01 May 2009

Masked Cinema: Accepted Illusions Become Reality in CLOSE-UP

In speaking about his film Ten, Abbas Kiarostami quotes Nietzsche by saying, “that which is truly deep needs a mask” (more commonly translated as “everything profound loves the mask”). Though Kiarostami uses that quote to talk about Ten, its significance in Kiarostami’s relationship to cinema is perhaps best understood by applying it to Close-Up.

The mask is a potent symbol for the paradox of reality and the limits of understanding – it works to cover up one identity and to reveal another, both being parts of the same whole. Perhaps most significantly, a mask insists on accepting fantasy and mystery in a way that makes illusion a part of reality; it asks us to accept the paradox. Similarly, Kiarostami’s Close-Up forces us to confront the paradox of the truth claim in documentary cinema by mixing direct documentation (fact) and reenactment with characters playing themselves (fiction) in order to suggest that perhaps they are one in the same – illusion is reality; fiction is fact; fantasy is truth.

The masks in Close-Up appear in the various forms of presented reality that frustrate our desire to know the truth of the story. The first of these comes through the journalist, Farazmand, with whom the film starts. As he rides to the Ahankhah house in a taxi cab he says that Sabzian’s case “seems like a good story” and that it’s “sensational,” bringing awareness to the process of storytelling and interpretation through the newspaper, a medium which claims factual authority. Kiarostami does this in order to make a comparison of it with documentary cinema, another authoritative medium, and his own film in its attempt to get at the truth of Sabzian’s case – Kiarostami goes further to make the connection between the newspaper and his film by having the opening credits play over images of newspapers being printed. In both cases, a form of artifice, a mask, is being presented as authoritative truth when underneath it there lays a deeper reality. What that reality is, however, can only be discovered by acknowledging the artifice through which it is being presented, which is why Kiarostami so strongly plays out the reflexive elements of the film.

When the Ahankhahs are introduced to the film, the son explains that the way they are depicted in the newspaper does not reflect the reality of their character: “The article depicts us as credulous; that is not true.” Thus, Kiarostami unveils the mask of the newspaper, citing the shortcomings of interpretation. However, in doing so, the issue is only further complicated by the fact that Kiarostami has already acknowledged that his film cannot claim any more truth than the newspaper – the mask of the newspaper story is unveiled to reveal the mask of the film. Though it appears that the interview Kiarostami is having with the Ahankhahs is direct documentation of an actual, organic conversation, the self-awareness in the son’s comment forces us to question whether it is an actual interview or one that Kiarostami has written and is being acted. Even if the interview is an actual one, we would have to consider whether the Ahankhahs are being themselves or are acting as idealized versions of themselves for the camera. At the beginning of the conversation the father pleads, “Mr. Kiarostami, the plaintiffs in this case wish to be presented favorably,” highlighting their awareness of the fact that they are presenting themselves for public evaluation and want to appear a certain way. To add to the ambiguity of the situation, the father tells Kiarostami that he actually knew Sabzian was a hoaxer the whole time and was playing along, raising suspicion to how much he can be trusted – if he lies to his family, then how are we to trust him in this interview? His desire to be presented favorably certainly allows us to be suspicious of anything he says. He goes on to say, “Now you are giving me a different version and I am confused.” He certainly isn’t the only one. What is Kiarostami’s different version? Is it a script the family did not want to recite? Is it the newspaper’s article?

The numerous unanswered questions and layers of ambiguity presented in the beginning section of the film seem to function toward a state of complete confusion for the viewer. It is as if Kiarostami purposefully fractures the chronology of the narrative and presents us with these contradicting understandings of the story in order to disallow us to form our own opinions on Sabzian in any definitive way. Sabzian’s entry into the film then serves as Kiarostami’s suggestion of a solution to all the questions raised in terms of presentation, truth, and the layers of ambiguity between them.

