Conversations about film

April 16, 2021


Directed by Abbas Kiarostami, 1990

Jim Wilson: James, welcome back. How’s springtime in Atlanta?

James Westbrook: Good to be back, Jim. Atlanta’s solid. The pollen’s kicking my ass but that’s to be expected. More importantly, I recently got my 2nd Covid shot, so now I’m counting down the days till my immunity is complete. How’s Colorado? You have any luck finding a vaccine?

Jim: Scheduled for my first in a couple weeks. Colorado’s fine, a little bit in the news lately, but nowhere near as much as Georgia. What exactly the fuck is going on there?

James: Man, the story of Georgia right now is the story of America: a bunch of ignorant assholes trying to stop the changing political tides through whatever underhanded and/or violent methods they can get away with. Right now, they are getting away with it but hopefully change is on the horizon, though I’m cynical about if and when it’ll come (though less than I expected to be. I’m not giving Biden a pass yet, but so far, he’s exceeded my admittedly low expectations).

Anyway, movies: In the spirit of Close-up, the great movie-movie we’re discussing today, what have you been watching? Anything that’s made you want to impersonate a filmmaker and commit some light fraud?

Jim: You’re right, Georgia is the story of America, or where America has gone to die. It’s appalling. I expected little from Biden as well, but was pleased to hear his frank condemnation of Georgia Republicans’ assault on voting.

I just finished watching Smooth Talk, Joyce Chopra’s film from 1985, with Laura Dern’s breakout performance. It’s remarkably weird, but brilliant. I will not, however, waste anyone’s time attempting to impersonate her. What have you been watching?

James: I’ve heard great things about Smooth Talk, though I haven’t seen it yet. There’s just so many good movies to keep up with these days. 

Not much in the way of cinema for me this past week, though I did watch National Lampoon’s Vacation for the first time, which was worth a chuckle or two but felt a little creaky. That could just be because I watched it alone, though, and it’s definitely meant to be seen with a crowd. I’ve also made it most of the way through The Knick, Steven Soderbergh’s TV drama about the early days of modern medicine. It has some great moments that remind me there’s a master behind the camera, and Clive Owen has never been better, but I’m consistently surprised how much it conforms to the modern prestige TV template. Maybe that’s to be expected, though; one of Soderbergh’s defining characteristics is his ability to bring the best out of a range of genres without ever necessarily reinventing them. Have you seen it?

Jim: No. I haven’t even heard of it, but it sounds good. Where are you watching it?

I don’t watch much serial TV, since most of it disappoints, or seems like it would be best condensed into a two-hour film. That said, there are those few I really like. For instance, lately I’ve been chipping away at the four seasons of Call My Agent!, the French comedy series on Netflix about a fictional talent agency in Paris that represents a lot of great French actors, who play themselves for an episode, experiencing some career difficulty their agent is struggling to manage, while there’s lots of ongoing dramas taking place inside the agency. As you can imagine, knowing my taste, I love it. It was great seeing Nathalie Baye and her daughter Laura Smet together in one episode, or Juliette Binoche in the episode when they all go to Cannes for the festival. Yeah, that series is like cotton candy to me.

Hey, I’ve got a question for you, since you’re an insider. What is the difference between a DP and a cinematographer? Or maybe better, is there a difference?

James: My lord, that sounds tailor made for you. I do love me some Binoche (although who doesn’t?). I’ll have to check it out.

The Knick‘s on HBO, but, funny story, it originally aired on Cinemax, during the brief window of time when they were trying to become a real cable network. It didn’t work; the show was cancelled after 2 seasons. Still worth a watch, though, especially the first season, which is both a great medical drama and a thrillingly honest take on American racism in the early 1900s (call back to Georgia).

TV’s appeal for me is that I take it less seriously than movies, even though the distinctions between the two are basically arbitrary at this point. When I watch a movie, even something branded by National Lampoon, I always turn the lights off, put my phone on silent, and focus on it. A TV show, though, I can watch with dinner, or while on my phone, or whatever. I just hold the medium to a lower standard. Fair? Probably not, but it’s how it is.

