The Playful Cinema


It seems that the entire issue of this magazine is to be dedicated to the centennial of cinema. One hundred must be a lucky number, since in the ten-year collaboration between the writer and "Film Monthly" we've only twice been allowed to write without any length restrictions. The first was for the magazine's hundredth issue, and this time, for cinema's centennial. In the former case, we had to write according to a particular theme, but this time, we are free to write "On the occasion of cinema's centenary?"

Has cinema achieved enough to be able to meet up to the grandeur of a centennial? Why is 100 so significant anyway? Is it because it's a round figure, or maybe it's the first three-digit number, and "first" has always been important!  And now, about the word "cinema". As the Mogul says in Kimiavi's film, "What is cinema?" We still don't know what cinema is, and yet, we like to cheer for its birthday, or use it as an excuse to flirt with our childhood memories. But still, no matter what definition we have of cinema, if it is one of our preoccupations, then we should be more concerned than ever about cinema during its centennial. This is so because in spite of the fact that cinema has released itself from so many limitations, in its centennial, more than any other time, it has easily and complacently become entrapped in the censorship of the box office. This self-censorship is not only about content, but holds true in terms of form as well. In less democratic countries, politicians are more concerned with content in cinema, but in "free countries", its subject matter might be freer, though the form and style become the main victims.  Cinema has voluntarily turned itself into a lifeless entity, but cinema cannot survive without the existence of humanity. So if cinema has turned into something futile, it's because most of the audience have become too passive. Producers and investors in this day and age want to make blockbusters at any cost. For this, they must attract a large audience and to do this. The audience must be shown something that is familiar. A specific genre, like action, science fiction, gangster movies, musicals…would help. If a film is not straightforward and is innovative, it puts off the audience, since their minds have a tendency to reel familiar subjects and treatments. If in the midst of all these clichés there are some surprises and unexpected turning points, it's okay, but they should not go too far since cinema is not supposed to surprise us too much lest it becomes unknown and we usually don't like to get to know the unknown.


These days, cinema has really changed its mold.  Does cinema only take shape on celluloid and the silver screen? Worldwide ticket sales for American movies in 1992 totaled $4 billion, while video sales and rentals for the same films in the same year totaled $6 billion. So many people don't watch movies in a movie theatre, but still, their lives and thoughts are influenced by them. And we still have to consider local TV, satellite TV, Internet, cable TV, and video games as part of cinema, as part of larger visual culture, barrage of mass media, which is transforming our lives/realities. Even the sale of toys, T-shirts, chocolate, ice cream, key chains, and other objects which are sold based on the popularity of a certain cartoon or film character are a part of cinema, as well as the millions of magazines and newspapers devoted to the personal lives of actors and celebrities. The value standards and the value of standards of us are affected by cinema. By watching such films, our children and youth- and even some of us as adults- develop standard interpretations of love, hatred, beauty, gender, rivalry, and violence. So what's to become of ninety-five percent of the boys and girls who don't look like Sharon Stone or Tom Cruise?  How can the emotional and mental needs of these viewers be satisfied? At least viewers in the first-world have a one in a million chance of seeing themselves on the screen, however brief it may be, but what about the millions of  third-world inhabitants whose lives have no-apparent- relation to the films they see in theatres.


We easterners believe that there is no religion in the west, whereas, there, religions only take on different shapes. Wealth, fame, and sexual desirability have become the new religions and idols of people in the west First, man created cinema, and now cinema creates man.    But according to Wenders, "Cinema can-also- be an angel."  


The matters mentioned above were basically related to some social effects of cinema, but let’s move on to the aesthetic aspects of this art?  Is our definition of cinema only restricted to feature films? Hitchcock has said that a film can be shot in one location, under one roof, and still being cinematic, but film could also have numerous outdoor locations, as well as a lot of action and adventure, without being cinematic. If we accept this, we could say that a two hour film with several famous stars and a considerable amount of action and digital sound may not be "cinema", but a five minute home video about a simple event, can be more cinematic.


