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  • Sasho Pshenko

Life, Art, and Imitation in Abbas Kiarostami’s Close-Up

Abbas Kiarostami’s Close-Up (1990) blends the boundaries of truth and deception, and forces audiences to rethink the very way they approach cinema. Sasho Pshenko dives into Kiarostami’s labyrinthian film and shows that any attempt to separate fact from fiction is not only futile, but is completely misunderstanding the relationship between reality and art.

Close-Up 1990 film Abbas Kiarostami Hossain Sabzian Mohsen Makhmalbaf Iranian cinema
Illustration: The Pittsburgher / Stills from Close-Up (1990)

A common misconception about the existence of stories is that their main purpose is to take us to a world of fantasy, giving us a break from our tiring, prosaic reality. I say misconception because art does not really need a reason to exist—one can think of as many reasons for the existence of art as for the existence of the world itself. It is true, however, that since the past century, storytelling formats (such as literature and film, for example), especially those aimed at a wider audience, have tended to have a predominantly escapist function. Thus, it would not be unreasonable to say that the aim of stories, books, or films is to lead us through a fantasy in order to tell us some truth about our real world. This “truth” is precisely what justifies the wish-fulfillment of the “fantasy” aspect. Indeed, when talking about more commercial genres, people often praise those stories which do have a bittersweet truth at their core. They might start off as relieving and exciting, but what they ultimately tell us is something wise and somber, although usually somewhat uplifting.

Abbas Kiarostami’s 1990 cinematic masterpiece Close-Up, however, does the complete opposite. Indeed, neither Kiarostami, nor his experimental docu-fiction film, are comparable to the commercial storytelling genres described above, yet at the film’s center there is an undeniable interest in the notions of fantasy, reality and escapism, which endows it with an aura of almost childlike naivete and wonder. What starts off as an intriguing documentary about a real-life con man and his victims, ends up an argument that the borders between fantasy and reality are much more fickle than they seem and that life itself can become a world of dreams if only one knows how to look at it. Interestingly enough, this is achieved through a meta-fictional questioning of the relationship between reality and fiction in four different ways. These four “quests” are, of course, intertwined, but they figure as separate journeys, each leading to a realm of philosophical and aesthetic introspection, which, when toppled, manages to crush each of the four pillars separating the documentary from the fictional feature film within Close-Up.

The most obvious of the four quests is the real-life event which inspired Kiarostami to make the film in the first place—Hossain Sabzian’s impersonation of famous film director Mohsen Makhmalbaf. From a superficial point of view, what drove Sabzian to do what he did was, in his words, a desire to substitute his real life with a wish-fulfilling power-fantasy. It gave him “confidence,” esteem in the eyes of other people, and a status, albeit imaginary, which he would never possess in his other, normal life. In a certain way, this is nothing more than an intense manifestation of that same drive which urges people to dive into escapist fiction. One forgets oneself for a moment and “flies away” on an adventure in which all the burden is carried by someone else.

Yet, as alluded above, Close-Up invites viewers to try and observe a situation from a, at least slightly, skewed perspective. Thus, in this case, one cannot help but think of Albert Camus’ famous essay The Myth of Sisyphus, most notably the section on drama. There, the actor does not escape the burden of his own life by entering the fake lives of his roles, but rather abandons the empty absurdity of his own life, by getting a chance to truly live, for the first time, through those roles. Without the roles, the actor is empty and without an actor, the roles are empty. Yet in the fleeting, ephemeral moment when they are embodied on stage, the actor makes both them and himself more alive than they could ever be otherwise.

What is, then, the framework for judging reality? Isn’t a life that is intense, fulfilled, and brimming with desire and power the most real of all lives? Isn’t the act more real than reality? Isn’t Sabzian as Makhmalbaf more real than both the real Sabzian and the real Makhmalbaf? In fact, when the real Makhmalbaf appears at the end of the film, he admits that sometimes he, too, gets tired of himself. Of course he does. Everyone does; that is, everyone but the artist in the process of creating art—the liminal artist. A liminal artist is someone existing on the threshold between multiple states of being, an acrobat toeing the line between multiple fictions and multiple realities. Such is Sabzian. Simultaneously petty and elevated. A liar and an actor. Someone who deceived the Ahankhah family for their money and for the pleasure he received from tricking them, getting them to buy into a childish fabrication—but also someone who deceived them because he saw an opportunity to enact his childhood passion and be the filmmaker he knew he could never be in reality. He did it to feel alive, even at the price of being someone else.

