Wednesday, January 24, 2018

Rock and Roll Eulogies: Mark E. Smith

It’s there from the start. From “Repetition” on Early Fall. The Fall is the most complete aesthetic statement in all of rock and roll. Repetition repeats. Wheels within wheels. Waking up, eating, shitting, going to sleep. The patterns repeat: chew, chew, chew, swallow, chew, chew, chew, swallow, ad nauseum. And the nausea too. And history. Bloody history. Nausea. Mark E. Smith never aimed to make music to make us feel better. For forty years of the same and the same and the same, he aimed to make us queasy. Bent over and sipping hungover breaths through gritted teeth. Afraid to open our mouths or eyes too wide, for fear of letting the world seep in. Smith always knew that the most dangerous infection is the most pervasive. Through, I dunno, maybe 60 albums (it depends how you count them), The Fall’s music has desperately repelled the disease of liquidity; of assuming the shape of its container (drivers). Like a gas (man), it escapes. Like a solid it stubbornly stays the same. Errant vowels at the end of words and squeals of malfunction in the midst of boggle-jumble-phrases (“Rowche Rumble,” “Smile” (just “Smile”), “Eat Y’self Fitter”). The anti-matter James Brown. Jesus Christ in reverse. Because art rarely prompts us to ask both the question “how does he do that?” and “why does he do that?” The first question suggests technique-inspired wonder, while the second implies confusion regarding intent. So, if we do ask both questions, it’s about the bad taste of excess (cf. Neil Peart). But with Mark E. (the Marquis) and the rotating cast of Fallers, the questions are begged by the depth of an obviousness we could never have imagined. Like Lester Bangs said about somebody else, The Fall are all about “musical ideas that may not be highly sophisticated (God forbid!) but are certainly advanced.” It’s the nose in front of your face. Out there, in front. But so hard to see, until you smash into the mirror. Sometimes you need to break the thing wot breathes just to remind y’self of how difficult and dangerous it can be to put on airs (or put up with ‘em, or put ‘em in you). Be careful what you wish for, lungs. The first time I saw The Fall I’d taken mushrooms. Rethought the notion of “psychedelic music.” (And “psychedelic.”) (And “music.”) The way he squatted with his back to me the whole time. Another time, the carry bag man lost hold of a shopping bag full of lyrics on the festival stage. Sheets of words deserted him in the wind. He tried in vain to repatriate them to the bag – the odd jobs concatenations that somehow sat upon dumb dogmatic bass lines and befuddling, scudding drumming like a vested monkey riding a rodeo horse. Most of them got away. Like the time he told the recording engineer that the drummer didn’t deserve more microphones than his own single vocalist allotment and made him take the rest away. Or the time he tells the lighting guy at their hometown Hacienda “Donald, stop those lights flashing or I’ll break your fucking neck”and then recites, simultaneously into the microphone and into a school cassette recorder “he tried to induce epilepsy. I, and my strong personality, was having none of it” like those were just the lyrics of the song which maybe they were because how did he do that? / why did he do that? His tongue was so deep in his cheek it came out the other side, which is either the opposite cheek, the opposite of cheek, or maybe the listener’s cheek, or maybe the very idea of the idea of having one’s tongue in one’s cheek, such that it is swallowed back down the throat which is what can happen during induced epilepsy, the gag reflex, and nausea. Or asphyxiation. Rock and roll must now be officially dead, right? Kidding-not-kidding. Fuck.

Tuesday, September 5, 2017

Rock and Roll Eulogies: Holger Czukay

It all comes down to the throb. At the heart of every indispensable experience: that insistence made manifest as periodicity, as repetition. It keeps coming back. It keeps coming back. It inveigles. It urges. It persists. Eventually, the distinction between it and whatever had previously been taken to be “normal,” or “permissible,” or “advisable,” fades away. Its intrusion becomes, at first, simply tolerable. But soon enough it vanishes, like the pendulum of the grandfather clock in my childhood home. Friends would say “how do you live here with that constant ticking?” And I would say, “what ticking?” completely incapable of hearing it. Finally, it becomes necessary. The throb;  the very movement of time, the exchange of oxygen for carbon dioxide, the interstellar hum.

Holger Czukay conjured but one thing from his bass: that throb., Holger’s playing is the most primordial retort to the seismic shufflings of Jaki Liebezeit’s drumming. Together, they perform the dialectics of brass tacks and gilded roses. At one end of the tether, Jaki (who died inJanuary) unwinds the coil, spinning Mandelbrot sets of pulses, spaces, and emphases. At the other end, Holger winds it all back up, tightening the twine into an impossible concentration of matter and energy. Like no other rhythm section, the two of them invent the boundaries of a self-sufficient, and practically endless, musical universe. Anyone who loves Can, whether they know it or not, loves Holger and Jaki mostly. In their spars and scrimmages, entire languages emerge, expend their capacities, and die. They construct in time what Borges’ Library of Babel constructs in space.