I do not mean to come up with weird ideas but if cinema can still be an art, which it is, it's therefore a medium of communication between the filmmaker and the viewer.  The problem with this is that this filmmaking process usually requires a lot of money and a great deal of team work. Taking into account that the final result must be put through a number of filters; can it still be considered the director's personal experience? If the directors are concerned about the return of the investment, do they have the necessary freedom for expressing themselves? If the producers weren't a nuisance, then why is it that Wenders, Jarmusch, Egoyan, and Kaurismaki often produce their own films? Naturally, the larger the investment in the film, the greater the anxiety of its investors. As a result, the lower the budget, the greater the filmmaker’s freedom and peace of mind. And if we take out the inseparable aspect of freedom from art, then what is left?  - of course a part of artistic creation includes an understanding of the limitations, but no matter how seriously we consider these limitations there is no reason to deny the advantages of freedom. - The form and format of a 90-minute feature film made for the large screen, are actually in greater contrast to the filmmaker's freedom than, for example, short films, experimental films, or documentaries. And since the finance of such films are usually through the government’s grants- or even in some cases the filmmakers’ friends- they've basically kissed the money goodbye. So, if we look for the purest form in cinema, it's more logical to want to watch and make short films or documentaries.  I know in Iran, there's less chance of seeing experimental films -a duty which apart from the small exclusive festivals can only be expected of TV-. I truly regret this, but I cannot help confessing that in the past 9 years of my life abroad, I've seen many extraordinary short films, experimentals and documentaries which were so innovative that I can no longer take feature films that seriously.  No matter how far the rules are bent in feature films, still they must respect some of the conventional storytelling norms in filmmaking: 1-tell a story 2-entertain 3-not intellectually pressure the audience…Of course, I'm not so idealistic to believe that a family would see a short film or documentary at the end of a long working week. This is meant for those who have a more serious approach to the cinema. That kind of cinema needs to exist and it cannot be stopped, but that other kinds of cinema should also being given some room to breathe and for this, various types of filmmaking and film culture should be acknowledged. Perhaps, more importantly, according to psychology books, we should understand the concept of "another way of seeing."


{From here on fictional films will simply be referred to as feature films; fictional short, experimental and animation films will be referred to as short films; and experimental or conventional documentaries as documentaries.}


On the subject of conventions, many cinematic devices, which are common now, brought about a major revolution in their own time. For example, up until the 60s, the camera stayed on the person speaking until he or she finished and then, after a pause, cut to the replying character. Introduction of a new location/scene was always done beginning with a long shot, or breaking the eye line used to be an unforgettable sin…but when French New Wave focused on the face of the listener, and showed the listener's reaction to the speaker, or when Godard in 1959 introduced the jump cut for the first time in Breathless, he received a series of imprecations -in the midst of others' praise-. However, now we are accustomed to all this through (ads in) TV, video clips…Before Godard, cinema always wanted to tell us: “please believe me’!  I am not Brando. I am the worker in the waterfront”. Or sometimes the opposite: “I am Marilyn Monroe, not an ordinary woman”, but Godard came along and said that this is cinema, not reality; it's the filmmaker who plays games with us. As I play this music and you begin to enjoy it, I turn it off for no apparent reason, just to remind you that this is cinema!  Or a piece by Beethoven is linked to one by Tom Waits. Or the actor turns around and stares into our eyes for 30 solid seconds and reminds us that there's a camera.  When Godard was making the film Contempt, Brigitte Bardot was quite popular, so, at the very beginning of the film, Godard showed a 5 minute close-up of her lying down naked on a bed…“here you are, all you can get”! He is constantly reminding us that this is cinema. I'm playing with you”. If anyone asks me to describe the cinema I like, I should say “playful cinema”. And Godard, as far as I know, was the first person to consistently shock the audience and the world of cinema with each of his films. The choice of cinema of this humble soul -which from now on will be referred to as cinema- should not cut where we expect it. Cinema means doing whatever it likes regardless of the boring reality. It means freedom to the extent that people can look into the camera as long as they wish for. Cinema means unconventional and unreal use of sounds and music. Cinema can be total imagery -Parajanov, Antonioni…or it can be talkative -Fellini, Ozu-. Cinema can only be alive when it has disengaged itself from rules and norms, and instead invented new rules and a new language from every new experience. It is only in this playfulness that life flows through cinema beyond the “dos” and “don'ts”. 


Making fun is not the intention when cinema is called playful; on the contrary, the playful cinema is quite serious, since it is constantly challenging our preconceived ideas. This playfulness is not exclusive to Godard or Bunuel's surreal atmosphere, or Fellini's Italian humor, but also includes filmmakers such as Antonioni, Bergman, Tarkovsky and Bresson. Playfulness means choosing unconventional subjects and characters; camera, sound, editing, and music that's free of reality. There are many examples in Iranian cinema (in order of production year) The Cow-1969, A Simple Event-1973, Still Life-1974, The Waiting-1974, The Stone Garden-1976, The Runner-1983, Water, Wind, Dust-1985, The Peddler-1986, The Cyclist-1987, The Reed and the Pomegranate-1989,  Homework-1989,  Life Goes On-1991, persisted through their playfulness. And if we were to select the most playful films in the history of Iranian cinema, in which true reality, symbolism, and re-enacted reality are combined to make up the filmmaker's unique world, we could name The Moguls-1973, Close Up-1990, A Time to Love-1990, Once Upon a Time Cinema-1992, Through the Olive Trees-1994 and Salaam Cinema-1995.


