Abbas Kiarostami would seem to make films that suggest philosophical enquiry. But, in his fine book, Matthew Abbott makes clear that the philosophical content of the director’s work does not mean this is where the philosophy will be found. There might be philosophical exchanges in the his films (none more so than the conversation between the taxidermist and the central character in Tam-e Gilas [The Taste of Cherry, 1997]) but it will be in the coming of various cinematic components together that the director’s film-philosophy will be practised. “This is not to deny the importance of narrative and character; nor is it to ignore the political and cultural contexts of films. It is simply to say that these are not the domains in which the medium-specific philosophical propensity of film does its work.” (p. 13)
The question then happens to be where does it do its work, and is this a question of key filmmakers capable of philosophical inquiry, or is it the nature of the medium itself? This is partly perhaps the divide between Deleuze (who is hardly mentioned) and Stanley Cavell (who is very present throughout the text). While Deleuze’s film books predicate themselves on a notion of authorship which leads the French philosopher to say “it is not sufficient to compare the great directors of the cinema with painters, architects or even musicians. They must also be compared with thinkers.”1 Cavell’s interest was always less auteurist and more genre based: a point Abbott brings out when he discusses the remarriage comedies and compares Cavell’s approach to grouping the films together to an aspect of Wittgensteinian thinking. “As Cavell acknowledges, here he seems quite close to Wittgenstein, who wanted to show that our taking something as a certain kind of thing – our knowing what a particular thing is – is not always contingent on our knowing the necessary and sufficient conditions of that thing’s betokening its type.” (p. 110) It is not so much that there is a clear genre called the remarriage comedy; rather, there are a group of films that have enough in common for Cavell to meditate intelligently upon them. It is partly why Cavell, in a remark quoted by Abbott in the footnotes, asks what we might try to replace formal argumentation with when we give it up: “The obvious answer for me is that it must lie in the writing itself…the sense that nothing other than this prose here, passing before our eyes, can carry conviction, is one of the thoughts that drive the shape of what I do.” (p. 125)
Thus while Deleuze finds the philosophical in examining what he sees as the great filmmakers and notices blocks of sound and image that can be called the Hitchcockian, the Antonionian, the Herzogian and so on, giving richer, denser texture to the question of auteurism grounded in philosophical enquiry, Cavell is more inclined to riff on various thematic preoccupations, bringing out problems that cinema addresses without always feeling so obliged to claim greatness for them. Sure, in Pursuits of Happiness he compares the comedies of remarriage to Shakespeare’s comedies as he tries to justify why they are worthy of the philosophical analysis they receive. But Cavell’s insights, while often brilliant, always feel much less grounded and much more speculative than Deleuze’s. There is less of a system. Yet it is to Cavell that Abbott turns, not least because the central question in the book is the one which Cavell and numerous other, often analytic philosophers, have been drawn to: the question of scepticism. Looking at Kiarostami’s later work – Bād mā rā khāhad bord (The Wind Will Carry Us, 1999), ABC Africa (2001), Ten (2002), Five (2003), Shirin (2008), Copie Conforme (Certified Copy, 2010) and Raiku samuwan in rabu (Like Someone in Love, 2012) – Abbott sees in the Iranian director’s films an ongoing relationship with, and tentative resolution of, the problems of scepticism both as a question of being, and a question of cinema. Thus Abbott says, when thinking about modernist films, and Kiarostami’s work in particular: “sometimes questions arise regarding the propositional status of what happens on screen. This is typical of modernist films, which employ a range of techniques to get us questioning what we see, sometimes by provoking you into medium awareness.” (p. 144)
This is usefully explored when Abbott addresses the difference between reality TV and Kiarostami’s films. What separates Namy-e Nazdik (Close-Up, 1990) or Ten from television shows like Benefits Street and Big Brother? Pretty much everything is the obvious answer, but what would the subtle one sound like? Perhaps it rests partly on noticing that there is a reversing of the premise upon which a film or show is made. Whereas the reality shown by television claims it is real, Kiarostami offers the fictional. Both use non-professionals, exploring the nature of real lives, eschewing many of the tenets of fiction filmmaking. But the former, surely, claims a reality that hides its artifice, while Kiarostami shows the artifice while exploring reality. This is where Abbott usefully works with, and is happy to complicate and contradict, Noel Carroll’s notion distinguishing fiction from documentary. “For Carroll what distinguishes films is how documentary filmmakers intend their films to be received by audiences…” (p. 70) In fiction films we do not really believe that in Jaws (1975) what is happening on screen is really happening, we adopt “what Carroll calls a ‘fictive stance’ toward the propositional content of the film. When we watch documentary, by contrast, we are asked to ‘entertain as asserted the propositional content of the text’: we are asked not to imagine the content of the film but to believe it.” (p. 70)
