Is Abbas Kiarostami the World’s Most Talented Film-maker?

Jonathan Rosenbaum named “The Wind Will Carry Us” as one of the ten greatest movies of the past 50 years while Martin Scorsese identified its director Abbas Kiarostami as representing “the highest level of artistry in the cinema.” Those accolades should be sufficient to motivate New Yorkers to see a revival of the 1999 masterpiece opening today at the IFC Center. If not, let me add my two cents.

Even if the audio died as the film began, you would be mesmerized by the steady procession of images on the screen before you. When he was 18, Kiarostami won a painting competition that helped him be admitted to Tehran University’s Faculty of Fine Arts. After graduating, he made a living as a commercial artist. It is only when he began making films that his early passion for the fine arts began to be satisfied. On strictly a visual basis, sitting through the 118 minutes as the film unwinds is equivalent to seeing a photography exhibit at the MOMA by one of the great masters.

Since I anticipate no problems with the audio at IFC, I can promise you that the dialog will match the visual elements. Kiarostami’s film can best be described as magical realism but without the magic. The sense of wonderment does not come from characters and objects defying the natural order but from their own unique relationship to the natural order so at odds from the film’s major character, a sophisticated documentary filmmaker from Tehran who has come to a tiny mountainside village populated by Kurds. They live as they have lived for hundreds of years, tending their herds of cattle and goats, while he is tuned into the latest technologies including a cell phone. The running gag of this bone-dry comedy is his need to get into his Land Rover to scale a nearby hilltop to receive an in-coming call whenever his cell phone rings. By contrast, communications in the village are strictly from one windowsill to the next.

When Behzad and his crew arrive, the villagers assume that they are engineers to work on some unidentified project. Throughout, they refer to him as “the engineer”, a kind of honorific. But even as they are deferential, they have their own boundaries. A crusty older woman running an open-air teashop instructs him not to take photos. But that is exactly what has brought him to the village, to record a funeral of one of the village’s elders, a woman reportedly on her deathbed who might be 150 years old according to her grandson who serves as Behzad’s guide. Who knows? Maybe he is right since the elder’s son, who stands vigil on her front stoop, appears to be ninety. Behzad has come to the village to document the funeral since Kurdish customs intrigue the outside world. Just as Tehran is considered exotic to most Westerners, another place that Anthony Bourdain “discovered”, so too does Tehran’s sophisticates come to a Kurdish village in search of the exotic that is always one step ahead of them.

Except for the lead character played by Behzad Dorani, everybody appears to be a non-professional. This, plus the on-location filming at an austerely beautiful village somewhere in Iran’s boondocks, gives the film a documentary-like authenticity. It was certainly within Kiarostami’s grasp to direct non-professionals. After all, neorealist films have been using them since the late 1940s. But the real challenge was to get the most interesting non-professionals to perform on cue: the goats, cows, dogs, and chickens who enliven every moment of this captivating film. In one key scene, we see the engineer walking down one of the village’s winding alleys followed by a herd of goats, including a male trying to mount a female. Another director might have reshot the scene in order to eliminate this bit of prurience but Kiarostami certainly included it as a symbol of life’s unpredictable vitality.

In doing some background research on Kiarostami and this particular film, I was astonished to discover that Columbia University professor Hamid Dabashi excoriated the director’s masterpiece in his 2001 Verso book “Close Up: Iranian Cinema, Past, Present, and Future” as pandering to Western audiences’ Orientalist appetites for the “exotic”. In other words, he does not appear to understand that the very purpose of the film was to reveal the “engineer” as a hapless intruder into a world that defied objectification.

To get the full impact of “The Wind Will Carry Us”, I recommend watching it on the big screen at IFC but I would be remiss if I did not mention that others, especially those CounterPunch readers living far from New York, could also see it on Youtube . I suspect that you will agree with Rosenbaum and Scorsese rather than Dabashi.

Also opening today at the Cinema Village in New York is “Age of Uprising: The Legend of Michael Kohlhaas”, a film that can best be described as incorporating the themes of “Braveheart” or “Rob Roy” with the film esthetic of Ingmar Bergman’s “Virgin Spring” or “Seventh Seal”. Based on an 1811 Heinrich von Kleist novella about an early 16th century German wronged by the monarchy, the film moves at glacial pace and with utter disregard for the rebel hero genre. Kohlhaas’s rebel army consists of a few dozen at its height and the battle scenes in the film are desultory affairs, eschewing the close-ups of decapitated heads typical of the historical costume dramas cranked out by Hollywood. The most moving scenes involve the rebel Kohlhaas pleading his case with the noblemen who have wronged him.

