Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Sat May 01, 2004 12:34 am 
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"Truth" so ugly it's a lie

What do you think about movies that're torture to watch? Every film buff has favorites he or she will sit through with pleasure even though a normal person would find them painful and tedious. For this viewer, Gus Van Sant’s Gerry, though interminable or unwatchable for many, was an unexpected delight. I’ve also enjoyed – no, that isn’t the word; I’ve been deeply stimulated by -- the films of Bruno Dumont. And though they’re often like watching paint dry (that’s what Gene Hackman says of Eric Rohmer, another favorite of mine, in Night Moves) -- I’m certainly a great admirer of Robert Bresson’s movies. If there’s anything that unites all these, it may simply be originality and a distinctive style.

But needless to say, one man’s meat is another man’s poison, and we must all choose our own poison. Some, if not many, Iranian directors seem to me too unfamiliar with the idea that art – if they even see their work as that and not simply as cinematic instruction – can and indeed should be entertaining (at least in the sense of offering glimpses of beauty and hope). They don't recognize the aesthetic ideal of art that's (as Horace puts it) “dulce et utile,” both pleasant and useful. Many see it as a choice of one or the other quality. Needless to say, the avant-garde or adventurous in art is initially difficult. Cocteau said fashion must be beautiful at first and ugly later and art must be ugly at first and beautiful later. What this means is that we can learn to enjoy what at first is torturous or hard going. These are modern ideas with ancient roots. “Dulce et utile” was a classical idea that also became an ideal of renaissance humanism. How far even the finest Iranian filmmakers and their Afghan cousins are from such ideals can be judged from the example at hand. Though they've been much admired in this country by some, it's hard to see how one could learn to enjoy them.

My problem with Iranian efforts like Majid Majidi’s Color of Paradise and Jafar Panahi’s The Circle is that although they claim membership in the world of artistic, independent filmmaking, they are often crude and nearly always manipulative. Much about them is primitive and awkward -- and that certainly can’t be interpreted as good filmmaking. Their characters are doomed from the start and we know it. The grimmest lives have moments of absurdity or pleasure, but these filmmakers don’t show such moments; their characters are headed toward tragedy from the first frame. And when women are concerned, the aim is to show how they are oppressed, not really to convey the fullness of a life.

The same is true of Barmak’s Osama. There’s a sense that this cannot be how people live, because there must be moments of beauty or happiness, humor or eroticism in a life even if these qualities are only glimpsed by peeking momentarily out at others from behind a burka. The poor little girl who is the movie's central character experiences nothing but deprivation, suffering, and fear from the first frame.

The plot of Osama, which is Siddiq Barmak’s first film, can be simply stated. An orphaned, dirt-poor 12-year-old Afghan girl under the Taliban pretends to be a boy to get a job. As a "boy" she's forced to go to prayer at the mosque, which she performs imperfectly. That leads her to be sent to a Koranic school where her real sex is discovered; a judge “forgives” her for the capital crime of posing as a boy and in exchange gives her in marriage to a lecherous old man who keeps his wives locked up. End of story.

Roger Ebert gives us this Hobson’s choice: “People work hard for their money, and if they want to be entertained, that's their right. But brave dissenting Islamic filmmakers are risking their lives to tell the story of the persecution of women, and it is a story worth knowing, and mourning.” That’s the way it goes. The majority of critics have nothing but good to say about Osama, though some do acknowledge the crudity and lack of balance. Indeed there are moments of great vividness and some beauty in Osama. The stark landscape with the ravaged building where the girl is “forgiven” by the judge is unforgettable. Every scene is brilliantly real looking, even though the acting is jumpy and crude much of the time. Perhaps the problem for me ultimately is the lack of a humanistic worldview behind this work. It is as if Barmak has been so brutalized by the Taliban himself that he cannot see beauty, only the ugliest truth. And such a truth is incomplete. It's a lie.

©Chris Knipp. Blog:

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