“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.