ESSAYS, INTERVIEWS & REVIEWS
Gil en Moti - 2004 - Close up [EN, letter]
Montagne de Miel, Tuesday 11 May 2004
To Gil and Moti
Yesterday I attended a public appearance of the movie director Abbas Kiarostami who, having been invited to Brussels to show a picture, decided to show Close Up. This picture tells the real story of a guy who pretended to be the well-known movie director Makhmalbaf so as to make himself accepted and maybe even loved and financed by a bourgeois family. The movie is very powerful, because it seems to show real human beings, very often awkward in front of the camera.
And yet I always felt that the story was fictitious. I thought that the actors were so wonderfully awkward because Kiarostami had directed them so well.
After the movie, Kiarostami agreed to answer some questions put to him by a journalist. Happily, the first question the journalist asked was why Kiarostami had decided to show this particular picture.
The director told us that he had read about the story in a newspaper when he was about to start filming another movie. He went to visit the conman in prison and asked him if he wanted to play in a movie about his own story. The man agreed.
In fact, the picture was made backwards. The first scenes were made at the end, when the conman had already been forgiven by the family and Kiarostami was allowed to film in their house.
“The reason I always suggest showing this picture at public screenings I am asked to attend,” said Kiarostami, “is that I always see new things in it, because I didn’t really make it myself.”
In a way the picture made itself; it was beyond the director’s control.
The journalist then asked Kiarostami if he would tell us more about the treatment of the sound in the final scene, where the conman is released from prison and awaited by the real Makhmalbaf, who takes him to the home of the people he deceived. The conman, who didn’t know his hero would be there, is very moved. At that point, there seems to be a problem with the microphone and we only hear an interrupted or distorted sound. We see how the conman joins Makhmalbaf on the motorcycle and puts his arms around him.
Kiarostami claimed that he wanted to bring the two men together because of his movie, but also because of the conman’s love for Makhmalbaf and his work. “Unfortunately,” he said, “Makhmalbaf had prepared a screenplay of his own and didn’t stop trotting out platitudes I certainly couldn’t use for the ending of my picture. It cost me a night’s sleep until I realised I had to cut out the sound and only leave those words that suggested a more interesting conversation… I think it’s the best passage I ever made. I think I succeeded in suggesting something which isn’t really there. I wanted to show an admirer and the subject of his admiration. That’s why I asked Makhmalbaf to ride a motorcycle and not drive his car. He has a car, of course, but then the admirer wouldn’t have been able to take his hero in his arms.”
Indeed, when I saw the movie for the first time, I started crying when I thought I saw the conman lay his head on Makhmalbaf’s shoulder. Yesterday I saw that he was only trying to hear what the director was yelling in the wind. I had felt that the movie told us a fictitious story (I considered the ride on the bike to parallel a ride mentioned earlier in the picture), but I still liked this image of the two men close together.
I wonder whether Kiarostami was only thinking of the admiration of his conman, or whether he used the story to be able to film two men close together.
For me the most moving theme in the whole movie is the importance the conman attaches to films. “There’s one sentence I will never forget, but which I didn’t use in the picture,” Kiarostami said, “and that is the mother who told the real Makhmalbaf that he wasn’t as real as the fake one. Of course he wasn’t, because he didn’t have the slightest desire to be himself more than he already was. He was himself already, he didn’t feel the need to manifest it or prove it.” Perhaps the best moments are those where the conman tries to explain the suffering caused by his poverty and his feeling that he could have been a director or an actor if he had had the means. He is an impostor, but as such he puts on a marvellous performance as an actor playing the role of a director. He tries to be the one he thought he was supposed to be or could have been if fate had allowed it.
I don’t know what you guys think of Kiarostami or his pictures (I must admit he seemed very handsome to me, but maybe it’s because I’m a sucker for father figures), but I thought I needed this introduction to tell you that I screwed up the five hours of rushes I made about your show in Antwerp and Breda.
As I already told you, the first two hours were accidentally taped over. I was devastated when I discovered this because I had made some very nice David Hamilton-like images of you through the perforated e–mail addresses. Furthermore I had been particularly excited about the images I had made of you two making frames, cleaning sheets of glass and framing drawings in a beautiful, mechanical way.
