Like Someone in Love (2012)

Abbas Kiarostami has long been exploring the line between fact and fiction. His 1990 film Close-Up follows a man posing as Iranian director Moshen Makhmalbaf to a well-off family. Twenty years later, Kiarostami came back around to the fact/fiction line in his masterful Certified Copy. There, two strangers tour an Italian village together and then they inexplicably begin to take on the characteristics of a married couple.

These two films explore ideas around representation and the filmic image. How much of reality does the “copy” or the “image” actually represent? What is merely an image in Close-Up, and what reflects the reality of the characters (who play themselves)? Are the couple in Certified Copy merely acting out an elaborate scene due to mutual attraction, or do they have a real and remembered past together? Kiarostami provides no definitive answers to these questions in the films. This ambiguity seems to give a vibrancy and immediacy to film (and art, more broadly) by suggesting that the image of something has a real and particular connection to that which it images. Seen in that light, these films from Kiarostami read as apologies for art, beautifully fashioned visual statements that show us that art matters in whatever form it comes, for art’s fictions cannot help but break into reality.

These thoughts were in my mind at the conclusion of Kiarostami’s most recent feature, Like Someone in Love (2012). Here too the old master explores issues around identity, representation, and image. This is no more clearly seen than in the sequence that stands at the film’s center, a conversation between Akiko (a call girl) and Watanabe (an aged, widowed professor) about a painting—Yazaki’s Training a Parrot—hanging in his home. Akiko reminisces about receiving a print of the painting as a teenager, naively believing her uncle’s assertion that he had painted it with her image in mind. As she describes this memory, she also sets herself in the pose of the woman in the painting, demonstrating the resemblance.

The layers of image are several in this single moment. Moving backwards from most immediate layer to the original, we have the film image itself, Akiko’s pose, uncle’s claim of her being the inspiration for the painting, the copy of the original painting hanging in Watanabe’s home, the original painting that hangs in a Tokyo museum, and finally the moment itself (which may have been posed or simply imagined in the mind of the painter). Each of the moments leading back to the original more or less resemble the original painting, if not the actual inspiration itself, which remains unknown to us. And yet, despite the resemblances from one layer to the next, what we also have here are a series of deceptions. In my view, the film’s story leads us to believe that the deceptions carry the greatest weight.

We don’t see these negative results until these two characters spend some time together, allowing Kiarostami to introduce Akiko’s boyfriend, Noriaki into the mix. He believes his girlfriend to be chaste and faithful to him (though he has had that questioned recently), and comes to believe that the old man is her grandfather. In both cases, Noriaki’s relationships with the two principals—while in one sense connected to reality—are fundamentally based on deceptions. It is those deceptions, rather than any resemblance to reality, that comes to define the narrative.

This leaves the film with a much darker tone than we find in the ambiguities of Close-Up and Certified Copy. Here Kiarostami seems to be wrestling specifically with the way that images deceive, and the tragedies that result. Such misunderstandings introduce a sense of betrayal over what seemed to be real but was in fact merely an image.

However, these deceptions also point us to the posture of Noriaki, whose insistence on nailing down the identities of both Akiko (he wants to marry her to alleviate any falseness he senses in her) and Watanabe (Noriaki merely assumes that Watanabe is her grandfather), leads him to increasing levels of frustration and rage. Rather than simply interacting with them as they present themselves to him, Noriaki seeks to force the issue, and in doing so, creates circumstances where deception thrives.

What we see then is that all are party to the deception, none are without responsibility, and all have some immediate connection to the results. Image or representation in this context takes on something of a complicated character. On the one hand its essential deceptions could lead to tragedy. On the other, if those deceptions are engaged the right way, one might indeed find a path toward unparalleled beauty.

Top Films of 2011

With the Oscars signifying the end of the awards season, I’m taking the opportunity to write up my favorite films from 2011. The year has seen the release of a number of remarkable films, noted by the fact that I have had no troubles whatsoever filling out a top ten. Still, with many yet left to see, the following represent my favorites at the moment:

10. Pearl Jam Twenty: A highly personal pick to be sure, but one for which I feel great enthusiasm. Experienced director and unabashed fan Cameron Crowe offers up a history of the band laced with live performances, found footage, and interviews. The film’s opening sequence detailing the tragic end of Andy Wood brings heartfelt context to the band’s sometimes criticized earnestness. This is, admittedly, a documentary with little illumination of the darkest corners of Pearl Jam’s history. But the heart, the peace, and the connectedness of the band offer an intriguing counterpoint to their music.

