31 Days of Cinema, Days Eleven and Twelve: “Close-up” | “Soldier of Orange”

Like the previous day’s film Je, Tu, Il, Elle, Abbas Kiarostami’s Close-up is concerned with the economics of art—the difficulty of filmmaking in a world of scarcity. There is an infinitude of films that are never made, ideas that are never executed, potential directors that die unrecognized. Close-up gives us a glance into that infinitude. It concerns a bizarre real-life case when, in 1989 Tehran, one Hossein Sabzian decided on a whim to impersonate the Iranian filmmaker Mohsen Makhmalbaf. He earned the trust of one Ahankhah family and planned to make a film in their house with them as actors, but was caught, arrested and tried. The film functions through two perspectives. The first is documentary: the actual courtroom scenes in which Sabzian pleads for mercy take up the bulk of the story. Kiarostami is heard stating that he can only use two relatively grainy cameras in the court’s narrow confines, one on the judge and one on Sabzian and his audience. There is a rawness to the essential simplicity of this approach, which makes us feel Sabzian describing his poverty, how it impeded him from being a filmmaker, and how he connected with Makhmalbaf’s depiction of the subject. He saw no other avenue to realizing his dream other than to exploit Makhmalbaf’s ethos. Indeed, name recognition and pre-awareness in the world of cinema are valuable and hard to gain, and that today’s film industry seems to have cut off anyone without them is destructive. Yet, Kiarostami is clear that Sabzian’s act of fraud was inappropriate: Sabzian details enjoying the power he felt in dictating the lives of the Ahankhahs, and the risk of him abusing that power is palpable. The film’s second perspective muddies the waters: Kiarostami reenacts the scenes of Sabzian posing, and he and the Ahankhahs play themselves—which is to say, a version of themselves from the recent past, who only differ from their past selves in that they know how this will play out and have learned from the mistakes they make. That difference is slight but crucial. Heraclitus told Plato, “You could not step in the same river twice,” yet that is what Kiarostami is endeavoring to do. Is his feigned doubling of reality all that different from Sabzian’s doppelgänger scheme? Is film innately fraudulent like this? Does Kiarostami mean to finally give Sabzian and the Ahankhahs the chance to be in their ideal film? Is he as indignant as Sabzian about how the world economy thins the herd of filmmakers, and does he mean to shed or disregard the privilege that he and Makhmalbaf have over Sabzian? The two perspectives blur in the closing scene, when the real Makhmalbaf at last shows up (Sabzian does look like him) to console and forgive a sorrowful, but more mature, Sabzian. The result is a strong example of cinéma vérité, with one curious omission: I do wonder if Kiarostami could have redeemed Sabzian more meaningfully by showing us—at least part of—the film he was putting together.

