I’m going to put a real effort into Tumblr as I delve back into more film criticism stuff, which means I need to fix a glaring glitch that is essentially all Tumblr’s fault.
Y’see… Okay, so, say you sign up for Tumblr when it first comes out, not expecting to take it off, really. You sign up with a joke premise of a blog, a beer review blog (which is actually a great idea, seriously, I would get on that shit if I had 3 more hours in the day), so you sign up with the name brewhaha, unwitting to the fact that Tumblr makes your first blog your “account” blog. Which is all fine and dandy until you start to follow people and then they wonder who this brewhaha person is with the empty blog. It’s me guys. I’m brewhaha. I cannot switch my “account” blog to tinahassannia no matter how hard I try, SO… Reboot time! I’ve switched the URL name on this blog so I could reclaim tinahassannia.tumblr.com, meaning if you unfollow me, go to tinahassannia.tumblr.com, you’ll be able to follow me again, and we’ll pretend this whole mess never happened. Of course, if you decide that actually, fuck that shit, I’m not worth following after all, that’s fair, I totally understand, too.
Tina “brewhaha” Hassannia
— Omar Khayyam
In charkh O’ falak keh ma dar an hayranim
Fanus-e Khial az an mesali danim
Khorshid cheraghdan o ‘alam fanus
Ma chon sovarim kandaru heiranim.
For in and out, above, about, below,
‘Tis nothing but a Magic Shadow-show
Played in a Box whose Candle is the Sun,
Round which we Phantom figures come and go.
The high-class show houses and the touring exhibitors such as Lyman Howe had well-rehearsed teams of people behind the screen, making sounds, and mechanical sound-effect devices, but in the little nickelodeon sometimes the most that could be afforded was the pianist. The drummer with his set of traps providing sound effects was generally the next employed after the pianist, if the budget allowed for two musicians. Both of them, but especially the drummer, soon found they could amuse themselves and the audience by providing deliberately inappropriate sound effects and drum rolls, making comedies out of heavy melodramas. Tender love scenes and tragic death scenes could easily be made to provoke laughter with a drum roll, a falling body could become slapstick with a sound effect, and a kiss could be emphasized with smacking sounds. Probably many of the films deserved this treatment, but once they started on this course, the musicians could also ruin a very good film and frequently did. The critics, who in those days more frequently saw films with audiences than at private screenings, reported the totally different effect the same films could have when seen with or without competent and appropriate accompaniment.
“History of the American Cinema: The Transformation of Cinema,1907-1915,” Eileen Bowser, p. 14-15
What distinguishes “A Separation” from other, internationally recognized Iranian films is its labyrinthine screenplay, which has more in common with the twists and turns of a conventional Western narrative than it does with the relatively sparse, aesthetically austere films found in the Iranian social realist and arthouse genres. Our sympathy for certain characters versus others is called into question repeatedly as this film’s narrative gracefully unspools. But the end result is less a whodunit thriller than a thoughtful critique, one that resonates both regionally (paranoia and desperation are felt deeply in Iranian society) and universally (morals are often more polymorphous than we think).
If “A Separation’s” approval by the Farabi Cinema Foundation—the governing body that supervises all film productions in Iran—seems odd at first, there are two possible explanations for this. One is that Farabi has mistaken the representation of lower-class religious couple Razieh (Sareh Bayat) and Hodjat (Shahab Hosseini) to be virtually wholesome compared to the bourgeois, less-religious Nader (Peyman Moadi) and Simin (Leila Hatami). The second explanation would suggest that Farabi’s approval process is actually somewhat more relaxed than we’ve been led to believe, which is further supported by the approval of other, more explicitly radical films (for example, Kamal Tabrizi’s “The Lizard,” a comedy involving a thief who escapes prison by impersonating a mullah).
Having a more liberal script approval policy also mollifies the government’s harsh censorship reputation. But in most cases, speculation over the organization’s guiding criteria (vague in theory, inconsistent in practice) is pointless; framing the cultural importance of a work within the ‘righteous’ taste of the Farabi validates the foundation, and suggests Iranian cinema should always be discussed in the context of the restrictions facing filmmakers. For most Iranian films, I avoid focusing any attention on censorship because there’s more important territory to be discussed—namely, the work itself.
