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-à-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.

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