“My Tehran for Sale” - Granaz Moussavi (2009)


My Tehran for Sale is a relatively unique film in several respects.  First of all it is listed as an Australian-Iranian co-production. Second, it presents a fascinating and closeup view of the vibrant, clandestine (though precarious) underground cultural scene in Tehran.  Written and directed by Granaz Moussavi, the film takes a look at the struggles of young people to find outlets in Iran for their creative expression. Ms. Moussavi was already an established poet when she migrated with her family to Adelaide, Australia, in 1997 at the age of 23. There she took up film studies at Flinders University, and My Tehran for Sale was her debut feature.

The film was shot secretively over a two-month period without government approval; and then an electronic copy of the footage was smuggled out of the country and finally edited into the finished film in Adelaide.  Under such circumstances, there was probably limited opportunity to film everything that had been planned and no possibilities of reshooting and filling in.  These circumstances probably led to some of the artistic choices made concerning the sequencing of the events filmed.

I should first remark with respect to the key cultural themes of this movie that in the West, we are all used to the normative differences between public space and private space. What is permissible behaviour and dress inside closed living quarters may be less acceptable outside on the street, i.e. the public space.  In Iran this distinction is particularly severe.  As is well known, the Iranian public space is tightly restricted, particularly in connection with what women can wear and do.  Yet as Hooman Majd has observed about Iran, behind closed doors, in private dwellings, people have a lot of leeway to do what they want [1]. Inside, women dress up, wear stylish clothes, and look every bit as glamorous (if not more so) as attractive Western women. But in My Tehran for Sale, we see another, intermediate space, that people are trying to form that is situated between the public space and the closed, personal private space.  This is the hazy middle layer or space, facilitated by social networking, where people get together at clandestinely advertised gatherings or rave parties that is just below the radar of the “moral police”.  It is this thrilling, underground, semi-public space that is the backdrop for My Tehran for Sale.

The story concerns a young woman, Marzieh (Marzieh Vafamehr), who is an actress in an underground mime theater group.  The group is highly skilled, but they are never allowed to perform in public, although they are hoping to stage a performance soon. Through the connections of her vivacious friend, Sadaf (Asha Mehrabi), who happens to be a professional psychologist, Marzieh meets a young man, Saman (Amir Chegini), who had emigrated to Australia a decade or so earlier but who has recently returned to Iran to try and make some money.

The focus of the story is mainly about Marzieh and Saman, but it is told (i.e. the syuzhet) in a highly fragmented and nonlinear fashion.  I will first give a basic outline of the fabula (the linear story that we construct in our heads as we watch), and then go back to this rather problematic syuzhet.

Early on Marzieh and Saman become a couple, and Saman moves into Marzieh’s apartment.  He promises to sponsor her Australian visa application so that they can live together in freedom in Australia (and presumably get married). They go to underground parties, where Saman is delighted to have the opportunity to smoke spot.  From one-sided conversations they each have with their mothers, it is clear that their conservative families don’t trust them and regard them as hooligans.  The film then wanders back and forth between (a) Marzieh’s activities with her girlfriends and her acting group (which is mostly composed of men) and (b) her activities together with Saman and her attempts to secure an Australian visa.  The latter activities involve some bureaucratic procedures and also require some extensive and expensive medical tests.  But when the visa-required medical tests report that Marzieh is HIV+, her relationship with Saman is ruined, and he walks out on her.  Marzieh still wants to go to Australia, but now there is no way she can get her visa approved.  So she decides to arrange with human traffickers to smuggle her into Australia as an asylum seeker. The payment to the traffickers is huge, so she has to sell off everything she owns, hence the title of the film.

We learn indirectly that she does make the trip, but she is arrested by the Australian authorities and is held in a detention camp for illegal immigrants.  After two years in detention, Marzieh’s asylum petition is rejected by the Australian immigration authorities as having no “value”.  They only offer a free trip back to her country of origin (where I presume medication for her health condition is unlikely to be available).  At the end of the film, we see shots of Marzieh walking alone on the Tehran streets at night, so I presume this is where we leave her – a sensitive and creatively intelligent woman who has been abandoned by her society.

