January 10, 2009

Abbas Kiarostami, 2002 


Give the audience no more than a hint of a scene, otherwise they won’t contribute anything, but get them working with you and it becomes a social act.”

Orson Welles


The extent to which a viewer is willing to do their share of the work is crucial, for without their own input they cannot fully enjoy it.” 

Theo Angelopoulos


The cinema of Abbas Kiarostami is deceptively simple. His films seem straightforward at first, but it can take a few viewings before their inferences become apparent, even for those familiar with his work. Poetic, contemplative, philosophical, questioning, formally inventive (sometimes radically), his films are the antithesis of those that trade in sensation and catharsis, the kind of films that virtually take the viewer hostage (as Kiarostami puts it), ushering them from one pre-digested event to the next.


Kiarostami’s films are often self-referential, with rhymes and repetitions occurring not only within a single film but between all of them. Their elliptical quality allows viewers to make connections, find meanings, and reflect on the implications of each work – including the very act of watching them! Kiarostami’s films challenge the viewer’s expectations, their role as spectators, and their potential complicity in the perpetuation of questionable (if not negatively impacting) movies. He invites them to be creative participants rather than passive observers, seeking a quality of interaction that is largely taken for granted in other artistic disciplines.


All of these attributes are very much to the fore in TEN, a film that exemplifies (in my view) Kiarostami’s artistic personality, methods and intentions.


Ten is divided into ten sections numbered in reverse order from 10 to 1, each marked with a single strike of a tiny bell – a sound that most obviously (and rather amusingly) denotes rounds in a boxing-match, but that also reminds us of a prayer-bell – a call to reflection perhaps?


The film is set entirely inside the car of the main character, Mania. As driver of the car and initiator of conversations, Mania is a kind of stand-in for Kiarostami, mirroring his directorial position and functioning as a virtual co-director. The ten scenes comprise ten conversations with a handful of people: her ten-year-old son, Amin (in sections 10, 5, 3, and 1 – interestingly, Amin’s age could be one of the meanings of the title); her sister (9); an elderly woman (8); a prostitute (7); a woman she meets at a shrine (6, 2); and a friend (4).


In the first scene Mania talks to Amin about her impending divorce from his father and marriage to another man, something he’s patently unhappy about. For the duration of this long single-take, the camera is fixed solely on the boy. We don’t see Mania, we only hear her. We watch Amin’s increasing irritation at having to endure the conversation, and we discern in him hints of misogyny that alerts us to what life with Amin’s father might have been for Mania.


The conversations between Mania and Amin (mother and son) constitute the form and content of the film, while the other conversations provide additional substance to their exchanges, informing what is essentially an examination of sexual politics in a culture based on male privilege.


The film’s visual viewpoint is confined to two fixed positions, both coming from small digital video cameras mounted on the car dashboard of Mania’s car: one focused on her, the other on the passenger. The cameras never move. Apart from one crucial cut-away, the film sticks rigorously to these two perspectives. As realist minimalism goes, few filmmakers are this reductive. I was reminded of Andy Warhol’s Beauty No.2 (1964) and My Hustler (1965), films that share a similar observational aesthetic with Ten while also contemplating the medium and potential of cinema and of the spectator as an invisible (perhaps the primary) protagonist.


Kiarostami’s films are almost exclusively set out-of-doors, particularly since his 1991 breakthrough with And Life Goes On. He rarely takes his camera into buildings. Vehicle interiors are as close as he comes to entering personal spaces. This is one of the ways that Kiarostami encourages the viewer to consider the ethics of filmmaking and film viewing, particularly the assumption that cinema has the right to unrestricted-access to all areas on our vicarious behalf.


One effect of the fixed viewpoints in Ten is the awareness of off-screen space, such as in the first scene where Kiarostami denies visual access to Mania, thereby inhibiting our capacity to make judgments about her based on her appearance. Instead he directs our perceptive attention squarely (and deliberately) on Amin – a boy who will grow to become a man. Kiarostami's use of off-screen space speaks to the implicit selectivity of filmmaking. What isn’t seen in a Kiarostami film can be as important as what is (and in this respect sound is crucial). He’ll often focus on one person while another speaks out of frame - someone we may never see. When Mania talks to the prostitute for example, we never see the woman. This emphasises her words and Mania’s reaction to them, and to the woman herself.


When the prostitute leaves the car, Kiarostami cuts to a shot of her returning to work. Significantly, it’s the only shot we see from a viewpoint other than the fixed positions in the car. It’s the closest we come to seeing what the prostitute looks like, but we are still kept at a deliberate distance. What she does to survive and what she has to say about it is all we need to know. By not seeing her, our ability to judge by appearance and body language is again denied, emphasising the character’s right to privacy (or that of the person ‘playing’ her, after all, we don’t know for certain that she’s an actor), while limiting the possibility that her words (which are important to the meaning of the film) might be compromised by the viewer’s prejudices.


