We tell ourselves stories in order to live. The princess is caged in the consulate. The man with the candy will lead the children into the sea. The naked woman on the ledge outside the window on the sixteenth floor is a victim of accidie, or the naked woman is an exhibitionist, and it would be “interesting” to know which. We tell ourselves that it makes some difference whether the naked woman is about to commit a mortal sin or is about to register a political protest or is about to be, the Aristophanic view, snatched back to the human condition by the fireman in priest’s clothing just visible in the window behind her, the one smiling at the telephoto lens. We look for the sermon in the suicide, for the social or moral lesson in the murder of five. We interpret what we see, select the most workable of the mutliple choices. We live entirely, especially if we are writers, by the imposition of a narrative line upon disparate images, by the “ideas” with which we have learned to freeze the shifting phantasmagoria which is our actual experience.
Joan Didion wrote those words, perhaps her most famous, at the beginning of her sweeping essay “The White Album”. I come back to them often, they resonate and echo, and I grapple with the implications. Am I telling myself my own story? Of course I am, to some degree. It is how people maneuver. “I am this kind of person, and this thing that happened to me means this, and here is what I got from it.” As much as I would like to separate myself from myself, in order to see more clearly, that is not possible. I am telling myself stories in order to live. Narrative, in all its guises, has always interested me, and I suppose it started because I loved to read, and I loved to write, and I loved to act, I loved to enter into other people’s narratives. It is still one of the most necessary parts of my life. What happens to me when I lose myself in a book? Or a film? What is the process of forgetting? Of identification? It is not just that the story itself sweeps me away into another world, although that is often the most pleasurable part of entering someone else’s narrative. There is another kind of exchange occurring.
Shirin, directed by Iranian powerhouse Abbas Kiarostami, is about that exchange. You may define it differently. But that’s part of it too. A story is not an object, with defined edges and boundaries. It is porous. The good ones, we enter into. We bring ourselves into them. Your Great Gatsby is not my Great Gatsby. Additionally, the Great Gatsby I read when I was 15 is a very different book from the one I read when I was 35. In our responses to art, we can track our own progress, as individuals, as a race. There is a reason why censors have always tried to control or suppress art. They’re no dummies. Because art trucks in people’s dreams, fantasies, hopes. These can be dangerous,; they are untamed. They cannot be touched or regulated. You can live in a totalitarian system and have Gone With the Wind in a never-ending loop in your head, and no one will ever know. Whatever happens between a film and an audience, it is private. You sit in the dark seats, staring up at a flickering screen, and with the good ones, it is like your own dreams are being projected up there and even if you don’t see yourself, specifically, in the story, it calls up from the depths memories, dreams, reflections. You are in relationship with the work of art. It’s not just the great films that can do this. I had a panic attack after seeing The Legend of Bagger Vance, for example, and I could feel it starting during the film. A huge shift had taken place. I was no longer watching movie stars acting, I was involved in some powerful two-way current, and it was all I could do to make it through the rest of the film without falling apart. Books can do this, too, music, but there’s something about a movie because it unfurls before you in what seems like real-time. More so than a painting, it feels like an event, due to the sheer fact that it has a beginning, a middle and an end. Associations unfurl with all types of art, but movies, an entirely new form of art, seem to be the fantasy in a visceral and immediate way. Movie stars became the new gods. Through them, we could see our best selves, our flawed selves. And yes, we could lose ourselves a little bit in something else. We could drown in the flickering silver screen. Films truck in the unconscious, which is one of my problems with so many of the hits today. They seem entirely uninterested in the unconscious. Not only that, but they seem unaware that that is one of the most important elements of this new art-form. It’s not like a dream, it is a dream.
It is difficult to describe Shirin without making it sound pretentious. Maybe it is a little pretentious. But it worked on me. I will talk about what the film is, first of all, and then I want to talk about my response to it, how it worked on me, and then I want to talk about how Kiarostami filmed it, because it is applicable. I was even more amazed by the experience of Shirin when I realized how it was done.