This basic story information is what one can piece together from what is presented on screen, but the temporal sequencing is completely jumbled.  Throughout the film the viewer sees decontextualized elements (from an interview in the Australian detention camp and sequences when Marzieh is being transported inside a truck to escape across the Iranian border) that only begin to make sense after the viewer has reassembled elements of this jigsaw puzzle.  This gives the film an impressionistic feel, as though one were examining shards of broken glass and were required to try to piece together these fragments into something coherent.  As I mentioned, the difficult filming circumstances may led to narrative gaps that Moussavi tried to bridge by assembling the pieces in this fashion.  Unfortunately, this approach doesn’t really work, and all one has is a lot of broken pieces.

The cinematography also has mixed results.  Some of it, particularly the interiors, is very well done with numerous atmospheric and evocative compositions.  But there are a number of very shaky hand-held camera shots that detract from the viewing experience. 

Despite these serious shortcomings, there are several interesting aspects of My Tehran for Sale that deserve praise.

  • The acting performance of Marzieh Vafamehr as “Marzieh” is very good.  Even though the sincerity of her amorous feelings for Saman is unconvincing, the overall feelings that she conveys and her demeanor mark the film with her personal signature.  In particular her stoic and persistent pursuit of artistic self-expression in the face of so many social roadblocks is downright heroic.  
  • The performance of Amir Chegini as “Saman” also deserves mention.  He embodies here a certain self-indulgent Iranian male type almost to perfection, and his portrayal is crucial to setting the difficult social milieu in which Marzieh has to operate.
  • The presentation of the underground Iranian cultural scene is fascinating, as well.  This includes poetry and music from Mohsen Namjoo, Babak Mirzakhani, and Haale Gafori.  This subculture has previously been the subject of work from Iranian filmmaker Bahman Ghobadi, and it is my understanding that he provided some assistance for this film, too [2].
At the beginning of My Tehran for Sale, we see Marzieh and Saman dancing together at an illegal underground rave that is being held at a farm.  It is a crowded, chaotic scene with rousing music and plenty of mixed-couple socializing, which is suddenly interrupted by a raid from Basiji “morality police”.  Marzieh and Saman escape arrest, but the others, including Marzieh’s friend Sadaf, are rounded up and arrested.  Sadaf is then reported to have been subjected to 35 lashes in accordance with Iran’s Islamic Penal Code [3]. So it was disturbingly ironic, but perhaps not surprising, that when bootlegged copies of My Tehran for Sale found their way into the hands of Iran’s morality police, this same kind of uncivilized treatment of women was repeated in real life – the film’s star, Marzieh Vafamehr, was arrested and sentenced to one year in prison and 90 lashes [4].  After various international protests were waged, an appeals court later reduced her sentence, and Ms. Vafamehr was released in 2011 after five months of confinement.  In the face of this kind of social climate, I can only stand in awe of the moral and artistic courage of people like Granaz Moussavi and Marzieh Vafamehr who are using their fundamental rights of self-expression to try and make this a more empathic and inclusively supportive world.
½

Notes:
  1. Majd, Hooman, The Ayatollah Begs to Differ: The Paradox of Modern Iran (2009), Anchor. 
  2. Nafus, Chale, “My Tehran for Sale” (2013), Austin Film Society, http://www.austinfilm.org/page.aspx?pid=1716.
  3. “Iran: Flogging - Lashing” (2011?), Violence is Not Our Culture, http://www.violenceisnotourculture.org/content/iran-flogging-lashing.
  4. “Iran: Film Actress Sentenced to 90 Lashes" (2011), Violence is Not Our Culture, http://www.violenceisnotourculture.org/content/iran-film-actress-sentenced-90-lashes.

“One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” - Milos Forman (1975)


One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975), won the five major US Academy Awards (Best Picture, Best Director, Best Screenplay, Best Male Lead, and Best Female Lead). The story is based on the novel of the same name by Ken Kesey, who himself was celebrated in Tom Wolfe’s book The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test (1968) as a crucial link between the 1950s Beat Generation and the 1960s Counterculture Movement. So Kesey’s tale became iconic for all the people who felt that a profound cultural change of liberation was sweeping over America during the 1960s  and 1970s. The story concerns the experiences of a roguish troublemaker who has tried to lighten his prison sentence by getting himself transferred to a mental institution.  But things don’t turn out according to plan.

