Close-Up

This article first appeared in issue no. 17 in 2001.

In the opening moments of Abbas Kiarostami’s Close-Up (1990), a man drives a reporter and two policemen to a house where the policemen are to arrest another man, and as they drive their conversation quickly sets up the facts of the case: the man has ingratiated himself with a certain family by passing himself off as the well-known filmmaker Mohsen Makhmalbaf and may or may not be attempting to con them. At first, as intriguing a hook as the facts of the case are, there’s a distractingly laidback, expository feel to the film, as if the filmmaker didn’t want to take the trouble to set things up dramatically. But soon it becomes clear that something much more willful and unorthodox is going on here. Having apparently fulfilled its purpose, the scene refuses to give way to the next. The men finish talking about the case but continue to converse, discussing their hometowns, their careers, and so on. Soon, realizing that they’re lost, they stop a couple times to ask for directions, and everything plays out in real time. And then, having arrived at the family’s house, Kiarostami mischievously (but significantly) keeps his eye trained on the driver as he waits outside, turning the car around, picking up flowers, kicking a can down the road (for a minute, Kiarostami goes even further, following the can’s progress down the street until it becomes almost more of a protagonist than the driver).

The flood of Iranian films that has occurred over the last several years has brought a group of movies that are both individually distinct and conjoined by a kind of shared vocabulary, the latter of which is perfectly embodied in Close-Up‘s opening sequence. Close-Up was Kiarostami’s fifth feature, and the first to blur the line between fiction and documentary to the point of creating an unclassifiable hybrid, a path he and several other Iranian filmmakers have continued to explore. The man at the center of Close-Up, and the story that revolves around him, are not fictional creations—a man named Hossain Sabzian did impersonate Mohsen Makhmalbaf, and it’s the real Sabzian we see on-screen. In fact, all the performers in Close-Up are non-professionals playing themselves, and this includes Makhmalbaf and Kiarostami, the latter of whom appears in the film interviewing Sabzian and the other participants and filming allegedly real-life situations, such as Sabzian’s trial. Kiarostami’s next film, …And Life Goes On (1991), developed this approach further, and it’s since become a veritable trope of Iranian cinema, most notably in films by none other than Mohsen Makhmalbaf (The Moment of Innocence [1996]), his daughter Samira (The Apple [1998]), and Kiarostami’s disciple, Jafar Panahi (The Mirror, [1997]). Their self-consciousness is of course far from unprecedented, owing a lot to Godard certainly, and perhaps especially to the Taviani brothers. But it’s the Iranians’ particular brand of self-consciousness that distinguishes them, a self-consciousness that is never merely clever, never an end in itself.

The only other film that seems to me to work similarly is Louis Malle’s Vanya on 42nd Street (1994), a filmed play that is somehow more cinematic than theatrical. Only Vanya springs to mind when I try to think of a movie that manages to be self-conscious without sacrificing anything in the way of narrative involvement or character development. Vanya extends its subject to include theater itself—making theater, performing theater, watching theater—but everything that was the subject of the play in the first place is still very much at the heart of the film. Vanya has it both ways—it is the play and it’s about the play. Close-Up and Moment of Innocence work the same way. Both tell fascinating stories, and both do much more—they tell the story of telling the story, and they tell the story of making a movie of telling the story. They’re the cinematic equivalent of gazing into a mirror facing a mirror—each reality is enclosed within a broader one, so that we find ourselves peering into a sort of tunnel of realities. But each mirror image is clear, precise, and independent of its framing images. Close-Up and Moment of Innocence tell a story within a story within a story without sacrificing the clarity or the self-sufficiency of any one of them.

It may seem that Kiarostami and Makhmalbaf, with their self-conscious layering, are distancing us from what they’re showing us, and on one level they are. But then again, as we gaze at the subject from our spot at a distance, we’re barely aware that the real story is weaving itself around us where we stand. The opening of Close-Up is an early indication of this, a clue (one that may not register until later in the movie) not to take the subject of the film too much for granted. Kiarostami seems to be denying us the story, teasingly withholding it, but perhaps he is simply telling a different story, one we’re not attuned to, one we’re not expecting to be told. Near the end, when Kiarostami eventually returns to his opening scene, this time showing it from Sabzian’s perspective, the movie suddenly takes on a shape, it crystallizes into a form, that is not at all documentary-like. The whole package, complete with multiple layers and self-consciousness and fragmentation, begins acting like a whole, coherent story, and a particularly affecting one at that. If we were frustrated by Kiarostami’s approach towards storytelling it’s only because our conception of the story was much narrower than his. The real story hasn’t been passed off as a documentary—it encompasses the documentary.