Someone told me once that the difference between a cinematographer and a DP is that a cinematographer acts as their own camera operator and a DP doesn’t, but in practice the two terms are basically interchangeable. On low budget productions the DP/cinematographer is almost always their own camera operator, for money reasons, and on bigger shoots they almost never are because they don’t have to be. What term they choose to go by is just personal preference.

Jim: I wondered if maybe it came down to camera operation, but it sounds like it’s become an arbitrary distinction.

So, let’s talk Kiarostami’s Close-Up. Why did you choose this film for the Collo treatment?

James: I first saw Close-Up about a decade ago, and while I enjoyed it, it didn’t make much of a lasting impression. It was also my first Abbas Kiarostami movie, and in the decade since I’ve fallen hard for Kiarostami’s cinema; I wouldn’t hesitate to say he’s become one of my favorite directors, maybe even my favorite. So the question became: Was the deafening hype around Close-Up, often considered the greatest Iranian film ever made, actually spot on, or was I right the first time and it’s just pretty good? A deep dive on Collokino felt like the perfect opportunity to find out.

Now, I know from our preliminary talk that you’re not as familiar with Kiarostami as I am. Had you seen any of his work before this? What were your expectations going into this one, and how’d it stack up?

Jim: I had no expectations. It wasn’t until after watching Close-Up the first time, after you announced it, that I registered it as the guy who did Certified Copy, a film I really love. Binoche. You see? There she is again. You can’t get away from talking about the great JB, lol.

I’m fascinated by this film, because I don’t think I get it, though I suppose I should.

The film begins with a strange taxi ride. Take me through it. What’s going on here?

James: Close-Up begins in a taxi hailed by the journalist Hossain Farazmand, on the hunt for “the kind of story you only get two or three of during your career”. He’s hot on the trail of a man who’s taken up residence in the home of a well-to-do family in Tehran, the Ahankhahs, claiming to be the famous Iranian filmmaker Mohsen Makhmalbaf. The man claims he’s scouting locations for his next film, but the family has come to believe he’s actually an imposter just pretending to be Makhmalbaf in order to case their house for a robbery. They’re right, to an extent: when Farazmand arrives he outs the man, Hossain Sabzian, as a fraud, and Sabzian is carted off to jail (but not before Farazmand gets a few good photos of the arrest in, of course).

The rest of Close-Up largely concerns itself with Sabzian’s trial, in which Sabzian, an inveterate charmer and self-professed cinephile, talks through the case at a mile a minute, trying to put every event in the best possible light in order to convince the Ahankhahs that his fraud was just the work of a poverty-stricken, cinema-obsessed man high off the feeling of importance pretending to be Makhmalbaf had given him. We flashback to a few key moments in the case, such as the first time Sabzian met Mrs. Ahankhah and his initial, relatively innocent, co-opting of Makhmalbaf’s identity after she sees him reading Makhmalbaf’s screenplay for his film The Cyclist. We also hear from the Ahankhahs on when they first noticed the cracks forming in Sabzian’s story, and their many harsh allegations towards the poor man who weaseled his way into their lives.

Oh, and the trial? It really happened. Sabzian was a real man who really did impersonate Makhmalbaf and got caught doing so. In fact, everyone in Close-Up plays themselves, and while all the film’s flashbacks are fictionalized reenactments, the trial itself and some of the events before and after were very real. That’s just the beginning of the winding road Close-Up takes through the blurry lines between truth and fiction; the film is coy about revealing what’s true and what’s false, what really happened and what’s fictionalized conjecture, instead weaving the two strands together until disentangling them is almost impossible.

I’m getting ahead of myself, though: when did you first realize what game Close-Up was playing with the truth, and did you find its mix of reality and fiction (and, by extension, documentary and scripted filmmaking techniques) aggravating, enchanting, or something in between?

Jim: I went into the film having read enough about it that I knew it was a mélange of documentary and re-enactment (I don’t mind spoiling films for myself; I kind of prefer it, actually). I don’t think I have strong feelings one way or another about that stuff. Sometimes it works, like with the taxi ride, and sometimes it doesn’t, like the bus scene you describe between Sabzian and Mrs. Ahankhah. The re-enacted taxi ride is so bizarre it’s endlessly entertaining, while the re-enacted bus scene is terribly awkward and unconvincing. I know that’s all meant to be a part of the film’s flavor, and its point, I suppose, though it’s not equally enjoyable.

