When Abbas Kiarostami made his first appearance at the New York Film Festival, in 1992, I had the privilege of sitting next to him as moderator for his press conference; and so I can testify that the assembled film intelligentsia wanted him to be a wog. They meant it in the nicest way, of course.
“Mr. Kiarostami,” went the first question after the screening of And Life Goes On, “why did you use Western music at the end?”
The music, Kiarostami explained, conveyed the mood he had wanted. Next question?
“But this is an Iranian film,” a second journalist protested. “Why did you use Western music?”
Kiarostami repeated his answer, after which a third journalist asked why he had used Western music.
With a glint of impatience now flashing behind his tinted eyeglasses, Kiarostami said, “I think of Vivaldi the way I think of the sun. He belongs to everybody.”
That ought to settle the matter, I told myself. And yet, when the next journalist raised his hand, we heard, “Mr. Kiarostami, when the man was listening to the radio in his car, why did you use Western music? It sounded like Tangerine Dream.”
“It was the theme music for the radio news,” Kiarostami replied. “In Tehran, we hear it all day long.”
A reasonable answer; you might even call it a neorealistic one. But even so, a vocal faction of the audience clearly was not satisfied. Kiarostami had shirked his responsibility to be Iranian and nothing but.
The irony of this consumerist demand for authenticity—or rather for a supposed son of the third world to enact authenticity—was surely not lost on the director of Close-Up. Today, as Kiarostami’s new film Certified Copy enters US theaters, bringing with it an endless mirror play of originality and replication, a deeply insoluble puzzle about felt experience and play-acting, I think of the reception it got at the 2010 Cannes and New York festivals—ecstatic in some cases, but lukewarm or dismissive in many others—and wonder if Kiarostami’s problem once again might be insufficient wogitude.
The insufficiency arises from the film’s being his first feature made in Europe (we may discount a contribution to an anthology a few years ago): a French-Italian co-production shot in Tuscany, starring Juliette Binoche and the opera singer William Shimell. Not a speck of Farsi; not an Iranian in sight. Judging Certified Copy solely on this basis, a cynic might suspect that the film represented nothing more than a plush paid vacation for Kiarostami. But then, think of where you might have seen something like this before: an all-but-plotless travelogue set in Italy, tracking the interactions between a beautiful, vibrantly dissatisfied woman of ripe middle years (who speaks a fluent but accented English) and a sleek, silver-haired British gentleman given to smug pronouncements (addressed to her) and outbursts of disparagement (directed at the locals). True to its title, Certified Copy is an imitation—of Rossellini’s Viaggio in Italia.
This is hardly the first time that Rossellini’s film has been mimicked. Godard did it in Contempt. Why should Kiarostami have any less right to do it now? Is one imitation more authentic than another? We’re getting into the topic announced in the first scene of Certified Copy, where a British author with dubious credentials (Shimell) appears before a small audience in Arezzo to lecture about his latest book. It is an art historical essay in praise of replicas, which have a long and noble tradition of their own, as he points out, and which deserve (in his view) to be accepted as equal to the original works. Joining the audience for this talk—tardily, raptly, distractedly, briefly—is a local antiques dealer (Binoche), who brings along her own replica: a teenage son.
She seems to be raising him on her own; but maybe the boy is also a replica of the author. This possibility suggests itself the following day, when Binoche and Shimell get together for the awkward, outwardly purposeless appointment that takes up the rest of the film. Meeting for what seems to be the first time, with no apparent knowledge of each other’s lives, they get into her car, drive aimlessly for a while and then (at her suggestion) visit the town of Lucignano, a spot the Tuscans consider propitious for weddings. Here, amid an overabundance of white dresses, cut flowers and broadly grinning hopes, Binoche and Shimell gradually start bickering, about the fifteen years of grievances that have piled up in what seems to be their marriage.
Are they strangers who just now came together, or a wife and husband who fell apart long ago? Which is the reality, and which the illusion? Kiarostami, as skillful a tease as ever, makes it irresistible to guess at an answer, even as he ensures that it’s futile to decide on one—because Certified Copy deliberately if subtly contradicts itself. Any reading of the situation turns out to be wrong. All you really know about these two people is that their little irritations with each other, and their big complaints, are similar to those of hundreds of millions of other couples, as if married life itself were a genuine imposture—as if Binoche and Shimell (who are, after all, a couple of actors) were performing from an nth-generation copy of an anonymous antique script, which nevertheless demands real emotion.
Reduced to this proposition, Certified Copy would be banal. But as an experience, it is nothing other than an escape from banality, as Binoche and Shimell convert the familiar into the spontaneous, moment by moment—and at strikingly different tempos. In any given pair of close-ups, Binoche will be making her pupils dart about like dark fireflies and sending half-suppressed thoughts racing across her features like the shadows of clouds; while Shimell, exuding the vanity of an opera star, sits there and breathes. You might describe the actors as engaged in a counterpoint of male phlegmatism and female hypersensitivity—until the end, when he becomes the jumpy one, and she (half-dressed and smiling knowingly) lolls across a bed in the dusk of a hotel room.