What’s more, Can as we know them – and let’s not beat around the bush: they are without a doubt one of the six or seven most significant bands to ever make rock and roll – are largely a product of Holger’s structural vision and ability. He recorded their long sessions, listened to and indexed the fathoms of tape, and edited (by hand; pre-digital) the sessions into ur-compositions, throbbing (again) with the inevitability of being born or dying. He had been a student of Stockhausen and had taken the master’s tools and employed them as weapons against the dogmatic, hectoring didacticism of “serious” music. At roughly the same time that Teo Macero was cutting and splicing Miles Davis sessions in New York to create In A Silent Way, Czukay was chopping up Can sessions at their Inner Space studio in Cologne and assembling a new music that was composed after it was performed.

There is little else in the listenable world that survives repetition as Can does. Their own deeply hewn repetitiveness allows successive listens to act more on the music than the music does on the listening. Jaki and Holger did what rivers do, appearing to follow the contours of the land, when in fact the land is forever yielding to the river. Eventually, rivers either head underground or empty into the sea. In the first case, the river carves ever deeper, hollowing stone, blazing subterranean trails that only the river itself can follow. In the second case, the river disappears into something greater than itself; something more powerful, more extensive. I have no trouble believing that either of these cases (or both) describes where Jaki and Holger have gone.

Wednesday, February 22, 2017

Rock and Roll Eulogies: Jaki Liebezeit (May 26, 1938 – January 22, 2017) and Clyde Stubblefield (April 18, 1943 – February 18, 2017)

I was young once. And prone, as youth is, to surfaces and misconceptions, I once labored under the erroneous opinion that the drummer doesn't matter much. Imagine! Such insouciance! I took it for granted that a beat – any beat – would suffice, so long as the song was good, the singer was expressive, and the guitars were inventive.

Somewhere along the way, I came to my wits. It might have been upon hearing Jaki Liebezeit of Can (probably not the first time I heard Can – I’m not that quick a study – I’m sure it took a number of listens), on Tago Mago, I imagine. “Mushroom” is practically all drums. Just a little repetitive chanting from Damo and the extreme economy of Holger Czukay’s bass. There’s already something going on when the song starts in the middle, unpacking itself like a defiant bloom on a cactus. We hear the sound of the end of something that just happened, something we don't have access to and never will. There’s a little keyboard whine, just a beep, like the tone your microwave makes when your burrito’s done. Then Jaki rolls a slender fill to usher us into the song (or vice versa). It’s all shuffling on top, a cascade of echoes lashing into and out of the caldera. Beneath, way down, the bass drum carves out its own geography. There is nothing to suggest that these two topographies are of the same world. But together they create a world as inevitable as the earth.

Jaki’s worlds are all commotion and tectonics: the shambolic intentionality of human activity scuffling assuredly across the heavings of a planet forever belching itself into shape. There is a naturalness to Liebezeit’s layers. Not in the sense of ease or rightness, but in the sense of nature, as imagined by Jaki’s countryman, Werner Herzog: persistent and punitive. Early, Jaki played with Mafred Schoof’s free jazz quintet. Later, he spoke of having an epiphany that directed him to play monotonously, and he joined Can.

All great music is monotonous. Even if that is not the music’s primary attribute, not the first adjective the critic would employ in its description, there must be a monotonous component to any music we would call great. Lester Bangs repeatedly (monotonously) intoned the necessity of monotony. It’s there in the Velvets and in the Stooges. But it’s also in Ornette and Ligeti and Dylan. It wouldn’t have been in Can had it not been for Jaki. True to the name he was born with, he forced the band and every one of its listeners to confront the step-by-step construction of time, which is also, of course, its deconstruction. We must embrace this time; reconcile ourselves to it. We must find a way to love (liebe) time (zeit) and be loved by it.

From 1965 until 1971, Clyde Stubblefield played drums in James Brown’s band, playing alongside John “Jabo” Starks. The two drummers provided the relentless motor for most of Brown’s best work. Jaki gets credit as a pioneer of the “motorik” rhythms of krautrock. But if you go back to Clyde’s work with James Brown, you will hear the origin and the distillation of the notion. Robert Palmer, to my knowledge, is the first critic to have noted that, starting in 1965 with “Papa’s Got A Brand New Bag,” Brown’s bands began to treat every instrument as a drum. The drummers, Clyde and Jabo, are the foundation of this. But in order to function as both architecture and engine, they had to reimagine their role and their playing.

