“I believe there’s only good cinema and bad cinema. Good cinema is what we can believe and bad cinema is what we can’t believe.”
Abbas Kiarostami ranks among the most celebrated of film-makers in the last three decades. His passing on July 4, 2016, is as sad as it is surprising.
There have been a number of prominent film-makers who have passed away recently, Manoel de Oliveira, Jacques Rivette, Chantal Akerman, Peter Hutton, Michael Cimino, Alain Resnais, Chris Marker among others. Among those Kiarostami’s death is the most resonant and impactful because his predecessors in a large sense were survivors of an earlier era in the 21st Century rather than actual 21st Century film-makers. Kiarostami on the other hand, having admittedly made his first short films in the 70s remained resolutely contemporary and modern, as much a part of the world of today and considerably more avant-garde than most ambitious tyros.
The films are objects of beauty and strangeness unlike anything in film history: Whether it’s the shorts he made for the Institute for Intellectual Development of Children and Young Adults in Tehran (the same organization that produced Amir Naderi’s The Runner), such titles as The Bread and Alley (his first film), Break Time, Two Solutions for One Problem. His first major films, Where is the Friend’s House, Life and Nothing But, Through the Olive Trees and such classics of Iranian cinema as Close-Up, A Taste of Cherry and The Wind Will Carry Us. There are also his documentaries (ABC Africa) and his more recent films, titles as unusual as Shirin, a movie that is mostly about close-ups of an audience of women who watch an off-screen film, and of course Certified Copy which is perhaps a more accessible film for newcomers than his other films. In addition to all this, Kiarostami was a prolific artist in many mediums, he started his career as a painter and commercial designer, and alongside his film-work he was a respected photographer and installation artist. He was also a poet and critic, and his own films repeatedly feature quotations of beautiful Farsi verse, from both the classic and modern eras.
His film Like Someone in Love, made in 2012, is now his last film. It is one of the best films made in the 21st Century, a mysterious story of deceptive surfaces, ambiguous encounters and urban loneliness. The film’s use of sound, its hypnotic rhythm, the typical Kiarostami use of a car as a room and stage for extended dialogue, and its lingering sense of mystery is unforgettable and rich. Especially when seen on the big screen. This is a movie engaged in a real sense with life in the 21st Century. It is not in any sense what an auteurist critic would call a “testament film”. This is a movie that breaks new ground that looked ahead to bolder and darker movies that we will never see. No more Kiarostami movies.
1) Article by Bahman Kiarostami, son of the director, on his final days:
2) Hamid Dabashi on Kiarostami, at Al Jazeera.
The moment we hear the news of the passing of a giant whom we knew at the time of his glorious achievements, time stands still, memories flood and overwhelm, words, pictures, feelings, phrases, glances, and snapshots of a lifetime come together like a collage, a kaleidoscope, in which you cannot tell if you are a spectator or the spectacle…
Last time I had this feeling was when Edward Said died. The full sense of incredulity is lessened with the dawning sense of unexpected loss and, moreover, the overwhelming recognition of the voluminous space occupied by another life adjacent to yours and yet so definitive of it.
3) An obituary at The Guardian.
“Kiarostami gave the Iranian cinema the international credibility that it has today,” [Mohsen Makhmalbaf] told the Guardian. “But his films were unfortunately not seen as much in Iran. He changed the world’s cinema; he freshened it and humanised it in contrast with Hollywood’s rough version.”
“He was a man of life, who enjoyed living and made films in praise of life – that’s why it’s so difficult to come to terms with his death,” he said.
4) Ignatiy Vishnevetsky writes at The AV Club.
The most important and internationally recognized artist to come out of Iran after the Islamic Revolution, Kiarostami had a tremendous impact on film, effortlessly bridging the philosophical and the mundane. In addition to directing features and countless shorts, he was also an accomplished photographer and poet, and dabbled in countless other art forms. A cosmopolitan figure never seen with his trademark dark glasses—which he wore because of an extreme sensitivity to light—Kiarostami often claimed to be neither especially political nor “politically religious,” though he openly criticized Iran’s leadership in interviews.
5) From the 2014 preface by Jonathan Rosenbaum and Mehrnaz Saeed-Vafa to the Iranian Edition of Abbas Kiarostami.
6) ‘Reflections on Like Someone in Love (2012)’ by Mehrnaz Saeed-Vafa, with an excerpt from the author’s interview with Abbas Kiarostami
MS: I heard that you wrote the story 20 years ago.
