“Psycho" - Alfred Hitchcock (1960)

At a relatively advanced stage of his directorial career, Alfred Hitchcock directed a string of four mesmerizing and groundbreaking films that stunned critics and audiences alike. The public was accustomed to Hitchcock’s sly suspense-thrillers, but this sequence of films, beginning with Vertigo (1958) and continuing with North by Northwest (1959), Psycho (1960), and The Birds (1963), elevated the intensity of the cinematic experience to another level. All of them were expressionistic nightmares enhanced by dramatic cinematography and spellbinding musical scores. Of the four films, Psycho seemed to be the odd one out, since it was the only one shot in black-and-white on a relatively low budget, and it seemed at first to be more of a gimmick, an experiment in shock effects, than one of Hitchcock’s more serious endeavors. Nevertheless, Psycho does have interesting narrative affinities with another film in that sequence of four, the lush, shot-in-color Vertigo, which make the two films worthy of comparison.

Both Vertigo and Psycho initially received negative reviews from the critics, who seemed to have been distracted by the way that both films essentially offered two almost separate stories that were presented back-to-back. In Psycho the major protagonist is killed off about half-way through the film, and then another narrative is launched with a new focalization. Nevertheless, Psycho was Hitchcock’s biggest box-office success, and it remains today as his most remembered film. Why the film has been such a success is curious, because it seems to suffer from significant narrative defects that should have detracted from its popularity. Was Psycho so successful simply because of its shock effects and its supposed introduction of the “slasher” film genre? I don’t think it was simply that. There are some other attributes that underlie the film’s allure.

Most films have a narrative that can be broken down into roughly four or five “acts”. There could be a number of structural reasons that could be put forward as to why there should be this number of acts, but that number of 4 or 5 could also be simply associated with the average running time of feature films, which is mostly dictated by economic and social factors. In any case, in Psycho, as in Vertigo, we have something different: there are two, almost separate, stories, the “Marion Crane” (MC) narrative and the “Norman Bates” (NB) narrative, and each of them comes to its narrative conclusion.

■ The Marion Crane Narrative (48 minutes)
  1. The Tryst at the Hotel (5 minutes). In a memorably steamy opening scene, Marion Crane (played by Janet Leigh) is in bed with her lover, Sam Loomis, on one of his periodic visits from his home in California to where she lives in Phoenix, Arizona. Sam is divorced and beset with heavy alimony payments, so he doesn’t have enough money to marry Marion. In these more conservative times their amorous stays together must be held secretly in downtown hotel rooms.
  2. Stealing the Money (7 minutes). Marion works in a real-estate office, where a brash wealthy customer, Tom Cassidy, hands over $40,000 (about $300,000 today) in cash to buy a property that he likes. When Marion is entrusted by her employer to take the money to the bank, she decides to steal it and give it so Sam in order to solve his financial problems.
  3. The Getaway (13 minutes). Marion now heads out on the road in her car towards Sam’s home in California. The sustained psychological development of the driving sequence here is perhaps the highlight of the film, and to my mind, Bernard Herrmann’s musical theme music in this section is his greatest and most memorable work. During this section Marion is tracked by a suspicious highway patrol officer, and then subsequently she decides to trade her car in for another at a used cat lot, which only attracts more suspicion. As she approaches Sam’s town in California in the evening, she runs into a heavy rain storm and decides to stop at a motel for the night.
  4. The Bates Motel (23 minutes). Marion is the only guest at the Bates motel, which is run by a friendly but shy young man, Norman Bates (played by Anthony Perkins). Bates servers Marion a home-cooked dinner, and as they become more friendly, the discussion turns to the problem that Bates has with his obsessively domineering and apparently bed-ridden mother. After her discussion with Bates, Marion decides that she should face the larger moral context of her situation and that she should return to Phoenix and return the stolen money. Later, when Marion is back in her motel room taking a shower, she is violently attacked and killed by knife-wielding old woman. This is the famous shock-scene, which reputedly has over seventy shots in it. In the attack itself, there are about 35 shots (separate edit cuts) in a little over 30 seconds, and they are accompanied by Herrmann’s strident stringed musical accompaniment that suggests horrible shrieks of madness.
The theme of the MC narrative is focused on Marion’s moral choices and her sense of guilt. She wants to help Sam out of an apparently unjust situation, and she decides to steal the money from a repellant millionaire who doesn’t seem to need all that money. Her sense of guilt mounts throughout the Getaway and Bates motel sequences, and she finally decides that she must return to Phoenix and face the consequences. However, just when she has finally decided to do the right thing, a violent and unexpected external event destroys her. This ending is somewhat reminiscent of the ending of Vertigo, when Scottie has finally apparently succumbed to loving Judy as she really is, only to lose her by a violent event. Outside the narrow scope of our “civilized” human world is a violent and heartless universe. Fate doomed Marion without regard for her moral accountability.