If every instrument is a drum, then how much territory and responsibility is left for the actual drums? And what if there are two drum kits? In response, Clyde and Jabo tap into the most fundamental understanding of rhythm – that it is a binary code: ones and zeroes, on and off, snap and silence. As much as they create music, they create space. Wicked absences at the upstroke. Targets for the other instruments to hit. Bait set in the bear trap. The band builds itself in these spaces, its form defined by what Clyde and Jabo allow. What made Maceo Parker and Fred Wesley, JB’s two great band leaders, so intrinsic to James Brown’s sound, was their ability to tap into this particular evolutionary turn in Brown's music - the one that is the spawning of funk. Maceo and Wesley know what Brown means when he says "don't give me no trash, just give me some popcorn." No excess. Just the moment the kernel pops. Just the singularity of mutation: an impenetrable surface releasing and becoming energy. The Collins boys introduced something else to the mix, a little butter, a little salt. Their playing suggests a libidinal freedom that Brown never allows to surface. But at the core of all of James Brown’s best tracks from the late 60s (“Mother Popcorn,” “Say It Loud – I’m Black and I’m Proud,” and Stubblefield’s signature number, “Funky Drummer”) is Clyde’s stringency. His playing is an exercise in repression; as if something is always being held in reserve. This something never comes truly to fruition because what counts is tension, anticipation; not more, but the possibility of more. The repression is ultimately more powerful than its lifting could ever be. The power of the internal combustion engine is predicated on pressure and intermittent release. While the conditions for a climactic explosion are all present, the engine is designed to repress it. Clyde understood this and made of his drumming a motor.

It is cruel (amidst the cascade of current cruelties) that these two great forces should leave us within one month of each other. In the pits of our stomachs, in our asses, in our spatial and temporal imaginations, suddenly there is a lot less possibility of more.

Thursday, October 13, 2016

Dylan's Nobel

It’s as if I’ve been dreading this moment.

Bob Dylan’s name has come up each fall for the last few years. Many of the people I love most dearly and admire most deeply have been rooting for this morning’s Nobel announcement. I haven’t been dwelling on it, or preparing for it. But I’ve had to reconcile myself to the looming obligation: should the announcement come, I will need to explain why I’m against it.

Ok, dread isn’t exactly the right word, or the right emotion. In fact, the announcement triggers mixed emotions. To my sensibilities, hewn in the mill of postwar political and aesthetic Modernism – buoyed by the expansion of civil rights and the interrogation of taken-for-granted values, but chastened by window-dressed American imperialism and the existential pessimism of Watergate – there is no greater art in any medium than the mid-60s daggers that Dylan steered to their deserving targets. Nothing else so thoroughly and simultaneously tests the emotions and the intellect, history and formal invention, the mapping of collective desire to individual expression.

My qualms, then, are not about merit. Nor are they about the specious category error of awards for artistic achievement. They are, in fact, about a different kind of category error. And what compels me to write about Dylan’s Nobel is the urge to distinguish the error that bothers me from one which doesn’t.

It doesn’t bother me that, in naming Dylan the laureate, the committee has taken an expanded view of the category of “literature.” As it happens, I am in the midst of writing a book that argues that the expansion of fields in various media that begins in the 60s and continues in strong form through the 70s (in weaker form to the present day) was initiated in part by the advent and acceptance of rock and roll as an art form worthy of careful consideration. No one forced this issue more than Dylan. Cinema expanded to include blank film and slowly morphing wall-hung emulsions. Sculpture expanded to include bulldozed earth and roomsfull of light. It makes sense that literature expanded too. In 1968, Aram Saroyan published an unopened ream of typing paper as a book.

It’s not that rock and roll constitutes a similar expansion of literature, taken into the body as a new manifestation of its medial concerns. Rather, rock and roll in the 60s forced, not just literature, but all traditional mediums to reconsider their relation to their contemporary cultural conditions. Sculpture in the 60s had to confront the increasingly sculptural environment of postwar commodity culture in which technology and the ubiquity of consumer goods situated the perceiving body in a fortress of three-dimensional objects designed to promulgate desire. Many of these objects were mobile, either portable or ambulatory, not sitting still for the contemplation of the perceiving body, but manically traversing its space and attention. Cars, moving pictures, conveyor belts, shelves of jars, radios, electric toys, neon signs, public address systems, elevators, escalators, lights across the night sky. Dylan assumed the form of this kinetic moment. He was wired and wiry, constantly moving in space and time, constantly forming/deforming/reforming; never the same figure twice. Constantly inconstant. Later, it was not his sound, his syntax, nor his semantics that would influence the trajectory of rock and roll, but this twitchy unwillingness to settle. They followed his lead: Lou Reed, Iggy Pop, Patti Smith, the Sex Pistols. The sacred, static, sculptural form was ill-suited to respond to this newly erratic world. But rock and roll made perfect sense. It was both the reflection of restless technological commodity culture, and a tool for subduing its most unnerving features. Minimalism and then Conceptual Art descended from the haute encampments of culture and academia to respond to the new realities of the American 60s. Similarly, but coming from a decidedly different direction, the groundwater of American subculture seeped into the cultural foment of the 60s in the form of rock and roll.