Clearly, there are a lot of elements of Iranian society and customs that are notably odd to a western perspective. That a journalist would accompany, in fact lead, two policemen to an arrest, in a taxi, is something I’m still trying to work out. The ethical challenges alone are daunting, not to mention the means of conveyance. Farazmand the journalist seems to be the primary driver behind much of what happens to Sabzian criminally, and for entirely self-serving reasons, but his part of the story kind of trails off after the initial arrest.

Furthermore, why do cops dress like soldiers, and why is an automatic weapon necessary for the arrest? I think I get too caught up in the cultural curiosities, but I can’t help it.

You said during preparation that you thought there was more to the taxi ride than is evident at face value. What do you mean by that?

James: The policemen in the taxi are definitely odd. There’s a moment where the taxi driver says something along the lines of “don’t cops have their own vehicles?” and they very flatly, declaratively say “Yes.” My read is that the issue wasn’t really important enough for them to waste a car on, so they stuck Farazmand, who’s far more interested in the crime than they are, with the transportation bill. Perhaps, too, it’s a “truth is stranger than fiction” moment; that’s how it went down in real life, so that’s how Kiarostami recreates it.

Regardless, before I get deeper into that scene, I want to comment on Close-Up‘s relation to the cinema itself, as, one, it’s one of the film’s greatest concerns, and two, it ties directly into my thoughts on the taxi scene. I also believe that it’s Close-Up’s consideration of the kino eye that explains most of its slippery, meta-textual elements, and thus it’s a great place to start breaking down what the film is doing.

On the surface, it’s obvious how Sabzian’s story ties into cinema, and why it was of interest to a filmmaker: it’s about film and the startling effect it had on one man. When asked why he was so interested in Makhmalbaf’s work, to the point of stealing his identity, Sabzian says that “[Makhmalbaf] spoke for me and depicted my suffering.” He doubles down on that idea near the trial’s end, when he gives the following monologue:

“Whenever I feel depressed or overwhelmed, I feel the urge to shout to the world the anguish of my soul, the torments I’ve experienced, all my sorrows – but no one wants to hear about them. Then a good man comes along who portrays all my suffering in his films, and I can go see them over and over again… That’s why I felt compelled to take solace in that screenplay… It says the things I wish I could express.”

In other words, Sabzian sees the truth of his own experience in Makhmalbaf’s work, an experience I think we can all relate to to some degree (at least those of us who write about movies on the internet). Close-Up, however, questions whether cinema really is inherently truthful. Throughout the film, Kiarostami is constantly making us aware of the camera’s existence and how it changes anything it looks at. He talks the judge into moving Sabzian’s court date forward to conform to their shooting schedule, he interrupts regularly throughout the trial to question Sabzian himself, thus pushing the trial in new directions, and near the film’s end when Sabzian meets the real Makhmalbaf (a “real” scene that Kiarostami engineered), he includes audio of himself and his crew talking through the logistics of the shoot, such as the faulty audio and the blocking marks they set for Makhmalbaf to land on. And those are just examples from the documentary footage! Where most films that intermingle documentary footage with reenactments do so to lend the reenactments verisimilitude, Close-Up does the opposite; it uses the fictionalized segments to remind us that everything we’re seeing is fake. Even supposedly true events are rendered fictional by the camera’s gaze.

Now, how does that tie into the taxi scene, and the story of Farazmand the journalist? As you astutely pointed out, Farazmand is the largely-selfish catalyst of the story’s events; it’s his desire to nab a big story that sets the wheels of Close-Up in motion. Yes, Sabzian was already impersonating Makhmalbaf, but without Farazmand he may never have ended up in jail and he definitely wouldn’t have become famous (and, to go a step further, without Farazmand’s story Kiarostami never would have found out about Sabzian, and there would be no Close-Up). In the act of recording Sabzian’s story Farazmand irrevocably changes it. He engineers his own climax, as does Kiarostami when he sets up the final meeting between Makhmalbaf and Sabzian. This mini-plot primes us to question stories themselvesand whether or not they really do reflect the truth, or whether, by contorting reality around them, stories simply breed more stories. As Kiarostami tells Sabzian early in the trial: “This camera is here so you can explain things that people might find hard to understand or accept.” In other words: the camera, just like Farazmand’s pen, warps things. Turn something into a story and you distort it.

