I Have Questions

All from Mohsen Makhmalbaf’s A MOMENT OF INNOCENCE —

That’s little Hana Makhmalbaf at top, now a director herself (not yet as famous as her sister Samira).

The little I’ve read about this remarkable film — one scene, where characters suddenly become characters in a film within the film, in mid-gesture and with no framework for doing so, reminded a student of mine of Lynch’s INLAND EMPIRE, and the way the narrative folds back on itself so that one scene unexpectedly collides with a previous one still strikes me as mindblowing and almost unprecedented, although it’s a bit like that bit in JACKIE BROWN — suggests that Makhmalbaf, having assaulted a policeman during his rebellious student days, teamed up with the cop years later to make this movie. That is the plot of this film, but it is far from certain how much of it may be true. The policeman doesn’t seem like an actor: nobody does. But this isn’t documentary, everything has clearly been staged. The scenes that unfold before us, staged by the Makhmalbaf outside the movie, have a low-affect naturalism somewhere between documentary and amateur dramatics. The scenes we see being staged by the Makhmalbaf within the movie, who positions his actors and briefs them on their actions, are much less convincing (they could hardly be otherwise, when we can see the camera and hear the director’s voice). The very funny sequences which create comedy out of sheer duration (the realistic humour of somebody asking ten times if their cousin wants a cup of tea) make me wonder if MM is a fan of Jerry Lewis the way Kiarostami is a fan of Chaplin.

I remain uncertain how much of the story in the film (a kind of fake making-of documentary which contains the film being made) is based on truth, and how much pure invention. I don’t need to know: I like feeling curious.

Also, I preceded my screening of the film for students with Kiarostami’s tiny short TWO SOLUTIONS TO ONE PROBLEM, a school programme in which fighting children are shown an alternative way to handle a dispute. A miniature drama about staying friends with the boy who tore your homework jotter which suddenly expands to be about the whole problem of modern civilization. And after watching A MOMENT OF INNOCENCE again, it strikes me that in this sense, it has exactly the same story.

(Thanks to Mark Cousins for forcing this movie upon me.)


44 Responses to “I Have Questions”

  1. I saw this film a few years ago at the local Alliance Francaise, it fascinated me endlessly. Mohsen Makhmalbaf(who currently works very hard to maintain whatever’s left of indepedent thought in Iran) is a true oddball of Iranian cinema. His films are filled with a feverish delirium worlds away from Kiarostami and others. The Cyclist is intense and baroque to the point of inducing seizure.

    During the Iranian revolution, Makhmalbaf was a fundamentalist and he was imprisoned by the Shah but he had a kind of reverse-conversion experience and came out as a tolerant satirical auteur.

    Haven’t seen any of the films by his kids yet. Godard is apparently a fan of The Apple

  2. I’ve been gathering a few more MM films, looking forward to having a splurge. Gabbeh looks very interesting indeed, as does Once Upon a Time… Cinema.

  3. I loved everything about this film but what drew me in initially was how much The Policeman looks like Calibos from CLASH OF THE TITANS.

    “the realistic humour of somebody asking ten times if their cousin wants a cup of tea” – maybe Makhmalbaf has seen FATHER TED? I hear it is pretty big in Iran.

  4. david wingrove Says:

    GABBEH is a phenomenal film, as is KANDAHAR. The one problem with KANDAHAR is that MM makes the Afghan bukhas look so beautiful that you have to remind yourself non-stop that they are actually a bad thing!

  5. Well Michael Powell used the nun’s habit to sensual effect in his close-ups of Deborah Kerr in Black Narcissus where her neck and forehead and hair are covered in the present-day scenes. The irony being that the costume is not doing its job, somehow the women who wear them still manage to be attractive, alluring and individual.

  6. Makhmalbaf’s A MOMENT OF INNOCENCE is an interesting example of depicting the fact-fantasy nature of truth à la Kurosawa’s Rashomon. Or Father Ted, for that matter.

    I love the sound of “homework jotter” I haven’t heard that expression used in years.

  7. david wingrove Says:

    The difference being that in BLACK NARCISSUS the nuns have actually chosen to wear their habit, while the women in KANDAHAR have had the burkha imposed on them.

