Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Iranian Film Blogathon - Announcement and a List

All this week, The Sheila Variations is running a blogathon dedicated to films from Iran, beginning Monday and running through Sunday. I hope to contribute more substantively as the week goes on - there are many things to be said about Iranian films; right now, though, I am behind on everything, so I will have to start with something more modest. Perhaps a list of my all time favorite Iranian films?

It's something of an awkward list - very heavy on the Great Auteurs - Kiarostami, Makhmalbaf, Mehrjui, and heavily pre-2000 (all but one) - but that mirrors my viewing experience. As I mentioned previously, Iranian films were something of a thing back in the late 90s - they were certainly featured in festivals, retrospectives and so on. In the 00s - they haven't exactly faded from view, and in some ways, they are more available then before (heck - I found a copy of Offside for $3 at Big Lots a while back...) - but some of the excitement seems to be gone. And - with the increasing repression in Iran, the films have dried up as well as people go abroad or suffer under the government. And artistically - while several important directors have emerged in the 2000s (Panahi, Ghobadi, Samira Makhmalbaf, notably), they seem less adventurous than the previous generation. (Panahi might be the exception there.) Kiarostami and Makhmalbaf in particular combined humanism, realism and political engagement (in difficult circumstances) with some of the most audacious formal experimentation in the world. Their successors have carried on the first three, but (except for Panahi) dialed back on the experimentation. Which leaves us with some nice films in the 00s but not quite the eye-opening masterpieces of the earlier years. (Though it should be said that neither Kiarostami or Makhmalbaf have abandoned anything - their recent films have been as challenging as ever...)

So without further ado - a fairly simple list, with some commentary...

1. Through the Olive Trees - the third film in Abbas Kiarostami's Koker/Poshtar trilogy, after Where is the Friend's House? and Life Goes On, and a particularly elaborate piece of metafiction. The three films seem like a camera tracking backwards, revealing levels of framing. The first one tells a story, directly. The second tells a story about the people acting in the first film, revealing its fictionality, as well as the reality behind the fiction of the film. This, the third, tells a story about the making of the second film, while foregrounding its own fictionality, even more than the previous film, as actors step in and out of roles, the time frames are manipulated and so on. It's also a lovely and funny love story, focusing on a young man, an actor in the second film, trying to convince the girl he has a crush on to love him. Ending, as Kiarostami films are wont to do, magnificently.

2. A Moment of Innocence - Mohsen Makhmalbaf's reflection on his own youth, as a political radical... In 1974, Makhmalbaf (ae 17) attempted to steal the gun from a cop; he ended up stabbing him and the policeman shot him. 20 years later the policeman showed up to audition as an actor in one of Makhmalbaf’s films, and they made this film. It;s mostly about the process of making the film - looking for actors, coaching the actors, using the rehearsals to talk about their own motivations 20 years before. And, in the end, shooting the film, about the events, 20 years ago - but, I guess you'd say, trying to get it right this time. A beautiful and moving film, full of wit and grace and a sense of sadness and regret, and redemption. A marvel.

3. The Circle -one of Jafar Panahi's ambitious feminist films - following a series of women one night in Tehran, a series of women, one after another, in a circle through the night in the city, each one running, but all ending up in jail... An intense and powerful film, its politics is brutal and sharp and expressed through the story - it has a propulsive desperation, with its tight, in you face camera style, putting you in the middle of the story, starting stories in the middle, staying close to the protagonist (at any given time)... Panahi has a way, in many of his films, of withholding information - sometimes by limiting our point of view to the characters - but also, by denying us information they have. In this film, we often see women panicking before we learn what spooks them - we have to figure out what is going on. An intense and masterful work.