The Norman Bates narrative (55 minutes)
  1. The Cleanup (8 minutes). We could think of the preceding MC narrative as an opening act to this NB narrative, since it supplies the background for what follows. Now the focalization shifts to Norman Bates, who discovers the bloody scene in the motel room and cleans everything up in order to cover up what happened. He then sinks Marion’s car, with her body and belongings inside, in a bog in back of the motel. This is presumably done in order to protect his mother from being sent to a mental institution.
  2. Arbogast’s Investigation (16 minutes). Sam and Marion’s sister, Lila, both searching for Marion, get together in order to find out what happened to her. They are joined by private investigator Milton Arbogast, who has been hired by Tom Cassidy to recover the $40,000. Arbogast eventually traces Marion’s tracks to the Bates motel and becomes suspicious of Norman Bates, which he reports to Lila and Sam. While investigating alone the Bates home next to the motel, he, too, is attacked and killed by a knife-wielding old woman. Norman is then seen sinking Arbogast’s car into the same bog in which he had buried Marion’s car.
  3. Lila and Sam Investigate (24 minutes). Not hearing anything from Arbogast, Lila and Sam head out to the Bates motel under the suspicion that Arbogast had – that Norman has stolen the $40,000. Lila sneaks into the Bates house while Norman is presumably occupied with Sam. But Sam is knocked out by Bates, who then heads over to the house, looking to see what mischief Lila might be up to. Lila sees him coming hides in the basement, where she shockingly discovers Mrs. Bates’s embalmed body. At that moment, the knife-wielding woman appears ready to attack Lila. But Sam show up and thwarts the assailant, who is revealed to be Norman Bates dressed as his mother.
  4. The Aftermath (7 minutes). At the police headquarters, a psychiatrist explains that Norman Bates had been a psychopath, obsessively attached to his mother. After murdering her years before, he had become a split-personality, shifting back and forth between the roles of Norman and his supposedly jealous mother.
The NB narrative, like the MC narrative, is focused on Norman’s fear of being trapped and caught. But as with Vertigo, the film also includes Hitchcock’s characteristic fascination with (a) the threatening lure of beautiful blonde women and (b) possessive attachment to one’s beloved. It is also common in a Hitchcock film for a principal male character to have a mother with a dominant and often possessive personality, and here in Psycho that possessive “mother” role has been taken to the ultimate extreme: she has utterly taken over the body of her son.

On the face of it, the MC and NB narratives don’t seem to be all that brilliant. In the MC narrative a beautiful woman steals some money and is later murdered by a psychopath. In the NB narrative the psychopath is tracked down, and his secret is eventually discovered before he can commit another murder. The scenes with Bates dressed up as the knife-wielding woman have their shock effects, but they, alone, do not account for what makes the film fascinating. In fact, like Vertigo before it, the Psycho story is littered with red-herrings and plot contrivances that seem to be mere audience manipulation. Consider these unsatisfactorily resolved plot elements:
  • the $40,000 and Sam’s financial circumstances are raised as a key issue, but this is ultimately dropped.
  • The state trooper seems to be relentlessly on the path of Marion’s crime, but he soon disappears.
  • The boastful and abrasive investor, Tom Cassidy, is introduced as an unsympathetic character who may play a significant role, but then he quickly disappears from the story.
  • Much time is spent on Marion’s acquiring a new car, but that car turns out to be insignificant.
  • Marion accidentally and unknowingly reveals her real name to Norman Bates at the hotel, and this is presented as potentially significant. But it’s just another red herring.
  • The psychoanalytic explanation at the end reveals much information that was kept from the viewer. The anticlimactic effect of this is to kill whatever sympathy the viewer may have had for Norman.
What is truly interesting about Psycho is the fact that we have two successive film noir stories that relentlessly build up in the viewer the feeling and tension of being trapped. The cinematography is superbly noirish, with many close-ups, point-of-view shots, and reaction shots (primarily from the perspectives of Marion and Norman) throughout. In fact there are very few two-shots or moving-camera shots over the course of the film. This is classic film noir mise-en-scene, but that, alone, is not what make the film great. A key additional aspect is that we have two of the most sympathetic characters in film noir history playing the protagonist roles, which in typical films noir are usually populated by highly compromised, less attractive characters. Janet Leigh is strikingly beautiful, sensitive, and compassionate. Anthony Perkins is similarly engaging, innocent, friendly, and self-deprecating. We can’t help but want them to be successful, no matter what misdemeanors they may have committed. With any other actors or personalities, the whole thing wouldn’t have worked. The relatively wooden and more distant performances of John Gavin (as Sam Loomis) and Vera Miles (as Lila Crane), sometimes said to be a weakness to the film, are actually assets here, since their emotional remoteness accentuates the warm humanity of Marion and Norman. As evidence for my claim, consider Gus Van Sant’s 1998 remake of Psycho, which I understand is virtually a shot-for-shot reconstruction of Hitchcock’s film. The only differences are that the film is shot in color, and he doesn’t have Leigh and Perkins in the main roles. Hitchcock’s Psycho has an IMDb rating of 8.7, placing is #23 on their all-time popularity list of films. Van Sant’s remake, without those sympathetic personalties, has a horribly dismal IMDb rating of 4.6.