    So responding aesthetically (or even erotically) to a nun’s habit strikes me as far less problematic than having a similar reponse to a burkha.

  8. I think Oscar Homolka’s eyebrows just ran away in fear. I got this film, but since I didn’t know anything about it, I haven’t watched it yet.

  9. I am so looking forward to checking out M. Makhmalbaf’s films sometime. I’ve only seen him as himself/actor in Kiarostami’s Close-Up. Just watched the Sept. 11 anthology film on DVD last week, and thought his daughter Samira’s short blew away all the others (although Idrissa Ouedraogo’s was also superb).

    Coincidentally I’ve also been rewatching Inland Empire, along with hours and hours of related bonus features, shorts, sidetracks, interviews and documentaries – none of which provides a bit of insight.

  10. MM’s work does seem spectacularly varied, perhaps as a result of varied economics in the making. But it’s beautiful stuff. I’m not so much interested in checking out cinema from other countries to see how other people live, although that’s rewarding when the film is good — my interest in MM is just his fascinating sensibility which can blur fact and fiction without the results ever becoming obscure or “difficult”. He’s a great entertainer!

    Inland Empire doesn’t seem to have a sort-of explanation the way Mulholland Dr and Lost Highway sort-of do. Maybe because it’s longer it’s also more full of contradictions, so there isn’t one central story that emerges as the explicable heart of it, although there may be keys to certain sections. I’m told there’s a deleted scene involving a magic object which might serve as a useful clue — which is maybe why Lynch removed it.

  11. I was left with the impression that Inland Empire takes the fantasy/reality split of his earlier films (and most particularly Lost Highway and Mulholland Drive where this is the focus) and changes the emphasis to a Russian doll construction of worlds within worlds. Then the question becomes not entirely about ‘fake’ and ‘real’ but of the character (and the viewer) creating your own meaning significant to you out of the various situations that you find yourself in.

    It contrasts interestingly with the cycle of ‘virtual reality’ films of The Matrix/Thirteenth Floor ilk – whereas these films, or something like Cronenberg’s eXistenZ ends in splits and despairing questions of “am I actually in reality now, and wouldn’t fantasy be better?”, Inland Empire doesn’t seem to suggest that one particular ‘reality’ has any more validity than another. Instead it is up to the protagonist to construct a satisfying, and personally meaningful and fulfilling, world to live in.

  12. I saw The Apple on the Sundance Channel a few years ago. The last scene, involving a blind woman with a veiled face, is unforgettable. Holy crap, she was 17 when she made that? Just googled; I’d had no idea.

  13. Did someone on this site recently urge that Lionel Jeffries be interviewed? Sadly, it’s too late as his death has just been announced.

  14. Damn! A lovely character actor and one of the last of that particular school of comedy. Long live Graham Stark.

    When Samir M started directing everybody in Iran said it was her father pulling the strings, no woman, and certainly no teenager, could be that good. A testimony to her abilities, in a backhanded and wrongheaded way, as it’s by now quite clear that she has her own sensibility and makes her own films.

    That’s a great reading, Colin. A friend suggests that Lynch’s interest in Vedanta can be seen as a key to a lot of the strange multiple realities and multiple personalities content of his films. Something about seeing the universe and identity as flowing and mutable rather than fixed and consistent.

  15. david wingrove Says:

    I’d had no idea that Lionel Jeffries was still alive. He was playing old codgers back in the 50s!

  16. Yes, but that was acting. Being bald at a young age opened up a world of character acting possibilities for him when others of his generation were stuck playing juvenile leads, poor things.

  17. Mr Jeffries had supposedly been in ill health, and presumably in no shape to be interviewed, for some years. What wonderful timing, and wonderful comic notions he had.

    There’s a moment in FIRST MEN IN THE MOON when Jeffries’ character, Cavor the inventor, is required to react in shock when an anti-gravity demonstration has painful repercussions for E. Judd, the leading man. Ray Harryhausen told me that Mr. Jeffries cupped his head in his hands and hollered “Oy Vey” on numerous takes, until he could be persuaded to produce a version which was blander, and less funny.

