Friday, December 23, 2011

Art Cinema: The Shortening of the Sight

A noted film critic, M.K. Raghavendra, about whom I had been quite ignorant until a few days back, has written a lengthy piece on the worthlessness of Mr. Asghar Farhadi’s A Separation as an artistic work. I had the good fortune of meeting him at the recently concluded Bangalore Film Festival, right in front of the film’s poster while he was dissing the film and the filmmaker. stood there in disbelief, I was a little shell-shocked too, and it is probably a moment I wouldn’t forget.
He asked me to read his piece, which has been published here, and here are my reactions to it.

“An art film is the result of filmmaking as a serious, independent undertaking aimed at a niche rather than mass market.”

Should this sentence lead me to assume that The General, Lawrence of Arabia, The Godfather and Terminator 2: The Judgment Day aren't art? To define an art film in terms of its audience is asking for trouble even before the first word is written. Where exactly does "niche" end? Which of us audience member should be eligible to be considered as niche? Where does mass begin? How do we define mass? The author is dead smack in the middle of slippery ground and he has barely finished his first sentence.

“Film scholars typically define ‘art films’ through those formal qualities that mark them as different from mainstream Hollywood films, which includes, among other things, a narrative dwelling upon the real problems of everyday life, an emphasis on the authorial expressivity of the director rather than generic convention and a focus on the subjectivity of the characters rather than on plot.”

This sentence places "mainstream Hollywood films" as not being art, and anything that is different from the mainstream automatically becomes eligible for consideration. Furthermore, a narrative dwelling upon the "real problems" of everyday life is art. What constitutes as real in our everyday life? I once had a discussion with Srikanth Srinivasan on my review of Mr. Jarmusch's The Limits of Control, and although my estimation of the movie's worth hasn’t appreciated the least bit, my arguments were ultra-narrow. Can we here at least appreciate how subjective that "real" is? What exact real-life problems did Sergio Leone deal with in the opening of Once Upon a Time in the West? Where does avant-garde sit here? Does seeking sensory pleasures from the medium count for nothing? I’m reminded of Susan Santog’s Against Interpretation, and although I disagree with her, her arguments carry a lot of weight here. The author cites generic convention and puts it against authorial expressivity, which represents a false dichotomy. How do we appreciate the cinema of Johnnie To? Or the westerns of John Ford? To claim that focus on subjectivity is a necessary criterion for artistic merit is to both ridicule innumerable cinematic talents (directors, screenwriters, editors, set designers) and to elevate the Hollywood machinery, the one the author indirectly represents as non-art. It is quite standard to see hacks like Ron Howard or mainstreamers like Michael Bay using character subjectivity to pass-off their “crowd-pleasers” as verifiable stories. Moreover such a differentiation renders all of action cinema positively art-less, and that would make David Bordwell very angry.

“If the art film finds it difficult to reach wide audiences, the place where it thrives is the international film festival in which films that rarely get public releases are shown to a discerning public.”

I fail to understand the first part of the sentence, and unless I'm misinterpreting, which I think I am not, it contradicts the art film's intentions as defined in the opening sentence. Does this phenomenon lead a film to be defined art, because it is "unable" to reach the non-discerning wide audience? Should this have been the opening sentence? I don’t know, but the logic seems to have eaten itself.

The subsequent few paragraphs offer nothing but plot summarization, and hence offer nothing for us to argue. We jump to the fifth paragraph, which is still describing the plot, but offers two curious, if not interesting sentences.

“A Separation works by enlisting our sympathy for everyone in it.”

I hope the author intends this sentence to be an appreciation of the film's intentions. Because if it isn't, Jean-Pierre Melville goes for a toss, and when that happens I start frothing in my mouth. It gets uglier.

“She was hit by a vehicle when she was retrieving Nader’s father from the street the previous afternoon and that actually caused the miscarriage.”

The film never ever resolves this, and although I am willing to give it to any viewer/reader to assume that the accident is the cause I refuse to accept that the film provides complete unquestionable evidence. Any such assumption on our part is rather evidence of the skill Mr. Farhadi displays in making us the judges, which for me is the film's central purpose rather than some socio-political rhetoric. The judiciary in the film has a subjectivity, much like us.

The sixth paragraph. I take the liberty of arranging sentences together so that I can tackle them a little conveniently and eliminate any redundancy.

“A Separation is brilliantly made; it has the authenticity of real life and no one in it even seems to be acting.”

