Wednesday, November 20, 2013

LIKE FATHER, LIKE SON, a film by Hirokazu Kore-eda

(Note: I do not here give away the film's resolution, but I do give away a couple of pivotal beats of the film. The very spoiler sensitive may want to see the film first, before reading.)

In Hirokazu Kore-eda’s newest film, Like Father, Like Son, a group of three - a man, a woman, and a boy - walk down a hospital corridor moving towards a sunlit window, hands joined, the boy in the middle, framed by the adults. The boy skips, periodically, dances a step, and the man and the woman lift him together: a walking, dancing game made for three, where the middle person must be smallest, where the two on the outside must be stronger, where the two on the outside must lift in unison for the middle small one to leave the ground.  Any person the wrong size or in a different order, any relational change in this simple little game, and the game won’t work. I know this because I walked between my parents when I was small and they were big, and I begged them to lift me, together to the sky, and as they did, I thrilled to the leap from the earth, knowing their big, strong hands and arms would keep me from jerking about or falling back down too fast.  And I know this, too, because my own children have wanted this same game from me and my husband, to walk between us holding our hands and playing this leaping lifting dance.  This is a game that parents do with their children. It speaks of love, trust, joy, security, freedom. It is a family game. 

This group - this man, woman, and child - is framed for us, walking down this corridor, as such as a family. The action and the framing say, family. One might take a still from this sequence and hang it on a wall with the other family photos. No one seeing this photo would question that the frame has captured parents and their child. Happy parents and a happy child. But in the moment of this particular frame, the film’s narrative is not offering us a statement of fact. The framing, instead, is an interrogation, a question. Are these three, in fact, family?

At the end of the hospital corridor is an answer to that question, one written in biology, in blood. It is one that denies the family portrait given us in the corridor.

The blood’s DNA reads, “File #1 and File #2 are not related to File #3.”

“That is our conclusion,” the hospital authorities tell File #1, Ryota, the man who was father, and File #2, Midori, the woman who was mother. And File #3, the boy who was son, Keita, is suddenly a stranger. Keita is not their son; their son lives with another family, who there, too, DNA says, is a son who is not a son, whatever the family portraits on the walls might say.

In these cases, Ryota and Midori are told, 100% of the families choose to exchange. A mistake has been made that needs correction. The boys do not belong, do not share blood with those with whom they live, so they must be exchanged.

From the scientific, biological point of view, things are that simple.

Families, however, those gatherings of people within the complex human drama are not so simple, and Hirokazu Kore-eda is a storyteller who, like the great Yasujiro Ozu before him, gently explores and quietly reveals the messy tenderness, the raw heartbreak, the love, the anger, the confusion at the center of every group of people we call family. Through his films - films like Nobody Knows, Still Walking, and I Wish - Kore-eda asks, what makes a family? Who are its members, and how do we know? What kind of agency or power does each member have? What are the bonds that tie the family members? How far can those bonds be strained, if disruptions, external or internal, threaten?

Like Kore-eda’s previous films, Like Father, Like Son builds its characters and its story by slow degrees and delicate nuance. We become so immersed in the lives and narrative that Kore-eda’s questions arise organically, and the questions about family take on emotional power and urgency because we are so intimately connected with this particular family, these individual characters. We desperately want to know, does Keita belong to this man and this woman, Ryota and Midori? How can he belong to them? How can he not belong to them?

When Midori receives the devastating news from the scientific authorities, she is baffled and burdened by what she feels was her blindness, ““Why didn’t I see it? I’m his mother.” And indeed, that is a key question: shouldn’t we be able to recognize those of our own blood? Shouldn’t it be easy? Obvious? But it isn’t, not to Midori, and her mother’s heart yearns towards the boy whom she’s regarded as son; she cannot really believe that he isn’t her son, and her confused question, “Why didn’t I see it?” is not merely an intellectual dissonance but a deep heartbreak.

Ryota is a contrast to Midori, a very different personality. Early in the film, he describes Keita, as “kind,” a gentle person “like his mother,” who doesn’t mind losing; he has a softness, born of emotion, that, Ryota admits, bothers him a little. Ryota’s emotions are not things he admits nor we see easily, and his heartbreak over the news of his son is less clear. Ryota is angry; he wants to know how such a terrible thing could happen – this thing that he regards as an affront to him and all his plans for his ordered, controlled life. He works every day of the week and has risen in the ranks of his company; his motto, revealed when Midori suggests Keita take a day off from piano practicing - since Keita has just been studying hard, at 6 years old, for his entrance exams and has passed - is “If you take one day off, it takes three to catch up.” Keita must not take a day off from study or from piano because Ryota cannot give himself a day off; relaxation is not the key to the success of his universe. And so Ryota pushes himself, his son, his wife, and they live an orderly, tidy life in their home, a place Midori’s mother likens to “a hotel.”

