On Independence Day my girlfriend and I felt like doing something patriotic, so we went to see an afternoon show of The Purge: Election Day at the cineplex-ziggurat in downtown Brooklyn. We got there early, and while we were talking and trying to ignore the promotional videos about TV shows, I gave in to the impulse to check Twitter. The first thing I saw was that Abbas Kiarostami, the great Iranian filmmaker, had died in Paris.
I didn’t know Kiarostami was fighting cancer. The unexpected feeling of loss that seized me was worsened by a jolt of self-disgust at being in that movie theater at all, for sitting there waiting for The Purge: Election Year to start, for presuming that somehow we would be entertained by it. There could not be a film farther removed from a Kiarostami film, and all of a sudden The Purge: Election Year became a stand-in for America’s violent, cynical, stupid cinema—the exact opposite of everything Kiarostami stood for and everything he achieved over four and a half decades of filmmaking in Iran and elsewhere.
There is a peculiar sense of dread one feels before a horror movie starts, a feeling that you are about to see something you shouldn’t. The paradox of horror movies is that this feeling of dread is also a form of hope. The movie might, even against your will, expose you to something you have never seen before, something that could shake you up so much it changes you in a fundamental way. But after seeing the news of Kiarostami’s death, I was seized with a different kind of dread.
All of a sudden I became aware, or I remembered, that there is a better world somewhere else, that being in this one, where we were waiting for The Purge: Election Year to shock us, was a waste of the time allotted to me in this life and that, if I were going to see a movie, what time I have would be better spent with a form of cinema that acknowledges something other than the bloodshed and mayhem into which the world has fallen. The image of Homayoun Ershadi as the suicidal man in Kiarostami’s Taste of Cherry came to me. It shook me awake. I didn’t know what I was doing there. I wanted out. I wanted to live.
The lights went down and trailers unspooled for a bunch of other movies, each one as dumb as the next, and then The Purge: Election Year began, and we sat there and watched it. Part of the time, at least, I saw it through the lens of Kiarostami, as if I was wearing glasses that made the film uglier. The rest of the time I just gave myself over to the movie’s sardonic portrayal of an out-of-control America led by murderous right-wing kooks, where foreign tourists put on Abraham Lincoln masks and kill the poor for fun.
Kiarostami did not leave Iran after the revolution in 1979. He stayed and continued to work under Khomeini and the mullahs, which meant accepting conditions more restrictive than those that had been imposed by the Shah. Unlike in the US, where filmmakers are free to show pretty much anything—a freedom on which The Purge: Election Year makes bank—Iranian filmmakers could not and cannot depict many of the things that Hollywood cinema depends on. These include not just “some nudity” and the more generalized objectification of women that the MPAA does not warn us about, and not just the violence and destruction of The Purge films or superhero blockbusters. The open-to-interpretation, implanted-subtext criticism of our political system that even basic superhero films coyly trade in now, which is there to give people something to talk (and write) about besides all the cute pop culture references, is not allowed in Iranian films at all.
The outpouring of grief in Iran after Kiarostami’s death and his funeral there solidified his status as an official Iranian artist, though we should not overlook the fact that Kiarostami’s protégé, Jafar Panahi, was arrested and jailed in 2010 for trying to make a film critical of the government, then sentenced to six years in prison. Panahi has been able to make films surreptitiously and by proxy and his sentence has been lightened to house arrest, but he is still banned from working. Around the time Panahi was arrested, Kiarostami himself abandoned filmmaking in Iran, choosing instead to make films in Italy and Japan. Before that, he had gone into self-imposed periods of filmmaking inactivity when he concentrated on photography and poetry. His success in the 1990s at film festivals around the world had brought him to international prominence, and he had already begun to travel outside Iran to work. Kiarostami made ABC Africa in Uganda in 2001, four years before the conservative Mahmoud Ahmadinejad came into office, eight years before the Green Revolution and the presidential election Ahmadinejad manipulated to win re-election.
Staying in Iran after the revolution and making films nowhere else for over two decades, however, meant Kiarostami was able to continue the work he had started in the 1970s, which concentrated on children, classroom life, families, domestic spaces, and the aftermath of natural disasters, all the things Iranian cinema was allowed to show. Kiarostami forged a unique style of contemporary neorealism and wed it to a new kind of consciousness of the cinema as medium. Thinking about his films while watching an American film leads to a sobering realization: all the things that Kiarostami could not show in his films became the only things Hollywood filmmakers chose to show in theirs. What he showed in his films were the things abandoned by Hollywood: conversation, friendship, understanding, compassion, and empathy.
