I Am Day
There is often the notion that post-modern cinema plays up self-reflexivity on the level of pastiche. Think of films like The Last Action Hero with Arnold Schwarzenegger, the Scream films and Kiss Kiss Bang Bang. These are films where the generically self-conscious is central to the viewer’s pleasure as we anticipate the action with a knowingness that isn’t only due to our sophistication as viewers who know the conventions, but also the self-conscious sophistication of the filmmakers playing up that very sense of sophistication.
Then there are films labelled post-modern that play up and play with the genre conventions as they anticipate a high level of self-consciousness in relation to the viewer’s genre expectations. Central to Fredric Jameson’s notion of the post-modern in an article called ‘Postmodernism and Consumer Society’ is the way films like Chinatown and Body Heat expect the viewer to be aware of the classic noirs of the forties. It almost doesn’t matter that the former is set in the past; the latter the present: what counts is the capacity to generate a sense of nostalgia or pastiche. As Jameson says of Body Heat, “technically, then, its objects (its cars for instance) are 1980s products, but everything in the film conspires to blur that immediate contemporary reference and to make it possible to receive this too as a nostalgia work”.
There is a sense in each instance of the post-modern feeding off other films, that central to the post-modern condition is the way art echoes other art. As Jean-Francois Lyotard says in an article, ‘Defining the post-modern”, “this use of repetition or quotation, be it ironical or not, cynical or not, can be seen in the trends dominating contemporary painting…” – and generally all the arts.
However what is so refreshing about Abbas Kiarostami’s Close-Up is that, while thoroughly self-reflexive, it apparently owes nothing to the post-modern, and certainly nothing at all to pastiche. Indeed critics have invoked the name of the great 13th century spiritual poet Rumi to find a way into Kiarostami’s films, rather than post-modern thinkers like Jameson and Lyotard. This is perhaps because his work calls attention to itself not on the basis that everything is a representation, as we might find with the examples above, but more that everything is capable of being true: as Rumi says in the poem Polishing the Mirror: “A thief loves the night. I am day. I reveal essences.” In this sense, Kiarostami’s work is an inversion of the post-modern. Where central to post-modernism is the gap between the image of reality and what is reality – with the sign often victorious over essence – Kiarostami’s work searches out that essence: he may be interested in the problem of reality, but that doesn’t mean he gives in to the non-essential. Kiarostami is, in this sense, day to postmodernism’s night: he reveals essences.
The question that seems to interest Kiarostami, though, in this semi-documentary about a man who impersonated the director Mohsen Makhmalbaf, is the idea that the real Hossain Sabzian doesn’t so much impersonate him as an act of deceit, but as a process of self-discovery. As Kiarostami films the court case as Sabzian is on trial for fraud, and also re-enacts certain scenes with Sabzian and the family subject to the ruse, so the director creates a space where Sabzian gets to be an actor playing the director he wanted to become. He may have impersonated Makhmalbaf believing he wanted to be a director, but the ruse of masquerading as a director, of course, demands that one instead becomes an actor.
However there is also the sense that Sabzian doesn’t especially want to be a director nor an actor, but someone seeking a certain space in his life to get away from his own emotionally stunted existence. His wife lives elsewhere, and his work is intermittent. Though the family members who seem almost to semi-adopt him, believing he is a great director, aren’t entirely successful (one son is unemployed; the other works in a bread making factory), both sons are engineering graduates, while the daughter is soon going to study at university herself. The family home is also comfortable and roomy, and so we might say that Sabzian isn’t only an actor impersonating a director, but also a vulnerable soul looking for credence in a stable, comfortably off family. At one stage during the trial he quotes Tolstoy saying “art is a sentimental experience that the artist develops in himself and shares with others”, and it is as though for Sabzian it is the sentimental experience that counts.
But where does Kiarostami stand on the Tolstoy comment, for he seems interested in the sentimental experience and also the distance the director must necessarily take to contextualize the sentiment without denying it? There are several ways in which this is achieved. The first is to film the trial and the second is to re-enact certain experiences that lead up to Sabzian’s arrest. This creates a certain amount of distance through the filming of the reality on the one hand and the recreation of the reality on the other. First, we have Sabzian contrite at the trial; then we have Sabzian slightly aloof, even domineering, playing himself after the trial in reality, but before the trial in fictional terms. In the fiction he must once again play Makhmalbaf, but has he become in the process someone turning their sentimental experience into art through Kiarostami’s re-enactment? In the scene where, after spending a night at the family’s home and, after going for an early morning walk, Sabzian returns and explains that he didn’t sleep well, saying that is often the case when one sleeps at someone else’s house. The father expresses surprise, believing that a sage feels at home anywhere. Sabzian insists he isn’t a sage, and the father says he looks like one. “Appearances can be deceptive,” Sabzian offers, and at the same time we may wonder whether they really can be. As Sabzian sits in the centre of the frame, on a couch, his body leaning forward as though afraid to relax, appearances don’t seem that deceptive. Obviously, this is due to the father’s awareness that this is almost certainly not Makhmalbaf at all, yet shouldn’t appearances have been clearer earlier?