Such is the nuance of Kore-eda’s story-building though, that we do not see Ryota as a monster. Whatever his demands of himself and his son, whatever his strictness, or his stifling demands for cold tidiness, his interaction with Keita is suffused with tenderness. It is, perhaps, a watchful tenderness, a watching whether Keita will fit the mold Ryota has set out for him, but it is a tenderness nevertheless, and when Keita sits down to practice the piano at the end of his long day of exams, Ryota watches him for a moment, and then joins him, sitting close to him and playing with Keita a simple duet. And Midori watches with quiet delight from the kitchen, chopping her dinner vegetables in unconscious time with their music. Surely, whatever Ryota’s firm control and strivings towards his notion of success, this is a happy family whose members love one another.
Still, tenderness within the controlled life or not, the news that Keita is not his son is a violent disruption in Ryota’s notion of family and of the path Ryota had planned for his life. As the family leaves the hospital, the two adults stricken by the news,  the three – Ryota, Midori, and Keita - are framed again, as they were in the hospital corridor in family portrait, this time waiting at an intersection. But the neat framing of a family portrait is dashed away: interrupted by a train, swiftly rumbling by, cutting off our vision of them. They are not what they once were, what Ryota assumed them to be, what he planned for them to be. 

And this disruption of the family portrait, its notions of itself, this break in direct forward movement is further mirrored for us not only by the obfuscating train but also, beautifully, by immediately subsequent lingering shots of travel – a vehicle, we don’t know whose, moving swiftly through dark highway tunnels, and then, another vehicle moving in circles around and around a track. The outlet to the tunnel never comes, and there is no end of the circling track. In one moment, the three members of a family were walking happily down a corridor towards the lighted window of the hospital; in another moment the three are struck through by a passing train and we are travelling with them in tunnels and circles.  

The journey of the film, then, we might say centers on a man who thought he was a driver of an expensive car he’d sacrificed to earn, a man who thought he was moving forward in a path he’d chosen, with a family he was proudly caring for and shaping. And that man’s world is derailed: he no longer knows with whom he’s driving nor to where he’s driving. And for Ryota, this situation is impossible. He must know who he is and what he’s doing – any lack of definition, any emotional messiness is intolerable to him. So he goes about working to fit things back into their tidy definitions.

But the story is such that at every turn, control and definition continue, more and more, to escape his ever slipping grasp.

His control is disrupted in the moments when he first meets the family who has raised his blood-son as their own, and he reacts to these people who are not like himself in a frozen, polite stillness. They are a working class family, an open, friendly, warm, rough and tumble sort of family, where the father, Yudai, works as an electrician from home, stopping his work happily and frequently, perhaps to help a child fix a toy or to chat with a neighbor; it is a family where a childhood scrape, a bump or a bruise, is nothing to worry about, where the father joins heartily into the play of his children, mussing his hair and ruffling his clothes and not caring one jot. Whether he’s even aware of his undignified, untidy appearance is doubtful. When Ryota, Midori, and Keita meet the other family at a mall food court and playground, Ryota looks on in a kind of horror as his blood son, Ruyei, inelegantly chews at his soda straw and then leaves it, mangled, behind him as he runs off to play.  Ryota sees, later, that Yudai chews at his straw in the same way, also leaving it mangled. Like father, like son.

Ryota’s response to this horror – his blood son imitating, so crassly, the man who is not his real father - is to work to fix it; a plan begins to form in his mind that he and Midori should take both boys, since, clearly, his tidy, more moneyed life is best.

But Ryota’s notions of class are to be disrupted as much as his sense of control, and of family and fatherhood. Yudai’s family is revealed to Ryota to be something Ryota might admire rather than despise. For Ryota, working his son hard and working himself hard in order to make enough money and opportunity for his family, has been his idea of good parenting; he scorns the genial tumble play Yudai offers his children and insists, by contrast for example, that his son should bathe alone, “to learn independence,” rather than bathing in the traditional, communal family bath style, as Yudai and his family do. Yudai is unabashed by Ryota’s chilliness, however, and his motto, we learn, is “Put off tomorrow whatever you can,” and he gives advice to Ryota about fatherhood, chastising him for working away from home too much: “For children, it’s more about time. Being a father is the most important job in the world.”  Through Yudai, this new family, Ryota begins, however reluctantly, to see another approach to life.

And when Ryota suddenly, at one point, proposes to Yudai that he and Midori take both boys, we see that, in the aftermath, he is as ashamed of himself, as the others are for him. Here, Ryota is not at a point where he has relinquished all control, but he is beginning to realize his way of fatherhood is not the only way, and even while the very nature of the relationship of Keita to himself has been thrown into question, he is also beginning to question who he has been as a father.

Whatever Ryota’s growing sense of the complexity of a parent’s relationship to his child, however, both families continue to move, as if caught in an unrelenting force, towards what the hospital had told them everyone does in these cases, 100% of the time: an exchange of the boys, each blood-son to be with his blood-parents. The mistake corrected.