The film’s theme of rebelliousness inside an oppressive, claustrophobic environment was an ideal topic for director Milos Forman, who had permanently left the Communist-ruled society of Czechoslovakia in 1968 (the period of the “Prague Spring”) and probably had his own personal perspective on large-scale social suppression of freedom. Nevertheless, Forman’s film stays quite faithful to Kesey’s storyline and tone.  In any case the Kesey/Forman depiction of a rebellious outsider trapped inside an insane asylum may suggest various metaphorical interpretations, from the individual personal level on up to the plane of social organization on a national scale.  However, the film’s popularity is not so much based on such interpretive considerations as it is on the narrative's visceral conflict that builds up around the two principal characters, who are given spirited and convincing performances by the two leads, Jack Nicholson and Louise Fletcher. Nicholson plays Randle Patrick McMurphy, the devilish antihero and protagonist. Fletcher plays Mildred Ratched, the domineering nurse and McMurphy’s nemesis.

The film begins by showing the mundane, though somewhat bizarre, environment inside an Oregon state mental hospital ward that is managed by Nurse Ratched with the assistance of two junior nurses. Some of the inmates appear a bit odd, but look basically functional. Others are catatonic or are lost in their own dream worlds. Into this quiet and relatively ordered environment is introduced a new inmate, Randle McMurphy, who is anything but tranquil. He is clearly a boisterous mischief-maker who had originally been imprisoned at a state prison work farm for statutory rape of a fifteen-year-old girl. This wasn’t just teenage puppy love, because McMurphy is more than twenty years older than the girl and is clearly a person who doesn’t toe the line with respect to social norms. 

McMurphy has been transferred to the mental hospital on account of his violent behaviour at the work farm, but it seems clear that he has planned the whole transfer thing in order to live a relatively soft life sitting around the mental hospital instead of doing hard labor.  What McMurphy wants to do is have as much fun as possible, but Nurse Ratched immediately sees that he introduces into the hospital ward an atmosphere of mischief that is threatening to her little realm. 


The ward has a television, but McMurphy doesn’t just want to watch any old TV show; he wants to watch the US baseball world series and cheer wildly as the game unfolds. He wants excitement, just what Nurse Ratched doesn’t want. The more able inmates in the ward are used to playing cards, but McMurphy turns their simple card games into poker and blackjack betting rings. Soon McMurphy has won all the other inmates’ cigarettes at the card table. So Nurse Ratched clamps down. She banishes TV and confiscates the inmates’ cigarettes so that McMurphy can’t get his hands on them. The atmosphere inside the ward becomes progressively more stifling by the day.

But the ward inmates are enthused by McMurphy’s nervy jests and begin to see that the world offers more opportunities for action than they had thought. Even when he fails, as with his  attempt  to lift up a water fountain to demonstrate how he could smash out of their confinement, McMurphy reminds them, “at least I tried”.  The only way to live is to seize control of your own destiny, he is telling them.  One day McMurphy sneaks over the barbed wire institutional fence, steals one of the asylum’s busses and takes his inmate buddies out into the wide wide world. He picks up his call-girl gal, Candy, on the way and then cons his way into getting them all out on a deep-sea fishing boat.  They all have a rollicking time and catch some big fish, too.  On another occasion McMurphy teams up with a towering deaf-mute inmate, “Chief” Bromden (played effectively by Will Sampson) to enable the patients to defeat the mental hospital orderlies in a spirited basketball game.  He proves to his mates that if they try, they can win.

Naturally, the authorities are frustrated with McMurphy’s antics. To his shock, though, McMurphy is informed (now about halfway through the film) that the authorities actually hold the ultimate trump card: unlike a prison term, McMurphy’s term of confinement has no specified release date. Nurse Ratched and the authorities can hold McMurphy in detention until they feel he is fit to be released, i.e. for as long as they like.

The struggle between McMurphy and Ratched now turns darker. After one episode of unruly behaviour, McMurphy is given electroconvulsive shock therapy (ECT).  Deciding the only way is to breakout, McMurphy bribes the night attendant Turkle, who unlocks the window to let Candy and another call girl in with whiskey bottles so that they can have one last wild, drunken party.  As he is about to make his final departure, though, McMurphy invites one of the inmates, a nervous and insecure stutterer named Billy, to join him.  Billy is too shy to take up the offer, but McMurphy, knowing that Billy is attracted to Candy, insists that he at least spend an amorous hour alone with her.  The other inmates laughingly herd Billy and Candy off into a bedroom, and the drunken party continues on for awhile.  Unfortunately, everyone passes out, and the great escape never takes place.

