Global cinema illuminates the web of the collective imagination

12-filmI don’t understand the intricacies of empires and dynasties or nations. Government is really no more complicated than, some like coffee others prefer tea. In order to justify their preoccupation with hoarding resources for the benefit of elites, it would appear that unscrupulous leaders are forever sowing distrust and hatred among the very people with whose freedom they are charged, thereby converting them to slaves. If you study history, it would appear all nations need an enemy in order to unite them. Occasionally, some tyrant will behave in some way that proves he truly does need to be brought down, but if such a figure is absent from the world stage, one is manufactured.

What if there were more sustainable ways, not to mention noble means for uniting disparate nations? Imagine the possibility of each individual in society being able to achieve their optimum potential as they envision it, or the mind-blowing prospect of an entire society, indeed, an entire planet in which each individual is working at their optimum level in concert with the whole. Wasn’t that our heart’s dream before we were indoctrinated by history?

In certain quarters of most countries, there exist numerous groups where individuals are functioning at their highest level and doing so in a way that allows the group to thrive, while simultaneously incubating an environment in which what they are doing invites coffee and tea drinkers to cooperate, equitably participate and flourish. These groups are scattered throughout the arts and sciences and include filmmakers. In every country of the world they are doing what was just described. As with all these groups, not all filmmakers and their crews are achieving their highest potential at all times, but the formula for quantum leap is there, whenever we can rise to the occasion.

With the cell phone revolution and the motion picture medium in full flower, instantaneously vast, highly enriched cultural subsidies are now being circulated at fantastic speed throughout humankind. Judging by its bona fide value to the early 21st-century citizen, digital connectivity renders all other institutions outdated and obsolete. More than words or even figures, motion pictures close the communication gap between individuals and nations, immediately and without prejudice. You don’t need money or education to have your baseline intelligence elevated nowadays. The only requirement is to have at least one good eye.

Filmmaking always was and will ever be an open-source medium. The way that cameras have enabled us to play with time is its own triumph for the human race. Motion pictures put human genius into overdrive. Couple it with the internet and our present evolutionary leap becomes like that image of the Millennium Falcon in “Star Wars” blasting in to hyperspace.

Filmmakers are witnessing, documenting and conspiring in a global dimensional shift that will make the Renaissance look like a beansprout in hindsight. It would seem impossible to quantify all of the tectonic shifts in awareness that are taking place this instant. I am confident that the advent of this easily accessed, ever improving tool for multidimensional communication will open up space in our minds for insights that allow us to outrace our present impasse and relegate its numbing inertia to the past.

World Cinema has led a bona fide, triumphant, non-violent revolution for 100 years. The earliest inroads in motion picture distribution grew into what we now relate to as the information superhighway. The language of cinema is a single, universal, multidimensional instrument for connecting humankind. Currently, its technology is being placed into the palms of more than half of the world’s citizens, turning each one into a potential wizard.

Cinema can be used to make enemies or friends, depending on the intent, but it always dissolves boundaries between past and future. Being able to capture and re-purpose the past in the present challenges all former perceptual conventions as it exposes and dissolves subjective molds and reconciles outmoded paradoxes. Compared to how much it will eventually reveal of our potential to heal, we can’t see or feel it very much yet, but we have the remedy for social dysfunctions with which we were once terminally ill.

With the intention of exposing how completely arbitrary the notion of “the enemy” truly is, the movies I’ve chosen for this next series will all be made by movie makers in countries presumed to be my own country’s present day enemies. The fact that it was necessary for me to distinguish past from present day foes, speaks to the faulty logic of violent conflict from the get-go.

Global Cinema illuminates the essential unity of our collective imagination. People are people. That’s what we see on screen. All of our dreams, our demons and secrets are exposed. The vast majority of people on the planet relate to the same basic characters in the same basic plays, and are fundamentally aligned with the same essential morals in all our foundation stories. Our national prejudice gets eclipsed every time we witness how similar our nation’s are when we watch each others’ films.

First in line, from the Russian Federation, “12” (2009) by Academy Award winning director Nikita Mikhalkov. An opening card introduces this film’s straightforward, common sense directive. “Seek the truth not in mundane details of daily life but in the essence of life itself.”

Open the film on sneakered feet descending dark stairs fluidly. Intercut this with titles of men’s names and numerals gaining in value flashing up alongside them from one to twelve. The steadily descending footsteps contrast with the crescendoing series of digits, in stark, edgy graphic grit, assigning the order of names of principle cast in relation to where in the jury they sit.

