Sunday, March 04, 2007

Kiarostami and Traffic

Yesterday afternoon, I saw three short films from the giant Kiarostami retrospective at the Moma.

"Toothache" (1979) is a a fairly straightforward didactic short about the importance of brushing one's teeth. There's an undercurrent of dark humor in the social ostracisation and suffering of the adorable child-protagonist. I wondered whether Kiarostami wasn't going too far at points during one prolonged scene at the dentist's office: the dentist was answering an off-camera interviewer's questions about flourine and brushing technique and sugar, while the child-protagonist bawled in the background and the dentist's drill whined... It was terribly effective, though. I've flossed my teeth four times since yesterday.

"The Chorus" (1983) This is a sweet character and technical study, and I'm not entirely sure what to make of it, particularly in this program. The main character is an elderly gentleman with a hearing aid that he takes out every time noises get annoying. He runs a number of errands, then settles into his room. He had thought he had left the front door blocked open to let his granddaughter in, but his grandson knocked it closed; so when the granddaughter rings the bell, and he's taken his hearing aid out so as not to hear the jackhammer nearby, it takes a chorus of little girls chanting for him in unision to break through his deafness. Maybe it's a political allegory? If so, it's a very careful one. I was too distracted by his eating sugar cubes--doesn't he know about toothache!--to do hermeneutics.

"Orderly or Disorderly" (1981), a strange little short, self-consciously films the same scenes twice over, once in an "orderly" fashion and once in a "disorderly" fashion. The first three scenes feature children: running down a staircase, sharing water from a common cooler, boarding a bus. The kids seem to be having much more fun when they're being disorderly, but Kiarostami manages to make his point that the disorderly behavior takes more time and makes people cry. The next scenes are about traffic. And here Kiarostami can't get a shot to illustrate "orderliness"--he mutters off-camera, "hey, that guy just ran a red light! Cut!" and "can't that policeman make them obey the law just for one shot?" Which then nicely illustrates his point.

"Fellow Citizen" (1983) continues with the theme of automobile traffic. It's a crazy piece: infuriating, dull, fascinating, profound, realist... Here's the MoMA's capsule description:
A traffic cop (Kiarostami's first job in real life) attempting to prevent drivers from entering a closed-off area is treated to an infinite array of excuses. A revealing study of man's capacity for inventing stories (or "lying"), and a witty use of repetition at its most extreme. 52 min.
But here's the thing: that traffic cop had the power to grant exemptions, and grant them he did--with the result that every driver in the queue had a very real incentive to try to bullshit the traffic cop. So the cop suddenly became a kind of judge: whose paperwork is good enough? whose excuse is valid? whose child is too ill to walk to the hospital? The traffic cop is a very handsome man, who seems to be decent (he is never shown either taking or refusing a bribe), humane, and even funny, but he is in an impossible position. The policy of closing off certain streets isn't necessarily a bad one, but stationing a single cop in front of the street creates an infuriating blockade, with wheedling, lying and bullying as inevitable results.

This last film might have been an allegory as well, but I'm starting to get the sense that Kiarostami has very strong feelings about vehicular traffic as a problem in its own right. I wonder how he feels about the traffic conditions in Iran these days?


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