The downbeat denouement of the story quickly plays out.  When Nurse Ratched and the attendants show up in the morning and see the ward in shambles, they forcibly restore order. Billy is so shamed and humiliated by Nurse Ratched that he commits suicide at the first opportunity.  McMurphy is so enraged by this that he physically attacks and almost strangles Nurse Ratched before he is knocked out by an attendant. McMurphy is then taken away from the ward. Later, at night, Chief Bromden discovers McMurphy in an upstairs bed and sees that his inspirational friend has been lobotomized and is little more than vegetative. Unable to tolerate seeing McMurphy in this diminished condition, the Chief smothers him with a pillow. Then he goes back to the water therapy fountain, picks it up, and uses it to smash out of the mental hospital window and escape to freedom, as McMurphy had once proposed.  When the other inmates wake up to the sound, they know what has happened, and they give a rousing cheer.


As a punctuated narrative, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest goes through three basic high points – the fishing trip breakout, the basketball victory, and the drunken revelry – followed by the final disastrous downturn. All of those high points represent “victories” in the face of repression and are what people like most about the film. One truly memorable dramatic moment is when McMurphy introduces to the fishing boat operator his team of inmates who are presented as first-class medical experts – Dr. Cheswick, Dr. Martini, Dr. Bibbit, and so on. Since scientists and academics do tend to look a bit “different”, anyway, the boat proprietor is readily fooled that these actual madmen are scientific professionals. And for the moment, we, the audience, delight in seeing the inmates simultaneously from both our own knowledge (that these people are mental patients) and the boat operator’s perspective (that the same people are academics). Of course, the joke is really on us, because they are actually just actors – neither medical professionals nor mental patients, just role players.


One narrative alteration that Forman and his scriptwriters did make concerns the focalization.  Kesey’s novel is told from the narrative perspective of the supposedly deaf and dumb Indian, “Chief” Bromden (Bromden only pretends to be deaf and dumb to fool the authorities, it turns out).  So Kesey's story is really Bromden's journey. But the film takes a more objective narrative standpoint. This perspective change reduces the narrative impact of Chief Bromden’s final act of liberation. Bromden had always felt that the authorities tend to suck the life out of people, and when he sees McMurphy in his lobotomized state at the end, he feels that the life has already been sucked out of his friend. Thus the Chief Bromden focalization in Kesey's story provided a contextual perspective for his murder of McMurphy, but it is less evident in the film.

There are also some theatrical alterations which, although perhaps dramatically dictated, reduce some of the verisimilitude and impair our ability to share the experiences of these “others”.  The mentally ill people in the ward tend to be presented as exaggeratedly weird.  Although we may delight in seeing some of these over-the-top displays of neurosis, this is more for laughs than it is for sympathy.  These peripheral thespian deficiencies, though, are more than compensated for by the performances of the two leads – the chillingly placid and manipulative Louie Fletcher and the exuberant mischievousness of Jack Nicholson. 

As for the larger social meaning of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, I don’t think the political implications, despite our knowledge of Kesey’s and Forman’s past associations, can be taken very far.  Our hero, McMurphy is admittedly obstreperous, irresponsible, and often violent.  And the villainess, Nurse Ratched, is perhaps truly sincere in carrying out her job according to how she has been trained.  We can’t just organize our society so that the McMurphys of the world can run roughshod over the rest of the people.


No, the meaning of the film lies at a deeper and perhaps more disturbing level. Nurse Ratched runs her little microcosm to guarantee conformity and normative compliance. Everyone’s weaknesses are exposed to all so that they can be publicly humiliated – in fact so that they can be propgrammed to go on and continually subject themselves to self-admonishment.  Into the midst of such conformity-by-humiliation then comes McMurphy, whose motto is carpe diem (that is, in the fashion of Michael Jordan and Barack Obama, “you can do it”). McMurphy is clearly a threat to the normative-compliance institutional world that prevails, and therefore he is deemed to be abnormal and suffering from an illness.