    Hell of an actor, and director. I confess to being more than a little misty at the news.

  18. I’ve been meaning to watch The Amazing Mr Blunden, his follow-up to The Railway Children, for years. Maybe now I’ll get around to it.

    Jeffries is one of the few actors in a Harryhausen show to be as animated as the surrounding creatures.

  19. The Railway Children is quite wonderful.

    Lynch could have made a better Shutter Island than Marty did. I found it quite disappointing.

  20. Well, I’m very curious. The move towards the mainstream in Scorsese’s work has been a little discouraging, although he certainly hasn’t stopped trying — his direction is always creative and interesting, even if the screenplays aren’t as deep as they might be. So I’m expecting at least a stylistic tour-de-force, but not necessarily more than that.

  21. And I’m expecting more than that. New York New York, Raging Bul, The King of Comedy and in many ways above all The Aviator (aka. The History of Color Cinematohraphy) are ALL stylistic tour-de-force(s0 that do tons more than wave pretty images in the air.

  22. Well many great directors have weak uncertain periods… the 90s was Scorsese’s creative peak so a slight slump after that can be forgivable.

    One thing I don’t understand is the so-called “move to the mainstream” because Scorsese has always been in the mainstream(save for the mid-80s after The King of Comedy and before GoodFellas), it’s just that he’s been able to maintain his identity there for a great period of time. I for one can’t wait to see Shutter Island

  23. And of course his career upto Mean Streets wasn’t mainstream either. It took Taxi Driver becoming a sensation.

    But I must say that I kind of felt that this film wouldn’t get good reviews(I haven’t seen it yet) or necessarily be going into masterpiece territory. The most recent masterpiece Scorsese made was Gangs of New York and then Shine A Light was a great companion piece/sequel to The Last Waltz but the fiction features after that have been defeatist in my view, especially The Departed. You can compare it to post-Marnie Hitchcock and that’s not a pleasant comparison. Still, the coming films seem promising. The next one is a fantasy film about George Melies’s career in the Parisian railway station as a sideshow magician after he quit film-making for good(make whatever of that you will) and then the one after that is expected to be Silence.

    To David W. Nuns choose to serve God and bear the message of Jesus Christ, they can do so without the restrictive clothing. Lay priests can wear dapper black duds with a collar, and bishops and cardinals get to wear fancy red and purple streamers. In comparison to that, nuns are definitely restricted and marginalized. The cloth is specified by the organization of the church not by their religious belief and vocation. I only invoked the comparison to show that kind of suppression is not universal and to attack what strikes me as the hysterical obsession the western bourgeosie have towards the burkha.

  24. The Departed is a lot stronger than Topaz, but less personal. Nicholson’s performance in the later stages and the damn rat at the end are the only downright bad moments. But as with Shine a Light, the whole aesthetic is based around fast cutting, which seems rather unambitious for this filmmaker. Shutter Island looks to be taking influence from a bunch of rather exciting places, at least.

    The Aviator is the one I have most problems with. In Raging Bull we learn to have compassion for a very unsympathetic human being. This could have happened in The Aviator too, except the film is mortally afraid of allowing Hughes to appear as unpleasant as he undoubtedly could be. As a film about OCD it’s often very strong. As a film about HH it’s hagiography at best.

  25. I liked The Aviator a lot, preferring it to Gangs of New York.

  26. Oh, I enjoyed it. I just have a nagging sense that it’s dishonest in a way that great Scorsese films aren’t. This Hughes never uses racist language (but he does use homophobic language, which seems like a cop-out) and we don’t hear about the men who died making Hell’s Angels (a fairly important incident in the making of that film, one would have thought, and The aviator devotes plenty of attention to that shoot)…

    Gangs is clearly flawed, in terms of the romance not working and Diaz being pretty ineffective, and the revenge plot is broken, and the whole film has suffered from too much compression to get it under three hours… but I enjoy it a lot and it has plenty of edge and gristle.

