Fourth of July memorial screening for the great Abbas Kiarostami.
As mentioned before, the rosetta stone document that kicked off my art cinema craze was Jonathan Rosenbaum’s top-ten of the 1990’s article, including his thoughts on The Wind Will Carry Us. In 2004 and 2005 I watched every Kiarostami movie I could scrounge from the Videodrome shelves on DVD and VHS. I can’t say I loved them unconditionally and wanted to watch them again and again, but I can definitely say that I shared some of AK’s fascinations, that Close-Up and ABC Africa expanded my ideas of what cinema could do, and I was increasingly impressed by his artistry. In the past year or so, we’ve lost three filmmakers from Rosenbaum’s list of ten: Akerman and Oliviera, and now Kiarostami.
[Kiarostami] frequently stated in interviews that his open endings — most starkly experienced in the dense blackness of the final moments of Taste of Cherry — are his invitation to the audience to work at finishing the film for themselves.
He doubles down on the idea of viewers finishing the film for themselves in Shirin, a film visually composed of close-ups of women watching a film, which we hear in its entirety on the soundtrack.
J. Naremore in Film Quarterly:
The result is a metafilm of considerable richness, giving us the opportunity to “see” a movie in our minds as we watch the play of emotion across women’s faces and become conscious of our own role as cinematic spectators.
Opened out of competition in Venice with 35 Shots of Rum and The Beaches of Agnes, but too experimental to get a full theatrical run here. I’ve previously watched Kiarostami’s Cannes short Where Is My Romeo, made from this same material (but with a different soundtrack).
The DVD extra was made by Shirin producer Hamideh Razavi and lacks the artistry of 10 on Ten, but it’s fascinating to see how exactly Shirin was assembled – first each actor was filmed separately, looking at placeholder images lit with handmade flickering effects, then the “film” was created in an audio booth. Kiarostami talks about capturing natural expressions, but he also gives detailed direction for these non-performances. By the time we get to the editing phase, the short doc runs out of steam and the subtitlers quit early.
“It is up to you to define the movie for yourself.”
Other times, he suggests what the women might be watching.
“Those of you who are more experienced know love is always threatened by disappointment, that’s why you don’t show your joy much. Like most classic love stories, it has a tragic end, a certain disappointment which is itself a kind of satisfaction.”
Rosenbaum on Shirin:
One might even say that Kiarostami, an experimental, non-commercial filmmaker par excellence, is perversely granting the wish of fans and friends who have been urging him for years to make a more “accessible” film with a coherent plot, a conventional music score, and well-known actors.
I think I’ve come very late to this exploration of women’s issues… Leaving women out of my films was not a very intelligent decision. I made this discovery rather late, but there it is, I have made it.
Not gonna run through the whole cast on IMDB, but just limiting to actors with headshots, I see Taraneh Alidoosti (an Asghar Farhadi regular, title role in About Elly), Golshifteh Farahani (Paterson, Chicken With Plums, Rosewater), Leila Hatami (star of A Separation), Behnaz Jafari (Blackboards) and Juliette Binoche (Certified Copy). Good to see that at least one woman in the audience also worked on the soundtrack, so was “watching” herself.
Maybe Taraneh Alidoosti:
Maybe Leila Hatami:
AK quoted by Rosenbaum:
I believe in a cinema which gives more possibilities and more time to its viewer — a half-fabricated cinema, an unfinished cinema that is completed by the creative spirit of the viewer, [so that] all of a sudden we have a hundred films.
Roads of Kiarostami (2006)
Road photos, crossfaded, the camera moving along the photos to trace the paths of the roads. Soft music for the most part, with some AK VO explaining that he mostly takes photos of roads and paths, and reading us road-related poetry.
Roads was part of a festival commemorating the anniversary of the WWII atomic attacks.
Kiarostami, speaking with B. Ebiri:
Many of my photographs, they tell stories in a way: They’re fictional, as far as a photo can be. In my films, though, I’m the opposite; I try to get farther away from narrative and try to bring an experimental, visual art element to it. And the poems are very often evocative of image or atmosphere. So there’s definitely interaction between the different forms. And at any rate, they’re all products of the same mind — even if sometimes it doesn’t show on the surface.