A simple but brilliantly stylized intro; twelve being such a number that forever courts mystery with there being twelve tribes and twelve disciples, twelve houses of heaven and Zodiac signs, besides beaucoup other permutations which this masterful sequence draws upon. This hooks us way down deep. That and the enticing possibilities behind any dozen men in any scenario when they finally align. This masterful first few minutes proclaim, if these twelve blockheads can agree on one truth, then anybody can.

Twelve is a superior high-quality composite number, according to Wikipedia. It’s also described as an abundant, a superabundant and a sublime one, as well. Twelve is also the kissing number in three dimensions, I hear tell. Swell! Any title with the number in its title evokes the tolling of month and year. Take our present day calendar, for example. I don’t know about you, but my ancestor’s math got hip during the 12th century precisely when Arabic numerals gained their grip. There’s another example of cultural exchange leading to quantum leap.

12th-ccentury mathematicians, 21st-century makers of movies; we’re talking about aligned groups of folks, from all different walks that have paved their way out of mass manipulation while dedicating their efforts to the collective liberation.

Now lets watch the movie “12” and reconvene here in a few weeks to discuss details.

Costs of Conformity

12 Better blade“But what can be done when mercy has a greater force than law?” This question opens the movie “12” (2007) by Nikita Mikhalkov.

In “12,” a dozen middle-aged white men in a grade-school gym debate and pontificate regarding the fate of a Chechen youth. Meanwhile the accused hunkers down in a dim, cold, concrete stronghold.

For the sake of a smooth transition, since we’ve talked at length about Tarkovsky, there is plenty evidence of his influence in this movie. Note the way that Mikhalkov’s film idles on nature in the beginning sequence, encompassing a bicycle ride in the Russian countryside  and an official holding forth from a dais, inexplicably situated in the same backdrop. The succeeding image of the rider’s mother, surrounded by greenery in a meadow, is highly reminiscent of scenes from Tarkovsky’s first film, “Ivan’s Childhood” as well as his third and fifth films, “Mirror” and “Nostalghia.”

It is no surprise to find similarities the works by these two directors.  In addition to being Russian, they can both claim Michael Rhomm as their film school mentor. The utilization by both directors of music by Eduard Artemyev rounds out the comparison. You may wish to refer back to the support material on the DVD of “Solaris” to reacquaint yourself with Artemyev.

In case you have not watched this movie yet, this film is a master class in cinematic efficiency. The gag with the model train horn, for instance, demonstrates how easily twelve men can be moved in one direction, on the spot. Yet how scattered they become when logic’s introduced. Why should such a fine tool as reason be so divisive? Because, with it, we can so easily mislead ourselves.

To begin with, the jurors are put on lockdown, which does not go down entirely well with all. The director cleverly intercuts this segment with the incarceration of the young Chechen in his holding cell. As the captives settle down into their respective confinements, yet a third captive is introduced. On one wall of the gymnasium, caged in iron bars three feet off the ground, stands a piano, still and silent, a protest for the way that a jail cell squanders human potential.

Over the course of the jury’s proceedings, two of the twelve men are compelled to play the incarcerated instrument despite the inconvenience of stretching overhead to the max, between bars, to caress the keys. This multi-tasking imagery can’t help but ask, if brilliant concertos can be coaxed from eleven octaves, then why not at least a crude harmony from a dozen average Ruskies?

I’ve not yet looked up the song titles those men are actually playing. They are undoubtedly significant. The metaphor develops even further, later on, when the action cuts abruptly to a different piano going up in flames after a firefight. It evokes Tarkovsky once again, but more to the point, what a heavy metaphor for how punishing a fellow human being in our society is a bit like burning a piano for some music that was played on it.

Savor the sublime testament in favor of Mercy this passage exudes. We are all like pianos, to some degree. Are we not all practiced on by society? So, can we be entirely responsible for the sounds we make?

With typical Slavic wit, it is a scientist, in “12” who floats the only “not guilty” vote in the beginning, throwing apathy’s gyre off kilter and it is an artist that holds out for the guilty charge to the bitter end. Ironically, after the others become convinced of the Chechen’s innocence, they must reconsider their verdict due to potential ill consequences the others previously neglected to fully comprehend. The accused may be innocent, but he’s safer in jail than on the outside, where he’ll most certainly meet a violent end.

