Monday, July 18, 2016
Abbas Kiarostami (1940-2016)
There have already been a great many significant deaths this year, but Abbas Kiarostami's hit me harder than most. I do not have the learning or experience to write a great eulogy for him, and his major features have all been lauded far beyond my poor power to add or subtract, so instead let me here mention a film of his that I believe many have overlooked.
In 2013, to celebrate its 70th anniversary, the Venice Film Festival commissioned short films from 70 world directors, broadly suggested to be about the future of cinema. The films were all a minute-and-a-half in length, and have been posted to YouTube on the festival's channel here. I watched many of them at the time, and it is still fascinating to view them now, because despite their brief run-times they nearly all clearly reflect the sensibilities and concerns of their directors. (Claire Denis is one of the few exceptions: her short appears to be the view of a cell phone inside of a cloth bag--incongruously scored to the Tindersticks.)
This is not always a good thing: Catherine Breillat's short is bitter and ideologically puritanical, as is her wont; James Franco's is pretentious, semi-ironic, and self-exhibitionist, as is his; and Todd Solondz's film is kind of funny and kind of ugly and mocking. On the other hand, Atom Egoyan manages to evoke mono no aware while deleting pictures from his phone; Ermanno Olmi the nostalgist presents a brief elegy for the moviola; and Apichatpong Weerasethakul creates something remarkably beautiful out of a dashboard shot of windshield wipers, catching strange yellow light and sound that suggests waves on a beach.
Fascinatingly, Jia Zhang-Ke and Wang Bing provide two opposing views of modern China: Jia depicts young professional millennials watching the classics of Chinese cinema on phones, tablets, and projected in malls--yet being moved by the emotions of the films nonetheless. The environments depicted are hyper-modern, and the short seems like it could be a TV commercial for the newest iPhone. Wang shows us a few moments of a poor dirt farmer whose livelihood has likely been the same for millennia, and seems to have little need for or experience of cinema in any form. Thanks to cinema, however, thousands of people around the world have now seen a small part of his life.
Yet of all these films, my favorite would have to be Kiarostami's, embedded at the top of this post. Within this brief 90-second window, we find a surprisingly large number of the themes of Kiarostami's career: children, the relation between young and old, a documentary-like depiction of life, non-professional actors, minimal camera movement or editing, a careful parceling out of information to the audience, the capabilities of the digital camera, sound design which is just as important as the image, and above all, a concern with the nature of cinema and how it reveals truth. Of course, none of this is intrusive or even assertive, and the film can easily be appreciated and understood by a child. (One is reminded of his early short films for children, though this is not nearly as didactic.) With this short, Kiarostami puts his faith in the future of cinema; it is significant also that the boy-director he shows us is making a film that harks back to the slapstick values of early film: to move forward, it is still necessary to remember the past and take its lessons with us.
Let us hope the filmmakers of the future remember the lessons of Abbas Kiarostami, for we shall need them.