Wednesday, November 18, 2015


Cinema lovers are sick people - Francois Truffaut

In the late 1980's the Ahankhah's (an Iranian family made up of Husband; Abolfazl, Wife; Mehrdad and their two sons; Monoochehr & Mahrokh) became acquainted with famous Iranian filmmaker; Mohsen Makhmalbaf. At one point the family invited the filmmaker in to their home because they believed he wanted to use it (and them) in his next project. The only problem is that the person they thought was Mohsen Makhmalbaf was in fact some guy (Hossain Sabzian) pretending to be the famous filmmaker. A few days earlier Sabzian happened to be sitting next to Mehrdad Ahankhah on the bus and he introduced himself as the famous Iranian filmmaker (who Mehrdad happened to be a fan of) and just went with it.
I have vivid memories from when I was a child of my father doing shit like this to amuse me & my mom (although he didn't take it nearly as far as Sabzian did). When I was nine years old we went to visit my grandmother in Queens like we usually did once a month or so. While we were on the subway a lady noticed my father was wearing an NBC hat and asked if he worked for the television studio in New York. Without hesitation my father replied yes and went on to explain his (made up) position at NBC. The only thing is my dad was really a social worker for a corporation in Northampton, Massachusetts. This didn't surprise me too much because at that point I already knew my father was the same person who told my mother he knew Arthur Ashe personally as a way to impress her back before they dated. A lot of people tell lies & tall tales for various reasons. However Sabzian's reasons for lying go a lot deeper than simple self-amusement...

Somewhere in between William Greive's groundbreaking yet convoluted Symbiopsychotaxiplasm (1969), Orson Welles' F for Fake (1973), Colour Me Kubrick (2005) & Henri-Georges Cluzot's Inferno (2009) lies the "docufiction"; Close Up - Abbas Kiarostami's uncategorizeable film based on the true story of a lonely cinema lover and the family he briefly took advantage of. Hossain Sabzian is a living breathing example of Truffaut's famous quote at the start of this piece yet at the same time Kiarostami makes us feel sorry for him in a way. From his sad/insecure mannerisms right down to the holes in his socks; Hossain Sabzian is a pitiful guy. A pitiful guy with an appreciation for good movies. Part of me thinks Kiarostami knew audiences who watched this film would be somewhat sympathetic towards Hossain's situation as we can kind of identify with him. Lets be clear - Abbas Kiarostami is one of the most important filmmakers in world cinema but he ain't Steven Spielberg. His films aren't the kinds of films that play at major theaters. The average movie-goer doesn't just happen upon his work like; "hey you wanna see a movie tonight? Abbas Kiarostami's new movie is playing at the multiplex downtown". Most people who watch his films are cinephiles who have a little bit of Hossain Sabzian in them. Take me for example - Not only do I have in my possession ( my grandmother's house) a small trash can that once belonged to Martin Scorsese (seriously tho, I do) but I have saved print screens of all the email correspondents between myself & Claire Denis and I will probably NEVER throw away the shitty disposable phone I used to speak to her on a few years back as it's now an important artifact in my life (I was fortunate enough to do a brief interview with Denis in 2013). I have other similar stories from other cinephile buddies of mine but I wont go in to those. Truffaut is righgt. We are sick people. Hossain Sabzian just took it to another level. Even now as write this, Close-Up brings up so many other cinematic moments in my obsessive movie brain. 
The shot of Hossain Sabzian sitting behind bars is like something out of a Bresson film...

the final freeze frame shot at the end is reminiscent of everything from the obvious 400 Blows to Chameleon Street...