But “A Separation” is kind of an exception. The film’s acute representation of Iranian life is a moral Rorschach test that will provoke varied interpretations from the mullahs, the Iranian community whose religious views fall on a wide spectrum of progressiveness across different faiths; Iranians inside and outside the country; non-Muslim viewers; and non-Iranian viewers. It’s all too easy to point out the systemic flaws in Iranian society so present here. Why, for instance, is Nader charged with murder instead of manslaughter for what was clearly an accident? Why is Simin unable to leave the country without her husband Nader’s permission? Why is Hodjat equally upset (if not more so) about his wife Razieh working for another man as he is over her miscarriage? The list goes on and on.
Farhadi uses the logistics of current Iranian legal processes to plot out the events that might occur were his drama to play out in real life. And with no clear winners or losers—and with character motivations that can be weighed as simultaneously ignoble and understandable, frequently resulting from a fear of God, or the law, or both—it’s almost impossible to determine for whom Farhadi is rooting. A Westerner may find themselves more attuned to the headstrong Simin’s desire to leave Iran with her daughter, because in their perspective Iran seems like a dangerous place for women to live. Similarly, a very religious Muslim will understand the devout Razieh’s apprehension in assisting an old man to undress himself (and calling an imam for approval), but this detail may bewilder Western audiences (as it certainly appears to have done, considering how frequently it’s mentioned in Western reviews).
Like so many Iranian films, generational stigmas, particularly those that effect a country’s youth, play an important role here; children offer the perfect blank canvas onto which social ideals can be imprinted. Simin and Nader’s young daughter Termeh (Sarina Farhadi) must learn to navigate the confounding and contradictory rules of this society, which means she must also learn that truth can be flexible, even as one’s obstinacy cannot be. It’s telling that, in “A Separation’s” closing scene, when asked by a judge which parent she would like to live with, Termeh breaks down; she may have learned how to lie, how to posture, but that pressure weighs on a person as much as it does a society.
From M. Sicinski’s “A Separation” review (Cinema Scope):
… [I]n order to be selected as Iran’s submission for the Oscars, A Separation had to garner a recommendation from the nine-member Farabi Cinema Foundation, a para-governmental arts-and-culture administration. Anyone concerned about the nefarious double-dealings of the MPAA should check out the language on the Farabi website which, remember, reflects the Islamist apparatchiks at their most benign. Farabi describes itself as having saved Iranian cinema from the “mystic cinema” of “the first decade of the 80s” [sic], when “the dominating aspects of the films produced by Andrei Tarkovsky and Sergei Paradjanov” as well as “leftist revisionists” essentially crippled the glorious cinema of Iran. (Where Is the Friend’s Home? ; The Cyclist ; The Tenants ; Canary Yellow . I think we all remember those dark days!) “Such films,” say the Farabis, “repelled the spectators mainly choosing cinema to spend one to two hours having fun.”
It’s virtually a truism that censors are too stupid for words. That’s precisely what makes them dangerous. But this is also why they can be fleeced to such productive effect; ideologues may see enemies everywhere, but this is the paranoid inverse of their true psychological condition. They tend to see their own ideas reflected in every social institution, in the supposed “heart and soul” of the people they oppress under the guise of service. If Farhadi is somehow able to make films in Iran, distribute them, and even to have political organs like the Farabi Foundation actively promote them, then this is not the result of political capitulation on the filmmaker’s part, at least so far as the evidence onscreen may serve as testimony. It is entirely possible, I suppose, that the cine-mullahs of the Islamic Republic look at A Separation’s conflict between the dissolving middle-class couple of the original title, Nader (Peyman Moaadi) and Simin (Leila Hatami), on the one hand, and smugly pious lower-class Razieh (Sareh Bayat) and Hodjat (Shahab Hosseini) on the other, and see a validation of humble values, an indictment of the exploitation of poor, unsophisticated Shia traditionalists by the decadent bourgeoisie. If so, Farhadi should make sure this exact panel of numbskulls assembles to approve all his subsequent work.
I make a similar argument about the open-ended nature of character motivations and moral beliefs in “A Separation” in my upcoming InRO review because I truly do believe that Sicinski is right here, that Iranian authorities may find redeemable qualities in Hodjat and Razieh which not only cancel out their faults but offer a “realistic” representation of religious Iranians that contrast with the equally-flawed, cosmopolitan, secular-by-comparison Iranians.