Even the terrible psychoanalytic coda at the end isn’t enough to ruin the film. (Hitchcock seems to have had a fascination for psychoanalysis, which was in something of a vogue during the 1940s and 1950s). Roger Ebert has suggested that that enervating ending should have been drastically shortened. I would go further and say that it should have been excised from the film, entirely. We could never really understand Norman’s mind from the inside, anyway. But we do feel and empathize for his sense of being enclosed and entrapped. The performance of Martin Balsam as Arbogast is particularly effective in this regard. He is the perfect figure of the repellant, insinuating snoop who unswervingly worms his way into one’s private life and uncovers something. In the larger perspective both Marion Crane and Norman Bates are threatened by an anonymous, unfeeling universe that is closing in on them, closing off their escape routes, and threatening them. At the end of their narratives, Marion Crane is physically destroyed, and Norman Bates is destroyed from within. This inexorable sense of doom is what makes the build-up so intense. We want them to escape, but the pathways are being cut off at every turn. The final psychoanalytic coda almost comes as a sense of relief. It seems finally that the whole thing was just a bad dream that happened to someone else far remote from our own circumstances. But the idea of the threatening, all-smothering universe would not go away, as Hitchcock would remind us with The Birds.

“Vertigo” - Alfred Hitchcock (1958)

In the late 1950s, Alfred Hitchcock began a string of four features that would rank at the top of his list of great works: Vertigo (1958), North by Northwest (1959), Psycho (1960), and The Birds (1963). These films, along with The 39 Steps (1939), Notorious (1946), and Strangers on a Train (1951) are his greatest achievements. The four later masterpieces starting with Vertigo are all strangely wonderful – delirious expressionistic nightmares haunted by Hitchcock’s own personal demons, though they were passed off to the public as conventional action/adventure thrillers. A key element to most of those films was Bernard Herrmann’s riveting musical scores, which added another layer of emotional tension to the viewing experience. The expressionistic flamboyance dazzled audiences, but confused critics looking for standard suspense-film theatrics. Those films also featured, for the most part, Hitchcock’s unique and innovative narrative structures which, despite the mainstream status of the films, differed from the conventional narrative formats of Hollywood films. North by Northwest revived the concatenated mini-story scheme of The Man Who Knew Too Much and The 39 Steps, while on the other hand, Vertigo and Psycho both featured two virtually complete stories, back-to-back.

Vertigo stars, James Stewart and Kim Novak, in the two signature Hitchcock role models that dominated much of his oeuvre. Stewart plays the ordinary unassuming man whose middle-class existence is turned upside down by an intrusive and unexpected chain of events. Novak, who at that time was a rival to Marilyn Monroe’s status as the iconic Hollywood romantic superstar, plays the beautiful, but remote and seemingly unattainable, blonde that often populated Hitchcock’s films. There is also commonly a third, supporting, role in Hitchcock’s films – that of the somewhat dowdy motherly figure who represents the polar opposite to the glamorous blonde. In Vertigo that third role is filled by Barbara Bel Geddes, who plays Scottie’s down-to-earth and secretly enamored friend, Midge Wood.

The story of Vertigo concerns recently retired police detective, John 'Scottie' Ferguson (Stewart), who is asked by a now-wealthy former college chum, Gavin Elster, to find our more about his wife’s mysterious and perhaps suicidal behaviour. Scottie’s retirement from the force was caused by his harrowing participation in a rooftop police chase that led to a colleague’s fatal fall and nearly his own. Now he suffers from a debilitating fear of heights (acrophobia). With free time on his hands, Scottie agrees to shadow his friend’s young wife, Madeleine Elster (Novak), and learn more about her mysterious wanderings about the city. Madeleine, he soon learns, is obsessed with the suicide of her great-grandmother, Carlotta Valdez. Her obsession entails occasionally falling into a trance and wandering about San Francisco to visit sites associated with Carlotta’s past. Eventually Scottie rescues Madeleine from a suicide attempt and becomes romantically involved with her. On the occasion of another suicide attempt, this time at a Spanish mission south of San Francisco, though, Scottie’s acrophobia prevents him from stopping Madeleine from climbing a tower and leaping to her death. A year later and still trying to recover himself, Scottie sees an ordinary shopgirl, Judy Barton (also played by Novak), who reminds him of Madeleine. The focalizaton now shifts to Judy, as she has a quick mental flashback that reveals the key subterfuge in the film: she really is the same girl that Scottie had met earlier, but she is not the real Madeleine, only a lookalike as part of Gavin Elster’s elaborate scheme to murder his real wife and cover up the evidence. Judy and Scottie now begin dating, but Scottie stubbornly compels the reluctant Judy to make herself over to look like Madeleine, and the stage is set for a tragic ending.