When Kiarostami meets Sabzian he asks him why he confessed to attempted fraud if Sabzian insists that he is not a crook. Sabzian then replies, “Because what I did looks like fraud.” This is a key line in the film, and it serves as a beginning point towards understanding Kiarostami’s intention to explore reality as an accepted illusion, as a mask. In Sabzian’s response he shows cognition of the way others may view him and his actions, much as the Ahankhahs did, but what is remarkable is that Sabzian accepts his fate according to the reality created by those views – what looks like fraud in perception becomes fraud in reality. When Kiarostami further asks, “What is it really?” Sabzian merely replies, “I am interested in cinema” with no further explanation. The attempt to understand the reality of Sabzian’s motivation only reveals another enigmatic answer; cinema is an answer that poses even more questions. The beginning of Kiarostami’s conversation with Sabzian has the camera slowly dolly forward towards Sabzian’s face so that it appears larger and larger on the screen. By the time he utters the stated line he is framed within a tight close-up, as Kiarostami is trying to punctuate the significance of the moment in its insight into the nature of truth.

Though the appearance of Sabzian within the film works towards a greater understanding of Kiarostami’s intention through his acceptance of illusion as reality, there are still many questions left unanswered. The biggest source of ambiguity lies in our inability to tell which scenes are reenactments and which are actual documentation. This is further complicated by the trial. More so than any other scenes, the trial is made to look like direct documentation. Kiarostami goes so far as to have the sequence open with a clapper board and even the film stock seems rougher so as to suggest first take on location shooting. We are still left to wonder, however, whether it really is direct documentation. In either case, Kiarostami seems to address us as an audience by addressing Sabzian in the film – Sabzian becomes our surrogate. He tells Sabzian, “Some things are more complicated than they seem. The camera is here so you can explain things which people might find hard to understand.” At this point Kiarostami’s statement seems both helpful in its direction towards understanding and ironic in our expectation to be further confused.

The nature of a court trial adds more layers of performance and skewed reality. Sabzian is not only talking to a camera, but he is talking to a judge and to the plaintiffs, needing to impress each in some way or another. In doing so, Sabzian becomes harder to know in terms of getting to the truth of his character; it is easier to be persuaded by what looks like a candid conversation between him and Kiarostami than a trial in front of a crowd and camera. At the same time, the crime Sabzian is being accused of, committing a hoax, adds to our inability to fully trust what he says on the surface. At one point during his explanation of why he pretended to be Makhmalbaf, Sabzian says, “I really felt it; I wasn’t acting anymore. I really became that character.” Again, we are reminded of Sabzian’s submission to fantasy until it becomes reality. According to Sabzian’s testimony he was so committed to the fantasy that he could not stop playing the role even though he was aware that he would get caught. When Kiarostami directly asks Sabzian if he is acting for the camera during the trial he replies, “I am speaking of my suffering; that’s not acting. I’m speaking from the heart.” Or so he says.

There is ultimately no way to know whether the trial sequence is an actual document or a recreation or if Sabzian’s explanations are sincere or acted, and ultimately Kiarostami is suggesting that it doesn’t matter. Perhaps Sabzian is unable to tell truth from illusion and perhaps he believes the masks he wears are part of his true character, but that doesn’t invalidate the reality in which he exists. Kiarostami plays with our perception and our own inability to differentiate truth from delusion so as to take on Sabzian’s view of reality, which is intuitive, which acts upon feelings. As Sabzian says during the trial, “art is the extension of what you feel inside” and Kiarostami seems to be validating the importance of feelings over facts – truth arrives from a resonance with emotion and feelings, not with logical deduction and facts. Thus, Kiarostami’s statement on the documentary film and on cinema as a whole seeks to emphasize the internal essence of human beings which can be arrived at through all of the contradictions, ambiguities, and masks. The documentaries films that attempt to claim truth through facts and direct observation miss the point.

Though Sabzian’s submission to his fantasies and delusions landed him in jail, they ultimately give him the happy ending he wanted: he gets to act in a movie playing himself; he gets the story of his suffering on film; and he meets Makhmalbaf (in an utterly convincing and touching scene). While the numerous doubts raised throughout the film about Sabzian and his story are never quite gone, the emotional power of the film’s finale overrides the intellectual doubts and purifies them to a feeling of joy for Sabzian as he rides with Makhmalbaf. We can accept Sabzian, flaws and all, in much the same way we can accept the film despite our inability to differentiate the actual footage from the recreated footage. In this way Kiarostami argues for a cinema liberated from rules of documentary or lines dividing fact from fiction since the truth and essence of human beings can only be gotten through an acceptance of the whole – the masks, the illusions, the realities, the documented footage, and the reenactments. More subtly, perhaps Kiarostami is encouraging us to pursue our fantasies as it can lead to its actualization in reality.