Farazmand isn’t the only character in the taxi, though; there’s also the taxi driver, and what occurred to me on rewatch is that it’s the taxi driver who represents the humanist ideal of Kiarostami’s worldview. He’s a normal man; he drives his taxi, he’s married, he has kids. As Farazmand tells him the story of the Makhmalbaf imposter he’s polite but clearly uninterested, and he doesn’t get any of the cinematic or journalistic references Farazmand makes. At one point he even jokingly says “I don’t have time for movies. I’m too busy with life!” When Farazmand gets out of the cab to go meet Sabzian for the first time, the taxi driver makes small talk with the policemen; they talk about national service assignments and their wives, the pressure to marry, children. When the policemen also leave, Kiarostami stays with the taxi driver, the camera watching curiously as he gets out of the car to pick some flowers for his wife and then watches a can roll down a hill.

What struck me about this character, other than his obvious disinterest in cinema, is that he comes from exactly the same kind of background as Sabzian. He’s a working-class man, consumed by work and family. Yet where Sabzian is stuck in fantasy, the taxi driver exists purely in the present moment; he focuses on his customers, his spouse, and small pleasures like picking flowers. Does this man need cinema? He might enjoy it, but the answer is probably no. The taxi driver’s life exists independently of the story he’s been roped into, and in its simplicity it’s resistant to the kind of changes the cinema wrought on the life of someone like Sabzian, lost in an inferiority complex that led him to try and con his way into another man’s identity.

But of course, here’s where one can really get lost in the rabbit hole of Close-Up: the taxi driver, the antithesis of a fiction-obsessed culture, is himself a fictional character, whereas Sabzian, the man’s whose identity melts on contact with celluloid, is a real man. Is the taxi driver’s story made worthless by this inherent contradiction, or does this contradiction reveal what’s always been the essential truth of storytelling: that sometimes falsehoods can reveal our inner truths to us better than bland reality? Is Sabzian right about cinema’s value, even if it did lead him down the wrong path?

Anyway, I’m hogging the mic, so I’ll pass it back. What was your impression of Sabzian and his testimony at the trial? Do you believe the story he tells about his life and his motivation for impersonating Makhmalbaf, or do you think the story he tells is as false as the one Kiarostami tells about him? Also, how did you feel about the film’s take on poverty and class?

Jim: Well, you’ve certainly convinced me about the function of Close-Up’s moving parts. Makes perfect sense to me. While I was following along with you there, it occurred to me repeatedly that I accept all those things as givens in the world of storytelling, including memory, the nature of observation, the difference between reality and realism, and the whole question about who all this art and philosophy is for. The central maxim of quantum theory, for instance, that observation brings a thing into fixed existence has always made perfect sense to me, because of my long immersion in literature and lit theory. Or that the act of recounting an event is to reinvent it, no matter how truthful the teller wishes to tell it. That’s a given to me, as empirical as the laws of physics. So Kiarostami is really preaching to the choir with me. He expertly points out all the consequences of telling a story, fictional or non-. The performative nature of documentaries is something I couldn’t agree with more. I deeply appreciate all that. It’s very cerebral and nerdy and I love it for that. But it’s the film’s own aesthetics that elude me, and maybe because they’re not there to find.

I don’t believe much of anything that comes out of Sabzian’s mouth. For that reason, I find the Ahankhahs the most gullible people imaginable. Now, that said, we only see Sabzian’s instances of defrauding the Ahankhahs as reenactment, so maybe he’s just a bad actor (he is). The courtroom scenes, of course, are documented as they actually occurred, but I still don’t believe much that Sabzian says, because he’s performing there too, because of Kiarostami’s and his crew’s presence (another cultural oddity: the notion that a judge would share the questioning of a defendant with a filmmaker, though I suspect some off-camera agreements were made there, embedding more artifice).