What makes the narrative of Vertigo interesting is that the film really has two almost distinct, but linked, narratives that are concatenated together: the Madeleine Elster (ME) narrative and the Judy Barton (JB) narrative. They are linked by the central theme surrounding Scottie: self-possession and control in a dangerous and uncertain world. Those who have acrophobia know that the dread of heights is not centered around the possibility that one might accidentally fall. The basis of the fear is that one might impulsively jump on one’s own accord. This is in some sense the ultimate fear: the fear of one’s own self-destructive impulses, the fear of losing one’s mind. After Scottie’s harrowing career-ending experience on the police force, he sets about trying to recover his sense of control and normalcy. As a hard-headed rationalist and empiricist, he feels that he can achieve this in a logical fashion. He will simply subject himself, cautiously, little by little, to overlooking greater and greater heights and getting accustomed to the situation at each stage until his acrophobia is cured. Ah, if only it were that simple! (Unfortunately, many psychologists today still operate according to that naive notion.) Anyway, this is the way Scottie operates, and we have reason to suspect that Scottie’s habitual cautious rationalism may have even stalled his romantic relationship years ago with his friend, Midge. When he meets the mysteriously troubled Madeleine, her ethereal beauty overwhelms his inhibitions. Scottie, the rationalist, reasserts himself to rid Madeleine of the demon “possessing” her. But his own personal demon, his acrophobia, thwarts his efforts and leaves him shattered as the ME narrative comes to a close. Although Scottie had finally surrendered to the irrational temptations of love, his tragic flaw was his inability to master his self-doubts and save his beloved from self-destruction.

At about eighty minutes, the ME narrative provides enough material for a film on its own. But there’s more to come: the JB narrative is another story in its own right. This time Scottie, again the rationalist, tries to reconstruct the mysterious allure of his lost love. Consider now the narrative structure of Vertigo that leads through the ME and JB stories.

1. Introduction and Background (14 minutes).
The event that led to Scottie’s disabling fear of heights is covered. We are also introduced to Scottie’s loyal companion, Midge Wood. Scottie is then hired to follow the wife of an old college friend of his, Gavin Elster.