Thank you very much, but should I assume “authenticity of real life" as another of those descriptions of the film as being realistic? As I have , that is quite debatable, and to plainly assume that is to look away from half of what is on display. And "no one seems to be acting"? I used to hear these arguments in my tenth grade, as a testament to a good film, or an "art film", and this underlying assumption of acting goes very much with the other binaries that seem to run through the author's arguments, which constitute the framework for a very narrow/rigid view.

“But there are some aspects to the film that cast doubt on its value as a serious work of art. While the film includes a large amount of detail – how a certain part of the populace lives and even on some legal/ social issues in Iran – one does not get a sense of how Iran’s society is constituted – its social structure, the exercise of power etc….. If Rajieh and Nader belong to different classes, the classes themselves are not in conflict although individuals belonging to them may squabble.”

This is the problematic part (heart) of the essay, and probably the very foundation of the author's stance. Forget that the basis of this class struggle between the middle class and the poor, between the former's belief in democracy to the latter's religious manipulation through theocracy is entirely debatable (the protests of 2009, when the film might have been made contained a huge percentage of youth), so much so that the Class wars could be argued as a false dichotomy. My point is WHY should a work of art have depiction of social constitution on its checklist? Why should a work of art try and be a representation in the first place? There's plenty of politics to be had beyond the mere socio-political equation, and the author by looking for rhetoric is ignoring a whole lot of messy stuff. He describes Nader as good in one of the paragraphs, but is that a description or just a throwaway judgment? Nader is a gentle mixture of traditional and liberal thought-process, having both a set of beliefs and a set of ideas. The author doesn’t even touch upon the gender equation, or the universality of the parenting equation, and the kind of mess it creates. My aim here is not to describe the film though; my aim here is to describe how the author's short-sighted vision is causing him to overlook matters.

“The portrayal of the court (as in Abbas Kiarostami’s Close-Up – 1990) virtually establishes the Iranian state as the most reasonable of arbiters.”

Oh please, what do we want here? That the filmmaker present evidence of what the media feeds us so that we get a chance to exercise our kitschy political reactions? This is exactly like the situation in Dogtooth, and what we fail to understand is that there is a certain internal logic that better not be judged from armchairs. The filmmaker rather presents evidence, whether it is his belief, whether it is doctoring evidence, whether he is a right-winging orthodox cleric, does it lessen the work of art? The author himself claims that the film enlists our sympathy for everyone, which is so considerate of a filmmaker. So I fail to understand why should a film be anti-establishment, or rather conform to our beliefs and our politics and our world-view. Is our world-view a fact and the film's fabrication?

“Rajieh being unable to swear on the Quran about the cause of her child’s death is also problematic, not least because it furnishes the film with a moral resolution. When we accept it in the film, shouldn’t we also wonder if we would have accepted a similar resolution in a Western film in which a lie is exposed because someone cannot swear on the Bible?”

But it doesn’t provide any moral resolution. Rather, it does the very opposite of it. The central problem with Nader is his rigidity, and his conscience is his daughter. He deliberately lies. Rajieh's conscience is her God. The film doesn’t state that she is lying; it is that she is merely unsure. To claim that she is lying is twisting the facts, and again an act of judgment. She backs out even in the face of all the financial upheavals and achieves grace. Termeh looks at Rajieh's poor little girl, ever-shrinking in the corner. Probably the money might have given her a peaceful domestic life, but Nader had to appease his own guilt and justify himself. Rajieh's decision not to swear absolves him of the crime but causes him to slip further down in the eyes of his conscience. He is corruptible as has been proven. So, where is the "moral" resolution? The author seems to be mistaking the crime for the guilt, but the film is actually using that crime to reveal moral fallibility in everyone. This, if anything, is an irreconcilable view.
What we’re accepting, and respecting, as viewers, is Rajieh’s right to her beliefs. And as for the final question, I present to you Barry Levinson’s Sleepers, where the father played by Robert De Niro is asked to lie to protect the friends. And after resolving his moral beliefs, off-screen and off-screenplay, he does that. Would that count, Mr. Author? Or The Exorcism of Emily Rose.

The next paragraph has nothing about Mr. Farhadi's film, except for the last couple of sentences.

“‘Censorship is the origin of metaphor,’ wrote Jorge Luis Borges but A Separation does not even use metaphor in the service of social truths about Iran. It seems to have its eyes focused entirely on the international arena and the approval of audiences that decline to relate the film’s portrayal of Iranian society to whatever they know about politics and society in Iran.”