While films like Room 237 & The The Father Of My Children make me proud to be a cinephile, Close Up makes me a little embarrassed to love films the way i do. When Sabzian was eventually arrested and tried in court for impersonating the filmmaker, he makes a statement along the lines of how he lived his life according to Makhmalbaf's film The Cyclist and how it had such a huge impact on his life. This was his defense to a certain extent. Like...He seriously came to a court of law with that. What a romantic yet crazy/disconnected thing only a dedicated cinema lover would think to say when facing serious charges. Although Sabzian deceived a family, he still admits that what he did was wrong and is a stand-up guy in court. He doesn't deflect or try to avoid blame and doesn't even resist arrest. I think that's why people (myself included) find some redeemable qualities about him. He's clearly a lonely guy. In court the only person who comes to his defense is his mother.

The Cyclist (1987)
Perhaps to get a better understanding of Sabzian (and this film) one must get an understanding of Makhmalbaf's The Cyclist - The story of an Afghan refugee who tries to raise money to pay for surgery for his dying wife by riding a bicycle nonstop for a week as people bet on whether or not he can complete the task. This film goes a little deeper as it's apparently based on something Makhmalbaf actually witnessed as child. It's also believed by many film critics that The Cyclist is a metaphor about the immigration system in Iran.

Was Abbas Kiarostami fascinated by the fact that someone so much in love with film would try something like this? Or to take it a step further - was Kiarostami fascinated by a fellow Iranian that much in love with Iranian cinema given its sometimes limited resources that he felt the need to base a film on this man? Was he intrigued because Mohsen Makhmalbaf is a friend/acquaintance? I'm not entirely sure but I'm glad he made this film (which may have never of happened had Kiarostami not picked up the magazine that reported the story). What makes Close Up so unique is that it's a film made up of reenactmented moments using the actual people involved playing themselves (Sabzian, the Ahankhah's, the journalist who reported the story, and even Mohsen Makhmalbaf). The court scenes are particularly confusing because it really looks like authentic grainy footage. This isn't the first film in history to do this. I'm immediately reminded of Muhammad Ali playing himself in the pre-Michael Mann biopic - The Muhammad Ali Story. But Close Up is definitely one of the best films of its kind (Tony Buba's Lightning Over Braddock, which we'll be getting in to early next year, is an earlier genre-less film that may have influenced the style of Close-Up in some way). 
It's pretty brave of the "cast" to come back and relive/reenact such an embarrassing moment. Its already been established how embarrassing this event was for Sabzian (i mean seriously, how far was he going to take this charade until he got caught) but on the other side you have an entire family duped in to believing they were going to take part in a film directed by their favorite director when they could have just sought out a picture of the real person. Its also brave to star in a film alongside someone who came in to your home and tried to take advantage of you (although peace was made between both parties in real life, I can't image how awkward and tense it must have been on set).

The biggest mind-fuck about Close Up is that Hossain Sabzian got everything he wanted and more. When he was pretending to be this famous filmmaker he had plans to make a film about the family and that's partially what Close Up ended up becoming. He got what he pretended to set out to do which I'm sure deep down inside was a dream of his. Not only that, but Sabzian got to work with two of Iran's most important filmmakers (one of which is the man he pretended to be). I'm not trying to compare a guy like Hossain Sabzian to Mark David Chapman. Their crimes are nowhere near the same. But at the same time there is some similarity - they both got recognition and fame after doing something wrong (which is an understatement in Chapman's case). No matter how sad & pitiful Sabzian may be, what he did was wrong yet at the end of the day he was more than rewarded in return. There's a scene in the film where Abbas Kiarostami visits Sabzian in prison and asks what he can do for him and Sabzian requests Kiarostami make a film about his struggle. Well...he definitely got that. And not just any movie. Many people consider Close Up to be Kiarostami's best film. He's in the history books of cinema now. Mark David Chapman shoots John Lennon and there's been movies & songs made about him. Chapman wanted to be famous and he got it. Did Sabzian want fame? Did he play everyone including Kiarostami? Did he pull a pre-Banksy/Exit Through The Giftshop on everyone? Eh, probably not. He doesn't come off that clever of a person (although he did manage to get away with pretending to be someone for a little while without anyone noticing). Plus, Kiarostami approached him not the other way around. (we learn that years after Close Up was made, courtesy of a mini documentary that's part of the special features on the Criterion disc, Sabzian is still pretty much the same sad pitiful person and hasn't moved on with his life).

