In Memoriam: Kiarostami

Taste of Cherry (1997, Abbas Kiarostami)

The Iranian master Abbas Kiarostami passed away yesterday aged 76. He had been making films almost continuously from the early 1970s up until his final work, Like Someone in Love (2012). He didn’t just direct; he wrote, edited, and produced. When not making films, Kiarostami was known to dabble in poetry, painting, photography, graphic design… Basically, he was one of those bastards who appear to be able to do anything they put their minds to. I hated him. And I loved him.

Taste of Cherry was the first Kiarostami film I saw, and it changed the way I view cinema. Usually, filmmakers who thrill us (Welles, De Palma) do so with their virtuosity – a flashy camera move here, a cute editing trick there; Kiarostami instantly blew me away with what he didn’t do. No conventional shot-reverse/wide-medium-close-up coverage, no big dramatic moments, no simplistic good/bad characters, no easy resolutions, no music… After watching Taste of Cherry, a friend’s immediate reaction was, “You can tell he’s good because he doesn’t give you anything.”

The tale the film tells is so simple you could barely call it a plot: the protagonist, Mr. Baadi, drives around Tehran asking various strangers if they will get in his car to assist him with something. Is he after a good time? Just some company? It turns out he’s looking for someone to help him with his suicide. He plans to dig a hole, get in, and then kill himself. And he wants someone to fill in the hole afterwards. Seriously. It’s so straightforward, yet totally compelling. And the pared-down style, the completely non-bombastic telling of this potentially melodramatic material, only adds to its fascination.

No one but old Abbas could have created this masterwork. Nevertheless, credit should also go to the lead actor, Homayoun Ershadi. He is in every single scene and for much of the film the camera is trained on his face. Yet we never tire of him. Ershadi doesn’t resort to easy actorly tricks. There are no dramatic vocal shifts or mournful gazes to hold our attention or engender our empathy. The quality of the performance is such that we barely notice it.

Taste of Cherry is not an easy watch. This film requires a bit of effort and a bit of patience. Does that mean it’s pretentious to make that effort? Perhaps. But it’s easier to flick through a copy of Heat magazine than to read a great novel. Does that mean we shouldn’t put in the time reading George Eliot or James Joyce for fear that others may see us as jumped-up, affected wankers? And maybe a bit of affectation is a good thing anyway; it means we’re pushing ourselves and our experience.

After watching Taste of Cherry I sought out more Kiarostami films, discovering that he went on a run in the 2000s where he seemed to be reinventing the medium every time he picked up a camera: ABC Africa (2001), Ten (2002), Five (2003), 10 on Ten (2004), Shirin (2008). The only comparable period of sustained creativity I know of is the sequence of films Hitchcock put out in the 1950s.

Taste of Cherry won the Palme d’Or at Cannes in 1997. In the age of Michael Bay, the fact that an artist like Kiarostami was able to make it into the almost-mainstream should be cherished.

 

Samuel Bowles

 

 

 

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THE BEST FILM ON TV THIS WEEK

Django Unchained (2012, Quentin Tarantino)

There is an uncomfortable, but inescapable, truth at the heart of Quentin Tarantino’s films: he really does love the n-word. From his debut Reservoir Dogs onwards, the word crops up on a worryingly regular basis. Spike Lee has been a particularly vocal critic on this issue, describing Tarantino as being, “…infatuated with that word.” Tarantino’s response was to say the word was appropriate to the setting of the film (in that case, Jackie Brown) and that it is racist to suggest a white director should not be allowed to have a character utter it. An obvious counter-response is to ask why he so frequently feels the urge to conjure up worlds where its use seems (possibly) justified, or even, in his eyes, essential.

I don’t for a second believe Tarantino to be a racist. But, maybe, as Lee suggests, he has the desire to be seen as a kind of “honorary black man.” Tarantino is a lover of African-American culture, particularly the music and movies of the 1970s, when he grew up; Jackie Brown is a fond homage to Blaxploitation films of the period. And his work is full of brilliantly memorable roles for African Americans, perhaps the most famous being Samuel L. Jackson’s Jules Winnfield in Pulp Fiction.

