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Thursday, March 1, 2007

the real and the fake

In the fall of 2005, I had the opportunity to present Close-Up, the film by Abbas Kiarostami, to the freshman class at NYU's Tisch School of the Arts. The spark of the film came from a real news story in Tehran: a man named Hossain Sabzian was arrested for conning a family into believing he was the famous film director Mohsen Makhmalbaf. In the film, which is not at all a documentary, all of the actual participants re-enact their real-life roles.

For the Tisch screening, I decided to extend the film's conceit into the real world: I pretended to be Kiarostami himself introducing the film in person. More than just a case of life imitating art imitating life, the idea was to put the students in the same situation as the conned family and then lead a discussion of the issues raised by the film.

All I did to create the persona of a Great Iranian Director was don a pair of sunglasses and use the word 'the' where a native English speaker would not. That's it: no fake accent, nothing else. I assumed that the students would figure it out during the film, but in that I was wrong. When I returned to the stage for the Q&A, the students had still not realized that I was not the real Abbas Kiarostami, and when I insisted I was a member of the NYU faculty, some of them persisted for several minutes in believing I was Kiarostami pretending to be someone named Jeff Strabone. When my identity was all cleared up—if one can make such a claim about identity—about 75% of the auditorium admitted, by a show of hands, that they had believed I was Kiarostami.

Tonight I attended the start of the MoMA's three-week Kiarostami film series. For the first time ever, the real Kiarostami and the fake Kiarostami were together in the same room, though I was surely the only person there having a pseudo-uncanny experience. On a more serious note, everyone in the New York area should drop everything and see these films. His major works include:
Where Is the Friend's House?* (1987)
And Life Goes On…* (1991)
Through the Olive Trees* (1994)
Close-Up (1990)
A Taste of Cherry (1997)
The Wind Will Carry Us (1999)
Ten (2002).
(The starred films form a trilogy.)

Describing his work can be a challenge, as anyone who read A.O. Scott's article in today's New York Times has witnessed. Perhaps the best way to approach it is to start from the outside and work our way in. The thing one is most likely to see in his films is people endlessly driving around in cars. One of his films, Ten, consists entirely of ten scenes of a driver and her passengers. That's all there is, yet it manages to be his most emotionally intense film. His most famous shot is probably the aerosol can rolling down the hill for thirty-five seconds in Close-Up. Again, that's all it is: a can rolling down a hill for what seems like forever. Two of his recent films—Ten and Five—try to remove the participation of the director entirely from the film, and in other films—And Life Goes On and Through the Olive Trees—the protagonists are the fictional directors of ealier Kiarostami films. The Wind Will Carry Us, a film that draws on Iranian poetry and investigates the ethics of an urban documentary filmmaker working in a remote town, offers a humorous take on communicating with an unseen higher power—via mobile from the only hill that gets reception.

What does it all add up to? Kiarostami's work is a restless and relentless investigation of the possibilities and limits of film form, filmic time, directing, and the categories of narrative and documentary. He has an uncanny ability to extend time in such a way that stills it to tantalizing extremes. His is a cinema of stillness and contemplation, not necessarily for transcendental purposes but for exploring the properties of narrative expectation and the experience of time. (Sometimes, his aim feels like nothing more than cheek as in the maddening re-takes in Through the Olive Trees.) He wants to know things like, What is it to direct a film? to construct a narrative? or to sit in a movie theatre and experience time?

The Tisch students said they expected the rolling aerosol can in Close-Up to explode. They expected event. Instead, it came to a quiet stop. It was more a case of the humor of time and the thwarting of expectation. I have seen ten of his feature films so far, and they are all like that can: an extreme prolongation of expectation with no necessary closure, its reward instead being the experience of expectation. If 'unbearable' could ever be meant as a compliment, that is what I would call Kiarostami's work: unbearable cinema. And it would be unforgiveable to miss it.

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Blogger John said...

So, when you write as Jeff Strabone on the blog, are you Jeff Strabone pretending to be Jeff Strabone? Does the logic follow?
Missed you at the Guggenheim today. Will call.
Luke Fiske, as Luke West.

7:21 PM, March 03, 2007

Blogger Jeff Strabone said...