The story of Khosrow and Shirin is well-known to Iranians, immortalized by one of their poets in the 12th century. In Kiarostami’s film, women have gathered in a movie theatre to watch a filmed version of the Shirin story. There are men in the audience, but they remain in the shadows. This movie is all about the women. We hear the movie unfolding, but we see none of it. We just watch the women watching. That is the entire movie. Close-up after close-up of watching listening faces. Kiarostami got over 100 Iranian actresses, from cinema, stage, and TV, to play the audience members. And Juliette Binoche is there as well. The close-ups linger. There are no quick cuts. There are so many women that even by the end of the film, you are still seeing new faces, although Kiarostami does go back to certain people, repeatedly, so you can see the transformation of their experiences in watching this fictional movie Shirin. It’s a strange and admittedly sometimes boring approach. However, it has an insistent challenging power, and I found myself questioning it and contemplating it as the movie was happening, and I believe that was part of Kiarostami’s point. A movie is about a relationship. The screen and the audience member. What happens in that relationship? How does it work? What do we bring to our filmgoing experiences? Does that matter?
Robert Altman once said, in his typically curmudgeonly way, that he didn’t believe a truly good movie had been made yet. While that is certainly debatable, his point really was that the possibilities of film, as its own artform, as opposed to an offshoot of theatre, had not yet been fully explored. I thought of that comment of his as I sat and watched Shirin, or, rather, I watched these women watching a movie called Shirin. Here is a movie about movies. Not about Hollywood or the making of a movie, but a movie about being an audience member, something we all know, and perhaps take for granted. I have read some of the critical responses to Shirin, and many people appear to have been bored out of their minds. I had moments of boredom, but they passed. It was like life. I had time. Time to settle down, shuffle off my everyday life (as we always have to do when we go to a movie, sometimes it takes 5 or so minutes to adjust to the letting-go that a movie requires), and to take it all in, whatever was presented to me.
The movie the women are watching is done in voiceover. We hear the dialogue, we hear the gallop of horses hooves. It is very well done. I really got the sense that a real movie was unfolding, unseen, behind the camera. In war scenes, we hear the clash of swords and the gurgley sound when someone is stabbed. We hear feet running across a stone foyer. We hear rushing water. The music of the fictional movie is sweeping, it could have been done by Maurice Jarre. What they are watching is an epic. A movie genre always in vogue: two people (historical figures) trying to find one another as giant world events clash around them. I thought of Red Cliff, and Troy and Reds and The Scarlet Empress and all the others. It occurred to me, when the movie was over, that I felt like I had seen the movie they had seen, even though I didn’t see one shot of it. I got the entire event, from the dialogue I heard, yes, but also from watching each individual woman respond to it.
Each one comes to the movie with her own life in tow. No two responses are the same. In humorous scenes, some seem reluctant to laugh. Perhaps because of their experience that happiness and joy cannot last. Some smile readily, eagerly meeting the joy up on the screen. In the early sections of the film being shown, you can see the distractions. People eating popcorn, chewing gum, glancing around … They have not succumbed yet.
Movies require us to succumb. This is another way that movies are different from a painting or a book. The lights go down, and the event begins. You have paid your ticket, your movie starts at 7:15, and you will be out of there by 10. For that time in between, you are participating in a collective event. You know that going in. You aren’t wandering through a museum, on your own time, staring at one painting for as long as you like. I think this is partly the reason why we see so much bad behavior and rudeness in cineplexes today (something that has certainly occurred in my lifetime). People don’t want to succumb. They have forgotten how. Being online 24 hours a day means you can have a sense of your own importance, your own centrality. I sent an email, wonder if someone has responded … Put a link up on my Facebook page … who has commented on it? The Internet is awesome, but it can revolve around Self, and I have fallen into that as well. It becomes habit, more than anything else. So to succumb, to let go of all of that, to turn your phone off, to drown in the darkness and submit to a collective experience … becomes anathema. It’s not just that people don’t want to do it, it is that they have forgotten how. The only equivalent I can think of is children playing a game together. They set up the rules of the game (“You’re the queen, you’re the servant, and I am the garbage man”), and then they go. The best games like that are a group event, where everyone is playing just as hard as you are. You can lose yourself in your fantasy world. But it requires others, that sort of game. You can certainly lose yourself in your own fantasy world, by yourself, and I still do that – but nothing like a good game of make-believe. This is my obsession with acting. But I was a great game-player as a child, too. Acting is a collaborative art. Moviemaking requires collaboration. It requires money and planning and schedules and trailers and makeup people … it is a giant PROJECT … but a year later, there are these women gathered in the darkness of a movie theatre, staring up at the screen, and tailspinning off into YOUR fantasy.