The use of digital video (equipment that gives everyone the means to ‘look’ where they perhaps shouldn't), gives a ‘surveillance’ feel to the film, allowing Kiarostami to refer to voyeurism without giving into it. Given the political boldness of Ten, it’s interesting that the look of the film has a ‘covert’ feel about it: a film made on the move, guerrilla-style, with tiny cameras, non-professional actors, and a director who isn’t even present during the shoot! We can’t even be sure if the actors (some or all of them) are actually acting. My initial impression was that only Mania knew about the cameras (with the possible exception of the woman in scenes 6 and 2), but I’ve since learned that the old woman was the only participant who didn’t know the cameras were there, and Amin (Mania’s real son) thought they were doing tests (hence his candidness).


Kiarostami’s fondness for blurring the distinctions between fiction and non-fiction so as to pose questions about what cinema is (or could be), is more to the fore in Ten than ever. It’s as much a philosophical choice as an artistic one, a conscious decision not to pander to conventional narrative tropes or voyeuristic expectations. Kiarostami has said that scenes that cause the viewer to avert their eyes (or to stoically grin and bare it) are unnecessary. By their very modesty, his films challenge the so-called transgressive and confrontational excesses of contemporary cinema, and the vicarious intimacies found within the relative anonymity of a darkened theatre. For example, what was the benefit (to the film, actors, or the viewer) of showing Kerry Fox fellate Mark Rylance in Patrice Chéreau’s Intimacy (1999)? One could say that provoking the question is justification enough, but Kiarostami’s films lead one to wonder (at the risk of seeming prudish) whether such questions need provoking.


Even with his comparatively chaste and respectful style, Kiarostami’s exploration of the ambiguous relationship between fiction and non-fiction has not been without controversy, as the reaction to the coda of A Taste of Cherry (1997) testifies. Some dismissed it as jarring and pretentious, an unnecessary post-modern intrusion that broke the spell of an otherwise engaging film, but perhaps ‘breaking the spell’ was the point. Film-critic Roger Ebert (renowned for his ‘two-thumbs-up’ endorsements of many overrated movies) described the film as evidence of an emperor with no clothes. “A case could be made for the film,” he said, “…but it would involve transforming the experience of watching it into something more interesting. Just as a bad novel can be made into a good movie, a bad movie can be made into a fascinating review.” Ebert may have been referring to those who write laudatory reviews that elevate films, in his opinion, above their station – something he of course never does! But his comment unwittingly reveals a key feature of Kiarostami’s art, the notion that a film can be transformed by the interpretative involvement of the viewer.


Without the coda A Taste of Cherry would still be a great film, although not as expansive. It would have culminated in the question “did the protagonist commit suicide or not?” With the coda this question remains, but with a much richer and more philosophical formal and narrative complexity. It offers the viewer the opportunity to contextualise the preceding 90-minutes, but only if they are willing to engage with the film on its terms rather than expecting it to conform to theirs. Admittedly, this is easier said than done. The seemingly factual video footage of the coda has the appearance of a making-of-documentary, but it is no less fictional than any other scene in the film. One could read the sequence as Kiarostami’s own ‘taste of cherry’, in which he celebrates creation over destruction, life over death.


The question of suicide is left deliberately up in the air, in part to invite the viewer to question the need for a definitive answer. This open-endedness suggests an approach to cinema where the traditional contracts between filmmaker and viewer are up for grabs. In my view, the coda of A Taste of Cherry transforms the film from great to masterpiece, in which Kiarostami expands the cinematic language in a way comparable to what Antonioni, Godard and others achieved in the ’60s. The questions it raised about the ambiguous relationship between truth and illusion is the starting point for Ten, and in this respect the film essentially expands (and explains) the final section of A Taste of Cherry.


While it is to an extent a summation of Kiarostami’s work to date, Ten is also a bold and urgent step forward on aesthetic and political levels. It may be minimalist, but it’s more incisive and significant than a multiplex full of mainstream super-productions. In light of the dominance of Hollywood, the need for films that (as Michael Haneke succinctly put it) “ask insistent questions instead of providing false answers; offer clarifying distance in place of violating closeness; and advocate provocation and dialogue instead of consumption and consensus” is as pertinent as ever.


Kiarostami’s films (especially Ten) do exactly that. They stand in opposition to the spurious notion that cinema is primarily a vehicle for commercial entertainment, a medium that (as some would have us believe) ought to conform to the dominant expectation of clear-cut and unambiguous characters, stories and narrative arcs. Angelopoulos was referring to his own densely elliptical films in the quote above, but both his and Welles’ comments apply equally well to the work of Abbas Kiarostami. His films are intended for those “willing to do their share of the work”, and with Kiarostami as boss the chore is always a pleasure.  


Originally published in The Lumiere Reader


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© Steve Garden 2017 

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