But I also caution against the act of speculation because institutions like Farabi offer negligible levels of transparency or consistency in their decisions. Their opinions are influenced by shifting tastes and interpretations of works previously approved by the government. A good example is Farabi’s current self-proclaimed distaste for domestic productions inspired by Tarkovskian mysticism.* According to Alberto Elena in “The Cinema of Abbas Kiarostami,” the Iranian authorities once held the exact opposite position, back in the ’80s (pg. 54):
Popular entertainment films, a genre that was never questioned as long as it respected Islamic principles and values, thus commanded a significant audience share. Nevertheless, the Islamic authorities never hid their tastes and preferences, and during this same period, for example, they made considerable efforts to promote so-called ‘mystical cinema’, a local variation of the hermetic style and philosophical concerns of certain foreign directors who were respected by the regime (Tarkovski being at the top of the list).
I think the new-gen Farabis need to eat their cultural vegetables.
*Elena offers a fantastic meta-analysis of the Sufi and Persian poetry influences in “Where Is The Friend’s House?” (pgs. 72-78). He warns that the film should not be mistaken as some kind of religious project or that Kiarostami is interested in maintaining Islamic traditions and ideas. The influence is more Persian than Islamic. The concept of the journey as a form of learning, soul-seeking, and self-revelation is a leitmotif in Persian poetry that speaks to the culture’s progressive mentality. Similarly, “Friend’s House” is forward-thinking even if it is utterly depressing. Kiarostami gently points out the generational issues in Iranian society that (still) need changing.
“Time hasn’t been kind to old movies” says film historian René Tabard to Hugo and Isabelle, the tenacious young duo who unravel the mystery of early cinema at the center of Martin Scorsese’s first children’s film. This line—and a dramatic scene in which old celluloid is melted—is about as explicit as “Hugo” gets about Scorsese’s passionate advocacy of film preservation. It’s only in the film’s second hour that the focus turns to the old, forgotten films of cinemagician Georges Méliès (Ben Kingsley), at which point “Hugo” finally takes off. Scorsese’s didacticism never bludgeons here; his fervor to validate an underdog topic in today’s popular discourse about the future of cinema is fully realized.
The first half of “Hugo” is spent expositing the hard-knock life of the film’s eponymous protagonist, who lives in the hidden corridors of Paris’s Montparnasse Train Station, where he avoids orphan-hating Inspector Gustav (Sacha Baron Cohen), fixes the station clocks (in lieu of his absent, alcoholic, station-employed uncle), and keeps himself alive with pilfered croissants and a fierce determination to fix a rusty automaton. An heirloom from Hugo’s deceased horologist father (Jude Law), the automaton requires some sleight-of-hand to mend: nuts and bolts stolen from stony toy-store owner Papa Georges (Kingsley). Upon befriending Isabelle, Georges’s goddaughter, Hugo sets out on an adventure to find the last remaining piece to fix his automaton, which he believes carries a message from his father.
This child’s adventure eventually becomes an even more rich exploration into the past of Papa Georges, whom Hugo and Isabelle learn was one of the most legendary filmmakers from the turn-of-the-century era of the Cinema of Attractions. When you read about “Hugo,” or the book upon which it’s based (Brian Selznick’s “The Invention of Hugo Cabret”), the story sounds promising in that whimsical vein of early Harry Potter books: adventure, mystery, and unexplained trinkets unlock not only doors (though that too) but secrets to forgotten legacies. It is painstakingly obvious that Scorsese’s earnest love of early film is the raison d’etre of this adaptation, and his confident, self-conscious desire to teach kids—and adults, too—about the magic of early cinema is an admirable mission. It’s a much-needed lesson for kids especially, who may not understand how films are made, or even the technical specifics of the form.