9. Bill Cunningham New York: Bill Cunningham, a fashion photographer for the New York Times, is an inspiring individual. His simple joy for life, his consistent kindness to those he meets, his unending interest in others, and his absolute embrace of beauty wherever he finds it make him one of the rarest of people: a genuine human being. And when the interviewer asks Bill about his regular church attendance? A beautiful moment that simply has to be seen. I wrote more extensively about the film here.

8. Meek’s Cutoff: Reichardt’s humanist vision for America—or really, the world—set amid a 19th century Oregon wagon train makes excellent use of its well-rounded characters and compelling, real-world story. While Reichardt focuses on the simple, everyday lives of the settlers, the film slowly evolves into something much more complex and layered, a horrific vision of a people without direction and their mechanisms for trust badly in need of repair. And as Reichardt obviously allows her camera to favor the female characters in this male dominated world, the film stands apart as a unique testament to the ills and sufferings of a world badly in need of vision. I wrote more extensively about the film here.

7. A Separation: A complex, psychological portrait of not just a couple, but a family, a community, and dare I say, an entire society. What begins as a simple disjunction between a married couple continues to grow and manifest itself in ever larger networks of people, involving children, neighbors, employees, community officials, and even the justice system. The acting is exceptional, none more so than the young lady playing the daughter, while the opening and closing shots express at once the beauty and the tragedy of life in Iran.

6. Nostalgia for the Light: An extraordinary essay film less interested in facts and more interested in ideas, atmosphere, and the experience of life. The film deals in a central paradox: How can a place be at once so well-suited for examining the past (in the heavens and on earth), and yet be located in a country unwilling to deal with its own more recent, and tragic, past. Guzman’s photography is exquisite. As one shot blends into the next through creative editing, the film’s underlying humanism stands out all the more. I wrote more extensively about the film here.

5. Of Gods and Men: Love endures. This is a film about a group of men on a mission to love people as best they can, to be neighborly, to give of themselves however they can for the betterment of others. This is a physical and social task, but these men reveal that it is also a spiritual task, one deeply connected with who human beings are and ought to be. The quiet rhythms of the film mimic those same rhythms of monastery life, including sequences of profound goodness & beauty and a Christian ethic made tangible.

4. Tuesday, After Christmas: Muntean’s achingly restrained film illustrates the beauty of marriage by helping the audience to feel real loss when a marriage fails. Using lengthy shots filled with subtext, the film builds tension as the philandering husband nears, and eventually makes, his fateful decision. The key scene is an 11+ minute shot chronicling the aftermath of his choice, along with a wonderfully complex, expertly-acted, and heartbreaking final sequence. I wrote more extensively about the film here.

3. The Tree of Life: More ambitious than Malick’s other features, The Tree of Life brings a cosmic perspective to profound tragedy through the lens of a struggling man’s memories. The first hour of the film, up through and including the creation imagery, succeeds beautifully. As the film refocuses on the family for the final hour plus, it becomes more diffuse as the boy’s relationship with his family fractures. The search for peace, meaning, and beauty comes only in a proper rendering of the past–our own and that of the world.

2. Poetry: A beautifully shot and rendered film, Poetry encapsulates empathy for the other, the joy and the pain involved in truly seeing, and the continued–and maybe even increased–necessity for poetry in the modern world. Yun Jeong-hee’s performance is touching, nuanced, inspiring, and devastating. The film slowly builds to a narrative and emotional crescendo that prompts reflection long after the film ends.

1. Certified Copy: A magnificent achievement from Kiarostami both in writing and direction, as well as a stand out performance from Binoche, who is more compelling than ever. The camera’s gaze slowly humanizes these people, as they grow at once both more concrete and more cryptic. Each successive moment reveals and conceals. As the film drives toward its enigmatic conclusion, the film’s themes become ever clearer: the relationship between truth and fiction, the vulnerability associated with an openness to the other, and the mystery of matrimony.

The Best of the Rest

  • All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace (dir. Adam Curtis): A dizzying document of the way our understanding of machines and technology is changing our conception of humanity.
  • Buck (dir. Cindy Meehl): The film documents the life of a serene horse whisperer, a man who knows tragedy and has come out better on the other side of it.
  • In a Better World (dir. Susanne Bier): Bier has a gift for drawing out and dialing up tension in quiet and unobtrusive ways, which she does beautifully here in a film which divides the setting between Europe and Africa to compare and contrast approaches to vengeance.
  • Le Quattro Volte (dir. Michelangelo Frammartino): A series of four movements following the life of a shepherd, a goat, a tree, and charcoal, the film immerses the viewer in creation. Even without the aid of words, Frammartino provides a strong sense of connection to his subject matter.
  • Midnight in Paris (dir. Woody Allen): The scenes set in the 1920s were full of energy, life, and well-rounded characters. If Woody had done the same with the contemporary scenes, this would have easily made the first ten.
  • Mysteries of Lisbon (dir. Raoul Ruiz): Ruiz captures light in ways rarely seen in the cinema, adding a layer of beauty to this exquisitely costumed, sublimely written, visual feast for the senses. The priest stands as one of the most quietly compelling creations in recent years. The story, though it spreads out over wide swaths of time and geography, never lets up, while the constantly shifting perspectives invite us to explore the potential and the limits of narrative.

