Saturday, July 17, 2010

My Blu Heaven

Screenshot unceremoniously ripped from the indispensable DVD Beaver.

So, about a week ago I decided it was high time for me to join 21st Century - or at least the late 00s - and get myself a Blu-ray player. Now that I finally bought the damn thing, I can't believe it took me so long to get one, but hey, times are hard, and the almighty dollar can sometimes prevent us from indulging in the things we would like to. But, while surfing a certain internet based wholesale retailer, I found one for a reasonable price and threw caution to the wind. The time has come!

It's not everyday that the complexion of your movie watching experience is so radically upgraded, so I, being a sad sap and all, had to make a big production out of what my first purchase would be. I eventually decided on Kiarostami's transcendent masterpiece Close Up, and my reasoning was, believe it or not, two-fold. First, I'd never even seen Criterion's standard edition of it, nor the print that was recently exhibited at Manhattan's Film Forum, in spite of Close Up being a favorite of mine. The only edition I'd seen of it before my most recent viewing of it on Blu-ray was the old Facets DVD of it which, if you've never seen it, consider yourself lucky; the colors are washed out and faded, the image is blurry, and the trial footage is a notch above unwatchable (if that). A film as great as Close Up deserves the immaculate treatment, and seeing this stunning BD of it amounted to essentially seeing it for the first time (seriously, what the folks at Criterion do is art unto itself).

What made my selection all the more fitting is that Close Up is a film that attempts to show us what it means to see and hear - it's perhaps Kiarostami's most fully realized investigation into the nature of form, a rumination on narrative that tears down the barrier separating fiction from nonficiton. Close Up tells the story of a man, Hossain Sabzian, who convinces a family that he is Iranian film maker Mohsen Mahkmalbaf and will make a movie with them. He gets in their good graces, stays in their home, and even takes them to see Mahkmalbaf's The Cyclist, which he tells Kiarostami early in the film (which takes place after he's been arrested) is a part of him - a simultaneously beautiful and disturbing confession. What is upsetting about Sabzian (who died of asthma not long after the events of Close Up, according to Kiarostami) is that he escapes into images, that he sees more beauty in cinema than he does in his own life, and that his love of cinema manifests itself in the most desperate of cries for help. And the auteurs he so revered responded, because Kiarostami understood that Sabzian is Mahkmalbaf. And he's Kiarostami, too.

Though all the individuals involved in the real life case play themselves, calling Close Up expressly a documentary oversimplifies the film a great deal. While Close Up contains footage from Sabzian's trial, it also features reenactments of Sabzian's alleged crime (which surely must have been awkward - how Kiarostami and Mahkmalbaf talked them into it is anyone's guess), which complicates the issue even further. This as well as Kiarostami's next feature Life, And Nothing More integrate fact and fiction in supremely inventive ways, and though both these films are extremely formal, they are also extraordinarily moving depictions of the plight of the poor in Iran. To view Kiarostami expressly as a formalist is to ignore his uniquely sensitive perspective towards class differences, and Hossain Sabzian may be the most fitting vehicle for this radically humanist sentiment, because Sabzian sees more beauty in art and cinema than he does in real life (he's a personification of Trufaut's famous quote, "I have always preferred the reflection of life to life itself") - and Kiarotami realizes that, perhaps if things have gone a little differently in his life, he could have turned out just like Sabzian.

However, Kiarostami's portrait of Sabzian does not reinforce Sabzian's view but rather transcends it in the film's climax, which depicts Sabzian being released from prison and being met by Mahkmalbaf, who sobs when he makes eye contact with him (this meeting was allegedly staged by Kiarostami, though Sabzian's tears are apparently authentic). Kiarostami's camera rests in a van in the distance, observing this unique meeting from afar, though this directorial choice makes the scene feel more intimate, oddly enough. What makes this moment powerful and unforgettable, however, is because the camera crew's microphone that they wired on Sabzian isn't functioning properly (a dramatic contrivance cooked up by Kiarostami after the fact), and though this seems like a bit of a smartass tactic at first, it makes the scene nothing short of heartbreaking, as Kiarostami reminds us that, no matter how powerful something in a movie may be, it's still just image and sound. The sequence of these two men - the real Mahkmalbaf and the bogus Mahkmalbaf - riding through the streets of Tehran on Mahkmalbaf's motorcycle is the perfect expression of the bridge between the imagined and the real that has been a defining element of Kiarostami's career. Kiarostami understands that cinema can offer an escape, but movies are as powerful an art form as they are because they reflect the human experience, not because they distract from it.