Even as this movement towards apparent correction reaches its peak though, the film continues to probe the rightness of that correction. The families meet together one last time for the moment of exchange, and as families do - commemorating what they deem important moments with their cameras – they decide they will take a group photo. Each father carefully places his camera on a rock: two cameras - one camera large and expensive, the other camera small and modest - each representing their respective families. Then, through the gaze of the two cameras, we look at this group of people and wonder for a moment, how will they group themselves? What will the framing of this shot be? But the question on the tenterhooks of our minds is not one the families themselves seem to think to ask at all, though they have been working with such momentum, to re-frame themselves, to learn to assert to themselves and each other, “now Keita belongs to Yudai and Yukari,” and “now Ruyei belongs to Ryota and Midori.” They simply separate, without thought, into the groupings organic to their emotional sense of identity: Keita with those he’s called parents, Ryota and Midori; and Ruyei with those he’s called parents, Yudai and Yukari. Snap. Shot. And as Koreeda has been doing throughout the film, this photo framed for us in the context of the film, asks us a question: how is a family a family? Are these people, divided into two groups, each a family? How can they be if they about change their groupings?

The instinctual gravitations of the members towards those other members most familiar to them tell us something that those in the photo do not realize, perhaps, for themselves, just how much an emotional bond has, a bond over those bonds of blood and DNA and over the decisions of that adults about who belongs to whom.  

I will not reveal the film’s ending, for to disclose it would break its slow, building power, but I must describe a pivotal moment, later in the film, in which Ryota finally understands something about the complex nature of a familial relationship, something that cannot be reduced to blood and his own decision. Ryota, now at home, idly takes up his camera and flicks through the images it stores, images he himself primarily captured, images cataloging his family unit, Keita, Midori, Keita and Midori. But he is startled to find on the camera images he did not take, framings he did not construct. There are images of himself, asleep.  In these he is far from any control of the kind of representation of himself he might choose. And this sudden exposure of the way someone else sees him – something we saw in the photo of the two families together but he did not see - disrupts his own narration of his world, and it thrusts upon him with irresistible power a thing that he has been resisting, that is, another perspective, an alternative understanding of the world, of himself, and of Keita.

John Berger says in his television series and later book, of the same name, Ways of Seeing,
Every image embodies a way of seeing. Even a photograph. For photographs are not, as is often assumed, a mechanical record. Every time we look at a photograph, we are aware, however slightly, of the photographer selecting that sight from an infinity of other possible sights. This is true even in the most casual family snapshot. The photographer’s way of seeing is reflected in his choice of subject.
 And here, in the moment of seeing Keita’s framing of his world, his way of seeing, Ryota sees Keita’s choice of subject: himself, Keita’s sleeping father. And he understands, finally, Keita’s bond to himself, and in that knowledge he finally sees in himself something he could not before, the thing that grew and became real, a thing more deeply in his heart than his very blood, a thing that happened without his conscious choice or control. In fact, a family relationship.

It is true, perhaps, that as the boys grow older, each will physically resemble more and more, their blood parents, but what that means for the definition of family is less sure, much less sure than the authoritative decision of the hospital authorities about which boy belonged to whom, for we might say that often, in the acting is the being. The boys were brought to homes, and the adults acted as their parents, became their parents. And perhaps the boys, in their newly exchanged homes, acting like sons, being treated like sons, learning to call the unfamiliar houses homes, will begin to be the sons of those whom their blood tells them they are. Indeed, we glimpse them as they learn, in their new homes, to receive and give hugs, to begin to trust those of this foreign environment.

Transplants are possible perhaps. Transplanted cicadas, for example, we learn from the film, as Ryota travels for work to a forest project, can adapt, regard a new place as home. But they do not treat a place as home until they have been in that place for 15 years; the process of belonging is a slow one.  And once rooted, the cicadas remain, live, grow, reproduce in what has been, for 15 years, home. They are attached, firmly, to that place.

The boys were, originally, transplants, and they are asked to be transplanted again, back to a time from before they can remember.

And we might ask, can any collection of individuals – individuals framed by context, by narrative, by photographs, as “family” - be anything more than a collection of wandering transplants? Just how deep do transplanted roots go?

Susan Sontag, in her classic work, On Photography, is cynical about the nature of family photographs, and by extension, family; those photographs, she implies, create a narrative and connectedness the family, insecure in its own identity, desires but may not actually participate in:
Through photographs, each family constructs a portrait-chronicle of itself – a portable kit of images that bears witness to its connectedness. . . . Photography becomes a rite of family life just when, in the industrializing countries of Europe and American, the very institution of the family starts undergoing radical surgery. As that claustrophobic unit, the nuclear family, was being carved out of a much larger family aggregate, photography came along to memorialize, to restate symbolically, the imperiled continuity and vanishing extendedness of family life.  
The photos and framings of family in Koreeda’s film are not so cynical, however. The framings do interrogate the assumptions about family, about connectedness, about a family’s narrative of itself, but the interrogation is gentle and nuanced and does not simply declare that a family photo, a framing of a family, with its implied narrative and implications of connection, is a deluded fiction. Those framings may be, in some sense a fiction – as this film shows us, what is framed as “family” is denied by the cold fact of blood -  but a fiction participated in long enough may become more than fiction. And more than being a sad fabrication of a desire that does not exist, as Sontag suggests, a photo in this film may instead reveal an emotional truth, a truth the photographer, one like little Keita, cannot hide.

