Life Is Sweet.
Iranian film captures essence of existence.
By Jim Ridley and Noel Murray
JUNE 8, 1998: The wonderful Iranian movie Taste of Cherry, directed by Abbas Kiarostami, is suspenseful in a humane, unforced way that's unlike anything else I've ever seen. For maximum effect, you should see it knowing as little about it as possible, which is why I'd recommend skipping this review until after you've seen it. Viewed without warning or explanation, it offers a quiet rebuke to the idea that cinema (and drama, and life) is nothing less--or more--than wall-to-wall incident and action.
For the first 20 minutes, we follow a middle-aged man, Mr. Badii, as he drives through the outskirts of Teheran. He's played by Homayoun Ershadi, a nonactor whose doleful face Kiarostami spotted in traffic. The director tells us nothing about him, not even where he's going; the credits don't even appear until 10 minutes into the movie. In his white Range Rover, Mr. Badii just pulls up alongside various strangers--some laborers, a kid at a telephone booth. Is he some kind of predator? Some kind of pervert? The director remains silent.
Mr. Badii picks up passengers, first a young Kurdish soldier, then a seminary student. They talk, but they're not shown together: The movie cuts from one face to the other, as if they weren't even in the same car. We're 20 minutes into the film before Mr. Badii finally explains his purpose. For reasons he won't mention, he plans to take an overdose of pills, crawl into an open grave, and die. He just wants someone to return in the morning to fill in the dirt.
It's easy to make a case for living when the plain, uneventful moments are edited out of your life. But what if your life consists of nothing else? Either you treasure it for the chance that something good will happen, or you hold no such hopes and see no reason to continue. And so Kiarostami strips 95 minutes of screen time, of life, to its spare essence. Mr. Badii is joined by a Turkish taxidermist (Abdolhossein Bagheri) who can't imagine giving up forever the taste of a cherry. What follows is so simply presented, and so simply profound, it's like considering for the first time how it feels to breathe air.
The complaint I keep reading about in reviews of Taste of Cherry is that nothing happens. Things happen, all right, just not at the pace we expect from movies. A trip to the store, in standard movie terms, is accomplished in a matter of seconds: exterior shot of the supermarket, cut to the condiment aisle, cut to the checkout line. All the downtime--the leaving, the driving, the parking--has been removed, all action compressed. But a life in progress isn't a movie script; it's dots of occasion connected by mundane routines and moments that take shape only in retrospect. Kiarostami asks us to consider the weight of the moments in between--the moments that make up living.
Apart from The White Balloon, which he scripted for his former assistant Jafar Panahi, Taste of Cherry is the first film I've ever had the chance to see by Abbas Kiarostami, whose movies have rarely been shown in the U.S. Although Kiarostami has made numerous short films and features since 1970, he's best known for his "earthquake trilogy," which started with 1987's Where Is the Friend's House?--a film about a boy retrieving a notebook--and expanded to include the aftermath of a real-life earthquake in the filming area (1991's And Life Goes On) and even the filming of that previous film (1994's Through the Olive Trees).
This spiraling interplay of fact and fiction indicates something of his method. Taste of Cherry is visually simple but hardly uncinematic: The director uses a frame within a frame--the car window--as effectively as Peter Weir in The Truman Show. As viewers, we're always aware there's a world that extends not just beyond the frame of the camera but also beyond the time frame Kiarostami has chosen. The White Balloon ended with a piercing shot of a solitary boy uncertain where to go next--his story didn't end when the camera shut off. Taste of Cherry ends by refusing to stay within the bounds of fiction. A director who cares so deeply for even the most tedious aspects of living can hardly slam the door on his universe with the script's last page.
Five years ago, one of my closest friends killed himself. The night before he died, I thought about calling him, and I've wondered ever since what I would've said if I'd had the chance to change his mind. I imagine reciting the litany of precious small wonders in Lucinda Williams' "Sweet Old World": the breath from your own lips, the touch of fingertips. But at the simplest level of existence, you either want to live or you don't, and if you don't, the sweetest cherry in the world means nothing. Taste of Cherry reminded me of all the nights we drove around, drinking mint Snapples in silence, when I thought nothing was happening.
Regeneration of swineIn 1971, freelance journalist Hunter S. Thompson was on the cusp of the kind of material success he had coveted since growing up working-class amid the bluebloods of Louisville. His insider expos of the Hell's Angels was a bestseller, the newly hip rock tabloid Rolling Stone was publishing his work regularly, and just about every youth-cred-seeking magazine in America was making offers to print even his unfinished notes for articles.
With all of that bearing down on him, and while struggling to finish an emotionally draining article on the murder of Chicano activist Ruben Salazar, Thompson took an assignment from Sports Illustrated to cover a motorcycle race in Las Vegas. The piece was ultimately rejected by S.I., but on the same trip Thompson wrote Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas--a vicious, drug-fueled screed about the meaning of Las Vegas, and the way the hippie ideal had been corrupted by the American Dream...the very same pursuit of money that was wearing Thompson out.
