King of the Road; New Directors on Display

I'm not sure how Abbas Kiarostami fits into the "contemplative cinema" paradigm, but I suspect he does somehow. There is a fair amount of "mere" architecture and landscape in his films but, as in the cases of other practitioners of this model, they serve a distinct purpose. For Kiarostami the key venue is the road. Most if not all of his films are journeys, usually with a purpose that is only revealed gradually. Right now, the Museum of Modern Art is engaged in a satisfyingly comprehensive program of his film and video work and an exhibition of his photography, which is highly atmospheric, as you might expect. (There's a series called Roads and Trees, which could be the title of any of his films.)

For Kiarostami the road is not a metaphor, the journey is not an allegory. These are concrete realities, situated in a precarious world that is frequently disrupted by earthquakes, hostile animals and screaming, narcissistic children. He approaches these phenomena with a deceptive simplicity -- stationary camera, long takes when possible -- and a human decency that puts him somewhere among Renoir, Ozu and McCarey. His road trips are a hard slog along oftimes damaged roads, but the sound of the wind in the trees and the sight of mountains in the distance is a beautiful payback for the effort.

The Kiarostami film series will be running at MoMA through March 19, the media installations will be there through May 28. The photo exhibit is at P.S. 1 through April 29.

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Press screenings have started for New Directors/New Films, the annual spring fling by the Film Society of Lincoln Center and the Museum of Modern Art. I'll have more to say next week, when can actually get to some of the screenings. Last week, I was laid up with some bizarre combination of a stomach bug and what I fear is a nascent kidney stone (I had one of those monsters five years ago, so apparently I'm do for a recurrence; how do I get to be so lucky?). The result was that I saw nothing of the first seven films. And I will be in Los Angeles and Santa Barbara the rest of this week and Monday; I'm the critic-in-residence at the Santa Barbara Jewish Film Festival (and if you're interested in catching my act, go here for information). After that I fully expect to see all -- well, most -- of the remaining ten films in the series.

That said, I must admit that the two films I have seen so far, the Iranian drama Gradually by Maziar Miri, and an American indie comedy, The Great World of Sound, directed by Craig Zobel, have been pleasant experiences and, I hope, harbingers of things to come.

Gradually is a film that apparently has been banging around the halls of Iran's artistic bureaucracy for a while. Miri's background is in television, where he graduated from editing to directing, and Gradually has a few of the rhythmic tics that I associate with features by ex-editors. The film's over all pace is a bit sluggish and the final third feels a bit hurried. How much of that is the result of re-editing (this film has had running times of 74, 77 and 81 minutes) is hard to say. But there is definitely something going on here that is worth a look.

The plot of Gradually is fairly simple. Mahmoud (Mohammad-Reza Foroutan) is a welder who works several hours away from his Teheran home on the construction of a new railroad line. He is abruptly called home when his wife, who has a history of unnamed mental illness, disappears with their little girl. He sets out to find her and gradually becomes aware that she has become the subject of neighborhood gossip. When a corpse that resembles her closely turns up in the local morgue, Mahmoud reluctantly identifies it as her. Regrettably, after that, the film veers away from this straightforward story-line in ways that disrupt the narrative flow of the film. Things take a turn for the worse when Miri inexplicably shifts point-of-view in the film's last third. Yet there is an undeniable talent at work here. The acting is uniformly excellent, particularly by Faroutan, who looks like the young Burt Reynolds, and the film has texture to burn, which makes its moodiness quite effective. Miri is a director who bears watching.

So does Craig Zobel, who directed and co-wrote Great World of Sound. The title refers to a putative record company that hires several feckless young men as salesmen for its rather dodgy program of identifying and recording would-be musical stars. Needless to say, the entire gig is a glorified pyramid scheme with the "owners" of the company holding back paychecks while the salesmen try to get their marks to part with $3,000 a head "as a sign of your commitment to making this record and having a real career." At the center of the film is Martin (Pat Healy), who is, if anything, even more of a loser than the other salesmen or the (mostly talentless) musical acts. He's partnered with Clarence (Kene Holliday in a star-making performance), a preternaturally glib African-American who seems to be doing all the heavy lifting in their double act. Gradually the competing forces of conscience and the scam artists need for a quick getaway destroy Martin and Clarence's dreams as surely as those of their victims.

Great World of Sound starts out like a middle-period Altman film, glibly cynical about the back-slapping Rotarian-types who populate this wood-panelled hell of lower middle-class daydreams, and genuinely funny in its depiction of the Home Shopping Network world of its inhabitants. As the film gradually darkens in tone, Zobel's hold on it remains fairly firm, although making the endlessly self-flaggelating Martin the center of the film is a bit hard on the audience. There are some bravura coups de cinema, brilliant choices made by production designer Richard Wright, and excellent performances throughout. Great World of Sound has real sympathy for its large-economy-size losers. As a comment on the obsessive desire for celebrity by Americans, it is deft and funny. Highly recommended.

You can find more information on ND/NF here. And I'll be covering more of the festival next week.

I will probably be blogging a bit from the road -- I mean, hell, I'm going to be in Hollywood, right?

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