I believe the author ought to use "rhetoric" instead of truth. And he is looking for a film that confirms to his view of Iranian society. In all probability I do not have even a fraction of his socio-political knowledge of that country and in my ignorance I claim that the social view in A Separation felt true, and the moral truth felt profound.

His next paragraph introduces Mr. Zvyagintsev's Elena, a filmmaker and a film I absolutely love, but it is the comparison to Mr. Farhadi's film I am presently concerned with.

“Where A Separation has an intricate story filled with superficial detail about life in Iran, Zvyagintsev’s Elena is straight and flat – not because it lacks local detail but because it assumes that audiences will recognize what it is dealing with, without them being deliberately informed. Where A Separation abounds in elements which are intended to enlighten international audiences but could be commonplace to most Iranians, Elena seems, largely, to be addressing an audience inside Russia.”

Okay, here is the catch. A Separation won the audience award, and swept all the main categories at the Fajr Film Festival. Unless Mr. Farhadi's film is state sponsored, or if the film festival is being rigged by the state, I don’t think there is anything to comment upon.

I admit, I am getting a little tired, and so I lump together everything that is left and that is remotely worthwhile.

“The general sense to be obtained in A Separation was of a society knit together by universal faith, even if God hands out different dispensations to different members of the Faithful. The film apparently portrayed a simple society united by a common set of beliefs with no underlying tensions between any of the groups or classes constituting it. But even apart from the known problems facing Iran today, the issue here is whether there is not something dishonorable in presenting a society in terms as uncomplicated as those informing A Separation. The differences between A Separation and Elena cannot be made clearer than through an understanding of the single factor which apparently brings them together – their open-endedness. From my description of the film it should be evident that Nader and Simin’s divorce is not the central issue in A Separation. My sense is that it is made the central issue to distract us from the fact that the conflict between Nader and Rajieh is irresolvable – except in a trite way. If this conflict had been admitted as the central one, the film could have hardly concluded in the open way in which it does because it would have ended with Rajieh being unable to swear on the Quran – and therefore affirming the moral authority of the theocratic state. By subordinating the more important issue to the less important one, the film is playing up to film festival audiences/ juries, which demand ‘ambiguity’ as a primary requisite of art.”

I again put it here – the Rajieh case is not resolved, at least not morally. It is a situation where everybody is right, and everybody is fallible. And that is what manifests itself into the film’s central dilemma mirrored through Termeh’s. The film is not being ambiguous for no reason. Amidst all the fallibility, can Termeh truly decide? How does she learn of these ethical defects? Through the Nader-Rajieh case, which if truly had been resolved, at least morally, would the ending still be ambiguous? And that's my argument.

Oh yeah, as for affirming the moral authority of the theocratic state, I again present to you ladies and gentlemen The Exorcism of Emily Rose, which actually takes this issue head-on.


Matt said...

Nice rebuttal. I think each character has something to answer for in the film. It shows what happens when you have a clash of religious belief, Iranian honor [if you will], class distinction and the law. There never is an exact truth all can agree on. What's great is that you can pretty much see everyone's perspective even if you don't agree with it.

But I would say Rajieh admitting she was hit by a car pretty much frees up Nader from legal guilt because it puts reasonable doubt [and then some] into her initial claim. Plus, remember her biggest outrage came when Nader accused her of stealing.

Any guilt Nadir feels in the end would be because his daughter was involved in lying for him.

In some ways the film asks us to consider the guilt of Simin who leaves her husband for [what seems] selfish reasons and then in the end can't even manage to tell Nader that Rajieh was hit by a car.

Anyway, it's a great film. Therefore it is great art.

man in the iron mask said...

Thanks Matt.

The way I see these turn of events, Rajieh admitting only frees Nader from the legal guilt, but his conscience is his daughter, as he himself admits. And he has fallen there. He has come across less as a man of principles and more as someone utterly stubborn. And his last action, asking Rajieh to swear probably sinks him further down in his daughter's eyes. There lies his biggest loss.

I think the film starts with Simin's guilt and Nader's righteousness, and then brings the latter to the ground...

mkr said...

If you put up your reaction on the dearcinema review site, I'll be happy to respond.

Satish Naidu said...

Yes Sir, I shall surely do that.

Tim said...

Where ON EARTH does that photo of David Bordwell come from?!?! I'm dying of laughter! haha