There's No Right Way to Watch, Only Wrong Ones: The Early Films of Abbas Kiarostami 


"A Close-Up of Abbas Kiarostami," the Film Society of Lincoln Center's retrospective of the Iranian master's works, runs from February 8-17, in advance of the February 15 release of his latest, Like Someone in Love.

"[I]t is in the utmost degree probable that all thought takes place in a spatial world," Hermann Broch wrote in his 1931 novel The Sleepwalkers, "that the process of thought represents a combination of indescribably complicated many-dimensional logically extended spaces." So too in Abbas Kiarostami's films, whose protagonists conduct extensive physical journeys latently doubling as quests for tenuous knowledge. His 1987 international breakthrough Where Is The Friend's House? follows a young boy trying to retrieve his school notebook from a classroom buddy. The trek's constantly derailed by uninformative or downright wrong directions from those asked the titular question; the exchanges are as much about discovering how to treat conversation as an information acquisition process, modeling epistemology through pre-teens.

Critics who've slotted Kiarostami's work alongside traditional slow-cinema arthouse masters have been attacked by writers such as Godfrey Cheshire for Eurocentric readings, but those who dilate on a solely cultural context to his work risk being accused of their own myopia. If you're not well-informed about Iranian culture, touristic interpretations are an additional risk. To muddle matters further, Jonathan Rosenbaum reports in one essay that Pedro Costa told him that Jean-Marie Straub told him that one of Kiarostami's films (made in his own country!) had the perspective of a tourist. This confusion about correct viewpoints—who's looking at what, from what angle, and with what information—is fitting considering the epistemological angle. There's no right way to approach Kiarostami, it'd seem, only wrongly dismissive ones.

Kiarostami's short, medium and feature films prior to 1987's Where Is The Friend's Home? are—a few YouTube-able exceptions aside—hard to access and rarely shown; though a retro occurred at MoMA a little less than six years ago, this relatively quick return definitely isn't too soon. While Lincoln Center's close-to-complete retro doesn't have oddities such as 1977's instructional short How To Make Use of Leisure Time: Painting (in which we're taught how to strip a door and apply fresh coats of paint), it's a commendably thorough opportunity to catch up with his fully-developed early work.

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In 1973's The Experience, a young boy working in a photo shop has a dreary, mid-Mouchette existence. It's a rare, uncharacteristically grueling flirtation with miserabilist cinema, full of verbal cudgeling from adults. At one point, the kid's washing the stairs when a grown-up kick over his bucket out of sheer spite and abuse of power. But The Experience also has Kiarostami's first moment of transcendence, when the boy gets his hands on a suit and goes to the movies. Sitting unquestioned in a theater full of middle-aged men, he lights a cigarette and stares rapturously at the screen, unharried, free to process the world around him at his own pace. 1974's The Traveler is the more upbeat flip-side, the story of a delinquent soccer-obsessed youth who schemes his way to Tehran for a championship game, another search for some new form of knowledge manifested through physical trekking. Free-spirited and near Truffaut in its non-judgmental portrait of amoral youth (though still with an ending sting), it's available as a supplemental feature on Criterion's edition of 1990's Close-Up.

It's essential viewing, but if time is limited and you don't mind DVD, brace yourself for The Experience to get to its double-billed counterpart, 1976's The Wedding Suit—not Kiarostami's Masterpiece, per se, but one of them. The protagonist from The Experience is now working in a tailor's shop, working on a suit for a bratty upper-class boy. Said returning protagonist has two friends, one of whom's a bit of an overbearing bully and coaxes our hero into taking the suit out for a brief moment of preening before it's due for delivery. The primary setting's an open-air mini-mall, which Kiarostami observes from quasi-god's-eye angles no higher than the architecture, capable of taking in movement across a broad expanse without moving quickly or expansively, a standard stylistic trope that'll later be used in outdoor landscapes.

The Wedding Suit sports conventional suspense in its last 10 minutes: will the suit successfully be restored to the shop? The sudden emergence of suspense is more heartstopping than the suspense itself; like the similarly unexpected end of Taste of Cherry, its very existence is a shock.The film's relative underexposure is in part due to its awkward length, just shy of an hour (Kiarostami's said that if his film canisters could talk, The Wedding Suit would ask "Why did you make me this length?").

I haven't seen Kiarostami's 1977 The Report, but 1983's Fellow Citizen and 1984's First Graders are dual fugues of frustration meriting full canonical status. In the former, a traffic cop struggling to maintain a no-traffic zone makes arbitrary rulings on who can and can't pass, distrusting everyone who claims to have a Really Good Reason for why they should be the exception to his rulings. In the latter, tykes in trouble come to the principal's office to be interrogated. In both films, the camera restricts itself to a set position in which only the incoming cars/kids can be seen, observing how rules mediate/ignore individual circumstances through set conversational formulas.


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