That last image is something Kiarostami will never get to shoot in Iran—which may help to explain why he would leave behind the land of Tangerine Dream radio music and make a film in Tuscany. But then, there’s a sense in which every other image of Certified Copy has appeared in earlier Kiarostami films. Once again, you see the narrow, twisting lanes, the darkened basement, the road cutting through a rolling countryside, the shaggy-haired boy, the loquacious cafe owner, even the cat who makes her way into every shot of a sequence. If the Iranian settings and figures have now been translated into Italian, I doubt it’s because Kiarostami was short on ideas. My sense is that he has recovered what was authentically his by imitating what belonged to somebody else.
It sounds tricky, this game of self and other, and it is. But as always with Kiarostami, it’s also as direct as can be. The signature images of Certified Copy are probably the pair of frontal close-ups in which first Binoche and then Shimell peer straight into the camera. They are studying themselves in the mirror—and we, evidently, are their reflection.
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It’s finally time for wistful ghosts, talking fish and red-eyed monkey-men to materialize in American theaters, as Film Forum in New York hosts the premiere run of Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives (see Klawans, “The Magic Mountain,” November 8). But there’s already another film in limited release—an American one—that is, in its way, just as enigmatic and elliptical, and even as dense with vegetation. This is Putty Hill, filmed in and around the lush woods of Baltimore by Matt Porterfield.
Less a drama than a collagelike portrait of a community, Putty Hill stitches together scenes in the lives of unmoneyed people, mostly young and white, who are about to attend a funeral. The corpse, scarcely more than 20 years old, belongs to the victim of a drug overdose—but we don’t learn much about him. The real subjects are his family and friends and the people in their orbit, whom Porterfield observes with a strange mixture of detachment and intimacy. Patient, wide-framed scenes of the performers (nonprofessionals for the most part) doing whatever they do alternate with close-ups, in which Porterfield, off-camera, poses questions like a documentarian conducting an interview. What struck me most, other than the uncanny tone of the picture, was the abiding sorrow—a sorrow only temporarily focused on the funeral, and perpetually searching for recreational distraction—and the shame that weighs down so many of these people. It’s a haunting film—and a haunted one.
From the great documentarian Patricio Guzmán (The Battle of Chile) comes a stunningly beautiful essay film, Nostalgia for the Light, set at once in Chile’s utterly barren Atacama desert, in troubled human memory and in the vastness of intergalactic space. As Guzmán notes in voiceover, the Atacama has almost no humidity (it is the only brown spot on our planet, as seen from space), and so it’s ideal for studying both the stars and prehistory. You see perfectly preserved petroglyphs of ancient Indian peoples; and you see clusters of astronomical observatories—white-domed scientific mosques under a uniformly blue sky—which record gorgeous tracks of light from a million years ago. You also see corpses. The Atacama is where miners labored and died in the nineteenth century (the little forests of their grave markers are the only vegetation in sight), and where the Pinochet regime dumped many of its victims in the twentieth. There are women who still go into the desert, day after day, looking for fragments of bones of their loved ones. Now grown old in their work but determined to continue, the film’s Victoria and Violeta are two more researchers into the past, just like the archaeologists and astronomers.
Nostalgia for the Light is dealing, then, with time at three different scales; with a varied and compelling set of witnesses and explainers; with the harsh mysteries of one of the most extraordinary places on earth; and above all with responsibility—to ourselves, our society, our species. I don’t know how you can put more into a film, or make one that’s more deeply moving.
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J. Hoberman gave the title The Dream Life to his history of American social and political mythmaking in the 1960s, proposing that the grand figures and recurring stories seen in the period’s movies and television shows might be thought of as constituting an alternate reality. However shamanistic this suggestion might sound, it had the hardheaded advantage of eliminating two common types of oversimplification: reducing this or that motion picture to a function of power struggles (in the manner of old-style ideological criticism), or else elevating it into an autonomous commentary on the world (as auteurism tends to do). Though opposite in their aims, these methods both arrest and atomize the flow of audiovisual production, interpreting each unit as the expression of (or response to) some equally chunky situation. Hoberman chose instead to construct a double narrative—of events in the public sphere, and of images in the dream life—and study how the two ongoing levels intersected, ran parallel, interfered with each other and sometimes got inextricably tangled. In this way he respected the ceaselessness of film, television and social change; he captured more of the complexity of their interplay; and he amused himself, and his readers, with overlaps that frequently took on the character of delirium.
The New Press has published Hoberman’s prequel to The Dream Life, titled An Army of Phantoms: American Movies and the Making of the Cold War ($29.95). Covering the period from the mid-1940s to 1956—that is, from Mission to Moscow to The Searchers and A Face in the Crowd—the book is not the first to track the period’s movies and political developments against each other (I can refer you to Nora Sayre’s Running Time, for one earlier example), but it is certainly the most ambitious, wide-ranging and deeply researched. When Hoberman writes sections titled “The Communist Was a Thing for the FBI!” and “Better Red Than Dead: Body-Snatched Prisoners of Comanche Mind Control,” you can rely on him to know exactly what he’s talking about. I say An Army of Phantoms belongs in every home, right next to the copy of Naming Names.