As striking as the complexity of films like Close-Up and Moment of Innocence may be, it’s easy to be distracted from a more common quality within Iranian cinema, of which this post-modern self-consciousness is only a part: a playful yet profound desire to nudge us out of the rut our narrative expectations have dug us into, to draw our attention and our interest to details, moments, qualities that we generally register only as a blur out the window as the plot speeds us onwards. Even the more straightforwardly fictional films, like Where is the Friend’s Home (Kiarostami, 1987), The Silence (Mohsen Makhmalbaf, 1998), and The Circle (Panahi, 2000), are constantly relocating the story, guiding us away from what we may consider the main narrative and encouraging us to concentrate on the little, ephemeral incidents that spring up naturally and spontaneously. They’re not afraid to let a scene wander off in an unexpected, seemingly random direction, to let each scene become a self-enclosed mini-story of its own. In the opening moments of Close-Up, we’re denied (temporarily) the story about Sabzian, but instead we get a story about a driver killing time until he’s needed again. Moment of Innocence, Makhmalbaf’s film about himself and a former policeman, who he stabbed years ago as part of a political protest, collaborating on a movie about the incident, is full of scenes that take on a shape and an identity of their own: the policeman takes his young alter-ego to a tailor and the tailor takes over the film, expounding at great length on classic Hollywood cinema; Makhmalbaf and his alter-ego discuss their mutual habit of pressing flowers in their books; young Makhmalbaf and his girlfriend have an extended, heartfelt conversation about their life-ambitions as they walk through the streets. Thanks to Makhmalbaf’s artistry, these scenes do, of course, fit into the movie as a whole. But the beauty of them is that they never feel like pieces in a puzzle. While they’re playing out, they are everything; we lose ourselves in them entirely.

This sensitivity to the beauty of the everyday, the spontaneous, and the unspectacular—this desire to capture the rhythm of lived experience—suggests neo-realism. The self-consciousness of Close-Up, Moment of Innocence, and The Apple might appear to take these movies in a direction opposite to that of such direct and unadorned films as The Bicycle Thief (Vittorio De Sica, 1948) and Umberto D. (De Sica, 1952), but it might also be seen as leading to something like a post-modern neo-realism: neo-realism ad absurdio. The stories which seem to have been plucked from reality have been replaced by stories which truly have been; the actors have become not only non-professionals, “real” people, but the “real” people, the actual protagonists of the actual stories; and the illusion of the absence of the filmmakers has been taken one step further—how can they be present behind the camera when they’re right there in front of it? Neo-realism tried to cut through dramatic conventions to put us more directly in touch with experience, to make us forget that we were being told a story. Contemporary Iranian cinema goes an extra step to achieve something comparable: to trick us into forgetting that we’re watching a movie they pretend to acknowledge their own movieness, to drop all pretenses. But of course, nothing has really changed. Neo-realism always aspired to a documentary-like quality; in this sense, Close-Up, Moment of Innocence, and The Apple are the most neo-realistic movies yet—not content to appear factual, they actually try to pass themselves off as documentaries.

And not just by casting the people who were actually involved, or by including the filmmakers as characters. One of Kiarostami’s boldest strokes in Close-Up (which is made up almost entirely of bold strokes) is his defiant contradiction of the conventional wisdom, “show don’t tell.” Close-Up is full of telling, of talking heads, in the place of dramatization; we don’t see most of the story, we hear it from Sabzian, in interviews with Kiarostami or, in the centerpiece of the film, during his trial. Kiarostami resists the temptation to take advantage of the immediacy that fictional filmmaking can achieve, choosing instead to adopt (artificially) the limitations he would face if he were truly making a documentary. The gamble pays off beautifully, partly because it’s unexpectedly exhilarating to have so much left to the imagination, to have the opportunity to collaborate, in a sense, with the filmmaker—we dramatize the material in our own minds—and partly because the immediacy that is apparently sacrificed (of being a direct witness to the events Sabzian narrates) is replaced by a different kind of immediacy. We may not experience Sabzian’s story directly, but we certainly feel as if we’re in direct contact with Sabzian himself.