As different as their motivations and methods were, Minimalism, Conceptual Art, and rock and roll (along with a host of other new and intermedial forms), destabilized the traditional moorings of the throne of aesthetic power. Similarly and simultaneously, social and political movements threatened (or promised) to deconstruct societal power structures and value systems. From the American war in Vietnam to the near collapse of France’s Fifth Republic, the inevitability of democratic capitalism seemed suddenly in doubt.

In objecting to Dylan’s Nobel, I am not trying to protect literature from infection. On the contrary, I am trying to protect Dylan’s work from the assumptions and impositions that append themselves once it is deemed “literature.” (And let’s face it, no such deeming could be more definitive than this one.) Here’s the rub: to call Dylan a literary artist is to homogenize him. But rock and roll has always been an intensely heterogeneous form. It is theatrical in the traditional sense and also in the way that Michael Fried’s used the term: to disparage Minimalist sculpture for anticipating and being activated by an audience. Rock and roll is a kind of performance art. It is a spectacle. It is graphic design: it’s impossible to imagine rock and roll without concert posters and album covers. It is also industrial design: it’s equally impossible to imagine rock and roll without Fender and Gibson guitars, without Marshall amps and Ludwig drums, without PA systems and lighting rigs. Rock and roll is a technological form, at both the site of production and the site of reception. Rock and roll was new media avant la lettre. And, yes, rock and roll is also literary, not just in its lyrics (which is, no doubt, what the Nobel Committee is rewarding here), but also in the various forms of discourse that rock and roll generates, from liner notes, to press releases, to interviews, to critical journalism. Shit, if it were up to me, Lester Bangs would have gotten the Nobel (but for the fact that his death disqualifies him – maybe Greil Marcus?)

Oh, and wait, rock and roll already functions under the umbrellic shelter of a long-recognized artistic medium. We call it music.

But I’m equally unperturbed by what will happen to music if we call Bob Dylan’s music literature. What I care about is what will happen to Bob Dylan’s music, or his literature, or his… Let’s agree, for the sake of this argument, to just call it his “work.” His work is what I’m worried about. Calling it literature reduces it. And Dylan’s work deserves to be defended from this reduction, even if that yoal has already left the quay. In the 60s he was already “the poet of his generation.” In a 2005 book, conservative literary theorist and Oxford don, Christopher Ricks, laid literary claim to Dylan’s words. And now the Nobel. Yes, that filly’s fled the grange.

Dylan’s voice, not the words it sings, is his most powerful weapon. When others sing his words they almost always lose their charge. The Byrds. Peter, Paul, and Mary. Sonny and Cher. Joan Baez. The Staple Singers. The list goes on. So many cover versions of Dylan songs stumble awkwardly into the ravine of righteous intentions. When these versions work, it is almost always due to something peculiar to the performance, something that sidesteps the burden of the words and the cultural specificity of Dylan’s original. When Dylan sings his own songs, he approaches the task with the insouciant disregard of a pipefitter working in the basement of a man he dislikes. He distorts the structures of the songs with contortionistic gusto, insuring that the material can indeed travel from point A to point B, but without instrumental concerns for efficiency or strain upon the system. His phrasing tortures individual syllables and sounds. 

Tellingly, when his voice is absent, he goes for the harmonica like a petty thug in an alley brawl retrieving the dagger from his ankle sheath. Allen Ginsberg (no Nobel) once described Dylan as a “column of air.” The harmonica is all breath, all air: exhale and inhale. It is the voice without language. Listen to the live ten minute and forty-four second versionof “Mr. Tambourine Man” on the Rites of Spring bootleg.  The harmonica reels out beyond the boundaries of the song, daring something else to land in the space the song has created, to colonize it, to recast it, to reengineer its innards such that its heart is routed directly to its lungs. The song breathes blood. The harmonica begins manically repeating a simple phrase, falling out of time and phasing against the strumming guitar, (beating Steve Reich to the punch by a matter of months), then after a long moaning howl which simultaneously conjures the two great beasts of the Western desolation of Dylan’s myth: the coyote and the locomotive, the harmonica escapes the tether of the chords into a territory that Ornette Coleman might have called harmolodic. At the end of the song, the harmonica and the guitar – without Dylan’s voice, without his words – tear at and torment the song, pulling its skin away from its bones. It sounds for all the world like a one-man-band version of the Velvets’ “Sister Ray.” Music trying to destroy the need for music.