Seeing the Criterion Blu-ray was a true revelation, among the most exhilarating cinematic experiences I've had in quite some time. The colors so vibrantly fleshed out - especially stunning are the fading leaves of the trees, the roses purchased in the film's profoundly moving climax, and the green aerosol can that figures into the film's opening (which is the punchline for a great jab at Kiarostami's famously minimalist style - in one moment he imbues the weight of the world in this rolling can, and in another, a character kicks it aside without a second thought) - that it really is like seeing the film for the first time. Though Kiarostami's style is minimalist, he also tells very complex stories visually and that makes every element of his compositions especially vital. None of Kiarostami's films so clearly illustrate this fact, and none of them needed this stunning facelift more (though please, please, please release his masterful Koker Trilogy).

So, yeah, I kinda like this whole Blu-ray thing.


Eric R. said...

Very good post, Ryan. But a question I always had about Blu-Ray was the effect it has on a film whose colors are supposed to be muddied rather than bright and fleshed out. How, for example, would a film like Gladiator, which is intentionally toned with dark colors work on a Blu-Ray player? Would the player defeat the film's original purpose?

I remember Jim Emerson a while back made a post that touched upon some of the disadvantages that comes with the new technology possessed in a Blu-Ray player. But I don't recall exactly what it was about, or which film he was discussing.

Ryan Kelly said...

Eric, there will undoubtedly be cases when a movie is given a digital shine to the point that it corrupts the initial look of the movie (the recent Dr. Strangelove blu ray was accused of this), but this is the exception, not the norm. Blu ray is the first of the home video technologies to even come close - and it comes REAL close - to reproducing the visual clarity of celluloid film. When you watch a DVD, much like with an MP3, the information is compressed, and while blu ray still compresses it somewhat, it's a hell of a lot less.

And the good folks at Criterion, for instance, have a policy of not removing the grain from the print of a film - it's their opinion (and I agree completely) that it's part of the inherent look of a movie. There's a bit of an ongoing debate in the videophile community, being is grain part of a film's visual design or is it a visual 'flaw' that we should correct with technology? Like I said, I certainly think it's part of the look of a movie and shouldn't be washed away, but some disagree, quite vehemently.

And another reason for the removal of grain is because electronics stores want things to 'show off' their televisions - it's why floor models often have the colors all out of whack. A lot of these complaints about blu ray looking too clean arise from the fact that the individual's television isn't calibrated properly.

As always, thanks for reading and thanks for commenting, Eric.

Fiddlin' Bill said...

Seems like that objection to Blue Ray is similar to the old complaint about music on CD being to cold and bright compared to analog recordings.

Ryan Kelly said...

Good point, Fiddlin' Bill, are people just hesitant to embrace something because it's new? The only reason I didn't embrace blu ray sooner was money.

Adam Zanzie said...

This has been my first-ever Kiastromi film, and when it was over I was so overjoyed that I was weeping. Close-Up is a reminder of why I love cinema: it's sad, it's funny, it's disturbing, it's heartfelt, and it's inspirational. Sabzian, as a person and as a character, is both unpleasant and immortal--I'm not sure if I'd ever want to meet him (he's like Iran's answer to Rupert Pupkin), and yet I know how he feels. He never had the privilege necessary to become an artist, even though he has an eye and an ear for great art. He honestly wants to prove to people that directors can be average joes, and somehow tricks himself into thinking he is one. I didn't know he passed away shortly after making the movie. It saddens me beyond belief.

But when this movie ended I wanted to stand up and cheer. They all get their dreams fulfilled in the end. Everybody, including the people Sabzian has hurt without wanting to. Kiastromi intervenes. He does what you've said he does here, recognizes a little of Sabzian in himself, and steps in. It's movie magic, all the more surreal because it's true.

It will probably be years before I get a Blue-Ray player because I don't have the right kind of television. The Criterion of Close-Up that I've rented looks a little... funny, but for now I guess I'm content with it. I'm learning a lot from the Jonathan Rosenbaum commentary.

Ryan Kelly said...

I hope this is the beginning of a love for Kiarostami's films, as it was for me. His movies are quite invigorating. I too was moved to tears the first time I saw the film, and when I watched it again when I got the Criterion.

Also, Certified Copy may be his best yet, and I'm tempted to call it one of the best things I've ever seen, honestly.