I am still very surprised that I managed to make that film. When I actually look back on that film, I really feel that I was not the director but instead just a member of the audience. Because the film made itself, to a large extent. The characters involved were very real, I wasn't directing the actors so much as being directed by them. So it was a very particular film. One of the very worrying aspects of the film is exactly what Geoff has asked about. I asked Makhmalbaf, the director, to come and meet Sabzian on his release from prison. Sabzian had no idea what was going to happen on that day and who he was going to meet. That moment is very real, when Sabzian meets his idol [and Sabzian bursts into tears]. They got on the motorcycle and we followed them in the car without Sabzian's knowledge that we were filming. - Abbas Kiarostami

Mohsen Makhmalbaf & Hossain Sabzian ride to the Ahankhah's home to appaologize and make peace towards the end of the film. This scene also serves as an obvious tip of the hat to Makhmalbaf's The Cyclist

Mohsen Makhmalbaf: Do you prefer being Makhmalbaf or Sabzian?

Hossain Sabzian: I'm tired of being me

The moment where Sabzian meets Mohsen Makhmalbaf, who plays the role of peacemaker between the Ahankhah family and Sabzian, is, in my opinion, one of the most humbling moments in modern film. The impostor breaks down in the presence of the man he pretended to be but is given comfort instead of shame & ridicule. The difference between Sabzian's story and that of Alan Conway (the man who got away with impersonating Stanley Kubrick who, like Sabzian, looked nothing the filmmaker he was pretending to be) is that Conway did what he did for attention and to feel important for the sake of feeling important. Although his execution is fucking creepy, this was about being an artist for Sabzian. He, a poor "insignificant" everyman of the Iranian lower class (much like the main character in The Cyclist), wanted the experience of being in the shoes of an important cultural figure in a land where art & culture are sometimes limited & censored. That's the beauty of film scenes like in Iran. They go through so much heartache & restriction during the filmmaking process yet still manage to produce beautiful pieces of art (sometimes restrictions help in a roundabout way).
Close Up is told in a kind of cut-up style. The chronology of events in the film jumps around quite a bit. I hate getting on Tarantino so often but does anyone besides me get pissed every time he's credited as this innovator/inventor of non-linear storytelling? Obviously more people are going to identify with Pulp Fiction & Reservoir Dogs than they will with Close Up bit it still bugs me (Abbas Kiarostami has some interesting comments about Tarantino on the special features of the Taste Of Cherry DVD). Additionally, so many mockumentaries, which has now become an over saturated genre in both film & TV, are mislabeled as original and/or thought provoking simply because they make us question if something is real or not when they clearly obviously aren't real. But Close-Up genuinely makes you question if what you are watching is real or a reenactment. This isn't anything on the level of Stan Brahkage or Maya Deren but in terms of storytelling it's pretty experimental and unique especially for a feature length film.

One could say the experimental style in Close-Up rubbed off on the final moments of one of Kiarostami's most know films; Taste Of Cherry...

For years I avoided The Taste Of Cherry because it seemed like one of those art house movies that you not only had to see but you also had to love it and couldn’t question its greatness. I was also under the impression that this movie was given special treatment by cinephiles because it was made under all the harsh scrutiny & religiously-based rules set by the Iranian film industry. Kiarostami faced problems in Iran during & after the production of Taste Of Cherry. Apparently he not only had to cut out certain scenes that depicted the country as poor but he could only edit the film at night when the editing equipment was available. When he won the Palme D'or at Cannes he got in to more trouble in his home country for kissing Juliette Binoche on the cheek after she presented him with the award (13 years later they would go on to make Certified Copy together). Because Juliette Binoche isn’t his wife it caused a stir in his home country. Taste Of Cherry wasn't the first time Kiarostami faced some type censorship and/or stoppage, and it certainly wouldn't be the last (in 2002 he was denied a visa to come to Cannes because of all the post-9/11 nonsense). 
It felt like I was hearing more about Kiarostami's censorship and other controversies surrounding him than I was hearing about his actual films. I mean...were they actually any good, or was he just getting sympathy due to all the hardships he faced? Keep in mind I was young at the time I thought all this. I was a Kiarostami novice up until 2006. Knowing what I know now, I have an even greater respect for Iranian cinema and any other movie scene that creates such great films under harsh restrictions.