  27. I like The Departed but I felt that it was a film where Scorsese didn’t really care for any of the characters, save for the three leads – Matt Damon, Leo DiCaprio and Vera Farmiga’s character but only to a point and he doesn’t care for the rest at all. Aesthetically the film is very stark and harsh, in the spirit of Budd Boetticher’s The Rise and Fall of Legs Diamond and more specifically Lang’s While the City Sleeps. The Aviator is essentially an objet d’art made in a glass bowl. It’s a return to New York, New York‘s grand artifice only here it’s totally hollow unlike the gorgeousness of the former, right down to the costumes(Giorgio Armani on seeing the film told his employees, “From now on, all our clothes will be like New York, New York”).

    I’ve heard this film defended as a film about Hughes as he might have made a film about himself and that kind of explains it. The Hughes as shown in this film comes across as simultaneously narcissistic and masochistic which the film puts in relation to the spectacles he surrounds himself with and constructs, dollar-book Citizen Kane(which I’ll ascribe to the screenwriter who won an oscar for Gladiator). But the last scene with him in the mirror is quite scary. It’s still a lot more interesting than the usual crop of Hollywood biopics.

    I liked Shine a Light even if Pedro Costa is furious at it for the use of stereo and the camerawork. It’s essentially about performing simply because you still can even after the the culture that you grew up with is past. The Stones might be relics in today’s showbiz terms, but on stage all that matters is themselves and their music.

  28. ——————–
    The Aviator is essentially an objet d’art made in a glass bowl. It’s a return to New York, New York’s grand artifice only here it’s totally hollow
    I don’t agree. For me, it’s one of Scorsese’s richest and least hollow films.

  29. The thing about The Aviator that’s most striking to me (outside of the Complete History of Color Cinematography that it provides) is that Marty is DEATHLY afraid of flying and the film’s’s piece de resistance is a reacreation of Hughs’ plane crash in Beverly Hills.

    Obviously Hughes is such an enormous subject one is obliged to “pick one’s Hughes” in order to get through with anything at all. Of course The Aviator overlooks some things in favor of others. And much of it is Hughes as Hughes would have liked to have been seen. Moreover it deals with just one part of his career. The later craziness is another movie. Demme touched on it in Melvin and Howard but only passingly. Welles dealt with it more squarely in F Fo Fake, but only up to certainpoints as his film wasn’t “about” hughes.

    Warren Beatty planned to make a Hughes movie for many years. It would be great if he did it now as he’s the right age for the decrepit, long-haired, long-nailed maniac who shuffled around with Kleenex boxes on his feet while being attended to by a Praetorian Guard of Mormons.

  30. david wingrove Says:

    Arthur – I have no problem at all with a burkha or any other form of dress, if a woman makes a personal choice to wear it (as she chooses to become a nun and wear a habit).

    So I don’t think I have a ‘hysterical obsession’ with burkhas. Plus, I’m far too broke to be bourgeois.

    The problem arises for me when a government tries to legislate the dress of its citizens as the Taliban did in Afghanistan, or the Sarkozy presidency is trying to do in France.

  31. The best film about Hughes so far is Ophuls’ Caught(which Scorsese helped to restore for the UCLA) with Robert Ryan at his intense best. Ryan actually looks like Hughes and in the industrial newsreel-within-the-film looks like Hughes in his newsreel. Ophuls of course made the film in revenge for his own exploitation at HH’s hands. Interestingly enough, a Hughes-owned casino is one of the buildings being demolished in the newsreel at the end of Casino.

    The Howard Hughes story strikes me as an even more horrific story about American capitalism than what Welles did with Citizen Kane and obviously it haunts the American psyche, Michael Jackson essentially remade Hughes’ life with his own. So how The Aviator which is about “Young Mr. Hughes”, registers as one of Scorsese’s deepest and least hollow films, as it doesn’t really face up to the gargantua that it takes as its subject is beyond me. The cast of the film – DiCaprio, Baldwin, John C. Reilly are great and Kate Beckinsale is quite neat in her attempt to channel Ava Gardner. Flawed as it is, I’d take the feverish punk delirium of Gangs of New York any day of the week.

    That said, I don’t think there would be much point in making a film about the later Hughes, the story is too depressing, a story about a rich nasty person, old and paranoid essentially wasting his life for the camera.