So there is something ultimately sinister about how conformity and the idea of what is “normal”  is pervasively operative throughout our modernist society.  It has engendered an entire profession of medical professionals who are dedicated to identifying abnormal people (as speicified by our social norms) and treating them as ill.  These are the community of psychiatrists; and the power they have acquired to identify anyone who doesn’t agree with them as suffering from paranoia has an existential horror associated with it.  In fact this insidious power, itself, induces paranoia, and this is why One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest can be classified with other films about paranoia, such as Bedlam (1946), Shock Corridor (1963), and Shutter Island (2010). 


In fact the psychiatric community has gone through several stages in terms of treating “abnormal” people, and I invite readers to see my review of Shutter Island for further discussion of this issue.  Initially, mentally abnormal people were simply locked up in institutions.  Later they were subjected to invasive medical procedures such as shock therapy (ECT) and lobotomies that amounted to little more than brutal procedures of trial and error.  Throughout the 20th century mentally abnormal people were said to be suffering from a disease – they were labeled as mentally “ill” – and this was the theme of psychotherapy from the time of Sigmund Freud onwards. But this mental illness theory, which purported to be based on scientific principles, was only metaphorically associated with real scientific procedures, as has been identified by a number of authors, such as Thomas Szasz and R. D. Laing, who were medically trained doctors in this area [1,2,3,4]. When the public began to rebel at such misuse of the term “illness”, the psychiatric community moved to what appeared to be a more acceptably scientific path – the use of psycho-chemicals.  So today abnormal people are not “ill”; they are now said to be suffering from a mental “disorder”.  This has given rise to the enormously lucrative psychiatric-pharmaceutical industrial complex to treat such “disorders”, and it makes things look more scientific [5,6].  But it is still pretty much a practice by trial and error, but now with chemicals whose impact on the brain is not well understood.

I am not suggesting that there are not people who need care and treatment.  But let us not fool ourselves into thinking that we have a scientific understanding of consciousness and the complex operations of the human brain [7]. In fact neuropsychology not only cannot explain consciousness, the phenomena of consciousness are not within its semantic scope. Thus the enormous complexity of the human mind is far from our current scientific understanding, and we need to treat people who behave with what we consider to be bizarre behaviour in a humane and sympathetic way.  We can even sometimes learn things from these people [8,9].  But we need all our worldly humanistic and empathic understanding to help such people and generate fruitful interactions.


One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest touches on these issues, because the medical professionals in the film, including Nurse Ratched, look pretty normal and professional to us.  They are not evil; they are the people we conventionally count on. They are operating according to established standard procedures and believe they doing what must be done.  But we, the audience, intuitively feel otherwise and that there is something fundamentally wrong with way things work when we watch the film.  McMurphy is not just in the mental hospital by mistake; according to society’s current standards, he should be placed there.  Unfortunately, most of the current medical authorities are only running a show of coercive conformance by social oppression and humiliation.  This will only make the patients see themselves as sick, as suffering from a disease. We need a larger, more encompassing vision of what it is to be human that empowers and encourages our best behaviour. Reducing scientific interaction to the notion of a detached observer examining an objectivized, inanimate object diminishes the scope of our possible investigations [10]. What we should really be doing for the more complex domains of our experience is ensure that phenomenologically-based scientific observation incorporates the conscious observer as part of the interactions under consideration. Scientific reductionism only works for some domains, not for the general case.  In general, we should be pursuing a more interactionist and phenomenological scientific approach that encompasses our human interactive involvement when we examine the rich complexity of the world we occupy.
★★