Still… Quentin, do you think maybe one day you could make a film with strong black characters where the n-word isn’t uttered even once?

Django Unchained is the first Tarantino film where the omission of the n-word would seem odd. The movie begins in 1858, during the height of slavery in America. To omit the word here would be a denial of reality and might even feel like an attempt to ignore the inherent racism of the time. Watch an old western and it can feel like you’re being plunged into some bizarre alternate version of the past where black people weren’t routinely being treated appallingly.

The story concerns a slave, Django (Jamie Foxx), who, via serendipitous circumstances, is freed by a bounty hunter, Dr. King Schultz (Christoph Waltz). The two ultimately become partners and set out to free Django’s wife, Broomhilda (Kerry Washington) who is a slave at the “Candyland” plantation, owned by Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio).

Django Unchained is, like all Tarantinos, inspired by old movies. In this instance, Sergio Leone Spaghetti Westerns of the ’60s and Blaxploitation westerns of the ’70s. But the film also attempts to address the reality of slavery, a topic that Hollywood has, over the years, been relentlessly reluctant to take on. There was Beloved in 1998, and 12 Years A Slave shortly after Django, but little else to speak of. Interestingly, mainstream TV has been far more willing to take on such material with Roots in 1977, and even a TV movie version of the 12 Years story made in 1984. (Steve McQueen likes to keep quiet about that one.)

Django asks us a moral question: Can you combine genre pastiche with a hard-hitting look at a bleak period in history? (Scorsese’s Shutter Island dealt with a similar issue, combining horror movie references with a central character traumatised by his experiences at the Dachau concentration camp in WWII.) Some would see this as bold, visionary filmmaking; others might consider it in terrible taste. (You can guess which side of the fence Spike Lee sits on.) Thus, Tarantino stages comic scenes that could have been in Blazing Saddles (early KKK members discovering none of them can see properly through their white hoods), but also incredibly painful scenes of slave abuse, such as whippings and being put in a hot box. Incidentally, Tarantino has said he could not show the full horror of slavery because, “the movie would be unwatchable.”

Whatever your view on this tonal tension, one thing about Django Unchained is undeniable – no one else could or would have made this film. For better or worse, it’s a singular work by a singular artist.

Also, moral questions aside, Django Unchained just has so many things going for it. For one thing, it looks stunning. You could argue that Tarantino peaked as a writer with his first few films, but he has been steadily improving as a director, particularly with his camera style. His movies have always had great individual shots, but they didn’t always fit together in a completely satisfying way; now they all feel ‘right’. The contribution of cinematographer Robert Richardson, who has worked with Tarantino from Kill Bill onwards (with the exception of Death Proof), should not be underestimated. Richardson has been a significant factor in Tarantino’s visual progression, in much the same way as Gordon Willis has contributed to the films of Woody Allen.

Tarantino’s work with actors is also much improved and there are none of the awkward line readings that occasionally plague Reservoir Dogs. Foxx, Waltz, Washington and DiCaprio, in particular, are all great. (It’s just a shame Washington isn’t given more to do.) In fact, the only dodgy performance, perhaps unsurprisingly, comes from the man himself in a cameo so shameless it’s strangely endearing. Not only does QT have more lines than ever before, he also tasks himself with adopting an Australian accent. At least, I think that’s what he’s going for…

 

Django Unchained is showing tonight, 10.00pm Channel 5

 

Sam Bowles

 

HALLOWEEN HORROR

The Exorcist (1974, William Friedkin) / Exorcist II: The Heretic (1977, John Boorman)

The critic Mark Kermode once said of The Exorcist, “It’s the greatest film ever made.” That’s a stupendously misguided and embarrassing statement. (It’s not even the greatest American horror film of the ’70s. That would be Halloween.) And he’s stuck with it. Like a supporter of the invasion of Iraq who refuses to admit they were wrong, Kermode can’t bring himself to recant his position. I almost feel bad for the man.

