Monday, March 26, 2018

I’d Love To Turn You On At The Movies #188 - Ten (2002, dir. Abbas Kiarostami)

Director Abbas Kiarostami in the documentary 10 on Ten: “The subject of Ten is based on everyday life. Undoubtedly many serious viewers as well as some critics, mainly the advocates of modern cinema, will find such a subject dull.”

Roger Ebert, in his 2-star review of Ten: “...his films--for example his latest work, "Ten"--are meant not so much to be watched as to be written about; his reviews make his points better than he does.”

Ebert (who also hated Kiarostami’s Palme d’Or winning A Taste of Cherry) makes a valid point of course, though obviously nothing that Kiarostami was not already aware of. Some people will not respond well to this film, and I get that. It consists almost exclusively of static shots from digital dashcams of a woman driving around Tehran with different passengers - her son, her sister, an older woman en route to worship, a younger woman leaving worship at the same mausoleum, a friend in tears over a relationship falling apart, and a prostitute who has mistakenly gotten in her car believing her to be a man - in ten segments, counted down at the beginning of each segment like an old film reel. Anyone could make this film, Ebert opines elsewhere in his review, and I start to think of folks saying the same “My kid could do that!” thing about Jackson Pollock’s drips or Cecil Taylor’s piano banging and I know he’s wrong, because nobody else would A) conceive of such a film or B) be in a position in their career as an internationally famous filmmaker to make such a radical shift to make this kind of film, and that has meaning in itself. Kiarostami had already explored more plot-oriented films, and shot dusty roads and urban landscapes of Iran with a stunning eye for composition, rather than something “anyone” could make. But what does the film mean? If we’re literally watching two people driving around and talking, what’s interesting about that?

It gets more complicated. Reduced to the simplest mechanics of plot, yes, that’s what happens (and all that happens) and you probably have a good idea already if this film is not for you or if you’re thinking “Hmm… tell me more.” Kiarostami coached his actors (none of them professionals) about the subjects they’d talk about, made suggestions about where to go with their conversations, put them in the car, started the cameras, and let them go, ultimately editing many hours of footage down to the 94 minutes of the final film. So what happens?

1) The driver (Mania Akbari, whose character remains unnamed throughout the film) talks first with her son, Amin (played by the actress’s actual son), arguing about her divorce from his father and recent remarriage to another man. He feels angry, accusing her of abandoning the marriage and lying about her ex-husband’s shortcomings; she says she was trapped in a loveless marriage and had to tell the courts that her husband was an addict merely to be granted a divorce. Such are the laws that women face in Iran. For almost the entirety of this segment the camera remains on her son (showing only one side of a conversation is a common Kiarostami tactic), letting us see the woman only at the very end of this lengthy segment. 2) The driver’s sister waits in the car for her to return from a bakery with a cake for her husband. They discuss how difficult Amin has been lately with the rest of the family. Unlike the first segment, the film cuts back and forth between them. 3) It opens on the driver offering an old woman a lift to a mausoleum to worship. The camera sticks with the driver the entire time while the woman talks about the importance of faith and prayer in the world until she is dropped off to go worship.

And so it goes. Roads fascinate Kiarostmai, and so do cars. Many of his films feature his characters driving around from one place to another. In the first segment of this film, Amin says to his mother “You talk as soon as we’re in the car.” Kiarostami has said that one reason he uses the car as a regular setting is that in cars people can speak freely and openly – they also can’t leave the conversation once it’s started. Going further, the driver discusses love, sex and marriage openly with a prostitute (actually an actress portraying one – Kiartostami couldn’t find an actual prostitute willing to appear in the film), she discusses the pros and cons of marriage with a young woman whose boyfriend won’t commit to their relationship then later gives her another ride after things have fallen apart in her relationship and the woman has taken the drastic step of shaving her head to symbolically move on, she also talks with her friend who’s upset about her relationship disintegrating, and she give Amin more rides (and more opportunities to appear as obnoxious as her sister had said he’s been).

For the film’s supporters (of which I am an enthusiastic one), the privileged opportunity to be present for these conversations is remarkable. Ebert worries that viewers can’t connect to the characters, only to Kiarostami’s ideas on an intellectual level, but I’d disagree. I’m drawn in from the first minute of the film to the day-to-day life of a seemingly average woman in modern Tehran, hearing from her mouth and those of her passengers about both the lives and problems we all face (relationship woes, a shaky relation to her faith, and so forth) and those more specific to her position as a woman in Iranian society, where talking openly with a prostitute (who says of women in marriages: “You’re the wholesalers. We’re the retailers.”) or showing an uncovered female head challenges Iranian laws. It engages me knowing that Kiarostami has made a film that feels as immediate and real as any documentary, but he’s created the narrative so craftily that it could be mistaken as being made with a hidden camera. It’s fascinating to get a glimpse into the society that we in the West may have preconceptions about, prejudices about, and see how a typical woman functions in that society. It’s also fascinating for an artist to make such a drastic change from the area he’d been working in and have it be successful, even if there are clear precursors for what he does here (conversations in cars, blurring of the lines between documentary and fiction, experimental techniques, etc), and its seemingly simple surface hides the deep layers of craft and thought that went into the making of the film. For me, it’s a masterpiece, plain and simple – or layered and complex. 

- Patrick Brown

No comments: