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.

Big Wheels Keep on Turning

“You leave us with the consequences.” Suha pleads for forbearance and calm. Said kisses her then flees on foot, flitting from life, like a moth toward a flame.

“Paradise Now,” is a best foreign language Oscar winning film. Whatever people want to say in critique of the lack of diversity evident in the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences annual awards celebration, that this film took away a statue, bears witness what an enlightening influence such an august institution can still have on mass consciousness from time to time.

These films we’ve viewed this summer live and breathe the daily life of the Muslim, none more so that this one. Strip away the wall in the Holy Land, if you can. Life looks surprisingly similar to the average American, shocking as that sounds. No wonder Said’s interactions with his family at home remind me of codes and customs my puritan grandparents practiced in the mid nineteens when I was still at home.

Every film in the past five titles we’ve discussed, acknowledges the ubiquity of traditional ways in the Middle East and beyond. Long practiced, tried and true, certain codes are deeply embedded, but there is a global quantum leap to be made too, ejecting paralyzing agendas.

Materialism is one modern trend, for example, that Muslims try hard to resist in these films. Can we show some respect and not shove it in their faces? You can’t blame orthodox folk for not wanting their sons sporting corporate tattoos on their necks, nor watch their daughters to be strutting fashion runways from the moment they can walk. That stroke of modesty alone should not make them outcasts. It’s hip to be square. It seems evident, by watching these Muslim films that they’d rather not become rotten with the same insatiable lust for stuff in which they observe so much of the first world caught up. What shall we take home from this? The immature response to have would be to make war on them for daring to not be like us. On the other hand,we could stand to reevaluate our relationship to stuff.

Militaries repeatedly keep being deployed here and there to make the world safer for corporations to do business, while often making it more hazardous for the rest of us. One inevitable consequence of iron rule, once it sets in, seems to be, sooner or later it becomes a matter of honor to resist. Much of this has been discussed in previous weblogs on Open Channel Content, such as our series on Sci-Fi. Revolution is like trying to align an earthquake with a hurricane. Mother earth eventually beats everyone. In a world ruled by war, everything is always finding a balance of its own. No one can control it, no matter what. It won’t either be rushed nor slowed down once its been embarked upon, so why be so hasty to be always throwing down?

The endgame of this unsettling tragedy is envisioned unflinchingly, with a masterful tracking shot pushing in, invincibly, like death itself, zeroing in on Said’s transfigured gaze. An explosive chunk of intelligent meat sits there, fit as a flute, in the rear of a bus where he’s somehow gotten himself immersed with a batch of fresh, young recruits. They look like soldiers to us, but in Israel, because of their age, they are looked upon more like first and second year college kids are here; remember, every kid in Israel is committed to serve in the military for two years.

A uniformed boy and a girl sit close together across from Said on a public conveyance. They are flirting. The vengeful, solo, self-crucifixion Said is about to undertake will undoubtedly inflict that budding young romance with the same fate.

Which makes so much sense, since love is the other great treasure Said forfeits along with his life, in this script. If his physical body is his public sacrifice, his relationship with Suha is his private one. As good a reason as any to explain why the last thing we hear on the soundtrack is a girl’s laugh. What could be a better send off and what better way to convey all that Said is throwing away, in that penultimate frame, before the screen goes blank?


Double Helix

We’ve penetrated the center of this great director’s ouvre by gazing into his “Mirror” (1974).  Might as well go wide now by contrasting his first feature, “Ivan’s Childhood,” (1962) with his final one, “The Sacrifice” (1986). From there, we’ll work our way back to the core.

It was not a totally random choice to compare Tarkovsky’s first film with his last. One is set in WWII, the other in WWIII. They both begin and end with a boy and a tree. “Ivan’s Childhood” opens at the base of an evergreen. A child walks out of the frame and the camera cranes upward along its trunk to the top. Tarkovsky’s final feature begins with practically the same image, except the boy doesn’t walk out of the shot; the camera leaves him. In another deviation from Ivan, with Sacrifice, the camera stops before we reach the top.

The film was dedicated to his son. I suppose that last shot was a self-portrait, of sorts, dreamed up by the poet and left behind to be remembered by. By the time principle photography on “The Sacrifice” had commenced, Tarkovsky was terminal with cancer and knew he would never attain old age. This barren tree, appearing late in his last opus is rueful, in the context of its prominence in the opening of his first film, when the camera floats all the way to the growing tip of a sapling with all promise of genius in full bud.

Experience accumulates and organizes itself as knowledge along great forked trunks and on down the branched, limbed, twigged networks in our minds. Tarkovsky’s camera conducts itself along similar lines. He employs very long takes, with camera in motion, inducing perceptual shifts, drawing us even deeper in with mirrors and other reflections, rooms within rooms, frames within frames, mimicking the natural paths of attention and accumulation of awareness.

For this filmmaker, capturing a passing moment with motion in space is sculpting in time. His cinematic chisel consistently modulates, like good music, between finite and cosmic. What a poet expresses with choice words, a composer does with appropriate musical instruments. Tarkovsky plumbs the possibilities of leitmotif with trees, wind, rain, water, milk, mirrors, snow, ash, stairs, ladders, mist, steam, smoke, fire, gravity, weightlessness and on and on. In his first film an expansive forest of birch stands like a great intersection of chords in a high mass. In his final one, a solitary tree soothes like a Japanese flute riffing in a solitary key.