Sabzian’s professions of faith in the art of cinema are no doubt sincere, but he never manages to convince me what that has to do with his fraud. Lots of people have lots of passions, but they’re not all running around pretending to be celebrities. No, when he talks about the respect the Ahankhahs showed him when they believed him to be a famous director, that is his true motive, or at least why he kept up the illusion. He became addicted to the respect. That is Sabzian’s most sincere moment. The fraud provided him some moments that elevated him above his dull, desperate existence, cast him in the spotlight, and gave people a reason to respect him. He says at one point during the trial that the respect made him “play the part better”. Trust facilitates competence. That’s a profound observation.

I don’t see much of a depiction of poverty in the film at all, not in any literal sense. Sabzian claims to be poor, and he probably is, but I’m not sure why that matters. I’m not going to feel any more or less compassion for him because of it. Poor people are treated like shit everywhere, it’s universal, because they’re defenseless, but I don’t know what that has to do with this film and the ideas its working with. I’ve thought about it quite a bit, but I always come back around to the sense that it’s a moot point, so maybe something to do with how a character’s physical living conditions play with audience sentiment and expectation. I’m eager to hear where you are with these same questions.

James: I’m with you on the film’s aesthetics which are, I think, fairly simple by design, though I found them more effective than I think you did. A lot of that simplicity is rooted in the film’s use of documentary techniques and the way it positions itself as a critique of that form, but it’s also, I think, to lure us into a sense of false objectivity. It’s the idea that we think of cinematic stylization as inherently subjective whereas simpler techniques (neorealistic ones, documentary ones, naturalistic ones, etc.) aren’t, an idea that Kiarostami balks at. While that simplicity bothers me less than it does you, I also think it’s why my reaction was more muted to it on first watch. It makes Close-Up something of an outlier in Kiarostami’s filmography, which is why I think it’s somewhat ironic it’s become one of his most famous films. Whereas he normally takes a more restrained, painterly approach (“contemplative cinema”, one might say, or similar to Paul Schrader’s transcendental cinema but more humanist than spiritual) Close-Up is almost entirely people talking in, well, close ups. The critique of form becomes analogous to the form it’s critiquing.

I think your read of Sabzian’s artifice is spot on. Near the end of the trial Kiarostami asks him “What part would you like to play?” and he responds “My own”, to which an amused Kiarostami says “Haven’t you already done that?” There’s an interesting moment, too, where the judge asks the Ahankhahs if they’re willing to forgive Sabzian, and one of them says “Listening to him I get the impression he’s still playing a role, even if a slightly different one.” This actually leads into the short monologue I quoted above, when Sabzian really doubles down on his “woe is me” rhetoric. While the Ahankhahs do end up pardoning Sabzian, I wonder if that’s because they were actually convinced of his innocence or if, in the face of the camera, they were worried about looking bad (i.e., they didn’t want to be the story’s villains)? Up until nearly the trial’s end they’re clearly suspicious of everything Sabzian says, and while his final words are powerful, I don’t think they’re markedly more powerful than everything else he’s said up till that point. While we’ll likely never know the truth, it would fit in neatly with Close-Ups postmodern concerns for the film shoot itself to have tilted the verdict in Sabzian’s favor.

That said, I do think Sabzian’s act of fraud came from a deeper-seated place than just the high he gets from respect, though that’s definitely a huge part of it. At one point Sabzian says, as a justification for one of his schemes as Makhmalbaf: “I wanted to tell them: ‘change your mentality. Don’t think a director is different from ordinary people. He’s one of you.'” Of course that doesn’t really make sense, because Sabzian isn’t a director, so he wasn’t really making the point he was trying to. No, I think Sabzian was trying to convince himself that directors are just ordinary people, that him and Makhmalbaf are the same and that The Cyclist really is an informed account of his suffering, because if they aren’t and it isn’t than Sabzian’s passion for cinema is based on a lie. If Mohsen Makhmalbaf can be an ordinary schmo, and other people believe that he is, then by extension Sabzian can be a director and he isn’t defined by his fuck ups.

