As a filmmaking icon as well as a filmmaker, Abbas Kiarostami occupies two prominent positions: a central figure in Iran’s celebrated and multigenerational cinema movement, and one of a handful of supreme masters in that more rarefied, rootless milieu called “world cinema” (where he invariably falls in alongside Akira Kurosawa and Satyajit Ray). This straddling, dual status is not all that arbitrary: while Kiarostami’s aesthetic is heavily indebted to indigenous influences (perhaps Persian modernist poetry and the groundbreaking work of his late contemporary Sohrab Shahid-Saless in particular), he’s also famously influenced (like other Iranian filmmakers) by Italian neorealism and France’s nouvelle vague.
Neither cultural exoticism nor the continuation of a stylistic tradition in European art film, however, goes very far in explaining the powerful appeal of the films on display in the Pacific Film Archive’s retrospective, “Abbas Kiarostami: Image Maker,” a wide-ranging and altogether impressive series co-presented by New York’s Museum of Modern Art and P.S.1 Contemporary Art Center in collaboration with the Iranian Art Foundation, which includes a concurrent exhibition at the Berkeley Art Museum of Kiarostami’s striking photographic work.
Kiarostami, whose career stretches back to Iran’s pre-revolutionary “new wave” and whose post-revolutionary work has contributed so much to the aesthetics of the New Iranian Cinema, reaches those of us outside the Iranian context at a primal level by drawing attention to the ways cinema makes us see ourselves and the world. His attention to such fundamentals is part of what gives his films their freshness and sense of possibility, as well as a deceptive air of naïve realism that is often the basis for playful irony on the part of this highly informed cinematic sensibility.
While largely devoid of overt political content — something that has gotten his films dismissed by some as escapist, and even less charitably as pandering to the timidities and artistic pretensions of the festival circuit — Kiarostami’s work remains rigorously at play with the tension between reality and fantasy in cinema. His boldly innovative blending of fictional and documentary modes of storytelling (never more brilliantly or stimulatingly realized than in 1990’s amazing cinematic intervention, “Close-Up”) charges cinema itself with a self-conscious power, not only to reflect or record but to re-make and re-order the world after its own fashion. As an aesthetic practice and creed, perhaps little can be more radical, or political, than that.
[In this context, it’s worth noting that one of Iran’s most overtly and uncompromisingly political filmmakers, Jafar Panahi, served as Kiarostami’s assistant director before making his own first feature for cinematic release — and the elder filmmaker’s imprint, while not a consistent or exclusive influence, is unmistakable in Panahi’s narratives, from 1995’s “White Balloon” through his most recent “Offside.” Moreover, Kiarostami’s “Ten” (2002), which defies the strictures of the Islamic Republic by openly exploring (in the fluid privacy of a car traversing the public streets of Tehran) the personal lives of several modern urban women, including a prostitute, belies the stereotype of a determinedly apolitical filmmaker (and may even be seen as a kind of response to Panahi’s blazing indictment of female persecution under the current regime in Iran, “The Circle” (2000)).]
Whether or not the subject matter appears politically charged, the surface simplicity of these films is always deceptive. Like the zigzagging trail up the hillside repeatedly traversed by the boy protagonist in the much admired “Where Is the Friend’s Home?” (1987), or the last-minute idea that finally gets another boy safely by his menacing canine adversary in the brilliant early short “Bread and Alley” (1970), Kiarostami’s films have a way of demonstrating how the most direct, most humane and revelatory distance between two points is not necessarily a straight line.
Think too of the man in “Solution No. 1” (short, 1978), along the roadside with his flat tire. When one car after another fails to stop for him, he finally starts rolling his tire down the road himself, through what turns out to be a magnificent landscape and (for us as for him) an exuberant experience. That fairly early short can stand for so much of what follows, not merely in the seemingly straightforward moral of its bone-simple story, or its gentle, poetic epiphany, but in the way the camera’s eye and the viewer’s journey tend to bypass cultural or cinematic baggage, leaving it all behind, as it were, in the useless car.