In the hands of our guide, Hirokazu Kore-eda, framings of family and family photos take part in a moving, truthful narrative about human connection, and the truths Kore-eda offers in this film will long remain with me, as indeed they must, as I look around at this place I call home, with these three girls I call daughters, and this man I call husband, and as photos I’ve taken and photos my children have taken - often crazily framed, wonderfully unflattering photos - run in random sequence across my computer screen. I do not know how, exactly, we came to be family.  And I remember wondering if the strange little red, scrunchy-faced thing I brought home from the hospital, after giving birth for the first time 12 years ago, would ever feel like my own, not a transplant from some foreign place. But the truth is, once strangers and transplants or not, we are a family, and cicada-like, we are rooted and entwined with one another.

And I think, on our next family walk, we’ll see if our youngest daughter is not yet too old to be lifted high to the sky, between my husband and me, as we move along together.

Thursday, August 22, 2013

THE ACT OF KILLING (2013) : Where the Play Is the Real

IMDb plot synopsis: "A documentary that challenges former Indonesian death squad leaders to reenact their real-life mass killings in whichever cinematic genres they wish, including classic Hollywood crime scenarios and lavish musical numbers."


In old timey monster movies, it’s obvious that the monster isn’t really a monster; it’s just a guy dressed up in a monster suit. But we all agree it’s loads of fun to pretend together that the guy is actually a monster, actually a threat – and then to jump together in congenial fright.

Special effects, of course, have gotten a lot more special since those first days of cinema; this new thing we have, this CGI, can be real slick, and in the best cases, the seam between CGI and reality evaporates; the effect doesn’t feel like an effect. But even in those cases, as we sit in the theater or on a snug couch at home, there remains a firm wall of safety between us and the scary. We don’t see the monster suit threads anymore, but we still quite happily can say, “It’s only a movie.”

In the best scary movies, of course, the monster on screen represents real, underlying collective or personal fears, and as emotional, visceral, and cathartic as that kind of experience can be, the representation remains tidily up on the screen, contained, safe.

This movie, The Act of Killing, makes me aware, again and again, of itself as a movie, of the camera, of the camera operator, of the set, of the make-up, of the costumes, of the actors – and the make-up isn’t very good, the costumes are garish, and the actors are embarrassingly amateurish.

But here, the space between the sign and the thing signified, the space between the monster suit and the monster does not exist; the suit, though badly made, though clearly artificial, rips aside that wall of safety we are so used to and puts us face to face with a real, live monster, and with monstrous horrors I felt so viscerally that I actually began blacking out 15 minutes into the film. I clenched my eyes against the screen and tried desperately to think of something else, even for just a moment, so that I could regain control. I did, but I was aware, as I opened my eyes again just how vulnerable I was.

For this isn’t a story where the happy state, the suspension of disbelief, is possible.

The assault on me as a viewer, the assault of the deep, inescapable reality of the play-acting before me is, however, only one layer in which the film reveals the power representations of things have, even on those involved in forming those representations.

Here, the monsters dressed up in their very best, their very neatest monster suits; they set the stage, set the dialogue, put on their make-up, and proceeded to act out their version of a monster story, where the monster is the super cool hero.

But somewhere in the process, something got a bit confusing for the monsters, for some of them at least. The act of recreating their history, in casting all the parts, in playing multiple roles, in being forced to consider audience, and in working through the concrete specifics of the gory details, revealed something new – or revealed something previously pushed down, down, and far beneath a conscience. “Wait a moment,” the monsters asked each other, “what we’re rehearsing here, won’t our audience think we’re actually really bad monsters and not super cool monsters?”

And they were stumped for a moment, for they couldn’t tell how to revise the story so that the monster horrors seemed good. They did try - for example, casting one pairing of monsters under a beautiful waterfall, where the victims thanked them for their atrocities.

And perhaps that pretty scene worked for some of the monsters, but it seems clear that at least one could not get away from the re-play of his own story nor away from the viewing of himself in that replay. And he retched, and he retched, and he retched and he retched, until I thought I could see the blood of his victims as it rose up to gag him.

It’s hard to tell whether this act of his, this acting of the act, this viewing of this acting will ultimately gain true foothold in the monster’s conscience. And perhaps some will say the makers of the film caught only a moment that merely appeared to be but did not actually reveal a conscience at all, however real the gut retching seemed.