It was Kohlhaas’s misfortune to have trusted a baron with the proper care of two black horses that he had surrendered as collateral in order to pass through his domain en route to his estate, where he raises horses for a living. When the horses are returned to him, they are in sorry shape after having been used as poorly fed and badly beaten workhorses. After Kohlhaas presses his legal case unsuccessfully, his wife persuades him to allow her to speak to the princess who rules over the baron for redress. Upon arriving at her castle, she is intercepted by the baron’s henchmen and beaten to death. Afterwards he raises a rebel army not in order to overthrow the monarchy but to satisfy his one and only demand: that the horses be returned to him in exactly the same shape that they were when he surrendered them. He keeps repeating this to everyone who will listen, to the point where it began to remind me of Bartleby the scrivener’s insistence that “I would prefer not to” but expanded into something like “I would prefer not to be cheated by the landed gentry”.

Von Kleist’s novel had passionate fans, including Franz Kafka who said that it was his favorite work of German literature and inspired him to become a writer. It was also the inspiration for E.L. Doctorow’s “Ragtime”, a novel about a Black man who seeks revenge when racists damage his Model-T, the 20th century’s equivalent of the 16th century’s horse.

In a casting choice that made perfect sense, Mads Mikkelsen plays the wronged horse trader, a role that the Danish actor has a penchant for with past performances as smoldering, headstrong victims of injustice.

This was French director Arnaud des Pallières’s first feature film and one deserving of respect even if most critics didn’t get it (a 36 percent “rotten” rating on Rotten Tomatoes). They were expecting something like Mel Gibson but got Ingmar Bergman instead. I’ll go with Bergman any day of the week.

The director described his own discovery of von Kleist’s novella:

I first read Michael Kohlhaas when I was 25. Right from the start, I could see it as a movie but didn’t feel capable of making it. I was young and it looked like an expensive and complicated movie to produce. Also, I had three overwhelming models in my head: Herzog’s Aguirre, Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai and Tarkovsky’s Andrei Roublev. So I thought I should wait until I was older and more experienced. Eventually, 25 years later, I figured that if I waited for a gift from heaven, I could easily end up not making the movie. And that somebody else would end up making it instead of me. So I went for it.

With such models, who would not be intrigued by a film that follows in their footsteps? As long as you are not expecting “Braveheart”, you will do just fine.

Last and least, a few words about “Night Moves”, a Kelly Reichardt film about ecoterrorists that opens today as well at the Angelika in New York.

Reichardt is the film department’s artist-in-residence at Bard College who epitomizes the Sundance Festival aesthetic for better or for worse. In the case of her first two films—“Old Joy” and “Wendy and Lucy”— she was at her best, and then with the two follow-ups—“Meek’s Cutoff” and “Night Moves”—at her worst.

All of these films are based in Oregon, mostly a function of using novelist Jon Raymond as her co-screenwriter. A longtime Portland resident, Raymond is to Oregon as someone like Larry McMurtry is to Texas. When the stories involve hippies growing awkwardly into middle age as was the case with “Old Joy” or a homeless woman and her pet dog in “Wendy and Lucy”, the results can be salutary. But when the two try to deal with broader social and political issues, the results are disastrous.

Having spent over twenty years reading and writing about the American Indian, I had looked forward to “Meek’s Cutoff”, a film set in 19th century Oregon about the encounter between a wagon train that has lost its way and a sole Indian whose help they would need to get to their destination. I was dismayed to discover how little the two understood about Indian social life that by its nature precluded its men wandering off on their own. Here is an excerpt from my 2011 review:

The Meek referred to in the title is Stephen Meek, a character in a ridiculous looking buckskin fringe outfit who has been asked to lead a small wagon train into Oregon along the famous Oregon Trail. Unlike Daniel Boone or any other legendary mountain man, Meek could not find his way out of Grand Central Station even if you drew a path in red paint along the floor for him.

The net result is that the pioneers are stuck on a vast and arid plain that shows no signs of yielding into a green and fertile destination for homesteading. At the beginning of the film, Paul Dano is shown carving the word “Lost” into a board just so you get the idea.