However, Sabzian is not the only liminal entity in Close-Up. Actually, the most liminal entity is the film itself. This is where the second quest begins. Halfway between being a documentary and a fictional feature, Close-Up recognizes the artistic, subversive potential in Sabzian’s story—and its consequences—and constructs a narrative line which, like its subject, serves to question the nature of what the viewer is seeing. More than simply reporting a real-life event, and more than recreating it in a melodramatic fashion perfectly packaged for the audience, Kiarostami makes a cinematic reflection on said event, a theoretical questioning, an open debate. He does this, of course, by choosing to focus on such a meta-textual issue to begin with, but he also does it cinematically, through the way it is presented. The film is composed of long, static takes which usually dwell on a given situation for minutes. Interspersed between them are shorter takes which, like snapshots, capture the surroundings and, through them, the atmosphere of the location. It almost completely lacks a musical score. This silence, in combination with the neutral camera, achieves a very focused, persistent, and introspective mood. Kiarostami does not use cinematic effects to tell the audience how to feel about what is shown on screen, but subliminally demands that they ponder upon it themselves. What comes into focus is that everything that has been captured on camera—every bystander, every piece of décor, every line uttered by the most unimportant of people in the film—is there for a reason. It has interest and narrative importance. Had it not, it wouldn’t have been filmed at all. To a degree, this statement is nothing new. It is, in fact, the basis of the medium as such. But in recent years it tends to be overlooked. Our lives have been, undeniably, over-saturated with TV and film “content,” notably content which lacks enunciative complexity and/or ambiguity—we are told what to think and how to feel about the plot and characters by the film itself, by the camera angles, the lighting, the score, the acting. This is, of course, part of the fantasy.

But Close-Up reverses it and retrieves the power of the camera as an artistic stalker, an ontological entity worth contemplating (one may even be tempted to establish an intertextual relationship between Close-Up and Samuel Beckett’s 1965 collaboration with Buster Keaton, Film). Why do we see the taxi driver at the beginning of the film? Why do we follow the conversation of these people for so long? Why do we visit Kiarostami’s crew when they talk to the judge about filming Sabzian’s trial? Why record the long bureaucratic process of getting the documentary underway? (Close-Up is, indeed, also a film about the making of itself—it is constituted of reports which Sabzian and the other people involved in his case give to the camera/Kiarostami, of fictional reenactments of said case, and of a non-fictional following of Kiarostami and his film crew in their quest to actually film the film.) Because all of these scenes capture the reality and fantasy of the entire story and because they all prompt one to question various aspects of life—morality, experience, forgiveness, the juridical system, the making of films, the status of filmmakers, economic and cultural discrepancies within a given society, etc. Kiarostami dives into these questions, just like he concentrically dives into segments of reality and segments of fiction.

What he made, at the end of the day, was both a documentary and a fiction film, yet neither a documentary nor a fiction film—he made a cinematic reflection on film and the aesthetic value of life. The segmentations and categorizations one can make (into fiction-reality, good-bad, lie-truth, just-unjust, etc.) are numerous, but they exist for the sole purpose of melting away. The long, static takes slowly simmer and make the viewers marinate into this world and its stranger-than-fiction, bigger-than-life story. From here, one can conclude that, as was said, everything filmed was something worth filming, or, alternatively, that it became aesthetic the moment it was filmed. Banality and life become art the moment they are captured on camera. If Sabzian’s story wasn’t aesthetic on its own, it became so the moment Kiarostami filmed it.

And what he filmed was more than just the story about the story—he filmed the original story too, even though it was already part of the past. Fictional reenactments are nothing new when talking about documentaries, of course, but reenactments which feature the characters/actors playing their own past selves is something different altogether. Sabzian as Sabzian, the Ahankhahs as themselves, having put the court and the trial behind them, sharing the same stage as both actors and roles. Kiarostami, thus, elevates Camus’ thesis one step further—if the actor is more alive when they embody the role, what happens when that role is the actor?

