Recently, as I watched one of the first great Iranian films, The Cow, which came out in 1969, I thought about this passage from Godfrey Cheshire’s summary of the Iranian New Wave in a 1993 Film Comment article, talking about Close-Up (which I reviewed in an earlier post and which is possibly the best-known Iranian film of the past 30 years):
Here, after all, is a turbaned Iranian judge listening to impassioned arguments about the practice and value of cinema… . This is not the fearsome, dark-ages Iran of the 6 o’clock news, clearly. It is something far more complex, media-savvy, and oddly sophisticated, if be-turbaned still.
Cheshire spends the rest of the article talking about that sophistication and the subtlety of Iranian films, but the message I take from this passage is that anything “oddly sophisticated” coming out of anybody with a turban is a small miracle in itself. I kind of felt the same way, to be honest, but, at the same time, I think my surprise at finding out I was wrong is the oddest thing, not the sophistication that it turns out Iranian culture could exhibit. Look, I have prejudices and biases, but when they’re proven wrong, I hope my reaction wouldn’t be to take them as logical or any counter-evidence as paradoxical. It’s not really a surprise when other cultures, even ones with strong conservative political or cultural strains, produce amazing cinema.
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.”
I suppose I came to Pier Paolo Pasolini’s film version of Oedipus Rex hoping that it would work with the meaning I had gotten out of the play, which I analyzed in some depth a few weeks ago. My conclusion was basically that Sophocles’ original play works best if we think of it as a parable about the sin we do unknowingly and the dangers of knowledge.
Pasolini’s film, however, doesn’t really focus on these aspects, or at least not in any way I can tell, and I’m kind of unsure what to make of it overall. The movie’s major innovation is that it begins and ends in 20th century Italy. In some early part of the 20th century (I can’t figure out what year exactly this would have been), Pasolini shows us a young military man who is jealous of the attention his wife pays to their infant son. Shortly, the setting changes to ancient Greece and tells us the traditional story of Oedipus in chronological order (as opposed to the play, where Oedipus is already king and we only learn of his true back story through exposition). Then, where the play would end with Oedipus blind and shamed, the movie magically transposes the same actor to 1970s Italy, making him a blind beggar.
I’ve got an essay coming on La Dolce Vita for the Brattle Theatre Film Notes blog — I’ll add a link when they put it up. The Brattle Theatre’s Film Notes blog just posted my essay about La Dolce Vita, but I also wanted to post these great screen grabs that show how damn satisfying the cinematography is and the incredible use of depth.
If you want the tl;dr version of this post, just look at these two compositions, which are the opening shots of their respective scenes:
Either one of these shots is near-perfect on its own, but they’re even better put side by side like this, because you can see the echoes: The top one is almost all white, the bottom almost all black; the top shot has a vanishing point somewhere on the right half; the bottom’s is at approximately the mirror point on the left.