  32. The Aviator does make it clear the direction Hughes is heading in — that final repetition of “The future…” couldn’t be more explicit. Pretty chilling. So I don’t think there’s any necessity to go there.

    Beckinsale does her best to be Ava Gardner but that’s just preposterous casting, she hasn’t got the red blooded passion anywhere in her.

    The idea of making the Hughes film Hughes himself would have made strikes me as flawed thinking, unless it can be worked so that Hughes unintentionally gives his true personality away. But everything in The Aviator seems contrived so sort-pedal his nastiness, and the Faith Domergue bit is the only section where HH seems creepy — but it’s such a minor example of his sleaziness that it comes over like a diversionary tactic.

  33. Sometime in the mid-Seventies, ’75-’76, I saw MEAN STREETS in an auditorium at Henry Ford Community College in Dearborn, Michigan. I found the film electrifying. I was living in a halfway house in Detroit’s inner city at the time, and had to take three buses in the morning to get to Henry Ford’s campus. I recall waiting for the bus in the winter cold on the corner half a block from where I lived, sharing that corner with a pretty prostitute with mittens on. I saw her there on more than one occasion. What I saw in MEAN STREETS was a fairly accurate reflection of what I witnessed in my neighborhood back then on a fairly regular basis, perhaps not note-for-note but the sensibility was there. What elevated the viewing experience then was hearing the Stones’ Tell Me and the Ronettes’ Be My Baby. To this day those tunes send shivers down my spine, whether in the context of the film or not. I’ll always be behind Marty (even though I didn’t care a whit for THE DEPARTED, and for the life of me could not fathom why he’d want to make a film about that ass Howard Hughes), I read with intense interest over the past weekend the critical reception of SHUTTER ISLAND, and even though most of them found fault with his most recent release, I felt vindicated when I read that it turned out to be an undeniable box-office success, and I’ll be seeing it soon, my first time in a movie theatre in a while. I don’t have high hopes, I anticipate that I may have problems with it, but I’ll always appreciate where Marty’s coming from, and I’m glad that his career has lasted where so many of the Young Turks from the Seventies did not. Looking forward to his documentary on George Harrison.

  34. I guess one thing Scorsese’s career demonstrates is that it’s hard to sustain that involvement with life on the streets when you become a success. Scorsese just doesn’t interact with working class people in that way anymore. But he’s proven fantastically adaptable about either working in historical recreation land, or dealing with the life of the celebrity as he knows it. King of Comedy is probably his last film with that realistic edge, because he kind of knows what it’s like to be Jerry Langford (whose life is more coherently etched in than Rupert Pupkin’s).

    It’s like Billy Connolly’s problem — what do you do when all your material was inspired by working-class life, and you’re now a superstar? In a way I’m in awe of what they’ve both done to sustain themselves, even if there have been very shaky moments.

  35. Scorsese famously answered that question himself to Mark Cousins, “Oh I’m working-class but I never worked!”

  36. In the pilot episode of THE SOPRANOS they have a scene that shows Scorsese getting out of a limo at some event, and I was duped. It was an actor portraying him, but I could’ve sworn at first viewing that it was him. So now among other things he’s directed the pilot episode of HBO’s BOARDWALK EMPIRE, due to air in the fall, at the cost of $150 million, the most ever paid for the making of a television episode, cable or otherwise. Busy guy.

  37. $150 million??? That’s A LOT!

    He always seems to have thrived on business, directing The Last Waltz as a vacation after wrapped New York New York. I always assumed that the busier you were, the more you had time to do, and it seems to kind of work. The trouble is, being busy blogging is so much fun I forget to do the other things.

  38. Whoops, time to back up here. I stand corrected, it’s $50 million, not $150 million. Big difference I realize. Still, I’ve read that’s the most ever spent on a pilot episode, I did get that right.