The outcome of both is tragedy within triumph. In Sacrifice, an aging artist forfeits position and possession to reverse a cataclysm. In Ivan war orphan lays down his life behind enemy lines to repel the Nazi’s. But Ivan is not a common infantryman. He’s a scout, resigned to beat the enemy singlehandedly if necessary.

The boy soldier’s winning qualities are instantly recognizable in scene one when he behaves as if he outranks the officer assigned to interrogate him. In the quality of sheer bravery, he does outrank everyone. Our diminutive hero exudes formidable cheek and grit with anyone that threatens to stand in his way. He is so traumatized by war he can neither digest food, nor rest without reliving what’s lost in his past. He seems only able to counter it by leading the heroics.
His adoptive kin are all army officers trying to protect him. It just so happens the battalion could really benefit from some good intelligence, at the moment and Ivan’s age and size provide an edge.

Despite his sacrifice, Ivan’s not a Christ and this is not a passion play in military drag. We encountered that hybrid about a year ago in another Soviet era masterpiece, Larissa Shepitko’s “The Ascent.”

I’ve heard Tarkovsky criticized for wearing his religion on his sleeve. What religion? Nothing is entirely black or white in his works except some film stock. His complete works demonstrate that opening doors of perception is this filmmaker’s fascination, not deifying invisible entities. For example, during the transition to a flashback early in the first act, Ivan is tri-located for an instant. He is catching some rest in an army bed and he is waking up in the bottom of a well and finally, he is caught in the memory of standing over the well with his mother before she was killed.

“If a well is deep enough,” she tells Ivan, “you can see a star even on the brightest day.” “What star?” He asks. “Any star,” she answers. Notice that Ivan and his mother are gazing deep into the earth in search of something far out in space. Poetic inversions abound in Tarkovsky’s films. An exquisite communion of opposites is achieved with this one. Other than the veritable yin/yang symbol itself, what more all-inclusive vision could convey such otherwise unspeakable insights?

Almost immediately upon searching, Ivan declares he can see a star as he reaches down the mouth of the well. Suddenly is relocated there, caressing its reflection on the surface of the water. Here is an early bit of evidence of the boy’s exceptional gift for observation, so we can appreciate it is not just raw revenge that qualifies him for his vocation, but a child’s eye opened wide on the world.

For added fascination, notice the view down the well is not the reflection of a star as Ivan sees it but the POV of Ivan and his mother looking back at us. It’s a magnificent shot. Where’s the camera? We’re looking straight into it. The actors are too, right down the barrel of the lens, but we see their reflection backed by the sky above and encircled in the mouth of the well. The camera is looking at us as well, but from what position? This is just the first of countless fresh flourishes that supercharge Tarkovsky’s films, front to back.

The spell of memory is evoked by the artist with this deep yet simple scene, buoyed by equally evocative talk. “It’s daytime for you and me,” Ivan’s mom explains, “but nighttime for the star.” Every single sequence in Tarkovsky;s films seems embedded with counterpoint such as this. The image of star in full daylight is a kind of epigram. Tarkovsky is conditioning us for deep shifts to come. Our preconceptions will be subverted, time and again, with fascinating, alternate conceptions in abundant variation. Once again, I am reminded of the great Belgian surrealist Rene Magritte. Appreciate with me how paintings of his such as “The Enchanted Domain,” (1952), “The Kiss” (1951) and “The Blank Page” (1952) assist our senses in with radical realizations about reality.

“Ivan’s Childhood” proposes that children possess the courage that adults lack. Chimes play on the soundtrack while Ivan looks out over the prow of the rowboat on his final mission. The choice reminds us of the hero’s immaturity even as he is about to act.

While Tarkovsky’s movies distinguish themselves for being planned and executed with consumate craft, there are some scenes so uncanny, surely they must be a result of sheer luck. For instance, just as Ivan makes landfall, says farewell and slips behind enemy lines for the last time, an enemy flare lands in the background. It’s grey column of smoke remains perfectly slender and vertical like one of the trees as it drifts on an invisible draft like a silent bludgeon sneaking between scattered black trunks, on a rendezvous with Ivan. The convergence takes place just as he disappears in the dark.

In the end, we are told Ivan was hanged. The final shot tilts down out of the clear sky, descending a dead tree on the riverbank with Ivan, before the war, in the foreground. The last shot of the film refers back to the first. The camera tilts down the length of a tree, this time and fading out on a war scorched trunk.

This description may read like bad poetry but my feeble effort is to blame. If what I’m talking about could have been conveyed in writing, Tarkovsky would not have bothered to commit it to film Much like Ivan, Andre was a scout at heart; his films probe the frontiers of poetic potential. Ivan’s attitude and actions shame fellow soldiers for not showing greater courage. Andre criticized most filmmakers for not taking full advantage of their art form. Precious few heard.

It seems like I’ve heard “Ivan’s Childhood” mentioned less often than other motion picture child memoirs of the era such as Truffaut’s “400 Blows,” (1959) or Schlondorff’s “The Tin Drum” 1979. I’m not sure why, Ivan is every bit as compelling. It contains Tarkovsky’s most straightforward narrative with an unforgettable central character whose predicament is loaded with tragic irony and portrayed with deep humanity, boundary pushing style and heartrending detail.

I will leave a choice center-cut of this complex and beautiful film for you to form your own unfettered opinions and keep my analysis to its edges. Next up, “The Sacrifice” which comes in second, of all Tarkovsky’s films, with regard to clarity of story. The balance of his output plays checkers with structure. This coming November, at Open Channel Content, Tarkovsky contemplates nuclear winter.