It’s magic. Or … it can be.
We are participants. In our own narratives, and in the narratives we choose to enter. Kiarostami often puts these meta-comments into his films. He is very self-conscious. He is always aware that he is making a movie. Taste of Cherry (his biggest international hit so far) tells the story of a man driving around a construction site looking for someone who would be willing to bury him after he has committed suicide. I found that film a bit tedious, actually, although gorgeous to look at in its monochromatic colors. And in the last moment of the film, Kiarostami switches it up. Suddenly, we see the movie crew, we see Kiarostami himself, we see them filming the car driving off through the site, a blatant reminder that what you have just seen is a movie. For me, that choice didn’t work, although I have read passionate defenses of that choice which make a lot of sense to me. He is a personal filmmaker, but he also likes to pull back with these tricky moments, and pull the rug out from under you. “Remember what it is we are doing here,” he says slyly. His films often feel very French to me. It is no surprise that he has involved Juliette Binoche in this project.
She is also the star of his latest film which just premiered at Cannes, Certified Copy, his first film made outside of Iran. I am very eager to see it.
But she is just a face in the crowd here. One of many. Shirin is about the many, not the few. But the cumulative effect is amazing. We are looking at what appears to be a crowd, face by face, yet in the end, we are struck by how individual they all are. We are alone in the dark, even if we have gone to the movie with a friend. What we bring to each movie is our own.
This all may sound very precious and gimmicky. For me, it was not. What happened for me, in watching this film (and it is beautifully shot, with the women’s faces sometimes submerged in darkness, before flickering back into light … the movie reflecting across their faces … with the deep blue movie chairs illuminated around them) was that I came into contact with something visceral, something immediate, something that has to do with what it means to be an audience member. Kiarostami has only women in close-ups here. There are many possible reasons. One, Kiarostami wanted to celebrate 20th century Iranian film by filling up his screen with the stars of his country. Some were clearly teenagers, women in their early 20s, while a couple were probably in their 80s. This would be like watching a movie where we watch Susan Sarandon, Ellen Burstyn, Dakota Fanning, Rachel McAdams, Angelina Jolie, Jill Clayburgh and Julia Roberts watching a film.
There is a great tradition of cinema in Iran, and it was fun to watch the film and recognize the faces.
“Oh, there’s Niki Karimi!”
“Is that Leila Hatami? I think it is …”
“Hey! There’s Taraneh Alidoosti, I love her!”
And then there was: “Oh, wait a sec, I think that was the haunting chick in Half Moon!” (Golshifteh Farahani, for those of you paying attention.) Farahani has since been banned from working in Iranian cinema, due to appearing in Ridley Scott’s Body of Lies (she is the first Iranian actress to work in Hollywood), and also banned from leaving the country. She has since fled, and now lives in Paris. She appears near the end of Bahman Ghobadi’s Half Moon, an angel walking out of the snow (post about that movie here), and here, at the time of filming Shirin, she was obviously still in Iran. There is only one close-up of her in the film, Kiarostami holds off on showing her until the end, and in that moment of seeing her, strangely I felt like I was encountering an old friend.
There was Hamideh Kheirabadi, born in 1924, with a long career in television, who passed away this year causing much public mourning. Kiarostami ends the film with a close-up of her.
And then there she was, my favorite, Hedye Tehrani.
The whole movie I kept thinking, “Hey there! I know you!” This was deliberate. Movies foster a sense of intimacy with those flickering up there on the screen. Mistaken or no, it is a primal thing that happens between an audience and a star, and Kiarostami was right to populate his fictional movie theatre with the stars of Iran, and not amateur actresses. His point, then, would have been lost.