Obviously, to single out any movie as the greatest ever is plain dumb. (There are masterpieces of such markedly differing styles and tones how can you possibly play them off against each other?) But, in the case of The Exorcist it’s particularly painful because we’re talking about a film directed by William fucking Friedkin! Murnau, Renoir, Hitchcock, Welles, Ozu, Mizoguchi, Ford, Hawks, Bergman, De Sica, Kiarostami, Kieslowski… They’re all competing for a spot behind the genius that is Billy.

But maybe I’m falling into Kermode’s trap and he was deliberately being provocative; trolling before the phrase had been added to the national lexicon.

Anyway, The Exorcist may not be the greatest film ever, or even a great film period, but is it any good? Well, it’s got a few things going for it: Tubular Bells on the soundtrack, that poster shot of The Exorcist himself arriving to do battle with the cringe-makingly named demon, Pazuzu… OK, maybe it’s got 2 things going for it. And it’s surely the most humourless horror film ever.

[If, dear reader, you’ll permit me a moment of scaling the moral high ground, may I also say this film (and any other dealing with “possession”) is deeply offensive towards people who suffer from seizures and mental health problems.]

John Boorman’s Exorcist II: The Heretic, on the other hand, is completely bonkers and absolutely brilliant. If you have any interest in studio films that break with convention and push the cinematic form, you have to see this flick.

I’m yet to see another sequel that differs so greatly from the original. Boorman has a gift of visual virtuosity that leaves Friedkin looking like a tired craftsman, studiously adjusting his spirit level without a shred of imagination.

If you can’t be arsed to watch the whole film, I beg you, please check out the trailer – surely one of the best ever:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tFspymGVZLY

Sam Bowles

Bond

Moonraker (1979, Lewis Gilbert)

“Where are you? Why do you hide? Where is that moonlight trail that leads to your side?” (from the song Moonraker, profound lyrics by Hal David, belting vocal by Shirley Bassey)

I first saw Moonraker when I was a delightfully inquisitive five-year-old. And it made about as much sense to me then as it does now, thirty years later. This is some avant-garde shit right here. Godard et al’s experimentation with the cinematic form in the late 50s and 60s doesn’t come close to mid/late period Roger Moore Bond. There is nothing in the nouvelle vague to compare with the tonal switches, stylistic lurches and complete disregard for narrative coherence you get in Moonraker, Octopussy and A View to a Kill. (For Your Eyes Only is slightly more in touch with reality and, as a result, slightly more tedious.)

So what’s the plot of this heady brew? It goes something like this…

Evil beardo Hugo Drax secretly builds a space station just off Pluto, where he assembles a group of perfect human specimens, transported there on his Moonraker space shuttles. His dastardly scheme is to wipe out the Earth’s entire population with nerve gas and then repopulate the planet with his master race. (Clearly the ‘5 GCSEs at grade c or above’ threshold wouldn’t cut it with old Hugo.) Drax’s motivation for doing this remains fascinatingly unclear, but it does sound like a great origin story for a new religion. Bond, naturally, is out to stop him. He does this with the aid of a bracelet that shoots poisoned darts, a deadly ballpoint pen and a woman.

But the thing about Moonraker is a synopsis of the plot doesn’t begin to convey the insanity that was committed to celluloid. For a start there’s the character of Jaws, last seen at the end of The Spy Who Loved Me besting a shark with his metal teeth and then swimming off to bite another day. As his previous employer, Stromberg, has shuffled off this mortal coil, Jaws is out for new challenges and throughout Moonraker moves between different employers like some kind of agency worker henchman-for-hire. By the end of the film, this fair-weather foe has made peace with JB and even got himself a girlfriend. They meet in Rio after Jaws has ploughed into a building with a cable car and somehow managed to survive with just a bit of dust on his shirt.

