Appropriate that the Museum of Modern Art’s near-complete film retrospective of Iranian director Abbas Kiarostami opened with his short film Birth of Light (Tavalod-e noor) (1997).
Introducing the screening, museum curators Jytte Jensen and Klaus Biesenbach reported that the short was originally conceived for the portmanteau film Lumière et compagnie (1995)—in which various filmmakers exhibit one-minute movies made with a vintage Lumière brothers camera—then mysteriously removed, though Kiarostami did still contribute to the series (in the form of a short, Dinner for One (Sham-e yeknafare), featuring the voice of Isabelle Huppert). There are no other reports that I can find to verify this claim, which is further complicated by the Internet Movie Database’s current listing of Birth of Light without any creative credits, as well as by Kiarostami himself, who was on hand at the capacity crowd screening and admitted that he had “never seen it.” (It remains unclear whether his comment was a mistranslation, a metaphorical abstraction, or a statement of fact.) So it is with Kiarostami’s cinema—answers are almost never forthcoming and onscreen events are not always what they seem.
To describe Birth of Light, for instance, as a single static shot of the sun rising over the mountains is to miss the complications Kiarostami interjects through the means and methods of cinematic illusion. The most apparent question: if the color short is indeed photographed with the Lumière camera (which is designed to hold a single 55-second reel of film), why does it run almost five minutes? As in his video feature Five (which outwardly purports to be five single-take shots) there are subtle, but telling cheats over the course of Birth of Light that show Kiarostami is not simply after a real-time photographic record. Multiple freeze-frames and jump cuts call attention to the authorial mechanisms of movies (in particular, observe the herky-jerky movements of the clouds overhead), while simultaneously acknowledging cinema’s indebtedness to and influence by still photography (another beloved Kiarostami pastime: see paragraph right for an image from his recent series Rain). The journey—from darkness to light—is clearly delineated, but in getting there Kiarostami plays around with the very notion of “motion” pictures and so achieves a special, personalized sort of illumination.
Re-viewing Taste of Cherry (Ta’am-e gilas) (1997) at the same screening only confirmed the film’s greatness, though newcomers would do best to heed the cautionary example of Roger Ebert and start elsewhere (my recommendation: Where is the Friend’s Home?). Indeed, Taste of Cherry might be Kiarostami’s most difficult film, what with its generally languorous rhythms (it is often boring, but to absolutely necessary effect) and its nonchalant inquiry into suicide. As in And Life Goes On…, the film’s primary place of action is its protagonist’s car, though there’s little sense of forward momentum in the journey of Mr. Badii (Homayoun Ershadi) through the streets and surrounding hillsides of Tehran as he searches among the working classes for someone to aid and abet, or perhaps to annul, his death wish.
Much has been made of Ebert’s criticism of the initial scenes where Badii, so the critic says, appears to be cruising for sex. (“What purpose does it serve to suggest at first he may be a homosexual?” he asks.) Several colleagues countered that this was a decidedly Western imposition onto the film—a fair retort, though it too-easily overlooks the unavoidable effects of one’s cultural upbringing and of our individual experience with a given work of art, whatever its intentions and origins. Put more personally, I too think Badii is cruising at the film’s outset—in this way the slow revelation of his actual purpose has the curious effect of stripping back one societal taboo to reveal another. And so the shedding of layers continues, through all of Badii’s extended conversations (with a Kurdish soldier, an Afghan priest and a Turkish taxidermist, none of whose point-of-view Kiarostami privileges), until he arrives at the makeshift hillside grave that could very well be his final resting place.
The film’s penultimate sequence is excruciating. Kiarostami’s camera stays close to Badii, the dirt walls of his potential tomb hanging ominously at the edges of the frame. Lightning flashes, thunder cracks, darkness envelops (the exact opposite journey of Birth of Light) and we are left, as Godfrey Cheshire has observed, “utterly alone with ourselves.” It’s disconcerting, devastating. But then Kiarostami’s actual, highly controversial ending hits and, as in his great documentary Homework, all that has preceded is suddenly complicated and refocused through a multifaceted prism. To some, this digital video coda is a cop-out, a simplistic attempt to answer the question of Badii’s survival, though in the retrospect of Kiarostami’s subsequent move into DV moviemaking (save, as of this writing, for The Wind Will Carry Us and his segment of the omnibus film Tickets) it plays as a telling premonition of things to come. Moreso it manages to profoundly meld the didactic with the lyrical—Kiarostami himself appears in this final sequence, sharing a cigarette with his leading man—before closing on a note of mundane sublimity: Badii’s car, caught offhand as in a home movie, rounding a mountain bend… to live.
Keith Uhlich is managing editor of The House Next Door, a staff critic for Slant Magazine, and a contributor to a variety of print and online publications. The media installation of Five runs until May 28th, 2007 in the Yoshiko and Akio Morita Gallery at MoMA. Click here for details. The Kiarostami film retrospective runs until March 19th, 2007 at MoMA. Click here for schedule information. The P.S.1 photography exhibition runs until April 29th, 2007. Click here for more information.