Despite what you may have seen at last night’s MTV Music Video Awards, classic rock ‘n’ roll is not going to ever go away. As this veteran music writer grows older, every year there seems to be some group of younger and younger musicians who come up with new music that harkens back to the roots of rock. Last week, I pointed out Broncho, a band from Norman, Oklahoma, who have come up with one of the catchiest tunes of 2014. Their song “Class Historian” hits on the tiniest details of ‘70s era post punk with an uncanny sensibility (Broncho’s new single: the catchiest indie rock song I’ve heard in years).
Tomorrow, Ty Segall will release his 12th full-length album, Manipulator. Over the past few years Segall has refined his garage rock noise-pop to feature more diversity in his song-writing and a stronger grip on the subtleties of the rock song. Opening like nothing else in his catalog: with a blare of harmonizing organs, the album bounds along through 17 tracks as varied as anything else in his career. Some even include strings. But he has not compromised his command of the electric guitar, offering many a shifty, screeching solo over the course of the sprawling, near hour-long LP (and double vinyl – order here to support IndieEthos).
“The Singer” is one of several tracks that feature a string section. It also has the added bonus of whispered vocals to add emphasis to a few words that end certain phrases — very ‘60s psychedelic. But, more than ever, the influences that shine brightest are that of the early ‘70s glam rock scene. Segall’s voice more than ever recalls Marc Bolan, and there’s even a song (“The Clock”) that features strings and an acoustic guitar line that sounds eerily like the one that drives “Andy Warhol,” a deep cut on Bowie’s classic 1971 album Hunky Dory.
A back-to-back trio of songs early in Manipulator cast a powerful shadow of the guitar crunch bravura Segall is best known for over the album. “It’s Over,” features the pounding, driving, feedback-fueled stuff fans would be more familiar with. “Feel” opens more subtly but eventually features a muscular guitar solo that builds and builds to more rapid plucking until it gives way to a drum solo featuring a nice amount of cowbell. Finally, “Faker” features dominating, strutting guitar work that stands as testament to Segall’s connection with the instrument.
But there are more surprises in store. “The Connection Man” is driven by pulsing archaic electronics that brings to mind the tools of the Silver Apples. Over all, Manipulator is one grand rallying cry celebrating the immortality of rock ‘n’ roll, produced with great affection with his stalwart collaborators Mikal Cronin (bass), Emily Rose Epstein (drums) and Charles Moothart (guitar) and several other guest musicians adding vocals, keyboards and strings. Manipulator speaks to Segall’s strength of a musician open to growth and experimentation without betraying any semblance of a signature style and could very well stand as his best album yet. I’ll leave you with a link to an mp3 of a preview track released a few weeks ago, “Susie Thumb” (jump to KEXP.org for it).
Ty Segall will be in Miami with Wand (Drag City/LA), Plastic Pinks and DJ Sean Ashworth on Thursday, Sept. 11, 9 p.m. at The Stage Miami courtesy of Miami’s coolest vinyl shop Sweat Records, where you can also pick up the record and tickets to the show. Ages: 18 and up. Tickets: $12 in advance, $15 at the door. His U.S. tour kicks off Aug. 28 Click here for tour dates. Pitch Perfect PR provided me with a preview of the album for the purpose of this review and an up-coming article in “Pure Honey” magazine.
August 24, 2014
Gangster movies are often defined by plot twists and duplicitous schemers that are hard to trust and sometimes feel for. These movies sometimes feel hard to keep up with, and their characters are often defined by their flaws. The darkness in their motivations and the inevitable double crosses speak to plot and hopefully propel character development. Heart hardly ever comes to mind when one thinks of a crime film. But Salvo, the new gangster film by Italian directors Fabio Grassadonia and Antonio Piazza has heart. That it hardly sacrifices suspense for its soul is testament to the strength of the filmmakers, here making their feature film debut with international distribution.
Salvo is a collaborative work between Grassadonia and Piazza not only in directing but also in writing. For much of the film, their storytelling feels compact and graceful. The film has a patient quality, and there’s hardly any dialogue, but it is hardly languorous. The movie opens with a tense chase scene that lasts nearly 30 minutes. Though the directors allow the scene to unfold with patience that does not mean it lacks suspense. The life or death danger is established early on with an intense shootout on a walled-in street in the seaside city of Palermo. It’s refreshing to watch motorcycle-mounted assassins, sinisterly dressed all in black, fail, and it speaks to the intimidating skills of the film’s protagonist (Saleh Bakri), a mob boss’ (Mario Pupella) deadly protector, who does not reveal his name until nearly the end of the film. Obscuring him further, the camera mostly focuses on his eyes either in a rear-view mirror or in close up. When the chase turns into a foot pursuit with the hunted becoming the hunter, the camera maintains its distance or only offers shots of his back. It adds to the scenes’ intensity.