Hallmarks of modernity—trains, clocks, wind-up toys—are treated as quaint old-timey stuff, without much reverence. Perhaps then it’s because Scorsese has such an intimate relationship with cinema that it is spared a similarly bland fetishization. There are a few key scenes in which Scorsese hones in on the tactile quality of film: a shot of celluloid being melted to be used in high-heel shoes is among of the film’s most emotional moments, as is another in which film strips are measured, snipped and edited by an ambitious young Méliès. These rare moments have purpose, whereas the majority of the film’s narrative turns dependent on 1930s technology which feels empty by comparison, used only for its aesthetic appeal. The main setting, Montparnasse Train Station, is not only an emblem of modernity but a cornucopia of treasures for Scorsese, where steam-emanating clockwork is magical, nearly fantastical, with gears, wheels, pendulums acting as Hugo’s close circle of friends. (Because this is a children’s film, I should clarify that they’re not literally his friends; this is not “Beauty and the Beast,” thank god.)
Scorsese never explores the ubiquitous and necessitous nature of technology in early twentieth-century life—a potentially more daring approach—but he does touch briefly on certain motifs, like futurism and the anxiety of technology breaking down (especially in Hugo’s dreams; one in which he’s an automaton and another in which he causes the famous 1895 MontParnasse derailment). But Hugo’s anxiety has little to do with technology; instead he requires Inspector Gustav to back off for a little while so he can gain recognition and respect from Papa Georges. The film is not bereft of such thematic ideas, it just doesn’t understand their potential. Before Hugo experiences his nightmares he confides in Isabelle a theory about his place in the world, despite being an orphan. If the world operated like a clock, which never comes with any extra parts, then surely even his existence means he has a purpose, like any other cog. If people have purposes, perhaps they can breakdown like machines? Hugo surmises his purpose is to fix broken machines, as well as the broken Papa Georges. This is heavy, existential stuff for a kid’s film, and it could have easily been weaved into a much more interesting tale about the naiveté of technological determinism (a story in which Hugo discovers, for example, that not all people are “fixable”), but the fleeting conversation only tangentially ties to Méliès’s broken past and future.
A refusal to explore more pertinent themes about modernity in a children’s film is permissible, but “Hugo” is so flimsily constructed in other vital areas that its last leg, an exciting retrospective on Méliès, can’t entirely save it. Typically, uneven films start with great premises and taper off with tepid finishes, revealing the incremental breakdown of a creatively exhausted screenwriter. In “Hugo,” this inadequacy is reversed. We are expected to identify with the malnourished Hugo, but his lifeless automaton has more charm. We are invited to poo-poo Méliès’s and Gustav’s cruelty towards Hugo, and later to accept their acrimony as part of adulthood. However, their sudden change of heart does not trigger us to do the same. The initial distrust between the reticent Hugo and Méliès doesn’t even make logical sense.
There’s one thing “Hugo’s” many weaknesses can’t negate: a breathtaking, remastered “A Trip to the Moon,” which concludes a flashback through Méliès’s career. This flashback in itself is “Hugo’s” highpoint; it recreate Méliès’s elaborate sets, ambitious special effects enterprises, that exciting flurry of studio activity we all recognize from contemporary Hollywood sets, and it brings life and color to old films rarely acknowledged or mythologized for their behind-the-scenes abracadabra. Scorsese set out to make “A Trip to the Moon” three-dimensional in the technical sense of the word. He also accomplishes this feat conceptually, fleshing out the little-known past of Georges Méliès’s career through mesmerizing sequences that leave the viewer longing for more Georges Méliès and less Hugo Cabret.
In “The Descendants,” George Clooney’s suave, natural good humor and effortless performance as lawyer and family man Matt King tempers director Alexander Payne’s signature white male acerbity. “The Descendants” is so well structured and paced that it’s tempting to call it Payne’s strongest film to date; he’s honed this well-trodden formula of midlife masculine woe (see also: “About Schmidt,” “Election,” “Sideways”), and King is the most sympathetic character in his canon. Clooney’s narration compellingly sutures the viewer into Matt’s world, invoking his successful real-estate practice, beautiful Hawaiian home, and an inheritance of multi-million-dollar native land. But there’s also a wife in a coma who may not make it, and two daughters who happen to be utterly unmanageable—due in no small part to Matt’s negligent parenting, his scornful relatives envy of his position as sole fiduciary of family-owned land, and the troubling news that his dying wife was unfaithful. “The Descendants” sketches the difficult period Matt endures after learning of his wife’s affair, and plays out like the itinerary of a grief-stricken but strong-surviving spouse paying due diligence and navigating difficult life decisions in the process.