You don't have to know all that biography to appreciate Terry Gilliam's film adaptation of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, but it helps that Gilliam knows it. His film is more than an attempt to translate Thompson's opus into pictures (although Gilliam does hew closely to the text); it's also a comment on Thompson's work, his personality, and the underlying themes that are often hard to find beneath his seemingly random prose.
Johnny Depp stars as Thompson, or rather his pseudonymous character Raoul Duke (the inspiration for "Uncle Duke," Garry Trudeau's Doonesbury caricature). With attorney Oscar Zeta Acosta (one of Thompson's sources on the Salazar story, here played by a bloated Benicio Del Toro), Duke loads the trunk of a rental car with bizarre pharmaceuticals, and off they trip. As the film opens, the boys are already bombed on beer and mescaline, and for the next two hours of screen time, they ingest cigarettes, booze, marijuana, LSD, cocaine, amyl nitrate, ether, and adrenochrome (which Acosta claims is distilled from human adrenaline glands).
Like the article that precedes it, there's not much plot to Fear and Loathing, despite a twist in the middle when Thompson abandons the motocross story to cover a convention of narcotics agents. Mostly the film consists of Depp and Del Toro cavorting around Vegas while rambling nonsensically and leaving a trail of destruction and filth in their wake. Meanwhile, Gilliam employs a staggering style that would make Oliver Stone nauseous--shooting with a relentlessly wobbling camera and shifting color schemes on a whim. That the film is watchable at all is a credit to Depp, whose bellowing narration explicates the action, and whose sweet face belies the rage and dementia in Thompson's words. The man's loathing has always been easy to grasp; Depp gets beneath the fear. We'll follow him anywhere, even when he's cowering on a hotel barstool, hallucinating a roomful of carnivorous lizards.
Still, to call Fear and Loathing entertaining would be unfair to the average filmgoer looking for cheap summer thrills, or even the "daring" filmgoer who may prefer the safe "outrageousness" of Warren Beatty's toothless Bulworth. Though the dialogue is hilariously surreal (when it can be understood through Depp's mumbling and Del Toro's retching), the seemingly aimless parade of grotesquerie might strike some as simply putrid, or even dull.
But there are moments of crystalline clarity that justify the foulness. I think of a sequence in which Thompson remembers being in San Francisco in the '60s. As the nightly news on the TV behind him shows images of Vietnam, he comments that on a clear day, one can almost see the high-water mark from where the youth-revolution wave has receded. Then there's the key image of the film: Depp and Del Toro howling with sorrow while tooling down the Strip in a vomit-streaked convertible, as four elderly tourists ride in a car beside them and try to avoid meeting their gaze. Two sets of Americans, each looking for artificially induced happiness in a world of glitter, and neither wants to acknowledge the other.
The "gonzo journalism" that Hunter S. Thompson defined in the early '70s inspired some truly awful writing, much of it by Thompson himself. The more popular his stream-of-consciousness reportage became, the more untamed and unreadable it became. Even now, young Thompson acolytes ape the master by tapping out long, punctuation-less paragraphs comparing corrupt politicians to mutant insects.
What they miss is that Thompson chose his style as a way of spilling out everything that was causing him pain. The soul of his writing, at its best, was the soul of a man sitting drunk in a corner and suddenly seeing through all the fake politeness and hypocrisy of the world and not knowing whether to laugh at it or throw up in its face. Gilliam's version of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas approximates that feeling, and though it is frequently as hard to take as Thompson's writing, it is more frequently as brilliant.
Political partyAs Bulworth, a suicidal sellout of an incumbent California senator, Warren Beatty gives a comic performance of extraordinary deftness and grace--and he does it looking often like a complete jackass. For a guy frequently portrayed by the press as a strutting peacock, Beatty has never been afraid to look ludicrous onscreen: as the all-talk stud Clyde Barrow, as the braggart McCabe, as the airhead hairdresser of Shampoo. At heart, though, he's a stubbornly hopeful populist. Even his dopiest characters have a moment's greatness in them somewhere.
So does Jay Billington Bulworth, a 60-ish party hack who can no longer abide selling off his ideals to wealthy contributors. In a sleepless, despondent funk, Bulworth orders a hit man (Richard Sarafian) to bump him off for insurance money during the weekend of the 1996 California Democratic primary. But mortal terror doesn't shut him down--it zaps him awake. Free to speak his mind and die, he starts attacking the special interests that enslave him (and therefore his constituents): media oligarchies, corrupt insurance companies, free-trade proponents who've abandoned the inner city for cheap labor in Mexico.
Sure it's a fantasy--but damn, what a fantasy! You can call Bulworth many things--ferocious, foolhardy, explosively funny--but cautious isn't one of them. Directed by Beatty from a script he wrote with Jeremy Pikser, Bulworth is the rare comedy that's emboldened by liberal ideals, not smothered by them. The robbery of the public airwaves, the failure of the two-party system, the erosion of black political activism through economic attrition--the movie's deliberately scattershot design allows Bulworth/Beatty to voice criticisms so harsh and righteous that audiences burst into applause.