2. The Madeleine Elster Narrative
(65 minutes)
  • The 1st Encounter (23 minutes). Scottie tracks Madeleine as she visits sites around San Francisco associated with her great-grandmother, Carlotta Valdez. This includes a museum that features a painting of Carlotta, a cemetery with Carlotta’s tombstone, and a hotel that was once Carlotta’s homestead. Afterwards, Scottie talks to Midge and Gavin Elster and learns more about Madeleine.
  • The 2nd Encounter (14 minutes). The next day Scottie shadows Madeleine again. When she attempts suicide by jumping into San Francisco Bay, Scottie leaps in after her to pull her out. He takes her to his place and they become friends, to the consternation of the jealous Midge.
  • The 3rd Encounter (16 minutes). Scottie now wants to help Madeleine recover her sanity, and the two of them discuss her psychological affliction at a redwood park and by the seaside. In the process they become more intimate, and eventually they embrace passionately. Scottie has surrendered and plunged into the irrationality of love and passion.
  • The 4th Encounter (10 minutes). Madeleine tells Scottie of her nightmare about an old Spanish mission, and Scottie recognizes that she is dreaming of a historic monument south of the city. Scottie, the rationalist again, insists on taking her there in order to familiarize her with that site and thereby render it mundane enough to cure her of her psychosis. When they arrive, Madeleine rushes up the steep bell tower steps, with Scottie unable to pursue her quickly because of his acrophobia. Halfway up the steps, he sees her fall to her death.
3. The Judy Barton Narrative (49 minutes)
  • Background (10 minutes). Although a local court case clears Scottie of any malfeasance in Madeleine’s death, he suffers a nervous breakdown and is institutionalized. Midge tries to comfort him in the mental ward, but Scottie is virtually catatonic.
  • Scottie meets Judy (13 minutes). One year later, Scottie is on the outside, but he is still haunted by images that remind him of Madeleine. Finally, he sees Judy, who reminds him of Madeleine, and after following her back to her hotel, he invites her out for dinner for later that night. After he departs, Judy has the flashback, which reveals that she had been the "Madeleine" that Scottie had met earlier, but not the real Madeleine. The real Madeleine has been murdered by Elster, and Judy had been used by Elster in a ruse to sucker Scottie into testifying in court that Madeleine had committed suicide. But counter to plans, Judy had truly fallen in love with Scottie on that earlier occasion. She now resolves not to run away but to follow her heart in the hopes that he will fall in love with her again – but hoping that this time he will fall in love with the real Judy and not the role she played.
  • The Makeover (15 minutes). Scottie is now bent this time, not on curing someone else, but on curing himself. He begins to make Judy over to look more and more like the Madeline that he remembers. Judy is reluctant, but she submits in order to please Scottie. Eventually Judy is coerced into reproducing Madeleine’s appearance exactly as before, and Scottie is enraptured. By recreating “Madeleine”, Scottie has apparently undone, in his own mind at least, the personal weakness that led him to lose his beloved. Scottie, the rationalist, has now recovered himself and his fragile sense of control over his surroundings.
  • The Final Fall (11 minutes). On one of the dates, Scottie observes the transformed Judy wearing a necklace that could only have belonged to the original Madeleine, and it is a revelation for him. He now realizes that the original “Madeleine” he had fallen in love with had actually been Judy. In fact Judy had been Gavin Elster’s mistress and accomplice in his diabolical plan to murder scheme. Scottie’s rationality has finally triumphed in a way: he has figured everything out. But in the process his rationality has destroyed his dream of love. Judy is now seen as merely the castoff mistress of a murderer. Even Scottie’s makeover of Judy into “Madeleine” wasn’t as accomplished as Elster’s more perfect makeover of the same girl. Rather than redeeming him, Scottie’s rationality has shattered his sense of mastery and self-possession. And yet Judy really does passionately love him, just the same. His only salvation would be to abandon his calculations and to surrender completely to Judy’s love. This he seems to do in the end, but it is too late.
Thus the ME narrative is a tragedy about Scottie’s innocent confidence that he could cure both his and Madeleine’s uncontrollable inner demons. The JB narrative is a tragedy, as well, but Scottie is more culpable here: this time his own more interventionist scheme leads to his downfall.

Another issue, besides dread, is that of personal authenticity, and the acting (often under-appreciated in Hitchcock’s films) is effective in this regard. The customarily straightforward and guileless James Stewart is well-suited for the role of Scottie. Kim Novak is outstanding in her dual roles, as she expresses her unspoken longing for an authentic union with Scottie. In this connection one should also mention Barbara Gel Geddes’s role as Midge, which is more important than it may seem at first. She not only represents “safety” for Scottie, but also authenticity. Her frustration over her inability to connect with him is both touching and memorable. The fact that Midge disappears from the second part of the film (the JB narrative) is an indication of Scottie’s further dislocation from his moorings.

Some viewers of the film are disappointed that the secret behind the ruse and the mistaken identity is given away well before the climax of the film. But the film is not really about Gavin Elster’s crime. Fundamentally, Vertigo is about irrational fear and desire – essentially our universal fear of madness and the uncontrollable impulses that may drive us to our destruction. But the film’s appeal is not just what is told, but the way it is told. Vertigo has grown in the esteem of critics and audiences alike over the years, and this is due to its slow-paced dreamy expressionism that floods the screen. Some of the expressive techniques employed to achieve this effect include:
  • The lush color cinematography. This was the heyday of technicolor, with colors brighter and more saturated than in real life. Some critics have expressed concern about recent color enhancements to the fading print, suggesting that such “corrections” might damage the “realism” of the original. But such adjustments are only likely to contribute to the desired outcome.
  • The bizarre camera angles and compositions – often low-angle camera shots with San Francisco’s iconic landmarks looming in the background.
  • Bernard Herrmann’s relentlessly ominous and foreboding soundtrack.
  • The slow, hypnotic driving sequences with Scottie tailing Madeleine in extended sequences of driving, always in the downward direction (into the maelstrom) on San Francisco's steeply inclined streets and turning (evoking vertigo).
  • Scottie’s breakdown at the beginning of the JB narrative (or you could say separating the ME and JB narratives). This is a phantasmagoric abstract expressionistic sequence reminiscent of Fritz Lang’s Dr. Mabuse, der Spieler (1922).
At the end of the film, the viewer is barely aware that Gavin Elster has gotten away with his gruesome crime scot-free. We can be thankful that Hitchcock evidently didn’t want to clutter the narrative and the dominant themes with any distracting scenes of retribution in that quarter (although the British censors demanded an additional scene to do just that). Hitchcock stayed on key throughout and wound up giving us one of the great films.

