Criterion Files #519: Close-Up

By  · Published on August 11th, 2010

Anytime a face is shown on screen, and we see that face speak, a host of questions – implicit or explicit – are automatically present. What is the authority of this speaker? Not in regards to any authority of the topic they are discussing, but rather, are they speaking on behalf of themselves, or are they a representative for another source of ideas? What is there relationship to the camera? If their words aren’t scripted, then how does their awareness of the camera change them? Typically, we are conditioned to giving speakers the benefit of the doubt, part and parcel of the suspense of disbelief necessary to enjoy any given film without being overwhelmed with questions of authorship. Even when we watch a film that blends fact and fiction and blurs the already arbitrary line between narrative and documentary film (in works like the Criterion Collection’s F for Fake (1972) or the more recent Exit Through the Gift Shop), suspense of disbelief is still fully applied in that we can enjoy such a film because we think we know where fiction ends and fact begins, and vice versa (even if we go about this knowledge differently upon revisitation in these tricky narratives). Our own need to delineate reality from scripted façade is implemented whether or not it is appropriate or accurate because of the need of a starting place in order for our minds to be able to assess and understand a given film.

Where the previously mentioned works of Orson Welles and Banksy may play along with these expectations and give us drop-off points where we think (and argue that) such divisions may lie, Iranian filmmaker Abbas Kiarostami’s Close-Up (1990) illustrates brilliantly that no such distinction actually exists. Close-Up argues that the placement of the camera within any “real” situation changes it, automatically and irreparably. The camera itself is an instigator and an essential character in all events that follow. With Close-Up, the “real” itself is never a sacred event that one must only observe and never intervene with in film, but rather because of the camera’s immediate affect on the event, the intervention itself can not only be examined, but be reveled in and allowed to breathe a full life all its own. For Kiarostami, cinema is always and inevitably the central subject of cinema.

Close-Up takes as its central subject a rather bizarre crime whose significance and uniqueness seems lost on most of those involved. In 1989, a poor Iranian man named Hossein Sabzian was arrested for impersonating nationally celebrated filmmaker Moshen Makhmalbaf to a middle-class family. The motive – as the victims of this crime speculated on the many other crimes Sabzian could have committed during his deception – was not burglary or any inclinations toward violence, but simply maintaining the obvious connection between Sabzian and the family over a shared affection for the filmmaker and, implicitly, cinema itself. Though no serious crime had been committed, the family feels (rightfully I would say, but this is not a film about diametric conceptions of justice or morality) that their privacy and well-meaning had been taken advantage of. The crime Mr. Sabzian is tried for is a crime this and many films could rightfully be accused of committing: fraud.

One thing is seemingly obvious about watching Close-Up: it is divided between footage taken from Sabzian’s trial and recreations of his interactions surrounding the crime. The distinction is formally evident, as the trial scenes are shut roughly on grainy, washed out 16mm film with echoing sound and lacking in compositional sleekness, while the reenactments are cinematically structured (the existence, for instance, of the dramatic close-up rather than a confessional courtroom shot of a similar type, the meaningful difference between the two no doubt motivating the film’s title) and gorgeously executed on professional 35mm.

But what’s fascinating about Kiarostami’s work here is that such a distinction between fiction and non-fiction is never so simple. For the footage of the event as it happens (the trial footage) cannot be said to be independent from the reenactments, as the influence and ideas of the filmmaker are just as present, guiding, and manipulating in each instance. Kiarostami and his cinematographer are seen early in the film asking the judge if the trial date can be moved forward so that it can be filmed, and if Kiarostami himself can interject with questions during the trial (the judge, flabbergasted as to why anybody would be interested in such a minor case, allows the filmmakers to proceed after minimal deliberation). What seems like it would otherwise be a miscarriage of justice through the intervention of private interests becomes a complex interrogation of the camera’s role in manifesting impressions of fact and reality. Sabzian is certainly on trial here, but his personal courtroom isn’t the building of law he occupies, but the four walls of a frame that acts as both his confessional and his jury. As Kiarostami interrupts the trial to question Sabzian about his motivation, affection for cinema, and his personal emotional process, it is revealed that with the existence of the camera, the filmmaker is in fact the true judge, for it is ultimately his impression captured on film that determines Sabzian’s eternal sentencing.

But Kiarostami doesn’t stop there. Where one could gain comfort in separating Sabzian from Kiarostami, from making the distinction between the camera and the very real words coming from the very real Sabzian’s mouth, there is the confrontation with the fact that Kiarostami scripted many of Sabzian’s answers to his questions during the trial. One could react to this fact with anger over a filmmaker’s intervention with the processes of law and frustration that Close-Up is a film that seems to dupe its viewer left and right with each voyage towards finding “reality” under its many heavy meta-layers. But Close-Up isn’t about tricks or duping, rather it’s a revelation of cinema’s determining force in our society. As we watch cinema, cinema in turn watches us. There is an interdetermination of influence. Knowledge didn’t come through cinema in the 20th century, rather knowledge was cinema itself.

The fact that the entirety of this event occurred in Iran (not a country known to the West as media-saturated or one that worships its figures of the screen) evidences how thoroughly globally influential the medium has become on the everyday. As the event in the film was determined by cinema, cinema in response turned its cameras onto the event. For Sabzian, the fiction films of Makhmalbaf are so emotionally resonant and so artistically true that he implements a false persona he is foreign to into his very own identity. While Sabzian’s case may be extreme and exceptional (one would say, in our culture, fanatical), it isn’t too far a jump to state that cinema determines our everyday identity in one way or another; it not only influences the way we see the world, but also acts as the very makeup of that world.

The most resonant moment of Close-Up’s process of meta-layering to me occurred in the film’s final scene in which Sabzian, released from prison, is greeted by Makhmalbaf, and after tearing up shares a quiet motorcycle ride with his idol across town. The scene is filmed (presumably) from the back of the van, with the audio on Makhmalbaf’s hidden microphone going in and out through the greeting and the ride. This seems to give us a distinction between text and reality: that is, this is a false moment set up by the filmmakers who try to capture it anonymously, yet because Sabzian (presumably) does not know he is being filmed, the emotions and experiences captured are indeed very real. The technical difficulties (the audio only allows us fractions of their conversation) provide a certain in-the-moment fidelity to this distinction. But the impossible reverse shot that ends the film reveals this entire sequence to have been knowingly set up, with even the technical disruptions revealed as deliberate, thus throwing any impressions of fidelity, truth, and genuine emotion out the window. But, then again, why would the emotions of this meeting be false simply because of it being knowingly staged and manipulated by all involved? After all, we are dealing with two subjects here (Makhmalbaf and Sabzian) who see the very manipulations of cinema in of itself as truth.

Close-Up isn’t simply a manipulation, but a revelation of the manipulation inherent to the art form. It is the intricacies and complexities inherent to this manipulation that is the preoccupation of Close-Up, for film is a medium whose distinctions between true and false, fiction and nonfiction, and documentary and narrative are arbitrary semantic demarcations that have little value in truly understanding what film communicates, how it communicates it, and (most of all) its influence in the world’s processes of communication. For Kiarostami, perhaps the only truth cinema can reveal is its inherent falsehoods.

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