For around 1/3 of the movie, there is absolutely nothing going on except the group of 7 settlers and Meek plowing ahead in futility. Reichardt has put a lot of effort into recreating how such people really lived and one of the more dramatic moments involves the women making breakfast. They grind coffee by hand, for example. I don’t know. If this is your kind of thing, I suggest a visit to one of those museum villages where you can see blacksmiths working on horseshoes, etc. In any case, Reichardt would have been better served if she had spent more effort on character and plot development than authenticity.

Since I doubt that anybody would see “Night Moves” after reading what I am about to say, it would probably not hurt to include a spoiler alert. For those inclined to put a plus where I put a minus (yes, I admit there are probably thousands of you), I will include one. So be forewarned.

This is a crime story about ecoterrorists who are plotting to blow up a dam on an Oregon river that is thwarting the salmon life-cycle. To do the job, they need 1500 pounds of ammonium nitrate, the same explosives Timothy McVeigh used and a surefire way to get the audience to fear and hate the three characters right from the get-go.

One of them is Josh, a worker on an organic farm played by Jesse Eisenberg, a glum, taciturn figure who says nearly nothing throughout the film about why he is about to blow up a dam except that he is angry about salmon being sacrificed to iPhones. Yes, who wouldn’t be?

His accomplice is a young woman named Dena who has plenty to say but nothing of consequence. She is played by Dakota Fanning, an actress evidently chosen on the basis of her past mastery of other annoying characters such as Tom Cruise’s daughter in “War of the Worlds”. I kept rooting for the Martians to devour her.

The third plotter is an ex-Marine chosen for his ballistics skills but obviously not for his understanding of the environment. When Dena tells him that the oceans will be devoid of marine life in 2048, he asks where did she get that idea. After advising her that it couldn’t be all that bad, he invites her to go fishing with him some day. And this is a guy you are about to go into battle with?

SPOILER ALERT IN THIS PARAGRAPH: In the course of blowing up the dam, they cause flooding that kills a camper. A distraught Dena begins spilling the beans to all her friends, thus endangering her accomplices. Josh, a guy who up until becoming a terrorist, would have walked around a caterpillar, now becomes a killer. He goes to Dena’s home and strangles her. So the message of the film maybe seems to be more iPhones and less salmon. Or god knows why Reichardt bothered.

In an interview with Indiewire, Reichardt stated that the film was not about politics but about people, the same nonsense I have heard from other directors involved with politically retrograde productions. For example, that’s the same thing Katherine Bigelow said about the Islamophobic “The Hurt Locker”.

There is a real story to be told about the struggle to preserve the salmon but it would be based on people like Native American Billy Frank Jr. rather than the three slugs Reichardt chose. He was a leader of the struggle for fishing rights in the 60s and 70s that pitted indigenous peoples against a government bent on sacrificing salmon for IPhones, as “Night Moves” put it.

Billy Frank Jr. was arrested 50 times for his activism. He also became a major figure in efforts to preserve the salmon as well as native rights to fish them. The NY Times obituary said of him:

Mr. Frank wanted the state to honor treaties written in the 1850s in which Native Americans ceded more than two million acres in exchange for the right to fish their “usual and accustomed grounds and stations.” Mr. Frank and others frequently cited the treaties while they were being arrested.

In 1974, Judge George H. Boldt of Federal District Court in Tacoma, Wash., ruled with startling and historic force that they were right. Nisqually and other tribes in the Northwest, he wrote, had a right to catch up to half the salmon in their traditional waters. They would also become co-managers of the fishery, with the state.

The ruling, upheld by the United States Supreme Court in 1979, drastically changed fishing in the Northwest and helped give momentum to assertions of Indian rights elsewhere. Mr. Frank was transformed from an outlaw to a voice of wisdom and authority, a national figure recruited to serve on boards and commissions.

For more than 30 years he was chairman of the Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission, a support and advisory group, and he became a constant presence in discussions about protecting salmon from pollution, protecting habitat and slowing climate change. He received numerous awards, including the Albert Schweitzer Prize for Humanitarianism in 1992.

There’s a story that is worth telling even if it doesn’t interest our “edgy” indie film directors at Bard College.

Louis Proyect blogs at http://louisproyect.org and is the moderator of the Marxism mailing list. In his spare time, he reviews films for CounterPunch.


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Louis Proyect blogs at http://louisproyect.org and is the moderator of the Marxism mailing list. In his spare time, he reviews films for CounterPunch.

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