Thursday, February 14, 2013

The Spectator as Filmmaker: Abbas Kiarostami's Shirin (2008)

The film opens with the illustrated pages of Khosrow and Shirin, a story of Persian origins that the great epic poet Hakim Nezami Ganjavi pushed to its romantic apex in the twelfth century.  After a final credit naming Abbas Kiarostami as the director and producer of the work, Shirin (2008) cuts to a close-up of an attractive dark-eyed, round-faced woman of early middle-age seated in a darkened movie theatre.  Off-screen we hear a door unlatching, water dripping and the sound of footsteps on a stone floor.  The woman chews on a finger-full food, nodding briefly to her left, before fixing her gaze back on an off-camera cinema screen.  The film cuts to a second, likewise attractive woman, also chewing, as she watches the same film.  She is younger with droopier eyes and a more ovular face.  As in the first shot, a woman sits in the much less illuminated row behind her (in this case an older woman in a crimson head scarf) as the sound of women mourning becomes audible from the off-camera screen.  A second cut leads to yet another woman staring up at the invisible projected image with the first lines of film dialogue voiced over: “It’s time for my story.”  With this, the tragic story of Khosrow and Shirin unfolds in a motion picture that remains for us audible but unseen.

While we hear the off-camera adaptation proceed in its entirety from Shirin’s ecstatic discovery of Khosrow’s portrait to the heroine’s suicide at the tale’s conclusion (through a series of dialogues, accentuated sound effects and a conventionally manipulative score) we watch as a series of more than one hundred Persian women, with the jarring exception of Juliette Binoche, react to the projected film on camera.  Kiarostami maintains the same framing for each: a woman wearing a head-scarf is composed in a carefully lit close-up with typically darker planes behind her featuring additional female and occasionally male spectators.  Variations in the lighting of the unseen film reflect into the auditorium, painting Khosrow and Shirin’s spectators intermittently as they stare up at the invisible screen.  The women laugh, gasp, recoil and frequently weep as they react to what they (but not Shirin’s viewers) see on screen.  With the graphic, squishing sound of Shirin plunging a small dagger violently into her torso, an aged female spectator glances down, wiping a tear from her cheek before casting her gaze back up at the screen.  A non-diegetic, male-female duet commences within the off-screen picture as both films fade to black.  The music continues as Kiarostami rolls the credits for his one hundred-ten on-camera performers and twenty-two voice actors.         


In Abbas Kiarostami’s cinema of half-finished diegetic worlds requiring the spectator’s active participation to bring the works to completion, no film sustains a larger absence, nor requires a greater act of collaboration, than does Shirin.  As a film that systematically refuses to cutaway or to reverse fields from its ubiquitous female spectators to the always audible events occurring on the unseen screen, Shirin not only allows but insists that its viewers imaginatively supply a style to what is proceeding out-of-view, to make the visual choices that are traditionally the purview of the filmmakers: namely, to decide how the off-screen film looks, how it is lit, how the actors are blocked, whether the dialogue sequences utilize shot/reverse-shot editing and so on.  Of  course, Kiarostami does offer his spectators cues, as for instance the off-screen film’s reflected nocturnal shadows that envelope the room in a greater darkness, or conversely the waves of brighter light, bouncing off the invisible screen, which break through the auditorium and suggest a sudden, luminous daylight in the off-camera narrative.  Likewise, through the unseen film’s competing panoply of sounds, Kiarostami invites us to imagine the off-screen of the off-screen film; a mise-en-abyme of off-camera space is produced accordingly.  However, both the places and the people featured in the off-screen retelling of Khosrow and Shirin remain hidden from our view, subject to our own making (to the extent that we participate) in tandem with the sounds of their voices, the opening illustrated credits or even our images of the characters that we bring into the viewing.  In other words, we are permitted by Kiarostami to cast the actors, scout the locations and create the mise-en-scène, albeit within the parameters of a film practice, like Kiarostami’s, that remains attentive to off-camera sound and thus space. 

In suggesting an off-screen for a screen that is itself off-screen, Kiarostami further expands the space depicted in his cinema, which as always far exceeds that which the director captures between the four edges of his frames. Kiarostami frequently constructs the spaces of his films to insist on the relative smallness of the on-screen visual field within the greater framework of a world that his camera only fleetingly – and restrictively – captures.  Beyond the visible in these films there is an abundance of existence, whether it is the souls of the director’s The Wind Will Carry Us (1999) or the mise-en-scène of the unseen Khosrow and Shirin adaptation. 

