Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Close-Up. (1990) Abbas Kiarostami

On the commentary track for Criterion's Close-Up DVD, Chicago critic Jonathon Rosenbaum describes that many of Abbas Kiarostami's films are about people who are lost. I thought back to earlier Kiarostami films I've seen and he's right. (As usual!) There is a sense of loss, and it is displayed both internally and externally as a recurring motif in all of the Kiarostami films I've seen. A man seems emotionally lost in a new town in The Wind Will Carry Us, and in Taste of Cherry another poor soul drives all over town and the countryside frantically searching for someone to bury him after he kills himself. I also thought of the more recent Certified Copy, and though Juliette Binoche and William Shimell aren't necessarily lost as they plod along on the streets in Tuscany, they do meander aimlessly for a better portion of the film. In fact, as Rosenbaum points out, an earlier title of one of Kiarostami's films is Where Is the Friend's Home?

In Close-Up we have a character so lost in his own misfortune that he simply gives up on himself and pretends he's someone else.

With the recurring motif of lostness there is also a recurring Kiarostami trope which aims to break through the fourth wall of a given performance. Fans of last year's Catfish, Exit Through the Gift Shop and I'm Still Here might be interested in this Iranian blending of documentary filmmaking and reenactment, where the lines between reality and imagination are somewhat blurred, and your perceptions and allegiances shift between characters by the moment.

What we know to be true about the following story is this: a man was put in jail and taken to court for fraudulently claiming to be a famous Iranian film director. Another famous Iranian filmmaker liked the case, got involved, and made a film about it ala cinéma vérité.

An every day average but currently unemployed man named Hossain Sabzian is carrying a copy of the book The Cyclist on a bus as he travels around town. The passenger next to him, Mahrokh Ahankhah, notes the book is a film she's seen with her husband and two grown sons (the film I blogged two days ago here). She comments on it to Sabzian, and Sabzian (who looks like director Mohsen Makhmalbaf to the point where I was confused) claims he is the man behind The Cyclist, Makhmalbaf himself. He autographs it and gives her the copy. She's amazed to find the great director taking a ride on public transit. He claims he likes to use the bus to travel around town in search of new subjects for his films.

It might have all ended there, but Sazbian is invited to the Anankhah home, where he is introduced by mom to the family, who are all very interested in art and filmmaking. Sazbian, in full Makhmalbaf mode, says he's interested in doing a film in the house using the Anankhah family as actors. Of course they are all delighted, but dad remains skeptical. After a few days of prep and a full surveying of the house, it is revealed that whoever this man is, he is not Mohsen Makhmalbaf, and he is arrested and taken to court on counts of fraud and attempted fraud.

It is assumed that since he surveyed the house, he obviously was intending to burglarize it.

As Sazbian sat in a jail cell awaiting his court date, Kiarostami got involved in the case. He visits Sazbian in jail, camera on, gets his permission to film him, and talks to him about filming the trial and reenacting parts of the story. Sazbian is eager to relay this story to the world. This is a guy who has had no real attention before. He's divorced, without work, probably broke, a Nobody. He was a Somebody when playing the part of Makhmalbaf, until he was busted for the whole ordeal. All the sudden with Kiarostami's involvement, he's got a chance to be a Somebody again.

Kiarostami creates a film about the crime and its people using the original players, everyone playing their own part. Scenes that took place in real life are reenacted by the very same people in order to show what happened earlier in their lives. It's a reflection of a previous event, which calls attention to the reality of film itself. We don't always know which scenes are happening right now (most of the time we can guess), and even if we figure out which ones are reenacted, they won't be the same as what they were before Kiarostami started filming. Are people ever the same when the cameras are on?

At the start, in a move of pure genius, Kiarostami drops us right in the middle of the story during the arrest of Sazbian in the Anankhah family's home. But we never go inside. We stay on the outside with a cab driver, who is waiting for the cops to bring Sazbian out. We think, "What is going on inside the house?" We can't know for certain, but we do see the cops bring Sazbian out and take him away in the taxi. From this point the film moves through the story's timeline in a non-linear fashion, until later when we finally get to see the scene we were so curious about in the beginning. By making us wait for it, Kiarostami adds tension to the story, but it isn't a noticeable tension -- it's simply ground we wish would get covered.

When we finally do witness Sazbian's arrest, and watch the actual courtroom proceedings, we're never really sure if he's playing himself or still in a role. This is another slight tension that simply hangs in the air for a while, until Makhmalbaf actually shows up in the film. When the two finally meet face to face it is a tender conclusion in which a full answer is given, and it tells us that we may have been deceived once or twice, but everything suddenly feels so wonderfully humane.

After the viewing, I thought about the different roles I've played in life, from son to father, musician to minister, worker to drifter to writer and more. I wonder if any of those roles are accurate about "who is the real me." I've even erected this "Persona," that in some ways creates a mystique around my Internet presence, but more than that it gives me freedom to write exactly how I want.

Like Sazbian in Close-Up, I wonder how often we think it would be better to drop out of our own lives and become someone else. How much of that kind of thought plays into the sports we watch, the magazines we consume, American Idol, reality shows, Charlie Sheen? Is the Reality of who we are more than what we believe or do or see in others? And what is that thing Reality stares at when we shift our gaze to the mirror?


  1. Just thought I'd throw in a helpful comment about the Blu-Ray that I found today on the A&F boards:

    "This is a very strong high-definition transfer. Aside from inherited random minor flecks, scratches and cuts that pop up here and there, the high-definition transfer represents a major upgrade over Facets Video's old R1 SDVD release of the film. Fine object detail, especially early into the film, is excellent. Clarity and contrast levels are also convincing. The color-scheme does not disappoint either - yellows, greens, blues, browns and blacks look natural. The film's grain structure is also intact. Furthermore, neither edge-enhancement no macroblocking are a serious issues of concern. Excluding some minor fluctuations during the documentary footage from the trial, there are no serious stability issues either. All in all, this is a very strong and much needed upgrade of an important film. (Note: This is a Region-A "locked" Blu-ray disc. Therefore, you must have a native Region-A or Region-Free PS3 or SA in order to access its content)."

    - from blu-ray.com's review.

  2. Kiarostami + Queen

  3. LOL, is there nothing sacred anymore?! :)


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