So there is that celebration of tradition that Kiarostami could have been going for, in keeping with the story of Khorsaw and Shirin, the movie these women are watching. But there are other elements. Women are political. You can’t get away from it. (By the way, happy birthday, 19th Amendment.) This is not to say that men are not political, of course they are, but often the battlegrounds of progress are the bodies of women, the mere embarrassing FACT of women. Women are on the frontlines in Iran. It is difficult to separate women from their status in these countries. Here, though, Kiarostami does. They are audience members: a universal experience, understood in the world, by men and women alike. A woman watching a movie is no more political than a man watching a movie, but … and here’s the thing … it is what we project onto it that makes the movie. I cannot believe that this is accidental. Kiarostami knows his movies have an audience world-wide, outside of Iran. He knows what we may be thinking. He doesn’t present anything, but there are clues, hints at a deeper level. For example, during one close-up of one woman, we can see a woman sitting behind her, also watching the film. She has a bandage on her nose, and a black eye. I had enough time during the close-up to notice it and think about it. I wondered if she had had a nose job. But I also wondered at the abuse she may have endured. We never see that woman again. She never gets her own close-up, and we never see the woman in front of her again. Both of them appear only once in the film. It was enough to start questions and thoughts snowballing in my mind. I made up my own narrative.
To be an audience member, a good audience member, requires a certain level of passivity. One must be in the position to receive. Clearly, there is a corollary there with women, if you want to get biological about it, and you kind of have to, when you are talking about women. Whatever the bigotry may be, and it is cross-cultural, I think a lot of it has to do with a contempt for the receptive nature of women’s bodies, how we are made. This is insane, naturally, because we are as we are made, and thank God for it, and all of that, but the mystery of the female, and the hatred of mystery, runs deep. Part of the magic of going to a movie is that we, as audience members, get to be voyeurs. We get to sit back and watch. We can think whatever we want to think about the actor or actress up on the screen. Our fantasies are our business. It is powerful stuff. The vicious nature of the hatred of celebrities, I think, comes in part, from an anger at being forced into a submissive position by them. The celebrities are impervious. They are up there, we are down here. They do not care about us. They are “above”. Naturally, they aren’t, they are just people who have a skill, and this is their career … but on an unconscious level, people don’t like to be submissive. They lash out at the object of their desire, and cackle with glee when a celebrity has been “brought down”. I don’t think I’m reading too much into this. Women are the objects of desire. Myths, legends, creation stories … all circle around the female, and “what to do” with the problem of the female. In the land of the movies, Women are the Goddesses. No, they are Gods. So here, Kiarostami observes women who already are in that profession, women who already know they are objects of desire, women who are used to being the center of attention … and he puts them in the role of the audience. The roles are reversed. And what we see, in face after face, is the same thing you would probably see on any face, male or female, going to see a movie. At first, resistance, then submission. The story has taken over. The narrative insists upon it.