"Close-Up" - Abbas Kiarostami (1990)

Close-Up (Nema-ye Nazdik, 1990) was perhaps Abbas Kiarostami’s most critically-acclaimed film, and yet it was apparently something of an opportunistic spur-of-the-moment production that was made without much prior planning. Kiarostami, who was born in 1940, had been directing mostly documentaries, along with a couple of neo-realist-styled fiction films, since the 1970s, but he only first came to the attention of European and American audiences with his innocent and unassuming Where is the Friend’s Home (Khane-ye Doust Kodjast?, 1987) about an eight-year-old boy in the northern Iranian town of Koker. He was making plans for his next feature, Life and Nothing More (Zendegi va Digar Hich), also to be shot in Koker, when he heard about a news item in Tehran that interrupted his plans and led him to make Close-Up based around that event first.

The story concerns an out-of-work printer’s assistant and film buff, Hossain Sabzian, whom a certain Mrs. Ahankhah, who is sharing a bus seat with him, observes reading a screenplay by Iranian filmmaker Mohsen Makhmalbaf. When she asks him about the book, Sabzian impulsively tells her that he, himself, is director Makhmalbaf. The woman is highly impressed and invites him to her house to visit her sons, who are film enthusiasts. Over the following week Sabzian maintains the charade, visiting the Ahankhah house many times and generally sponging off their hospitality. To pique their interest, he tells the family that he is interested in making his next film at their home and starring the family. Eventually the family becomes suspicious that the man is only a fraud, and they have him arrested. When Kiarostami read an article about the case, he went to the authorities and obtained permission to film the trial of Sabzian, and much of the resulting film covers Sabzian’s testimony during this trial. The film closes with Sabzian being released from jail and having an emotional meeting with his hero, the real Mohsen Makhmalbaf.

To a degree, Close-Up is a defining film for Kiarostami. It attracted serous critical attention from film scholars (especially the French) when it was released, and examining the film today still offers an occasion for looking into the nature of Kiarostami’s style and his unique popularity in film scholarship circles. There are indeed some unusual aspects to the film. First of all, the film does not easily fall into a simple classification, because although it could be considered a documentary film, many of the scenes are dramatized reenactments of real events, and yet these dramatic reenactments are performed not by hired actors but by the very same people that were involved in the original events. Secondly, Kiarostami reflexively calls attention to the filmmaking process in Close-Up, a breaking of the “fourth wall” that would become almost a Kiarostami trademark.

For me there were three general aspects of the film that I found particularly interesting: (1) the multiple narrative structures, (2) Iranian cultural background issues, and (3) the aesthetic issue of realism in Kiarostami’s films.

1. The Multiple Narrative Structures of Close-Up.
In most films or stories we can speak of two types of narratives, syuzhet (sjuzet) and fabula. The syuzhet is the plot of the story as it is given in the text. The fabula is the full story that is constructed in the mind of the reader or viewer. When the fabula is mentally constructed, the viewer “fills in the blanks” of the parts of the story that are missing from the presented plot, but which are usually understood from common knowledge. In Close-Up, however, there are (at least) three narrative structures:
  1. The syuzhet as it appears in the sequence of images presented to the viewer.
  2. The fabula that we, the viewers, construct concerning the original events of Sabzian impersonating Makhmalbaf.
  3. The fabula that we also construct concerning Kiarostami’s cinematic reconstruction of what happened. This is significant, because Kiarostami, who is both the author and a viewer, turns out to be one of the principal characters in this multi-layered story.
The structure of fabulas #2 and #3 make things more complicated, because we may have difficulty drawing the line between artifice and our presumptions of reality. The film opens with a 15-minute sequence covering Sorush magazine journalist Hossain Farazmand’s taxi trip with two soldier-policemen to the Ahankhah’s house to make the arrest on Sabzian. Because of the camera shot setups, the film editing, and the fact that Farazmand’s chatter to the two soldiers provides the necessary background concerning the reasons for the arrest, it is clear that this opening segment is a fiction-film beginning, not a documentary. But at the end of that opening fiction-film segment, the film titles finally roll across the screen, after which we switch over to documentary-film mode, as Kiarostami begins interviewing the police and the Ahankhah family in order to get his own background information on the story. We will later switch back and forth between documentary-filmed testimony in the trial and reenactment scenes dramatically recreated later by Kiarostami which visualize and flesh out some of Sabzian’s testimony.

