Mossafer / The Traveller (1974, Abbas Kiarostami)

screened Friday, March 2 2007 at the Museum of Modern Art, New York NY IMDb The Abbas Kiarostami retrospective opened last Thursday with a hot ticket screening of Taste of Cherry (TSPDT #477) with The Big 'Bas appearing in person. My gf asked me if I wanted to go. Now Kiarostami has had more impact on me as a film lover and aspiring filmmaker than just about anyone working today. Why wouldn't I want to see him in the flesh? Well for one thing I've seen Taste of Cherry three times already, twice on video, and one memorable screening at the Thalia with my old college friends. I remember that screening fondly because of how everyone in the theater stood around after the lights went up, dazed and stunned by the ending. And just like that a group of strangers started talking excitedly trying to make sense of what they'd just seen.

. I've also seen Kiarostami in the flesh, back when he received a special award back in 2000 from the San Francisco Film Festival. He appeared on stage right after a screening of The Wind Will Carry Us (TSPDT #660), my first ever Kiarostami screening. During the brief Q&A session a man a few rows behind me yelled out a rather imposing question, "Are you a Muslim or a transcendentalist?" Kiarostami's reply was "What you see in my film is what I believe," which elicited rousing applause from everyone (including the man, who shouted back "Good answer!"). That answer has stuck with me because I think Kiarostami is one of the few filmmakers who offer such a banal as well as politically correct non-answer account for their work and make it meaningful. When I watch his films, I really do feel this uncommon degree of awareness that cinema is a dialogue facilitated between its creator and its audience, that meaning, emotion, all those things we want out of a movie are things that we bring into the film as much as we take from it. With his best films, you don't just watch a great movie, but you come out of it with a heightened sense of awareness of how the world feels to us, how people talk to each other. You take less for granted.

. And maybe this is why I declined the possibility of seeing Kiarostami again, and why I'm probably not going to catch all the films I haven't seen yet despite the ultra-rare opportunity to do so. I can take it as a good sign that I've learned from the master, that instead of chasing after every little thing I could do to occupy myself throughout my life, why not focus on what's right in front of me and see it for all it has to offer?

As for The Traveller, I'm not sure if it's a masterpiece (I think lately I've grown more sensitive and dubious to the procedural qualities of his narratives), but there are moments that are clearly masterful. It's interesting to see him cut as much as he does during a briskly edited soccer match that opens the film -- quite a departure from anything you see in his "mature" period. And there's an indoor sequence where Kiarostami uses Hitchcockian POV shots to get into his character's head (it made me realize how he carried this technique into films like Taste of Cherry and Through the Olive Trees to a more whimsical and contemplative effect that is nothing like Hitchcock).

. The film has a remarkably non-judgmental view of its protagonist, a young delinquent boy who cares much more about soccer than school, and devises ways to earn a fast buck to buy himself a bus trip to a national soccer match in Tehran. Even though he steals from his family and rips off kids by pretending to take their picture with a broken camera, Kiarostami neither makes us feel scorn or pity for this no-future kid; we take in his schemes and their outcomes as facts first. This approach makes the ending remarkably stirring, because its image of utter loss, desolation and abandonment takes it beyond the realm of social realism and towards something more existential that no prescriptions or programs can fully address.

. Also playing with The Traveller were two shorts, the delightful So Can I (which would fit perfectly within an episode of Sesame Street) and Two Solutions For One Problem (thanks for the link to the video, Girish), which had me slapping my forehead with its brilliant simplicity.