Sunday, April 21, 2013

Ultimate reward

I don’t mean to repeat myself, but I was writing last week about Cristian Mongiu’s Beyond the Hills, concluding that the film doesn’t seem to me remotely difficult to watch, nor (as some have it) unduly dark or depressing, but that: “Mongiu’s guiding principles are far removed from those of the mainstream, and so his film must either be ignored or else smothered in warning signs.” And now this week’s subject is Abbas Kiarostami’s Like Someone in Love, which only opened here some months after its US release, on just one screen at the Bell Lightbox (from which I fear it’ll already have disappeared by the time this article appears, although if so it’ll be available in other formats soon). If we take the ordering of film reviews in Now and the Grid as a rough indication of relative significance, it’s around the week’s sixth or seventh most important release respectively, and although both reviews are broadly positive, they’re hardly passionate about it. Much the same goes for coverage elsewhere. The subtext is clear – all but the most esoteric, or perhaps self-punishing, of viewers may safely drive by.

Like someone in love

Well, I’m obviously out of sync, because I don’t know what it means to have a meaningful passion for cinema, and certainly not to try making a career out of it, if not to luxuriate and celebrate in such a film on the rare occasions we’re allowed to. It’s a luminous viewing experience, and reviewers’ insistence that it’s a difficult one in one way or another (the Now and Grid reviews both use the term “elliptical”) only confirms again how the pandering of most cinema comes to constitute an all-shadowing, all-corrupting “norm.” By “pandering,” I mean that so many films leave you little or nothing to talk or think about afterwards beyond asserting that you liked this or didn’t like that, that you enjoyed him but didn’t like her. Of course, these subjective impressions can be analyzed further than that, but it would be an exercise analogous to analyzing the layout of a grocery store; an aesthetic experience of sorts, but concerned with deadening rather than enhancing a consumer’s sensibilities, and thereby numbing the distance between human being and commercial cog. The only way not to be duped is not to take part.

In comparison, as Geoff Pevere put it in the Globe and Mail: “By insisting that it’s the experience of watching (Like Someone in Love) that is its ultimate reward, and by refusing to explain what we’re watching so that the experience remains mysterious, (Kiarostami is) honouring one of the most enduring traditions of the so-called “art” cinema – which is that mystery is one of the medium’s most powerful properties. The basic combination of moving images, recorded sound and structured arrangement of elements through editing baffle us into seeing things differently.” My only problem with this is that it still casts such work as a somewhat marginal sideline, as the “art” cinema that dwells in the shadows of, I suppose, the “actual” cinema. Pevere comments that if you try describing the film to a group of dinner guests, “you’ll be clearing the dishes in no time.” Well, fair enough if the guests just aren’t interested in cinema – not everyone has to be. If cinema ever comes up with most of my own friends, I usually change the topic – it’s not worth getting into it. But no one should respect a table of self-described gourmands whose taste buds have been hopelessly corrupted by McDonalds.

Assignment in Tokyo

The film starts in a Tokyo bar, with a young woman, Akiko, pressured by a man we gradually understand to be a high-toned pimp, into putting aside her studies, and her wish to meet with her visiting grandmother, to fill an assignation with a favoured client, an elderly intellectual and former professor. From what we see of it, the evening unfolds more like a courtly dinner date (although we never see the dishes get cleared) than a sexual encounter; the following morning, he drives her to the university, where her boyfriend, who’s unaware of her secret career, takes the old man to be her grandfather. Even from that brief a synopsis, it’s clear the structure is indeed shot through with mystery and artifice. But just on a narrative level alone, I found the film as suspenseful as any straightforward thriller, almost unbearably so in its final stretch.

Like someone in love lacks the raw elements of clichéd filmic beauty – rolling landscapes, epic crowd scenes and the like – but is as ravishing as anything you’ll ever see: every scene is a small miracle of composition and light, sometimes astounding you with its simplicity, sometimes with its detail (Now’s critic commits a howler when he calls it “unfocused”). It may revolve around a highly structured situation, but it teems with unique observation – the plight of Akiko’s poor grandmother, heard only in a series of voice mails, is heartbreaking, bleakly funny, and as summed up in a stunning shot from a passing car, possibly unforgettable.

Best not to ask questions

And one shouldn’t take assertions about the film’s mystery to indicate a kind of rarified distance from contemporary concerns. Kiarostami, over seventy now, spent almost his entire career in Iran before making Certified Copy a few years ago (that film attained more prominence than the new work, but seems to me a narrower achievement). It’s hardly a stretch then to observe how much Like someone in love draws on notions of female oppression and lack of empowerment, and on a broader feeling of siege and dissatisfaction. Just about every review of the film comments on how much of it takes place in cars, but it’s not the open road of the American dream; these journeys are transactional, the transition between different kinds of limitation and threat.

“When you know you may be lied to,” says the professor, “it’s best not to ask questions.” He says it as a piece of practical wisdom in negotiating relationships, but the remark has greater resonance about how one anchors oneself in society (technology providing ever more ingenious ways of not asking any questions that matter). At the same time of course, not asking questions just amounts to accepting the unspoken deception. The film is called “Like” someone in love, not Someone in love, but as the lyrics of the Burke/Van Heusen song (heard here in Ella Fitzgerald’s version) make clear, the hedging and distance implied by the “like” isn’t necessarily reflective of inner truth (“Each time I look at you, I’m limp as a glove, and feeling like someone in love”). Of course, an Iranian director, using French money to make a film in Japan that prominently features American music, reflecting on identity and interaction and status…this may be the epitome of self-absorbed art film calculation. Or maybe it’s the mark of a director who could hardly be more of the world.

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