In HAMLET, our tortured young prince, plotting to trap his guilty uncle, decides “the play’s the thing wherein I catch the conscience of the king,” and certainly, that uncle-king blanches when his sins are set before him, his guilt confronting him in the form of the players. Losing his cool, he runs away. A triumph for the prince. But HAMLET is about so much more than just getting a king to confess to a murder; it is a work, like all Shakespeare plays, grappling with the very questions of our collectively tortured existence, and an audience of the play, surely, leaves it more stricken in heart and mind, more affected than the character of the king.

THE ACT OF KILLING is like that. Through its act, through its cinema, it does much more than show me monsters looking at themselves - though that, in itself, is extraordinary. It forces me to look at the monsters myself and accept that they are real, and even more, it leaves me, an audience member, stricken; it shows me something very dark from which I cannot distance myself, something I cannot say lives only far, far away in Indonesia.

The monsters who justify themselves? They live everywhere, in the very heart of the human.

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Review: FILL THE VOID (Rama Burshtein, 2012)

Israeli filmmaker Rama Burshtein sets her debut feature film in a close-knit community of Orthodox Jews in Tel Aviv, though the community is so very closed to outsiders, I wasn't sure for some time which country or city they were in. One gets the feeling they could be anywhere in the world, and for them, nothing would change; they are their own little world, passing through the modern world, interacting with it only when they must - to call an ambulance, for example - but otherwise not thinking of it at all as relative to themselves. If others look at them curiously as they pass through the streets, they do not seem to notice the staring, and if pounding music forces its way in through their windows, they close out the sound without comment. The bubble of their world remains intact.

And I could not help but be, in some measure, attracted to such a community - even if the thought of living among such a group also rather terrifies me: such a closed, tight community has very little room for individual, personal sorrows, joys, or secrets. For personal concerns are not merely personal; they are communal. What concerns the individual concerns the larger community: the wealthy are expected to give freely and generously on Purim to those in need because, one gets the sense, that the wealth, though centered on one family for most of the year, really belongs to the whole community. And the rabbi - aware and concerned for everyone - will give attention not only marriages and deaths but also, with equal seriousness, to the elderly woman who feels helpless because she does not know which oven to buy.

We - most of us, at least - are  not used to such a picture of community, much less the experience of such; for us, individuality - the pursuit of our own dreams, our life, liberty, and happiness - is paramount. Certainly, we have ties to friends, spouses, partners, families, but we like to think we have power of individual choice over the circumstances, perhaps even of the familial relations, we find ourselves in. In stark, arresting contrast, the film offers a picture of a group where the community is paramount, where a common theology, and common, unique language, and common religious practices make the community and community concerns more important than the individual - though - and here's where the story resides - the film follows the struggle of an individual within that community, how she must weigh her own desires and feelings - her individuality - in the balance of the communal.

And so, while film offers us a sense of the community, the film isn't concerned with an examination or critique of the whole group and its culture and practices; it's simply the context - albeit a vital context - for the particular story we are following, the story of girl, Shira, 18 years old and thus now at a marriageable age.

As the film opens, we see her - with her mother and directed via phone by the matchmaker - shyly and eagerly looking around the market for the man who might potentially be her husband.  Shira's face throughout the film is a delight to watch; she is silent often, but emotions so vibrantly and delicately animate her eyes, her mouth that one feels the dynamic narrative of feeling - confusion, desire, happiness, love, grief - beneath the surface. The others of her community - her father, mother, sister, brother-in-law, the rabbi, her aunt - are older, and we sense they have learned to control much of that facial display of personal emotion; they are more difficult to read - though nonetheless, often all the more, fascinating to study - and their inscrutability stands as an essential contrast to the youth and naivete of Shira. Her face as she sees this potential husband is beautiful, demurely muted but nonetheless alive, illuminated with shy curiousity, eagerness, trepidation, and happiness, and when she later greets her sister, who has come to visit, that face lights up to its fullest and joyous speech pours out. With her sister, she might fully express her youthful eagerness and happiness at the thought of an upcoming marriage.

Grief, however, strikes her and her family, and she is placed in a position in which her youthfulness and naivete must, more quickly than she is ready, give way to adult decisions, adult expressions, adult emotions.

There is no room in the situation for her to be merely blythely young and happy; instead of looking forward to marrying a young husband and growing older by degrees with him, she must grow older all at once, the weight of family cares for this particular community of people suddenly resting on her unready shoulders. The family - and the community as a whole - places certain hopes and expectations on her, often expectations that are conflicting. Her family loves her and wants her to be happy, and yet they have in mind the happiness of the entire community as well. Her mother and father say, "We don't want to push you, Shira," and they don't, not verbally, and yet Shira can well read their hopes for her - and as a daughter who loves her parents and her community those suppressed familial hopes do, indeed, push her.

Like an Austen novel - and this film has been to compared to Austen - the plot, set in a very small community and most often within that, in the domestic sphere, centers around whom Shira will marry and how the community respond to her choice. It's a simple plot, then. The execution of the plot, however, is far from simple, and the emotional and situational complexity, as Shira tries to understand herself and her desires, as she tries to navigate among those she loves, as she tries to do the right thing for the good of all, all the while being urged to act of her own volition and choice, drew me further and further into the lives of this group until for me, like them, the outside world was of very little concern; it barely existed.

Burshstein's film will, for me, without doubt be one of my favorite films of 2013, and in addition to the emotional and situational complexity, the cinematography is stunningly beautiful, lighting and framing the characters in such a way that I was not only immersed in the world but bowled over by sheer beauty. The cast, too, one and all, give performances that don't feel like performances - subtly nuanced and deft, one and all.

And last, it is rare that we have the opportunity to see such a closed, religious community, one in which the camera presents them to us so simply: through Burshtein's extraordinarily skillful, delicately shaded storytelling, we absorb their traditions and practices without any outside commentary and judgment, even explanation.

From a feminist perspective, I could possibly complain about the stifling expectations of a community where women's roles are purely, solely domestic; I could protest that Shira and the other young women around her should not have to believe that marriage is the beginning of life; I could grumble at the fact that the men are the leaders and teachers of the community - speaking, singing, and ruling - while the women sit and observe, separate. But I cannot and will not do this.

The community is what it is; we are presented with it in order to participate in its joys and sorrows - not to stand outside and judge - and such is the craft of the film, we do. Its heartbreaks and joys and hopes became mine.

Sunday, March 31, 2013

"Lonely as this finger": Abbas Kiarostami's Like Someone in Love

(Note: My essay on Kiarostami's earlier, companion film, Certified Copy, may be found here: )


I recently dipped back into Russian literature - after too a long hiatus - with Ivan Turgenev's Fathers and Sons, a gripping read that caught at my heart as much as it stimulated my mind, in the way that only the emotionally vehement and intellectually rigorous Russian writers seem to be able to do. The novel has clear philosophical and political themes, but the book centers on human relationships - between parents and children, between friends, between lovers, between gentry and peasantry - and on the way those relationships constantly shift and communication fails, especially under the strain of a generation gap, a gender gap, a class gap. In one scene, a husband and wife comfort one another in the sudden, careless departure of their son, a son whom they love so dearly but do not really understand and do not really commune with on any level:

 "'He has gone, left us!' [the father] faltered. 'Gone, because he found it dull here with us. I'm a lonely man now, lonely as this finger,' he repeated again and again, and each time he thrust out his hand with his forefinger pointing away from the rest. Then [his wife] came to his side and pressing her grey head to his grey head, she said: 'It can't be helped, Vasya. A son is an independent person. He's like a falcon that comes when he will and flies off when he lists; but you and I are like the funguses growing in hollow tree: here we sit side by side, not budging an inch.'"

"Lonely as this finger," connected but always separate from the hand. And even on a deathbed later on, parents and son are separate; they do not understand one another no matter how much blood joins them, no matter how much one may yearn for the other.

The relationships in this masterful book, speak so truly and poignantly about the human problem of communication: we long for a connection, we long to understand and be understood, we long for something real with one another - but we are always aware of something we are missing, a connection not quite made, a communication not quite fully received, even in the healthiest of relationships.

And even at the meta-level in my reading experience with this book, this moving story, I was aware, as I always am with Russian literature, that it is a translation. In an odd word choice that puzzles me, in a strange interchange between characters where I don't understand a motivation, I am aware, however much I become invested in the lives and characters of the novel, that I am missing something. With my inevitable limitations as an English speaker, as an American - as someone who does not know Russian, who is not Russian - I miss something. Always. In reading a translated book, I am ever aware of this - and I mourn what I cannot have - but my interaction with a translated book only brings to the fore something that is always true, in every communication I send, in every communication I receive: that we are working with signs and symbols, and we do not always fully understand what the sign signifies and what the symbol represents - and that, at an even more basic level, the sign will never be the thing it signifies. If I have only the sign, I do not have the signified. Literary critics, the deconstructionists in particular perhaps, have articulated this problem – the best they can, that is, with the limitations of words. Communication will always break down, will always be imperfect.  And yet, at a practical level, we cannot remain in a state in which we point out the limitations of every sign and symbol; however limited, we strive to communicate with one another, to understand one another, and we hope to make contact; we hope for communion, for intimacy, and for love.

Abbas Kiraostami's most recent film, Like Someone in Love, a companion piece to his 2010 film, Certified Copy, understands our problem and understands our desire: it understands our strivings for connection in the midst of a world where we always strain to see, to hear, to understand.

Running as a stream over, under, and through the film, noises that are a mere background to the main story constantly distract us and deflect our attention – they burden our strain to listen and to understand: music, conversations, traffic sounds. Even inside what should be the quiet of a car or inside the walls of an apartment, the exterior noises intrude in every moment. And our vision, too, as much our aural sense, is constantly obstructed and distracted: we see our characters through a curtain or from a distance and behind objects; we see them as a likeness in a photo, in a hazy reflection, or through a window that is reflecting something or someone else.  Layers of other sights and sounds come between us and our object, and we are aware of the constant decisions we must make in each moment - what do I listen to? what do I look at? what is most important? how do I interpret this thing I see and hear only so imperfectly?