Throughout Salvo, the directors show a smart understanding of camera placement, which was revealed by their award-winning short “Rita,” a film about a blind girl who goes off for a swim at the beach with a young thief who had sneaked into her home to hide from his pursuers. In the short, the directors used no reverse shots, as the camera focused solely on the cherubic-faced lead who could not see, so there was no need to show anything from her POV. This technique creates empathy from the audience and a visceral sense of suspense. With Salvo they take it up another notch, as the chase comes to a slow close, and the killer enters a house where a blind young woman, also named Rita (Sara Serraiocco) counts money. Once again, the lack of reverse shots is employed. A sense of suspense is allowed to draw out, as Rita tries to act unawares of the stranger in her presence, who is often reduced to a shadow in the background that follows her around the house.
For much of the film there’s little dialogue. The directors are clearly more interested in creating a story that relies more on visuals than literal explanations. The movie therefore demands striking visuals, and the directors deliver with a strong sense of composition. From landscapes to interiors, the film has a vibrant visual vocabulary. It never feels ornate, but it does feel vivid. Cinematographer Daniele Ciprì uses mostly deep focus, which allows scenes that are blurred from the perspective of Rita to stand out. There are some drawn-out scenes of the mundane, but the directors keep them interesting with the composition of shots. The colors of the film gives it a high contrast tone that recalls similar films of the ’70s. Its deliberate pace also feels like this film belongs to an earlier era, not to mention the fact that today’s technology means little to the movie’s cat-and-mouse story. The tools of these people is violence, after all, so it’s all about cars and guns, though these devices are never allowed to overshadow the characters. Sometimes the violence occurs off-screen, which only enhances the film’s thrills. The directors also stage varied shots that are filled with surprise and atmosphere, recalling a well-laid out comic book. This is narrative through visuals in the best way.
The tone is true to the film’s theme as well. It’s about a gangster given a chance to restore his humanity, personified by a seemingly helpless blind girl who generates great sympathy but also a respectable tenacity. For much of the film, the drama does not feel forced or contrived. It’s allowed to unfold organically. But sometimes the film’s theme is too heavy-handedly laid out, especially toward the end, and then it ends on a sentimental note of mysticism and tragedy, which was never necessary from the film’s start. The contrivance betrays the film’s earlier astuteness and feels like hokum compared to its first 90 minutes. Still, Salvo is a strong debut that’s stylish and evocative by a pair of new filmmakers from Italy worth keeping tabs on.
Salvo runs 104 minutes, is in Italian with English subtitles and is not rated (of course there’s gangster blood shed). It opened in the Miami are exclusively at the Miami Beach Cinematheque, which provided me with a screener for the purpose of this review.
With recent headlines of journalists killed or under threat to be killed in war zones, the trauma of the conflict for those journalists, who are civilians, remains an under-explored theme on film. War Story tells the story of the aftermath of a journalist’s killing. After covering a conflict in Libya, photojournalist Lee (Catherine Keener) is left to mourn the loss of her partner during that assignment. The movie picks up after she has left Lybia. The information is sparse, one has to piece it together as the plot develops slowly and quietly. The mood is sad and somber but there is little in the way of dialogue. The camera zeroes in on a weathered Keener, trying hard to convey physical and emotional pain in silence, as she makes her way across the Mediterranean Sea. She’s headed to Italy to meet her mentor and former lover Albert (Ben Kingsley).
Lee arrives in Sicily and moves into a hotel where she has stayed in the past. After a few days of confinement in the familiar hotel room, where she tries to heal from mental wounds via nostalgia and physical wounds with time, the grief-stricken Lee ventures out and quickly feels the pull toward another crisis, the situation of Arab immigrants in Italy. She thrives in conflict and finds a reason to move forward, throwing herself into a cause through the character of Hafsia (Hafsia Herzi), who is in need of help as she is not only trying to escape the country that so virulently rejects her, but she is also seeking to end an unwanted pregnancy. All of this gives pause to Lee, who would rather move on to the next assignment than deal with her own tragedy. The camera lingers on Lee for extended periods of time, even when she is carrying a conversation with somebody else. Although the performance is strong something is missing, the attempt at storytelling through images falls short of its ambition, as the camera feels almost randomly placed in many scenes.