Notes:
  1. Szasz, Thomas, The Myth of Mental Illness (1961), Harper and Row, NY.
  2. Laing, R. D., The Divided Self: An Existential Study in Sanity and Madness (1960) . Harmondsworth: Penguin.
  3. Laing, R. D., The Self and Others (1961), London: Tavistock Publications.
  4. Laing, R. D., The Politics of Experience and the Bird of Paradise (1967), Harmondsworth: Penguin.
  5. Farber, Seth, "Institutional Mental Health and Social Control: The Ravages of Epistemological Hubris” (1990), The Journal of Mind and Behavior, Summer and Autumn 1990, Volume II, Numbers 3 and 4, http://www.academyanalyticarts.org/farber.htm.
  6. Farber, Seth, “Szasz and Beyond: The Spiritual Promise of the Mad Pride Movement”, (2012), Mad in America, November 21, 2012, http://www.madinamerica.com/2012/11/szasz-and-beyondthe-spiritual-promise-of-the-mad-pride-movement/.
  7. Rosenhan, David L., “On Being Sane in Insane Places”, Science,  19 January 1973: Vol. 179 no. 4070 pp. 250-258, DOI: 10.1126.
  8. Farber, Seth, “Against Psychotherapy and Biological Psychiatry” (2001, 2013), http://www.orthodoxytoday.org/articles/FarberAgainstPsych.php.
  9. Farber, Seth, The Spiritual Gift of Madness: The Failure of Psychiatry and the Rise of the Mad Pride Movement (2012), Inner Traditions. Also see the author’s Web page at http://www.sethhfarber.com.
  10. Further, accessible discussion of these issues can be found in the article, “The Heretic”, by Andrew Ferguson, The Weekly Standard, March 25, 2013, Vol. 18, No. 27, http://www.weeklystandard.com/articles/heretic_707692.html?nopager=1.

“The Cycle” - Dariush Mehrjui (1978)

Dariush Mehrjui began working on The Cycle (Dayereh Mina, aka Mina Circle) in 1973, but he encountered opposition from the Iranian Ministry of Culture which held up production and public release of the film until 1978. In general, films of the social realism genre have always been rare in Iran, both during the Shah’s era before the Islamic Revolution, when this film was made, and afterwards, as well. Mehrjui had previously run into censorship problems for his productions of Gaav (The Cow, 1969) and Postchi (The Postman, 1972) on account of their bleak depictions of lower-class Iranian life. On this occasion, however, the opposition came specifically from the professional medical community, which was given a rather unflattering portrayal in the film, the subject matter of which concerns the corrupt practices surrounding the supply of blood needed for medical operations.

On one hand, The Cycle could be viewed as a specific portrayal of problems with how medical care was delivered in Iran.  But on the other, as I will discuss below, what transpired in the film serves as a metaphor for a generally pervasive cultural crisis that many Iranians feared was ruining their society.  The cast of the film featured Mehrjui regulars, Ezzatollah Entezami and Ali Nassirian, as well as Fourouzan, who was the reigning queen of the Iranian cinema at the time.  Together, they present a nuanced depiction of how the people lived together in a society simultaneously characterized by courtesy, dishonesty, and compromise.
  • Ali (Saeed Kantarani) is a handsome, but impoverished, teenage boy who has brought his gravely ill father to Tehran in search of medical care.
  •  Ali’s father (Esmail Mohammadi) is suffering from some severe intestinal ailment.
  • Dr. Sameri (Ezzatollah Entezami) runs for profit a blood bank that serves local hospitals.
  • Esmail (Ali Nassirian) works in the maintenance and supplies section of the main hospital.
  • Zahra (Fourouzan) is a nurse in the main hospital.
  • Dr. Davoudzadeh (Bahman Fersi) is a principled doctor concerned about the tainted blood Sameri supplies to the hospital.

The ‘circle’ or ‘cycle’ suggested in the title is said to derive from a line of Sufi poet Hafiz, but it seems to me that it relates to the circles of deception that reinforce each other and draw people deeper and deeper into a corrupted social realm.  Invoking an analogy to the circles of Hell in Dante's Inferno, Ali progressively passes through roughly four levels of corruption as he “comes of age” with modern society.

1.  The Blood Bank
Ali and his father come to the big hospital in search of medical care, but it is after hours and they are not admitted.  However, outside on the street they meet Dr. Sameri, who tells them they can make some needed money by coming to his lab.  When they arrive there the next morning, they see that the lab pays anyone a small fee for donating their blood. The chaotic waiting room of the clinic is filled with peasants, drifters, and drug addicts who live off these payments. It is immediately evident that health safety is being compromised for the money – the donors, who giving their blood far too often, appear variously ill, drunk, and addicted to drugs.  But Ali sees that this is a way that he can make some money.  At this point Ali is still relatively innocent and getting paid for an honest transaction on his part at least.