The opening scene of the film beautifully encapsulates the struggle throughout the film to discern, perceive, and understand. The scene is a humming restaurant, or a bar, rather - a pleasant place, where the conversation seems friendly and lively, where the music falls pleasantly on the ear, where groups of people sit or stand in animated groups - talking, laughing, leaning in and out, making gestures. And through it all, the sound of one woman's voice rises, slightly louder than the rest and arrests - or barely arrests - our attention, gradually drawing our curiosity. The camera stays still for a long time, letting us take in the whole scene - a wide frame - without giving us hints of whom we should look at or listen to. Whose voice is it? Is it someone with those standing in that group in the background on the right? What about in that group of three in the middle, sitting at the table? Or perhaps the red-headed woman in the foreground to the right? We strain to match the sound of the voice to one person's lips. We think, for a moment, we've succeeded, and then, stop and doubt the match. 

But the camera eventually shifts and gives us some direction, and we see the speaker is a woman on a phone who has been out of sight, just behind the camera's gaze. And so we do begin to focus on her, to try to listen, but her words are out-of-context; we hear the words - or read them, rather, since the film is in Japanese, translated for us, we hope with some accuracy, into English words that appear on the screen - and we understand the words individually and in groups, but the clues as to who she is and whom she's speaking to build only gradually - and we doubt our guesses about this overheard slice of a conversation. 

The scene continues in this vein, and we finally understand whom we are to focus on, but she is often out of sight still, and the camera focuses on the person she is speaking to or on another group who isn't even aware of her: it focuses on the group of three at the table; or on the red-headed woman, who seems to be a friend, maybe a colleague; or on an older man, who seems to know her well.  And still the bar sounds and activity constantly intrude - we follow people going in and out, listen to and see the door open and close, sense the constant conversations - and with all of these distractions, we continue to try to understand who the woman is, who the red-headed woman is, who the man is and what they all are to each other. The man, we guess, is a boss - and owner of the bar? - but he seems to treat her in an almost familial fashion - a father? But, then, that doesn't quite fit; they don't act like father and daughter - the relationship isn't somehow familiar enough. The red-headed woman seems to be a friend, clearly listening in on the phone conversation, even speaking into the phone herself to the caller, but the two women are not together at the same table; the red-headed woman seems to be with someone else, someone who is mostly just out of our range of vision. There's something familial about the relationship between the women, too, but something there doesn't quite fit that label either.

Who the women are and who the boss man is becomes clear as the film goes on - we learn the main woman's name, Akiko -  but the guesses we make about what their words mean in full, about who they are, and what they are, and how they are related to each other represent the bigger thread of guesses and imperfect assumptions and interpretations running throughout the film. We make guesses about the characters of the film; they make guesses about one another. By the end, who the characters actually are is clear, but what they mean to each other and how we might define, once and for all, their relationships eludes both them and us.

But the desire for a meaningful relationship, for intimacy - for a true connection and defined roles - is no less urgent, perhaps all the more urgent, as interpretations go awry and as modes of communication fail: as phone messages go unanswered or a phone is left to ring, or a phone is disconnected; as a pounding on a door is ignored; as a specific car horn is subsumed among the other traffic noises; as a line of print is inadvertently left out of a book; as a request to move a car is ignored; as a whisper is too quiet, a gesture too obscure.  Throughout the failures in communication and interpretation, we see the urgent desire for relationship and for closeness in key moments and through key characters - through Akiko’s boyfriend's tracking of her, and through his decision to marry her so that, as he says, she will be forced to be with him, so that she will have to answer his questions, so that she will not lie to him anymore; we see it through an old widowed professor's invitation to a call-girl - our Akiko, as it turns out - where we soon realize he does not want the false intimacy of purchased sex but something nearer to companionship, a shared meal, a conversation over a glass of wine, something like the intimacy he shared with his deceased wife perhaps.

And while those moments and characters are certainly most central to the film, they are highlighted most beautifully, for me, through another scene representing the longing for relationship and the simultaneous failure of communication - through some smaller moments relative to our main character, Akiko, and to her grandmother. As Akiko rides, via taxi, through the city at night for her meeting with the professor, she listens to her phone messages, ear buds dangling from her ears; the camera remains on her face - luminous and beautiful but impassive.

There are seven messages, most from her grandmother, who has arrived in Tokyo and who wants to meet with Akiko. The series of messages take us through the grandmother's day: in the first message, she is riding on the train, nearing Tokyo, looking forward to seeing Akiko; in the next message, she has arrived, and she tells Akiko where she is and that she will wait for her - she hopes for  a lunch with her granddaughter; in the next, it is lunch time, and she has resigned herself to lunch without Akiko; in the next, she describes finding a picture of a woman that looked like Akiko in the phone booth - she says she knows it couldn't be Akiko, but she calls anyway - perhaps, somehow, she will make contact this way - but only an ill-pleased man answers; in the final message, she has returned to the train station - it is nearing the train's departure time, and she will wait for Akiko under a statue at the station. The longing for her granddaughter runs throughout each message - though we understand the grandmother has long lost touch with the real Akiko - we become more gripped with each message, waiting with each to hear where the grandmother is, if she's given up, and wondering if there is still time for Akiko to get to the station.