Funny that you don’t think Sabzian’s poverty makes him more compassionate, though you’re right that we’re only taking his word that he actually is poor, which makes it all somewhat circumspect. Still, I think there’s clearly an element of class warfare to the entire scenario, even if the film itself doesn’t focus on it, and a generous read of Sabzian’s crime is that it’s a doomed attempt by a man with no better options to escape his class, if only for a brief moment, an effort which is quickly shut down by the uncaring wealthy family he attempts to glom on to. There’s also, I think, other places where the rich/poor divide is brought into stark relief; there’s the gap between Farazmand’s callousness and the taxi driver’s nonchalance, there’s a short interview bite where the Ahankhah’s son talks about being unemployed but not being in a rush to find something because he wants to guarantee he gets a job in his field (he even dismisses a family friend who offered him a job as “a man who sells bread”; the man owns a bakery), and even the obvious differences between Makhmalbaf and Sabzian when they finally meet; Makhmalbaf rides in on a motorcycle, hip sunglasses perched atop his nose, whereas Sabzian wears the exact same clothes he wore in jail. I don’t necessarily think the film is trying to say something specific about class or poverty, but I do think it wants us to be aware of the inherent differences between the classes and how we perceive them, how the rich are able to dawdle and fail and lose very little, whereas if the poor screw up they can fall so much further. While I think it’s clear Sabzian is a charlatan, any sympathy the film has for him comes from the desperation that leaks out of him, desperation that, so often, goes hand in hand with poverty.

We’ve been circling it for a while now, so let me ask: what are your thoughts on the film’s ending, the meet up between Sabzian and Makhmalbaf?

Jim: I don’t want to belabor the point, but I do want to make myself clear, that, from my view, Sabzian is no more deserving of compassion than any other relatively well-meaning person just because he’s poor. To think he is more deserving of compassion because he’s poor is shameless sympathy trolling, not unlike a critique you and I shared recently about Nomadland, and that film’s function as an empathy generator. I just categorically reject that sort of misplaced sympathy, empathy, or compassion. On the larger point about the function of poverty within the film, I can see how Kiarostami may be utilizing it as a way of illustrating how a character’s economic situation can alter how a viewer perceives that character, even to the extent of sympathy trolling, but I still don’t see it as a useful element of a post-modern, metatextual film concerned with the transformative nature of the observational lens. It could, and maybe Kiarostami intended it to, but it fails to deliver much of an impact, at least for me. Maybe being poor, and not having a job, provides Sabzian with the disposable time to pull of his fraud. That’s the best thing I can see his poverty contributing to the import of the story.

As for Sabzian’s whole thing about directors being ordinary people who tell ordinary peoples’ stories, and how that somehow reflects on him, is such nonsense I can’t hold it in my head long enough to formulate a more considered response. Pure Sabzian gobbledygook.

My biggest reservation about Close-Up is that it is a profoundly ugly film. You address your position on that above, and address it very effectively, that too much visual appeal would deplete the film’s air of false objectivity. Too much color, too many pretty faces, too many expressive filming techniques, too much creativity all around, would distract the viewer away from the focus on the critique of the documentary capacity of the film that is Kiarostami’s emphasis. That makes complete sense, but it doesn’t help me embrace it any more warmly. I accept that it’s a purely personal bias of my own, and I won’t advance it as a full-throated complaint about the merits of the film. I just feel that the cerebral, film-theory points central to Close-Up are best utilized in the service of art, meaning something nominally more creative than this. The extremely dry, drab, and emotionless terrain of this film doesn’t delight me. Intellectually, it’s stimulating, no doubt; I can appreciate it as an exercise, but I can’t love it as a work of art. It has all the aesthetic appeal of a piece of frayed burlap. But again, that’s not a take-down of the film itself, but an honest declaration of my own subjective reaction to it. Dry academic analysis is great in books – a thrill to contemplate – but a film provides space for so much more.

To be honest, I’d rather hear your thoughts on the ending before offering any of mine, since I find it the most difficult part of the film to make sense of.