But Payne goes wrong, as he frequently does. This isn’t because his films—all about and for privileged white men, flawed but human—are inherently of no value. It’s because Payne tries to legitimize the concept of their privilege without recognizing the self-satisfied superiority it affords them. There are occasional scenes of self-awareness and reflexivity about hegemony in Payne’s film—such as the final scene of “About Schmidt,” wherein Schmidt realizes the insular selfishness of his life as compared to an impoverished African foster child. But even this revelation frames said foster child’s misfortune only in relation to Schmidt, whose redemption through empathy is the emotional focus of the scene, and also the film. “The Descendants,” on the other hand, is explicitly about colonization, and ultimately just as clueless about its character’s awareness. Matt makes mention of the fact his family was luckily born into colonized wealth, and understands the community’s concern of privatizing native land. But his final decision to keep the land is for purely selfish reasons; it’s so his descendants, particular his daughter Scotty, who never got to enjoy camping in their generous plot of Hawaiian paradise, can still enjoy it. Does he make the “right” decision, morally? I would say yes, but his arrival at that conclusion is anything but socially conscious—and Payne, for his part, seems totally oblivious about those implications.
Compounding the dubiousness of “The Descendants,” women are treated as a ubiquitous source of misery for Matt, the sole exception being (maybe) his 17-year old daughter, Alex (Shailene Woodley), who learns to love and trust her father seemingly overnight. In contrast, youngest daughter Scottie (Amara Miller) bullies a native schoolmate, to whom she is forced to apologize, but does not immediately convince the schoolmate’s contemptuous mother; the scene that plays out is scripted to implicitly ridicule female cattiness and (to a lesser degree, with regard to the bullied girl) the awkwardness of female puberty. Almost every woman in “The Descendants” is frumpy and petty, from Elizabeth, Matt’s unfaithful, alcoholic wife, to her friend Kai, who defends her decision to keep the affair a secret from Matt (you see, it’s Kai’s husband who, in a gesture of male-buddy goodwill, tells Matt the man’s name). There’s also Matt’s mother-in-law, who has Alzheimer’s and mistakes her daughter’s name for the Queen’s, and Elizabeth’s lover’s spouse (Judy Greer), who eventually finds out about her husband’s betrayal and hysterically breaks down by Elizabeth’s hospital bed, an emotional moment turned comedic when Matt diplomatically interjects and ejects her out of the room (transforming her outpour into a punchline). The point is, Matt’s major source of stress is a constant stream of female hysteria and drama, while male characters of all kinds are continually allowed redemption in “The Descendants”—even Sid, Alex’s initially obnoxious boyfriend, is given depth when he tells Matt about the death of his father.
Contempt for women is not a new motif for Payne; the female characters in “About Schmidt” include a homely, fussy wife, an emotionally aloof daughter engaged to an unattractive man, and said man’s boorish, overweight mother, whose naked body is used as a gag in one of the film’s most (tellingly) iconic scenes. But in “The Descendants,” Payne becomes even more explicit. When Kai tries to delicately explain to Matt that Elizabeth’s betrayal was a result of the couples’ splintering relationship, she cannot articulate it without blurting out, “It’s not her fault!” This turns out to be the most tactless way to contextualize the affair, and the best way to infuriate Matt: “Nothing is ever a woman’s fault,” he spits, turning to face Kai’s husband—the more reliable, male friend—for support. There’s no suggestion in the air that we’re meant to disagree—however impertinent or sexist, it’s Matt we’re aligned with, narratively and emotionally—and if it’s supposed to be ‘just anger talking,’ Matt’s never afforded a chance to change his mind. “The Descendants” is frustrating because its bad qualities simply cannot be redeemed by its good ones, which doesn’t mean it isn’t satisfying to see a storyteller of Payne’s talent craft such an emotionally compelling script. If only Payne developed a greater critical understanding of his characters and distanced himself from their less than defensible attributes, he may really have something.