The most flagrant cinematic failure arrives when Lee gathers her strength to finally meet with Albert, a former mentor who was with Lee when she had traveled earlier as a journalist to a war-torn region. The moment is crucial, much of the film has been leading up to this, but when they meet the camera pans a large room full of books and hangs back for about half of their conversation. Two excellent performers are reduced to small, expressionless shadows sitting across from each other at a distant table. If director Mark Jackson’s poor composition choice had not been apparent earlier in the film, here is his biggest misstep. It was fine that Lee suffered in silence from much of the film, but to reduce revelations to expository dialogue in a scene where not even the expression of the actors matter only highlights the film’s weak visual storytelling. Jackson almost seems desperate to pack in information for the short time Kingsley is on screen, an artifice to drive the point home on the addictive nature of the job and the cautions against it. “You’re a woman. An amazing woman who has decided to go into war zones and take pictures. You’re a bit crazy to want to do that. And I think now you’re too crazy to stop.”
The culminating scene does not bring the story full-circle; rather, the bifurcated nature of the issues presented here: individual loss, grief and a feeling of impotence after losing a loved one in a war, along with the struggling North African immigrant in continental Europe fit together uncomfortably. The treatment of characters is then superficial. As much as the director tries to go beneath the surface with his camera work it all comes across as flat and staid.
War Story is the second feature film by Jackson. With a mysterious and atmospheric mood, earlier in the film, Jackson successfully establishes a meta-narrative showing the anguish the photographer is incapable of articulating through words. The gradual narrative of the story is supposed to impart the impact of loss, tragedy and war. However, the pace is so slow and the narrative so subtle as to be nonexistent. It makes for lots of sleep-inducing moments rather than creating the potent moments these politically charged subjects call for. Instead, there are some superficial moments, like when Lee ignores the constantly ringing phone in her room, which could be a sign of grief, avoidance, trauma or all of the above. Jackson takes on themes that may have been too big to cover in one film, from journalism in war-torn areas, to segregation and the humanitarian crisis of immigrants in the global North, to abortion — the ideas are all too large to sustain as the film just feels incomplete.
War Story runs 90 minutes, is in English and Italian and is not rated (expect heavy themes). It opened in the Miami area at The Tower Theater this Friday and plays until Aug. 28. It’s also available on VOD. IFC Films provided us with a DVD screener for the purpose of this review.
August 22, 2014
There’s an inherit problem to the Sin City movies. With so much visual flair, any sense of substance feels obscured by its imagery. As much as these films want to celebrate film noir, they strip the genre down so flagrantly and elevate the genre’s conventions to such heights, there is little left of drama or character. The first Sin City had its moments, wryly empowering women while objectifing them, for instance, but the formula has grown much thinner with the arrival of its sequel, almost 10 years later, Sin City: A Dame to Kill For. Robert Rodriguez directed the first one, based on the graphic novels of Frank Miller, who now co-directs with Rodriguez.
The film’s visual style, which is part live action and part animation, mostly in black and white with splashes of color and lots of shadows, of course makes it stand out from other movies. There really has never been a comic book adaptation in cinema as committed to the look of the source material as Sin City. But that counts for nothing more than form, albeit a sometimes elegant one. One would hope the involvement of the books’ creator would have fleshed out the characters of the books further, but really this sequel seems even more interested in its own look and feel over any presentation of … I don’t know… How about a little more about the darkness of men beyond action and compulsion? The fact that it was shot in 3D only adds more to the film’s gimmickry over depth.
But really, what more can be done with the age-old film noir genre than to deconstruct it (the best in modern movie-making still has to be Memento)? What Miller and Rodriguez seem most interested in is highlighting the principles of the genre to heightened effect. The hard-boiled monologues, the lighting, the role of the femme fatale, the plot twists. It’s all turned up a notch to heights of comedy. It becomes a joke for several reasons: nothing feels at stake because of the simple narrative and the film’s animated mise-en-scène distances violent acts from any notion of humanity. It all feels like some mean joke against civilization and a celebration of brutality. There’s no room for irony because there’s no sense of standard in Sin City beyond kill-or-be-killed/fuck-or-get-fucked. Characters are reduced to pixels in the worst way.