Slightly discouraged, I decided to take my job even more seriously and I shot hours of tape of you and your friends. Slowly my disappointment of the previous days evaporated, because I shot the most beautiful and unpredictable images. As I couldn’t film in the office because of this horrible beeping sound of the alarm system, I decided to interview Sigal Weissbien and Maurice Bogaert in the street. Suddenly we were surrounded by orthodox Jews and Arab boys who walked, ran and jumped through the image. The film had made itself. In the meantime, Sigal told me her monologue was about a woman who was waiting for the ideal lover. I told her I once wrote an essay about the theme of waiting in the works of Kafka and Nietzsche. It had struck me how Nietzsche, who was the fiercest opponent of the Christian culture of waiting (waiting for the real life after this one, etc.) had allowed his thinking to evolve into a kind of waiting for a super human being. Soon I realized, however, that the essence of our culture and civilisation is waiting. Things take time. Without the habit of waiting, justice and democracy are unimaginable. Kafka seems to have felt the same way. In one of his most famous stories a man tries to get into The Law (that’s the way Kafka decribes the law court). Unfortunately, a guard stops him. Whatever the man tries, the guard won’t let him walk through the door. From then on the man waits all his life, but in vain. Just before dying he succeeds in formulating the only question that matters. “How do you explain the fact that nobody else tried to walk through this door?” he asks the guard, who replies: “Because this door was only meant for you.”
Last Wednesday a colleague of mine found an old cupboard in the cellar of the Antwerp Academy of Fine Arts. The inside of the cupboard was covered with newspapers dated May 6th 1936. One of the main articles was about the troubles in the Gaza Strip.
In Belgium we have a racist party that attracts 25% of the votes. In Antwerp, the second biggest city of Flanders, this party is the biggest political party. Nobody knows what prevents us from behaving like animals. History has taught us that it has few bright pupils.
I think the ride on the bike in Kiarostami’s Close Up is a mythical counterpart to Nanni Moretti’s ride in his picture Caro Diario. At the end of this picture the director, riding a kind of scooter, drives to the place where Pasolini was killed. It is a horrid place, marked by a miserable monument.
Actually, the video images I made of you and your friends have the same disrupted sound as the last sequence in Close Up. And the images jump. Every thirty seconds they jump. That’s sad.
I learned that you both decided to fall in love with an Arab boy. I wonder what you meant by that. I think the feeling we call love is a fear of losing somebody. We get so attached to somebody that we are afraid of losing him or her. Moreover, we fall in love with people who remind us of things, people or situations from our childhood (things beyond reach). We fall in love to celebrate things lost, fearing that our new homecoming will also be temporary. We fall in love to transcend death, but we also fall in love to bring death closer. Love is the celebration of transience. It is throwing oneself into the river of time. It is walking in a fire.
Sometimes we are so afraid the person we love will leave us, that we kill them. “Some do it with a bitter look or with a flattering word,” Wilde wrote. “The coward does it with a kiss, the brave man with a sword.”
In Fassbinder’s picture Querelle, based on a novel by Jean Genet, Jeanne Moreau plays the role of a woman who stands between two men who pretend to be brothers. In two major scenes we see one of the brothers touching himself while talking to this lady, but secretly admiring himself in the mirror. I thought of this scene when I saw your lady friend sitting on the bed and telling us a bedtime story. I also noticed she was drinking whisky. Maybe she wants a voice like Jeanne Moreau’s.
Did you know Jeanne Moreau played a similar role in the picture Les valseuses (The Goolies), where she sleeps between Patrick Dewaere and the young Gerard Depardieu? Her character ends up shooting herself in a most unpleasant way.
Fassbinder’s Querelle is set in a world from which there is no escape. The ships cannot leave the harbour. Gil cannot run away. There are two bikes, but nobody rides them.
The beauty of Close Up, and hence probably the title of the picture, is the intimate portrait of the conman. In fact it is a portrait of an invisible man made visible for a few minutes. The invisible man makes me think of my late father. It makes me think of me. I identify with his desire to be somebody else, to be his hero, to be a hero himself. He likes Makhbalbaf because he feels that this director’s pictures talk about his suffering, about his poverty and his lack of opportunity. He is a man to fall in love with. He quotes Tolstoy about the necessity of sentiment in a work of art. He seems to grasp what art is about. (He also has a hole in his right sock and maybe he should visit the dentist. But he is a good man.)
So my film sounds like the last sequence in Close Up with the sole difference that in Close Up the result was constructed, whereas my sound is the product of fate. Sometimes you can understand one or two words, which always seem to be very revealing. Listen closely and you recognise the words “heart”, “silence”, “appropriation”, “negative dialectics”, “butter is the best”, “strawberry”, “come” and “eye-opener”.
I think I’ll pretend I left out the sound on purpose.
That way my film will be about loss. It would really be a witness to things lost. A silent witness. The few words we recognise will finally start to mean something. We will learn to read lips. It will be a movie like a silent kiss.