Most people I knew who had seen Taste Of Cherry either shrugged their shoulders at it or labeled it as boring. But curiosity finally got the best of me so I blind bought the (criterion) DVD and it turned out to be one of my greatest cinematic discoveries of the last 10 years. I know Taste Of Cherry is kind of like "Kiarostami 101" but it’s still a great film. Even though I fell in love with it on the first viewing and still watch it on a fairly regular basis, I can’t exactly argue that it isn’t boring. It’s quite boring. A good portion of this film takes place inside a car, as do a lot of Kiarostami's films...
Top Row: Certified Copy & Like Someone In Love
Middle: The Wind Will Carry Us & Taste Of Cherry
Bottom: Ten & ABC Africa

...But it’s a good kind of boring. There's constant dialogue, interesting conversations and beautiful cinematography. 
The story is pretty simple - a middle-aged man is driving through a small town in Iran looking for some assistance in committing a potential suicide. There’s an aire of mystery to the film as we're not given any back story about the main character; "Badii" (Homayon Ershadi) or why he wants to die. This aspect of the story didn’t sit too well with some people, most notably the late great Roger Ebert -

If we're to feel sympathy for Badii, wouldn't it help to know more about him? To know, in fact, anything at all about him?

Ebert does have a point. What if Badii was a shitty person not worthy of our sympathy or any kind of redemption? For those hypothetical reasons Kiarostami had this to say...

In “Taste of Cherry” I have tried to keep a distance between my spectator and the protagonist. I didn’t want spectators emotionally involved in this film. In this film, I tell you very little about Mr. Badii, I tell you very little about what his life is about, why he wanted to commit suicide, what his story is I didn’t want the spectators to get engaged in those aspects of his life. For that purpose I had to keep Mr. Badii away from the audience. So he is a distant actor in a way…I was very concerned, and am always concerned, about my spectators. I do not want to take them hostage. I do not want to take their emotions hostage. It is very easy for a filmmaker to control the emotions of spectators but I do not like that. I do not want to see my audience as innocent children whose emotions are easily manipulable.

the three passengers Badii picks up in the film...
In the film, Badii drives around looking for someone to bury his body in a hole he dug near a tree out in the dessert after/if he decides to go through with killing himself. In return for helping, Badii promises to leave behind a nice sum of money for whoever buries him. After a few failed attempts he finally picks someone up who agrees to do it. I'm almost embarrassed to admit but I've seen this film many times and only recently (courtesy of John Cribb's pink smoke review of Like Someone In Love) did it dawn on me that at the start of the film it comes off like Badii is "cruising" as opposed to looking for someone to help him commit suicide (this also probably didn’t sit too well with the "powers that be" back in Iran).

On the issue of Badii wanting to end his life, Passenger #3 makes an assumption that his depression has to do with some kind of debt or family troubles. Generally speaking, that’s usually the reason someone in a film wants to commit suicide (either that or over a woman). What Kiarostami is essentially trying to say (or challenge us on) by not giving up much info on the main character and his decision to kill himself is; why concern ourselves with the "why"? There are already a million movies that do that. Why dwell on the past? If anything, Taste Of Cherry is about the importance of the now, the importance of life and the future. Yes, the future. Although it’s pulled off in a very dark and almost backwards way, Taste Of Cherry is partially about the importance (or dare I say, celebration) of life. Or at the very least it’s an intellectual anti-suicide film. I'm not even sure if this was even Kiarostami's goal but that's what I took from it. Think about it - everyone Badii picks up off the side of the road (each a different ethnicity; Kurdish, Afghan & Azeri) tries to talk him out of killing himself in their own way. The soldier he picks up first absolutely refuses to do it and eventually runs off scared. The second passenger (a man studying to be a priest) talks to him about the immorality of suicide and tries his best to talk him out of going through with the act as well. Even the third and final passenger, who does agree to help him, gives Badii some advice to try and change his mindset and outlook on life...

