At the Berkeley Art Museum a fan blew at one Kiarostami photograph. The rest of his works remained still--like the audience in a theater-- while this projected video of branches and leaves apparently swayed in the turbulence created by the fan. The famed film director had broadened me forever with awareness of the very air between the projector and the screen. Beware, those who would walk blithely into Abbas Kiarostami’s mind, the door you entered through will be too small to let you back out.
I was late for a rendez-vous with friends to see some of Kiarostami’s early films being shown across the street, so I hurried past his photographs of trees in the snow, promising to return while their winter still hung on the walls.
“I have a ticket waiting for me,” I announced at the will-call booth.
“Excuse me, sir,” came an irked voice from behind me, “but there’s a line here?”
How did I miss seeing all the people in the queue, when my eyes could now see invisible air? "Sorry ma’m,” I said to her. And almost confided, “I thought I was ignoring a row of trees planted in the snow.” Beware!
Kiarostami looked on with amusement as I trudged to the back of line. Not Abbas, but his son Ahmad, who had labored to make the event happen. He welcomed us, then sat one row behind us with a couple of his artist friends. We chatted each other up with such good natured Iranian cinema banter that I nostalgically wished I had brought some pistachios and tohkmeh to share. It would not have been out of place. Abbas Kiarostami’s signature is never to let go of his earthy humor, even when his protagonist is on a mountain talking to God--on a cell phone. Even when she is losing her son to patriarchal insensitivity, while the kid wonders if the cream puffs she bought are for the guests.
Kiarostami uses comedy to constantly slap awake the upper layers of consciousness fatigued by the tragedies he frames before us. A sense of humor is a big part of what enables this artist to create aesthetics out of misery.
For example, So Can I, released when Abbas was in his mid thirties, already predicts the future authority of his signature seal of humor. In this cartoon short, a child realizes he can ludicrously jump like a kangaroo, laughably crawl like a worm, and passably swim like a fish. But when he ponders whether he can fly like a bird, he is stumped. As adults we laugh at the child’s charming dilemma, but how many times have we been confronted with the tragedy of human limitations? How many times have we wept helplessly as death took away a loved one? The film ends with a magnificent shot of a jet plane taking off, engines screaming louder than thirty simorghs.
Decades later, in The Wind Will Carry Us, Abbas’ formidable flight of humorous intellect challenged the tragic limitations of Iran’s censorship laws. Juxtaposing the simple milking of a cow with a sensuous Farrokhzaad love poem, he dared the pious censors to make the dirty-minded connection to ejaculation, putting them in a damned-if-you do, damned-if-you-don’t checkmate.
It is unwise, however, to be too confident of having discovered the elements of Kiarostami’s craft. Bread and Alley (1970) another short film insightfully included in the day’s lineup, shows that the genius director is often steps ahead of his critics. In this ten minute directorial debut, a vicious guard dog blocks passage in an alley leading to a boy’s home. The solution to the quandary seems obvious at the outset. The boy is on his way home from buying bread for his family, all he has to do is make friends with the animal by giving it a scrap of the bread. We Iranian adults, versed in the poet Sa’di’s didactic morality watch the boy arrive at the classically proper solution. But Kiarorstami has a surprise for us that transcends the 13th century poet by centuries. After the boy buys his passage with that scrap of bread, the dog begins to guard the alley the boy lives in, making us understand what the hungry animal was protecting in the first place. All along, the deeper subject of the story had been the human animal and our post-Darwinian-psychology, not the boy and his medieval predicament. Checkmate!
Therefore, I feel wary of the grandmaster as I critique the last work in that day’s Kiarostami lineup, a filmmaking masterpiece called The Traveler.
Released five years before Iran’s Islamic Republic came to power, The Traveler has turned out to be an oracular study of fanatic passion. The plot revolves around Ghassem, a poor teenager from the small town of Malayer. He worships the seventies’ national soccer hero, Ghelichkhani. In his resolve to make a pilgrimage to Tehran’s Amjadieh soccer stadium he balks at nothing, however unethical, to come up with his ticket and travel money.
Kiarostami makes us laugh when the resourceful boy goes around with a filmless camera conning his vain but destitute classmates into paying for portraits. Later, we watch more soberly as Ghassem secretly sells his own soccer team’s equipment to the rival team. We discovered the boy’s frightening zeal earlier when he endures torture at the hands of his headmaster rather than give up the few Tomans stolen from his own mother. For Ghassem, the soccer match in Tehran is not just a teenage dream, it is the heartless stuff of religious fanaticism. It is not just an ambition of admirable intensity, it is a quest for fulfillment of spiritual lust. The aesthetic allure of his purpose transcends friendship, compassion, love, all the gentle elements of human morality.
There are scenes in which the mother blames the father, and the headmaster blames the mother for not intervening early enough. But their powerless mannerisms show clearly that no one is a match for Ghassem’s innate single-mindedness.
Yet, like a nature film on the Discovery channel, Kiarostami makes us root for this beautiful natural predator. We adore scruffy little Ghassem for his precocious determination. We sigh at his disappointments and cheer as he emerges triumphant after each crisis. From the film’s view, Ghassem’s opponent is not the society he victimizes, but the Universe that gave him desire without the means. Posed in this way, it is impossible not to give heart and soul to the boy who commands into the Void, “let there be justice for me.” The rest of humanity, queued up to receive their rights, might as well be a row of trees planted in the snow.
Relentlessly raising the stakes, Kiarostami now embarrasses us in our willingness to be led astray. In an ironic scene, Ghassem is victimized by his future self. The stadium ticket office runs out just before our hero’s turn to finally buy his passage to the game. A scalper--who is responsible for the shortage--makes the desperate boy pay four times as much for that ticket. Just what Ghassem will do when he grows up. We thought we were thick as thieves with Abbas, giving our approving wink to Ghassem’s machinations. It turns out the director was putting us to the test all along. Beware!
Kiarostami’s devastating critique of our sense of fairness falters, however, in the scenes just before the final shot. He knows something important is still left unsaid. Redemption is the piece of the jigsaw puzzle that an artist from a Christian culture may have snapped into place. But for Kiarostami redemption is not a jigsaw piece, it is a chess piece. The black and white squares of morality are just the background to vastly more complex subtleties.
Sidestepping a naive resolution in salvation, the young Kiarostami clumsily twists the plot towards retribution. Ghassem inexplicably falls asleep just before the soccer match begins, missing union with his divine. A dream sequence suggesting the weight of subconscious guilt felled our hero is uncharacteristically heavy handed. The sudden transmutation of Ghassem’s mettle seems beneath Kiarostami’s savvy. Is the director still taunting us towards a better understanding of ourselves? Or was this just a blunder by a young director with a small budget for editing and rewrites?
Fortunately, The Traveler is a still portrait of Ghassem, it is not his story. As in some other Kiarostami photographs presented in motion picture format, what evolves is the viewer, not the image. The story is in the frustrations he leaves behind that continue to add reels in our minds. What will happen to the heartbroken Ghassem now that he is marooned penniless in a metropolis? Will he fall prey to his own kind? If he outsmarts them, will he grow up to be an unscrupulous leader who would lie to mire his nation in unjust wars? Or by some rare transcendence, will he become a great director with sharper insight into right and wrong than those who have never grappled with passion and its dishonest ways?
After the show, we stepped out to happier frustrations. The restaurant we like gets booked up at night. Chopin’s #20 nocturne, was left unfinished on a friend’s piano from earlier in the day when we had to hurry for the theatre.
In between the sun and the night, Kiarostami’s still frames, and air.