One reason why we might find reality TV such a debased form rests on its assertion as truth while utilising the devices of fiction. “If fictional films ask us to suppose that something is the case, and documentary film asks us to believe that something is the case, then we might give a general characterisation of reality television by saying that it wants to get us believing in suppositions.” (p. 70) Abbott adds, “The content of the images and sequences it presents is not strictly believable, because they are shot through with the contrivances of fiction, as producers work to extract drama from their sources and personality from their subjects.” (p. 70) This leads not to an exploration of human life but to a travesty of it. The shows ask us to believe in the “real” people it shows, and then exaggerates various characteristics to keep the viewer hooked. Such programmes can have strong political implications while caring little for the epistemological questions of truth, whether producing a president who mimics lines from the show that made him hugely famous, or social policy that allows for cutbacks in social welfare, from The Apprentice to the aforementioned Benefits Street. They blur the line between fact and fiction while refusing to make the process conscious. Kiarostami, however, will usually predicate his work on the fictional (as in Close-Up and Ten), and then see how much he can complicate the notions of fiction and of fact. As Abbot notes in Close-Up, Kiarostami not only filmed the trial of someone who impersonated fellow Iranian filmmaker Mohsen Makhmalbaf, he also re-enacted the court room scene and dramatised the events before the trial, with the film becoming a knotty enquiry into the realm between fact and fiction, impersonating and being, art and life. In Ten, Kiarostami talked of making a film without a filmmaker, using long takes culled from tiny cameras on the dashboard. As J. Hoberman noted: “Thus, one of the few filmmakers since Andy Warhol to rethink the nature of onscreen acting, Kiarostami has called Ten a movie made without a director.”2
With reality television we are asked – despite the immense manipulation in the use of music, voice-over and editing – to believe what is front of our eyes. Kiarostami, by contrast, wonders what the camera reveals to us and what subjects reveal about themselves, just as we might wonder what is made-up and what is real.
This is the sort of philosophical perspective that Abbott seeks to find in the director, as he addresses the problem of scepticism. We might believe that reality TV does not address the question at all: leaving the viewer to choose between the gullible and the cynical. Kiarostami instead leaves us in a state that is quizzical and perplexed – as if thought and feeling are acknowledged and felt, yet kept in abeyance. Jean Luc Nancy puts it nicely in his essay on And Life Goes On when he comments “that certainly the image is not life. It is even, if necessary, shamelessly deceptive.”3 Is reality TV shamefully deceptive, hiding its artifice and leaving the viewer to choose between the gullible and the cynical, exacerbating the problem of scepticism rather than alleviating it? Working with Wittgenstein, Cavell and others, Abbott discerns that, while on the philosophical level certain ideas about truth are impossible to verify and thus lead to scepticism, at the same time such scepticism can seem absurd from another, more intuitive perspective. Here he quotes Wittgenstein: “But can’t I imagine that the people around me are automata, lack consciousness, even though they behave the same way as usual…[and yet] say to yourself, for example: ‘The children over there are mere automata; all their liveliness is mere automatism.’ (p.5) And you will either find these words becoming quite meaningless, or you will produce in yourself some kind of uncanny feeling.” That uncanny feeling might be the intuition we have just invoked and that most reality TV all but ignores and that Kiarostami’s films amplify.
In his essay on And Life Goes On, Nancy speaks of “life that invents its own cinema. What a strange story, this story of a civilization that has made this gift to itself.”[Ibid., p87] But how many films have been true to this gift? Nancy mentions exhibitionism, voyeurism, money, power and other forces that bury the cinematically possible. Now, we find ourselves arriving at the televisual lowest common denominator: the reality TV show which is all about exhibitionism and voyeurism. It is as though rather than creating the uncanny empathy Wittgenstein proposes (one that suggests that at the moment we think of others as automata a counter-feeling obviates it), we have instead Schadenfreude: people who are like us just enough to allow ourselves to feel superior to their stupidities, errors and misfortunes. The philosophical questions seem very far away. Not so much there but for the grace of God go I, but more thank God I am not as dumb and crass as the people in front of the camera. Kiarostami’s films give people a paradoxical everyday grace; many reality TV programmes generate a sense of disgrace in us. With such shows we do not suspend disbelief. Instead we unleash societal prejudice.