I'll tell you something that happened to me. It was just after I got married. We had all kinds of troubles. I was so fed up with it that I decided to end it all. One morning, before dawn I put a rope in my car. My mind was made up, I wanted to kill myself. I set off for Mianeh...I reached the mulberry tree plantations. I stopped there. It was still dark. I threw the rope over a tree but it didn't catch hold. I tried once, twice but to no avail. So then I climbed the tree and tied the rope on tight. Then I felt something soft under my hand. Mulberries - Deliciously sweet mulberries. I ate one. It was succulent. Then a second and third. Suddenly, I noticed that the sun was rising over the mountaintop. What sun, what scenery, what greenery! All of a sudden, I heard children heading off to school. They stopped to look at me. They asked me to shake the tree. The mulberries fell and they ate. I felt happy. Then I gathered some mulberries to take them home. My wife was still sleeping. When she woke up, she ate mulberries as well. And she enjoyed them too. I had left to kill myself and I came back with mulberries. A mulberry saved my life.

Every man on earth has problems in his life. That's the way it is. There are so many people on earth. There isn't one family without problems. I don't know your problem otherwise I could explain better.

The world isn't the way you see it. You have to change your outlook and change the world. Be optimistic. Look at things positively. You're in your prime!

Although a somewhat simplistic story, it’s still uplifting. Taste Of Cherry mixes religion (the film opens with a title card that reads “In The Name Of God”) with spirituality. If anything the Iranian film industry should make Abbas Kiarostami's Iranian films as accessible as possible. His work does its small part to break all the ridiculous stereotypes many westerners have towards Muslims in this post 9/11 world we live in. Taste Of Cherry is very much a Muslim film yet I still felt a connection to it without being Muslim.

Kiaorstami's views on religion are more spiritually-based which explains a lot in Taste Of Cherry (especially the ending)

In my view, religion is to believe in all the things that are invisible

Taste Of Cherry actually has two endings - One is an open & ambiguous ending, while the other is an ambiguous ending to the whole movie watching experience that may leave you going; "huh?".
At the end of the movie we see Badii in the grave he dug for himself on his back looking up at the sky as it starts to rain. Before we see if he dies, the screen goes black momentarily and we're left to decide if he goes through with the suicide or not. In true art house fashion the director leaves the ending up to us to decide what happens. He leaves it up to us to believe in our own (invisible) interpretation. Going back to my statement about the film being a possible celebration of life - there are so many signs that lead me to believe Badii lives in the end; Every character in the film tries to talk him out of ending his life. Even the background characters one might think serve no purpose play an important role in helping Badii chose life.

There's a scene in Taste Of Cherry that’s been embedded in my mind since the first time I saw it - After the first passenger runs off, Badii’s car runs off the side of the road and he gets stuck. Suddenly a group of workers close by gather around to push his car out. This may seem like an insignificant scene to some but I found it touching. The instant willingness of these strangers to help dig this car outta kinda seemed like some sign. As if something was trying to show our depressed main character that even though life can be shitty sometimes, there are still kind people out there willing to help and lift you up. In this case even strangers (one of 'em is even smiling while he's lifting the front of the car as if he's glad to help). Also, the grave Badii lays in is next to a tree. Yes it’s extremely cliché but in cinema "the tree" does pretty much represent life (especially in art house). Just refer back to the story Passenger #3 told Badii. It was a tree that stopped him from ending his life. A tree provided the berries for him to eat, the tree provided him with the view to see the sun rise and it was a tree that made the little children happy. In the end Badii lies in an open grave and it starts to rain. It goes without saying but, when something is planted underground it needs rain to grow and rise above the ground. So at the end of the day no matter how dark or heavy the film may be, I think all signs point to life.