At the same time, the visible in Shirin provides excesses of its own.  First, there are the more than one hundred women who populated Kiarostami’s static, close-up framings.  Though, in obedience with Iranian law, each wears a headscarf – thereby facilitating modesty by reducing the emphasis on the wearer’s outward appearance – the director’s method of framing each woman in extended, intimate close-up counteracts the logic of these coverings as its asks us to contemplate each woman’s appearance.  In our prolonged study of the film’s nearly uniformly beautiful set of actresses, we come to notice the smallest physical differences, whether it is a suppler lower lip or wider set eyes.  In this regard, Kiarostami pursues both the extreme repetition of works like Fellow Citizen (1983) and The Wind Will Carry Us, while also demanding the subtler, minute variation-based spectatorship of his landscape film Five Dedicated to Ozu (2003). 

Similarly, the responses of Shirin’s on-screen performers to the off-camera narrative provide us with an additional category of excess.  In contrast to the frequently inattentive, normative film spectator, or to the even more distracted, fragmentary viewer of the art gallery – Shirin’s original mode of exhibition – Kiarostami’s on-camera female spectators remain uniformly attentive to the unseen narrative; they almost never stop reacting to the film they are watching.  As such, we become aware of the fictitiousness of their gesturing and thus, of the gap between the performer and the feelings they articulate.  Nevertheless, the emotional tenor of the performers’ responses invite us to see in Shirin’s travails those of the modern Persian women.  In this concern, as in the film’s systematic use of close-ups to frame female faces, Shirin points back to the director’s feminist Ten (2002).  Both films also reaffirm, along with Pedro Costa’s Colossal Youth (2006) and Wang Bing’s Fengming: A Chinese Memoir (2007), that the baseline for twenty-first century minimalism resides in close-ups of the human face.   

Yet, Shirin offers another, very different spectatorial experience to its viewers.  By placing the greatest emphasis on what we hear rather than what we see, Shirin becomes a much more conventional narrative experience: a story, replete with romantic intrigue and graphic violence, told chronologically following an opening framing device.  It becomes in other words its off-screen adaptation of Khosrow and Shirin, which notably differs substantially from the director’s personal idiom.  Indeed, though it is easy to speculate that Kiarostami himself would never make the film-within-the-film in the conventional form that his soundtrack suggests, the director permits this right to his spectator by leaving Shirin’s meta-narrative off-screen, and thus, unfinished.  Again, he leaves it to his viewers to “make” the film as they see fit.

English Title(s): Shirin, My Sweet Shirin
Original Title: Shirin
Country of Origin: Iran
Production Company: Abbas Kiarostami Productions
Director: Abbas Kiarostami
Producer: Abbas Kiarostami
Executive Producer: Hamideh Razavi
Based on Khosrow and Shirin by: Farrideh Golbou
Inspired by the work of: Hakim Nezami Ganjavi
Screenplay: Mohammed Rahmanian
Based on the 12th century poem by: Nezami
Cinematography: Mahmoud Kalari, Houman Behmanesh
Editor: Abbas Kiarostami, Arash Sadeghi l.n.
Sound: M. Reza Delpak
Sound Recording: Mani Hashemian, Reza Narimizadeh
Music: Heshmat Sanjari, Morteza Hananeh, Hossein Dehlavi, Samin Baghchehban  
Conductor: Manouchehr Sahbaie
Singers: Hossein Sarshar, Solmaz Naraghi
Lyrics: Sheikh Farid, Aldin Attar
Runtime: 92 mins.
Genre: Art Gallery Instillation
Color: Color
Cast: 132 credited on-screen performers and voice actors including Mahnaz Afshar, Taraneh Alidoosti, Juliette Binoche, Golshifteh Farahani, Niki Karimi
Year: 2008

Friday, January 25, 2013

New Film: Django Unchained (2012)

One half of two thousand-twelve's most essential Hollywood double-feature along with Steven Spielberg's Lincoln (2012), Quentin Tarantino's Django Unchained (2012) pursues and provides the greater and more novel insight into the abhorrent institution of American slavery, unearthing a piquant metaphor in the period-specific performativity that the writer-director's film spotlights. From Christoph Waltz's first on-screen appearance driving a carriage capped with a colossal molar, the writer-director's revisionist latest highlights the process of play-acting and the act of withholding one's identity: Waltz's Dr. King Schultz, a former dentist turned bounty hunter as it happens, labels himself only as a "weary fellow traveler," desirous of purchasing a recently auctioned slave from a pair of Texas slavers. When the latter refuse to accommodate Schultz's abnormal (if still amenably offered) request, Waltz reveals his preternatural faculty with a firearm, executing one of his newly made acquaintances in a manner that extends the film's eponymous citation of the "Spaghetti Western" cycle.