Whose sentimental experience are we experiencing here? One of the many ironies in the film is that Sabzian gets at least three days in the sun: three, even four, opportunities to escape from the limitations of his life and/or explain its limitations. First of all, there is his impersonation of Makhmalbaf, then his explanation in court of the reasons why he did so, and then he gets to play Makhmalbaf in the film. At the very end as he comes out of prison he also meets Makmhahlbalf himself: Kiarostami has set up the meeting.
But what about the family, who seem to have their own longings and frustrations? If Sabzian impersonated Makhmalbaf so that he could have a parallel life outside his own; did the family let him into their life so they could have one also? Though the father insists when Kiarostami asks him about the incident that he was wise to the ruse right from the beginning, this could be the father defending himself after the event: to seem wiser than he is. He insists he went along with it to offer a lesson to his kids, but what that lesson might be isn’t clear. It appears just as likely that he is responding to the article that has been published that gives the impression the family were completely taken in, and thus looked foolish. As one of the sons says, the report doesn’t tell the whole story: “the article presents us as simple people”. Perhaps though it is less a case of simple-mindedness than the flip-side of the fraudulent; that the family were gullible. If it takes two to tango does it not also take two opposites to create a situation like the one in Close-Up? Kiarostami focuses on, offers in close-up if you like, the longings of Sabzian, but hovering around the edge of the frame are the longings of the family too. During the interview with the son quoted above, the son says that he’s been unemployed for six months and didn’t want to end up like his fellow engineering graduate brother working in a bread factory. He had the choice “between art and selling bread”. When later in the film, during the trial, the brother talks of Sabzian taking money from him, and saying he would like this to be in the film, to film friendship, Sabzian explains that it wasn’t simply an act of fraud: he would really have liked to make a film showing this detail; he could feel that the son desperately wanted to make the film
What Kiaostami films is chiefly one man’s desperation to escape the limitations of his life. But he also allows for a mirroring sub-text, where the family’s desires are implied, while Sabzian’s longings illustrated. He is both the one who creates the ruse and must in court defend himself in having created it. Yet Kiarostami is also interested in how one falls for it, what limitations are there in the lives of the relatively comfortable as well as the clearly poor?
Kiarostami’s is clearly an ironic film, then, but this is closer to what Milan Kundera would call indeterminate irony rather than its post-modern form. Kundera says at one stage in The Art of the Novel that great works generally possess irony by virtue of their innate ambiguity: “any novel worth the name, however limpid it may be, is difficult enough by reason of its consubstantial irony.” This is the ironic that is also the poetic as Kiarostami himself would define it: “if you look at things that are seemingly without value in a poetic manner, they will take on the value of a poem. You will discover their values and you will show to others that all the things in the world can be seen poetically.”
We now seem a very long way from the post-modern pastiche Jameson talks of, or the Lyotard idea of self-conscious quotation. Part of Kiarostami’s achievement is to make a work as self-reflexive as any, but without remotely feeling obliged to pass through the aesthetic developments that help to create this self-consciousness. Some might view the film and see next to the cosmetic self-consciousness of Body Heat, of The Untouchables (with its homage to Battleship Potemkin and its awareness of gangster convention), of Pulp Fiction (with its knowing play with narrative form, and iconic use of John Travolta) a work that looks as naive and straightforward as the family here would seem to be. However, given the choice between the ‘consubstantial irony’ Kiarostami practises, versus the ‘cosmetic post modernism’ of many a contemporary work, surely the former offers more thematic texture, manages to work in ironies and indeterminacies, self-reflection and self-reflexivity, that don’t constantly throw us back to the surface of the work, but to meditate upon its depths. Much that passes for the post-modern in cinema does so through recognizing the gap between the filmic signifier and the filmic signified. Kiarostami asks us not to take reality for granted, but does not, by this reckoning, assume that film is merely a play on genre tropes and viewer’s anticipatory expectations. Lyotard would surely approve as he sees the post-modern as more than pastiche. “The post of post-modernity does not mean a process of coming back or flashing back, feeding back, but of ana-lysing, ana-mnesing, of reflecting.”