Suicidal Tendencies, Human and Political

Abbas Kiarostami’s Taste of Cherry has arrived in New York with the 1997 Cannes Festival Palme d’Or in hand, along with the accolades of several of the most prestigious American film critics. One can understand how in the midst of all the pomp, pageantry, press-agentry and overall pretentiousness of the Cannes Film Festival, a deceptively simple parable of the meaning and value of life would come as a breath of fresh air. Though the 58-year-old Mr. Kiarostami has been making films for almost 30 years, he has emerged as a creative influence on the amazingly accomplished Iranian cinema only recently, with a trilogy of ethnographically realistic fictional films consisting of Where Is the Friend’s House (1987), And Life Goes On (1992) and Through the Olive Trees (1994). I must confess that Taste of Cherry marks my first encounter with Mr. Kiarostami’s work, and it has left me in a morosely meditative frame of mind.

Perhaps the lack is in me, as I seem to be missing something that has gained the admiration of such distinguished film makers as Jean-Luc Godard, Nanni Moretti, Chris Marker and Akira Kurosawa, who has been quoted as saying: “When Satyajit Ray passed on, I was very depressed. But after seeing Kiarostami’s films, I thanked God for giving us just the right person to take his place.”

Perhaps the source of my unease is the fact that I was never all that wild about Satyajit Ray. Not that Taste of Cherry reminds me all that much of Ray. There is more irony, absurdism and self-mockery in Mr. Kiarostami’s Taste of Cherry than I ever perceived in Ray’s oeuvre . The plot line of Mr. Kiarostami’s film may be simple, but its visual and aural reverberations are far from minimalist. Mr. Kiarostami has employed the varying textures of Iran itself as his canvas as he tracks the strange odyssey of his world-weary middle-aged protagonist, Mr. Badii, across roadscapes on the outskirts of Teheran. As we learn eventually, Mr. Badii is contemplating suicide, but he wants someone to be present at his open grave if he loses his nerve at the last moment and needs help being pulled out. Otherwise, the hired rescuer will shovel dirt over Mr. Badii’s corpse. This is a darkly comic situation worthy of Samuel Beckett. To the extent that this plot is merely a pretext to show us something interesting that is going on in contemporary Iran, or partly a reflection of the director’s own reported suicidal inclinations after a painful divorce, the relentless inexpressiveness of the nonprofessional actor Homayon Ershadi as Mr. Badii makes him too abstract a personification of Mr. Kiarostami’s moods and meanings. Besides, in movie terms, there is something inescapably creepy about a man in a car intent on enticing poorer men than himself into his car for an unspecified “job” of short duration and with very high “pay.”

At first, the moving car is flanked by hordes of unemployed workers asking for jobs. This does not constitute the kind of spectacle the Iranian Government would like to be shown to the world. Still, Mr. Kiarostami’s major problem with the censors reportedly involved the injunction against suicide in the Koran. After a while, however, Mr. Badii drives on a road less traveled by and finds a series of individual passengers to share his strange journey. These are not a sociologically selected cross-section of Iranians in the mass, but a symbolically drawn pattern of refugees and outcasts from the far corners of the Moslem world, among them Afghans, Kurds and Turks with varying occupations but similar religious scruples about accepting Mr. Badii’s bizarre proposition. An elderly Turkish taxidermist provides the title of the film in enumerating all the simple pleasures of life that should keep us all from embracing death. I am not entirely unmoved by the nobility and grandiosity of Mr. Kiarostami’s self-proclaimed humanist mission, but his restricted mode of expression is much too rigorously pure for my taste.