The script for “12”  is impeccable. When one thing moves, everything else does too. Besides those eighty-some ivories mentioned before, there also flies one tiny sparrow and a duo of contradicting blades. Even so, for better or worse, this story’s arc is mostly cranked by verbal escapades.

Mercy versus judgment and the script exploits a wide range of emotions in the space between. The confrontation is heightened in the way the action is staged. The camera’s constantly prowling up, down and around the long, narrow table. I prefer less talky films usually, with the assumption that moving pictures were made for more than just recording history and lit, but the cinematic mastery practiced in this movie unfolds all its deeper mysteries.

Contempt and jealousy alternate with bouts of shame and conscience. The balance of prejudice and self-doubt are re-sifted each time a juror recasts his vote. Condemnations and true confessions compete, low murmurs and high pitch rants may fluctuate, but the tension ramps steadily as each actor riffs on themes of guilt and self-hate.

Cut back to the hole where the Chechen boy’s fate methodically unfolds. His jail-bound pacing to-n-fros turn into an ethnic dance, we saw him engaged in before; in front of some soldiers, when he was a boy.

He’s hot-footing now, not to impress us but to keep alive and dancing without the benefit of actual blades this time. That’s not the point and never was. Witness how the whirling roots his frame and sets his spirit in flight. Could there be a more apt representation in that moment for a universal spirit that unites?

I was dismayed when a friend of mine recently told me that the director of “12” has become a right-wing bully in his country. I’ve never been to Russia and I don’t tune in that station, nor can I presume to understand the country’s language or customs. I barely have a sense of  Russian history, so don’t take any of this as firsthand but, for a great director to become more a part of the problem than the solution, I find that hard to understand.

Admittedly, I have researched very little. Reports in Wikipedia and IMDB are too vague to draw conclusions. I’ve watched his movie again and again though and I think it simply can’t be true. A person who manipulates with hate over the public air waves would never be the same as the one who exhibits such respect for humanity on the international cinema scene. But in huge, complicated countries such contradictions sometimes do occur. Despite the puzzling news, we’re going ahead in our analysis with “12.”



Searching for Mercy

Since the prologue of the film “12” is a quote invoking mercy, let us follow mercy’s progress through the story. It’s not about letting a crime go unpunished, but becomes the antidote to punishing unjustly.

A school gym is empty except for a lone sparrow. A flock of middle-aged jurors files in and starts carrying on like kids. Deciding the fate of their fellow human being’s future starts out much like sport, replete with hoops, nets and parallel bars. Before long, the quest will be compared to a junkie’s fix, a little later, a coke fiend’s bliss, before the jury is ultimately, soberly dismissed.

I read the introduction of those loaded props in the early proceedings as a charge of responsibility, to each individual in society, for overcoming personal indifference. In the long game, evolution will refine this tendency out of us, or else. It’s just one more misguided death wish. Let’s let it go now, before its too late…?

A marooned bird is an apt metaphor for the central figure in this controversy too—a young Chechen perched under the punitive screw. It is not insignificant that this young man has already been made an orphan by a war that took both his father, step-father and his beautiful mother, too. In my country we don’t hear much about Chechens, except for their quarrel with Russia over sovereignty issues. I have just read twenty minutes worth of Wikipedia about them. They have brown, black or red hair and brown, green or blue eyes. They are a people associated with the Caucasus, as far back as 3000 B.C. The majority of them are Sufis, but their religion, before Islam, centered around sex, death and the hunt, just like the rest of us.

The Chechens are fiercely independent. They have a saying “enter in freedom.” Their totem animal is the wolf because wolves are both cooperative and independent. Like wolves, their numbers have dwindled over the centuries, defending depleted homelands.

I cannot speak for Chechens nor for Russia, so I will compare their story to a story from my own neighborhood. Although they’ve survived here for thousands of years, Native Americans, in the region where I live, have been marginalized on their own land for generations. For millennia, they’ve led sustainable lives here in northern New Mexico. Then came conquistadores and missionaries, followed by government agencies. We’ve all heard the story; in less than 200 years, they’ve become of the most underfed groups in the country. Its is not only unjust, it’s reckless. The hearts and souls of the twenty-two tribes living in the Southwest U.S., in the 21st century, are utterly and intricately intertwined with this land. We can never fulfill our potential here unless we do it hand-in-hand.

Getting back to this masterwork of modern Russian cinema, a maxim of drama known as Chekov’s gun, is whittled at, imaginatively, in the script of “12”. The rule states “if you say in the first chapter there is a rifle hanging on the wall, in the second or third chapter it absolutely must go off.” It becomes extra-specially relevant when the lethal weapon in “12” happens to be a high-tech special-forces blade. While a few jurors do make use of it, threateningly, to state their point, none of them is killed or maimed. The symbol is spiked with indictments of arms trade. It implies that guilt for this felony spreads back, through the supply chain, to anyone that profits financially, no matter who’s convicted, or toward whom the weapon is aimed.

Summoning scrutiny’s sharpest intent, the murder weapon’s lethal tip skewers reams of litigation and written testament. A replica of the same weapon, introduced in a similar way by a dissenting juror, exposes how this major piece of evidence, admitted deceptively, generates a major misconception. It also elucidates how facts can easily be construed to promote one point of view, to the exclusion of another, but the sword of truth always cuts both ways.

At midpoint, the sparrow makes herself obvious by taking flight through the room, landing on a table set out with the food trays. An often-shared quote from the good book starts out, “consider the birds of the field, they neither toil nor sow…” That little bird says to me, “let us reconsider again, since people and birds co-exist, voluntarily, for the sake of shared needs, why not everybody?

The recurring clip of a dog running down the middle of the road, with a man’s hand gnawed off at the wrist, is possibly a bit more pessimistic. Mercy gets stripped to the bone. Incidentally, that hand and dog are a nod to Kurosawa’s “Yojimbo” (1961).  I first saw that medieval Samurai showdown in a 16mm print, projected on a living room wall when I was still a teen. My friend Ben was very keen to show me.

I next watched “Yojimbo” a decade later at some rickety Rocky Mountaintop cinematheque in the 80s, at the instigation of an Aikido practicing friend of mine. Neither of those times did I care that the character played by Mifune was committing a great act of mercy. The dog with the hand was the one thing about the film I never forgot. With that one frame, Kurosawa convincingly maintains, war’s only winners are the beasts feasting on the remains.

The influence of John Ford on Kurosawa is well-known, followed by Kurosawa’s influence on the spaghetti westerns by Sergio Leone. “Yojimbo” has been imitated endlessly. I just found out, incidentally, by researching it, that the dog and hand image has been re-appropriated perhaps as much as any other shot in motion pictures since. I’s inclusion may be meant to lament the last turn of events in “12.” For what began looking like a story of redemption, ends up twisting into just one more turf war being fought. If you don’t know “Yojimbo,” it too has a gangster plot.

But, drilling still straighter for the core of “12,” I consider it near genius how the folk dance that the young Chechen demonstrates, twice, at the onset of two momentous passages in his life, aims the knife, not outward, toward an enemy, nor anything unkind, but tucked inward, it becomes an extension of his own spine.

Please, allow your attention to spread into this eddy with me, temporarily. How much of all that is fine about humans is involved in the act of turning in place? Gravity is our adversary until we adopt ambulation. How much more grace is exercised if we advance, through practice, to whirling. To straighten up and spin right is to transcend our weight, times our height, at least. There’s liberation to be leveraged there. Whirling is also useful for venting pent-up aggression. A healthy society should practice martial arts and folk dance together, in combination, to provide a full range of creaturely emotions with a civilized means of self-expression.

Likewise the knife is similar to a cross in design, delineating folks who are primarily cruel from those primarily kind. It is not as simple as black and white, since we are all composed of both, to differing degrees, but justice alone does not wield the sharpest blade. If apathy is the dulling trait we each most need to self negate, mercy is a most deserving edge to activate, by all peoples, parties and states.

Let’s not forget, “12” is an all out homage to the original film “Twelve Angry Men,” (1957) by Sidney Lumet. The movie exudes the morality of half a century ago. The decision to remake “12” for the present day argues that, no matter how much times change, our core values stay the same.

I was sure the motion picture version must have been adapted from a stage play but, in this case, it flowed the other way. The American production was stacked with Broadway heavyweights, no less, but the film script is from an original teleplay.

As many a great storyteller has done before, Mikhalkov no sooner delineates what legitimately divides us, than contradicts with proof what binds our fate. Four separate votes, involving twelve men, over the course of a long night, is what it takes.

Revealingly, the most steadfast juror is an artist, portrayed by Mikhalkov himself. He is the one who maintains his convictions, from the very start, and backs them up more than anyone. Inviting the accused to move in with him is the very pinnacle of artistic élan. In this script, the director of “12” proclaims the virtues of mercy to his fellow man.