Out of Kiarostami’s non-prejudicial approach to the image comes the philosophical possibilities for film. This is not because the director tells human stories, but because he finds the means by which to frame the story of being human. Whether it is filming a long shot where we might expect a close-up, withholding a face so that we enquire into what that face might look like, expecting us to scan a frame looking for signs of meaning, or using the dark to generate mystery around a person’s being, Kiarostami finds the formal means to give presence to someone’s existence by allowing them to exist within a broader world than their own immediate bodily space. We can think of the scene with the taxidermist in The Taste of Cherry, with the Range Rover filmed in long shot as we wait to see who happens to be sitting in the passenger seat while we hear this voice conversing with the central character. In Ten we have a variation of it as we focus on a young boy talking to his mother whom we hear off frame, before the film cuts to a striking woman in sunglasses and wearing a headscarf. In The Wind Will Carry Us we have the woman milking a cow in the gloom underground. At the end of Zīr-e Derakhtān-e Zeytūn (Through the Olive Trees, 1994), the young man chases after the woman with whom he has fallen in love and we watch to see if his request to marry her has been met while they are little more than specks on the screen. Again, in The Taste of Cherry, we watch the central character in his house with the camera remaining at a distance from the window as he moves around, a semi-silhouette. Most of these are examples given in Abbott’s book. He gives various interpretations to how they are utilised in Kiarostami’s films, but what matters most is what makes them philosophical: how do they work with the problem of scepticism, the question of ontology, the issues of epistemology? They do so not by solving philosophical problems but by assuaging them, a very Cavellian position that permeates this book, by perhaps generating doubt without creating anxiety. As Abbott says regarding the issue of scepticism. “if the sceptic is right to point out I do not really know if the world exists outside of me, or if others exist, or if my words mean what I take them to, then this lack of surety forms the condition of the possibility of my being surprised by it in the first place (and by others, and by myself).” (p. 40) This is not the solution to the sceptical problems characteristic of modernity, then, but another way of responding to them. Here he talks about philosophy as the “education of grown-ups” in Cavell’s phrase, and is there anything more grown up than accepting the limits of our knowledge and the perspectivism of our beliefs?
Here, and in conclusion, we can talk briefly about that scene in The Wind Will Carry Us with the woman milking the cow, and the central character (apparently in the region to make a film) who tries to persuade her to show herself in the light. For some critics, this has provoked harsh commentary. Hamid Dabashi says the scene is a “brutally accurate picture of dehumanization” and “one of the most violent rape scenes in all of cinema,” while Azadeh Farahmand sees the film itself as “a tourist/reporter peeping into holes and caves while awaiting a woman’s death” (p. 39). Abbott feels the responses here are too categorical, as if “they are judging the film its protagonist is trying to make” (p. 39) and thus ignoring the philosophical perspectivism that Kiarostami usually seeks, where judgements can not easily be made because the nature of the problem is formally complex. Kiarostami does not make films that call attention to themselves as a gesture towards post-modernism, he makes films that call attention to the form partly so that we cannot fall into the world shown as if it is real, even if we must believe enough in the world filmed to address the affects it produces. This is partly why Abbott can call his final chapter “The Suspension of Belief”. While we may suspend our disbelief to absorb a fiction, we can also usefully suspend belief to allow the reflective space to find our own thoughts within the work. We can, of course, do this with any film – this is partly why any film can serve philosophical aims if we so desire it. And yet, few filmmakers seem to invite us to meditate upon the images we see as much as Kiarostami does, thereby offering the opportunity for the sceptical oscillations Abbott invokes, this need to believe and not believe in the image at the same time, to retain a critical distance that nevertheless need not deny affect. This is why Fergus Daly can say that Sabzian “in Close-Up can be both himself and Makhmalbaf, Hossein in Through the Olive Trees can both persuade and fail to persuade Taherah to marry her.” As Daly adds, “Kiarostami has talked of his taste for this kind of inclusive disjunction when discussing a play he once saw: ‘the lion who was played by a very old man wearing a lion skin became tired – and went to lie down in the shade of a boulder. He began to smoke a cigarette. A smoking lion. I didn’t see anyone laugh at this. He could be the lion and not be the lion’.”4 There is a healthy scepticism here, but at the same time, a healthy wish to believe within that sceptical acceptance.
Matthew Abbott, Abbas Kiarostami and Film-Philosophy (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2016)
- Gilles Deleuze, Cinema 2: The Movement Image, trans. Hugh Tomlinson and Robert Galeta (London: Athlone, 1997) pp. X. ↩
- J. Hoberman, Film After Film (London: Verso, 2012), pp. 212-213. ↩
- Jean-Luc Nancy, “On Evidence: Life and Nothing More, by Abbas Kiarostami”, Discourse 21:1 (Winter 1999), p82 ↩
- Fergus Daly, “The Mirror of Possible Worlds”, Film West 32, pp. 34-37. ↩