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,https://openchannelcontent.com/wordpress/better-keep-your-wits-about-you/, 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.


Lesson in Leadership

According to Wikipedia, the director of this month’s film Muhammad Rasoulof was arrested on the set of his next film and sentenced to six years prison. None of his films have been released in Iran. How frustrating and isolating it must be for an artist to have his work banned in his own country, much less be put behind bars for it. I cannot fathom why any government would wish to persecute an artist whose work exhibits such compassion for humanity.

“Iron Island (2005),  is the third film from Iran in our series entitled Films of Our Enemies. With these essays I declare my interdependence with the vast majority of humans alive on the planet today. Nothing beats travel to foreign destinations, but global cinema offers us deep insight into those cultures and provides abundant evidence of our common cause. Foreign film provides us with rich opportunities to soak up culture. I will use this film to talk about community building and leadership. That alone is reason enough to watch this film, although there are others.

I have heard some viewers of this film refer to the protagonist, Captain Nemat, as malicious. I came away thinking of him as a saint. His keen industriousness is defined by his forthright conduct and omnipotent accounting book. His spiritual dedication and maturity is evident in his instinct for swift resolution as well as his ever-faithful invocation, “As-salamu alaykom.”

The translation means, “peace be upon you.” It must be a peace loving people that imbues their most common personal greeting with that wish. Nevertheless the children in the makeshift school onboard the ship all have to ask who the enemy is. We grown-ups are really confronted with the senselessness of such concepts when children have to be taught in school who the enemy is.

While there is a Romeo and Juliet sub-plot embedded in “Iron Island,” it does not end in double suicide, because the film is not about the pitfalls of arranged marriage. It can’t be the main point.

It does, however, make the position of the story’s hero all the more sympathetic. In judging between romantic impulse and the letter of the law, the Captain is bound by the latter. Just one of many conundrums that confront a true leader.

Captain Nemat is not a schemer or a tyrant. His behavior is never heartless, even at his harshest. His intent is to sustain collective hope. Here is a role model with the responsibility for a lot of folks on his shoulders and he must angle in a number of streams, simultaneously, to fish out enough cash to keep this boat afloat. One gets the impression Nemat could go anywhere and create something fine. His genes stoked him with genius for founding sustainable communities pairing forgotten folk with abandoned machines.

A truly enlightened leader understands the greatest resource in the world is a healthy society. Here’s one that occupies itself inventing sustainable strategies for the benefit of the common good.

That boat is an allegory for sustainability and Nemat’s method, a model for survival. Underneath the shell of that rusting hulk exists a community. Cooperation is in constant ebb and flow.  Its leader is not without flaws and his model is imperfect at best, but the place is way better than no place for the majority that call it home.

The Captain is performing a supreme service. Even so, that doesn’t make their home impervious. When the speculators arrive to take it away, the boat’s inhabitants are grounded. The captain must devise a back-up plan, on the spot, under the grilling gaze of the sun. And like a true leader, so that hope may prevail, Nemat devises one.

The brazen spectacle of predatory speculators, storming the ship like pirates, evicting the its inhabitants and snatching that ashcan utopia out from under them, cranks up the contrast between greed and generosity to its most stark.

The filmmaker projects Captain Nemat as an example of how compassionate leadership can inspire and lead the collective to do its part. No matter how adrift we are or how tenuous the situation becomes, our best hope and the surest way to a sustainable future is on a path of heart.

Working Class Hero

This film and its filmmakers should also be praised for the way it so perceptively elucidates the predicament of the Middle East. What will become of these Biblical descendants? This is the end of the world, as they know it. What will keep those countries afloat after the fossil fuel boom? What is the leadership doing to assure a smooth transition for its children?  The opening sequence in “Iron Island” takes place in the dark. A pair of hands lights a match and attempts to light a lamp. But it’s not so easy. The hands are obliged to light a candle first, then find a lamp with some fuel in it. We are watching the passing of flame from one source to another, each one more technical and sophisticated than the previous. It suggests that there are degrees of industrialization that correspond with stages of enlightenment. Multiple levels of evolutionary processes are on parade in this allegory.

From my seat in the movie theater, here is the symbol (visual equivalent of words) for the role that the main character plays throughout the movie. He’s a candle, not a lamp. He is a leader, not a plunderer. He founds a cooperative, not a congregation, nor corporation or state. He is a civic genius, empowering the people he serves so that they can govern themselves. Which candidate does he most resemble in the 2016 primary election?

In “Iron Island,” it is corporate commerce that sinks their hopes. Captain Nemat sees a sustainable community. The speculators see a sinking vessel, and its value as scrap metal. Captain Nemat is clearly not a classic power broker. He’s a grassroots organizer, helping common people survive day to day. It is because he listens to folks that they give him their trust. He serves the common good by the way he aggregates the many small socio-economic contributions of individuals and cultivates them into a meek but mighty unit that can accomplish everyday living in peace.

With a beautifully staged scene of a Berber wedding on this iron island, the filmmaker manages to make us consider. Arranged marriages tend to perpetuate class distinctions, ultimately leading to racial inequality, fed by superstitions.  Some things are slow to change. The way Captain Nemat deals with the situation is meant to to remind us what exceptional character and responsibility it requires to be a positive, contributing member to society.

Rich people can always seem to find a way around these tribulations buying influence over regulations, but a poor man is held to the letter of the law. The method of punishment employed by Captain Nehmat in response to this Romeo’s mutiny is an elegant cinematic punctuation mark, an allegory, in itself. The point being that the poor are drenched in their circumstances, at the mercy of all, at the verge of drowning any minute in accelerating misfortune.

We are treated to this amazing sequence where the punished and punisher appear to be captives of the same trap. They are fatefully connected by the machinery of punishment; a ritual as old as civilization.

The boy and girl’s clandestine attachment is not central to this story, but it is essential to the message. We all dream of social harmony where family feuds are settled and racial distinctions are not distractions. One might find puzzling the decision by the director to open the story with a minor character, the lovelorn boy Ahmad, instead ofthe story’s true protagonist, working class hero Captain Nemat. The answer comes when the story closes with on a sequence featuring an even more minor character, a younger orphan who slips away, like the the baby fishes he’s been liberating that have been sucked through a small hole in the submerged hold of the boat. He is last seen returning to the sea, aimed for some fishermen’s nets that will eventually become the tools of his work.