Some extremely messy, not very well-argued notes on “Shame” because it’s been a hot topic on Twitter today:
1) Part of the reason why talking about “Shame” w/r/t sexual addiction is so frustrating is that many people are firstly unaware of the psychological conceptualization of sex addiction and the myriad arguments occurring in the sexology community about a working definition of “sex addiction.” My psych minor barely qualifies me to talk about it on behalf of the APA. However, what I’ve come to learn about any kind of sexual disorder through the courses I took with Peggy Kleinplatz, a fantastic professor at the University of Ottawa who has a sex therapy practice, was that
a) the DSM has been historically moralistic in its inclusion of so-called sexual “disorders”—this includes not only homosexuality in the past. It’s an ongoing issue, for example, its inclusion of paraphilias in the DSM-IV-TR.
b) clients frequently ask my old prof if their sexual activities, be it having a fetish for feet or masturbating thirty times a day, is “normal.” Often they are not experiencing any interference in their lives due to masturbating 30 times a day, but they harbor anxiety from being “abnormal”—this arises from their own schema of how sexuality should “exist” in society, and it’s ultimately based on what society reflects back at them. Feet fetishes are weird, we say. So they feel estranged and marginalized.
2) People should be aware that the only time a sexual behaviour becomes a problem is when it interferes with one’s life in various capacities, e.g. it prevents one from completing professional tasks or it prevents one from having satisfying personal relationships. However, these activities are again, social constructs defined by a group of professional psychologists. What may be a satisfying relationship for one person (e.g. talking to a single friend once a week and remaining a hermit the rest of the time) may sound absolutely misanthropic and “abnormal” to most people.
The whole field of psychology is based on societal mores, let us not forget this. So to say that “Shame” is about the psychology of sex addiction is to mask the fact that psychologizing any kind of behaviour is rooted in social expectations, scripts, acceptable behaviours, and supposed duties we have as a member of society. This is especially true when it involves sexuality. When we talk about sexuality, our own morals, expectations and beliefs about it are revealed.
3) “Shame” does not simply show us that Brandon is a sex addict because he pays for sex, both in real life, online and with pornography, and that he is depraved as a result. The film shows us that his deeper personal problems connecting with other people has forced him to find some kind of physical outlet—this is purely physical sex, the kind that you pay for. But that this is not enough for him. He’s still anguished.
Brandon is unhappy in all of his relationships, whether or not they are romantic/sexual. The coworker he goes on a date with shows that he wants to find a connection, but that he’s unable to really open up, especially during moments of intimacy. He is unassuming and impassive around his boss and cannot really do the “buddy bonding” stuff expected of him by male peers. He is a negligent brother but not because he doesn’t care for his family—it’s because he doesn’t know how to show love to his sister in a societally acceptable way.
The only thing he *can* do, to really touch another human being, is to treat her (or him) like a sexual object and aim for release. But ultimately, this still isn’t enough for him and he’s unhappy.
4) I actually find most of the subtext in this film about his inability to open up more about hyper-masculine gender constructs than sexual constructs, but it’s easy to look at the prostitutes, porn and web cams and find something to say. Mulligan’s character as a gender binary and the restaurant scene are perfect examples for this, but I do actually want to write a polished essay on this subject, so hey. All in due time.
“The Ides of March” is set amidst the bracing, high-stakes game of the Democratic presidential primaries, circa the late 2000s. The answer to America’s contemporary problems is Democratic nominee Mike Morris (George Clooney), a suave, confident, intelligent spokesperson for the future, so charmingly adroit in his platitudes about gay marriage and sustainable energy that the idea of verisimilitude becomes a moot task. Mike Morris is Left-of-Center America’s wet dream, and why not? “The West Wing” ended years ago and Hollywood provides a perfect medium for political fantasies, given its predilection to turn up the saturation levels on glossy re-appropriation. In “The Ides of March’s” imaginary world, the last word to a question like “What is your religious faith?” can be a denunciation of the relevance of religion in political matters to get a righteous laugh: “My religion is the Constitution.” When every American politician must take the mealy-mouthed approach, averring their religious beliefs—atheism, agnosticism and Islam are not options, no matter how commonly represented they are within America’s population—a fantastical diegesis can show us a Democratic candidate like Morris making religion a non-issue and ridiculing the fact that it has been such an issue in our comparatively embarrassing real world.