Moment of Innocence

The method Kiarostami uses in Close-Up suggests neo-realism in its flexibility as well. Moment of Innocence is in many ways very similar to Close-Up, but as interesting and striking as the similarities between the two are, to do justice to them you have to put at least as much emphasis on how exhilaratingly different they are from each other. The movies’ self-reflexivity is never just icing on the cake, never an affectation, but neither is it the whole story; it functions differently in each film. Moment of Innocence is about idealism, political and personal morality, political and personal responsibility, and, encompassing all of this, the notion of interpretation. The film’s self-consciousness is as much historical as it is cinematic. But Close-Up centers on a single figure, and its post-modern layering seems to issue forth from this character’s nature. This is why the film’s apparent distancing effects never overwhelm Sabzian or his story; they’re formal manifestations of his personality. The movie’s pretensions to documentary realism reflect Sabzian’s adoption of Makhmalbaf’s identity—both film and character are trying to pass themselves off as something they are not. And by casting Sabzian as Sabzian, Kiarostami calls attention to the fact that he is an actor through and through, within the film and without. At one point, Kiarostami, addressing Sabzian from offscreen, goes so far as to tell him, “Now you are playing the role of you.” Sabzian is a fascinating figure precisely because of his decision to assume a role, to live his life by acting. In the movie, he is playing himself playing Makhmalbaf.

You don’t come away from Close-Up buzzing with highly cerebral ideas about the nature of cinema; you come away contemplating Sabzian’s failure and his delusion, and the extent to which we all spend our lives acting, inhabiting the identities we’ve created for ourselves, in an attempt to make life bearable. It’s impossible not to relate Sabzian, extreme example though he is (having appropriated rather than created an identity), to ourselves. But doing so begs the question of whether or not Kiarostami is suggesting that even the seemingly repentant, sincere Sabzian is acting. When he says to him, during the trial, “Now you are playing the role of you,” is this simply a self-conscious acknowledgement that he is in fact playing himself in a movie called Close-Up, or is it a farther reaching statement? The question has a special urgency for anyone who has seen the short follow-up film, Close-Up/Long-Shot (Mamhoud Chokrollahi and Moslem Mansouri, 1996), in which we see a far more sinister Sabzian, showing no traces of remorse and clearly thriving on his new status as a quasi-celebrity.

There’s strong evidence, I think, that Kiarostami at least means for us to continue to question Sabzian’s sincerity even after he has been arrested and pleads for forgiveness. But certainly, in the deeply moving final moments of Close-Up, Kiarostami gives him the benefit of the doubt, portraying him as a broken and emotionally naked man, and giving him perhaps a more sympathetic characterization than he deserves. It’s possible that the real Sabzian is not capable of shedding his role, of examining himself as honestly as he seems to in the movie’s final minutes. But on the movie’s own terms, does it really matter if the Sabzian of the conclusion—Sabzian as interpreted by Kiarostami—does not correspond exactly to Sabzian as he actually exists? Appearances to the contrary, Kiarostami is making a narrative movie, not a documentary, and it’s difficult to imagine a more powerful, cathartic ending than the one he’s come up with. It’s possible that a more accurate portrayal would’ve meant a colder, more cynical film.

A great deal of the power of Close-Up has to do with its close, if ambiguous, ties to reality; but then again, its divergence from reality is not only acceptable, it’s inevitable, and this inevitability is part of the movie’s subject. Casting Sabzian as Sabzian may seem like a shortcut to explaining him. But I don’t think it works that way; I think confronting him face to face, having the opportunity to look into his eyes, emphasizes the impossibility of knowing him, of getting to the bottom of his personality and motives and beliefs. Knowing that the man we are watching is not a performer renders the real Sabzian even more elusive. An actor’s role is to draw us into the character, to make his personality to at least some degree transparent. But watching Sabzian, we know that the truth is there, residing in this man, but we know also that it is trapped within him, well beyond our grasp. So, paradoxically, by pretending to pass his film off as documentary, Kiarostami calls attention to the fact that it is and could only be an interpretation.

