Mar 12, 2007

Minimal film

There are 5 videos by Abbas Kiarostami at the Media section in MoMa as part of the retrospective of his films. The videos, called Five, are basically a fixed camera looking steadily at different landscapes. There is a boardwalk by the sea, where people walk, there is the seashore, where a piece of driftwood is pushed and pulled by the waves, there is more seashore, where a bunch of ducks walk back and forth, or four dogs sit by the waves, there is the moon reflected on the water, as you hear the sounds of nature at night. They are long and still and somehow very moving and eye-opening.
Mr. Kiarostami has explained, in Ten by Ten, his master class on cinema, how he wants to make films with the minimum intrusion and the minimum of artifice. He has dispensed with everything: the crew, the actors, the huge camera and the contraptions to move it around. Now he likes to make films with a small video camera, the kind tourists take on vacations.
Ten, for instance, is a film about a woman who drives a car in Tehran. She talks to her rebellious ten year old son, she picks up female passengers, she speaks to her sister, to a whore she picks up, to a little old lady who is going to the Mosque, to her son again. The camera is fixed inside the dashboard. The image quality is poor; so is the sound. Sometimes you see only her, sometimes you see only her passengers, sometimes the camera cuts back and forth once in a while. Ten doesn't have the dramatic structure that we are trained to expect from most films. There are no three acts, no turning points, no climax, nothing but people talking about themselves. And what we learn is still incredibly dramatic.
It turns out that the woman is divorced. She speaks about her frustrations with her ex-husband. About her frustrations with being a woman in Iran. Her son is devastated by the divorce, and he speaks to her with contempt. He's a smart little bugger, but he talks down to his own mother, partly because he is hurting and I bet partly because he's heard other men talk to women like that.
Ten is a quietly, intensely subversive film. Mr. Kiarostami, who is the most famous Iranian filmmaker of all time, cannot screen his movies in Iran. They are never political pamphlets, they are a subtle example of how the personal is political.
But Kiarostami's concept of cinema is also subversive in terms of cinema. He will not play by the rules of huge productions and contrived stories. He will tell a different kind of story. Five is a wonderful case in point. Kiarostami can find drama in a piece of driftwood floating in the waves. The fact that he has made the choice to park his camera to record nature in time, is already a form of story and a form of drama. The viewer's imagination is immediately engaged, because one may think that nothing is happening, but the videos make clear a lot is happening. The viewer fills in the story of the driftwood, where did it come from? where is it going? how did it get there? You personalize the little piece of wood. Then another piece arrives and it almost seems staged. There is a story there.
When I saw it, two teenagers were responding to it as if it was a video game, waiting to see if the waves would push it further, or the foam would touch it. Then there is the video of a bunch of ducks walking on the shore. They walk in single file. This is immediately funny. They walk, some traipse, some run, some saunter, all seem to be going somewhere with great purpose. All of a sudden, one of the ducks turns around and they all start heading in the opposite direction, not in single file anymore, but in hordes. It is amusing and puzzling and comic.
Then he shoots people on a boardwalk, and he makes you really look. As you sit there you start seeing more and more details. There is a ramp that goes down to the beach; you only notice it when a man takes his dog for a run in the sand. People come and go and then nobody shows up for a while, but then you notice some birds in the sky. Kiarostami forces you to look closely and attentively and patiently and see the drama that unfolds every second.
The last video, a long shot of the moon reflected in the water has a stillness that reminds one of Japanese meditation. The moon is distorted by ripples, there is drama in the night though we can only hear it.
He has taught me to think about movies in simple terms. To think about choices that are essential. To tell the difference between artifice and artistry.
And he was finally given a visa to come here and was interrogated for two hours by customs at JFK.

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