Thursday, February 15, 2018

Far from home



(originally published in The Outreach Connection in May 1997)

After watching Abbas Kiarostami’s Where is the Friend’s Home? at the Carlton cinema the other day, I was walking down Victoria Street, casually looking around, when I suddenly saw a topless woman standing in a second or third floor window. I guess she was aware I’d noticed her because she then held up a big sign. I was too far away to read what it said, so I kept going. Maybe I was looking into the back of one of the Yonge Street strip joints and it was some kind of a marketing strategy. Maybe it was a political statement. Maybe she was insane. Who knows?

As I walked on, I started thinking how that 10-second scene might seem if it were presented in a movie. If I were a character in an Antonioni-like exploration of longing and alienation, the moment might drive home the distanced, passionless emptiness of my existence. If I were in a Taxi Driver – like rage against the modern world, it might underscore the sleaze and immorality I think I see all around me. If I were part of a documentary about the liberation of women, the scene might speak solely about her; her self-determination over her own body.

And of course, the interpretation would be influenced further by the way the scene was shot and edited. For example, would the camera remain at a discreet distance or would it zoom lasciviously toward her? The scene would also be influenced by the preconceptions of viewers. After all, no one is entirely neutral about topless women.

This little incident could hardly be less directly relevant to what lies in store for the viewer of Where is the Friend’s Home? But my train of thought reminded me that even for Western cinema, with its generally familiar styles and settings and subjects, any claims by the viewer to have identified a film’s “truth,” to have hit on an objectively verifiable interpretation of what’s being provided, is highly problematic.

How then should we trust our reactions to a 10-year-old Iranian movie? The plot is virtually all in the title – a small boy looks for his friend to return the school notebook he’s accidentally taken; the film is populated by people whose sense of their lives is far removed from ours – its rhythms are slow and not apparently designed for the viewer’s easy gratification. Beyond giving it a superficial thumbs-up for showing us a different “window on the world,” can the unprepared Western viewer do any justice to this picture?

When I saw the movie about twenty percent of the audience (three out of fifteen people) left before the end – that seems to happen with every other movie I see nowadays though. But I was more interested in the reactions of two women sitting in front of me who laughed and giggled (not dismissively but with real appreciation) through many of the scenes. I’m not sure I would have thought of it otherwise, but the movie’s simplicity and naturalism often do generate an effect similar to that of deadpan comedy. The boy’s single-mindedness, and the generally disinterested reactions of the people he meets in the course of his search, conjure up a sense of stoic perseverance arguably not dissimilar to that of a Blake Edwards picture.

There’s a scene in which the boy initially tries to persuade his mother to let him return the notebook: he keeps harassing her and she keeps telling him to go and do his homework, and their back-and-forth exchange is repeated to such an extreme that you almost start laughing from exhaustion. Similarly, when the boy’s grandfather reminisces about how as a child his own father would every week give him a penny to spend and a beating to teach him discipline, and “he sometimes forgot the penny but he never forgot the beating” – his unsentimental countenance generates an ambience of long-suffering black comedy. But is it meant to be funny? I don’t know.

It’s not that important of course what the movie means to do. Movies must expect that viewers take them as they find them. In this respect, you couldn’t find a much better lesson in the universal power of cinema as storytelling. By Western standards the movie’s premise probably seems ridiculously slight, but in the opening scene we’ve seen the teacher threaten the deprived child with no less than expulsion if he comes to school again with his homework written on anything other than the pages of the notebook in question. The seriousness of the situation is all in the faces of the children. Kiarostami gives us plenty of time to study those faces, and in a way their sincerity and simplicity are just what a Western viewer needs – we might not understand the culture, but we understand the uncomplicated impulses of a child, and as strangers are able to trust the child to lead us on the journey. Which might be harder to do with, say, an Olsen twins movie.

If I were less cautious, I might state that there’s nothing in the movie about Iranian politics or – on a macro level – society, and that the whole thing is essentially minor. But how do I really know that? The comments I quoted from the grandfather are made in the context of berating his grandson’s relative lack of discipline and control. We’re likely to read that as a comment on the impulsiveness of a child, but who knows where subtle rebellion lurks or deeper irony lies? I won’t attempt to gauge how much Kiarostami’s work is worth as a specifically Iranian film. But it’s a film the world as a whole can be proud to own.



