May 26, 2011 / Filmwell
Kenji Koiso has his summer vacation all planned out: he and his friend Sakuma have …
December 12, 2011
FLATLAND IS A 19TH CENTURY inter-dimensional head-trip, still popular with math and computer geeks, a fantasy of a two-dimensional being whose mind is blown by his encounters with other dimensions. (Among other things, he discovers that the elite of his own world knew about the existence of a third-dimension, but hid that knowledge from the masses.) The novel was a favorite of C. S. Lewis, who used it to communicate paradoxes of art and spirituality. The Trinity, for example, is a structure incomprehensible to us Flatlanders, says Lewis, “But we can at least comprehend our incomprehension” – and so get a glimpse of a larger reality.
Certain real-life mind-warps also acknowledge more things in heaven and earth than ordinary perception allows, with tools for describing, if not understanding, such things. Non-Euclidean geometry maps beyond three-dimensional space; non-Newtonian physics charts quantum realities like the particle-wave duality of light and the marriage of space and time. The aforementioned Lewis offered his own quantum theories of myth and metaphor, musing that our species’ capacity for seeing either perceptually or conceptually (but not both at once) is temporarily overcome in the transfiguration of art. Optical Illusions, for instance, picture objects impossible in the world of sense, like the “strange loops” of an M. C. Escher drawing, with its quantum up-down staircases.
The film Certified Copy is just such an impossible object or strange loop: the film offers a vista of two-dimensions turned into at least three, a mind-bending image of the everlasting paradox.
Iranian director Abbas Kiarostami has been wrestling with The Real for along time. His early film Homework was a documentary that broke barriers of realities within realities. His “earthquake trilogy” was also a nest of narratives – the middle film was about a director making the first film, and the third offered yet one more step back into infinite regression. My favorite, Close-Up folds back on itself in a non-Euclidean structure, a docu-dramatization of a hoax re-enacted by the actual participants. (No surprise that Kiarostami’s disciple Jafar Panahi’s The Mirror involved a similar trip through the looking-glass from fiction into docu-fiction and beyond.)
Like Rossellini (a major influence on this Iranian neo-neo-realism), Kiarostami has discarded hindrances along the way of his journey – including conventional film style, form, symbols, even plot – in his zeal to get to the bottom of things. In latter years he’d announced that he’d abandoned celluloid film entirely for DV video. But then word came he was making a big-budget Western-style film with an international movie star, Juliette Binoche, in France, in English (plus Italian and French). What the heck? Was Kiarostami selling out for the big bucks? Most fans weren’t worried about that, but we did wonder what he was up to; some of us suspected he would use all this gaudy big-movie bric-a-brac as further grist for his reality mill.
As it turned out, Certified Copy marks both a departure and a continuation for this director; still, it’s a jolt for anyone with expectations for what a “real” Kiarostami film should be. Such expectations probably include stripped-down neo-realist production values, long takes, minimal camera angles, unconventional cutting and structure, near-invisible plot, and a strong priority of image over dialogue and experience over idea. On the other hand, a jolt of expectations may actually be the most Kiarostamian touch of all – that unexpected epiphany, when the director suddenly upturns your sense of reality in some vertiginous flourish, blowing your mind like a Flatlander suddenly exposed to an alternative dimension.
Of course, all this makes for an acquired taste not everybody has acquired. Roger Ebert has been so skeptical about this director as to come near to declaring Kiarostami a phony, a man impersonating a director (which is ironic, since that’s just what the central character in Close Up does.) Ebert has been driven most crazy, it seems by the aimlessness of Kiarostami’s beloved meandering endless car ride scenes. Italian filmmaker Nanni Moretti, meanwhile, has made a comic short about a theater owner nearly driven crazy after he excitedly books Close-Up at his theater, but despite all his efforts, nobody comes: they’re filling the competition’s theaters, watching the latest Hollywood blockbusters of the sort Ebert reviews.
Ergo, for Kiarostami to suddenly take up Western film style and production values, one had to suppose he was either giving in and admitting Roger Ebert was right and he’s just a naked cinematic emperor – or else he was about to pull a fast one and depants the opposition.