If you call Bob Dylan’s work “literature” you deny it all that (and more besides). Not because literature couldn’t expand to include it, but because, as of the announcement of the 2016 Nobel Prize for Literature, it hasn’t. I doubt that the Nobel Prize committee concerned itself with Dylan’s decision to “go electric,” with his choice of musicians over the years, with his harmonica, with his shifting look from vagabond Chaplin to itinerant farmhand to Carnaby Street dandy to mascara’d outlaw bohemian to mustachioed snake oil salesman. I doubt they watched Eat The Document.

We do ourselves and our cultural responses a disservice if we reduce Dylan to literature, just as we would cheat ourselves if we reduced Beckett to a mere comedian. Comedy may be essential to his art, but it's neither the whole nor the heart of it. And, Buster Keaton wasn't just an actor. I listened to a lot of Dylan today, much of the time focused on his rickety, cantilevered voice, much of the time not paying much attention to the words. 

This entry is dedicated to my friend, Steve Jungkeit, and to our time on the bus. 

I plan to write more on this topic, dealing with the logic of something like a Nobel Prize for Literature and how that logic is at odds with Dylan’s relation to tradition. I’ll think about the many singers and songwriters with whom Dylan has collaborated, across time and the divide of death. A Nobel for Robert Johnson? For Woody Guthrie? For Bascom Lamar Lunsford? Or Dock Boggs? 

Sunday, July 17, 2016

Rock and Roll Eulogies: Alan Vega

This morning, while my wife and daughter attended a production of The Velveteen Rabbit in the suburbs, I prepared for a performance I'll present in Australia in August. The work is new and still being formed. It is called "Adorno At Altamont" and deals with rock and roll as a theoretical construct. Which is to say, that in the best rock and roll there is a theory that is both more indemnifying and more excoriating than what we find in its practice. The Velvet Underground for instance - "Sister Ray" - is a boiling kettle applied first to the flesh and then, once the flesh has retreated, to the skull, to the heart. But the theory of "Sister Ray" is altogether more catastrophic. What the Velvet Underground, at their best (i.e., their most theoretical) represent - such a weak word! - what they incise, is deeper than flesh, bone, and organ. It cuts to the quick; the quintessence. Rock and roll can be the art of life and death. Not life followed by death, but each held simultaneously in alternate hands, weighed and wagered, like tossed coins or hand grenades about to go off.

I'm trying to make theoretical rock, as close to a rock before or without practice as I can get. Adorno had to be there. So too Altamont and the Wagnerian symbolism of Meredith Hunter's murder at the hands of the Hell's Angels. The whole fucking mess renders hermeneutics moot. When Ralph Gleason wrote it up for Esquire, he (or some sensei editor) called it "Aquarius Wept."

Taking a break from my work, I put on the Gories' fantastic I Know You Fine, But How You Doin?, pinching inspirations from their paneled-basement-refrigerator-slapback. Then "Ghost Rider" came on. The Gories' cover of the Suicide classic is pure judo. Taking the slapback retro of Suicide's schtick (and make no mistake, it is schtick (of the highest order)) and slapping it back from whence it came, to the garage, to the long hallway that RCA used to emulate Sam Phillips' tape echo. Of course, this too is a slapping back of the slapback, emulating electronic emulations of acoustic phenomena with acoustic phenomena! The Gories take Suicide back to the source, making of "Ghost Rider" what it always pretended to be and not to be.

So I decided that "Ghost Rider" too had to be there. I spent the morning - this morning: July 16, 2016 - rehearsing it, focusing obsessively on the line, "America, America is killing its youth." This was rock and roll as theory: A band called Suicide, homeless at times during it's formative years, Martin Rev's cheap keyboard presets, and Alan Vega's voice, more slapback than signal, announcing that America and, by implication, the rock and roll, in which they lived and practiced was systematically eradicating its own audience, killing its youth. But there's the double entendre too, which applies equally again to America and rock and roll. The youth it is killing is its own: its vitality, its foolishness, its certainty, its naiveté. Suicide is the name of the band because, after all, what is being born, but the signing of a suicide pact? Beginning is the promise of ending.

This afternoon, I attended Dusty Groove's 20th anniversary block party. Among other records, I bought the recent reissue of the second Suicide record. I came home, put my daughter to bed and opened my laptop to learn that Alan Vega had died.

This morning - July 16, 2016 - while I engaged his work as a (re)producer and a consumer, Alan Vega ended. He left, not via the door opened by his band's name, but the old fashioned way, "peacefully in his sleep."

It's good to be a "recording artist." When you commit your beginnings to vinyl (or film or binary code) they can forever be begun again, not forestalling ending, but reestablishing the brief moments when ending is temporarily and artificially, strategically, denied. The present looks as if at a window and finds a mirror instead: no "out there," no "beyond," no "yet to come." Just THIS, again. In those moments, slapped back, and incessantly slapping back, Alan Vega's voice resounded. "Baby, baby, baby, he's screaming the truth."

Tuesday, July 5, 2016

Abbas Kiarostami's Taste of Cherry

I am thinking of Abbas Kiarostami’s Taste of Cherry (1997), a film involving a man, Mr. Badii, who is planning to commit suicide by taking sleeping pills and laying down in a shallow hole he has dug at the base of a small tree in the hills overlooking Tehran. For much of the film, he drives the roads which traverse the hills, looking for someone who is willing, for a fee, to come to the hole in the morning and, if he finds Mr. Badii alive, to extend a hand to help him out of the hole; if not, to cover his body with twenty spades full of dirt.

The film is about this search for help. It is about the desire to tie up the details even when the details have extinguished the desire to live. Taste of Cherry is about a journey (life) interrupted by a decision to die or about a journey (to death) interrupted by a decision to live. It is about sharing with strangers these most basic, yet intimate, experiences and decisions, which we, of course, share with strangers by virtue of our shared existence as human beings. Taste of Cherry is also about narrative. It is about how a simple decision and its incumbent details create a narrative direction, a problem to be solved, a situation to be resolved. It is about the existential resolutions, or lack thereof, available to the fictional character, Mr. Badii. It is about the filmic resolutions available, or not, to the director, Abbas Kiarostami. It is about the judgmental resolutions available to us, the audience, because we too are in Mr. Badii’s shoes. We make this decision each moment of our lives: to continue? To be or not to be. I cannot go on, I must go on. And so on. Taste of Cherry is about Abbas Kiarostami’s decisions as a human being, to live or to die, which makes him – the ponderer/auteur of the question of the film – a kind of avatar for our experience. But it also makes us avatars of Mr. Badii, who is the embodiment of our collective dilemma and whose own fictionalized dilemma plays our thoughts, our emotions, our experience, as if with a joystick. Seemingly, if we live, we take Mr. Badii with us. Likewise, should we die. It seems to me that much of the challenge of making a film like Taste of Cherry , and also of watching it and thinking about it, comes down to its ending, its closure. Certainly, this is not unique to Taste of Cherry . The challenge posed by many narratives is to use the ending to imbue what precedes it with value. But Taste of Cherry boils the challenge down to its most fundamental form, while wrestling with the most fundamental of ontological questions. For those reasons, it makes a valuable case study. More importantly, it is the specific solution (if one can call it that) of Taste of Cherry which makes it exemplary.

The film is ninety-four minutes long. Ninety-one of these minutes are shot on film. The final three minutes are shot on video. The switch occurs as Mr. Badii lies in the hole he has dug at the base of the tree. Still on film, the camera frames his face. We see only the hint of the dirt walls of the hole in which he lies. A leaf flutters in the wind and lands, momentarily, on his forehead. His face distended and sweaty, grimacing, perhaps in pain or fear, looks up from within the earth, to the sky. The camera shows us his viewpoint, still on film. The moon is full and ducks in and out of clouds. In the distance there is the sound of thunder and the sky occasionally flashes. We see Mr. Badii’s face again, still on film. The moon is disappearing and the night is turning dark. Badii’s eyes are open as the night goes black. A flash of lightning illuminates him temporarily – his eyes still open, still on film. A second flash of lightning shows us his face again. His eyes are still open. The frame goes black again, entirely black. And the next time Badii’s face is illuminated by the nearing lightning, his eyes are closed. The screen goes black a final time, entirely black. We hear more thunder, but no lightning now. And then rain.