Being receptive is the quality most desired, in life, and in participation in a game of any kind. The first rule of improv games is to always say “Yes, and …” Agree to the situation being set up (meaning: If someone opens a scene by saying to you, “Good afternoon, Doctor”, you go with it, and don’t say, “What are you talking about? I’m not a Doctor.”) and then add to it. Those who cannot master that rule are terrible at improv, and believe me, I have seen a ton of improv. Those who stalk in and try to dominate, who always say “No” to the suggestions of others, are doomed to failure, and also doomed to bring up resentment in the audience. But those who fearlessly say, “Yes, and ….” soar. To speak in gender stereotypes is always vaguely annoying to me, but I think it’s relevant to what is going on in Shirin, which is about our dreams and projections. People come to stories with biases and opinions. That’s the way of the world. The receptive nature of women’s bodies are held against them (to speak in broad generalizations), and is one of the reasons why people talk about rape being a crime of power, not sex. As in: How dare women have an entryway into them that they deny me? The mere mystery of it has driven entire cultures insane. Not to mention the fact that that very same entryway is where life emerges. This must not stand. She must not be allowed to think that she OWNS that. There are certainly gradations in all of this, and I’m not big on catchy slogans. However, it appears to be relevant here. The concept of receptivity kept coming up for me, as I watched Shirin unfold, as I watched all of the different responses flickering across the women’s faces. Being receptive is a beautiful thing, but it is also a threatening thing, especially if you have been around the block one or two times (as some of these women obviously have). This is not to say that men cannot be receptive, or open … but when we’re talking about movies, we’re talking about myths and archetypes. And when we’re talking about Shirin, we’re talking about how we, as an audience, interpret what we see, how we look for “the sermon in the suicide”. What would life be like if more people were receptive? The passivity of being an audience member is often used as a criticism against such activities as video games and TV, in a way that becomes incredibly tiresome. I watched a fair amount of TV as a kid (although there wasn’t a lot of choices back in those dark ages), and I honestly don’t feel like my intellect has been blunted in any way, shape or form. And my love, my undying love, for being receptive to other stories started back then. I LIVED the Ballet Shoes on Masterpiece Theatre. I LIVED Sounder, and What’s Up Doc and The Sting (movies I specifically remember being allowed to stay up late to watch). It felt no different from falling in to the narrative of Harriet the Spy or Anne of Green Gables or any of the other books I loved as a kid. My relationships with these works of art changed the course of my life. Totally. It helped show me who I was. It was not imposed on me from above, the response was deeper than that. I recognized myself in Petrova in Ballet Shoes and I recognized myself in Harriet the Spy. “Oh, yes. There I am. That’s me.”
Movies and books can still do this, and I am so pleased that I have not outgrown my ability to be surprised, moved, changed by a work of art. It is different now, though. And Shirin, without ever saying so, appears to be about that as well. Life experience is not always good. It does not always elevate us. The next person who says to me, “That which does not kill you makes you stronger” is going to be punched in the gums. People say that as though it is true, as opposed to an opinion. I am more in line with Somerset Maugham who wrote:
It is not true that suffering ennobles the character; happiness does that sometimes, but suffering for the most part makes men petty and vindictive.
The fictional movie Shirin tells a story of being wrecked, by love, by war, by missed connections. It is a story of everlasting against-the-odds love, but also of deep compromise. It’s melodramatic. Women moan in agony, and men bluster in action. The women in the movie theatre that we see are modern women. They have jobs, they walk outside into the streets of Tehran and get on a bus, they have cell phones, they IM with their friends. But this archetypal story, taking place almost a thousand years ago, reaches out of the darkness and pulls them in.
My favorite parts of these close-ups is when it is obvious that the woman in question is thinking about something personal. She “goes off” into her own head, the action on the screen has called up something that has happened to her, and she takes a moment – a flickering downward of the eyes, a rearranging of the head scarf, or biting of the nails – to think about her own life. These moments are when the movie really started kicking in for me.
A radical way to tell a story, yes. But what started happening for me is, effortlessly, without even trying to do it, I started entering into the story. Not the story being told up on the fictional screen, the story of the Persian poem, but the stories in the faces of the audience. There were times when I found myself in tears. I had no idea why. There is no “acting” here. These women, actresses, all of them, used to having to “play” things, are not playing anything here. They sit back. They watch. They fidget. They try to get themselves together. They brush away tears. They giggle to themselves. They are rapt. Attentive. Receptive.
By the end of the fictional film, when “Shirin”, the lead character, is talking to her female entourage, and she says, “Sisters, you all understand. You will remember my story, and pass it on …” it is as though she speaks directly to all of the women out there in the darkness, centuries and centuries later. A collective. Not a dry eye in the house, as you can imagine, but the fascinating thing about watching someone watching, is that it means 100 different things. I was making up stories the entire time. This woman was recently widowed. This woman has not yet found a mate. This woman has decided against marriage, but it is a bitter decision for her. This woman has lost a brother to war. This woman loved a man once, and has never loved again. And on and on. What started happening is that yes, I was watching a movie, (or: watching a movie of people watching a movie) – but what was really going on was that a movie was playing in my own head, at the back of my eyes, a movie directed and written by me. I was receptive, but not passive. True receptivity is the opposite of passive.