James: I should clarify that I don’t think Close-Up is asking us to sympathize with Sabzian just because he’s poor. Truthfully, I don’t think it’s asking us to sympathize with him at all, but neither is it asking us to judge him; the film itself is torn on the man, or, more accurately, it tries to recognize his fundamental humanity without looking away from his very abundant flaws. I get the impression you’re deeply unimpressed with Sabzian and not that sympathetic to him. That’s fair! As I said before, the man is a charlatan. I still find him to be a tragic figure, though, because, break his crime down to its fundamental essence, and it was a stupid, silly, impulsive decision by a miserable man done in an attempt to give shape to his largely meaningless life. There’s something incredibly human about that, especially considering he got so little out of it. I don’t think it means we should pity Sabzian, but I can relate to the underpinnings of his choice even if I find the choice itself to be a poor one. Most tragically, I get the impression that, beneath his constant pleas for pity, Sabzian didn’t really learn anything from the experience, and the second the camera stopped rolling he likely picked up his life of quiet desperation exactly where he’d left it before that fateful bus trip.

This is another area where I think one’s subjective reaction likely determines their reaction to Close-Up; if you look at Sabzian and just see a manipulative boob then the film as a whole likely looks much drier and more intellectual, as that’s what’s left over. Also worth mentioning that, while I agree the cinematography isn’t up to the standards of his other work, I love the way Kiarostami edits. His pacing is deliberate without forcing us to see the events a certain way; it leaves room for us to bring our own perspective. It’s patient without being punishing; relaxing without being narcotic. It’s noteworthy, though, that I didn’t appreciate the film’s rhythms to the same degree when I knew very little about the man behind the camera. Now I’m definitely biased. To misquote the Wu-Tang Clan: subjectivity rules everything around me.

(It also feels incredibly appropriate that the film has got us both questioning our own subjective reactions to it. Kiarostami would be proud.)

I have three short thoughts on the film’s ending:

1. The way the audio cuts in and out is the film’s most aggressive reminder of its own artificiality; appropriate for a scene that’s “real” yet never, ever would have happened without the film.

2. The real Makhmalbaf is nothing like Sabzian’s fantasy version of him. He’s polite but distant, almost cold. When they first meet Sabzian rushes in to hug him and Makhmalbaf almost immediately pivots to small talk (“How are you? When did you get out?”). Later, when Sabzian is crying in front of the Ahankhah’s house, Makhmalbaf awkwardly asks him what the date is instead of trying to engage with his feelings.

3. The tragedy of Sabzian’s story is clearest to me here. When Sabzian first rings on the Ahankhahs doorbell and they ask who it is, he says his name and they respond “Who?” All of Close-Up was filmed within three weeks of the trial, yet already these people have forgotten who this man is; his absurd actions weren’t even absurd enough to make him memorable to his victims. When Mr. Ahankhah does answer the door, he immediately shakes Makhmalbaf’s hand, clearly delighted to meet him, but barely looks at Sabzian. “I hope he’ll be good now and make us proud of him,” Mr. Ahankhah says, as if Sabzian were his hopeless loser grandson. The film then ends on a close up of Sabzian staring at the ground, unable to look Mr. Ahankhah in the eye. Shunted back into his life’s station, all of his confidence has evaporated. Sabzian could only find charisma and purpose while living in a lie.

Jim: There’s an interview with Kiarostami at Criterion in which he explains that the audio from Makhmalbaf’s lapel mic cutting in and out was added in post because Makhmalbaf was talking too much and ruining the contemplative effect Kiarostami wanted, so another layer of artificiality was added, by making it sound like there were audio problems when there were not. Maybe you know that, but I think it’s worth pointing out explicitly.

Sabzian really does come off as pathetic in the end, blubbering beside his hero, who’s clearly just humoring Kiarostami. I think the layers of artifice that are heaped on at the end totally obscure the film for me at that point. Why would Makhmalbaf pick up Sabzian and bring him to the Ahankhahs for what’s sure to be a painfully awkward and shameful experience?  It felt to me that the ending was Kiarostami gleefully driving everything over the cliff in one final act of self-defiance. But I was pretty disengaged from it by then, so I didn’t try to have it make sense.

You’re right that my blanket dislike for Sabzian discolored much of the film for me, and kept me from fully engaging with it. But I think, too, there’s an imbalance, as I see it, between the factual events both documented and reenacted for the film, and all the energy Kiarostami pours into it in order to tease out these truly perceptive and erudite observations about the mechanics of storytelling. Had Kiarostami read in the paper, instead, a story about some schmo impersonating a political figure, or a famous chef or something, he would have turned the page and never thought about it again. But because the schmo happened to impersonate a film director, ah, it stuck with him. It’s that age-old thing about how artists like best to make art about people like themselves, such as filmmakers in film, or writers in novels, which is inherently fine, but can, as in this instance, I’ll argue, lead to a less impressive, or poignant, work than could have been achieved with a better subject. It all just feels like much ado about nothing. The ideas are great (and I sincerely do mean that about Close-Up’s conceptual schematics), but the vehicle that delivers them is kinda sad and pathetic.