Dark Butterfly of Fate

Its Oscar night. The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences is a prestigious organization, but it is also hairy, humongous and old, therefore seems destined to function a bit behind the times, sometimes. I’m not a member, so it’s only a guess, but I doubt the academy serves predominantly as a conservative boy’s clique. Give the art more credit than that.

After all, three previous Oscar best pics were directed by a Mexican and an African American. A Taiwanese/American was honored in 2013, and a woman, as recently as 2010.  This is not to say there’s no room to broaden. Thank heaven there are lots of diverse moviemakers out there, not waiting around for little statues. Our film commentary this month focuses on an Iranian-American, feminist director’s first feature, “A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night” (2014).

I’ve chosen a random selection of three motion pictures with which to begin our section on Iran, in our series entitled, Films of Our Enemies. Two of these titles were filmed in Iran and one is from the U.S. We’ll review the most recent, first, because it sucks us right in. Let’s begin with a little background. The filmmaker was not born there, nor does she live in Iran, but her ancestors did. Actors speak Farsi. The main character wears traditional head gear, and the principle cast is all of Persian descent.

Films discussed here are the mirror image of their makers and what cooler tool could there be to acquaint us with a person from the other side? In her movie, Ana Lily Amanpour offers a rare view of Iran. Her lens focuses on an imaginary Tehran, not a literal one, but hinting at something we have in common. Otherwise, why would we watch?

It might be said, that “A Girl Walks Home Alone in the Night” is less about modern day Iran than the other two. I doubt it could have been made in that part of the world, under current conditions. So, it does not reflect its surface, accurately, but it may, ultimately, offer a clearer commentary of Iran than we first behold. One notable phenomenon this project demonstrates that the other two Iranian directors  could not, is what remarkable potential, an artist free from state control, can unlock.

It might seem repulsive to the cultural establishment of that country, that the imaginary Tehran portrayed in this piece is populated with prostitutes, junkies and pimps, but every country has its misfits. Even if Ms. Amanpour’s story exaggerates the scope of these epidemics, inside Iran, we can be confident that the social order there is as flawed as our own, resulting in alienation and degradation of a certain percent of the folk.

On the other hand, “A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night,” seems quite close to the heart of Iran, in the way that it deplores how materialism corrupts the soul. The illusion of success, represented in the iconic american sports car, the fluctuating value of some classy jewels, the false sense of security afforded to a hooker’s fleeting beauty, are all predicaments owing to its parasitic presence in this girl’s world. The action takes place in an oil boom suburb, where consumerism is the real succubus. The vampiress serves a sanitary role, gliding solo, on her skateboard, under street light, head hooded, like a vulture, beneath the sun. She’s attractive as can be, but less a sexy beast than unsung holy woman, cleaning up after the evil one.

In style, this movie owes much more to the graphic novel than to gothic lit, and, apart from its superb soundtrack, is not much composed with the traditional arts of Persia in sight. Instead, it draws on such a diverse batch of pop cinematic references as German Expressionism, the Spaghetti Western, Gangster and Horror genres and “Fantomas.” What an exciting new vein on that robust artery of genius already nourishing us from the East. What a great starting point to delve in to our subject. This dark butterfly of fate may have been hatched in the psyche of a modern Iranian feminist, but it takes wing in some fantasy, pan-cultural cosmos of alienated youth. One thing I’ll say is, it’s a fine thing whenever diverse cultures mange to cross-pollinate.

Global cinema contains truths that cannot be practiced in a batch of orthodoxies, nor perpetrated on a population through numb belief. Truth is a moving target. It requires the finer faculties to be followed. No party can lay exclusive claim. No border can fence it in, or out. Even the simplest person has equal access, yet, even the most vigilant minded cannot always figure it out.

While stories in the Bible and Koran are enlightening, those and others like it were doomed to become instruments of deception. Fortifying orthodoxy by blindly adopting doctrines, simply cannot provide us with all we need to know, or do. A work of cinema can be just as misguided and slave making as a book, to be sure, but can also come closer to invoking the word made flesh, because its always being renewed. Film is a migration of light, continually on the move, transforming with the times.

It is no secret that the truth is the fact with which we most interact, but it takes personal responsibility and constant commitment to see what you see, know what you know, and feed it your pure intent. Truth can’t be confined to one person, place, or thing. You discover it in each moment, sometimes in the stillness, other times in the noise. Where it is found is always changing, along with how it applies. That little bit bothers us. We want to think, once we’ve comprehended something, we’ve conquered ignorance for good and our enlightenment is assured. Nothing of the sort.