A few weeks ago, in some comment triggered by a recent description of the radio show Morningside as “the glue of the land,” I dismissively wrote that “real cohesion is based in shared need, not in shared recipes or suchlike.” My friend Walter Ross has taken me to task on this. He informed me that recipes can be a great force for national glue, and in that vein presented me with a recipe for “very good marmalade,” copied out in his best handwriting. To win me over further, the instructions provide time to take in no less than three movies. I shall frame this recipe to remind me of the importance of small things. To Walter, thank you and good luck, and to Lucien Bouchard, expect to receive a year’s supply of marmalade before the end of the week.

Sunday, February 11, 2018

Leo the Last (John Boorman, 1970)



John Boorman’s Leo the Last is at once a parable (of the rich man who seeks to give away his wealth to the poor), an attempt to bottle the revolutionary spirit of its times, and an exercise in grand provocation, insisting on itself as art (to the extent of unseen commentators wondering out loud what kind of movie we’re watching) but often feeling as much like a semi-improvised accident. Marcello Mastroianni plays an exiled European prince, moving after his father’s death into a mansion at the head of a London cul-de-sac, surrounded by a staff of manipulative sycophants; working-class slums stretching on either side, largely occupied by immigrants, otherwise by rapists and prostitutes. The class divide is strictly observed by all, until the unfulfilled Leo starts to fill his days by voyeuristically watching the world outside, first becoming fascinated with it as narrative, then as an opportunity for personal action and meaning. Boorman’s simplistic juxtapositions skirt offensiveness at times: take his cut from the poor black family congregated around a (stolen) chicken as it's lowered into a pot, to the tooth-bared, face-smeared meat-gorging at a gathering of the oblivious toffs (which, of course, later evolves/devolves into an orgy). But he also digs deep into the community, finding camaraderie and song and belief, rooted in shared experience, to which Leo can never be more than a visitor. In the end, the mini-revolution over, it seems Leo's happy with the change he’s achieved, even if there’s little pretense that its impact can be more far-reaching than, well, the impact of a film as whimsical as this one. Despite its extreme otherness, the film is actually among the more sociologically grounded of Boorman films (when not in thrall to stereotypes), but nothing in it has the force of real diagnosis, or of lasting myth.

Sunday, February 4, 2018

The Night Visitor (Laslo Benedek, 1971)



Laslo Benedek’s The Night Visitor is quite effective on its own chilly terms, ingeniously reconciling two contradictory premises: we’ve seen Max von Sydow’s Salem running in his underwear through the nighttime snow, presumably the cause of the two dead bodies that show up in the film’s first twenty minutes; and yet it’s entirely clear that he’s locked inside his cell, inside an Alcatraz-like asylum (if Alcatraz was on land). The physical demands made on von Sydow in bridging these competing realities are considerable – I’ve seldom seen an actor appear to be so authentically freezing his ass off. The plot turns on various propositions of madness, investigated by a police detective played by Trevor Howard: whether von Sydow was correctly judged insane in the past, whether his detested brother-in-law might be insane in the present - the filmmakers surely meant such heavy themes, enacted within Scandinavian landscapes with the presence of both von Sydow (a chess player here again) and Liv Ullmann to evoke the spirit of Bergman (in 1971 about as mighty a spirit as there was). But for the most part it’s all much too enjoyably literal-minded and briskly calculated for that to be meaningful. Among the more Bergman-like elements are the displaced conception of the setting (the Volkswagens and phones indicate it’s set in the present, but that aside it might almost be taking place at a time of beaten-down workers toiling in the shadow of a towering castle) and the troubling stoicism with which the film’s people seem to adjust to the arrival of death, no matter how unforeseen or savage. But ultimately, whereas (say) the title of Bergman’s The Silence denoted a definitional existential conflict, the Night Visitor really is just a man with an ingenious revenge plan, too occupied with its logistics to bear much thematic or symbolic weight, and that’s without considering the contribution of the parrot.