Backstory defines Jafar Panahi’s home movie, which, like another film opening this week, simulates amateurism for a greater good. Asghar Farhadi’s A Separation may have won a Best Foreign Language Film Oscar this year, but Panahi’s This Is Not a Film originally had to be smuggled out of the country and spirited to Cannes. Its portrait of an artist confined (or letter from a home-entertainment jail) shows Panahi, director of The Circle and Crimson Gold, pottering about his comfortable Tehran apartment, pending government action against him over his political views. He’s not supposed to leave, much less make whatever it is you’re watching, which he is doing with the help of colleague Mojtaba Mirtahmasb. He talks on the phone with his lawyer and his wife, blocks out scenes for a new movie, reads a screenplay aloud so as to avoid the court interdiction against his directing anything, and unwillingly communes with a giant, free-roaming iguana and walking metaphor.
Despite the lack of pretense, Panahi structures this film just as much as his others, slowly but surely building (or “finding”) the rhythm of a story into the seemingly off-the-cuff documentary footage. By the time a chatty janitor (apparently a moonlighting art student) comes to pick up the trash, Panahi is finding his own as a character, a filmmaker restless to make movies again, driven to the point of riskily picking up the camera himself. If it’s subversive for the film to exist and be shown, its ultimate thumb-in-the-eye to authority is in dramatizing the creative act, with documentary and fiction cozily and craftily nested in one another (in the long Iranian tradition of fictional frame- and game-playing also upheld by Abbas Kiarostami). Last October, a court upheld Panahi’s six-year prison sentence and a 20-year ban on his making films (while he has not yet been asked to go to prison, and is not technically under house arrest, he could be summoned anytime). And so the waiting in reality continues the waiting in the film, with stakes as high as ever.
Meanwhile, in a hellish mall... Tim Heidecker and Eric Wareheim’s also ironically titled movie finds the Awesome Show hosts playing terrible filmmakers who blow a billion dollars on a truncated movie unwittingly starring a Johnny Depp impersonator and very many diamonds. In order to repay their gangsterish backers, they respond to an ad in which Will Ferrell is offering up a shopping complex that turns out to be in an advanced postapocalyptic state of decrepitude and exploitation, staffed by the insane, hopeless, and meek, from shopkeepers of knives and recycled toilet paper to a consumptive man-child (John C. Reilly) and a shit-obsessed guru. When Tim and Eric join their ranks as management, the mall provides the cabinet-of-curiosities setting and catch-all story for a trash-culture satire that’s by turns funny, revolting, and barbed in its depiction of the abjection of its inhabitants.
For enthusiasts of actual public access television, Tim and Eric’s repertoire of freakish hosts, dated video effects, and local-market broadcast can sometimes seem redundant with the originals—or, in a word, too easy, and inevitably lacking the more-live-than-live brainscan of your average one-person borrowed-studio production. But the pair remain capable at harnessing that alternative-universe feel and its malleable possibilities for comedy and the unclassifiable, even as their appropriations, and this new barely feature-length dystopia, put the comedians within range of the strain of experimental film and video obsessed with repurposed cable-TV, propaganada, and other formal debris. Don’t try this at home?