I offer as a response this line from David Byrne's song 'Angels' (1994):
'I am just an advertisement for a version of myself.'

What did you think of the Spanish painting at the Guggenheim? I blogged about it back on December 30, 2006.

11:22 PM, March 03, 2007

Blogger Asad said...

Hey Jeff,

Really nice. Your last paragraph was an excellent distillation: the idea of the experience of expectation as the reward for prolonged expectation is hits the nail about as squarely as I can imagine.

It's interesting, isn't it, that the early films are so energetic, so kinetic and motion-crazy, yet still do the prolonging-time thing?

By the way, I hold to my opinion that separately projected subtitles are a breeze - I'm pretty sure I could make one on iMovie, if I had a print and a Steenbeck.

Keep up the good works.

12:06 AM, March 06, 2007

Anonymous Anonymous said...

Dear Jeff, sorry that wretched Luke West messed up our meeting at the Guggenheim as I would have enjoyed perambulating it enjoying erudite comments from you.
I share your admiration for Kiarostami and your blog makes me want to see those I haven’t and revisit the old friends I have. As we discussed over dinner I love films that are films where the film maker revels in his craft rather than mere big budget spectaculars. As I commented to Luke West (do I have his name right?) recently after suffering ‘Babel’ and rewatching “The Departed” so many American films are punch ups as it were and leave you with nothing to ponder. The best thing of Babel was that Mexican actress, Pitt’s lined eyes and that magnificent waiting for the bullet to hit knowing what was going to happen and watching Cate peacefully snoozing and looking so vulnerable.

6:52 PM, March 10, 2007

Blogger Jeff Strabone said...

Thanks, Asad, but after reading your blog entry on Kiarostami, I must take my hat off to you. I went for the capsule statement, but you wrote with great feeling in a way that will surely inspire people to see the films. Well done.

1:33 AM, March 11, 2007

Blogger Jeff Strabone said...

David, I have declined to see Babel. I don't feel as militant about it as I did about not seeing Crash last year, but it just looks way too didactic and obvious to me.

Your posting amused me. One of my thematic interests in nineteenth-century British literature is patriarchy, property, and patronyms in women's fiction. It seems that twenty-first-century men of a certain age still care about their names. I hope I'm not interjecting myself into any familial disputes, but I do have something to say to that: go West, young man.

1:40 AM, March 11, 2007

Anonymous Anonymous said...

Your presentation of "Close Up" to the NYU students, with its hommage to Kiarostami, sounded priceless.
"Close Up" is indeed my favorite of his films. I lived in Iran until 1978, and many a Westerner doesn't quite get the social straatification of its society. It was especially bad under the Shah and belonging to the upper class, I remember wanting to simply flee the place.
The lower class, were treated with contempt and sub-humanly and the lies told in Close UP by the imposter, reminded me of how badly a whole sector of the soicety needed to feel ebraced and accepted.
My favorite scene is the one with the flower pot and the motorcycle ride. Iranian culture has dichotomies. Despite social discrimination, certain human values, since the times of Cyrus, are deeply engrained. Honesty, not doing others any wrong, appologising if you do so. "Say good, think good, do good" was the traditional Zoroastrian philosophy of the Persians, and permeates in the culture. I could feel it in the flower pot scene.
So the movie touched on two deeply Iranian issues, social discrimination, and a reverence for pure honesty.
I'm so glad an American liked this movie. I'm sick to death of the Iran/Us anymosities. A simple trip to Iran, would make you feel like you've walked into a Kiarostami movie.
For stunning views of Isfahan - flickr.com click "Isfahan" and be amazed!
Peace and thanks
Afsaneh Mirfendereski
Chevy Chase

10:43 PM, March 11, 2007

Blogger Jeff Strabone said...

Thanks and welcome, Afsaneh. I chuckled when I read that you were 'so glad an American liked this movie'. I assure you, I'm far from the only one. You should see the crowds at the MoMA for the Kiarostami series. Iranian films are huge in New York. All the serious—and even not so serious—filmgoers here are eagerly awaiting the release of Jafar Panahi's new film Offside. As for visiting Iran, it's definitely one of my ambitions. If people judged countries by their governments, tourism to the States would have ended on January 20, 2001.

2:27 AM, March 12, 2007


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