With the title's 'unchained' Django (Jamie Foxx) thus joining the flesh-hunting Schultz, the latter coaches his new riding companion on the role he will be charged to fulfill, first in virtual form and consequently in point-of-fact: that of a free man. Waltz's lead insists on the importance of Django not breaking character, and entreats his new associate to select his costuming - an invitation that initially results in an brassy blue suit and over-sized white lace bow that feels borrowed from the visual lexicon of African American minstrelsy. Of course, when Django is compelled, following his archetypal emergence as a New Hollywood cowboy, to pretend that he is a black slaver, "the lowest of the low" - despite his stated reservations, Foxx's character shows some relish in inhabiting the despicable figure - he opts for dark-toned garments and gold-tinted spectacles that help the undercover black bounty hunter to carry off his latest role in true Tarantino fashion, as a bad-ass.

In transitioning between freeman and black-slaver, Tarantino's Django invites the spectator to consider the performed aspect of each historical type. With the film's subsequent sketching of Samuel L. Jackson's kowtowing head house slave Stephen in disparate public and private settings, where he inhabits profoundly different personas, Django Unchained further extends this discourse onto the institution of slavery itself, with the abundant mental aptitude of Jackson's villainous race-trader coming into view. That is, through Jackson's shifting characterization, one that it should be added that cuts strongly against the Gone with the Wind (1939) simpleton stereotype in its acknowledgement of Stephen's substantial masked intelligence, writer-director Tarantino suggests that slavery itself - and as always its depiction over the course of film history - required an adherence to expected type, which belied the personality and again mental abilities of those inhabiting the roles. Tarantino's film opens up a space between the role and the person (rather than the slave) inhabiting it.

Django Unchained's theatrical discourse serves additionally to translate Inglourious Basterds' (2009) Occupation-era cinematic intertext into a self-referential form more appropriate to the film's mid-nineteenth century moment. The incontrovertibly major Inglourious Basterds indeed provides a point of departure in almost every sense, beginning with its ontological status as an object of psychic historical revision: where Inglourious Basterds provides a fantastic, contingent counter-reality in which Jews and members of the cinematic colony bring about the destruction of the Third Reich, in an orgiastic final act explosion of extreme cartoon violence, Django Unchained gives agency to the victims of the Trans-Atlantic slave trade, whether it is the unshackled slaves in the opening set-piece, Django in his role as homicidal bounty-hunter, or the latter in his final, ruthless, John Woo-coded devastation of Candieland (which will include slavers and complicit whites and blacks alike). Django Unchained also responds to and revises Inglourious Basterds' negative Germanic archetype, with former film Nazi Waltz recast as the 'good guy.' At the same time, the World War II film's heroic Americans are now cast as their villainous, slave-owning ancestors in what will prove the first of Django Unchained's many provocations.

Even more inciting perhaps than Django Unchained's audacious anti-Americanism is its approach to its race-centered subject in a purportedly post-racial America. In particular it is Django Unchained's facility for making its spectator take pleasure in one form or another in the focalized Schultz and Django's interactions with the film's execrable Southern subjects, whether it is the humor that he or she finds in Big Daddy's (Don Johnson) sudden, financially prompted acquiescence to Django's visiting freeman; Stephen's hyperbolized embodiment of his house slave role; or the brutal Monsieur Candie's (Leonardo DiCaprio) perverse appreciation of Foxx's black-slaver. In each one of these instances, it is the charisma of the performers, in a further indication of the centrality of the film's performative discourse, along side the character's moral or intellectual flexibility - their humanity, in a manner of speaking - which sanctions the spectators enjoyment.

However, this is not to suggest for a moment that Django Unchained glosses slavery. Indeed, in Tarantino's latest, the viewer is immediately confronted with the nauseating brutality of the institution in the sliced backs of the film's black subjects, the unrepresentable spectacle of dogs ripping a Mandingo fighter to pieces - this off-frame holocaust brings about a change in the German Waltz - and of their dehumanizing denial of family, which in Django Unchained provides the ultimate impetus for the film's cotton-field Odyssey. Django Unchained in this sense is a very moral film, despite its trafficking in an Alfred Hitchcock-inspired amorality and its incursions of extreme visceral violence.

Much more can and should be said for and of Django Unchained, beginning with its exploitation and genre-cinema citations and its admixture of cultural archetypes in the service of its black subject matter. (Of note, for instance, is the provocative appearance of hip-hop to coincide with Django's embodiment of the black-slaver role.) For now and for this writer, let me just close by stating simply that Django Unchained could have been made by no one other than Tarantino and that, for better or (on some socially symptomatic level) worse, the director's latest stands as the most powerful piece of American filmmaking to reach screens in the past twelve months.

Let me thank fellow Tativille contributor Lisa K. Broad for her substantial contributions to this piece,  and especially for her insights into the film's theatrical thesis.