Although Kiarostami blends these two narrative streams together relatively seamlessly, the viewer is still likely to be aware of the shifts and mentally occupied with the context switches between the two narratives (the two fabulas under construction) as he watches it play out. In fact the viewer is never absolutely sure if even the supposedly documentary-style segments are truly authentic or are themselves artfully staged (I will assume that they are authentic). So this is one aspect of the film that has fascinated the more intellectually-minded cineastes: the reflective game-playing with film narrative. The degree to which Kiarostami had self-consciously mapped out the nature of this reflexive narrative is unclear, however.

2. Iranian Cultural Issues.
When Kiarostami first interviews the accused, 22 minutes into the film, Sabzian plaintively asks him, “can you make a film about my suffering?” Later in his court testimony, Sabzian says that he admired Makhmalbaf, because of that filmmaker’s depiction of the sufferings of the underprivileged. “That film is a part of me,” Sabzian asserts. His entire defence, in fact, is to claim that the reason for his crossing the line of lawful behaviour was because he had so thoroughly identified with his idol, Makhmalbaf, that he wanted to emulate him. Though about ten years younger, Makhmalbaf was an apt role model for Sabzian, because his filmmaker hero had also been an uneducated youth from an impoverished background, and, like Sabzian, was a hardline religious conservative. His most recent film, which had so thoroughly captivated Sabzian, had been The Cyclist (Bicycleran, 1987), which depicted the sufferings of an impoverished Afghan refugee.

Because of Sabzian’s obsession with the sufferings of his condition and his readiness to quote classical poetry in the courtroom, many Western critics have championed Close-Up as a film that recognizes the redeeming and ennobling powers of art and the soulful potential of the common man (and thereby the commonality of all men). However, before one’s emotive feeling run to far in that direction, one should reflect somewhat on Iranian popular culture. Compared to most Americans and Europeans, Iranians, and this cuts across a wide spectrum of popular culture, are more given to philosophical speculation. They are also much given to meditating on the presumptively tragic and fatalistic circumstances of life. In addition, poetry has a much greater presence in everyday interactions in Iranian culture than in the West, so Sabzian’s poetic sensitivities were not so unusual in the Iranian context – in fact Kiarostami, himself, is a published poet. But Sabzian does seem to be somewhat unusual in other respects. Although uneducated, he seems unusually articulate and highly reflective. Moreover, his behaviour and statements suggest that he is not so much a man of the people, but more the opposite – something of a narcissist. In Chokrollahi and Mansouri’s 1996 documentary, Close-Up Long Shot, which interviews Sabzian several years later, these aspects to his character are apparently more clearly revealed. What Kiarostami had under his microscope in Close-Up, then, was not the noble, common man of the working class, who was speaking for all his “brothers”, but instead appears to have been more of a loner obsessed with his own victimhood. In fact Sabzian strikes me as a poseur who habitually plays a role in order to fool others and perhaps himself, too. Such a person, who is always “on stage”, tends to make a better actor than do most people, and this is undoubtedly why Sabzian’s performance is so seamlessly effective across the interleaved documentary and reenacted segments of the film. Kiarostami implicitly acknowledged this when he asked him during his court testimony whether he (Sabzian) wasn’t an imposter and still acting even at that very moment, while talking to the judge. Thus the bottom line is that we cannot say Close-Up is an authentic paean to the sufferings of the common man; it is actually an examination of a single, self-pitying individual.

Another interesting cultural element on display in Close-Up, though admittedly it is only tangentially significant to the subject of Kiarostami’s style, is the presentation of the court trial. (I assume that this part of the film was an authentic documentary-style recording of a real event and not artificially staged.) What interests me is the contrast between the Iranian Islamic court procedures on display in these sequences and the legal systems common to English-speaking countries. In the film we see an evidently learned Islamic magistrate taking the lead in the court proceedings and cross-examining all the parties to the dispute. The court procedures seem to be largely informal and are not driven by references to legal precedents and narrow legal protocols. The goal is for the magistrate simply to arrive at the truth, and also to see if he can work out some sort of accommodation on the part of the parties that is mutually agreeable. It is almost like a schoolmaster resolving a dispute between two of his pupils.

In the West, by contrast, we might have expected Sabzian’s type of offence to be addressed in a civil, not a criminal, lawsuit. In fact in a Western context, we might expect the aggrieved party to be Makhmalbaf, since Sabzian has falsely assumed the film director’s identity and threatened his public reputation. In the Close-Up case, though, Sabzian is not being sued for damages, but instead for having committed the crime of fraud and for presumably “casing” the Ahankhah house for the location of valuables in connection with a planned future robbery. In the event the Iranian magistrate (a) listens to Sabzian’s testimony, (b) becomes convinced of his sincerity and relative innocence, and (c) ultimately persuades the Ahankhahs to drop the court case. In this kind of situation shown in the film, everything works out pretty satisfactorily, (after all, the Ahankhahs did get to be in a film), but the process strikes me as heavily dependent on the wisdom and wise judgment of the presiding magistrate. He has a considerable degree of latitude to invoke his own prejudices.