INDEED, IT’S NOT JUST WESTERN CINEMA, that seems to get called out in Certified Copy. The director seems to also be taking on what he perceives as an entire faulty Western way of seeing and being. A key scene in the film takes place in a dark, cave-like room full of sculpted copies – obviously we’re in Plato’s Cave, that primal stronghold of the thinker for whom the rest of Western philosophy has been said to be mere footnote. According to Plato, we mortals are stuck watching shadows flickering on the cave walls, unable to exit the cave to view the true realities of which such flickerings are mere copies. The resemblance of Plato’s Cave to cinema, it should be added, has been noted by many and seems particularly pertinent in this case.
The two central characters of Certified Copy meet in the cave: Elle (Binoche), who owns this basement antique store, and author James Miller (played competently by English opera singer, William Shimell). Miller is the author of a book with the same title as this film, a winsome essay on the difference between and relative values of originals vis a vis copies. That such a conversation carries on inside the cave is obviously most relevant, since Plato derided art for being a copy of a copy of the Ideal Forms. He also wanted to throw the poets out of his ideal Republic because he distrusted the deceptive power of metaphor, which he feared might confuse the masses. Indeed.
All this is a rather abstract and heavy-handed discussion for a Kiarostami film. Yet there it is: James Miller flees the Platonic cave to jump into one of those famously-irritating Kiarostami car scenes. For insiders, it’s a great joke – and the joke seems to be on Roger Ebert, on the Western obsession with Platonic ideals, and on the much more heavily-symbolic and plotty Western cinema. This interpretation gains traction as the conversation in the car turns to Pop Art, which involves that transformation of commodified product into genuine art.
This ride isn’t really as meandering as advertised, since it leads Elle and James to an Italian village known for weddings, and the brides and grooms are out in force today. Thus marriage and art intertwine in the couple’s increasingly tense quarrel about originals vs. copies.
Then Kiarostami reaches in and turns the whole thing inside-out. The second half of the film propels the viewer down (or is it up?) an Escher-like quantum staircase of paradox.
Now, I’ll admit I’m not used to having to puzzle out Kiarostami films in this way. In fact, that’s the opposite of what I go to him for. Like any poor Platonic Western Flatlander, my orientation has been toward left-brained abstraction which I, with others, seek to be healed from in contemplative right-brained cinema – particularly that of Kiarostami. So, in a sense, this film disappointed me.
On the other hand, I haven’t been able to get this film out of my head – at least the left side; so since he wants to engage me over there, I’ll make a stab and see if I can indeed puzzle it out.
It seems to me that the two halves of Certified Copy amount to a reflection in a looking glass: the film is a mirror of Ideal and Real, giving us both Platonic flickers and the realities casting them. That this tension is manifest in a couple’s quarrel points toward his solution, but also recalls other seminal films in the Western tradition that, interestingly enough, engage similar debate.
Rossellini’s Viaggio in Italia (which inspired Godard’s Contempt) casts a long flickering shadow over Certified Copy. In Viaggio, the same stormy marriage of Ideal and Real is worked out in a narrative heavy on references to the Classical context. In other words, we didn’t necessarily need a non-Westerner to come point out to us how the West tends to get hung up on Platonic abstraction: our artists, including film artists, have been working on this for the past couple millennia. But, since we’ve obviously continued to struggle so, we can probably still use all the help we can get.
And with his “strange loop,” Kiarostami takes this conversation to a new dimension, overlaying the vista of impossible objects and paradoxes onto the metaphor of marriage. The point seems to be, according to the Iranian director, that better than choosing between Ideal and Real is holding onto the tension – the paradox.
Christianity, in this connection, cuts a striking profile in Certified Copy: Elle wears a cross, there are church bells on the soundtrack, and a key resolution happens when, at the height of their conflict (and also the version of that conflict going on within her) she visits a church to pray. This Islamic director obviously understands Christianity well enough to recognize its power of reconciliation, of forgiveness, as the only solution to our inevitable failure to meet the Ideal.
On the other hand, there seems to be something missing here: the reconciling religion is fairly generic, and shows no deep sense of that uniquely Christian solution to Western abstraction.