Cinema doesn't even have to have images-in the standard sense- since a filmmaker in true artistic freedom and on the verge of death and blindness -Derek Jarman- has the right to present his last film by projecting a single blue color on the screen and combining it with collages of sounds from old family films, and it would still be cinema. We can’t think otherwise because there's no image. It does have an image; it's the blue background. I haven't seen this film, but I'm sure that the feeling the viewer has from watching this film will be quite different from listening to it on the radio. The viewer, who watches peaceful blue color on the screen and listens simultaneously, is looking at the world and hearing it through the eyes of a blind, yet if this is not a film and just a recorded sound, the viewer is trying to enter the world of the blind through the power of his own imagination. Now putting physical problems aside, doesn't cinema have the power to place a hand upon the emotional problems of its maker? Such filmmakers as Bergman, Antonioni, Tarkovsky, Woody Allen, Wim Wenders, and John Cassavetes verified that they were partly healed through filmmaking. A cinema that is capable of helping us reach humanity is more significant than a cinema that could be an angel. Didn't we have the angel above Berlin who preferred to be human? Angels are supposed to be free and meticulous observers and a filmmaker or an artist is also supposed to be a careful observer, free from judgment. The freer the filmmaker, the more angelic; the more angelic, the more artistic; the more artistic, the more humane.


Another aspect of feature filmmaking is the filmmaker's need to be successful. Conventional filmmakers are looking for mass audience, and their criterion for a successful film is having the good box office return. More adventurous filmmakers are seeking a more intelligent audience and their criteria for success is festival prizes, and receiving good reviews, and if they're lucky, success at the box office. (But generally, box-office hits are not always considered an achievement by their makers. After the unexpected success of Hannah and her Sisters, Woody Allen lost interest in this film. And upon Jesus of Montreal's international acclaim and success at the box office, even in America, the French Canadian Denys Arcand said: “I must have made a mistake somewhere…”) Yet no matter how free a filmmaker may be, it’s not easy to forget the pleasure of receiving an award. 


In a documentary about Bresson, in the closing ceremony of the 1984 Cannes Film Festival, three film geniuses who could even be considered mystics of cinema, appear on the stage together: Orson Welles, Tarkovsky, and Bresson. In an interview at the beginning of this film, Tarkovsky declared that Bresson has the most transcendental position in the history of cinema. This was at a time that his film, Nostalgia, was in the competition with Bresson's Money, and it was rumored that the Palm D'or would be shared. Tarkovsky announces in a press conference that if awarded half of the Palm D'or, he would not accept it -this information was derived from other sources, and this scene was not in this documentary-. But at the end of the same film, we see Welles announcing Robert Bresson as the winner. A few years ago, Welles had said that he doesn't care much for Bresson and his films. There are two festival’s staffs on stage, who like Welles, are supposed to be in charge of affairs. Bresson emerges from backstage and slowly moves from a corner of the stage towards the center, where Welles stands behind a microphone. There is applause from the audience. Welles doesn't turn to look at Bresson, although he holds the award in his hand. Bresson reaches Welles and the microphone and shakes hands with the two other festival staff members near Welles, but Welles who shows no interest in shaking hands with Bresson, doesn't even look at him. Bresson, looking like he had done something wrong, stands behind Welles' towering figure, in a somewhat nervous and awkward manner. Then, Welles announces Tarkovsky's name, who despite his threat in the conference, appears on stage. The audience shows greater excitement. Welles turns to him and smiles and shakes his hand. Tarkovsky, having received his award moves away from Welles and the microphone and joins the threesome. Neither of the winners intend to make a speech and they both look like helpless wounded creatures, as everyone waits for one of the three to say something. One of the guides tries to fill the silence by saying, "Quite a gathering!" Three geniuses who don't have the capacity of standing next to each other. Bresson makes a hand gesture indicating that he has nothing to say; Tarkovsky hesitantly steps up to the microphone and says: "Merci Beaucoup!" and heads for the exit, but pauses and bows to the audience. Bresson moves away from Welles and joins Tarkovsky, and leading him by the left elbow, they both take a bow and leave the stage.