Maybe that is why fine film always seems to be drawing new boundaries between right and wrong, but if you look closer, they echo common sense.  At the same time, fine film never tells us what to think. It funnels our awareness down to shade and sound, allowing our authentic responses. Consequently, ironically, that very private seeming screen space, provides infinite common ground.

If we harken back with nostalgia to less materialistic times in America, weren’t we holding precious the same basic ethics as modern Iran? Isn’t it possible they are simply attempting to prevent consumerism’s runaway spread in their homes? It would be going backwards to try that, in our country; next to impossible, to get our virginity back, but Iran’s folk haven’t slid all the way down that slippery slope, yet.

The rigid rhetoric of their government, while often portrayed as fanatical, in our press, is expressed in proportion to the degree of pressure they feel to conform from the West. It may not look right to us, but we could be just as bound, by faith, to an illusion, as they seem to be to theirs. Why dislike them for wanting to not get caught in materialism’s fangs?  Can’t we respect someone that resists?

First Impressions

acknowledgements to The Criterion Contraption

The proverb “first impressions are often correct” is challenged in this month’s film. Whereas mass media is good at feeding us shallow views, global cinema invites us to confront our prejudices.

Here is the second title from Iran for our series on films of our enemies. “Taste of Cherry” (1997), by Abbas Kiarostami, has appeared on numerous lists for the top ten movies of all time. On the other hand none other than Roger Ebert pronounced this masterpiece unfit to watch. I think the critic got stuck in his first impression and did not exercise due curiosity. We are all prone to this. I’ve done it.  For example, if I were to limit my entire assessment of the Iranian people based on what I encounter in the daily news, I’d be stuck with a bunch of superficial superstitions. Iranian cinema lifts us out of that rut.

I’m going to plunge into this post with a one-sided argument titled, “Stryder and Ebert at the Movies.” To hear Ebert’s side, just look up his review. Stryder – Richard, you made a harsh assessment of “A Taste of Cherry” after attending the premiere at Cannes. Me thinks you hate this film too much? You worked for a conservative newspaper. We’re you forced by your boss to dismiss this film because it came from Iran, and nothing this fine could come from such a place? I hope not, but your dislike of the film sounds more like a problem with indigestion than aesthetic flaws. You complained about the use of long takes. I happen to like them, when they work. But even if you don’t, there’s so much more to comment on in this film. You seem to have been distracted. You got some details in your review wrong, and made at least one major assumption that is not at all supported by the text.” We’ll come back to that…

Cherry’s style recalls Italian and Japanese neo-realist traditions. The main character and supporting cast are working class. The movie opens with, “In the name of Allah,” which is how traditional Muslim art always begins. It’s a form of common prayer, nothing radical about it. Both a blessing and a greeting, this phrase is as common as “hello” in the English language.

Everything that happens in this story belongs to the world of common people confronting ordinary problems in unglamorous surroundings. A morose man drives around industrial edged Tehran in search of an ally. His external environment develops for us out the window of his vehicle while he confronts the shifting angles of his inner struggle behind the steering wheel.

Critic Ebert was left cold by “Taste of Cherry.” Let’s put that in context. If a film like “The Fifth Element” opened Cannes that year,, how could a film like “Taste of Cherry” hope to close it?”

What an impossible act to follow, at Cannes no less. Despite that, “Taste of Cherry” won a Palme d’Or that year. Europe most prestigious award. Film lovers that listened to Ebert lost out.

Maybe Roger was in a political pinch. Whatever the reason I don’t hesitate to critique the critic. He picks on the filmmaker’s choice to film rugged exteriors on Tehran’s outskirts.  He claimed it dragged on an already slow story. “Roger, really?” Both those choices impress me as an ideal marriage of substance and style, demonstrating utter mastery of working in the wide open, on a tight budget, within a state controlled film industry. I’m dazzled.

Whats more Abbas brilliantly confines the action to within speaking distance of the automobile. Such simplicity exemplifies the economy and practicality of neorealist sensibilities. The scope of the story is equally as quaint. The main character has a problem for which he must enlist the help of a stranger to resolve. We’re never shown the reason for his blues, only some emotional bruises.

Ninety-eight percent of this film consists of a depressed man asking for a simple favor in exchange for two hundred thousand bucks. Mr. Badhi is his name. He is extremely shut down and stubborn. Our own mass media’s biases would be reinforced if we judged the entire Persian race based on the behavior of this man. But there are other characters in the story.