The Wind Will Carry Us may seem more straightforward and less sophisticated than the more multi-leveled Close-Up. But if anything, it goes even further in the direction that the earlier film set for itself. The Wind Will Carry Us is like the opening of Close-Up extended to feature length. Close-Up teases us by dangling the story just out of reach for some time, but eventually, in its roundabout, sophisticated, self-conscious way, it surrenders the story to us. In The Wind Will Carry Us the teasing never really ends. There is a story—the central character, a reporter, accompanied by several (unseen) colleagues, travels to a small hill-town in Iranian Kurdistan, ostensibly to report on the life of a village but in fact intending to capture a funereal ritual peculiar to the region; first, though, he must wait for an old, sick woman to expire, something she inconveniently refuses to do. It’s an intriguing, mischievous plot, but Kiarostami goes it one better mischief-wise by abandoning it, protected only by its inherent interest, to fend for itself; he never quite seems to get around to telling this story. Instead, he devotes the movie to the space around the story, to the reporter’s awkward, limbo-like existence as he waits for the woman to die and the seemingly minor, unimportant, unconnected incidents that occupy his time. Close-Up delighted in upsetting our expectations, in sneaking up on us and taking us by surprise. The Wind Will Carry Us shares a lot with the earlier film, but its approach is subtler and more gentle. It doesn’t hide the story—the story is there, in the background all the time—but it persists in tugging us away from it, in concentrating our attention elsewhere, in encouraging us to settle into the village and the rhythm of the village’s life, and above all to observe and experience. Watching the driver in Close-Up twiddle his thumbs and kick a can down the street while what we’ve been set up to think of as the story takes place out of view, we may admire Kiarostami’s boldness but we can’t help but feel a bit distracted and frustrated. But once you’ve settled into The Wind Will Carry Us, once you’ve adjusted to its rhythm and learned that waiting for the story to take over is the wrong way to approach it, the movie wraps itself around you and pulls you deep within every moment, whether it’s the bantering of the villagers at a dusty tea-shop, the conversation between the reporter and a pregnant mother doing laundry across the courtyard, the mysterious, charged interaction with the young girl milking a cow in a pitch-black basement, or simply the reporter’s wandering through the byzantine, multi-leveled village.

Film is a medium that is capable of achieving a breathtaking sense of immediacy, of creating the illusion that we are directly in touch with experience. The Wind Will Carry Us is a movie that’s as full a demonstration of this as any, and with good reason—it’s a large part of what the film is about. The story, elusive as it is, concerns the reporter’s desire to record, to capture, a certain ritual, to commit to film a portion of existence that, presumably, is disappearing. The narrative, which is not really a narrative, has to do with the reporter’s increasing realization that he’s going to fail to capture this ritual. As he resigns himself to this failure to document, as he resigns himself, in other words, to death and oblivion, he gradually gives himself over to the flow of life in the village. The profound beauty of The Wind Will Carry Us grows out of the way it chooses to convey this. Instead of telling a story about a character awakening to experience and peacefulness, instead of making his feelings and thoughts transparent, it allows us simply to inhabit his world, to experience his sense of time and his sense of space, and to share his awakening—it inspires us to feel emotions that we can only assume are his emotions as well.

For all these films’ formal originality and sophistication, for all their self-consciousness, finally what makes them extraordinary is their directness, their effortless grace and beauty and truthfulness. They’re playful, mischievous movies, pinching us and provoking us out of our passive movie-watching habits, and doing so explicitly, boldly, unashamedly. But all these tricks and maneuvers and strategies end up putting us more closely in touch, not less, with what really matters—they explode everything we’re used to in terms of narrative and character development and the line between fiction and documentary, until all that’s left is what’s all-important: in Close-Up, the mystery of personality, of identity, of self-justification; in Moment of Innocence, the muddled, mixed emotions at the heart of a political confrontation; in The Wind Will Carry Us, the flow of experience. All five manage to find exhilaratingly new ways of taking us to exhilaratingly old places, to strike out in new cinematic directions without losing sight of what is essential and has always been essential. These filmmakers are highly self-conscious, but their self-consciousness is simply one aspect of a wider consciousness, a curiosity and sensitivity towards their characters and the worlds they inhabit.