Bulworth's nothing-to-lose elation has inspired Beatty to the freest, nerviest work of his career as both actor and director. Shot by the great Vittorio Storaro in the brazen palette of a low-budget rap video, Bulworth has a freewheeling alertness and the unhurried pace of great sketch comedy. The scenes between the giddy senator and his bumfuzzled staff have the conversational zing of Nichols and May routines. And Beatty's in-the-zone performance gives him plenty to watch for. His cloistered Bulworth fixes upon every new detail with the hilarious, innocent eagerness of a hatchling seizing its first grub.
The film's riskiest move is sending Bulworth into South Central L.A., from which he emerges in homeboy getup as a deranged rapper messiah. It's brave (and funny) because there's no dorkier spectacle than white people latching onto black culture. On the hip-hop tip, Beatty's delivery ranks somewhere between Ogden Nash and Nipsey Russell, and in wraparound shades and a knit cap he looks like a superhero fallen on hard times. Like Bulworth, though, the actor recognizes free-style rhyming as a means of telling the truth and making it stick.
As for his broadly drawn African American characters, well, no less than three separate reviewers bashed Beatty in last week's Village Voice for depicting black America as an underworld of gangstas, crackheads, and jive-talking stereotypes. But Beatty zeroes in on these characters not because they represent the life of every black person in America, but because they represent the failure of every white liberal ideal. By abandoning the nation's urban centers to the exploiters of rage and poverty--the dealers, the gangs, the credit hustlers--the Bulworths of the world undermined the civil-rights leaders whose portraits hang on their walls.
Better that pundits should wring their hands over movies like I Got the Hook-up and Caught Up, which are made by black filmmakers but peddle the same old myths of powerlessness and hopelessness to their target audience. Beatty's characters may be stereotypical, but powerless and hopeless they aren't: He's batty enough to believe that anybody, even Don Cheadle's high-rolling crack pusher, is capable of renouncing the thug life and kicking ass through social and political activism.
Which makes Bulworth a lot more dangerous than the glib insider jazz of Wag the Dog and Primary Colors. The movie overestimates Bulworth's instant across-the-board appeal, but Bulworth couldn't be more rancorously funny, more passionate, or more timely. It's fascinating to compare how Bulworth and Terry Gilliam's Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, the two bravest major-studio movies thus far this year, respond to the betrayal of '60s idealism. You can take drugs in psychic defense, as do the heroically blotto Raoul Duke and Oscar Acosta, or you can reject civil discourse in favor of uncensored raving, like Jay Bulworth. Either way, faced with the assault on our noblest ideals, the best defense is offense.
New, improvedStarting next Wednesday, the Nashville Independent Film Festival (formerly the Sinking Creek Film/Video Festival) will fill five consecutive days with workshops, panel discussions, parties, and, above all, films. This marks the festival's first year with a new name and a new venue (the Watkins Belcourt in Hillsboro Village), and the lineup boasts an encouragingly broad selection of unreleased independent features, documentaries, shorts, cartoons, and regional premieres. Among the visiting talents on hand next week are documentarian Les Blank (Burden of Dreams), director and October Films cofounder Jeff Lipsky (Childhood's End), producer Peter Wentworth (Metropolitan), and The Cartoon Network's Linda Simensky and Keith Crofford (Space Ghost Coast-to-Coast).
The festival begins Wednesday with an 11 a.m. program of experimental shorts, followed by the local premiere of the documentary Frank Sinatra: The Bobby Sox Years (1 p.m.). Glen Pitre's Good for What Ails You (2:15 p.m.) observes the unorthodox healing practices of Cajun, Afro-Creole, and Native American "treaters."
At 4 p.m., don't miss Full Tilt Boogie, Sarah Kelly's documentary about the making of the Robert Rodriguez/Quentin Tarantino vampire flick From Dusk 'til Dawn. In conjunction with the Film Music Workshop, the NIFF will host a post-film discussion with director Kelly, veteran producer Rana Joy Glickman (Fun), and music supervisor Lonnie Sill, whose credits include Die Hard, Ghost, and Say Anything. Bringing high-powered music supervisors to Nashville is a brilliant strategic move, as the recent spate of Music Row soundtracks shows. We hear the movie's a lot of fun too--especially when Tarantino and George Clooney reenact the opening credits of Saturday Night Fever.
The festival then hosts its Best of Tennessee evening, a collection of short films from across the state. In addition to Tell About the South, the first film in documentarian Ross Spears' ambitious three-part history of Southern literature, the program includes Peter Neff's well-received drama "Dear Mr. Goodlife," Greg Hallmark's "Shatterhand," David McCallister's "Obit," Bob and Dominic Giordano's caper comedy "Blind Spot," and Curt Hahn's documentary on the history of the Fisk Jubilee Singers. Showtime is 7 p.m.
Next week we'll provide a full festival overview and tips on some of the weekend's best offerings. Individual tickets range from $2 to $5, with workshops ranging from $10 to $15; several reduced-rate passes are available. To get a seat, arrive at all festival screenings at least 15 minutes early. For more information, consult the festival program in this week's Scene.
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