Ava (Eva Green), with her green eyes and red lips, is the femme fatal of the film’s title. Her acting and dialogue is played with so much loftiness, it’s hard no to laugh. The film’s biggest joke arrives when police detective Mort (Christopher Meloni) arrives to Ava’s home to investigate the murder of her husband. The chump falls for her as she purrs a few sly turns of phrase during the investigation, and he forgets his wife and his duty to “just the facts, ma’am.” The fact the “Law and Order: SVU” actor plays the detective adds a meta level of humor to the scene. But then he seems to be literally driven mad with lust. His reaction to his uncontrollable desires is so extreme it feels beyond implausible and falls with a grandiose thud.
A Dame to Kill For would have been so much more interesting had it been a deconstruction of film noir tropes instead of the celebration of them as bullet points to wink at. Typical of sequel syndrome, recurrent characters from the last movie have nowhere to grow from the last movie. Gail (Rosario Dawson) is still the same violent, pissed-off bitch. Hartigan (Bruce Willis) is reduced to a helpless ghost watching his ward Nancy (Jessica Alba) downward spiral in her thirst for vengeance. The most interesting character of the last film, Marv (Mickey Rourke) is nothing more than a bruiser with a memory lapse and no more heart.
The film’s most interesting new character is Johnny (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), the bastard son of Senator Roark (Powers Boothe) who rules over the town with a corrupt fist. Played with an intense but warm bravado that Gordon-Levitt always so easily conjures up, Johnny at first doesn’t seem to understand just how over his head he’s in when he tries to beat Pop at poker. Johnny is on a quest for recognition that will come with heavier and heavier costs. It’s probably the one story line that veers far enough from genre convention that makes the film at least a little interesting. But by the time the final shootout arrives, it all becomes numbing and tired when it should have felt climactic.
It’s interesting that the performances that are less touched up by effects, which also includes some soul from Josh Brolin as another man who falls under Ava’s spell, are the ones that bring some interesting heart to the film. But with mostly flat characters and a sense of little at stake plot-wise, the inevitable fight scenes and gun battles are deflated of any sense of urgency. Sure the graphics are impressive. But the 3D offers little seeing as the film tries to stay true to the flat, hand-drawn quality of the comic book. Occasionally objects jump out of the screen in slow motion and some images stand out as lusciously stylistic, as when Ava floats in her pool in the nude. Otherwise, A Dame to Kill For is really nothing more than what you expect from the trailer: randomly colored actors moving across backgrounds driven by violent urges that shift at varying speeds to connote some sense of dimension but no real depth.
Sin City: A Dame to Kill For runs 102 minutes and is Rated R (graphic sexuality and violence abounds). It opens everywhere today, Friday, Aug. 20. Weinstein Films invited me to a preview screening for the purpose of this review.
It’s probably been two years since I’ve heard a single as catchy as the new song by Broncho, “Class Historian.” The last song that was as infectious must have been “How Do I Know” by Here We Go Magic. I relegated that to a simple Facebook post. But this single from Broncho, which has been making the interweb rounds for about a month now, deserves a special examination. It shows a fantastic growth by the Norman, Oklahoma garage band, and it plays with hooks in that smartly crafted, teasing manner that will have many hitting the repeat button.
There’s a clear evolution from the gritty, garage rock sound of the band’s noteworthy first album, 2011’s Can’t Get Past the Lips, to a more polished new wave post punk style. Even vocalist/guitarist Ryan Lindsey sounds different. He sings in a higher timbre that sounds like a young Andy McCluskey of Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark. It comes from the way he extends his vowels in the multi-tracked vocals and the casual way he tosses off the song’s title, “Class Historian,” by extending the first syllable of “Historian” and running the last three syllables together as quickly as the first.
The added studio sheen takes nothing away from the band’s smart song craft. In fact, it feels more advanced. Instead of driving along on a hook, they know how to cut it short to keep you wanting more. It’s a lazily strummed guitar line in sync with an almost mechanical drum beat but also so much more. At the start of the chorus, it shifts to a higher, brighter octave for a few measures that could have been right at home in a late-1980s-era Cure single. But before it overstays its welcome, it falls back into the rhythmic, propulsive state of the band’s garage rock origins. There’s this mixture of a cavalier attitude with impassioned playing that gives the song a sort of effortless quality.