Sabzian is, now, both the artist and the star. In a twisted, ironic way, they are all stars now, getting to relive their own words, lies, truths, and deceptions as fictions, this time even more real, more sincere, more intense than when they originally took place. Now they are the ones who must “marinate” in their own past selves, observing their own lives as art. For certain, the reenactments are more than simple repetitions—they are also creations, the fabrications of images which will be presented to the world. Sabzian becomes a true liminal artist—he is the actor-as-artisan, the actor-as-star, the role-as-actor, and the role-as-role. Reflecting inwardly, he becomes more distant from himself while, paradoxically, coming closer to himself. Just like he was more “alive” as Makhmalbaf, he (and the Ahankhahs) are now more alive as their past selves. More alive than they were in the moments when the deception scheme originally unfolded.

This, therefore, concludes the third pillar, the third questioning of reality and fiction, following Sabzian’s story and Kiarostami’s directorial approach. The fourth and final one is, arguably, the pinnacle of meta-fictional relativization of life and art in Close-Up. The film, all throughout, questions things, but this final questioning is the questioning of questioning, a limbo in between the different fantasies and realities, where they all converge and diverge—Sabzian’s filmed trial. The trial holds this privileged position for multiple reasons. Firstly, it is the real-life culmination of the entire case—the Ahankhahs sued Sabzian for what he did and he was tried with the possibility of him going to prison. Moreover, Kiarostami and his film crew managed to worm their way into the courtroom, recording the proceeding in real time. At that point the making of the film became as much a part of the principal event as Sabzian’s deception itself. It also made a sensation out of Sabzian’s actions. It is, in a way, the official moment when he started to become the star of his own life. In that sense, the trial kick-starts the artificialization of what would have remained just another petty crime, lost and forgotten by everyone, including those involved in it.

So on the one hand, it is the origin of the spectacle, but on the other, it is the single most sincere, most genuine part of the entire film, because rather than treating it like a court testimony, Sabzian treats it like an almost spiritual confession. His monologue is poetic and auto-reflexive and, considering how much he opens up to the people present with him (and, subsequently to us, the viewers), it is both a speech for a judge and jury, but also a confession to a priest, an interview with a celebrity journalist, and an oral autobiography of an artist. He not only divulges his actions and the intentions behind them, but delves into his own psyche, his experiences, childhood dreams, and all the conflicted emotions he felt during the entire time he spent around the Ahankhahs. Sabzian basically writes a book on himself, with his life on the line. And if one were again to, slightly, skew their perspective, they would see that Close-Up actually depicts someone who seems to be tried solely for being who he is—for being alive.

At the moment of this realization, Kiarostami’s film is revealed to be truly Kafkaesque. It puts the questions of right and wrong aside for the sake of examining the necessity of the choices a person can make and the repercussions those choices might bring. People often believe that man is born innocent, but becomes and dies guilty. However, like in The Trial, here too one is given another alternative: if man is born innocent, then man remains innocent until he dies; if man dies guilty, then he was born guilty to begin with. Furthermore, what counts for one, counts for all. The outcome of Sabzian’s trial would, then, be the answer we all await—are we innocent, or are we guilty? The answer Kiarostami gives is the point of entrance into that inverted world of fantasy we mentioned at the beginning.

What one needs is not an escape from reality, but a change of perspective on it—guilt and innocence are relative, just like how the burden (exemplified by both Sabzian and Makhmalbaf when the latter admits that he, too, gets tired of himself) can also be seen as the single most exciting part of life, the thing that makes us feel alive. Such is the end of the film, too—Sabzian and Makhmalbaf meet up, establish a friendly relationship which already veers outside the limits of Kiarostami’s camera (see the broken window of the car and the fragmented version we, the viewers, get of Sabzian and Makhmalbaf’s conversation). Finally, the two of them on the motorbike, Sabzian’s fantasy—the film he dreamed he could make as Makhmalbaf—is the ultimate union of both the real and the fantastical. Indeed, according to Kiarostami’s film, life and art are recognized simply as two sides of the same coin. One can only undergo initiation and become oneself by being outside oneself—as in art, so in life. ▲

Sasho Pshenko is a Film Aesthetics graduate from the University of Oxford, with a background in Comparative Literature. Torn between desires for both academia and practical filmmaking, he spends his time pondering over various topics from the fields of literature, film, and philosophy.

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