Two quick anecdotes, by way of introduction:
1. Abbas Kiarostami, in a public interview with Phillip Lopate, insists that he makes films as a way of developing relationships — with cast, crew, and audience alike. He recalls a brief interaction from his first conversation with Lopate — fifteen years ago. He’s given many interviews, he says, but that moment of human connection struck a chord. “I’m glad we’re onstage together again,” he says.
2. At the end of the conversation, which Kiarostami has been conducting in Arabic for well over 90 minutes by way of a very skilled translator, Lopate says, “I happen to know, Abbas, that you speak English.”
Kiarostami’s new film, “Like Someone in Love,” feels like an attempt at reconciling these two sides of the director’s persona: sensitive humanist and distanced ironist, heart-on-sleeve storyteller and postmodern prankster. Near the start, a young woman (Rin Takanashi) takes a long cab ride through downtown Tokyo. Passing a train station, she sees her elderly aunt standing outside, luggage in hand, waiting for her. The cab circles around twice, long enough to catch the elderly woman craning her neck in expectation, and then drives on. As we — along with the young woman — watch the night-lit city pass by, we hear clips from the latter’s voicemail. The voice on the other end, (almost) always the same, seems to sag a little more with each message — it’s her aunt, and she’s been waiting at the station for ten hours.
“Like Someone in Love” is a film about looking through glass — specifically, about looking from a distance at something (or someone) — that obliges, or even demands, to be communed with directly, without mediation. That feeling of finding oneself on the outside of a world for which you harbor intense affection must be all too familiar to Kiarostami: he’s always been an immensely sympathetic observer of human behavior, but an observer nonetheless. If his films are about fostering relationships, then they’re just as much about defining the limits of those relationships.
And how many different limits worm their way into, or onto, “Like Someone in Love!” There are limits to interpersonal connection (jealously, insecurity, pride), not to mention limits both generational and cultural. That young passenger is an escort on her way to the apartment of an eighty-year-old man (Tadashi Okuno, a veteran extra appearing here in his first starring role — himself a lifelong inhabitant of the space just beyond the onscreen action), and the man filming her is lost in a country whose language he doesn’t understand and whose customs he doesn’t know, backed by a crew that barely pays him any heed.
Kiarostami’s choice to make a film in Japan was a stab at testing those very limits, and even straining against them: an attempt to widen the borders of his compassion so that it might extend even to cultures well outside his own. Could it also, though, have been a covert acknowledgement of his status as a perpetual outsider, condemned, by virtue of his position behind the camera, to watch without taking part, to observe without offering a hand? In this respect the key scene isn’t the long, graceful pas de deux between escort and professor in the latter’s apartment, but the monologue that comes along much later; whose speaker, having been relegated long since to the fringes of the film, follows the action through a window with a static gaze reminiscent of Kiarostami’s own. Would it be fitting to consider her confession of unrequited love in light of the filmmaker’s own isolation — in this case from a specific culture, but in all cases from the filmed world? Perhaps the filmmaker has no choice, at least as long as he’s filming, but to be alone. All of which makes it still more remarkable that Kiarostami managed to extend such compassion towards that indecisive young girl, and that lonely professor, without ever breaching the barrier between his world and theirs. That is, until the very last shot: read that shattered window as you will.
“Like Someone in Love” is an uneasy film, one that proceeds with all the anxiousness of a traveller vaguely at odds with his or her surroundings. The tension between Kiarostami’s desire to cultivate and solidify his relationships with others and the isolation imposed on him by the very device he thought best suited to the task — the movies — couldn’t help but result in some sudden breach, metaphorical or not.
One could argue that exactly the same tension exists in the films of Nathaniel Dorsky, except that in his case either the final outburst has been indefinitely postponed, or Dorsky has come to peace with the situation as Kiarostami never could (my vote is for the latter option). Dorsky’s position behind the camera certainly cuts him off from the world, relegates him to the status of a passive observer — but what observations Dorsky squeezes out of his plight! His two latest films — “August and After” and “April” — transform the external world into one great big object of aesthetic appreciation. The distance between filmmaker and subject becomes a sort of productive suspension, an opportunity to linger on specific textures, colors and patterns, to hover, to drift. Both films consist largely of natural imagery shot at varying degrees of abstraction, largely on the last of Dorsky’s lugubrious, luminous Fuji stock. Near the end of April, we get our first prolonged glimpse of other human beings in Dorsky’s recent work — many of them caught up in hopping from shop window to shop window, their bodies doubled in the glass.
Both films deal with loss, in particular the loss of a loved one — an altogether more decisive sort of separation. Dorsky would always tint his films with longing, and justify that movement by appealing to the filmmaker’s stance outside the flow of life; here, though, all that surplus desire takes on almost unbearable weight. If Kiarostami wondered how he might break the barrier between filmmaker and subject (not to mention audience), Dorsky wonders what to do when the barrier can’t be broken, or accepted. The films themselves, in this context, start to look less like problems than solutions: ways for Dorsky to develop a relationship with us that might compensate in some small way for his loss, and this by telling us what it was like to experience that loss. At the most recent Whitney Biennial, Dorsky had a public chat with Ed Halter. “My films are about aloneness,” he said then. “And about sharing aloneness with the audience.”
They’re also about bodies, and the state of being — or at least feeling — bodiless. Dorsky’s poetic isolation demands that he transform bodies, be they inanimate or human, into abstract forms: in the films that result, nothing really seems to have weight, or even fill space. Everything floats, like the submerged marionette in one of August and After’s most stunning passages. And maybe, in this sense at least, the loneliness of the poet is a lot like that of Kiarostami’s professor — surrounded by dusty tomes, having no idea what to do with the young woman in his bed (he does nothing).
Perhaps, too, the same applies to Kiarostami and Dorsky themselves: their duty consists of making the three-dimensional two-dimensional and the physical ethereal, turning bodies with depth into images on a screen. And perhaps that’s why, as if to compensate, Dorsky keep reminding us that the film stock itself is a fragile, material object, something with texture and sensitivity, something to be handled and interacted with. The filmmaker might stay on the outside, but he can still share the experience; and though he might not be able to reach out and touch the world, he can still feel its weight — the weight of polyester and emulsion, if not flesh and blood.
Max Nelson studies philosophy at Columbia University, where he is the co-founder of the undergraduate film journal Double Exposure. He thinks everyone should be excellent to one another. This piece is part of Indiewire and the Film Society of Lincoln Center’s Critics Academy at the New York Film Festival. Click here to read all of the Academy’s work.