3. Realism in Close-Up.
The notions of cinema vérité, which actually go back to the work of Dziga Vertov and his Russian colleagues in the 1920s, became popular in France during the 1960s. The goal was to capture objective reality, “the truth”, with the camera. When the popularity of cinema vérité spread to the US, it became known as “direct cinema”, but there was an often-overlooked difference. The American filmmakers adopted a “fly-on-the-wall” approach: they wanted to make the camera so inconspicuous, so “invisible”, that the subjects being filmed were not consciously aware of its presence. The camera was to be an objective record of reality. But of course this is a fiction: the camera always has its presence and its point of view in any filmmaking activity. The French cinema vérité documentarians tended to acknowledge explicitly this presence of the observer, and they incorporated their own observations into their recordings. Kiarostami’s work definitely follows along the lines of the French tradition, but he sometimes crosses the lines, and there are sequences of seemingly direct cinema or even fictionalized accounts mixed into his films. This, of course, raises questions concerning what is truly real in his films.

One could speculate that every single shot in Close-Up was a staged recreation of events. However, I am willing to believe (essentially this is my personal construction of fabula #3) that several sequences were initially shot in typical (French cinema vérité) documentary fashion (with the filmmakers’ presence explicitly acknowledged) and in the following order:
  • the initial interview of Sabzian in jail.
  • the interview with the Ahankhah family at their home.
  • the court case featuring the testimony of Sabzian and the Ahankhah family.
  • the final meeting between Sabzian and Makhmalbaf.
After shooting these sequences, Kiarostami shot as dramatic reconstructions
  • the opening fifteen-minute scene covering Sabzian’s arrest from outside the Ahankhah home. (Although it is a dramatic reconstruction, Kiarostami has shot and edited the sequence to emphasize the humdrum and undramatic particularity of the everyday. The taxi driver idly waits outside the Ahankhah home and stares at a jet plane overhead. An empty aerosol can falls from a rubbish heap and rolls slowly down an inclined street. The reporter, Farazmand, rings neighbours’ doorbells to see if he can borrow a tape recorder.)
  • the associated scene of the arrest shown later from inside the Ahankhah home.
Note that the pivotal court case scene was shot with two cameras:
  1. one that panned around the court, opportunistically viewing the magistrate and the Ahankhah family as appropriate, and
  2. a second camera with a telephoto lens always maintaining Sabzian in close-up during his testimony.
This is the critical dialectic of the film and underlies the significance of the film’s title. The first camera is showing the court case in documentary “objective reality” fashion. But the second camera has a different aesthetic. With Sabzian in close-up and “playing” to the camera, there is a different, more personal and self-conscious level of reality on display. Whether the second camera is more “real” or not is open to question, but at least the two cameras evoke contrasting emotional effects on the viewer.

Altogether it is the provocative use of mise-en-scène to provide alternate forms of reality that has attracted attention to Kiarostami. In particular in Close-Up, the blending of documentary “reality” and dramatic reenactments is what attracts the attention of cinema academics. Of course we know (and Kiarostami seems to be suggesting this) that the camera in the documentary film sequences will invariably have some behavour-altering impact on the subjects filmed, and therefore these sequences will not come out to be absolutely true representations of objective reality. So that means that neither the dramatic reconstructions nor the documentary sections are representations of objective reality. In fact, one might speculate that the dramatic reconstructions could have the edge over the documentary-style sections, because they have a certain heightened sense of reality (compared to the documentary sequences) due to the fact that the original participants can more effectively highlight and project their original intentional states (as they remember them) when they re-perform those roles in the staged events. Could Kiarostami’s hybrid form of documentation, then, somehow get at the truth more effectively than conventional approaches? Upon reflection, I don’t think so. I am inclined to think that true “objective reality” is never a realistic option for film, which inevitably must present the world from a contextual perspective of the storyteller. Nevertheless, the metaphorical illusion of objective reality by means of the “silent witness” of the camera is indeed commonly assumed by filmmakers and filmgoers alike, and Kiarostami is, consciously or not, exploring the boundaries of this illusion.

On the whole Close-Up is not a cohesive and aesthetically pleasing narrative experience. I don’t believe that a deep social message is present in the film or that the “truth” of Sabzian has been revealed therein. But the film is interesting, nonetheless. Whatever pleasures it does offer are not aesthetic, but lie primarily on the intellectual plane in connection with our speculations concerning how we construct visual narratives in our imaginations.

Abbas Kiarostami

Films of Abbas Kiarostami: