Sunday, April 20, 2014

Sight & Sound Sunday: Close-Up (1990)

*In 2012, Sight & Sound published its decennial list of the greatest films of all time, from critics and directors. "Sight & Sound Sunday" is a biweekly feature that investigates the top 50 films from this list, exploring how they came to be regarded as classics.*

2012 poll rank: #42 (tied with Pather PanchaliSome Like It HotGertrudPlay Time, and Pierrot le Fou)

Sometimes truth really is stranger than fiction. In 1989, a poor man by the name of Hossein Sabzian had a chance encounter on a bus with Mrs. Ahankhan, a middle-class wife in northern Tehran. Sabzian was reading a copy of the screenplay for The Cyclist, the latest film from esteemed Iranian filmmaker Moshen Makhmalbaf. Mrs. Ahankhan, being a fan of the film, asked where he had purchased the book. Sabzian told her that he was Makhmalbaf, and ended up coming to her home and meeting the rest of the Ahankhan family. Sabzian would continue to visit the Ahankhans for several days, going so far as to proclaim he would shoot his next film in their home and offered their children parts in the film. However, when a newspaper headline about the real Makhmalbaf cast suspicion amongst the Ahankhans about their visitor, the police were called and Sabzian was arrested and charged with fraud and attempted fraud.

Later that year, Iranian director Abbas Kiaorstami read an article about the incident in Sorush magazine, and immediately decided that it would be the subject of his next film. Close-Up is more than just a dramatization of incident, though, as Kiaorstami instead found a way to blend fact and fiction that turned the film into a international critical sensation, establishing Kiaorstami as a preeminent world filmmaker and arriving as one of several films that sparked a renewed interest in the West in Iranian cinema.

More after the jump.

What makes Close-Up such an intriguing film is that it is filmed as a documentary, with all of the real people appearing as themselves. But Kiarostami re-staged all of the scenes of the film, having these individuals play out the events with dialogue provided by Kiarostami. The chronology of the film is also jumbled, beginning with Sabzian's arrest and jumping about between his trial and his introduction to the Ahankhan family, before finally closing on the iconic (and staged for the film) image of Sabzian riding on the back of a motorcycle with the real Makhmalbaf.

Kiarostami isn't the first filmmaker to come up with this conceit for a film. The most notorious predecessor for Close-Up is F for Fake, Orson Welles' category-defying 1973 film about forgery. That film focused on art forager Elmyr de Hory and his biographer Clifford Irving, himself famous for writing a fake biography of Howard Hughes. Welles' film toyed with ideas of what truth on film really means, and places several "illusions" throughout his film to make the audience question the veracity of what they are seeing. F for Fake practically begs you not to buy what it's selling, which simply reenforces the point it's trying to make: don't believe everything you see on the screen. Art is, essentially, a collection of lies meant to comment on a grander truth.

Close-Up doesn't directly question the audience in the same way that F for Fake does, but the film does call attention to the very thin divide between "documentary" and "fiction" in cinema. By re-staging the events, Kiarostami reenforces the artificiality of "real-life" on film. This is done not only through his scripting of the events to suit the needs of the film (Kiarostami has been accused by some of tampering with the judge's verdict), but also through his choices as a director. In the opening scene, the camera is with a cab driver, two policemen, and Soresh reporter Mr. Farazmand driving to the Ahankhan house. They make small talk with each other, joke about the case, and ask for directions from passersby. When they finally arrive at the house, Kiarostami defies audience expectation by remaining with the cab driver rather than following the police into the house. When the police bring Sabzian out of the house, he's put in the cab, and once again the camera lingers at the scene, this time with Farazmand as he goes door-to-door seeking a portable recorder. These choices go against what audiences are trained to expect in "true-crime" documentaries, and philosophically challenges the audience to question the veracity of what they are witnessing.

Another great example of Kiarostami's misleading direction comes at the end of the film, with the meeting of Sabzian and the real Makhmalbaf. The camera is placed in a car on the opposite side of the street, with two offscreen voices (one of which is Kiarostami's) noting that Makhmalbaf is off his mark behind a taxi and that the microphone attached to his jacket is old and malfunctioning. Soon after this mention, the audio begins cutting in and out, clipping Makhmalbaf's conversation with Sabzian and cutting to complete silence. It continues to do this until the pair are riding on Makhmalbaf's motorcycle, with the non-diegetic score coming in and replacing the diegetic sounds of the street. The audio problem was intentionally created by Kiarostami to create a more "realistic" feel to the moment, but it's still a moment that clearly designed and orchestrated. It's an artificial reality.

Which, ultimately, is what Close-Up is all about. Anytime an artist attempts to present "reality" in their art, they are ultimately re-shaping the events to fit their intentions. Documentaries, no matter what their subject, are designed by the filmmakers to present a certain perspective on their subject. All art is an imitation of life. This is a theme that Kiarostami has continued to explore through his subsequent films, though none are quite as unique as Close-Up.

*For more on Iranian cinema, check out the Hello Cinema website.*

On the next Sight & Sound Sunday: Breathless (1960)

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