When watching Kiarostami films, one also has a great sense of another kind of freedom not found in Hollywood movies, nor in most European art films: freedom from the creeping realization that a film we are watching was made by a cynical shit or a self-deluded megalomaniac. Kiarostami’s films were not responding to the formulaic considerations Hollywood labors under in pursuit of big opening weekends, and their maker was not seeking fame or awards by making them. His loose stories, contemplative style, and the absence of certain plot points and back story free us from this sense of manipulation even as we are patiently led to endings that are quite often emotionally shattering.
The ending of Taste of Cherry (1997) is one of these, and what’s startling about it has little to do with film’s plot. It is, rather, a memento mori that wrenches the viewer out of the film, back into life. I hesitate to ruin the ending for anyone who has never seen it; even mentioning it will do that to some extent. Kiarostami doesn’t end the film in any conventional sense but does something wholly unexpected, something that in addition to leaving the protagonist’s fate unresolved pulls back the curtain on cinema itself, by closing it. After the cinema there is something else, just like for the film’s protagonist there can be something else after despair.
Kiarostami’s last film, Like Someone in Love (2012), which he made in Japan, also has a shocking ending that forces one of the main characters, and the viewer, back into reality. He does this using the barest of means, in this case off-screen sound. Like Someone in Love came out in the US at the same time as Harmony Korine’s Spring Breakers, and I saw them back to back. Kiarostami’s film ends with an act of violence, but in his film, unlike Korine’s, the effect is unexpected and jarring, an alarm clock going off instead of an ironic audience-pleasing celebration of its characters’ emancipation through violence. Like Someone in Love forefronts a young woman’s struggle with male domination. As with the starlets in Spring Breakers, the young woman here (Rin Takanashi) is involved with a pimp, but Kiarostami does not exploit her situation for cheap thrills. He strands her, along with an elderly professor (Tadashi Okuno) who stands in for a generation that thought itself safe from the violence of contemporary life.
Kiarostami’s films of the 2000s moved away from male protagonists and began to concentrate of the plight of women. Ten (2002) began this period. In that film, Kiarostami gave up a certain amount of directorial control by setting up a camera in a car and focusing on the woman driving it (Mania Akbari). In Shirin (2008), we watch the faces of 114 actresses in a darkened theater, one at a time, as they watch a film we do not see. The film they’re watching is a mythic melodrama of female sacrifice that ends in murder and suicide, which we only hear off-screen, the last death over the film’s credits. Shirin inevitably calls to mind Anna Karina in Godard’s Vivre sa vie (1962) crying as she watches The Passion of Joan of Arc by herself in a movie theater. But Godard includes what she is seeing—René Falconetti as Joan in Dreyer’s film—while Kiarostami only provides us the soundtrack. (Godard chose a silent film.)
Watching a movie in a movie theater is an act of collective loneliness. Shirin makes that loneliness cathartic, but by not showing the film within the film, Kiarostami avoids transforming it into entertainment. The power of our individual response to entertainment is itself the film’s subject. The film is unfinished and in a sense does not really exist without people to experience it. The audience makes the film with the filmmaker, a central tenet of Kiarostami’s filmmaking he often alluded to in interviews.
Hossain Sabzian, the man in Close-Up (1990) who wanted to be Mohsen Makhmalbaf, who wanted to be director of someone else’s movies, to claim and therefore complete them for himself, stands in for all of us as moviegoers. Kiarostami said he was seized by the need to make Close-Up the moment he read about Sabzian in the newspaper. Sabzian’s story could be the stuff of American reality television, where the shame and humiliation of real people is exploited for as long as it takes to make a half hour of cheap TV. Sabzian’s plight seems all the more pathetic because he chose to impersonate a film director rather than an actor. Kiarostami made him into the star of his own film, and Sabzian’s moment of reconciliation with Makhmalbaf and their motorcycle ride together as the film ends are devastating in the way they momentarily erase the difference between the two men, the way they forgive and accept Sabzian as someone who wanted a better life. It is poignant because we understand that Sabzian, as soon as the ride ends, will go back to the life he wanted to escape.
