Close-Up Abbas Kiarostami (1990; Iran) with Hossain Sabzian; Hossain Farazmand, Mohsen Makhmalbaf; the family Ahankhah; Abbas Kiarostami
viewed home dvd 21st Oct 2022;
metaphysics of existence: everyone should play themselves including the director.
Post viewing of Kiarostami’s ‘Close-Up’ I was left with a feeling of mental exhaustion: so many countervailing forces packed into a film, wrapped up as a cosmic joke and played out as a humanist statement.
There is a moment early in the film when the cabbie waiting for reporter Farazmand, gently sets in motion a discarded empty aerosol can. As the can rolls downhill it rattles loudly creating jagged percussive effect until lodging against the side of the kerb, it comes to a halt.
‘Close –Up’ is in part an observation on media culture. Kairostami’s ‘can’ shot suggests itself as an allegory on the general curve governing the shape of media attention: events are blown up out of proportion, make a racket for a short period of time then collapse back into forgetful silence, as if they had never existed. But Kiarostami in ‘Close-Up’ is not going to play the game according to the media rule book. He has other purposes.
‘Close-Up’ is a documentary, re-enacted in part as a drama in which everyone gets to play themselves, including of course the director, Kiarostami.
The narrative centres about Hossain Sabzian’s impersonation of Iranian film director Mohsen Makhmalbaf. Pretending to be the filmmaker he fraudulently gains entry to the middle class home of the Ahankhah family, claiming that he is going to film their house and the younger son in his next movie. Alerted by the suspicions of the pater familias, the journalist Farazmand, in search of a scoop, goes to the house with two policeman, who arrest Sabzian. The journalist gets his story which rolls off the press as a news headline, waiting to disappear in the next day’s events. The object of the newspaper industry is to squeeze maximum salacious coverage for the shortest amount of time. Events are compressed and the individuals simply pawns in the media play out.
The film’s title is ‘Close-Up’ which is a precise description of the manner in which Kiarostami (K) approaches his subject Hossain Sabzian. ‘Close-Up’ describes not just a type of shot of the subject (though there are plenty of these) but effectively the relationship K establishes with his subject. K’s role as film maker is a necessary but not sufficient description of how he relates to Sabzian. K is not just film maker, an exploiter of certain situations, but also questioner, affirmer, enabler. K’s role is never to exploit judge or manipulate Sabzian; rather to understand why he behaved as he did, to honour him for his responses, to respect him in the process of making the film. K doesn’t throw Sabzian aside at the end of the trial, but enables him to enter further into the ‘actual’ of film direction, by meeting and doubling up with Mohsen Makhmalbaf the film director whom Sabzian had impersonated. ‘Close-Up’ is about the ‘why of filming’, the underlying intentions of picking up a camera, rather than about ‘form’ ‘structure’ or ‘content’. ‘Close-Up’ is K’s take on Cinema Verité, the fundamental truth of what cinema ‘is’.
At the core of ‘Close-Up’ is K’s belief that film making is a way of mediating with the world. It doesn’t matter whether the pertinent relations are subjects of documentary or actors in dramas. There are always concerns and purposes to be explained, ideas to be negotiated. The mediation is founded on dialogue honesty and equal exchange between all involved on both sides of camera. K’s approach is humanistic grounded in an existential philosophy which makes his filming stand out in stark contrast to the controlling ethos of exploitation that characterises most of the media industry.
Overlaying the humanistic ethos of ‘Close-Up’ is K’s existential probing of the effects of media media on identity. The issue of ‘being’ probably attracted K to the idea of making a film about and with Sabzian. The film seems to be shot partially as actual real time filming and partially in re-construction, but the core content is Sabzian’s obsession of wanting to be a film director. Sartre observes generic Parisian waiters going about their work. He says they play out their roles in an exaggerated manner as a quasi- theatrical way of making a claim on being. They become waiters by absorbing the outer modes of being waiter.
With the huge expansion of media, societal attention became focused not only on the traditional loci of power, politics, high status, wealth, business, but on the creative industries feeding off the news. Film stars, film directors, singers, musicians, designers, architects, models etc. Individuals in these creative industries were accorded high status. Their lives seemingly opened up by publicists and their photographs widely published, the images of this new elite penetrated deeply into the collective public consciousness. Deracinated urban working people were particularly prone to merging their identities with these projected images from the media. The pop stars, the film stars could all be assimilated into the ‘being’ of those without history without ‘substance’ of social belonging.
Sabzian is an unemployed man, normally working in the printing trade. Divorced from his wife who regards him as a failure, he lives at home with his mother and one of his children. As he describes it his life is closed down. He has no past and no prospects. But his being is suffused with the idea of being a film director. From his knowledge of film he has come to understand the role of the director in production. He sees the film director as possessing all the attributes and capacities that are missing from his own life. The director has high status, the director commands both his crew and his cast, they do what he says, the director gets respect from people who listen to what he has to say. Sabzian has built up within his being an alternative persona, the phantom director. Which identity looks thinks and acts like a film maker. But his being director is always held back by the mundane claims made on him by the life of Sabzian. Like a psychic Houdini he yearns to burst free from the chains that bind him to a meaningless life. When a chance encounter presents him with opportunity, he takes it like a seasoned pro, moving in on the Ahankhah family as director in residence. (They of course in a different way and to a lesser extent also live under the spell of world of film).
And all the time in his filmic re-telling of the impersonation event, K questions and coaxes Sabzian into responding from his heart. Without judgement K accepts him as a film director, not as a charlatan or a fraud, but as an honourable man.
At the end of ‘Close-Up’ we come out of the cinema understanding something of the extraordinary nature of Kiarostami and the way in which he takes up the world in order to film. The film elaborates and opens up multiple realities all folded into Kiarostami’s mediation, but through the course of the complex interweaving of these strands there emerges an emotional coherence relating to the fragility of human endeavour.