Sunday, 1 April 2018

Beyond the Hills

Taste of Cherry

"The film [Taste of Cherry] is a kind of geography of my inner life."
                                                                                                                           -Abbas Kiarostami

 Much of Abbas Kiarostami's cinema famously hinges upon car rides and the landscapes through which they are taken. The late, great Iranian auteur was frequently compelled to place his characters inside cars - a reliable Land Rover, usually - and intently follow them with his camera as they drove over and across rugged terrain and paused to converse with the people they met along their travels, either though the rolled-down windows of their vehicle or inside the car itself, which would readily serve as an ideal space for solitary meditation or candid conversation. The double-framing of these landscapes and figures through the camera's frame and the car's windshield or side windows has become an all-too familiar sight throughout Kiarostami's cinema, with the latter serving to call attention to the inherent artifice of the former and, by extension, the cinematic medium through which all of it is brought to us. There is rarely, if ever, a single, simple narrative to Kiarostami's films; he was a highly intelligent, playful filmmaker who liked calling attention to the foundational components of his films: the layers of artifice and creation as well as the artists and technicians behind them, including himself; the slippery elusiveness of objective truth, further hidden or distorted by the presence of the camera and film crew even as they would work towards exploring or simulating that truth; and the mysterious properties of illusion, reality, and perception as it pertains to both cinema and life. Just as, in his driving sequences, the car, driver, interior space of the car, and windows looking outwards all mediate and influence our perceptions of the world outside, so too does the presence of the camera, film crew, director, and even the choice of the recording medium itself (Kiarostami worked with both celluloid and video throughout his adventurous career, experimenting with each with his characteristic inquisitiveness and ingenuity), far from disappearing into the deceptively passive role of invisible observer perfected by Hollywood films, mediate and influence our perceptions of the film we see, even taking on an active, catalytic role in the development of the proceedings that unfold before us. In the process, he skillfully prompts us towards a deeper consideration of the images and people shown to us and the blend of truth and perception bound up in their portrayals. From Kiarostami and his crew's roles and onscreen appearances in Close-up (1990) and Taste of Cherry (1997) to the fictional film crews at the centers of Through the Olive Trees (1994) and The Wind Will Carry Us (1999), the filmmaking process repeatedly becomes a key component in the flow of actions and events that unfurl across his films, most of which Kiarostami edited himself.

But as compelling and rewarding as it is to pull apart the self-reflexive layers of his radical techniques, I have been more content (upon my most recent viewings, at least) to get lost in the subjects around which the director and his crews convene - that is, the landscapes and people of his native Iran, whom he filmed with an inquisitive, open, and, certainly in the case of the landscapes, deeply affectionate frame of mind, and whom he was forced to depart from amidst the rising uncertainty over his ability to maintain his creative freedom and personal safety within the tense atmosphere of the Islamic Republic (Jafar Panahi's 2010 arrest and subsequent imprisonment and twenty-year ban from making films were an especially notable cause for alarm in the Iranian and global film communities, a worrying sign of the Iranian government's growing intolerance of its people's personal expressions and personal freedoms). Kiarostami would film the passing hills, trees, and fields of Tuscany through car windows in Certified Copy (2010), but even though the gesture is the same, the change in setting is noticeable, even painful. This new place he shows us may have its own special allure, the tone in which it is shown low-key and leisurely, but it still makes us long for Kiarostami's homeland, for him to be able to continue wandering and photographing there to his heart's content, gathering and weaving the faces, voices, and lands he encountered into more new films, new reflections of life in modern-day Iran. While it is a perfectly fine film - marvelous, in fact - to me the change in scenery that comes with Certified Copy also arrives with an unspoken weight of longing and sadness about it, perhaps best signified by the title of another transitional work made by a great artist in exile (also shot in Tuscany, Italy), also haunted by the memory of a distant, inaccessible home: nostalghia.