Shame and humiliation lead to violence in Crimson Gold (2002), which Kiarostami wrote for Panahi to direct. Sabzian could have ended up like the hapless, exploited pizza-delivery man in this film, and it is significant that Kiarostami did not direct it himself. His work avoided depicting violence even within the confines of what was allowed in Iranian cinema at that time. Hollywood filmmakers do not shy away from depicting violence on our screens. This violence has become a series of self-fulfilling prophecies that are immediate and clearly understood, in the way that The Purge: Election Year instantly predicted the Republican National Convention.
There’s an interview with Kiarostami on YouTube in which he talks about Quentin Tarantino, whom he met in 1995 when both directors were on a film festival jury. Kiarostami says that while Tarantino’s films are not for him, he likes Tarantino as a person and as a cinephile. He thinks for a second and then comes up with a reason why Tarantino’s films are valuable. “Since violence will never leave the American film,” he says, “an important thing Tarantino has done is to find a way to at least make fun of violence, and that brings down the tension in violence.”
It’s interesting that while both filmmakers came to prominence in the US around the same time, there was a great deal of critical resistance to Kiarostami here while Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction were almost universally celebrated. During this period of collective awe, Kiarostami’s films were derided as slow, pointless, and incomprehensible. A film critic for a New York weekly was fired for writing too much about Kiarostami (and Hou Hsiao-hsien), and a kind of philistinism crept into American movie reviewing that was only alleviated as the Internet began to supplant print publications as a source for writing about films.
Jonathan Rosenbaum fought against this as it was happening, and wrote about how Miramax, under Harvey Weinstein, bought Kiarostami’s Through the Olive Trees (1994) then refused to release it in theaters or on home video. Lack of box office potential goes hand in hand with critical disregard. The 1990s were a period when filmmakers like Kiarostami and Hou, who were already regarded as important artists, were ignored or marginalized while, at the same time, intellectuals began to write about the death of cinema. In the 1960s, Hollywood cinema was much less vibrant than it was in the 1990s, but instead of declaring cinema dead, American critics celebrated filmmakers as “difficult” as Antonioni and Bergman. Looking back, willfully ignoring filmmakers from Iran and Taiwan should be called what it is: racism masquerading as populism.
The Italian filmmaker (and movie theater owner) Nanni Moretti made a short film in 1996 called “Opening Day of Close-Up” in which he plays himself fretting over the box-office receipts for Kiarostami’s film as it competes in Rome against The Lion King and The Nightmare Before Christmas. The regime of the animated American blockbuster had already begun, marginalizing Kiarostami and others without the critical support Fellini and Godard had had in the early 1960s.
Many of Kiarostami’s films are hard to find now, especially the early ones from the 1970s and ’80s. Where are they? On YouTube, some of them, some without subtitles in English. This future (and present) of watching films on YouTube delivers hard-to-find films in an instant, but it is also lonely and isolating. Shirin depends for its effect on taking place in a movie theater, and today’s Anna Karinas most often cry alone at home. Still, Kiarostami is said to be influential. (Every filmmaker who made films before 2010 is now described as influential.) More than ever films of all types position themselves between documentary and fiction, like his. Iranian filmmakers including Panahi continue to make films under adverse conditions, but Kiarostami seems like a marker in filmmaking, poised between cinema and video, central to a place that will know him no more.
Chris Fujiwara, writing in the late ’90s, described Through the Olive Trees as “at once so basic in its technique and its view of the world and so sophisticated in what it does—as if one found out that the inventor of the alphabet wrote Plato’s dialogues.” In 1994, Harvey Weinstein said no to that and now Kiarostami’s films threaten to become as remote as Plato, shadows of their former selves on computer screens at home. Where Is the Friend’s Home? and The Wind Will Carry Us are basic Kiarostami titles that describe his films in general, and human experience in general, and more specifically the experiences of the 1990s generation who discovered his films in theaters.
Kiarostami had a quality of immortality, even divorced from Iran. Peter Hutton and Michael Cimino also died in July, two other “difficult” filmmakers who, like Kiarostami, started out as painters. Along with all the violence in the US, unique, necessary artists keep dying these days—nobody lives forever. Alan Vega of the band Suicide died the other day, too. He also started out as a painter. “I always said I was never gonna be an entertainer,” he explained about his career. “Suicide was never supposed to be entertainment.” As these artists disappear, we are left with nothing but entertainment. More and more we consume it by ourselves at home. The day after Kiarostami died I heard Mohsen Makhmalbaf talking about him on the BBC. “He could show you how friendship could take you out of loneliness,” he said.