AK: No, I never said that. I only said the image of this girl among the suited businessmen, carrying Samsonite, had remained in my mind from many years ago. I wrote the script when I thought we were going to make it. I only shot one sequence to see how it looked. We were looking for a square, but there wasn’t any in Tokyo. I had imagined shooting the sequence with the girl and the grandmother in a single take, but it wasn’t possible because there’s no square of that kind in Tokyo or Japan.
MS: It seems that the film is also a statement about the current condition of our global culture.
AK: We show part of ourselves in our stories but it’s up to the audience to discover the hidden parts. You’re not satisfied to see the characters and the story as they are, so you look for other things about them.
MS: How much did your actors know about your script and how did you work with them? Was it different from your other films?
AK: My script was written and translated but I didn’t give it to my actors. I would give them the information on a daily basis. Mr. Okuno (who plays the old man) was a movie extra and he had come to play an extra, but I chose him for the lead. I knew if I had told him that he was the leading actor, he would run off. He said he never had any dialogue. I told him that I had two or three pages for him, and asked him if he could learn those lines by heart. Reluctantly he accepted, but until the last moment we weren’t sure. The scene in his bedroom was the last one to be shot because, only then and there did he realize that his role was the key one, the leading role. Before that, he would come every day to the set, out of Japanese courtesy and discipline, and wouldn’t complain. He’d say why for such a small role do I have to be in your film all the time?
7) At Projectorhead, we have long revered the director,
– An excerpt from An “Islamic” Reading of Close-Up authored by Kaz Rahman
Stylistically Close-Up is just that- the trial is essentially a close-up of Sabzian. Kiarostami explains the technical aspects of the zoom lens to Sabzian and then the audience sees his head and members of the family such as the eldest son and the mother in the background. It is gritty and direct and sets up a contrast with the third and final part of the film. Sabzian is free and Kiarostami arranges the real Makhmalbaf to meet him. Sabzian had earlier played the part of Makhmalbaf and convinced the family of his idea for a film – two men on a motorbike, one loses his wallet- the other lends him money and they become friends. This turns into a kind of ‘reality’ when Makhmalbaf picks Sabzian up on his motorcycle, they stop for flowers (Makhmalbaf’s money) and they ride back to the infamous house. Kiarostami shoots this all in long-shot and the visuals are bright and beautiful after the courtroom – the microphone on Makhmalbaf goes in and out, the film crew speaks out-loud of the technical problems and finally serene music (for the first time) can be heard in what is a visually stunning ending. All of these elements differ drastically from the classical narrative film where there is a mix of shots (long, medium and close), clear audio and usually music interspersed regularly throughout – and of course nary a trace of ‘the crew’.
– And from, Mysterious Elegance of Kiarostami by Sudarshan Ramani
The conflict between the visible and the invisible is expressed in the remarkable opening of the film, where the action is presented to us as a conversation that we hear but don’t see, slowly piecing together the characters and the relationship between them. What we see seems familiar and common, a nightclub like any nightclub in a city with nightclubs. We follow two girls, Nagisa and Akiko (Rin Takanashi) discussing the latter’s issues with her boyfriend. The conversation is interrupted because Nagisa keeps moving to a table to the left of the frame leaving a seat empty. A gentleman comes forward a little later and appears to take a seat but backs away because the table ahead of him is occupied. The digressive quality of the opening, the distractions and interruptions communicates a great deal about urban life than most movies devoted in full to the subject. Akiko hopes to visit her grandmother but is tasked by Hiroshi, the patron of the bar to visit a “client” who he says is close to him. This someone, we find out later, is an old Professor of sociology, an odd fit compared to “regulars”. Akiko at first inquires if he’s a politician. Hiroshi doesn’t give a straight answer, although my guess would be that like the police inspector in the garage scene halfway into the film, Hiroshi is a former student of the professor, now taken up a calling far from his vocation. A sign of the times, our economic crisis and the impossible student loans? Kiarostami doesn’t answer, nor do I need him to.
8) A good time, perhaps, also to revisit Srikanth Srinivasan’s expansion and unravelling of a short that is Essential Kiarostami.
Titled Dinner for One, the short film shows us two eggs being fried on a pan placed over a hot stove. Meanwhile, on the soundtrack, a woman (voiced by none other than Isabelle Huppert) on the phone urges the person (invisible to us, presumably a man) to pick up the phone and talk to her. She seems to know that he is in the house and, yet, is not willing to pick up the phone. The man, on the other hand, continues to fry the two eggs (a couple?) without paying any heed to the call. Proving once more, as he has so consistently done in his marvelous career, that minimalism actually means maximum utilization of available resources, Kiarostami presents a film that can well be regarded as a crash course in minimalism by one of the greatest exponents of the school.