Literary critic George Steiner, in his book Grammars of Creation, offers his own three-part history of the Western mind. He begins with Plato, follows with more Plato (neo-Platonism) and concludes with Christianity, with its revolutionary notions of Incarnation and Eucharist. These innovations were “utterly alien” to both Greeks and Jews, says Steiner. Medieval grappling with Incarnation and Eucharist drove Western inquiry into new territory: Christological debate, says Steiner, became the “substratum” of Western aesthetics. The Word-Become-Flesh and Real Presence shaped Western thought and art – which, after Christianity, became “antithetical to the condemnation of the fictive in Plato.” Thus the infinite regression of Real and Copy is transformed by the “counter-Platonic” Christian vision, which incarnates the Real in the copy. This opens a whole new quantum category which transcends both reality and fiction: the iconic.
And that’s an interesting direction for this conversation to go now that an Islamic filmmaker has joined it. Like Plato, like the Jews, the Muslims have strictures against graven images. Steiner says he sympathizes with this Islamic-Jewish-Platonic unease with re-presentation of nature, which seems a kind of irreverence, i.e. some things are best left to God. On the other hand, the Christian notion of the iconic, offers an alternative to the graven image, in opening up space for the Real Presence: i.e. a certified copy.
This is not to suggest Kiarostami doesn’t have any sense of the sacramental. Indeed, his more characteristic films (if one may venture that presumption) are all about incarnate meaning. I’ve never seen a more incarnate epiphany than that embodiment of certification at the end of Close-Up, when the phony director is certified by the only person who can.
Not knowing much about Islam, it’s hard to navigate this part of the discussion. But I’m guessing that surely there must be some Islamic parallel or analogue to the notion of word-become-flesh – perhaps in Sufism. Kiarostami’s fellow Iranian filmmaker Mohsen Makhmalbaf has made his own journey over the past thirty years from revolutionary ideologue and propagandist for the Islamic regime to Sufi-influenced mystic and neo-realist.
Another sacramental element in Certified Copy is the SEX – not explicit, of course, but there’s enough suggestion that the film probably won’t be playing widely in Tehran. And the trajectory toward resolution of the conflict of Ideal and Real on a marriage bed certainly pushes back the notion of knowledge in a Platonic sense with the Judeo-Christian notion of “knowledge in the Biblical sense,” a wholistic knowing, in which the division between body and soul dissolve.
So, with one of the most, er, original voices in contemporary cinema joining this discussion, from outside the Western box to boot, maybe we can finally get somewhere . In fact, if Kiarostami wants to really kick the ball down field, maybe he could take his next film project to Russia, to hash out this matter of icons with Andrei Tarkovsky (the way Tarkovsky went to Sweden to have it out with Bergman). Or to Istanbul – to the Hagia Sophia, where Greeks fought the battle over icons and Muslims painted over the Christian images with The Word. Or maybe to Jerusalem, where the Peoples of the Book can work out their unfinished business re: images within the friendly confines of cinema. Or maybe even Mt. Moriah, where the Patriarch of all nearly sacrificed his son (Isaac in the Torah, Ishmael in the Koran), a story Kierkegaard made the centerpiece of his own quantum reversal in his famous reassertion of the paradoxical primacy of the Real over the Ideal. But wherever Kiarostami decides to go next on his journey, I’m happy to go along for the ride.
As the lights came up in the theater where I first saw Certified Copy, I found myself wondering what Roger Ebert would think of this film. In fact, I turned around right into a true Kiarostamian epiphany: Ebert was sitting in the back row, still staring thoughtfully at the screen. When he finally published his review, the critic’s attitude was that of a man who’d been taken in a shell-game, whose only consolation was that the con had been smooth. Though he strained to appreciate even the car scenes, Ebert decided he couldn’t do the sum. He said he could “explain” other art films, but not this one. The hosts of Ebert’s revived “At the Movies” show, on the other hand, both recommended Certified Copy. (Ignatiy Vishnevetsky may have even called it a masterpiece.) So, in another sort of Kiarostamian reversal – or shell-game – the director finally gets the Ebertian critical certification previously withheld, and Ebert gets to keep his distance.
I’m not sure my own “explanation” doesn’t commit a certain slander against the quantum nature of this film. There was never much reason to try to explain any of Kiarostami’s earlier work, and that, I’m pretty sure, is what has made them particularly precious, and even healing, to me. No doubt, I’m over-thinking things a bit here – as I say, a besetting sin.
In that case, I probably need to get out of my left brain as soon as possible and into one of those long, meandering car rides. Maybe Kiarostami does, too. Perhaps someday we’ll even pick up Roger and bring him along — if he sticks up his thumb.