"The global screen is not for the films of only one country," the great Akira Kurosawa told Kiarostami when the latter visited the Japanese master's home in Tokyo in the fall of 1993. "Films make their viewers familiar with the cultural settings of their country of origin. If they are made according to a national culture then they will be welcomed abroad. My grandchildren and I made ourselves familiar with Iran and her people with your films." The Emperor's words ring with truth to this day: looking beyond the director's aims and intentions and the demands of narrative, films that hail from other countries beyond the viewer's frame of experience can be supremely enlightening just for the perspectives they provide on their places of origin, providing a window looking out onto the culture and people from that particular point and place in time, giving cinema the added, invaluable properties of anthropological and historical time capsules. Sometimes this facet of cultural representation can become dominated by a single filmmaker, group, or even a single film abroad when surrounding circumstances, luck, timing, and the sheer outstanding quality of the art or artist(s) in the spotlight combine to anoint a key film or group of films as the envoy for that national culture, as was the case with Kurosawa's Rashomon (1950) and its landmark Golden Lion win at the 1951 Venice Film Festival and, years later, Kiarostami's own pivotal victory in Cannes in 1997 when Taste of Cherry was awarded the Palme d'Or, each moment essentially announcing the "arrival" of Japanese and Iranian cinema, respectively, on the world stage and triggering ravenous frenzies to seek, see, share, and learn more about this new source of fresh, vital filmmaking from that corner of the world. Of course, Akira Kurosawa is not all of Japanese cinema, just as Abbas Kiarostami is not all of Iranian cinema; however, for better or for worse, there was a time in each case when each director's work was, by a large margin, the most prominent representative of their national culture, their films serving as the most readily available access points to a whole other culture to outside viewers. Even though the phenomenal rise and evolution of theatrical, home video, and digital distribution networks have (more for some countries than others) gradually, film by film, reduced the problem of having access to just one or two filmmakers from a given country to watch - and those who appreciate Kiarostami and haven't done so already owe it to themselves to go further into Iranian cinema, especially for Jafar Panahi, Mohsen Makhmalbaf, Forough Farrokhzad, and Asghar Farhadi - the power of those original gateways remains undiminished, those works still as potent, captivating, relevant, and potentially revelatory to viewers looking to expand their tastes beyond English-language cinema's offerings. Kiarostami's films will persist for some time to come as some of the great, unrivaled treasures of world cinema, and newcomers to his work and Iranian cinema are blessed to be able to turn to an artist as gentle, compelling, and mindful of his viewers' intelligence as Kiarostami to show them the way - should they choose to enlist Kiarostami as their guide. These days, thankfully, one is just as likely to start their journey with Panahi's Offside (2006), Farrokhzad's The House is Black (1962), or Farhadi's A Separation (2011) as Taste of Cherry; in such a case, all roads are good.

The Wind Will Carry Us

I must confess here that, when Kiarostami passed away on July 4th, 2016, I was woefully behind on his work, the only film of his I had seen in its entirety at that point being Certified Copy. In the following months, I took it upon myself to play catch-up with the films he had made in Iran, starting with Taste of Cherry, then eventually moving on to Close-up. More recently, inspired by Janus Films' release of Kiarostami's final, posthumously-completed experimental work 24 Frames this year, I planned a first-time viewing of The Wind Will Carry Us along with a re-watch of Taste of Cherry with the hope of reacquainting myself with and becoming further immersed in his Iran. I was more or less successful, but not right away, and not as ideally planned, since I repeatedly kept falling asleep through my attempts to see both films - between my fatigue in the evenings and Kiarostami's calm, leisurely pace, I didn't stand a chance of fighting off the waves of exhaustion and deep slumber that would come over me. This was especially the case with The Wind Will Carry Us: I would keep returning to the film each night with the hope and full intent of taking in the whole thing (then eventually, as the nights wore on, the remaining portion) with a clear, respectful, appreciative frame of mind, only to nod off time and time again, reawakening at some later stage in the television director Behzad's (Behzad Dorani) prolonged stay in the remote Kurdish village of Siah Dareh, where he and two assistants arrive to document the mourning rituals to follow the approaching death of the village's oldest inhabitant, an unseen old woman referred to as "the invalid." Drifting in and out of consciousness, I would repeatedly have to keep backing the film up across several scenes I had missed before returning to the last point I recognized, then continue onwards once more. However, I soon came to appreciate seeing the film in this strange, disjointed fashion, so nicely did it compliment the static, repetitive nature of the film itself, which finds Behzad unexpectedly stuck waiting for the old woman to expire, whiling away the time left to him in the mountain village's various hushed spaces. One of the film's most memorable running gags consists of Behzad's numerous frantic dashes up to the settlement's highest point, a hilltop cemetery, in his jeep to maintain the flimsy phone connection that serves as his only means of contact with the outside world, just one of many routines and gestures that are carried out over and over again over the course of his stay. Gradually, the sounds, routines, and rhythms of Siah Dareh gently fill and occupy the film's rich sensory tapestry, in the process becoming more captivating than anything any more conventionally-plotted or -paced film could offer. Chores glimpsed through doorways and in silhouette, comical domestic squabbles, the herding and tending of livestock, and the omnipresent natural and architectural beauty of the little village and its spectacular surroundings soon cast their spell over me, making me grateful for the prolonged time I was spending in the film - in the village, as much a visitor as Behzad - as I struggled, night after night, to finish it. The film soon became anything but a sequence of narrative events to follow and comprehend in a logical fashion; instead, it revealed itself to be a compact sanctuary of space and time, positively teeming with life in every one of its scenes (animals and children abound throughout the film), inviting viewers to linger in its enchanting environments, gently beckoning them towards a finer appreciation of the gifts and pleasures laden throughout nature and humanity that this world contains.

