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

 

 

 

The Best Film on TV this Week

Martha Marcy May Marlene (2011, Sean Durkin)

You remember Mary-Kate and Ashley, the Olsen twins? Yes, you do. Just admit it. Well, their younger sister, Elizabeth, is actually talented. Would her career have taken off without the familial connections? Probably not. That’s not her fault, though. Like Sofia Coppola, she can’t escape the nepotism charge but her talent should still be appreciated.

Many of the films Elizabeth Olsen has appeared in – Liberal Arts, Godzilla – have been unworthy of her talents, but Martha Marcy May Marlene is one of the best American films of the past decade. The story concerns a young woman, Martha (Olsen), who is indoctrinated into a cult and subsequently manages to escape. The narrative conceit is that the film begins with Martha escaping and going to stay with her sister, then proceeds to cut between the present and the past, detailing the post-traumatic stress Martha suffers and her experiences in the cult.

Martha Marcy May Marlene is a brilliantly made film with atmospheric photography, elliptical editing and a collection of strong supporting actors, but it is anchored around the central presence of Olsen; the film seems unimaginable without her. Performances of this calibre are hard to describe without platitudes. To say that Olsen is convincing seems beyond banal. Olsen is one of those actors who can portray a fully realised human being. After watching the film, you may feel like you actually know Martha. I certainly feel a closer connection to this woman than I do to plenty of people I’ve met in real life.

This is not a perfect movie; it takes a while to get used to its rhythms and some viewers may be frustrated by the ambiguous ending. But it has a quality which eludes many other acclaimed films – it stays with you. Some films tick all the boxes marked ‘quality’, but are instantly forgotten. Others – which may even have major flaws such as Spike Lee’s 25th Hour or M. Night Shyamalan’s The Village – are possessed of an indefinable mood and feeling that means they can haunt our lives for months or even years to come. I first saw Taxi Driver when I was 12 years old. I didn’t watch it again until I was 18. It was with me every day in between.

Sam Bowles

 

Martha Marcy May Marlene is showing Wednesday 10 December, 10.40pm Film4

 

Unacknowledged Classics

Quantum of Solace (2008, Marc Forster)

I still can’t believe they used the title. God knows what Fleming was thinking, but at least he knew it was only worthy of a short story. I suppose at least it’s memorably bad. However, the title is the weakest aspect of a poorly reviewed Bond, which is ripe for reappraisal.

On its release much was made of the rapid editing of the picture. The cutting is relentless and at times the images hit the viewer so fast they are rendered almost abstract. This sensory assault was too much for many audiences and critics and initially it can be off-putting. But, isn’t that another way of saying that it’s pushing the form more than any other $200 million blockbuster would dare?

Also, there is a lot more going on here than simply pace. The film is a celebration of the art of the cut. Forster and his two editors (Matt Chesse and Rick Pearson) give us freeze frames, cross-cutting, jump cuts and – the highlight of the film – a stunningly assembled sequence set during a performance of Tosca. Bond’s customary escape from the bad guys is cross cut with images of the opera, while the sound cuts out except for Puccini’s music. Softened gunshots are then introduced into the mix. This is that rare beast: an original action sequence.

Other pleasures worth noting are the absence of a traditional bond girl (he doesn’t sleep with her!) and Daniel Craig’s virility. He’s so damn manly it’s almost absurd. Witness Bond breaking off a metal door handle with the casually disdainful air of one tossing a sweet wrapper into a bin. Yes, Quantum of Solace is transparently a post-Jason Bourne James Bond film. But, with a crucial difference: it’s got Daniel Craig instead of Matt Damon. Damon’s a decent actor, but, seriously, who’s cooler?

Appreciating the cinematic world of 007 is all about identifying the key works from each era, and Quantum of Solace is by far the best Daniel Craig. Casino Royale has some standout moments (including the best ever pre-title sequence), and in Craig it introduced the world to a better Pierce Brosnan-antidote than anyone could have dared dream of, but it is also overlong and flabby. The excessive praise for Skyfall was almost farcical, although in Javier Bardem it did have a great villain. Quantum of Solace, on the other hand, received a drubbing from the critics. There are a couple of major reasons for this: 1) There was the predictable urge to take Craig down a peg or two and declare his second outing to be the standard ‘sophomore slump’. 2) Quantum of Solace dares to break a few rules, ditching some prescribed Bond conventions. In fact, it’s actually a bit weird – in a good way.

Sam Bowles