I wrote the the notes for the International Arts Society screening last night of the Iranian film Crimson Gold and led the discussion afterwards. The turnout was surprisingly good, considering that this is a holiday weekend. It wasn't the most lively conversation, but not a waste of time either. Anyway, if you're at all interested in cinematic social realism or just want to see what everyday life in Tehran is like before someone decides to start bombing it, I highly recommend the film. I loved it the first time, when I saw it at The Loft, but was even more impressed with it after watching portions over and over in preparation for the writing of my film notes. Bear in mind, as you read them, that we're supposed to fit them on a single sheet and also that I try A) not to give too much of the story away, since people often read them beforehand; and B) to demonstrate -- my former students will probably cringe to read this -- the virtues of focusing on "specific textual evidence" in the interpretation of any cultural artifact. The image comes from a shot I snapped while watching the film at The Loft back in 2004. The blur actually does a good job of capturing the protagonist's mode of interacting with the world. If you want to read more about the film, this review by Bill Chambers is a good one. I really think it would be worth your while to see it. Here you go:
Crimson Gold (Talaye sorkh)
Jafar Panahi, director – Iran (2003)
Jafar Panahi's Crimson Gold is a film about class, the divide between the haves and have-nots that remains huge in an Iran that, over twenty-five years after a Revolution fueled by economic injustice, has yet to make good on its promise of a meaningful redistribution of wealth. But it is also a film about perspective, as its opening scene brilliantly illustrates. At first the screen is black. We hear the shrill cries of a bird, the flutter of wings and then, abruptly, the sounds of a struggle. "What do you want?" Even someone with no knowledge of Farsi can tell that the speaker's fear is tempered with outrage, as if the demand he confronts were as much a violation of social decorum as the law itself. The answer, curiously muted, is not really an answer. "Where's the jewelry? I have a gun." Yes, a robbery is taking place, as becomes clear momentarily. But the shop owner does not find out what the robber really desires. Nor do we. For, as the remainder of the scene demonstrates, the robber himself is in a state of confusion. There's a reason that the question rings out in the dark, because that's where both the characters and audience find themselves. Significantly, the first image we see is of a man's torso, pulling back from our point of view. Our vision has been blocked by his body, shoved so tightly against the camera's location that no light can get in. Even after we are able to make out some of what is going on, the frame limits our understanding. First we see the man's bowed, gray head. "I don't have a key!," he shouts. From the position of his arms, we can tell that his assailant is behind him, presumably sticking a gun in his back. And, although we are now able to see, we feel his declaration, an obvious lie, to be the truth of our own experience as viewers. We require a different perspective in order to unlock the meaning of this scene, which thrusts us into a situation for which we are unprepared.
This realization becomes more solid as the remainder of this stunning four-minute shot plays out. When the assailant and his victim disappear to the right, we still find ourselves trapped in the same frame as before. We are looking towards the front door of the jewelry store, which is flanked by potted plants, creating a visual triptych. A helmet-wearing man paces on the street outside. Off-screen sounds of the ongoing robbery and the traffic on the street outside contrast with the absence of action in the foreground. Making sense of what is happening requires recognizing that our sense of sight is insufficient. We may be getting the perspective of a security camera, implacable in its objectivity, but our overarching impression is of insecurity, as we feel the absence of feeling in what it records. As the camera eventually starts to zoom in on the robber, this perception is enhanced. The frame that tightens around his anguish severs the connections that might make his situation comprehensible. This record of a haphazardly undertaken crime and its fatal outcome, the sort that gets distilled into a few terse sentences in the news of any big city, precisely because it is regarded as the most self-evident form of lawbreaking, is transformed into the record of our own ignorance as viewers. It's an extraordinarily effective way to begin a film that follows the classic film noir convention of beginning at the end. In showing us what is lacking in our perspective, director Panahi incites us to find an answer to that first question. It becomes, in a sense, a question for us to ponder as much as a question to pose of the characters. What do we want?
Panahi and writer Abbas Kiarostami (A Taste of Cherry), want us to understand how the limitations of our perspective can blind us to both the motivations of others and ourselves. More specifically, since they were aware, in making this film, both that it might not pass the censor in their native Iran – and it didn't, being deemed too "dark" -- and that there is a large audience for Iranian cinema in the West, they want those of us who are unfamiliar with the reality of contemporary Tehran to ponder the ways in which our understanding might be trapped within a frame that excludes far more than it shows. When we go back in time, following this opening scene, to learn how the robber, Hussein (Hossain Emadeddin), and his accomplice and friend Ali (Kamyar Sheisi) arrive at this dead-end, we learn to question the stereotypes that condition, not only our perception of criminality, but of other cultures more generally. At one point, Ali seeks to explain to Hussein's supervisor why his friend prefers his job delivering pizzas to tasks better suited to his plodding manner. "He's a little claustrophobic. He can't handle being inside four walls." While this is literally the case for Hussein, the description also serves as a metaphor for the state of mind that Crimson Gold is seeking to cultivate in us. The filmmakers want us to realize that the familiar perspective that provides us comfort, our cultural "security camera," is actually a trap. If we wish to avoid Hussein's tragic fate, we need to find a way out. And that means, most obviously, finding a more mobile way of framing our experience. In this sense, Crimson Gold is making a case for the new global cinema that it so impressively represents. What we need is to take flight in search of new experiences, like the bird whose invisible wings open the film, instead of staying perched in the comfort of who we are and how we have learned to see. What we need, in short, is to realize that our world is wanting.