ending #1

The second ending is what the film is most known for and kind of split audiences in half. At the end of David Lynch's long & intense trip through Inland Empire we see the cast behind the closing credits dancing & celebrating and blowing kisses at one another reminiscent to the end of a play or the end of a Saturday Night Live episode where the cast & crew come out to thank everyone. After an intense film like Inland Empire an ending like that serves as kind of a breath of fresh air and assurance that everything is ok. This is the same case with the final moments of Taste Of Cherry where we see b-role footage of Kiarostami directing behind the scenes with the cast & crew. Although Taste Of Cherry is heavy and subtly intense in its own way, this second ending serves as a way of saying "it's just a movie". It’s almost like you're under hypnosis while watching Taste Of Cherry and then the hypnotherapist suddenly snaps their fingers or uses the trigger word and we're out of the trance. It’s the general consensus among most people (who've seen this) that the ending is supposed convey the message that "nothing matters" but that's a pretty simplistic view if you ask me. Unlike most art house filmmakers who avoid answering questions directly, Abbas Kiarostiami had this to say about the films ending...

ending #2
I understand the difficulty you have comprehending the last scene of this movie. I sympathize with you. But this has been deliberate on my part...I was afraid that if I ended the movie where Mr. Badie laid down on his grave the spectator would be left with a great deal of sadness. Even though I didn’t think the scene was really that sad, I was afraid that it would come out as such. For that reason I decided to have the next episode where we have the camera running as Mr. Badie was walking around. I wanted to remind spectators that this was really a film and that they shouldn’t think about this as a reality. They should not become involved emotionally. This is much like some of our grandmothers who told us stories, some with happy and some with sad endings. But they always at the end would have a Persian saying which went like this "but after all it is just a story!" The very last episode reminds me of the continuation of life, that life goes on, and here the audience is confronted with the reality they had hoped that Mr. Badie would be alive and there he is a part of nature and nature still continues and life goes on even without Mr. Badie. And if one could really think about being or not being present in life, or if one thinks about it in terms of the real implication of such presence, one might not in fact engage in committing suicide at all. The person committing suicide might think that s/he is taking revenge from the society, nature, life, powers to be, and so on. But s/he doesn’t realize that after a suicide life still goes on and things stay the way they are. I could interpret this in a different way. If my audience is as creative as I imagine them to be, they can take this in a variety of interpretations and I can sit here and every time make a different interpretation of it, as every time one can creatively reinterpret the reality.

On one hand that sounds like artsy babble but what stands out to me is the phrase "life goes on". Say my interpretation is wrong and Badii really does kill himself in the end. According to the views of the filmmaker (which I'm sure come from a spiritual place) life will still go. He will be buried in the ground and now become part of the earth.

Taste Of Cherry was my introduction in to the world of Abbas Kiarostami so it has some sentimental value. It carries the spirit of Bergman's Wild Strawberries - both films are contemplative road movies about life, and, in my opinion, it had a subconscious influence on quite a few road movies that came after it like; I Travel Because I Have To, I Come Back Because I Love You (the film's co-director, Karim Ainouz, confirmed Taste Of Cherry's influence on him at a Q&A a couple of years back at Anthology film archives where I also came to discover that he studied architecture just like Taste Of Cherry star Homayon Ershadi. For those that don't know, Architecture is the field I work in. Perhaps my spiritual connection to this film has to do with the subconscious (professional) connection I have with the film's star...

Make sure to check out all the other entries in the Criterion blog-a-thon over at Criterion Blues...


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