Now here’s another extraordinary level: I watched a documentary about the making of Shirin. Here is what I assumed: The fictional movie was clearly in Kiarostami’s mind the whole time. He knew what they would be watching. They had a script for the fictional movie and cast the actors who would be playing the voices of Shirin, etc. I had assumed that that part was done first, so that he would then play the audio recording for the actresses playing audience members.
But that is not how it was done. He filmed it in a small room, with only four blue chairs lined up. He filmed it in pieces, having one or two actresses come it at a time. The illusion, of course, is that it is a filled movie theatre, when in actuality it is four chairs. And instead of having them respond to anything literal (ie: “Here is the part where Shirin discovers her beloved Aunt the Queen is dying … react to that” or “Now we have a huge battle scene – so just react as you would if you were watching such a movie …”), he said to them specifically: “I want you to play over, in your mind, your favorite movie of all time. This is your movie.” He placed at the eye-level he wanted them to look a small piece of cardboard with two figures on it, one on one side, one on the other. He would talk to the actresses as he was filming, “Okay, look at the man over here … don’t move your head, just your eyes …. now follow the dotted line and look at this figure over here …” The illusion, of course, is that they are watching action occurring up on the screen. To create the illusion of flickering light, Kiarostami had a crew member stand next to the camera holding up a giant piece of cardboard, with pieces cut out of it, in the shapes of crescents, half-circles, stars, so that when it floated over the giant light, it created a wavering flicker, nothing too specific – just light surging forward and then surging back. But the revelation for me was that all of these actresses were actually doing what the film was actually talking about: playing out their own dreams and fantasies and memories in their own minds, remembering, oh, Casablanca, and reeling it out in front of their own eyes. The imaginative illusion is that they are all watching the same movie, in real time, before our eyes. But what each individual was doing was getting lost in her own memories, and Kiarostami was recording it. He knew exactly what he wanted. He would coach each actress, as the camera was rolling: “Raise your chin up a bit… smile with your eyes, not the lips, that’s not good …” until he got the effect he wanted. He must have had mounds of footage to then put together with the audio recording of the movie. Extraordinary. These actresses seemed even more accessible once I knew that they were basically acting with their own imaginations and fantasies, and allowing us in to their private worlds. What were they thinking about?
One old woman, as she was getting her makeup put on, joked, “Nothing will help with under the eyes,” and Kiarostami replied, “If you get to your age, and you don’t have lines, you should be worried. You haven’t lived.” That’s what his camera is attempting to capture. Life. Lived by women who, in the illusion, do not know that they are being watched. They are entirely unselfconcsious. They are not acting. It is the opposite. They are watching. Yet – tricky tricky – of course what they are doing is acting. It all can be rather dizzying, and maybe too clever by half, but I think that’s part of its effectiveness. It’s a meditation.
Then, in the documentary, we saw Kiarostami putting together the soundtrack of the movie all the women were watching. Actors huddled in a recording booth, and went to town. I was amazed to see them in the flesh, yet another reminder of how effective the film was: I had a Shirin in my mind. I knew exactly what she looked like, and it certainly wasn’t the plump woman wearing glasses and a chador. But she was phenomenal. Acting for voiceover is different. You are deprived the use of your body and gestures. It all has to be in the voice. Then we see Kiarostami working with the the sound designer, drawing diagrams of the Persian castle he pictured in the film: “So these two are talking over here … but down this big hallway we can hear the party …” The sounds chosen by the sound designer give the unseen film a sense of place and depth, with echoes and gradations, so that you can see where the characters are in relation to one another. An amazing undertaking, and when it was all put together, I would swear on my life that each face I was looking at was actually watching the scene being projected up on the unseen screen. Never once did I suspect.
Kiarostami wanted to meditate on what films mean. This is a common theme of his. Here, he engages his actresses to be participants in that process, encouraging them to “go off” in their minds, telling their own stories to themselves. They are obviously well-known stories, as all the stories of our own lives are.
But that is what we do in the darkness of the movie theatre. We all do it.
We tell ourselves stories in order to live.