"What is cinema?"
It's not often that such a question gets posed without irony or pretension. But when you're speaking with Iranian director Abbas Kiarostami, widely regarded as one of the most important living filmmakers today, such inquiries feel like a natural outgrowth of the conversation. "It's an image that's not limited to what you see," he responded the other night at New York's Museum of Modern Art, where a near comprehensive retrospective of his films is currently underway. "It has many different layers, and sometimes those layers dissolve the images that you see, and you just think about the layers. This is cinema."
Kiarostami was visiting New York not just to unveil some new art work and introduce his films, but also to teach a 12-day "master class" at Hunter College (which ends today), as well as to give lectures at area universities, and if lucky, to meet a male actor (55-60-year-old "intellectual") to play opposite Juliette Binoche in what may be his next project, a more conventionally scripted narrative feature.
His first full day in the city consisted of touring MoMA to check out a new 5-screen video installation of his 2004 feature "Five," a contemplative look at cycles of life near the Caspian Sea, followed by a trip on the V subway train to Queens's P.S. 1 to peruse an exhibition of photos and a new installation called "Summer Afternoon." Then he returned to Manhattan for a brief nap, and rushed back to MoMA to unveil the opening of the film retrospective, with a short called "The Birth of Light" and his 1997 Cannes winner "Taste of Cherry."
(The retrospective, which includes the director's rarely shown early short educational films, will travel to Berkeley's Pacific Film Archives and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA). It's a good time for Iranian cinema at this politically-charged moment: In addition to the Kiarostami series, Jafar Panahi's latest "Offside" opens March 23 and the New Directors/New Film festival will unveil "Gradually," the work of next-generation filmmaker Maziar Miri.)
At MoMA, after being introduced with a standing ovation, Kiarostami told the crowd that if he had seen the short, which was made as part of the omnibus series "Lumiere & Company," "I would never have shown it here," he said, dismissively. "It's very basic."
But as MoMA's film curator Jytte Jensen told the audience, even the most "basic" of Kiarostami's works reveal a multitude of ideas. "He constantly shows us how the simplest premise opens up infinite layers of depth and poetic fullness, and how change and subtle shifts impact the integrity of the whole," she said. "In doing so, he dares the audience to actually see and listen with intent."
But how does this masterful director achieve such a multifarious and richly complex cinema, one that is often slipping out from under the viewer, as the ending of "Taste of Cherry" continues to attest?
At the Hunter College master class a couple days later, Kiarostami spoke about an audience member, who after seeing "Taste of Cherry," badgered him about the film's ambiguous ending that depicts a man who may or may not have killed himself. "'Are you playing a game with us?'" Kiarostami remembered the moviegoer saying. "'We couldn't figure it out.'" "Then you understood," Kiarostami had responded. "Perhaps I didn't want you to know whether he committed suicide."
Kiarostami turned the anecdote into a lesson for his students. "It's only bad films that everyone leaves the cinema with the same feeling," he told the roughly 30 film students, through a translator. Quoting a famous ancient scribe, he added, "When the critics and audience start disagreeing with each other, the writer breathes a sigh of relief."
In the same way that "Taste of Cherry" subverts expectations and forces the viewer to engage in greater questions about reality, life and death, so does Kiarostami's deceptively simple installation "Summer Afternoon" on a much smaller scale. Showing for the first time at P.S. 1, "Summer Afternoon" consists of a projected video image of two wood-frame windows, with shades billowing in the wind. On the opposite side of the room, a fan blows. At a press tour of the show, Kiarostami guided one of the guests to stand directly in front of the fan to experience the installation's strange effect: As the fan blows air against the viewer's back, they watch the projected image gently flutter in a conflation of the real and the cinematic. Kiarostami seemed pleased.
This question of the real, Kiarostami later told me, via English translation by his son Ahmad Kiarostami (who works in computers in San Francisco), is well addressed by the cinema. "We have this medium to show this question that's always been there forever," he said. "It's a huge question. Who we are? What do we do? What is reality? That is the human question."
If Kiarostami, always wearing dark-tinted glasses, sounds as enigmatic as his films, he is much more direct with his students than with journalists. During the Hunter course, in which the class set out to make short films about taxis, Kiarostami was much more forthcoming about his work, offering a litany of proverbs and advice to live and make movies by.
According to Hunter College's Mick Hurbis-Cherrier, many of the students found the filmmaker "inspiring." "Mr. Kiarostami's ultimate lesson to the students was that while stories are all around us, simply finding them is not enough," he said. "A filmmaker must first be sensitive enough to recognize what the authentic and essential story is and then use their tools; camera, sound, editing and performance, with skill and forethought to tell that story well. As Mr. Kiarostami told the students, 'A mediocre story well told is better than a great story poorly expressed.'"
Particularly relevant to his students' projects, Kiarostami also spoke about his cinematic obsession with cars. (A series of Kiarostami's newest photographs called "Rain," on view at P.S. 1, are shot through the rainy windshield of a car.)
"One of things that's most pleasant is that the characters don't look at each other. It forces you to have a proper dialogue. Silence develops a logic in a car," he said. "You can look outside the car, but that doesn't mean the dialogue has ended. But in a room, you have to respond---the pause of thinking is eliminated."
And because the kind of fixed camera he prefers can be tiresome, he admitted, "a car allows for movement."
Another valuable lesson reflected Kiarostami's penchant for minimalism. "By omission, by not showing, we can show more," he said, offering up scenes from "Ten" as a testament to the art of elimination. "When you only have one shot, you don't have any options and you have the responsibility to be correct in what you show. We create by eliminating, not by adding," he said, referring to his successively simple films from the two-shot "Ten" to the discrete one-shots of "Five." "It also brings you closer to financial independence," he added. "Because when you eliminate, you don't pay for it."
Kiarostami was full of other curious aphorisms, such as: "They say it's stupid to follow a cliche, but more stupid is to try to break a cliche." Or, "What is a good film? If afterwards I feel the need to call my mother than that is a good film."
But whether Kiarostami can actually teach these film students, or anyone of us, to follow in his delicate, humanist footsteps, he seems unconvinced.
"You can neither teach cinema or learn about cinema," he told me. "You just have to put yourself in a situation to see if you have something to say. No one really knows who is the best film director," he added. "But it's definitely not the people who studied cinema."