When the picture returns, when light again fills the screen, it is daylight. Now Taste of Cherry is grainy, low quality video. For the first time in the movie, there is music: Louis Armstrong’s “St. James Infirmary.” The camera is looking down from the same hills upon which most of the film has taken place. We hear the sounds of soldiers jogging in the hills, counting out loudly and in unison. This echoes a scene earlier in the film when Badii speaks to a young soldier about his time in the army and the two compare the way they count during training. Badii, in what plays as a crass attempt to create common cause between himself and the man he is trying to enlist, urges the soldier to count along with him, loudly and in unison. But the soldier, claiming shyness, declines. The next shot in the video section – in the DVD chapter menu, it is called the “Epilogue” – shows two men setting up a film camera and a tripod on one of the dry dirt mounds that striate the hills from top to bottom. The camera pans down to catch Mr. Badii walking uphill, reaching into his shirt pocket for a pack of cigarettes. As he lights the cigarette, he joins a group of three men. The viewer might recognize one of these men. He is in the foreground. He wears a blue baseball cap, a denim shirt, blue jeans and dark glasses. As Badii approaches him, he hands his cigarette to Abbas Kiarostami, the director of Taste of Cherry. Kiarostami takes a drag and the film cuts to a man in long grass with headphones, a large stereomicrophone and a tape recorder.

Mr. Badii is not Mr. Badii. It comes as a shock. Suddenly the film is gone and with it the fiction. The video shows us scenes of the shooting of the movie; the behind-the-scenes, the making-of. Once the video begins, we are watching a documentary. But we don’t realize it at first. It takes a minute and ten seconds, roughly – around the time that the sound man appears with his headphones and microphone – for us to realize that the film has changed register, changed medium, changed perspective and changed its relationship with its characters and its story. Mr. Badii is now Homayon Ershadi, the actor who plays Mr. Badii. Mr. Badii is gone. When it changes to video, Taste of Cherry also changes its relationship to us and to itself. In the process – and in a flash, like the lightning which presages it – everything which has come before is reconfigured. Nintey-one minutes of film suddenly recoil in our memory and are erased. In their place, we are left with the shadows of ideas and emotions provoked by what has transpired. These are not so easily erased. But without the comfort and distance of the suddenly exposed fiction, these ideas and emotions must find a new home, a new context.

Ideas and emotions must hang on something: a head, a heart. When Mr. Badii disappears, it falls to us, the viewers, to reassign these ideas and emotions. When we see Homayon Ershadi, walking casually up the hill, lighting a cigarette, we realize that he is not the home or source of these ideas and emotions. Kiarostami takes the cigarette, as if to say, “don’t look at me.”

Meanwhile, the story is left to hang in another way. The narrative of Mr. Badii and his efforts to find someone to bury him after his suicide is left incomplete. For more than an hour and a half, we have traveled with Mr. Badii in his car, traversing the hills above Tehran. We travel with him emotionally as he tries to persuade someone to help him: a soldier, a security guard, a seminary student, a taxidermist with an ailing child. That story now hangs. After the taxidermist agrees to Badii’s request, Badii leaves him at the Natural History Museum. When Badii stops at the museum’s gates a young woman approaches him, asking if he will take a picture of her and a young man, her boyfriend perhaps. Badii obliges and snaps the photo through the open window of his car. As he hands the camera back to the woman and starts to drive away, he recognizes the man. Badii had come across him at the beginning of the film. The man was speaking to someone on a public phone about financial troubles. Badii sensed an opportunity, but the young man had not allowed Badii to make his pitch, threatening to smash his face in if he didn’t move on. During the course of the young man’s overheard conversation he agrees to meet someone “outside the museum”. It is a seemingly inconsequential snippet of dialogue, unrelated to Badii’s story. But, once Badii has found the taxidermist to help him and has made the arrangements; after the wheels have been set in motion, the story, in all its inconsequence doubles back on itself. Here is the young man again, meeting someone outside the museum. Is the young woman the person whom he planned to meet? Or has she accompanied him to meet a third party? If we suspend our relation to the narrative as representation and accept it as a self-reflexive text, then we might imagine that it is Mr. Badii whom the young man arranges to meet outside the museum. We can never know for certain. And you’ll pardon me if I suggest that this not knowing needn’t bother us.

Nevertheless, this chance, repeat encounter spins Badii around. He goes back to the museum and finds the taxidermist. He summons the taxidermist outside and asks, when he visits the grave the following morning, that he throw two small stones into the hole to make sure Badii is really dead and not simply sleeping. The taxidermist, who is reluctant, yet resigned (due to the needs of his ailing child), to carry out his task, replies: “Two stones aren’t enough. I’ll use three.” There is doubt now about whether Badii really intends to go through with it. Somehow the chance, repeat encounter with the young man has given him pause. The mysterious serendipity of the universe may be reason enough to go on.

When Mr. Badii lies in his grave, when we see his face, framed tightly, the darkness encroaching, we have arrived at a crucial moment of narrative: this is the crescendo, the climax, the denouement. He has or he has not taken the pills. He is or he is not dead. The entire film has led us to this moment and to the revelation of the outcome, of Mr. Badii’s fate. What we expect is closure. More than expect it, we demand it. The story itself demands it. Yet Taste of Cherry offers no such closure. The final three minutes are the ones shot on video. Mr. Badii is now Homayon Ershadi. And Abbas Kiarostami, who had been directing the story and the film is now inside it. He stands on the same hillside where Badii dug his grave.