One of my favourite scenes in Moonraker is when Bond runs into Jaws while driving a speedboat down the Amazon (Bond’s looking for the origin of a rare orchid, since you ask). Jaws and some underlings ambush 007 in several speedboats of their own, which they’ve parked behind some river foliage. But how did they know Bond would be there? And how long are they supposed to have been staking out this particular stretch of river, hoping 007 might come by? Maybe sportsmanlike James placed a phone call to Jaws in advance, letting him know of his planned route and a rough estimate of the time. Anyway, after an exchange of hardware, Bond escapes on a hang glider built into the roof of his speedboat.

I have a theory about how to read Moonraker. Like the work of those new wave Frenchies, Quentin T, and many others, its subject matter is cinema itself. The basic plot turns a spy thriller into sci-fi, but there’s more to it than that. This movie jumps genres and styles with a thrilling disregard for logic or sense. There are scenes that jar so much with one another at times it’s like you’re flicking between channels as you watch.

Example: a scene of Bond dispatching a would-be assassin (who looks like an aging French poacher) which concludes with a moment of classic Roger comedy+eyebrow raise is followed directly by a – no bullshit – “release the hounds” moment. This turns the film briefly into some kind of Hammer horror pastiche but played totally straight.

Much later in the film, a scene of Bond escaping a dangerous paramedic aboard an ambulance is directly followed by a sequence of our hero dressed in cowboy hat and poncho, riding a horse, accompanied by the theme from The Magnificent Seven.

Oh, and there’s a bit when a Venetian gondola turns into a hovercraft.

I’m not making this stuff up.

ITV4 is having a Roger Moore Bond season for a couple of weeks. I have no idea why. Possibly because it’s summertime and the schedulers are lazy. But, whatever their motives, this decision should be applauded, and I’d like to make passionate love to all involved in making it.

Moonraker is showing Wednesday 12th August, 9pm ITV4

Sam Bowles

Music in the Movies – Scores

Jaws (1975, Steven Spielberg)

Old Stevie has said that if Jaws had been released without its John Williams score, the film would only have come back with half the preposterous amount of dosh it reeled in at the global box office. He may be underestimating. The film and its aquatic antagonist are unimaginable without those accompanying strains of dread.

Famously, the mechanical shark didn’t work very well. But this ended up being a blessing to creativity. We never see the great white in the blow-your-bollocks-off-brilliant opening sequence (when a lithe young woman becomes a late evening snack) but we do see through its eyes as it cruises through the ocean to the best monster theme ever.

According to those in the know, John Williams was somewhat ‘influenced’ by Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring and Dvorak’s New World Symphony when he wrote this score. Try having a listen – even to a musical illiterate like myself the similarities are striking. Of course, this does not mean the Williams work should be regarded as simply a rip-off. All art is the product of something that came before, and the line between being influenced by another work and full-blown plagiarism is always drawn arbitrarily.

Jaws is not an isolated example of the enormous impact a score can have on a film. So often (and possibly without our full acknowledgement as viewers) those films that live on in our heads, gatecrashing our daydreams, exert their power primarily through their musical accompaniment. A few years ago I sat in the Shaftesbury Avenue Odeon laughing with happiness at the sensory stimulation of Nicolas Winding Refn’s Drive; it was like getting drunk on pure cinema. I loved every shot, every cut, every casting choice…but most of all, I loved the music. That 80s-inflected electronic score that seemed to be playing in The Driver’s head. And was still playing in mine weeks later. I’m yet to own a copy of the movie, but I do own the soundtrack. (I may or may not have listened to it while cruising the streets of Hemel Hempstead in a Vauxhall Corsa.)

Further reading:

Jaws BFI Modern Classics by Antonia Quirke (2002, BFI Publishing)

The Jaws Log: Expanded Edition by Carl Gottlieb (2012, Dey Street Books)

Sam Bowles