Harmless Entertainments: A Better Life; Cars 2; Page One: Inside the New York Times; Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows; The Way Back

Frustrating: Contagion; Take Shelter

Still to See: The Arbor; Aurora; Being Elmo; Boxing Gym; Brighton Rock; Conan O’Brien Can’t Stop; House of Tolerance; Hugo; The Ides of March; Into the Abyss; Margaret; Martha Marcy May Marlene; Moneyball; Mother; My Joy; Norwegian Wood; Our Beloved Month of August; The Swell Season; Tabloid; Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy; The Trip; Tyranosaur; Uncle Boonmee; United Red Army; The Way; Win Win

Six Outstanding Discoveries from Years Past:

  • Lucky Life (dir. Lee Isaac Chung): Taking its inspiration from the poetry of Gerald Stern, the film offers a sensitivity to the way pain and memory ripple through life. Chung edits the film intuitively, making connections that inspire reflection rather than determine meaning. And what a final shot.
  • Secret Sunshine (dir. Lee Chang-dong): A remarkable film about a woman’s journey from isolation and abstraction to a more connected and human existence. Its nuanced portrait of Evangelical Christians brings something unique to cinema. I wrote more extensively about the film here.
  • Night of the Demon (dir. Jacques Tourneur): Terrific horror that focuses on the subtle psychological transformation taking place in the lead character.
  • Los Angeles Plays Itself (dir. Thom Anderson): An engaging and engrossing essay film on the presentation and identity of Los Angeles.
  • Happy Here and Now (dir. Michael Almereyda): An atmospheric film from New Orleans that explores the loss of identity we experience as technology encroaches, even to the point of mediating our relationships for us.
  • Another Year (dir. Mike Leigh): Magnificent film from Leigh, attempting and succeeding at one of the most difficult tasks for a filmmaker and storyteller: presenting a believable and compelling vision of goodness—in this case, through marriage.

Ten (2002)

Abbas Kiarostami’s Ten has been a highlight of my ongoing and extremely rewarding mini-Iranian film fest. For the uninitiated, in Ten, Kiarostami films ten conversations, each of which takes place in the front seat of a single car over an undefined period of days or weeks. The driver of the car, a woman, appears in every scene. She converses with her son, her sister, a friend, and even a couple of strangers. Kiarostami films the action by placing two digital cameras on the dash, one facing the driver’s seat, the other the passenger’s. The film’s formal conceits and socio-political commentary provide ample opportunities for discussion.

With the film located entirely within the front seat of a single automobile driven by a woman, the director creates a space to relate with those “lesser” or “forgotten” members of Middle Eastern society: women and children. This gives viewers a unique opportunity to enter into the world of Middle Eastern women, so often covered up by patriarchal society. Kiarostami presents them as a diverse group, with differing views and reactions to any number of societal issues: sex, marriage, divorce, prayer, parenting, and beauty.

Yet while their diversity is apparent, the formal constraints of the single camera placement go beyond opportunities for interesting and occasionally mundane conversation. The single camera placement presents a confined and constricted space, mirrored in a way through the traditional head scarves the women wear. Of interest here is not simply that the car proves restrictive in some sense, but that by its very nature, it allows greater freedom through the ability to travel greater distances. No doubt these women travel to a variety of places quickly, but in the context of the film, we only ever see them inside or connected with this moving metal box. Such a move on Kiarostami’s part offers a unique portrait of contemporary Iranian society: greater freedom, albeit with continued and constant restraint.

Playing off this idea, when the driver picks up two different strangers, one a devout worshipper, the other a prostitute, Kiarostami appears to notice the peculiarity of the two women, both of whom appear on camera only as they are outside the car. In this way they avoid the constraints the vehicle provides. One is devoted to religion, the other to sex, one to the spiritual life, the other to the fleshly. Yet at each of these extremes, these women find a kind of freedom from the social restrictions that bind most middle-of-the-road women. This is further solidified in a dramatic scene near the end when the driver’s friend and fellow worshipper reveals her own extreme reaction to a loss in her life. At least for these women, it appears freedom comes only at the fringes of society.