James: Thanks for sharing that behind-the-scenes tidbit on the ending’s audio. I had assumed it cutting in and out was an intentional choice because, as you point out, the end is so blatantly fake, but it’s always nice to confirm such things.

See, I think the ending’s artificiality is actually a perfect choice to cap off Sabzian’s story because in a sense it’s exactly what he wanted: he’s the star of a film, he gets to meet his hero, and he’s had his life’s biggest mistake (that we know of) forgiven, at least on paper. Yet despite that it is, as you say, actually kind of sad and pathetic. Sabzian’s dream, the dream of cinema and art more broadly as a force that can single-handedly give life meaning, was always a sand castle, a weak, supportless thing given form through its creator’s desire. The meeting with Makhmalbaf is the final wave that causes it to collapse entirely. That’s also why I disagree with you that a change in subject matter would have made this more interesting: the entire story is predicated on Sabzian’s belief that cinema is truth and that art can save him, a belief the film dismantles in multiple ways. If Sabzian were impersonating a politician or other public figure the film could have asked similar questions about identity, sure, but those questions wouldn’t have tied as neatly into the film’s overall obsession with art’s falsehood. The film’s structure also reflects Sabzian; both use the shroud of truthfulness, whether through sheer confidence or the documentary form, to obscure their own inherent falsehood. The difference is that the film wants us to see that and be aware of it and recognize it for the tragic thing it is, whereas Sabzian wants to hide within it.

With that, I think we’ve hit all the points I wanted to discuss about Close-Up. Anything else you’d like to add, Jim?

Jim: At the risk of chasing our tails ad infinitum, let me clarify that I am not suggesting Kiarostami should have pursued a different subject. I was only using the alternative subject scenario to point out what may have been Kiarostami’s less than rigorous decision to pursue the Sabzian story. But enough with all that.

I like your reading of the ending. It’s no doubt exactly what Kiarostami intended, by burying Sabzian in multiple layers of artifice. I’m reminded again of something Kiarostami said in an interview about Sabzian receiving some measure of celebrity after the film’s release, and how annoyed Kiarostami became with him, which is all too easy for me to imagine.

Thanks for bringing Close-Up to the conversation, James. It’s always a pleasure talking film with you. Maybe not as fun as our last one, for me anyhow, but we can’t always talk Pialat. 

I’d like to leave the discussion with you giving us a recommendation for something you’ve enjoyed lately. You did already give us an unsolicited recommendation for a TV show, but I want to solicit from you a nod to something not related to film or TV. 

James: I commented on it earlier, but it really is amusing to me how fitting this conversation has been for this particular film, with all of our backtracks and clarifications and pondering of our own biases. It’s been fun.

This is a little bit of a cheat but truthfully, movies aside, the thing I’ve been enjoying the most lately is going outside. I’ve been taking a lot of long walks and, with my Covid shot now coursing through me, have spent a lot of them fantasizing about all the things I’ll be able to do once I’m fully vaccinated. I don’t actually think my life will be that different once I take the guardrails off, or even when the pandemic is well and truly over and we can actually do everything again (my bar days were behind me before going to them could kill me), but just being able to spend time with friends and family indoors again will be a major relief. I’m not actually sure what I’m recommending right now (hope for the future, maybe?), but it’s what’s been on my mind. If Close-Up has taught me anything it’s that a little time away from screens, the inside of your own head, and the reflections of the inside of your own head created by screens is necessary to stay grounded. Maybe that’s my recommendation: get away from your screens in whatever way it suits you, reader. If you don’t you risk going full Sabzian.

Jim: Sound advice. Full Sabzian you do not want to go. Thanks, James. We’ll do it again. You’re always welcome here at Collokino.

James: Thanks for having me, Jim. Always a pleasure.