In This Life

Film Club #4

This week I went to an art opening and ran into someone I’d dated years ago, tumultuously. We caught up pleasantly. I met her new partner. Whatever drama that played out did so beneath our exteriors. But I suspect like many people, these encounters always make me think about the life that could have been. Of all the possible worlds, what is it that collapses the matrices of possibilities down to this world?

Which brings me to Taste of Cherry.

This week my dad informed me that he and my mother had watched Taste of Cherry, which considering they usually watch reality TV about people buying houses, this is its own minor miracle. He’d read my suggestion that there was real beauty in the ending, but all he’d found was confusion. So if you haven’t seen the film then please skip to the next <hr> because I am about to wade into a SPOILER for one of the most elusive/transcendent endings in arthouse cinema…

Towards the close of the film, the suicidal protagonist climbs into his makeshift grave. A storm rolls over. Rain patters on his face as he awaits his death. Everything goes dark. We wait. And then we open back on what appears to be real-world making-of video of the film we’re still watching (except the previously landscape of barren dirt is now lush green). What does it mean?

The short version is that production difficulties meant that Kiarostami was backed into limited options to complete the film. But the filmmaker still chose this ending, and this ending is arguably earns the film its eminent standing. I’ve read various interpretations, many of them reaching for a gag reflex of meta-analysis, but I think what we see is more literal.

Throughout the film we’re watching a character who wants to escape life; in the film’s last moments we see him (the character/actor) awaken from the confines of his existence (the film) into a world/existence beyond everything he and we had previously known (the real world). And it’s a world that fully encapsulates not just the existence of this film, but all films.

Bluntly this could be an allusion to the afterlife, but also presents a simpler schematic: we were before in a world we took to be everything, and now we’ve awoken to see that world as merely a piece within a larger heretofore unknown world. Against this infinitely larger canvas, whatever the protagonist’s unrevealed reasons for suicide seem not just surmountable but trivial — revealed as fiction.

I think Kiarostami is asking us: how can we possibly know what lies beyond the world? Or guess at what forces might have pulled one’s life this way or that? Of the infinite possibilities of existence, we’re privy only to this life.

The films I’m watching this week…

Shiva Baby

(Emma Seligman, 2020)

I first saw Lost in Translation (2003) while working as a film critic at a magazine. Critics screenings would mostly occur a few weeks before release, in a small theatre of about 30 seats. It was before the winds of internet hype could blow one’s expectations into oblivion, so all we had to go on was “The new film by Sofia Coppola” and the excited/confident grin on the PR girl’s face as she ushered us inside. Then the experience of the film was of course a succession of moments of perfection — like watching a tightrope walker crisscross over and over, raising the will they make it oh god please don’t fall now anticipation each time.

It’s this feeling I had throughout Shiva Baby (which thanks to a friend taking me out for my birthday I got to see in a real live cinema theatre) right up until the frame-perfect cut-to-black ending. It also doubles as one of the most tense cinema-going experiences I’ve had. I’m talking Hurt Locker / A Quiet Place / eating your hands level tension. See it in the cinema if Covid allows!

Through the Olive Trees

(Abbas Kiarostami, 1994)

Chaos theory holds a more direct influence over the structure of the novel version of Jurassic Park than it does the film; the book is divided into “iterations” that map out the increases in the rising complexity:

Kiarostami’s films Where is the Friend’s Home? (1987), And Life Goes On… (1992), and Through the Olive Trees (1994) form the theoretical Koker trilogy. After the making of the first film, the shoot location in northern Iran was hit with a massive earthquake, killing 50,000 people. This prompted the second film in which a father and son go in search of the fate of that film’s child actors. The third film then present a fictional account of the making of the second film. Meta all the way down — and a clear pattern of increasing complexity.

I haven’t seen any of the “trilogy”, and both their chronology and the seeming self-evident structure of the world — that things should start out simple and grow more chaotic/complex — would seem to dictate an order, but I’m bucking the trend! Olive Trees is screening at GoMA this week so I’m starting with that and going to work backwards. Like the reverse-chronological films Irreversible or François Ozon’s 5x2, I like and want to embrace the idea of beginning with something complex and returning to something simple.

Millennium Actress

(Satoshi Kon, 2001)

A double-bill with last week’s Perfect Blue; I just love serious cartoons.