Nichols’ Story Is, Like,

So Five Years Ago

Mike Nichols’ Primary Colors , from a screenplay by Elaine May, based on the novel by Anonymous, a.k.a. Joe Klein, has been given so many spins in the pre-release publicity and advance reviews that the Nichols-May-Klein trio have been transformed into whirling dervishes of deviousness. Yet there is not much in the movie itself that is new, surprising or compelling. It lacks the all-out farcical, if wearying, cynicism of Wag the Dog , and the revelatory bite and humor of The War Room , in which the Clinton camp is revealed as a troupe of shameless media hams. I suspect that people have been asking the wrong questions about Primary Colors in relation to the current scandals. Curiously, John Travolta and Emma Thompson turn out to be too close to the Clintons, and yet, ultimately, not close enough. What we must remember is that Bill and Hillary are full-fledged media stars, and more so than any previous First Couple. They have been tested in the crucible of scandal and have prevailed in two national elections, which are all the law allows, and are still riding high in poll ratings.

Also, Mr. Klein’s fictions are a pallid approximation of the Clinton factoids and are weighed down by the moralistic intrusion of an African-American audience conscience named Henry Burton, played by British actor Adrian Lester. Mr. Nichols and Ms. May seem to want to have it both ways, first by exposing and caricaturing the mean-spirited ruthlessness and mendacity of politicians, and then by rationalizing the means by which desirable ends are attained.

For the record, I voted for Mr. Clinton twice and have no regrets. Being a yellow-dog Democrat by habit, and a lesser-evil man by conviction, I do not feel in any way “betrayed.” Nor did I feel betrayed by the Democrats who lost-Adlai Stevenson, Hubert Humphrey, George McGovern, Jimmy Carter the second time, Walter Mondale, Michael Dukakis-during my voting years. But to vote for lesser evils is to believe that all political activity, like all economic activity, is tainted by varying degrees of evil. So Primary Colors is not meant to shock or edify the likes of me. Then for whom is the movie intended? Mr. Clinton’s defenders are probably sick of the whole subject. Mr. Clinton’s enemies are not likely to accept Mr. Nichols, a White House and Martha’s Vineyard dinner companion, as a suitable chronicler of the Clinton Follies. The Christian Coalition types will profess to be shocked by the four-letter words that have been forever validated as private political discourse by the Watergate tapes.

Then there are the admirers of Mr. Travolta, who begins by merely mimicking the President and ends by making him a convincing character; the fans of Ms. Thomson, who alternates between the sharp and dark sides of the First Lady without having a consistent or coherent character to play. Billy Bob Thornton starts off crudely and ends warmly, while Kathy Bates starts off bitchy-funny and disintegrates into tediously goody-goody. I enjoyed brief glimpses of Stacy Edwards, so memorable as the deaf delight of In the Company of Men , and Gia Carides, so deft and charming in Paperback Hero . The rest is anticlimax though all involved perform valiantly.

First a Bang,

Then an Epiphany

Takeshi Kitano’s Fireworks ( Hana-Bi ) won the Venice Film Festival’s Golden Lion last year, and, like Mr. Kiarostami’s Taste of Cherry , it represents the first film I have seen from its writer-director, a celebrated Japanese multimedia superstar on both sides of the camera. Mr. Kitano is certainly flashier than Mr. Kiarostami, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that he isn’t deeper as well. Indeed, I must confess that I found the feelings generated by Mr. Kitano from his splintered treatment of the gangster genre more accessible to my own sensibility than anything in Taste of Cherry . Perhaps I like gangster movies better than humanist parables. Is it guilty-pleasure time again? Not exactly. Mr. Kitano transcends and transforms his genre by fusing it with a meditation on art as an expression of an individual’s reaction to his environment and his civilization, and a poignant Liebestod on the last precious days shared by a violent but proud and honest policeman and his leukemia-stricken wife.

Mr. Kitano’s nickname around Asia is “Beat,” as he is an explosively talented comedian, novelist, television personality, poet, columnist, essayist, actor and film director. Cultural and linguistic barriers may make it impossible for me ever to adequately evaluate his role in Japan. Fireworks nonetheless has crossed the Pacific divide with something to spare in the way of cinematic illumination. Mr. Kitano’s Nishi, with or without his dark glasses, projects a haunting presence as he smashes his way through his enemies to seize a few moments of tenderness with his doomed but poignantly playful wife. The end actually reminded me of the last gallant gestures in Titanic , in which the eternal sea expresses the spiritual power of eternal love.

Suicidal Tendencies, Human and Political