Bhaman Ghobadi's No One Knows About Persian Cats
Dennis et al:
First off, it’s great to be invited into the tree house even though I’m a girl. I finally get to be the cool Tatum O’Neal tomboy of my thwarted dreams. But seriously, I’m very excited about this project. I have been reading the three of you for years now, and each one of you, in your own way, has deepened my way of thinking about films.
To start with your quote from Matt Zoller Seitz, this phrase in particular: “the ability of the average viewer to read images is only slightly better than their ability to read text”. I understand the larger point he is making about the disheartening fare that is foisted upon us, hoping we will gobble it down and say, “Hey, thanks!” But I think the “average viewer” is far more discerning than often he or she is given credit for. They may not have the approved lingo down in how to describe it (there’s that funny scene in The Fighter when Mark Wahlberg takes Amy Adams to see Belle Epoque and a film snob standing behind them in the line says to the couple, “It’s a wonderful film. The cinematography is gorgeous.” and you see Walhberg and Adams look at each other, with a clear “WTF?” in their eyes), but that lingo can be exclusionary, akin to academic writing, a clear sign to outsiders, “You don’t belong here.”
My “way in”, from when I was a small child, was through acting. I grew up as an actor, I was an actor for many years, so for me it’s all about the performances. I can appreciate “gorgeous cinematography”, of course, and often a film features great performances but they’re filmed so badly that I wish for a master to come in and clean it all up and frame these performances properly, dammit … but if the acting is fine, I am willing to forgive a lot. For example, an acting moment that I hold dear (it’s just one in a list of hundreds): in Liar Liar, in a climactic moment, a judge tells Jim Carrey that he is about to hold Carrey in contempt of court, and Carrey screams up at him, “I HOLD MYSELF IN CONTEMPT.” This is clearly not a “great film” or anything like that, but Jim Carrey reaches a very real place as an actor in that moment, and I’ve seen it multiple times, and it always satisfies. I give him the props for it. I suppose I could have given another example from a more respected film, but I’m choosing this one to really make the point. Carrey does good work in that moment. I give him the props.
To answer your questions specifically, Dennis: There is a bunch of stuff I have not seen this year, but the films I saw that moved me the most, on a personal level, were The American, The Ghost Writer, Wild Grass, I Am Love, True Grit, Blue Valentine, The Social Network, parts of Winter’s Bone, parts of Shutter Island, and Greenberg. Bong Joon Ho’s Mother got its US release in 2010 and Hye-ja Kim, as the eponymous “mother” gives a performance that puts most other performances I have seen this year to shame. That woman scared the shit out of me. Yet I sure want her on my side if I have been wrongly accused, I know that much. It is a great performance. I saw Bahman Ghobadi’s No One Knows About Persian Cats about the (sometimes literal) underground music scene in Teheran, and I thrilled to it, even with the clearly amateur actors in the two lead roles. Persian Cats didn’t compare to Ghobadi’s Half Moon, a majestic haunting movie about Kurdish exiles and musicians, but I loved the raw caught-footage feeling of Persian Cats, and I adored the heart behind the entire project. In light of the recent sentencing to prison of Iranian director Jafar Panahi, No One Knows About Persian Cats, in its subtle underhanded way, points a finger at the regime that would imprison its brightest artists in a way that no op-ed column or online petition ever could.
There were moments in The Kids Are All Right (a movie I had some issues with thematically) that are as good as it gets, at least in terms of acting. I told Jason in a comments thread on his site, that Annette Bening’s “glasses behavior” in that film is worthy of an entire thesis paper. Her business with her glasses is so subtle, so character-driven, that you might not even notice it, or you might take it for granted, but there is some great great acting going on there. Bening’s adjusting of her glasses, her freedom with that prop, her specificity in using those glasses was some of the best acting done this year. I wish the movie hadn’t annoyed me so much, and I wish I hadn’t been thinking throughout, “So … Julianne Moore just wants some refreshing cock after years of boring pussy? Is that what’s happening?” Regardless, we do what we can do with the material that we are given and Bening soars in that part.
But I want to go back to the beginning point about the “average viewer”, and this is related to your comments about The King’s Speech, Dennis. I wrote about The King’s Speech for Capital New York, and in it I described the spontaneous reaction of the man sitting next to me when the film ended: “If that guy don’t win an Oscar, then there is no justice in this world.” This kind of response is often dismissed (wrongly) as the result of mindless manipulation, but that seems quite condescending, first of all, and second of all, to misunderstand completely what the entire movie-making racket is all about.
My favorite films were made in the 30s and 40s. That’s no secret. What I love about those Golden Age films is that, so often, they actually DO have it all. I don’t understand those who use the term “crowd-pleasing” as an epithet. I have often thought that such people can’t ever have been an actor. Put anyone up on a “stage” in front of a bunch of people and he or she will immediately start trying to “entertain” the crowd. We have seen it in embarrassing best-man speeches at weddings times without number. The jokes are awful, the gestures florid, and everyone sits, tense, waiting for it to be over. The impulse in the Best Man, however, is something any actor would understand: “There is a crowd here. They expect something from me. Oh shit. Okay, then: Let me entertain them.” I think that this can, potentially, bring out the BEST in artists, rather than the worst. Hamlet is a crowd-pleaser. The Best Years of Our Lives is a crowd-pleaser. Notorious is a crowd-pleaser. Difficult challenging films can be crowd-pleasers. And yes, Blue Valentine is a crowd-pleaser (but I’ll get to that in a minute).