Akiko's impassivity - a constant throughout the messages - breaks as she listens to her grandmother's final words, and she asks the driver if the train station is nearby. What will she do? We so long for her to run to her patiently waiting grandmother and to embrace her.

As the taxi moves past the station, we rejoice at a first glimpse of the statue and then, straining, we finally spot an aged figure standing underneath it. But as we move past, other cars obstruct our vision, people walk in front of us, and the car carrying Akiko doesn't stop; the woman we believe to be Grandmother is out of sight. Once more around, Akiko asks, and we strain, again, with Akiko, to see that small, waiting figure, craning our necks, almost, to see around the obstructions. We see her, but she is soon lost to sight once again, and the car, carrying Akiko and the chance for a connection, moves on. The gentle tension and longing of the scene paired as it is with those things blocking the connection is so beautifully realized, suffused with tenderness, but it also relentlessly backs away from a fulfillment for that tenderness, backs away from a possible connection.

What would have happened if Akiko and her grandmother had met? Was that woman beneath the statue really Akiko's grandmother? Akiko clearly believed her to be, and perhaps that emotional reality is what mattered most as the taxi passed the station. For Akiko, the woman was her grandmother, not just like her, and she decided to reject the connection with her.

Likenesses and surrogates run through the film - Akiko is mistaken for a granddaughter, the professor is mistaken for Akiko's grandfather, and these mistakes are not corrected.  And Akiko tells a story about when she believed, as a young girl, that a famous painting was a portrait of herself - and she still half believes it is though she knows it isn't she. She lifts her hair into a bun, imitating the woman of the portrait and showing just how similar she is to the painted woman.

Likenesses, surrogates, translations - they are not the originals, but perhaps the translation is all we have.  Even the most astute translator of words and of people - the professor, who is both a translator and sociologist, with his house full of well-thumbed books and a mind full of research - cannot find a way to communicate with perfect precision with those around him. His ability to perceive, like anyone's, is flawed and his ability to communicate is flawed. His manuscript suffers an imperfect printing; he cannot express what he really wants from Akiko; he falls asleep when he should be paying attention; he repeats only a portion of a conversation when he is asked for the whole; he backs out of his driveway, blind, nearly hitting a woman and her children; he wants to protect Akiko but wanders from window to window when she is threatened, unable to get a clear view and unsure of how to act.

But for all his flawed communications and failed connections and even with Akiko's own failed connection with her grandmother, the professor and Akiko find in one another, something like a familial relationship that feels true. He says, at one point, almost playfully but also seriously, he will act as grandfather to her, and later, when she needs a grandfather, she calls him. We are aware of a kind of emotional reality between them, however tenuous and shifting the relationship.

And the film's final scene offers another kind of emotional reality as it brings about a sort of violent end to the film’s train of constantly obstructed communications – obstructed communications between film and viewer, between film character and film character. A stone is thrown - it's sudden, elemental, violent; it is a barbaric communication, but it forms, for us, almost a relief: a concrete something that transmits one, clear, specific thing, emotional frustration and anger; there is no questioning its message.  The stone shatters a glass window – glass like the glassy surfaces we see throughout the film - glass that hides something by a reflective surface and simultaneously allows a view to something; glass that has kept out noise and let noise seep in; glass that has reflected people and distorted people.

The glass that has half blocked and half allowed sounds and sights shatters almost joyously, if terrifyingly, removing, if only for a moment, the questions about what a symbol means and the questions about what one person is to another.  “Talk to me,” this moment screams; "I need to know you hear me, not through a phone, not through an intercom, not through a car window, not through a glass darkly, but directly." 

Because the moment is so sudden and violent, we understand it cannot maintain itself and it will not bring about trusting intimacy. But we do understand it in itself ; we understand the rage and the desire that brought it about. And it does feel like a relief, as thwarted as we have been throughout the film, so distracted by other things, voices, sounds, sights, that we have yearned for focus and one specific moment of clarity, for a specific moment of truthful contact.

And with that we leave the film’s world. And whether we leave hopeful or in despair will perhaps depend on our own hope for true contact in a world of signs and symbols, likenesses and translations.

For my part, I am hopeful. My reading of Turgenev will always only be an imperfect one; my reading of anything and anyone will always only be imperfect. But even with a translation, I find those moments of emotional contact. My heart weeps with Turgenev’s parents, bereft and separated for their son – and my emotion is real, however, flawed is my perception of the relationship and of the language. And my heart rejoices in the moments of something like familial connection between the professor and Akiko – they are like a granddaughter and grandfather – and for me, it is enough.