In Memoriam: Abbas Kiarostami

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This past year felt like a year of loss. From the passing of major music legends Bowie, Prince, and Leonard Cohen to the death of political sanity as the British voted for disunion and my fellow Americans elected a shockingly inept property tycoon-turned-celebrity as our next president, 2016 will likely not be remembered for its bright spots. For the film community, add to that list the devastating loss of filmmaker Abbas Kiarostami. The Iranian master died on July 4, but it’s been difficult for this writer to string together words eloquent enough to try to articulate exactly why he was rightfully held in such high regard.

And yet, on this site the man hardly needs an introduction. I’ve written about each of his nine major features spanning the better part of four decades and have cited his influence in evaluations of many other films. This site’s name even borrows the title of one of his finest works. Needless to say, the man had a significant impact not only on the cinematic medium itself, but also on the shaping of my tastes and the lens through which I view filmic art. Kiarostami was without a doubt one of my very favorite filmmakers and, from an (attempted) objective standpoint, one of the greatest, most uniquely challenging artists who ever pointed a camera at the world.

Rather than retread well-trodden territory attempting to qualify the man’s impact on cinema or quantify his decades-spanning achievements as many critics and fans sought to do in the immediate aftermath of his untimely death, I thought it would be more appropriate to simply highlight my personal favorite moments from his extensive repertoire. No heady explanations, no metaphorical interpretations, just brief reflections on the man’s greatness.

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Cleverly using a chalkboard to keep score for the two feuding classmates in Two Solutions to One Problem.

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The way he spun one boy’s seemingly inconsequential dilemma into a legitimately suspenseful race against time in Where Is the Friend’s Home?.

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That rolling aerosol can in Close-Up.

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Roaming the street of Tehran in search of atonement. (Close-Up)

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The first of many vehicular adventures in Life, and Nothing More.

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That final shot in Life, and Nothing More.

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An actor playing a director outlines what he plans to do for a fake movie he didn’t really direct in Through the Olive Trees.

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Oh, that glorious final shot! Probably the best “will they or won’t they” in cinematic history. (Through the Olive Trees)

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Kiarostami makes a cameo as himself at the end of Taste of Cherry.

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The village tucked into the hillside in The Wind Will Carry Us.

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Trying to catch that phone call! (The Wind Will Carry Us)

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Her passenger takes off the headscarf in Ten.

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Reflections on the windshield of this heady countryside conversation in Certified Copy.

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Juliette Binoche threatens to outshine her director only because she could. (Certified Copy)

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Where’s the speaker in this opening shot from Like Someone in Love?

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This awkward car conversation that brings Like Someone in Love’s three principle characters together.


R.I.P. one of history’s great artists.

In Memoriam: Chantal Akerman

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On October 5, 2015, Belgian filmmaker Chantal Akerman passed away at the young age of sixty-five, only two days prior to the U.S. release of her latest and final film No Home Movie. A week prior to her untimely death, I sat down to watch her agreed-upon opus Jeanne Dielman, 23 quai du commerce, 1080 Bruxelles – the film that famously runs about as long as its title. At a whopping 201 minutes, Jeanne Dielman has always been on my list, but I’ve never found the time or adequate amount of patience for three and a half hours of one woman’s daily routine as it ever so subtly spirals out of control. As a cinephile I am, of course, glad to say that I have now seen it. And, though I still can’t say that I loved it, I must admit that it ranks amongst the most ambitious works in all of cinema. And for that it surely deserves all the praise critics and fans continually lavish upon it and its creator.

Call it a feminist document or a study in the breakdown of habitual domesticity, but Akerman’s film is first and foremost a triumph of capturing actual time and space on film. The titular homemaker’s monotonous days unfold in real-time, and Akerman offers her audience no reprieve from every minute detail of Jeanne’s routine as she moves about her flat, accomplishing each trivial task one at a time. Akerman captures her subject in a series of meticulously framed, long static shots. Jeanne comes to life in front of Akerman’s camera, but the effect is as if we’re uncovering this woman’s existence rather than watching a team of filmmakers create it. Of course, Jeanne Dielman is narrative cinema as in its story is fictional, but this documentary-like quality of the film lends an alarming universality to its character’s pathetically methodical life.

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In cinematic art, we praise this quality of directors who compose slice-of-life narratives, who possess a keen eye for uncovering the unexpected beauty in the minutiae of the everyday. Most recently, American filmmaker Richard Linklater achieved just that with his masterpiece Boyhood that chronicled twelve years of a boy’s life, but wondrously focused on the moments in between the major events that make us who we are. Likewise, titans Hou Hsiao-hsien and Yasujiro Ozu built their careers on this sort of elliptical storytelling. And yet, Akerman’s art takes this notion to new heights. Jeanne Dielman alone may very well be the most complete portrait of everyday life I’ve ever seen on film, but Akerman’s entire oeuvre is filled with this kind of reality-driven, mundane moment filmmaking. Following her most talked about feature, I have since seen both La chambre and News from Home – two of her other notable works from the ‘70s.

While there’s not much to say about La chambre – an 11-minute film that finds the camera circling a cluttered room three times, then swinging like a pendulum passing its subject lying in bed – it is an intriguing experiment in space and camera movement. New from Home, on the other hand, was a pleasant surprise and a fitting complement to Jeanne Dielman’s rigorous formalism. The film plays out more like a video essay (akin to Chris Marker’s superior Sans Soleil) composed of carefully framed, largely static shots of New York life as Akerman reads actual letters from her mother written during her time living in the great American city in the early ‘70s. This mundane news from home accompanies these moving images of Akerman’s new home simultaneously painting a picture of vivid urban life while potentially hinting at the isolation this artist must feel separated from her family and country.

Akerman shows us the New York she sees – nothing sensational, nothing grand – simply snapshots of everyday life. And when the ferry pulls away from the harbor framing Manhattan’s hazy skyline in the film’s sobering ten-minute final shot, Akerman captures a portrait of New York imbued with an incredible depth Woody Allen might be jealous of. Thus, based on the mere three films I’ve seen of hers, I believe Akerman possessed an uncanny ability to mine tremendous meaning from images, camera placement, and the effects of time and space without relying upon the traditional signifiers of narrative cinema like no other filmmaker I’ve explored. I suppose, then, it would be appropriate to grant her the somewhat limiting title of an “experimental” filmmaker, but I hope this would never keep interested filmgoers from her work. She was an artist of immense talent, and her observational gaze will certainly be missed in the world of cinema.

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