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March 2003

In search of Dali's miracles

One could say that I am too late or perhaps I am too early for this month's stars. Too late for the first of the Gregorian month and too early for the beginning of Farvardin and Naw Ruz. But regardless, like the olive tree branches that usually enfold the United Nations on its official flag, I must admit that I am out of sorts this month.

As with any given character in the opening sequence of any recent Kiarostami feature, I have been driving around quite lost and hence curious and aimless in a crowded Barcelona in late dinner traffic. I thought that my new Peugeot 307 SW, with a sunroof big enough for the guy tailing me to catch the exact shade of the flickering street light above, could help capture just the right alignment of stars.

Yes, so I thought. I thought too that in my own way then I could set the world aright once more. Set the world aright... while other star gazers seem somehow oddly content with the present choice to opt out of justice and to either chase destiny's lone red and white British crossed star on its quest to turn the epidermal layer of the world a shade closer to its own royal blue or alternately to get lost in the whirlwind created by the 50 deceptively angelic white stars that hang off the bullying whip of the world's current mule riding cowboy.

Either way, it seems that from this perspective, the jarring red of either flag will shift the shimmering, youthful mounds of our planet from the current blush of terrorized alert into deeper and deeper shades of black and blue.

Clicking on the fabulous handle-tuner next to the Peugeot's steering wheel, to see if I could somehow channel it right, I came across a tearful speech by one of United Nations' founding witnesses, Dr. Robert Muller, a former assistant secretary general of that organization, whose meditations on the miraculousness of our times caught me off guard. In a Dali-esque, or shall I say Gaudi-esque, shift in perceptual logic, our world and our times softened and melted in my eyes.

I could, of course, go on to describe the speech shot by shot, but I prefer a different mode of shot-by-shot processing that might help clarify two intricacies in one.

To Kiarostami, then, and then back to Muller.

While Abbas Kiarostami has been internationally regarded as an unsurpassed auteur, the narrative based interpretation of his films has often come up negative in Iran and in the ex-pat community abroad. Justifiably so. Most narrative-based interpretations read his work as something of an insult to contemporary Iran. Preoccupied with the rural, his films seem to create an image of Iran that is backward, primitive and Orientalist -- populated with glorified and colourful, old-worldly-wise type peasantry.

Not that there's anything wrong with the salt of the earth. But somehow, Iranian city-dwelling cinema goers cannot identify with "peasant" dialects and "their poetic preoccupations". They also seem somehow turned off by their own inability to identify with Kiarostami's screened characters, when, say Tom Cruise, or Penelope Cruz for that matter, offer themselves up for the brainless, painless, race-obscured, seemingly classless identification Hollywood serves up on a bland standardized narrative platter.

But what seems to slip way past and beyond the wire in these narrative based interpretations, is Kiarostami's constant vacillation on that realism-fiction-fusion see-saw, where a peasant character (in Through The Olive Trees) objects to playing her own character in a peasant outfit, as no one, ever, anywhere, wears such things anymore according to her. She ends up donning it anyway, but we must remember her articulate objections.

Clearly, "she" knows, and we should too, that a knee-length GAP knock-off skirt is the world's collective everyday gear, and that the primitive that Kiarostami screens is never representative of anything local! "She" is not there for the audience's identification. Nor is "her" poetic harassment by a city dweller in the darkened cellar in which she milks a cow (in The Wind Will Carry Us), a narrative of globalisation by which the global rapes the local, as one critic has claimed -- an interpretation only possible if one thinks one can "get" Kiarostami by attending to his film's narrative logic.

One could go so far as to say that there is nothing beyond, behind, below, authentic or original to "her" re- presentation. The primitive is the post-modern fantasy image itself and nothing more besides. In fact, that space, that being, that incarnation never represents anything identifiably real in our time. Definitely not in Kiarostami, anyway.

It is rather the darkened cellar itself, the space on screen that replicates the audience's own darkened theatre space -- a space where the audience can in the midst of the unfolding reel, question its own constant desire for identification, its craving for a close up, for full narrative illumination, closure and absolute order -- it is that space that speaks and hails the audience. That space and that space alone is mimetic and if mimetic, it mirrors of the viewer's own space in the theatre -- a darkened space of questioning and contemplation. Of questioning and contemplating "the real" and its everyday relation to cinema.

As I see it, to understand Kiarostami means letting go of clichéd approaches to comprehending movies. It means dispensing with the Hollywood-bred narrative obsessions. It demands instead that we configure different relationships to the screen and thus occupy a different spaces and different attitude within the logic of its worlds.

Muller's speech has put me on a spin of the Kiarostami variety. What if he's right? Muller that is. What if we are not caught in the narrative of war, i.e. the cowboy's narrative? What if we are living in a truly miraculous age -- an age in which despite the anarchy of our leaders, the whole world, and the majority of its people is every hour, every day united in waging peace? What if we see for a moment what is happening from the perspective of the peoples of the world, rather than from the perspective of its lone two rogue aggressors? What if we realize that we are in peace time, and not war time, right now?

"Yes, troops are being moved. Yes, warheads are being lined up." Yes, the aggressor is spending billions of dollars a day preparing to attack. "But not one shot has been fired. There is no war." No war YET, anyway. That war narrative is not playing. Not on our screen. For us, "It's all a conversation." -- a conversation between the peoples of the world. A dialogue on a scale the earth has never witnessed, where new alliances are being formed. And the biggest demonstrations against war are being held in peace time!

What if we realize that we have been on a Kiarostami screen all along, and not realized it. A Wind Will Carry Us screen on which at least eleven main characters are missing. In which reverse shots never appear and our hero, "the super power", seems to be speaking off screen constantly to the dead air space we never get to witness through his eyes.

Maybe we've become sanguine believers, based on the spoon-fed diet of Hollywood where everything must be shown and all told outright in that copious process of continuity editing. Believers in that dizzying blockbuster narrative there is just one superpower and that is the United States. But believing that means buying into the narrative based blind-spot that has clouded the vision of that super power itself and its narrative driven interpreters.

Learning to watch Kiarostami, may prove to show us that there are other possible alternatives. For truthfully, every shot has a reverse, even when in true Kiarostami fashion it can only take place in the imagination of the viewer -- that is when he decides not to screen the reverse in true mind-numbing Hollywood fan-fair. We may not have been attentive enough. We may not have seen those occupying off screen space on the screen. For there are, aren't there, in fact two superpowers in dialogue right there in every one of our sequences: the United States and the merging, surging voice of the people of the world pleading for peace.

However, as with a Kiarostami, where your imagination is forced to meet the screen half way, your tenor, your range, and your part is yours to decide. The stars insist that it not be left to mere chance or destiny. Not for this screening. I can't keep chasing them for the "right" answers. And I won't. Not in this instance anyway. So let's just hope that you've done your Kiarostami homework.

And on that note: Bring in the New Year!

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