Dennis, I would like to hear more from you about what you mean about “placing solitary figures in the frame” in The King’s Speech and how that worked for you. I thought the filming of the final speech itself was a bit, how you say, “much”, with close-ups of Firth’s mouth overwhelming the screen for what felt like half an hour, but that certainly wasn’t out of line with the rest of the film, and the sentiment generated in me (I can only speak for myself) was sincerely earned by that point. Another story from the day I saw the film: When Guy Pearce, as Edward, the older brother who abdicates the throne, made fun of his brother’s stammer, a woman in the audience gasped loudly. This is empathy. This is what the Greeks were talking about when they were talking about catharsis. People dismiss it as “too easy” but I can’t imagine, then, that such people have ever stood in front of a silent audience, hoping for some response, anything, any indication that those people are out there. It is actually NOT easy to make a random woman gasp out loud in pain and sympathy during a crowded matinee. It’s not easy at all. That’s why there are so many bad movies, that’s what is so offensive about manipulative Lifetime-Television fare. It cheapens that which is actually divine: the ability of someone to spontaneously feel pity or terror for someone else.
Speaking of pity and terror, yes, I saw Blue Valentine. I wrote about it for Capital New York as well. I had this feeling, due to my own taste, that I would dig this movie, and I did. In the way that I dig Woman Under the Influence or Don’t Look Now, two harrowing movies about disintegrating marriages that I thought of often as I watched Blue Valentine.
Or, no, that’s not right. I didn’t have the time or the emotional energy to think of them AS I was watching Blue Valentine, because the film grabbed me by the throat from the opening sequence and didn’t let me go until it was over. I reveled in every second of it, every nuance, every snatched glimpse of both of the lead characters. I love how often they were filmed in fragments, pieces of them moving in and out of frame. The camera was so subjective. I was not allowed any distance from them. I could never get far enough back to say, “Now, wait a minute. How did this go wrong?” Michelle Williams says during one of their fights, “I can’t stop this … can you stop what’s happening? I can’t stop it!” They try, oh how these two try, to be kind to one another. I loved the brief scene when he is suddenly seen crying at the table, because he found their dog dead in the backyard, and she leans over and hugs him. They are so together, and yet you still feel how separate they are in that moment). Dana Stevens, for me, captured exactly how brilliant Williams’ performance is, in her review of the film at Slate:
"There are so many things to love about Michelle Williams' face. I dearly hope that, on that still far-off day when she's no longer a young woman, she never does anything to it. It's a beautiful face, but beautiful in a normal, non-movie-star way, and so wonderfully expressive and unguarded. She plays this tired, disillusioned, chronically angry woman without a trace of actorly vanity. It's a performance noteworthy not just for its intensity but for Williams' ability to communicate inner experience at a micro-level of detail. You can pinpoint the precise moments when Cindy, realizing that no one is watching, lets her face slacken into its default expression of despair."
Speaking of her face, one of the most heartbreaking moments in the film for me was not from one of the more heightened emotional scenes. It is quieter. The couple has checked into a cheesy motel. They drink booze. He tries to go down on her in the shower. She resists. He’s nearing the end of his rope, but he’s still trying to make it work. They sit at a little table in the room and eat. She’s in a robe, after the thwarted sexy shower. The scene starts in medias res, as all the scenes in this film do. And she says to him, sitting across from him at the table, “What do you want from life? You’re good at so many things. You have so much potential. What do you want?” It is ostensibly a supportive moment, but just watch how she plays it. It’s a devastating moment. It’s also an ambush. Watch the flat affect of her face in that blue light, the flatness hiding a universe of anger and disappointment and loss. Gosling calls her on her bullshit: “What do you mean, potential? What else do you want? What am I supposed to do? I’m a good father, a good husband – I didn’t know that was what I wanted, but turns out it was.” They are at an impasse. Both have valid points. But the heartbreak for me is in her emotionless face, looking at him through the blue light, and even though her words belie this fact, she has already given up on him. He knows it.
There’s so much I loved about the movie. I loved the look of it, the colors, the fragmentary film-making, the improvisatory feel of much of it. Yet the film doesn’t have the slackness that a lot of improvisatory films have; it’s tight, it’s tense. There were moments when the plot got “bossy”, well, okay, one moment … the event that might, potentially, “explain” why their marriage fell apart … and I was glad that the film didn’t make it too explicit, because sometimes things fall apart and you can’t locate why. You can’t always point to one event and say, “There. That is where I got it all wrong.” You get bogged down in the everyday, and you lose sight of what is important. This is one of the most universal of experiences, and Blue Valentine is all about that.
I was thrilled, from beginning to end, watching those two great actors spar.
I’m still high from it.
But maybe that’s just the altitude of this here tree house.
Sheila O'Malley is the Creative CEO of The Sheila Variations.
THE SLIFR TREE HOUSE #1: INTRODUCTIONS
THE SLIFR MOVIE TREE HOUSE #2: IS THERE ANYTHING GOOD PLAYING THIS WEEKEND?