Taste of Cherry

My experience re-watching Taste of Cherry was similar (also confounded and prolonged by my inability to stay awake during a single sitting), though made markedly more somber by the protagonist Mr. Badii's (Homayoun Ershadi) suicidal state of mind and ongoing search to find someone willing to bury his body or, should he choose to live, help him emerge from the grave he has dug for himself in the hills above Tehran. Driving around the dusty outskirts of the city in his Range Rover, Badii seems trapped in an Earth-bound purgatory that reflects his grim fixation with self-annihilation, especially when he makes a stop in what appears to be the dustiest, loudest construction site in the world, an uninhabitable place of shifting dirt and machinery that mesmerizes Badii with its ongoing, resounding invitations towards sure obliteration within the beckoning, all-consuming abyss of dirt and darkness upon which his frail shadow is cast. In his book The Cinema of Abbas Kiarostami, Alberto Elena also recognizes the funereal quality of the film's settings: "An ochre, yellow earth - the color of depression in Persian tradition - is ever-present, as a recurring motif that constantly suggests the idea of burial, of the burial sought by Badii, a simple minute figure, shut inside his car, crossing these lands." But while the connotations of death and despair that arise from Taste of Cherry's parched landscapes are unmistakable, there is also an equally undeniable beauty to them that feels like a majestic yet plainly stated counterargument against Mr. Badii's death drive - an argument for life and the world drawn from Kiarostami's ongoing determination to reveal and share the natural splendor of his country. This is, in my eyes at least, perhaps most apparent in a breathtaking long shot (pictured above), seen from Mr. Badii's perspective, looking down upon a series of rust-colored hills smoothly spread out beyond the distant hub of Tehran. Huddles of apartment buildings, power plants, and high tension towers are arranged here and there in sparse patches of civilization across the otherwise bare layers of earth. Along a curving dirt road upon the hill closest to us, a distant phalanx of uniformed men jogs in formation, their chants dim but increasingly more audible as they draw closer to us and Mr. Badii. There are many such calm moments throughout Taste of Cherry, but this one has an especially captivating quality to it drawn from the shot's haunting evocations of the past - that is, Mr. Badii's fondly remembered time spent in the army years ago as well as the past to which that particular present-tense moment, that frozen, snow-globe-like vision of Iran in the late-1990s, now firmly belongs, a sublime moment plucked up by Kiarostami's camera and woven into the sensitive fabric of his film. In this shot, seen today, the specter of the past and the beckoning journey of the future ahead simultaneously hit home, intermingled with the spirit of inquisitive curiosity and deep respect for life's treasures as Kiarostami saw them, driving him to keep roaming and filming the numerous hills traversed by his characters, all of them in an ongoing search for the stuff that makes life worth living. A search that is repeatedly rewarded and affirmed throughout the films, the journeys up and over the Iranian hilltops yielding more hills, more layers of life in constant motion and progress, more questions and doubts, and more precious discoveries of simple, serene visions of the natural world and humanity that inspire and, in their gentle way, entice you to continue making your way through it with a greater sense of appreciation for what you find. In Taste of Cherry, the way Kiarostami filmed the land through which Mr. Badii travels (not to mention the fervent attempts made by the people he encounters to dissuade him from his goal) feel like a repeated cry to prevent him from carrying out his plan and leaving this world - a persistent "no!" spoken through images and sounds. In merciful contrast, the entirety of The Wind Will Carry Us seems to breathe a deep sigh of relief as it gently reveals the humble heights of contentment for those who back away from the precipice and join once more the ongoing flow of life - a gentle "yes" whispered with gratitude and appreciation.