Back to Shirin, and Kiarostami’s work in general…
Rosenbaum, from his Taste of Cherry article entitled Fill in the Blanks, one of his all-time greats:
Much of what’s been called innovative in the art of movies over the past half century has at first been seen by part of the audience as boring or as representing a loss — usually because it has somehow redefined the shape and function of narrative … If the major additions to film art offered by Antonioni, Bresson, Godard, Rivette, and Tati — as well as by Chantal Akerman, Carl Dreyer, Hou Hsiao-hsien, Abbas Kiarostami, Andrei Tarkovsky, and Bela Tarr — are at times perceived as subtractions, this is because we tend to bring old habits with us when we go to movies. New habits are unlikely to be formed without some conflict, during which various kinds of seduction and frustration will vie for supremacy … Lately I’ve come to realize that what I regard as the most wondrous thing to happen in cinema in many years, Kiarostami’s movies, strikes a few friends and colleagues as boring and empty, even predictable … I’ve gradually come to think that these disagreements revolve mainly around the issue of why what seems to be essential information in Kiarostami’s narratives is missing. Parts of the sound track in some of the latter portions of Homework and Close-up, for instance, have been suppressed (openly in the first case, and surreptitiously — by faking a technical glitch — in the second). Audience expectations about where the camera goes — and what it finds — are deliberately flouted in Close-up, Where Is My Friend’s House?, and Life and Nothing More. And we’re kept so far away from pivotal bits of action in the closing sequences of Life and Nothing More and Through the Olive Trees that we have to imagine part of what’s taking place — the sound as well as the images. In each case, we’re forced to fill in the blanks as best we can — an activity that isn’t merely part of Kiarostami’s technique but part of his subject. In the most literal and even trivial sense, we are what Kiarostami’s movies are about.
R. Koehler with context:
I would argue that it’s the immensely powerful minimalist features of his contemporary, Sohrab Shaheed Saless — especially A Simple Event and Still Life – that imprint the most visible stamp on the features and shorts that Kiarostami went on to make in the ‘70s, ‘80s and ‘90s. Like never before among Iranian directors, Saless’ storylines and images are stripped away to their essentials, fixed shots are extended to produce the effect of lived-in experience, and ironically sly humor pokes its head up when you least expect it. It was a particularly rigorous modernism, which Kiarostami embraced and adapted to suit his own ends.
Arguably modern cinema’s most provocatively self-reflexive auteur … his films are so widely cherished in part because they encourage audience participation where lesser directors might simply punish casual spectatorship … For such a committed gamesman, Kiarostami’s films are imbued with a rare emotional lucidity, and yet they still steadfastly undermine the traditional dynamic of film acting, so that any outward show of emotion is first a representation of that emotion before it can be received as an expression of it.
The Film Stage reported at the end of last year that Kiarostami’s next film, composed of tableaux blue-screen shorts, was almost finished. The movie after that, to be named after his own book of poetry, was supposed to be shot in China a month or two before his death, but I suspect that didn’t happen.
If the United States authorities do not want “an Iranian, they will hardly have any use for a Finn either,” he wrote. “We do not even have the oil.”
Kiarostami, on filming outside of Iran:
“I consider cinema a universal language, and I consider human beings as universal beings,” he says. “So there’s no reason why people should not be able to relate to a film, or we shouldn’t be able to make films, in different languages and different cultures than our own.”
The Iranian director Abbas Kiarostami was 76 years old when he died, and his last feature was 2012’s Like Someone in Love — so why does it feel like he’s been taken away from us at a moment of such creative promise and vitality? Perhaps because his cinema always seemed to be in mid-mutation, forever testing the limits of film to convey great complexity and humanity. He was the shape-shifter of modern cinema, a man whose restlessness spoke through the constantly refracting nature of his work.
Beginning with Taste of Cherry, each new film confounded my expectations. It took days, weeks, months or even years to process and finally get a fix on the latest Kiarostami, to feel I had a grasp on what it was about that at least satisfied me. Close-Up was multi-layered in its meanings, but I felt I got it on first look. Taste of Cherry and The Wind Will Carry Us, on other hand, I came to regard as masterworks equal to that film, but on initial viewings they befuddled me — and demanded that I revamp my understanding of Kiarostami yet again. For critics, who are increasingly pressed to deliver cogent judgments within an hour or two of seeing a film, such bafflements are as valuable as they are awkward. What if the greatest artists ultimately are the ones who require time, patience, thought, and perhaps above all, an awareness that views their work as an organically evolving whole rather than one consumerist nugget after another?
Related: I updated my entry on Like Someone In Love this week with a link to a valuable Glenn Kenny article.
How do you even begin to assimilate this work? His great skill was taking moments — scenes or images — that feel familiar and transforming them into something charged, poetic, mysterious and finally quite beautiful.
Kiarostami’s films are easy to watch because they’re visually resplendent; they’re challenging to watch because they seem to contain a hidden puzzle. But the more familiar you become with his work, the less you’re sure those puzzles are meant to be solved. They’re not. They’re meant to be explored. If the ending of Where is the Friend’s Home? is any indication, Kiarostami believed in the experiential; to use a cliche, he preferred the journey to the destination. He revelled in the digressions of life, and thanks to the temporal features of cinema he was able to serenely express that vision.
To an extent that we have only begun to grasp, movies invented a new way of thinking, and Abbas Kiarostami’s movies are among the clearest and most challenging applications of cinematic thought.
He and other filmmakers of his generation also provided — and continue to provide, alongside their successors — a window into the world of Iran at a time when such windows weren’t always widely available, or created by the country itself. But it’s hard to think of any country as a collection of faceless enemies when you’ve wandered their streets, seen their children, and felt their desires and pains. Kiarostami captured that, and he did it brilliantly with a sense of playfulness and profundity.