s called Nafas. She pretends to be part of a large family crossing the border, but they get robbed along the way. She gets a boy called Khak to take her partway, meets an American doctor with a false beard, then tries to follow a wedding party the rest of the way.

Poetic film, sometimes with unconvincing English dialogue but makes up for that with wonderous scenes like the one with guys on crutches racing to catch artificial legs parachuting from above. Makhmalbaf apparently had no trouble finding extras with missing limbs (neither does Jodorowsky). I have a skewed picture of Makhmalbaf – I’ve seen his appearance in Close-Up, a couple of his early documentaries, and a couple by his daughter Samira but this is the first of Mohsen’s features I’ve watched.

Ebert:

Makhmalbaf and his cinematographer, Ebraham Ghafouri, show this desert land as beautiful but remote and forbidding. Roads are tracks from one flat horizon to another. Nafas bounces along in the back of a truck with other women, the burqua amputating her personality.

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.


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.


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.


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:


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.


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.

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.