It’s really tough to square out and acknowledge exactly what makes movies and filmmakers that experiment and bend with the form of the medium so very intellectually stimulating to me. It might just be the challenge towards my perceived notions and comfortable expectations with what a film would do: “it would tell a story like so and so and so and so and it would look like so and so and so and so”. If it were really challenging, I feel I would be a lot more antagonistic towards the movies themselves, but instead I find it a lot more fun and engaging, no less so than watching a guy bungeeing off a giant rig in the Australian outback jamming on a flamethrower guitar. Every single time – Inland Empire, Full Frontal, F for Fake, hell even the concept of what Psycho is doing (acknowledging it can no longer work today where everybody is aware of its narrative structure) – it gives me more to roll around in my head after watching. I can think more on what kind of subjective material I’m witnessing and how much the movie itself believes its content. It’s probably why formalism – figuring out why a movie chooses to be presented the way it does – interests me more than narrative. That shit just rocks my socks.
Anyway, all of this is to say the Iranian poet/artist/filmmaker Abbas Kiarostami was probably not the first artist to introduce this possibility of movies being more than our pre-conceived notions of what movies are nor is Close-Up the movie to introduce me to that (Ingmar Bergman’s Persona is probably that film), but it introduced me to the idea that such a clinically intellectual approach to movies, so aware of their form, could also be humane. For Kiarostami was possibly one of the most humane filmmakers of my time (and I miss him since his passing last year) and Close-Up feels like potentially the most humane film out of a man who wrote The White Balloon and directed Where Is the Friend’s Home? and Taste of Cherry.
It certainly helps that the humanity behind Close-Up is a man whose crime is fuelled solely by his love for movies, not malice, not any intent for theft. Hossain Sabzian – our subject – only convinced the Ahankhah family in Tehran that he was the famous filmmaker Mohsen Makhmalbaf (who is just as much a national treasure as Kiarostami was) simply because he found himself so affected by Makhmalbaf’s films that he couldn’t help but identify with the artist behind the work. Why wouldn’t one expect the sympathies of a filmmaker and film audience be with another cinephile and hear him out in the moments where he explains what Makhmalbaf’s films changed his life?
Now, here’s where Kiarostami plays with our subjectivity of the film: Close-Up is essentially a docudrama. Parts of the film are obviously documentary captured in real-time including the trial of Sabzian (indeed, the trial and the extended opening scene of reporter Hossain Farazmand provide the informal elements of what happened), which acts somewhat as a frame for us, and others are re-enactments, and the film doesn’t do a great job to hide which is which (the visual and audial elements of the verite segments are more troubled than the re-enacted portions). I’m not sure this is something Kiarostami intended but it works wonders because knowing from the get-go that elements of what we’re watching are just fake means we, as an audience, can recognize that we’re being manipulated into this story. At the same time, the veracity of the more important moments refuses to let us watch this at a divide from Sabzian and the family’s drama, we’re just as engaged as they are.
Now, we’re definitely not going to be denied the fact that what Sabzian did, in the end, was criminal and there’s no such thing as innocence in this film. The elder son of the Ahankhahs, Mehrdad, is there to remind us that there is a matter of money borrowed under false pretenses and Sabzian claimed an interest to filming the family in their house, after all. Alarm is understandable. And there’s a clear resentment from Mehrdad and the others that he won’t actually be involved in a film like Sabzian promised that Kiarostami also understands. And yet Close-Up is patient with Sabzian’s diatribes and interested in him – the camera fixes on him when he talks about how the act has made him confident and felt more of a connection to Makhmalbaf than ever before. And in the end, it plays so obviously with the fact of what Sabzian has done with kid gloves and a willingness to forgive all involved, but I don’t think that’s such a bad thing.
The manipulation comes full circle upon a late re-enactment of Sabzian’s arrest. Essentially a fixed shot waiting game, it’s where Kiarostami tries to test out whether or not we love Sabzian as much as he does by making him the subject of a Hitchcockian thriller scene where we know the outcome and are anticipating the moment he has to be taken away by the police. It’s a scene that relies on our perspective being affected by Sabzian’s testimony to work and when it works, it’s a triumph to Kiarostami’s manipulation of the facts (hell, it has to be somewhat aware of the camera’s presence in the courtroom somehow affecting the verdict) and cinema’s general ability to be generous to a character’s psyche.
And then it compounds that generosity by one of the most affectionate motions that a document could make to its subject, an ending that leaves all parties satisfied and pleasant to a point that radiates unto the audience. Giving how much room it leaves for thinking about how what we witness has went (the sound is turned off during the scene; played within the film as an accident, but actually a deliberate decision by Kiarostami as a last manipulation), the viewer can insert himself into Sabzian the same feeling of validation and wonder at finally meeting their hero. Or the optimism of its final shot. Kiarostami knows what he’s doing all the way through (and hell even presents Makhmalbaf himself as just as manipulative in his visit to the flowershop). But what’s wrong with manipulating the audience in the end, especially with film? It’s what makes me endear to Spielberg’s sentimentality and never find the criticism worth that much thought. It’s what makes me root for ambitious projects even if I sense failure in them. It’s what makes film so engaging and makes me glad it’s possible to exist.
I defy anybody to walk out of a movie that’s obvious in what it’s trying to do than Close-Up and leave without a great feeling. Such a movie only means the best. For you, for me, and for all cinema. I would not hesitate to call it the most important movie of the last 30 years.
P.S. apropos of nothing, if you are interested in Makhmalbaf’s films, Kandahar seems to be his best known. My personal favorite is A Moment of Innocence and I have a love for Salam Cinema. Iranian filmmaking is a treasure and I encourage you guys to dig into it.
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