But, of course, the elephant in the room is the rapid-fire stuttering da-dah-dahs that kick off the single and which the singer constantly toggles to, as an added layer of both rhythm and melody throughout the song. As with the shifting guitar hook, it’s a case hookus interruptus that keeps the vocal element from getting tiresome. The varied vocals, guitar sounds and incessant beat all combine to form a song that satisfies fans of pop on a pure level without over-the-top effects and using real, raw tools of the trade: guitars, drums and vocals.
“Class Historian” is the second track of what will be the band’s sophomore release, Just Enough Hip to be Woman, due out on Sept.16, 2014. The latest song released as a preview is also worth a listen (stream it above). “What” came out last week and opens the album and has an even more cheeky laid-back attitude, with dynamic guitar propulsion and Lindsey’s elastic vocal work. It recalls the best of ’70s, ’80s and ’90s rock, which simply makes it timeless.
Another new Broncho song you can hear now first premiered during the closing credits of the first episode of the last season of “Girls.” Broncho’s label said the track found its way to the show’s creator Lena Dunham, who decided to use it in the episode. Here’s “It’s On:”
Both of these other new songs show growth by the band in a good way, but there’s lightning to be found in the bottle of “Class Historian,” which some bands can only achieve a few times in their career. Based on the strength of these three songs, their new album should be worth picking up, and if you have a chance, see Broncho live. Get tickets to their upcoming tour, which kicks off August 24, bundled with new album in all sorts of formats (including colored vinyl) by clicking here (as with everything bolded in this post, that’s a hotlink). Unfortunately for us in South Florida, the furthest south the band’s coming is Orlando, on a Wednesday, but it may be worth a drive and a day off work…
With its drama mostly unfolding in the cellar of a high-rise in Rome, Me and You (Io e te ) probably stands as legendary Italian director Bernardo Bertolucci slightest drama. But, beyond setting, the film is also slight in another way: it will not stand as one of his great films. Maybe it’s the many years waiting for the film’s arrival (his last was 2003’s The Dreamers) or the fact that this was supposed to be his first experiment with 3D film, which he later reneged on (Variety article). It all feels a bit anti-climactic, though the film is by no means a waste of time.
The film follows 14-year-old Lorenzo (Jacopo Olmo Antinori) who, after scamming his mother into thinking he’s on a school ski trip, secretly moves into the basement for a week. All he wants is to hide away from people, his only company being an ant farm. Then his 25-year-old half-sister Olivia (Tea Falco) crashes his party after stumbling upon him by accident. She thinks she has found the perfect spot to beat her heroin addiction and go cold turkey. He is upset with being bullied into sharing his solitude with someone he doesn’t care for much or even know that well. In their self-imposed purgatory, the two are forced to confront old grudges and come to terms with them and maybe leave their confinement with a sense compassion for one other.
Antinori resigns to his role as a newly pubescent young man, channeling a natural teen angst heightened on a superficial level by his pimply complexion and virginal mustache. The emphasis on his appearance is enhanced by the fact that we first meet him with his face turned downward during a session with a psychologist. Meanwhile, Olivia first appears in the shadows of the basement in a giant, woolly black coat out of an Edward Gorey cartoon. These enigmatic introductions beg for the audience’s projection, but in the end, the two become stereotypes: the withdrawn, socially awkward teenage boy caught between childhood and adulthood and the beautiful aspiring artist who is never taken seriously because of her good looks and her drug habit.
These are difficult roles to flesh out with the nuance demanded of them, but Bertolucci still musters performances from the actors that at least do not make the characters feel obnoxious. Both Antinori and Falco are making debut lead appearances as virtual unknowns in the cinema world, which again adds to the characters’ relatable quality. But on the other hand, the story is so intimate it begs for stronger performances. It does not help that the script feels a bit rote, based on the novel by Niccolò Ammaniti, who is one of four other screenwriters, including Bertolucci. The material demands a more personal hand, and though there are moments of conflict and reconciliation, it all feels so mechanical that it hardly leaves you with the haunting impression the film aspires to achieve. Some of it even feels forced and unconvincing, like a scene at dinner when Lorenzo asks his mother if, after some cataclysmic event happens to wipe out all of humanity except them, would she volunteer to re-populate the world with him (Bertolucci will never shake his penchant for incest).
