the psychopathology of lying and/or filmmaking in kiarostami’s close-up

If I’m going to talk about Close-Up, the 1990 film by Abbas Kiarostami (pretty much Iran’s most lauded filmmaker), I’m going to have to talk about a bunch of things I don’t actually want to talk about before I can get to what actually interests me.

That’s because I only engaged half-heartedly with the film’s biggest idea: Close-Up‘s main thematic strand is the the process and illusion of cinema itself and the artificiality of the movie-making process. The film stems from the story of Hossein Sabzian, an Iranian who (in real life) passed himself off as well-known filmmaker Mohsen Makhmalbaf to a Tehran family of some means, the Ahankhahs. (As an American, I don’t know how classy they were by the standards of Iran in 1990, but they have a kempt house and a gated courtyard.)

Sabzian was arrested after his lie was uncovered, and a large chunk of the movie consists of his trial, in the form of a documentary. This footage is interlarded with stagings of his interactions with the Ahankhahs — which, strangely, are acted out by Sabzian and the family themselves. In fact, as Godfrey Cheshire explains in his Criterion essay on the film, “Contrary to what most first-time viewers assume, none of its scenes are strictly documentary. Not just the reenactments but all the other scenes, too, are at least partly scripted or otherwise contrived by Kiarostami.”

In other words, the status of this movie as documentary or drama or something in between is impossible to determine. You’re probably beginning to see why Cheshire described the movie (this time in a 1993 issue of Film Comment) as “a precinct of dazzling reflexivity.”

That’s a good phrase for quoting because it’s accurate, even if I could never bring myself to write that floridly. In addition to its free mix of fiction and non-fiction, Close-Up often seems to be about the very process of making you aware that it is a movie, and one cooked up by its director rather than flowing untainted from the reality of the story. Kiarostami includes his own first meeting with Sabzian in the film, but the director leaves his own face obscured in this meeting. During the trial, Sabzian’s seeming sincerity and openness make you want to believe that he isn’t playing up his story for the cameras, but the son of the Ahankhah family suggests that Sabzian is even now playing a role. Later he’s asked, “Aren’t you acting for the camera right now?”

At one point, as if speaking about Kiarostami, Sabzian says that “Playing the part of a director is a performance in itself.” Kiarostami also shows us a section where Sabzian explicitly praises one of Kiarostami’s films — a scene that would seem to be self-serving for Kiarostami to include and which only invites us to think about the relationship of director to directed.

photo by Javier Rapoport under cc

At the end of the film, Kiarostami has the the real Mohsen Makhmalbaf pick Sazbian up from jail to visit the Ahankhahs and apologize. When Makhmalbaf appears, it seems clear that this is Kiarostami choreographing Sabzian’s fate, since presumably the director he impersonated would not have shown up except by Kiarostami’s invitation. In any event, no excuse is given for Makhmalbaf’s intervention.

From a following car, Kiarostami films Makhmalbaf on his motorcycle transporting Sabzian. We can’t hear their conversation because the microphone is cutting out. Stephen Holden, writing for the New York Times, interprets this as more evidence that “the director’s insistence on making us aware of filmmaking technology is part of a broader strategy to force us to contemplate the basic experience of moviegoing.” Be it established, then, that this is indeed a movie about making (and loving) movies.

This conception seems to be what people pick up on and cherish in this film, but to be honest, I’m not super-happy about it. Cheshire calls Close-Up a “a meditation on perplexities of justice, social inequity, and personal identity that also subtly interrogates the processes and purposes of cinema,” but it can’t be that subtle when that “interrogation” pervades the whole movie. Often, when I have to confront this kind of self-awareness in art, I am reminded of an old New York Times magazine essay by Laura Miller that explains the problem from the audience’s perspective: “We all know it’s just a novel, just a movie, just a play, but we want to throw ourselves into it anyway. We know this isn’t like real life — that’s why we’re here, and we’d rather not be lectured on the difference.”

Close-Up doesn’t lecture to us, but it sure does remind us, and I can think of films that do it with more panache. Fair warning that the following sentences will be brutal for a certain type of cinephile: Frankly, I get more mileage out of Inception on this point than I do out of Close-Up. I’m not saying that because of Inception‘s infamous final shot, which seems kind of gimmicky in retrospect (God knows you can read about it elsewhere so I’m not going to rehash it here), but because of the ledge scene, which I think rewards careful consideration. As a critique of film as a medium, I even prefer — and this is still worse — the through-the-mirror shot from Sucker Punch over Close-Up‘s methods. (Check out a recent article on this blog for more on that.)

In the end, then, I’d prefer not to get lost in the auto-analysis aspect of Close-Up, and instead I’m compelled by a somewhat more mundane, non-theoretical aspect, namely, Sabzian’s psychopathology. While the film and trial play up Sabzian’s love of movies, the evidence provided suggests that the con man’s decision to take on the role of a famous director was more opportunistic than revealing of his character. The mother of the Ahankhah family had sat next to him on the bus where he was reading Makhmalbaf’s book and they began a conversation. If he had been holding Jack Welch’s memoir, maybe he would have claimed to be the former head of GE. It’s hard to know for sure, since a lot of the evidence we learn about Sabzian’s passion for film comes from his own self-report.

Even if we believe his account of why he lied, his motivations are somewhat illogical as presented. I think you can fairly summarize them as being a drive for some modicum of attention and also a bit of respect, not to mention the apparently small amount of money he got from the Ahankhahs. So the returns on his deception were paltry, and his gross miscalculation of the costs and benefits of lying suggest to me that he’s either extremely reckless (with virtually no ability to foresee consequences) or, more likely, that there was a part of him that wanted to be caught and punished for the crime. Maybe he wanted the attention not only for being a famous filmmaker but also, later, for being a miscreant.

This isn’t any sort of definitive explanation, but it’s plausible, and the questions it poses are more compelling to me than any film about filmmaking and its artifice. Sometimes you don’t need a theory of filmmaking to make a good one, so long as you have raw material as good as Mr. Sabzian.

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