  39. The new really expensive show has Steve Buscemi in the lead role. One real genuine cameo is his appearance with Steve Buscemi as themselves in Robert Altman’s Tanner on Tanner. It has one of his sweetest moments when startstruck film-student Alex Tanner(Cynthia Tanner) goes up to him during dinner at Elaine’s(the restaurant immortalized by Manhattan and also featuring Michael Murphy) and asks for an autograph and then one of her friends tells Scorsese that she heard he has asthma and then recommends a doctor she took her little girl to. Scorsese’s nervous refrain of “Everybody’s making pictures” is kind of the tagline of the film/tv-miniseries. There’s an extra on the DVD of the Sundance Channel showing the making-of off that scene. It’s interesting to see Altman giving directions to Scorsese and also getting a glimpse of the former’s sense of blocking.

    I wonder how Scorsese is mulling over the irony of getting more money for making a TV show pilot than for the whole of Kundun. I don’t know about “business” because until very recently, his Leo DiCaprio films to be precise, Scorsese was always a small-box office success. Taxi Driver was a hit but after that all his films upto and including After Hours were disappointments. I think Color of Money was a success but then Goodfellas and Cape Fear brought him back into the mainstream. Gangs of New York was a mix of late 60s Hollywood epic spectacle plus mid-to-late-90s blockbuster and that was successful but barely broke even. That he lasted so long maintaining an amazing quality and integrity is itself remarkable. Otto Preminger and King Vidor would be impressed.

  40. Color of Money was a hit, and I’ve heard it was only after that he realised he could actually make a lot of money. He’d been underpaid all through the seventies. But he’s spent his money in pretty good ways, either investing directly $7 mill in Gangs, or setting up his foundation.

    Harvey Weinstein, trying to get Scorsese to cut Gangs, swore that he’d get his money back if only he’d cut the jar full of ears.

  41. Harvey Weinstein swears a lot of things. Gangs of New York suffered from what I’d call “Magnificent Ambersons” syndrome. That is, it was made and released at the wrongest of times. The Welles was a film about the collapse of a certain kind of America and the promise of America and he was going to release it while America was fighting fascism during WWII. Scorsese’s film which is about the tragedy of the immigrant experience was about to be released when the September of 2001 created a different kind of mood in America, after all how are you going to preach about the fact that America’s greatest city was built on top of hundreds of suffering immigrants to a nation whose national character was attacked. That’s what got it shelved and then there are all these rumours going on about how the film’s structure was changed during that time.

    The result is a film that is definitely compromised. Scorsese hinted in interviews that he might have considered making it into a mini-series because of all the material that didn’t make it in the end. How that’ll fit with his generally ”no-Director’s Cut” policy is another question? Still, for all it’s flaws it’s the only great tragic epic made in recent memory that can compare with the works of John Ford, D. W. Griffith, Eisenstein and Welles. And many of those films suffered from compromises too.

  42. I’ve actually heard stuff from various inside sources on this.

    The only battle Scorsese lost in the edit was over the U2 song at the end, which he didn’t want. But the compression to make the film shorter, which he was responsible for but would no doubt have loved to avoid, does the film greater harm. Also, he felt he didn’t do his best work on the set because of HW’s interference. He had a mirror taped to the monitor so he could see if Harvey was standing over his shoulder. They had all the money and resources you could ever want, a script that was being rewritten as they went, and a yahoo producer who try to wrap sets ahead of schedule regardless of whether they were finished with or not.

    I think that all explains a lot about the film’s finished state– the truncated feeling of most scenes sometimes works in a Goodfellas kind of way, but it sometimes feels like we’re being gypped out of proper complete sequences.

  43. Did Scorsese have issues over the U2 song playing over the end of the film or with the song in-and-of-itself because the track(which I like) kind of nails the heart of what the film is about, so I don’t think it’s likely that that was imposed. One intriguing aspect of the film is that it is at times a musical – there’s the number at the bar where one by one everyone joins the chorus and then another one with a street-singer, then the tour-de-force tracking shot with “Paddy’s Lamentation” playing over the line of immigrants on the docks. Then at the beginning you have Peter Gabriel’s instrumental of his song “Signal to Noise”. So to have a post-punk rock ballad over the credits is not without its logic.

    I do plan to write about this film’s virtues in due course. I don’t think we’ll get the full story behind the scenes any time soon but when we do, it’ll be worth the wait.

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