There is a good reason we never get to learn precisely why he behaves the way he does too. The filmmaker refuses to indulge our bias. If we knew the truth it would be easier to judge. Our minds could be made and we could go home. The filmmaker’s challenge is to overcome our prejudices which we form at the beginning.

While Mr. Badhi can be selfish and manipulative toward his fellow man, who could fail to be impressed by the common courtesy show to him by most of those he encounters? All but one of them patently listens. All but one, respectfully refuses. Many raise moral questions any average American could understand.

The specific ancestral variations in the representative ethnicities that Mr. Badhi picks up are spread across the spectrum common to the geographic region. A Kurd, an Afghani, a Turk. All three, in their own way, take Badhi into their confidence. The irony of which, I’ll bet, is especially rich to non-outsiders. Each rider, in their own way, politely offers moral reasons for refusing to assist. In his countrymen we detect no lack of compassion. Those random encounters furnish the foreign audience, evidence of an overall gentility pervading Iranian society. One gets the impression we could get along.

A series of gradually intensifying encounters with strangers gets us down the road with Mr. Badhi. The script stays busy forever holding back his motivation, while exposing ever more of his desperation; until finally some one gives in. This film’s ethic does not suggest everyone is morally obliged to go out of their way for Mr. Badhi in this unfamiliar corner of the world. Not everyone does. In fact the first chap goes out of his way the opposite direction.

How would I respond to Mr. Badhi? What if some world weary soul cruised up in his Land Rover right now, rolled down the window and tried to strike up a conversation? In Iran in 1993, anyway, he’s invited to hang out, share a bit of food, take tea with strangers. This is the way, I hope we’d all agree, that customs should be practiced in ideal society.

Although the main character exhibits greater and greater urgency on each successive excursions, it gets him nowhere. The more he commits to his grim task, the less effective he appears to be. Ironically, what he has been driving around looking for all day he suddenly discovers, literally at the beginning of act three. By then, the exterior surrounding of the protagonist is as finely tuned to his emotional truth, as any film I have ever seen.

Here is a backdrop that can literally swallow a man in one gulp. What more epic depiction of this man’s predicament could we ponder than those towering mounds of earth and massive commercial earthworks machines? I doesn’t make sense that critic Ebert wasn’t  dazzled by such first rate, cinematic flash. The setting seems to me an epic equivalent to any man’s whose faith in life is crumbling.

For the rest of us there can be no mistaking a transcendent event when we see one. The recurrrance of extremely long takes anesthetized Mr. Ebert, but leaves the rest of us breathless while Mr. Badhi’s soul surfaces in front of that tumbling backdrop. There’s some suggestion of a Heavenly Father’s mercy, or is that the Mother Earth’s fury underneath the mass of anonymous machinery. It waits by the side of road, available to grand his wish, immediately, if he insists.

Before that tragedy can transpire, enter the enlightened taxidermist. Here is someone that finally consents to fulfill the sullen man’s request. Up to now Mr. Badhi has taken a series of prospective conspirators for a ride. Now watch how he’s finally taken for one himself, in his own car, behind the wheel, by a passenger that doesn’t need to ask the specifics of the fellow’s ordeal.

To be continued next month…


Judging by what we are shown

We rejoin our discussion of Iranian director Abbas Kiarostami’s “Taste of Cherry” (1993) in our series on the films of our enemies.

The ultimate passenger on Mr. Badhi’s journey is the most uncommon, common man of all. If we in the audience haven’t yet figured out how to crack Mr. Badhi’s depression, this compassionate passenger provides the grist.

What an altogether masterful cinematic choice it was to equip that man in the shotgun seat with the profession of a taxidermist. Doesn’t that craft bestow a kind of eternal life on ephemeral things? Consider then just what contents are concealed in the final passenger’s valise. Though they are never visually revealed, we later discover that a number of partridges and quails met their life’s end at this fellow’s hand. He’s killed them to instruct apprentices on how to mount and preserve them.

A taxidermist presence also draws attention to Badhi’s hollowness and his doomed stance. In contrast one gets the sense that this transporter-of-flesh intimately understands what makes a difference on the surface versus what’s underneath.

At the centerpiece of his soliloquy he reassures Mr. Badhi’s that we all feel trapped at some point in our life. It always passes. If we let it happen, life will not fail to reward us with something unforgettable that makes our saga worth enduring. The taxidermist artfully enumerates the joy that can be found in common things as simple as a sunrise, a taste of cherry, or the sound of children playing.

