Feature image: Five (dir. Abbas Kiarostami, 2004)
I saw Abbas Kiarostami’s 10 on Ten (2004) seven days after watching his Five (2004). I thought of the moral effect such a titling has: its anti-sentimentality. Can numbers be moral – not amoral? Mathematicians and their feelings aside, Sesame Street shows us numbers can be warm and fun; Melbourne poet TTO that they can provoke humour and thought outside the numerical realm. Jasper Johns offers numbers as content, yet what could be more allusive? In this year’s Melbourne International Film Festival alone there were five features with “five” in the title: Five, At Five in the Afternoon (Samira Makhmalbaf, 2003), The Five Obstructions (Lars von Trier and Jørgen Leth, 2003), Five Sides of a Coin (Paul Kell, 2003) and The Five Venoms (Chang Cheh, 1978). At Five in the Afternoon alludes to the Federico Garcia Lorca poem “Llanto Por Ignacio Sanchez Mejias” (“Lament For Ignacio Sanchez Mejias”) that two of the characters read from in the course of the film. Numbered album titles (Led Zeppelin I–IV, Pretenders II, Blur’s 13) suggest modesty/integrity/laziness/lack of imagination/an attempt to focus attention on the band or the work. Numbers that function to indicate sequels emphasise marketing and a desire to not confuse an audience.
Kiarostami’s films function in opposition to these kinds of strategies – and to films like Seven (David Fincher, 1995), an ostensibly moral work, but which in its production values, logic and hypocrisy is offensive on several levels. The titles of Ten (Kiarostami, 2002), 10 on Ten and Five refer to a structural element – the number of takes in Ten and Five, the number of lessons or lectures in 10 on Ten, Ten and Five point to what all films are – a series of takes – and asks the question: is it possible that films that use thousands of takes use too many? It suggests asceticism and DIY; it deprivileges editing. Ten lessons – Kiarostami explicitly says they’re not commandments (though to Christian film disciples he may seem like Moses in the desert): a purely didactic mode – the tone though is thoughtful; the film a sharing of experience, a moral example.
The use of the number five in a title may remind Australian poetry readers of Kenneth Slessor’s (1901–71) “Five Visions of Captain Cook” and “Five Bells”. These are also structural titles, and incorporate a sense of time into the poems; time is an implicit element of any film, though Kiarostami’s long numbered takes emphasise it more than most. The use of numbering in both Kiorastami’s films and Slessor’s poems functions as an ordering device. If we read this as the modernist practice of order against chaos, then we read chaos as being for Kiarostami the world, but more specifically the world of film, especially Hollywood: he attempts to re-assert the control of the auteur over the film; and for Slessor, the chaos of (the material relating to) Cook’s life; and the chaos of his thoughts regarding Joe Lynch, the subject of “Five Bells”.
Five is also five visions and, like Slessor’s poems, obsessed with water. “Five Visions of Captain Cook”, the poem, is five perspectives on Captain Cook, not of. Different points of view, for which Slessor uses five styles or voices. Five doesn’t really have a point of view, it suggests the takes could be anyone’s point of view if they happened to be in those spots with a camera.
In “Five Bells”, five (six?) visions of Joe Lynch told in one voice: Slessor uses the interruption of the bells to emphasise both the timelessness of time, and the briefness of human life. In The Five Obstructions, Lars von Trier uses Jørgen Leth’s 13 minute film The Perfect Human (Det Perfekte menneske) (1967) as a pretext: instructing Leth to remake the film five times according to a kind of micro, meta or jukebox Dogme: observing a limited number of limitations imposed by von Trier, the (Im)Perfect Director. While Slessor interrupts the poem with the phrase “Five bells”, which stands in for the sound of five bells, and this achieves a distancing effect, a check on memory or feeling, the poem proper remains the poem (or poems). There is no film proper in The Five Obstructions: it is made of three different threads: quotes from the original film; the film of von Trier and Leth’s meetings; and the obstructed new films that Leth makes. Von Trier negates the idea of a perfect film; he is not so much concerned with the human within the film, but the effects of obstructions on the human (i.e. Leth) making the film. The humans in the new films seem less perfect because they are contemporary and are contrasted with the black and white style of Leth’s original. This approach negates the director as one who knows what he’s doing, however perfect The Perfect Human, and ironically/naturally posits von Trier as an imperfect film god or meta-director. Slessor became a perfect poet by ceasing to write poetry, and unfortunately no von Trier of Australian literature came along to shake him up (down), though possibly Joe Lynch (perfect only in his being dead) the anarchist who wanted to “blow… up the world” was Slessor’s von Trier. Is von Trier closer to Slessor or Norman Lindsay?
Five for fighting: in both the films and the poems, five is a satisfying number. I think any lesser number would feel arbitrary, selective, inadequate; more would be overkill. Kiarostami and von Trier are both attempting to bring the film back to the poetic, to something which requires our senses to be alive to sound and vision; to reconnect with the soul (Kiarostami) or brain (von Trier), and move beyond the black and white of sensation and sentiment, something Slessor arguably tried to do in ’20s and ’30s Australia.