Culture and cinema are always part of the equation, of course. But perhaps the perspective from the car (so appealing to Kiarostami in his later films), like the perspective of children from the very beginning of his career (which began at the state’s Institute for the Intellectual Development of Children and Young Adults), serves him so well because it is one still not entirely determined, always somewhat detached, and providing thereby a distinctly “present” attendance on the landscape and on life that is not yet fully mediated by culture, cinematic convention, or the mind of the adult world. It’s an itinerant perspective that allows for seeing the familiar as strange, the strange as familiar: the father and son excursion into the earthquake ravaged countryside in “And Life Goes On” (1992); the wandering city driver in “Ten” (2002); the desolate but far from lifeless road followed by the would-be suicide in “Taste of Cherry” (1997); or the city-slicker’s spree through the countryside aback a wise man’s motorbike in “The Wind Will Carry Us” (1999) — these journeys take the viewer back, as it were, to a point where the subject sees reality afresh, and where seeing is in some sense the subject.
These filmic journeys also anticipate the photography on display at the Berkeley Art Museum: four series of sparsely peopled but highly evocative photographs in color and black-and-white, two of which are exhibited for the first time on the West Coast. A serious still photographer for many years, Kiarostami’s sensibility in these photographs unmistakably relates to his cinematic work (in fact, some of them reportedly came about during location scouting.) But although the contemplative landscapes and car-bound perspectives are highly reminiscent, these are far from mere movie stills.
In the color series “Rain” (2006), proffered landscapes and clusters of trees are glimpsed among darkly cloud-laden skies through a storm-spattered car window. The collected raindrops and deep, dark hues in the clouds, trees, road, and greenery convey both turbulence and a comforting soulfulness from our position on the dry side of the glass, safely rushing on to some homey destination. Such an alert but passive vantage becomes more tangible still in “Summer Afternoon” (2006), a film installation with electric fan that places the viewer before a curtained window as shadows move across it.
For all the mediation of car windows, manicured landscapes, and the camera’s own framing, the natural world has a visceral presence throughout. Kiarostami’s trees, for instance, beautifully beheld in the vivid color series entitled “Trees and Crows” (2006), produce unexpected and almost anthropomorphizing impressions. In one, a small bright green leaf pops comically out of the center of an overlapping line of mottled birch trunks like a three-fingered hand waving hello. In another, horizontal bands of shadow cast by trees situated beyond the frame dip slightly toward the center of a large field of grass, as if cradling some invisible burden, an illusion expressing both weight and weightlessness together, as the seeming permanence of nearby trees turns to insubstantial arms bearing an unseen load.
If trees in their majestic rootedness tend toward metaphors of stability, those pictured here — groups of beautifully lined and intricately patterned trunks massing together, queuing up in twos, leaning into one another conspiratorially, or standing stoically alone (bearing the stump of a sheered-off secondary limb) — seem charged with activity, consciousness, or endurance.
Several do feature a crow (a potent presence in much Iranian poetry and literature). In one, the bird looks off in profile on a swath of lawn and an undulating plane of shadow, a lone trunk just visible in the top right corner. Another has a crow in dappled light facing a line of trunks that almost seem to be staring back, leaning ever so slightly in the bird’s direction. Still another centers on a silhouette of a bird in a strip of warm late afternoon light flanked on either side by impenetrable bands of shadow from several trees situated outside the frame.
“Roads and Trees” (1978-2003) includes two black-and-white images of roads through austere terrain. One road passes through a mountain hewed away into two complimentary halves and leads out into a cloudbank. In another, an unpaved road runs from the bottom of the frame, snaking right and left as it disappears into a gently rolling, lifeless landscape skirted by decrepit fence posts and in the distance a line of electric wires that further betray the ever-present human hand at work.
The dialectic between human and natural design at work in the world — a central Kiarostami theme — attains a certain low-key apotheosis in the exquisite black-and-white series of winter landscapes entitled “Snow White” (1978-2003), which includes a photograph of four slender trunks evenly planted in snow-covered ground, the beginning of a thicket of branches just showing at the top of the frame. With their clusters of leaves, like delicate miniature lanterns, the network of branches cast intricate shadows on the snow vaguely reminiscent of the patterning in a classic Persian rug. It’s as if the balance of human imagination and a larger natural order found a further echo in a suggestive, readymade allusion to the organic basis of the aesthetic.
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