*                              *                              *

"When Satyajit Ray passed on, I was very depressed," Kurosawa once said of the director who arguably did as much for Indian cinema during his, and Kurosawa's, lifetime as Kurosawa did for Japanese cinema. "But after seeing Kiarostami's films, I thanked God for giving us just the right filmmaker to take his place." When Kiarostami passed away in 2016, many were likely similarly left wondering, in the midst of their grief, just who would fill the place left by the fallen master in the landscape of 21st-century world cinema, now tragically deprived of one of its greatest artists far too soon. In my view, the filmmaker of the current cinematic climate who most closely follows in Kiarostami's footsteps in terms of innovative spirit, earned stature, productivity, devotion to his home culture, and artistic accomplishment is Apichatpong Weerasethakul. The internationally beloved Thai, who came to prominence just a few years after Taste of Cherry's victory in Cannes with his singular fiction-documentary hybrid Mysterious Object at Noon (2000), feels like a logical counterpart/successor to Kiarostami (the 2010 edition of Cannes marked Apichatpong's own Palme d'Or win for Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives as well as Juliette Binoche's Best Actress award for her work in Kiarostami's Certified Copy) not only because of his own fondness for driving sequences, but also his gift for showing, with a similar, seemingly magical sense of simplicity, openness, generosity, and intuition, the various people and places of his home country caught in scenes steeped in naturalism, humanity, and, very often and also like Kiarostami, light-hearted humor. At the same time, Apichatpong has beat his own refreshingly unique path through the dense brush of contemporary cinematic expression, fashioning an intoxicating world of spirits, beasts, and immersive jungle reveries seamlessly intermingled with casually presented slices of life, genuinely mind-expanding avant-garde techniques, and lush, loving homages to Thai pop culture, none of which even comes close to summarizing the singularly calming and provocative effects Apichatpong's films have upon the unsuspecting (or even well-seasoned) viewer; his films are a blessedly renewable source of surprise and bliss. From the riotously colorful lights adorning temples and karaoke bars to the moon's pale reflection glistening on the surface of a jungle river to the sterile fluorescent sheen of hospital corridors and examination rooms, Apichatpong's cinema, like Kiarostami's, gives off its own special spectrum of light, drawn from the ancient beams of film's most primitive origins while brilliantly shining ahead to the wondrous possibilities of the future. Rather fittingly, given my nightly experiences with Kiarostami, Apichatpong is known for encouraging viewers to fall asleep while watching films so as to enjoy the pleasant effects that arise when drifting between the waking, dream, and film worlds - entirely in keeping with his own films' casual forays into dreams, fantasy, and the spaces in-between.

Jenjira Pongpas (left) in Cemetery of Splendor

Only now, in a troubling echo of the situations Kiarostami and Tarkovsky faced, Apichatpong has now also been forced to look abroad to make his next feature project, pressured by the rising tension, fear, and real danger from Thailand's military dictatorship - not to mention the problems with censorship his work has been subjected to at home, prompting him to withhold the domestic release of his most recent completed feature, Cemetery of Splendor (2015). His travels have brought him to the jungles of Columbia, where he will soon begin shooting his recently announced new film Memoria with Tilda Swinton on board as his lead actress (and where he was recently filmed and interviewed by Connor Jessup for the Canadian actor and filmmaker's documentary profile A.W. A Portrait of Apichatpong Weerasethakul). Yet despite the exciting promise of this newest adventure, the sadness and anguish from what is happening to his home country and the people still living under its regime is still there, illustrated in Cemetery of Splendor as a heavy psychic ache. In its most memorable image, several soldiers afflicted with a mysterious sleeping sickness must rest under the eerie glow of colorful light machines to fend off bad dreams while those still awake are increasingly affected by the growing melancholia creeping up around them. In the last moments of what may be his last Thai film for a long time, one of Apichatpong's beloved mass aerobics sequences set to yet another catchy pop tune (this one by South Korean artist DJ Soulscape) gives way to the unsettling sight of a bunch of kids kicking around a soccer ball in a patch of recently dug hills and craters as his frequent actress Jenjira Pongpas looks on, her eyes opened wide, forcing herself to take in and remember the sight of this vaguely sinister excavation. If the various cranes, trucks, and digging machines seen throughout Taste of Cherry suggest a place - or a national cinema - in the process of being build up or refurbished, then the orange digger seen and heard in Cemetery of Splendor represents the inverse - a place being slowly yet surely dismantled, reduced to an increasingly inhospitable environment. As Jenjira stares, a look of undiluted shock and horror upon her face, we too are compelled to take in and remember what we see here, shaken and disturbed by these tremors of change. Apichatpong may yet reach wondrous new thresholds of discovery in the hills and wilds of Columbia, but there is still something tragic about the move, all the more because it may be just the beginning of a long and uncertain term of exile. The wind will also carry him, but to where, and how far away from the place he was once able to call home?

Jenjira Pongpas in Cemetery of Splendor

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