Taste of Cherry doesn’t simply bifurcate, as a narrative, it positively shatters. It shatters the very pretence of narrative. There is no Mr. Badii. He has no life to end. The story which has been constructed is swiftly and decisively withdrawn and replaced at a meta-level by the final three minutes on video. The entire narrative becomes a device about narrative, a comment on narrative and a transfer of the responsibility of narrative from the story, the film, the director to an elsewhere that may include the spectator, if he or she is willing to accept it. In this manner, the work of art is akin to a collect call. It has always been thus. Kiarostami, brazenly and brilliantly, makes this implicit fact explicit.

Throughout his career, Kiarostami has systematically worked to remove himself from the position of responsibility vis-√†-vis his films. He told Jean-Luc Nancy that “…a filmmaker’s responsibility is so great that I’d prefer not to make any films.” Kiarostami has reduced his control of nearly every element of filmmaking. He uses amateur actors, he has dispensed with scripts, he has placed cameras in cars and sent the actors off without him to shoot scenes and he has adopted digital video as his preferred medium for its unobtrusiveness, ease of use and low technical demands. Taste of Cherry also abandons narrative control by refusing to provide the one narrative detail upon which the rest of the story depends. This is a great embrace of negative potential within the artwork. The withdrawal of crucial information – whether it be narrative, figurative, formal, or another component of the work – acts to multiply the possible messages and meanings of the work and to devolve power from the central administration of the auteur. This abdication cannot be achieved carelessly or nonchalantly. Nor is it a matter of the technical mastery by the artist or the mechanical competence of the medium. It can be accomplished only when the artist recognizes the inherent incompetence of the available materials and modes of representation. This recognition – a conceptual competence – allows for a turning of the tables, in which the materials and modes invert themselves self-reflexively, exposing their incompetence. With nothing true, everything is permitted. Kiarostami recognizes this less-is-more-ism: "When we tell a story, we tell but one story, and each member of the audience , with a peculiar capacity to imagine things, hears but one story. But when we say nothing, it’s as if we said a great number of things."

Narrative, as a mode of representation, finds its singularity challenged. This would seem to be one of the main incompetences under attack in Kiarostami’s oeuvre. By reducing the narrative to a nothing, Kiarostami seeks something along the lines of Barthes’ “writing degree zero”, a writing which completes itself in reading, rather than writing and, as such, opens itself to, or exposes itself as, multiplicity. As a maker of films, Kiarostami must fight his battle on several fronts. Fragmenting narrative, reducing it to a multiplicitous nothing, would not be enough to significantly alter cinema. In addition to its narrative mode, cinema, most notably, consists of a visual mode and a technical mode which are often intertwined. Kiarostami has increasingly positioned his camera inside a car. In so doing, he makes the six possible directions (forward, backward, left, right, up, down) of the camera’s gaze more apparent. With each intra-automobile camera angle, we see a person and a frame (the window: driver’s side, passenger side, front or back windshield). A single intra-auto camera cannot simultaneously capture two people sitting in the front seat of a car. So Kiarostami’s choices, as director, as editor, are reduced to choices of subject: the driver or the passenger. The severity of this reduction makes the viewer so much more aware of what is being left out: the other person, the other side of the car. And this awareness is an awareness of cinema itself.

Kiarostami: "Cinema, inasmuch as it shows things off, restricts the gaze. Because selfishly it limits the world to one side of the cube and deprives us of the five other ones. It has nothing to do with the camera’s immobility. There isn’t any more to see when it moves about, since one loses the one side as soon as one has access to another. Films referring to an elsewhere, like that of painting, are more creative or more honest. "

Taste of Cherry , by ending the way it does, by withholding closure, creates a structural entity which is open on all sides. The cube created by the artwork itself (as opposed to the cube created by the camera), does not deprive us of its other sides by showing us one. Instead it disassembles the cube and lays it out flat, granting access to all six of its sides at once. The film achieves this by leading us to a fork in the narrative road. The story leads us to a moment of binary decision; to the moment of primal, fundamental, ontological choice: life or death. The first ninety-one minutes work to involve us in the moment, to ensure that the investment made in the black screen between the film and the video is our investment. The amazing turn that takes place in that darkness constitutes the explosion of the binary. The fundamental choice between a and b turns out to be much more various than we might have imagined. More crucially, it turns out to be more various than we regularly imagine. After all, this is our choice too: life or death. It is Kiarostami’s choice. It is Homayon Ershadi’s choice. And it is a choice not made in a vacuum.