While the film is far removed from the reality of American politics, there’s no denying a certain modicum of pleasure from fictionalizing the contemporary political climate, using iconic imagery and rhetorical vernacular from the 2008 U.S. election. (The infamous Shephard Fairey poster, for instance, makes a cameo, featuring Clooney’s face, and campaign banners are not only in the same red and blue hues Obama favored, but they use the same Gotham font.) Gay marriage is a civil rights matter worth discussing, and since this takes place during the Democratic candidate primaries, the G.O.P. can go fuck themselves—this is Clooney’s dream, remember? The Republicans, even if their approach is the source of obstinacy for many of the film’s touched-upon issues, are irrelevant here. To a certain extent, so too are Mike Morris and this entire re-appropriation thing. Because as the film’s poster points out, there is a man behind the man: Stephen Meyers (Ryan Gosling), Morris’s junior campaign manager. Meyers is at the helm of the suspense drama that makes the core of the film. And the challenges he faces as a young, ambitious, naively idealistic politico have nothing to do with posters or gay marriage. Consequently, any and all references to real-life politics form only a specious, glossy backdrop to the riveting chess game Meyers plays throughout the film, though it takes an awfully long time for him to get involved, giving the wrong impression that Clooney’s nod to American politics is intentionally significant.
Only about halfway through the film does Meyers’s mounting corruption pick up any kind of pace: meetings are suddenly all held behind closed doors, in darkened staircases and back alleyways. The drama enthralls, but it fails to engage any larger issue or philosophy—connecting the dots between Morris’s promise for a better America and Obama’s promise of the same, for instance, is a little simplistic. Clooney is re-appropriating here for the sake of it, to let us know this is American politics in the 2000s. Perhaps political philosophy is too much to ask for from this kind of Hollywood thriller. But what’s more problematic, as things start to wind down, is the drama itself, particularly its scarcity of gravity, as the film confuses actors’ gestures to be grander than they really are, despite the talents of the entire cast (in addition to Gosling and Clooney, heavyweight players Philip Seymour Hoffmann and Paul Giamatti square off as seasoned, embittered campaign managers for rival parties). Ultimately this is what separates a Clooney et al writing team from, say, a Mamet or a Hitchcock. But there’s good stuff to be pulled out of this teasing set-up nonetheless: the mesmerizing Sorkin-esque raillery between Wood and Gosling, above all. If anything really captures our attention in “The Ides of March,” it’s these sexually charged scenes. Such potential makes one hope Clooney’s next project makes love, not war.
You’re not allowed to know the Iranian Woman. Not truly, anyway—not personally, and don’t even think about intimately. Not in public. In public you must treat her with “respect,” which apparently means pretending she doesn’t exist (“don’t make eye contact”). As a tourist, you spend all your hours outside, walking, breathing pollution, baking in the sun and avoiding half the population because they happen to be of the other gender. It takes some getting used to. Then you step into the Iranian Woman’s apartment; off comes the headscarf or chador, and with it a whole psychological barrier of repression, the face she must wear to avoid being hassled by the Basij. Forget the lipstick she wore today; it’s her body language she must learn to control, much more dangerous than those few centimeters of Dion red-orange bloom.
Under the protection of her family’s roof, the Iranian Woman’s smile is breezy and genuine, and you’re happy you’re there to see it. Her lipstick: now innocuous, a random, pretty detail. She takes a deep breath and laughs, telling you to make yourself at home while she prepares the afternoon tea, not passing up the chance to gossip about the cantankerous neighbor whom you encountered in the hallway. She briefly leaves the room and you may take a second to get over yourself, relief awash, body overtaken by giddiness. Releasing your pent-up emotion makes you feel downright silly; you’re not quite sure what to instruct your facial muscles to do and you figure you’re downright grotesque to look at right now, and all because you’re embarrassed by the intimacy of what is otherwise a completely normal moment. There is no discernible reason why such moments must feel so awkward, so overtly intimate. But given the circumstances—when life in the private sphere and the public sphere has been forced into an Us-vs-Them binary, when the private moments are so enriched with freedom and expression and communication—it’s no wonder that occasionally, upon re-entering reality, actually talking to the Iranian Woman is almost too much to bear. You’re a preadolescent shoplifter shushing your BFF’s giggles, braving your best poker face as the mall cop walks by. This is what it feels like to step into her house. Every. Single. Day.
