Waking up in CLOSE-UP

|Jesse Lawson|

For those of us caught slumbering in the cinema, Abbas Kiarostami once offered a vindication. Interviewed at the Cannes Film Festival in 1997, he expressed his distaste for those films that “hold viewers hostage” or attempt to “disturb” them. “I prefer the films that put the audience to sleep in the theater,” he explained. “Some films have made me doze off in the theater, but the same films have made me stay up at night, wake up thinking about them in the morning, and keep on thinking about them for weeks.” Hearing this backhanded confession from a major filmmaker, we sigh with relief, at last free to stop pinching ourselves and get on with our dreams in the movie theater. With Kiarostami’s imprimatur, the moral rights of the cinema sleeper have been asserted.

You might object: the film-viewing experience itself is key and one must be awake for it. To those of Kiarostami’s persuasion you might bid “sweet dreams, and lots of thoughts.” But for serious cinephiles, you say, sleep is contraindicated. You do not go to the movies to have a nice nap, even if, you reluctantly admit, sleep sometimes befalls you. You go to engage—whether with art or entertainment, visceral thrills or formalist provocations—but above all, with the whole film. If you find yourself drifting, you must march through the film, like Jack Lemmon marching Shirley MacLaine through the night after her sleeping pill overdose in The Apartment. Not to experience the film as completely as possible is a kind of film discourse death: if you didn’t really see the movie, you must restrain yourself from commenting on it. Otherwise, you are an imposter cinephile.

A film about imposture and cinema, Close-Up concerns Sabzian, a marginally employed printer who is a devoted film enthusiast. While riding a bus, a bourgeois woman asks him about his copy of a screenplay for Mohsen Makhmalbaf’s film The Cyclist. Sabzian claims to be Makhmalbaf, offering her the screenplay and his signature. Ingratiating himself into her family, the Anankhahs, he becomes so invested in the role that he persuades their young adult son to start rehearsing for a film. However, the family eventually catches on to the ruse, and Sabzian is arrested and tried for attempted fraud. The film “documents” his trial and ultimate release, while re-staging antecedent events using the actual participants. In this strikingly reflexive film, not only do real events provide the basis for the narrative’s unfolding, but the narrative’s unfolding becomes the basis of real events. Close-Up’s interplay of fiction and documentary modes may indeed inspire reflections on the social meanings of cinema, its aspirational pull, its ability to convey some kind of truth.

During the trial, Sabzian attempts to justify his deceit as the expression of an artistic and spiritual quest. While the Anankhah family suspect him of trying to burgle them, he insists that this was not his intention, that he was driven by playing the role of the filmmaker. Even though this role was difficult, he explains, he would make himself go out and be Makhmalbaf and work on his “film” with the Anankhahs. He did so because it brought him respect, where no one respects him in his daily life as Sabzian, where he might miss meals or fail to provide for his child. Furthermore, he idolizes the cinema, going again and again to see Makhmalbaf’s The Cyclist—a film that seems to speak of his own suffering. While they enjoy clear privileges, the adult Anankhah children have comparable aspirations: they would like to be artists, and they share Sabzian’s love of cinema; they studied to be engineers, but neither finds work even in this seemingly more open field. We can surmise that, as long as they believe Sabzian is Makhmalbaf, they too are excited at the prospect of making the film.

Sabzian insists that while he knows his performance as Makhmalbaf appears as fraud from the outside, it was not meant that way inside: he did it for the film he imagined making. But he also did it for respect, which is social. He is committed to an idea of the spiritual value of film as art, but he can only pull off his imitation as long as other people commit as well. The Anankhahs offer conflicting accounts of when the Anankhahs begin to suspect Sabzian. One clue is a photograph of Makhmalbaf in a book the family has, and another is when Sabzian seems unaware of an award Makhmalbaf has just received. Real images and real prestige are instrumental in his undoing. Sabzian performs Makhmalbaf until he no longer can, when circumstances become too much.

In the cinema (and hardly just there) sleep may find us out. For all our intention of attention, we are suddenly unprepared and inadequate, not quite what we hope or wish we could be. While my own cinephilia has never approached the two-films-a-day-minimum of some of my peers, there was a time when I was eagerly seeking out titles on Jonathan Rosenbaum’s list of a thousand essential films and planning a four-day excursion to New York (eight hours away) basically to see films: a ‘50s 3D retrospective at the Film Forum, lesser-known ‘70s exploitation fare like The Town That Dreaded Sundown at Anthology Film Archives, A Man Escaped at Brooklyn Academy of Music. By my standards, I was gobbling movie experiences carnivorously. But a year later, when I enrolled in a graduate program where film study had particular purchase, I couldn’t seem to stay awake through an entire feature. It didn’t matter if it was a Fassbinder miniseries epic (World on Wire, the first film I attended at a packed Trylon Microcinema), a Billy Wilder classic (Sunset Blvd.), or the latest Errol Morris documentary (Tabloid); inevitably, I succumbed, waking at some point before the credits rolled and then getting back on my bike to fight my way home. I raged at my inability to attend, to think, to even enjoy; like many graduate students, like so many people who are alone, I felt myself an imposter.

Among other things, Close-Up can be read as a redemption story, as Sabzian emphasizes his suffering serving as the basis for a work of art. Redemption stories are ethically complicated, because redemption has to come from a source with power; Sabzian’s redemption can’t happen until he admits he’s “only Sabzian,” and confesses what this means at some length. In watching this confession unfold, one feels that however eccentric his notions of art, they merit forgiveness, indeed in part because they express a utopian ideal: the union of art and everyday life. Kiarostami (who reportedly scripted Sabzian’s confession, albeit based on the latter’s remarks) seems to miraculously produce this union, and this forgiveness… within the production of a work of art. Whether this is finally a commentary on the superlative power of art or a damning comment on the inadequacy of lived experience and the role art plays in it is an open question.

I will confess: on my most recent viewing of Close-Up, I did fall asleep. The following morning, I ran it back to watch what I had missed. It turned out I had slept through what is perhaps this gentle film’s most discomfiting scene, which chronologically precedes Sabzian’s arrest. He sits in the Anankhahs’ handsome living room, not eating a meal that Mrs. Anankhah has prepared for him. Mr. Anankhah and Sabzian dialogue about truth and inner nature, leaving us wondering if Sabzian senses Anankhah’s sarcastic subtext. Sabzian expresses his puzzlement and disappointment at the family’s younger son, Mehrdad, who shows so little enthusiasm for rehearsal after earlier seeming so invested. Tightly framed between sofa and coffee table, Sabzian looks profoundly out of place, Mehrdad’s white jacket on his sloped shoulders seemingly giving him away. Meanwhile, the family patriarch (who explains elsewhere in the film that he let Sabzian keep pretending “as a lesson to my children”) smiles on and shrugs—“what can I do?”—with benign condescension. This is the only scene where we witness Sabzian in the family home, and, watching it, it’s hard to believe he pulled off the imposture in the first place. It is strange to watch this chilly “fiction” scene after the truth-telling generosity of the courtroom “documentary”—the latter an aspirational success in public space and in 16mm, the former a humiliating failure in private and in 35mm. Somehow in my slumber, I had missed the scene that seemed most to take Sabzian hostage; but now, it is the scene I am most thinking about.

Close-Up screens at the Trylon on 35mm from Sunday, January 19 to Tuesday, January 21. Learn more and buy tickets here.

Edited by Ben Savard.

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