Dispatches: Abbas Kiarostami

Now that nearly every American has access to VHS and DVD and Netflix and Blockbuster, a certain feature of the cinephilia of times past has disappeared: scarcity.  Almost every film one wants to see, one can see – albeit on television.  This has had a major negative effect on the cultural importance of retrospectives, revival houses, film series, etc.  But there is now a retrospective going on that includes truly rare films that are also, in my opinion, unmissable.  The Iranian director Abbas Kiarostami, who is having his first major U.S. retrospective right now at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, became famous worldwide for a series of meditative, often metafictional films–Through the Olive Trees, The Wind Will Carry Us, Close Up, Taste of Cherry (for which he won the Palme d’Or)–that are indisputably part of the canon of cinema.  But prior to that, Kiarostami made a series of films about children that went unscreened and unavailable in the U.S., until now.

In the seventies, Kiarostami was employed by Iran’s Institute of Cultural Development of Children to make explanatory shorts on subjects like the concept of different colors, why one should choose forgiveness over fighting with classmates, how to repaint household objects, etc.  From the first, these films are leavened with poetic insight into their subject matter, an enthusiasm for finding beauty in simplicity, and a playfulness and joyful energy that seeks to inspire the same in their young audiences.  Many of these short works are being screened by MoMA before the longer, sixty-to-ninety minute narrative films Kiarostami made in the same period, also concerning children.  These works are examples of perfect cinema. 

The enforced viewing of these films in MoMA’s excellent projection is a good thing, because with Kiarostami, as with all film artists, it’s imperative to see the movies at the movies.  He relies on big compositions and often gives the crucial details or resolution of a plot in distant long shots, the most famous example being the last shot of Through the Olive Trees.  These early films show that that capacity was an evident talent from the beginning of Kiarostami’s career.  They often detail the most subtle moments of joy, relief, triumph, and despair through beautiful compositions that leave one to infer the rush of internal emotions.  For instance, the climax of one of these films is simply a boy in long shot, watering plants, but with a relief so palpable that the normality of the action turns into an inner celebration.  (Girls, sadly, play a much smaller role in Kiarostami’s children’s films). 

A boy stands in line to buy tickets at Tehran’s soccer stadium.  Around him are grown men, pushing and jostling him and each other.  Still, he moves faster than most, pressing any opportunity to advance.  He is small and vulnerable against this crowd.  Determined, he finally reaches the counter, where the ticket-seller is counting bills.  “No more tickets.”  The boy droops, but, again showing great resolve, presses on, checking other entrances, braving the menace of the police that everywhere surround the stadium, overhearing scalpers.  Finally, he buys a ticket of a man for too much money.  Later he will have to find a way to get back to his village, an overnight bus ride away, with no money or acquaintances in Tehran.  Excitedly entering the stadium, he finds a place in the upper stands.  Nothing much appears to happening on the field of play; the match won’t begin for three hours.  The boy, who is tired, unpacks a small bundle.  It’s a cloth wrapped around some bread, all the food the boy has seen for twelve hours.  Still, with a simple impulse to manners, he taps the man to his right’s shoulder.  “Mister, please, have some!” 

The scene is from Abbas Kiarostami’s 1974 film The Traveler, one of his first feature-length projects.  It  evokes in an almost unbearably moving way the consciousness and travails of Qassem, an indefatigable schoolboy trying to see his first soccer match.  Skipping school, where he is an indifferent student, he tries various schemes to make the needed money, undeterred by beatings from his school principal, the carping of his mother and the utter disregard of his father.  Yet this is no mildly uplifting story of the triumph of childhood optimism and wonder over cynical and brutal adulthood.  It’s much more honest filmmaking than that – Kiarostami observes the boy’s world in a manner that belongs to the neorealist tradition, with sympathy but without overt judgments.  He has a magical ability to summon the emotional world of children, in both its poignance and its selfishness.  And this honesty, in turn, buys him our true emotional engagement with his stories. 

Describing the occurrences of Kiarostami’s plots does not, somehow, communicate the sense of surprise or freshness that pervades almost every frame of the children’s films.  Always, Kiarostami’s plots seem truly simple in a general sense (two boys want to borrow a wedding suit, a man is stranded, etc.) but turn out to be full of revelations, unexpected moments, reversals, setbacks, unforeseen victories and defeats.  They have the vivacity of life, or perhaps more.  The films are kinetic explorations of forward motion.  Never do the characters stop to consider actions for long – they take them, and then react as swiftly to the results.  Because of this, perhaps, the settings are often roads, lanes, alleys, atria.   These boys live in the interstices of home and work, school (if they can afford to go) and recreation.  Comfortable in none of them, they seek relief, fun–basically an escape from the harsh treatment of their bosses, teachers, parents, and older siblings.  Determination is their signature quality. 

Kiarostami’s interest lies very deliberately with working children, hustling to make their way and maybe getting a bit of schooling, which they typically ignore, on the side.  They scheme because they desire, but the desire to escape often traps them further.  The young bully in The Wedding Suit takes the money his older brother saves to send him to school and uses it on karate classes.  Qassem’s trip to the soccer match will no doubt only increase his immiseration when he gets home.  That determination is so often stymied, so often self-defeating, does not entail a retreat into complacency, though – if anything, the failure of a plan only makes the effort nobler.  No false salves or sentimental compensations are provided – only a picture of life that is stunningly convincing. 

It’s a measure of how pure the cinematic quality of Kiarostami’s work is that prose can’t seem to capture what makes his images and journeys so unboring, so endlessly stimulating.  In a short from 1978, we see a man standing by the side of the road.  The din of passing trucks drowns out any other noise.  The man tries, and fails, to hitch a ride.  Truck after truck doesn’t stop.  Rather than compress this sequence, however, Kiarostami keeps the pace even.  Each new truck, we imagine, must be the one to stop.  This is the one!  But they don’t.  The man has a tire with him, and he sits on it idly.  He is high in the mountains; his breath is visible.  A driver stops at the solitary tire shop we see across the road.  Our hero helps him load his new tire, but the driver is going the wrong direction.  Back to waiting.

The road is momentarily empty.  Birds animate the still mountains.  A moment is reached; the man decides he must go himself.  He begins to run, slapping and nudging the tire with him, which rolls along like a animal companion.  The tire and the man make their way – he has determined to get down himself.  The road turns this way and that, a small tunnel is reached, large switchbacks are traversed.  A car stops comically to wonder at the spectacle of a man and his pet tire.  At times the tire speeds up too much, at times it slows, sometimes it looks as if it will go over the edge.  They are descending.  The man is sweating now, he removes his jacket, recombs his hair.  Again the film’s pace does not speed up, we experience time with him, not knowing what will come.  And then, the tire rolls up to and hits a yellow car, missing a tire, on a jack.  The man stops.  He ran down a mountain with his fixed tire.  At best, a momentary victory.  But he made it.

The short’s name?  “Solution No. 1.”  I can’t recommend these films more highly.  The full schedule is here; The Traveler is playing Sunday, March 11th, at 4pm.  “Solution No. 1” and The Wedding Suit are Monday, March 12th at 6pm.  Here’s A.O. Scott’s take on the major films; here, is a properly Kiarostamian anecdote about introducing Close Up from Jeff Strabone. 

The rest of Dispatches.