December 11, 2016
Abbas Kiarostami’s ‘Close-up’ (released in Iran in 1990) needs little introduction. This film not only introduced non-Iranian audiences to the new wave of Iranian cinema, and to a whole new world of film; it also revolutionized cinema outside of Iran (while at home, where the film was at first not well received, the recognition of its critical reception abroad encouraged Iranians to read their own new-wave of cinema in a new light—a fitting dialectic for this film). But apart from its needing little introduction, it is also a film that demands to be seen, and not written about, for its genius, or part of its genius, lies in the fact that what it communicates is communicated precisely in the reflective union of its form and content. Both must be, and can only properly be read and understood simultaneously. And this strange fact (whose strangeness, again, must be experienced to be understood) no doubt explains this film’s success as a film (which is to say, in terms of its realizing the pure possibilities that belong to this medium alone), and so too, its critical success. And so I should mention only a few essential things, including what is the film’s importance for me.
Kiarostami’s Close-up presents the true story of a fiction-drama—of a real-life man, Hossein Sabzian, who convinces a well-to-do family—the Ahankhahs—that he is the noted Iranian director, Mohsen Makhmalbaf. He offers to include them in his next film. But he is eventually discovered, arrested, and taken to prison. All of this really happened; and while Sabzian was still awaiting trial in Iran, the story was published in an Iranian newspaper. Mid-way through filming another production, Kiarostami learns of the case and hurriedly decides to get permission from Sabzian, the Ahankhahs, and the court to film the proceedings. He is successful, and the majority of the film is focused on the court-room trial, during which Sabzian humbly defends his actions, and is eventually pardoned by the Ahankhahs. But Kiarostami manages also to convince both parties, (as well as the journalist Farazmand who broke the story, and the officers present at Sabzian’s arrest) to fictionally re-enact the events leading up to the trial (and these scenes frame the real court scenes and provide the film’s narrative structure), and Kiarostami also ‘stages’ the movie’s dramatic finale: a passionate meeting between Sabzian and the real Makhmalbaf, who visit the Ahahnkhahs together in the beautiful closing scenes.
Part documentary, part dramatic reconstruction, the film inhabits these two levels simultaneously, and boundaries blur. There is the story—Sabzian’s-impersonating-Makhmalbaf—and then its reflexive telling, which increasingly becomes itself the subject of the film. Once Kiarostami’s partly-staged documentary enters the real world of Sabzian’s fiction—and the Ahahnkhah’s deception—both the story and the trial (whose course of events is increasingly determined by the film’s involvement) become a sort of alibi for the film’s interrogation of itself or film-in-general’s ability to capture truth without distorting it. And all this is communicated meta-filmically too. Almost everything in the film serves to distance the viewer in some way. We rarely truly get close-up to any character; or the closer we get the more things become distorted. In the re-enacted sequences, cars and objects come between the camera and the scene, or the camera dwells on seemingly unimportant details. The action is always at a distance. During the real court scenes (shot on grainy 16mm film) and in the film’s finale, equipment fails. Sound cuts out. We are made aware of the medium, as if to be reminded that neither staged-documentary nor recreated-reality are adequate to conveying, or discovering, unobstructed truth.
Close-up moves imperceptibly between these layers and by utilizing the pure poetry of Kiarostami’s cinematic language. But despite the constant presence of these themes (reality-as-fiction, art-imitating-life-imitating-art and so on) the film’s intent is not reducible to simple statement about the limits of film or any documentary medium to dis-cover truth, and to lay bare the mechanics of the ‘real’; what it interrogates, rather, is the at-once-beautiful, but tragic promise that cinema (like all art) offers by way of a sort of justification for life’s injustice and suffering. For the artist, no less than the executor of the law, has to choose; she has to stand somewhere, and her impartiality reflects nothing more nor less than her having some criterion, which she uses to determine what is essential and what is inessential, and what can be called upon as evidence. But it is not clear what art’s criterion, in promising some form of redemption, is. Sabzian, we learn, became obsessed with cinema because of the justification, the meaning, that it gave to his own anguish. But he ends up becoming its literal and figurative prisoner, just as the Ahahnkhahs are drawn into Sabzian’s world and ruse through their own obsession for cinema. And though the film manages to draw out a beautiful lesson from this, it is only through its own becoming perilously involved in that reality that it set out merely to represent, and not, as it were, to author.
* These reflections on Close-up are part of an ongoing conversation between myself and Timothy Johannessen (researcher-in-philosophy/artist). For each of us, this film has deeply influenced our vision and practice.