4. Close Up - Here, Kiarostami and Makhmalbaf team up, in a film, about a man who Mohsen Makhmalbaf, insinuating himself into a family, convincing them he wanted to use them in his next film. He was, in the end, caught, exposed and tried - Kiarostami filmed the trial as the man tried to explain, his obsession with art, his poverty and helplessness, the pleasure and power of acting this role. And then, the principals play themselves in this film, and the imposter gets to meet Makhmalbaf himself (an amazing scene, the man bursts into helpless weeping when he sees Makhmalbaf). One of the first films to plunge wholeheartedly into metafiction, a device that became extremely common in 1990s Iranian cinema.

5. A Taste of Cherry - Kiarostami again, here - shot almost entirely from a car, driving around the outskirts of Tehran, as a man looks for someone to bury him, if he kills himself. He finds three potential helpers - a soldier (who runs away), a Afghani religious student who tries to convince him not to do it for religious reasons, and a taxidermist, who will do it (because he needs the money), but tries to talk him out of it for humanist reasons. And in the end? a strange coda, on video, the film crew on the side of the hill where the man was to die, soldiers lurking near the tree that marked his grave - stepping outside the story without any fuss, leaving it hanging in the air, accompanied by Louis Armstrong. It's a strange and lovely film about alienation (a film set almost entirely on a series of barren hills on the outskirts of a city of 6 million) and paying attention...

6. The Cycle- A much older film - Darius Mehrjui's 1978 film about a father and son who get involved in a blood donation scheme - they give blood, they get involved in the workings of a hospital, they get involved with gangsters, etc... Slow building but brilliant... Sometimes reminiscent of Oshima's The Sun's Burial - the blood donation scheme (an obvious enough metaphor in both cases), the way the film follows the factions involved, the similar blend of nihilism and metaphor.

7. Where is the Friend's House? - Lovely film, the first of Kiarostami's Koker/Poshtar films. A boy takes his friend’s notebook by mistake, tries to return it, running an obstacle course to do so: his mother won’t listen to him trying to explain what he’s doing; the friend lives in the next town and when he gets there, no one knows the boy he’s looking for; the town itself is a maze of streets and stairs and alleys - he's sent back and forth, following lead after lead, never quite finding the friend. It's full of nifty details and characters, very funny at times...

8. A True Story - Abolfazl Jalili is a filmmaker whose work showed up stateside in the 90s, but not so much since. This is another of the many films about filmmaking from the late 90s - here - a documentary about a boy with as crippled leg. The story starts as the director looking for an amateur actor for a film - he finds this boy, a talented musician, and sets out to get help for his bad leg, and to make a film about it.

9. The Silence - If there is a more deliciously sensuous director in the world than Mohsen Makhmalbaf, I don't know who it is. In this film, a blind boy and his mother have five days before they will be evicted. The boy tunes lutes for a mean instrument maker, but he keeps getting lost - he rides the bus to work, but follows people with beautiful voices or who play beautiful music. He is led around by a gorgeous little girl in long braids who dances to his lute tuning, wearing cherries for earrings and flower petals to paint her nails. The movie is full of grace notes, building to a thoroughly transcendent ending - the landlord knocks 4 times and the boy imagines it as Beethoven's fifth. Pieces of the symphony crop up on the soundtrack, he gets people to play it - at the end, he gets a pair of pot pounders to play the beat - then a whole factory pounds it, then, it turns into a full symphonic (augmented with middle eastern instruments) rendering of the fifth.

10. The Cow - One of the films that brought modernist filmmaking to Iran - Merhjui's 1969 film is about a man named Hassan who owns the only cow in his village. He loves his cow. He goes one day to work, and while he is gone, the cow dies. The village panics - they don't want to tell him, so they hide when he returns. He refuses to admit the cow is dead - he ends up moving into the barn an becoming the cow himself. The villagers drag him away in ropes - this doesn't end well. A strange, surrealist film, full of clever details and subplots - a neighboring village, an idiot, a delinquint who'd been to the city, old women worrying about witchcraft - a great film. And - I recently discovered to my great delight - available on Netflix, on DVD or streaming.

1 comment:

Sheila O'Malley said...

Wonderful. What a wonderful addition to the blogathon. I love lists, anyway - they always give me new and great ideas, things I haven't seen.