The end of Mr. Badhi’s story is not an end, per se, nor is it the final scene of the movie. We are never shown how it turns out for the depressed man. It is one more thing we must take home to work on.

An altogether radical shift of subject occurs before we fade to black. Ingmar Bergman and Jean Luc Godard were praised for this kind of bravado. Numerous prodigies have followed their lead. It consists of revealing the filmmaking process, opening the frame up to reveal the storytellers. This post-modern device which has been in vogue since the 60’s, really irked Ebert for some reason.

Kiarostami demonstrated just how liberal his country’s cultural police are capable of being. But the most popular American critic of the past three decades missed this completely. The censors Kiarostami answered to inside Iran were Islamic clerics. Ironically, they were more liberal in their judgment of this film than Mr. Roger Ebert of the Chicago Sun-Times.

Anyone willing to figure on the grander equation in “Taste of Cherry” is rewarded. Those of us in the audience that suspect an enlightened scheme should find it more than worth our effort to uncover it. Certainly it would imply some redemption for Mr. Badhi if film watchers like ourselves can relate to him, even a tiny bit, in his hour of need. And we are redeemed a bit with him. It’s the same justification for why all human dilemmas become immortalized in art.

If we could rewind to the very first encounter, the one with tile yard employee. This scene appears like an attempted homosexual hook-up. Here is the scene in which the critic Ebert got lost. He proclaims it to be some sort of red herring. And it may appear that way to some, but not all. I take it as fact that the director’s choice to leave it open was integral to the story. Part of the genius of this scene is how it invalidates eye-witness accounts. They are so much of what we depend on for truth in the judicial system and on the nightly news and they can be so false.

Cinema proves witnesses are never reliable. Before we’ve studied each frame in the sequence, we might be able to convince ourselves the exchange between these two men implies an attempted sex hook-up. Whether these two men are strangers to each other or have some shared history is ambiguous, and that is intentional. It is a deliberate play to place emphasis on the subtext. The tone and delivery of the few spare lines of dialog, actually flip flops one way then the other. Who can say definitively what is going on?

Watch the movie up to that point and then turn it off. If you don’t see the rest of the film it could be interpreted in any number of ways. The point is we can’t know all that might be transpiring between these two unsettled beings, simply judging by what we are shown. This is a good lesson to carry home. It should heighten our discrimination and make us keener observers.

The offer of money in this scene could be for the same reason Mr. Badni offers it to all the rest, or it could be a last attempt at redemption for some prior offense, or something else. We sense something bigger taking place before our eyes but we can’t tell what, and that should pique our curiosity. This easily dismissible scene should be the trigger for the main character’s entire trajectory. We should automatically presume unless proven otherwise, if a filmmaker defies our expectations, he’s shining light, a signal to the astute viewer. The audience is being asked to work on the problem until we can make sense of it.

I don’t bother deciding if it is a gay come-on scene or not. The information on the screen simply states, appearances can be deceiving. It could be a trivial thing, such as same sex copulation, or it could be the aftermath of some truly wicked thing that we are witnessing, or anything in between. Or it could all amount to nothing, as Ebert wanted to think.

What if it’s a different scene from all the rest? The encounter at the tile yard should be the inciting incident. I say “should’ because, it’s right there where it belongs in a conventional feature-length script. Somewhere around page ten you’ll almost always find the bit of business that culminates in the protagonist setting off on his journey between there and the final FADE OUT.

I’m going to propose that whether either of those men are gay, they know each other from the past, recent or otherwise. The have some unfinished business. Mr. Badhi is trying to fix it before he goes and does the other thing which makes up the rest of the story. Its amazing how the emotional tone of the actors can fit either interpretation and how his subsequent errand adds up. If the tile yard guy is his son, how does it change the ending? If he is that, or a younger brother or a former lover it doesn’t matter. What if he’s trying to get rid of dirty money that will tie him to a crime? When it fails, he tries another tack, the one he tries with every other passenger after that.

Let’s say after hearing what I propose, you don’t jive. Fine, decide for yourself. Either way, there is plenty of enlightening content to be absorbed, if we don’t let ourselves doze off. Writing from Cannes, Ebert describes “this is an excruciatingly boring film.” The best lesson we should take home from that is, don’t go out and eat a fancy French meal then try to watch this gem. We’re entitled to ignore Mr. Ebert for once. He got lazy. If it was not a masterpiece for him, at least it can be one for you and me.