Though the film is sumptuously shot, featuring outstanding art direction, the camera sometimes feels a bit aimless. You can almost imagine the swooping and twirling camera movements used during a few early establishing shots were conceived when Bertolucci was aiming to make a 3D film. Also, the manner in which the camera drifts and twirls around enhances a feeling that the director is acting without a sense of assured control, feeling out the film more that feeling confident about his shots.
The film’s drama drives along with some close calls of the two being caught, Olivia screaming in the pangs of withdrawal and throwing up between moments of sharing her dreams and better times of living it up, as a rapt Lorenzo pays close attention and throws out casual questions that also speak to his fear of socializing. The climax of the drama comes with a David Bowie song, “Ragazzo Solo, Ragazza Sola” (“Lonely Boy, Lonely Girl”), which is actually the music of “Space Oddity” with Italian lyrics. Though Bowie sings the lyrics, they have nothing to do with his original lyrics inspired by the first moon landing. However, the Italian lyrics (by Italian lyricist Mogol) fit the film’s story better than “Space Oddity” ever would. As translated in the subtitles Olivia sings to Lorenzo:
Now lonely boy where will you go?
The night is a big sea
If you need my hand to swim
Thank you but tonight I would like to die
Because you know in my eyes
There is an angel, an angel that now does not fly any more
Yes, Me and You is a small drama, but it has some pretty moments. It just does not make for a whole, consistent experience. The most extreme action comes from scenes of Olivia throwing up. Still, she and Lorenzo eventually build a relationship where they can look beyond bitterness and accept their bond. It’s no surprise, but it’s also an example of how slight and indulgent art cinema can get. There’s a hint of suspense that nothing is permanent, and you are left hoping something will work out with these two, but then you’ll also just go on and forget this film soon enough. It probably would have been more interesting in 3D.
Me and You runs 97 minutes, is in Italian with English subtitles and is not rated (it features mature language and drug references, however). It opens in South Florida as part of the on-going “Cinema Made In Italy” series on Wednesday, Aug. 13, at the Miami Beach Cinematheque, which provided a preview screener for the purpose of this review. It runs through Aug. 21 (see Calendar here). It opens a few days later at the Cosford Cinema in Coral Gables, on Aug. 15 (see dates and times). For a look at other theater dates around the world, visit this webpage.
August 7, 2014
It’s funny how the First Amendment gives U.S. citizens the right to be jerks. They can protest homosexuality at soldiers’ funerals, harass women at abortion clinics and publicly be racists. Something fundamental is lost in the cloud of such sensational wrong-headedness. The right of expression, no matter how you feel about something, is a human right recognized by the founders of the United States. It’s an important cornerstone because no matter what the government does in this country, we are allowed to call it out for the sake of our humanity. Theoretically, things should grow from there, in the best interest of society.
With sensational extremists wielding the First Amendment, the common U.S. citizen might sometimes forget the power this right gives everyone on a protective level. From the First Amendment comes the right to not only say what you want but to start conversations that can change things for the better of our collective lives, and the government is not allowed to get in the way. That cannot happen in many countries outside the U.S. One of those counties is Iran.
As noted in my 2012 review for This Is Not A Film (Film Review: ‘This Is Not a Film’ highlights Iranian filmmaker’s talents while under house arrest), Filmmaker Jafar Panahi was arrested and later banned from making films in Iran for 20 years. His crime? He and another director were busted in 2009 trying to document the Green Movement’s attempt to overthrow the country’s authoritarian regime through organized protests. Panahi was sentenced to six years of jail time, placed on house arrest and, what he considers worst of all, denied the right to make movies for 20 years. This is the guy who was part of a group of Iranian filmmakers who brought attention to his country through powerful films like White Balloon (1995). Now he resides in a state of legal limbo, the threat of jail constantly looming over him. He treads lightly during rare interviews and with the two films he has made since his arrest. Therefore, it’s important to bring an open mind to his work, and be prepared to read between the lines for the rewards of obscured narrative.
Just as with his previous film, Closed Curtain (Pardé) needs to be approached as another abstract tribute to cinema without it even being a movie that features the narrative coherence most moviegoers are accustomed to. The film opens with a lengthy shot through a panoramic window obstructed by a black accordion security gate. This is the director’s villa in Iran. As he says in this recent interview with The Daily Beast, “They freed me from a small jail … only to throw me into a larger prison when they banned me from working.” The metaphor is not lost in the image. Through the latticework, we can see the Caspian Sea below a bright, clear blue sky. A tiny, distant taxi rolls to a stop, and two small figures get out. The trunk is opened, bags are carried, and eventually one figure walks up to the house. This unfolds over five minutes, in one lengthy unbroken shot. Don’t call this filmmaking.
