Man standing in front of a mirror. “You talkin' to me? You talkin' to me? You talkin' to me? Then who the hell else are you talkin' to? You talkin' to me? Well, I'm the only one here.” More likely than not, you not only know the film is Taxi Driver, you also know the man standing in front of the mirror is Robert De Niro.
Now here's another question: Name a scene or a line from an Iranian film that has permeated Iranian popular culture. Was it a scene from Qaysar? From Gav? Did anyone think of a line from a post-revolutionary Iranian film? Come to think of it, can anyone recall a single memorable line from a post-revolutionary Iranian film? I've played this game with many people, asking them to recall a line, a scene that has permeated Iranian culture the way “Qaysar, dashshet-o koshtan” has and every time I am confronted by silence.
This not to say, there are not images we don't recall from those films. None of us can look at a lone tree on top of a hill and not think of Kiarostami and I know every time I see prosthetic limbs falling from the sky-granted, a very rare occurrence – I think of Makhmalbaf. But how deeply rooted in our cultural imagination are these? Why should this even be an issue if not for concern than for debate?
Of all the post-revolutionary art forms, cinema is the one with the most visible impact both on Iranians (in Iran and abroad) and on the international scene. Currently in Iran, there is a vibrant art scene (paintings, photography, conceptual art, and most importantly underground music, all of which can be followed on tehranavenue.com) but none of that seems to have made the impact of Iranian cinema in the past 10 years.
One reason may be the nature of cinema itself, what A. O. Scott, The New York Times critic calls the promise of cinema to “effect the distillation of reality into image and the transubstantiation of fantasy into fact.” The other may be the convergence of various historical moments that turned Iranian cinema into a “window” for seeing and – more often than not – imagining post-revolutionary Iran.
Another reason may be the way it allowed for the Iranian Diaspora to connect with Iran, critique it, be proud of it, and channel its nostalgia for the life left behind into it. And last but not least, for some, it seems to be just “fun.”
But regardless of the reason, we seem to be confronted with an interesting question: Is this most successful of periods in Iranian cinema also culturally its least influential? The answer I would like to propose is yes, that in a way, even the more internationally successful Iranian films have had little or no effect on popular culture and that even those films that are both popular in and out of Iran (although there are very few that have this crossover quality), seem to never seep into what I'll loosely call our collective consciousness.
Having grown up in Iran, I can easily sing you a couple of songs from the 80s television show The School of Mice (Madresehy-e Moush-ha). Having lived in Iran this past year, I can also easily attest to the power television has on everyday language: The most popular television show in the past years was the comedy Under the Sky of the City and for a while everyone was walking around talking like Khashayar, the rude old man who talks funny on the show.
But despite being an avid cinema-goer, I seem incapable of recalling a single memorable line from any post-revolutionary Iranian film, even from the films that I actually liked. I have several explanations, none of which seem very satisfying. It is a well known fact that despite all its achievements, Iranian cinema seems to have not given birth to any good, let alone great, screenplay writers.
With the exception of Kambozia Partovi, the screenplay writer most recently of I Taraneh, 15, there seems to be no accomplished screenplay writer. Almost all the films that have entered the pantheon of great post-revolutionary Iranian cinema – Kiarostami's films, Makhmalbaf's, Majidi's – are written by the directors themselves. Even those that aren't seem to have been written by other big name directors.
More importantly, almost none of these cinematic “greats” are based on works of literature. I went back to my handy 100 Films of Iranian Cinema, a selection of the most important films beginning with Haji Aqa Aktor-e Cinema and found out that interestingly enough, almost all the most memorable films are films written and directed by the same people: Taqvaie, Beyzaie, Kimiaie, Hatami, all wrote and directed such memorable films as Calmness in the Presence of Strangers, The Stranger and the Fog, Qaysar, and Sutehdelan.
But peppered among those films are other ones, most notably Dash Akol, Gav, and Prince Ehtejab that are written by or based on literary works by Sadeq Hedayat, Gholamhusayn Sa'edi, and Houshang Golshiri.
What happened to cinema or perhaps to literature in post-revolutionary cinema that has caused this gap between the written word and the moving pictures? And what effect does this gap have on the types or even quality of films that are produced in Iran? Is there a built-in limitation to a cinema that boasts a lack of well-written scripts, professional actors, and in many cases, even professional filmmakers?
How valuable is it when one particularly well-known director (who will remain unnamed here) boasts of having read only a handful of books and of having seen only 10-20 films? It seems that of all the people involved in the making of Iranian films, it is the cinematographers who are and remain the most professional. This may account for the greatest strength of post-revolutionary cinema: Visually stunning landscapes and vibrant colors.
And their strength may also partly account for films such as Mehrjouie's Bemani, who other than a sexy topic (women setting themselves on fire) and a great cinematographer (Bahram Badakhshani) lack any, absolutely any other quality that makes it worthy of entry into the Cannes film festival.
I say all of this because I am tired of turning off my emotions and my critical faculties every time I enter a movie theater to see an Iranian film. I still feel I must go and watch every piece of bad film that comes out of Iran and I am no longer sure why. It used to be that it functioned as my way of connecting with Iran.
I watched Mehrjouie's Hamoun because my best friend in Iran had seen it a total of 14 times. I would breathlessly anticipate the newest Makhmalbaf film because of his ability to surprise us from one film to another and his ability to evolve from the sloganeering Marriage of the Blessed to the absolute relativity of A Time for Love.
But for me, Iranian cinema has now lost its magic, its ability to move me the way it used to. It has become too outward looking and less honest in many ways. Ironically, in its quest to please foreign audiences with its so called quiet humanism and its non-Hollywood qualities, it's become a parody of itself with a whole slew of films one Iranian film critic aptly called 'festival film farsi'.
In the process, Iranian cinema has lost its most appealing quality: Portraying and sometimes even embodying a society as complex, transitory, and elusive as contemporary Iran. It not only lacks the ability to seep into Iranian popular culture, at times it seems like it doesn't give a damn about it.
Cinematic characters have the ability to travel from the screen into our every day world, and sometimes even into our language. They can go from being recognizable figures on the screen to becoming metaphors that stand for something larger. They move from being two hours of entertainment, education, or elucidation, to enriching our every day understanding and expression of our lives. Therein lies the power of art and cinema specifically, and therein lies the most important shortcoming of Iranian cinema today.
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