Grade: A-


Not too much to say right now on the next film, Soldier of Orange, because I see myself writing more about it in the near future. Famous last words, I know. But this film was fantastic, and it may be bound to grow on me. My main issue with most war films is that there are too many characters, who receive little focus on account of their multitude and turn out as threadbare and indistinct from one another. Who’s who? I often muse. What’s his name again? Some directors use, in an unspoken way, the unity and solidarity of the standard military as an excuse to disregard characterization and its rigors, but really, that’s quite a pathetic excuse. Soldier of Orange solves this conceptual problem by making each of its major characters archetypes, who are fleshed out through keen acting to fill in the gaps the script leaves while trying to push the epic story forward. This is a very meta-filmic type of writing; these archetypes are familiar, and they risk being passé, but it works when one examines them and how it traps their characters within the limited, unremarkable, tragic social roles that they represent. Orange executes this stratagem brilliantly. The narrative follows a group of Dutch college friends who split up, yet remain linked, as World War II encroaches on the nation. Erik (the great Rutger Hauer), a slight naïf and a womanizer, joins the Resistance and resolves to flee to Britain. Guus (Jeroen Krabbé) begins as Erik’s upper-class bully but quickly emerges into his closest comrade and also decides to fight the Nazis. Robby (Eddy Habbema) is a radio expert caught between his friends, his Jewish wife, and the Gestapo, who are holding his wife hostage in exchange for his cooperation. Alex (Derek de Lint), a German, is a snide little shit who sides with the SS because his parents are being persecuted—an understandable motive, I will admit. There are action setups that feel amateurish, a tad graceless, even farcical, and that hint at the future Hollywood phase of its director, Paul Verhoeven, but that are wry enough to be bought. I am thinking of the scene on the beach involving a can of petrol, a splinter in a box and an ill-placed match; a shootout between boats; and a character death that felt contrived to an extreme. Yet, there are plenty of other scenes against which I have no reservations, that display a nuance most of Hollywood sorely lacks: the scrawling of significant dates in Dutch history on a wall; Erik and Guus’ botched first attempt to enlist; an Iron Cross that gets mistaken for a brooch; a rejection of silver coins in favor of zinc; two brutal, perfectly filmed executions; Erik and Guus’ sexual follies with a cute British secretary (a superb Susan Penhaligon); Erik’s klutzy pursuit of a high-ranking suspected traitor; Robby’s deployment of an “old Gestapo trick”; the tongue-in-cheek use of Queen Wilhelmina (Andrea Domburg), a refugee in Britain during the war, as a character; and—best of all—the climactic waltz between Erik and Alex. Verhoeven, best known stateside for Robocop (okay) and Total Recall (brilliant), is considered Holland’s foremost filmmaker, and I eagerly await the chance to see his other Dutch-language works.

Grade: A

Tomorrow: I review A Woman Under the Influence (seen), and Open Your Eyes (will see).

31 Days of Cinema, Days Eleven and Twelve: “Close-up” | “Soldier of Orange”

Review: “A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night”

agirlwalkshomealoneatnight_iranianfilmdaily The place is called “Bad City,” and I believe there’s a pun. A common suffix for cities in the Middle East is abad, which indeed roughly means “city” in Arabic. Hence, “Bad City” could well translate into “City of Cities,” a place in which the sense of urbanity—and perhaps too its inherent badness—is intensified, if not doubled. One can also interpret Bad City to be a mirror, or a representative, of cities, one in which part and parcel of the exacerbation of urbanism is that there is a mise-en-abyme, a metropolis-within-the-metropolis, a reiterative element that is often hidden and opaque but that is nonetheless crucial to its identity as a city. Lastly, and this may be stretching it, but there are affectations of arrogance, insistence and dubious uses of power in the emphasis that are far from irrelevant to the nasty history of the Middle East. Remember how Muammar Qaddafi (rot in Hell) styled himself as the “King of Kings.”

This nuance is just one of the endless things to admire about A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night, a Farsi-language film shot near Bakersfield, California, that has been billed as an “Iranian vampire western.” The directorial debut of one Ana Lily Amirpour, Girl wears the trappings of the genres it stirs together on its sleeve with such pride and braggadocio that I doubted it was satirical or even tongue-in-cheek. For all of the narrative traditions it copies, it takes itself seriously—but it more than earns the right to do so because it deals with the genre conventions on their own terms, even when it twists them. I imagine that a city that has a city inside itself would be more aware of its own urban qualities and more capable of challenging and subverting them. Likewise, the characters in Girl have so many classic film genres and precedents around them that they have no choice but to attune to and reckon with them.

In its most critical riff on the vampire trope, Girl announces itself as a radical (maybe post-) feminist statement. This much is evident from the way the opening credits (and the trailer) wring every possible drop of tension out of the film’s verbose title. Some men may not understand the conflict and risk innate in the very act of a girl walking home alone at night, but most if not all women do. Anyway: in our culture, the vampire is a placeholder for the predatory man, draining young girls of blood in lieu of raping them. In Girl, that tradition is reversed; the vampire is the girl (Sheila Vand, the treacherous maid in Argo), and she targets the men of Bad City who treat women like crap. It’s vigilantism, yes, but it’s still bloodlust; there’s one telling scene in which it’s clear that this girl truly struggles with her homicidal nature. Feminism is an essential good, but it is no less vulnerable to abuse than the world’s plentiful other isms, and the film gains much of its strength from wrestling with this truth.