There is only one public space left for the Iranian Woman where she might feel as free as she does now, at 4:15 p.m., in her warm kitchen with the fragrant herbs on the window sill, where she makes you the strong dark red tea you like so much. Yes, it’s a public space, but only technically public, because strangers sit beside each other, but they do not look at each another. Nor do they speak to each another. There is little acknowledgement that other people even exist, for all attention is focused on a screen in front of them. The movie theatre. The Iranian Woman can be herself in the movie theatre. As the movie’s ingénue travels the last leg of her journey to the city where her lover is imprisoned, the Iranian Woman forgets about the physical space around her, the redolent floral perfume of someone near, chewing gum still squishy with saliva wadded-up under her seat, the air-conditioned temperature of the theatre—several degrees too cold—her bum numb from ergonomically unfriendly seats that have seen better days and better bums. Like in her cozy kitchen, where the Iranian Woman can hum any tune at any volume to her heart’s content, the theatre allows a modicum of freedom where she can completely immerse herself in a reality that is not hers, that of the embracing, diegetic world of film.
What does film do to us? For Jean-Louis Baudry, the cinema is an apparatus; it can be conceptualized ideologically, like Althusser; metaphysically, like Plato and his Cave; and psychoanalytically, like Freud’s dream screen. In “The Apparatus: Metapsychological Approaches to the Impression of Reality in Cinema,” Baudry compares Plato’s prisoners in the Cave to the movie spectator, who temporarily accepts the images in front of her as real, more real than real. She is not the chained, poor feral creature that is Plato’s cave prisoner, because after two hours she can leave the cinema, grab a cup of coffee, and cognitively she will understand that the visual advertisement for the coffee and the cup she holds in the hand are two very different things. But during those two hours, her conception of reality oscillates between that of her physical being in space, and that of being completely absorbed into the film. This impression of reality so uncanny in the moving image is exactly what attracts us to it, says Baudry, and he takes it one step further to suggest that this desire for an impression of reality is actually Freudian in nature, for we are actually trying to return to the dream state, to the unconscious state, to Freud’s oral phase. When we dream, our logical faculties are powered off to let us hallucinate; when we watch movies, our logical faculties let us follow the narrative, but occasionally we let them go and almost believe the film is real—especially when emotion overtakes us.
Abbas Kiarostami made “Shirin” because he understood that the true face of the Iranian Woman could only be filmed in the movie theatre. In “Shirin,” we watch several different Iranian women (and Juliette Binoche, wearing a headscarf) as they watch a film adaptation of the ancient Persian love story “Khosrow and Shirin.” We never get to see this film, though we do get to hear its theatrical tawdriness. This goes on for 90 minutes, and in the end we have gained only an acute understanding of the emotional reactions of these unidentified Iranian Women to a melodramatic love story—which is exactly what Kiarostami wants us to understand. Iranian directors filming scenes in the private sphere must begrudgingly ask their actresses to keep their chadors on, despite the fact that most Iranian women take them off the second they step through the door. This has made directors, including Kiarostami, refuse making films involving domestic scenes. It’s unrealistic. And so the Iranian Woman remains unknowable. In the Kiarostami-verse, this was true even before the revolution—most of his films are oriented around male youth experiences. The Iranian Woman is nothing more than a reticent smile in most Kiarostami features. But in the 2000s, the director tried something new. The strong female lead in “Ten” spends the entire film in Kiarostami’s favorite film setting, the car—which can be argued as liminal private and public space, because she must wear the chador and yet is free to argue passionately with her son.
With “Shirin,” Kiarostami goes wayside experimental, but the film is actually a secret protest, a subtle critique of the onscreen chador. We get to know the Iranian Woman in the movie theatre in a similar fashion that we would get to know her in her home, where she is free to express her emotions as she sees fit. The Iranian Woman is not hallucinating or unconscious but fully immersed in the film, ignoring the camera, her emotion more easily read than the top letters of an eye exam. It’s a cynical portrayal of the onscreen chador. We may get to know the Iranian Woman in public, Kiarostami tells us, but only silently, by proxy, lopsidedly, and solely through facial expression. Technically, the Iranian Woman doesn’t have to hide her true self, but only if the world in which she is engrossed is nothing more than a hallucination, an impression of reality.