Eleven years later, I'm in Cannes myself. Angelopolous upon hearing his name as the winner of the Jury’s Special Prize does not move from his seat, and Amir Kustarica, the winner of the Palm D'or for Underground says, "I made this film for Cannes!" A few days prior to this incident, Makhmalbaf  is supposed to have a television interview on the rooftop restaurant of the Festival Palace. Since I was making a documentary about him and Salaam Cinema, I follow him into the restaurant with an ordinary video camera and he and the journalist sit at a table and wait for the TV crew to set up. I am busy shooting some of these scenes when Wenders, walks into the restaurant. It's 5 p.m. and there's no one but the restaurant staff and us. A public screening of his film, The Lisbon Story has been going on for the past 10 minutes but I had seen it the day before when it was screened for journalists. The show at the end of which some had booed and some had applauded. Wenders, looking nervous and worried -he had probably just made an introduction of his film to the audience- was pacing the restaurant, oblivious to the TV crew, Makhmalbaf, and me filming. After a few moments, he noticed me first. When he looked into the camera, I felt rather embarrassed for having intruded on his privacy. I panned on Makmalbaf's table. Makmalbaf, upon recognizing Wenders -whose Wings of Desire had moved him greatly- is staring at him with sharp, inquisitive eyes. I kept the camera on Makhmalbaf, but I glanced out of the corner of my eye at Wenders, who momentarily stared at Makmalbaf. I don't know what went on in their minds, but a few years ago Wenders was so popular in Cannes that he had received the title of “Cinema’s guardian angel”.  In my opinion, an award winning filmmaker was looking at another successful filmmaker who had not yet won and saying, “one day you might be where I am now, a forgotten award winner” and I say to myself: “I am so lucky to be filming a small unknown documentary on a ten-dollar video tape, which its success or failure will not reach a large number of people”.  But as this thought went through my mind I asked myself, “Is it a case of sour grapes?”  I do know that my curiosity will drag me into the deadly game of making a feature film!  Then we’ll see how well I’ll do. 


This is not to say that certain phenomena are absolute; that a short film is good and a feature film is bad.  The number of no good short films intended to imitate the conventional style of feature films without having the minimum required technical skills as well as feature films filled with new and pure experiences are not few in the history of cinema.  Writing these lines brought me to the realization that all of my favorite filmmakers who are still working -Jean-Luc Godard, Atom Egoyan, Aki Kaurismaki, Hal Hartley, Wenders and Jarmusch- in their earlier years-, Shahid Sales, Kimiavi, Naderi, Kiarostami, Makhmalbaf- have made or make films in different formats and lengths.  All of them consciously and unconsciously agree with Fellini who says: “…if regret is a good feeling, then I regret not having made more films; I wish I had made all kinds of films: documentary, commercial, children’s films, and the kind of melodramas shown in parks…” These filmmakers look at cinema and its various kinds in such a genuine, pure and affectionate way that the general aspects and classifications of cinema are of no concern to them.


If someone were to ask me, “What’s the formula for a successful film?” I would answer that we don’t necessarily need access to a 16 or 35 mm camera, a big investment, established actors and so on.  The accessible cinema exists in every little crevice of our lives.  We can start from our ordinary home video camera.  Renoir has said, “Any moving image is cinema.”  At that time, film only existed on celluloid but thanks to the Japanese, now we’ve got handy-cams galore.  We can even use still pictures to make a motion picture.  About thirty years ago, Chris Marker used a series of photographs and combined them with the sound and the narration and made a film that has no motion -that is if we don’t consider editing and timing of the scenes as motion-.  The story of our film could be anything that has recently moved us, and life is full of movement.  So let’s not disappoint our tiny video cameras and let’s not assume that pure cinema only exists within a dark cinema.  Pure cinema is our personal life and experiences, which can be created through a video camera.  In fact, this cinema is even more pure since it is not reliant on money and capital, and furthermore it’s not interested in pleasing the producer or viewer.  The filmmaker must be gratified and that’s that.  If (s)he’s satisfied, there are sure to be those who can relate to her/him.  In cinema, we must do what we like, as we like.  Nowadays our problem is not the lack of facilities but rather finding an audience for our films.


In my own favorite kind of cinema, Godard’s birth is the most important event after the invention of the camera by Lumiere Brothers.  Lumiere Brothers invented this weapon for us and left us, and now, anyone can get their hands on one and do with it what they will.  But Godard, in his thirty five years of filmmaking -incidentally, just as long as my lifetime!-, and from the time cinema was sixty five years old, has killed it with every film and then again given it new life.  Cinema can only live under these conditions. 


Yes, we should celebrate cinema’s centennial, but which cinema?  The cinema which stupefies and brainwashes, or that which purifies, enlightens, and frees us?  Cinema can be an angel but even more difficult than that is it can and must make us more humane. 


In my opinion, the cinema dominating this world presently has no relationship to true cinema,  but finally, to hell with cinema, what’s important is life.  The greatest thinkers agree that life is serious and distressing.  However, to maintain competence and to stay alive it must be laughed at!  Cinema is the closest art to life, and maybe that’s why it’s so serious and dangerous.  But ultimately it is man who through experience and feelings for this medium must strengthen his emotional and observational receptors in order to flow with life and laugh at this cinema.  For me, this kind of cinema is more reflected in short experimental films and unconventional documentaries.  If I’m lucky I may see some of these traits once or twice a year in a feature film which has been made in some corner of this world. -In fact these days, one of these significant corners is our very own Iran. -  Taking into account my opinions and ideas of this kind of cinema for the time being, and as one of millions of film lovers, I wish cinema a happy birthday.  Happy birthday to this kind of cinema.