Frankly, I’d be more hesitant spoiling the film’s vampirism if it wasn’t already advertised so much. The film takes its time to introduce us to Bad City, its futurist western landscape and its Persian population: the young James Deansian car fanatic Arash (Arash Marandi), his cat, his ne’er-do-well father Hossein (Marshall Manesh, the limo driver on How I Met Your Mother), the stylish courtesan Atti (Mozhan Marnò, the reporter on House of Cards), her über-tattooed client Saeed (Dominic Rains), and a little boy with a skateboard. Amirpour’s Bad City is one of broad interiors, Magrittean architecture, lurid industrial piazzas and oddly subdued suburbs, and I felt at home in it right away. The first scene where the girl shows her ace is an extended confrontation between her and Saeed that arrives about half an hour in. The pop soundtrack, the reliance on character and action more than dialogue, and the slow pace—which at once is relaxed and stores a blistering payoff—reminded me much of the botched-drug-deal climax of Boogie Nights. I mean it when I write that Amirpour could be the next P.T. Anderson.

Especially deserving of attention and study in Girl is its use of juxtapositions. Of course, it is shot in black and white, and Nick Schager of The A.V. Club has written a stupendous analysis of Lyle Vincent’s cinematography that I will not maim by quoting. For now, I will elaborate on a small but crucial way in which the film’s self-referencing buttresses its contrasts. To the extent Girl has a plot (it’s best viewed as a tone poem), it’s a romance between the girl and Arash, who meet after a Halloween party. Arash is buzzed on ecstasy and dressed as Dracula; placed next to the actual bloodsucker, he is garish and almost hilarious. The problem with love in cinema is that the effort to cram a well-developed romantic relationship into about two hours is often an exercise in futility. (Usually, love takes years to blossom.) Girl approaches this issue with a refreshing honesty—in which it is understood that Arash and the girl are acting on instinct and mutual lust and could well be having a brief fling—and with a counterpoint that contrasts its short timespan with its measured pace. Its best scene involves Arash in the girl’s room, walking to her, slowly, and her accepting his advance, slowly, all to the tune of White Lies’ “Death”—a song that is still stuck in my head. The moment is so simple and banks so much on its soundtrack choice that it demands flawless acting—and gets it. David Thomson, a tough and contrarian British film critic, is already on record naming this “one of the most ecstatic scenes in film history,” and it’s hard to argue against that.

As a hodgepodge of genres, Girl is constructed in part as a series of vignettes, and as a film buff, I will treasure most of the vignettes on display here for a long time. Smitten with the girl, Arash spends one breakfast prodding a sunny-side-up egg with his fork; he hesitates to break the yolk, in contrast to the girl’s impulse to break skin with her teeth. The girl has a run-in with the skateboarding boy, and we can see the post-feminist perspective wherein she might be taking it an inch too far. In a cinéma vérité diversion, Hossein loses his shit and goes postal on the cat, with ugly consequences. Even a fleeting shot of a world map is infused with much power here. If we are in the real world, then are we in California, Transylvania, or Persia? Most of the suspense comes from Arash’s unawareness that his love interest is a vampire. As the story builds up to Arash’s inevitable epiphany, the characters devolve, the mood grows more somber, and dialogue is eschewed more in earnest, with the final five minutes or so being totally wordless, elemental and pure. I can see where some critics would call the last scene a copout, but in the end, the Ah-fuck-it bravado of the resolution won me over. Endemic as sequels are in cinema today, I will have no issue if Amirpour decides to return me to Bad City in her next film. Neither will you.

Grade: A

Review: “A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night”