Once inside, the older man with bushy, gray hair (this is Panahi’s longtime collaborator screen-writer and the film’s co-director Kambuzia Partovi), anxiously puts down his bags and closes the curtain. Then, in the obscurity, hidden from the outside world, comes the film’s first of many surprises: He pulls a dog out of one of his bags. The dog, named Boy, appears to be a mix between a Papillon and a collie and has a standout personality thanks to its natural grin and a rather surreal scene involving a TV remote. After the writer blacks out all the windows in the house by nailing up black, heavy curtains (a metaphor not only for the filmmaker’s ban but also Iranian culture) he settles in to work. But then someone turns on a TV. The writer rushes to the living room and finds Boy with his paw on the remote. On the television: a news report featuring truckloads of dead dogs, including a close-up of one bleeding from its mouth, gasping for air. The news reader’s voice over reveals that canines have been banned under a new Islamic law. The writer takes out the remote’s batteries and scowls at the dog.
With this disturbing but profound scene, Boy rises above the melodramatic ploy most threatened animals become in movies. He stands as a representation for something bigger. The dog is now elevated to the status of martyr. That he’s rather cute helps, but the stakes feel bigger. The liberty of the writer and his dog becomes a matter of life and death. Their solitude is not only enhanced with the layers of curtains that seal them in the large villa but also their silence. Boy hardly barks and the writer speaks hardly a word. The only soundtrack is the writer’s shuffling walk, the click of light switches and the rustle of wrappers on non-perishable food items. Just as with his last film, the film features no score. That would be too cinematic. The images are, however, beautiful. Boy, with his fluffy black and brown coat of fur, blends into the home’s brown and red color palette of wood and brick. The green of Boy’s fuzzy tennis ball, a toy that only gets minimal use indoors, stands out in contrast to this subtle color scheme.
Before a mundane solitude is allowed to settle in, there’s a lengthy scene documenting the writer’s struggle to sneak out Boy’s litter box. When it seems his mission is accomplished, he turns around to find a young man (Hadi Saeedi) and woman (Maryam Moqadam), dressed in black standing in his foyer. They appear almost like apparitions. “How did you get in here?” asks the writer. “The door was open,” responds the young man. It turns out they too wish to hide, as the authorities are in pursuit after busting up a party, just one more of the many things people are not allowed to do in Iran.
Tension looms over Closed Curtain, but it doesn’t come from anxious cutting or heightened stylistic flourishes like music or camera angles. We never see this intruding couple’s pursuers, but we can hear them outside. Eventually, the authorities are thrown off by the house’s blacked out windows and go away. When the man leaves the woman with the writer, he warns him, “and be careful. She has a knack for suicide.” It’s a surreal portent in contrast to this woman’s smile. She later identifies herself as Melika, the sister of the young man who has left her at the house, and she will come to haunt the film’s narrative in an almost spectral sense.
It all unfolds almost in a stream of consciousness, and it is by crafty design because, eventually we learn, once again— and I will not spoil the series of surprises that follow— this is not a film. Instead, it is a glimpse into the creative consciousness of a director whose irrepressible imagination is being stifled. That’s a key notion to “getting” Closed Curtain. It’s an essay on Panahi’s desire to make a film he cannot finish. It is process trying to burst through the frame for thematic context that can only gel with what the viewer brings to it. You need not be Iranian to do this, just be sympathetic to the appreciation of artistic expression via cinema.
Closed Curtain may be filled with metaphors, but it’s also filled with Panahi’s heart for his craft and love for his neighbors and peers in a place where he has been denied an important human right: to be the creative person he cannot but help to be. Call it surreal, abstract or obtuse. The images that will continue to unfold as the film carries on to a startling, layered finale are also soulful, expressive and rambunctious. Closed Curtain is again another test of the limits of filmmaking and a subversion of them to offer something grander and more important: the human right to express oneself.
Closed Curtain runs 106 minutes, is in Farsi with English subtitles and is not rated (though it has a brief scene featuring some disturbing images involving dead dogs on a TV screen). It opens in South Florida this Friday, Aug. 8, at the Miami Beach Cinematheque, which provided an on-line screener for the purpose of this review. If you live outside of our area, check the film’s website for screening dates in your neighborhood here (that’s a hot link).