2.  Ali Meets Zahra at the Hospital
The next day Ali and his father go to the hospital.  While his father is consulting a doctor, Ali wanders the halls and meets Zahra, a nurse who appears to be in her twenties but who takes a liking to the naive country boy, Ali.  In order to expedite the father’s prescribed “electrical” treatment, Zahra lies and tells the medical staff that the father is her relative.  Then she arranges for Ali to get a job in the hospital’s maintenance section by telling the managers that Ali is her relative.  Zahra also sneaks food from the hospital and passes it to Ali and his father camped outside the fence.

Ali now begins working with a maintenance staff member, Esmail, and the two of them are sent out to buy eggs and chickens for the hospital.  Even the experienced Esmail, though, is shocked to see the sight of the chicken factory massively killing little chicks, because, it is claimed, their selling price is fixed by the government and it is too expensive to feed them.  This is one of many small examples in the film depicting a dysfunctional social system.

That evening Ali sneaks over the fence and goes to the hospital looking for Zahra. When he finds her, she enlists his help moving a corpse into the basement. This experience makes Zahra tearful, and when Ali opportunistically makes his move, the vulnerable young woman succumbs to his embraces. This rare (for Iran) scene of amorous passion is very brief, but it is well done.  One could perhaps argue that this is another moment of compromise and corruption, but Zahra’s compromises are invariably humane and well-intentioned – they do not harm others.

3.  Operations at the Hospital
Meanwhile the earnest doctor Dr. Davoudzadeh is frustrated that the hospital is using tainted blood acquired from Sameri’s blood bank.  Sameri uses bribery to secure his contracts, and the only person with integrity and backbone to do something about it is Davoudzadeh.  He proposes that the hospital launch its own blood bank that would operate according to higher standards, and he presents his plan to hospital management.  But bureaucracy and inefficiency are rife throughout the system, and he has difficulty progressing with his plan.

Ali is now sent out with Esmail to sell hospital food to squatters and tramps hanging out in the city outskirts. This is not a charitable operation on the part of the hospital, but is instead an illegal operation on the part of the maintenance staff to pocket some extra money at the government-supported hospital’s expense. Nevertheless the operation serves a useful purpose. The hungry customers are destitute and only charged a pittance for a bowl or rice. By this time, though, Ali is becoming a hardened entrepreneur. When penniless peasants can’t come up with the 2-rial fee for the rice serving, he refuses to feed them.

4.  Ali’s Business
Although Ali is young, it is clear that he is becoming a hustler.  He now realizes that he can recruit the peasants he feeds and deliver them to Sameri’s blood bank.  So he sets himself in his own business.  Of course, many of the recruited peasants are drug addicts and unsuited for donating blood, but that doesn’t stand in Ali’s way.

Meanwhile Esmail sets up Ali’s father with a “borrowed” samovar from the hospital and gets him to operate a tea kiosk (with tea from the hospital) just outside the hospital fence.

Sameri now has more confidence in Ali and starts relying on him for more jobs. In fact Ali is so brash as to suggest a plot to sabotage Dr. Davoudzadeh’s rival blood bank by injecting it with corrupted blood that will kill some patients and thereby destroy his business.  Sameri is so impressed with such cold-blooded thinking that he offers Ali opportunities to join him in further black market operations.

Ali’s preoccupation with Sameri’s tasks is now keeping him away from his ill father’s side. When he returns to the hospital one time with an urgent delivery, he is informed of his father’s death, but seemingly unperturbed, he goes ahead and completes the delivery to the appropriate ward – he is all business these days.  Finally, when he arrives late for his father’s burial, Esmail gives Ali a beating for having neglected his filial duties.  But Ali stands back up and looks set to continue along the path he has chosen.

Although, as I mentioned above, the issues around profiteering off blood bank operations are undoubtedly common to many parts of the world, but the theme of The Cycle is more specifically focused on the perceived deterioration of Iranian society.  At this time of the mid-1970s, money was flowing into Iran from rising oil prices, and many concerned Iranians, like Mehrjui, felt that the import of modernism and money was leading to a rising tide of materialism.  Traditional values and the revered Iranian culture were being discarded as everyone scrambled to cash in.  The government had money, but people felt that it was not being distributed fairly and equitably.  Ali and the people around him were  symbols of the temptations associated with this moral decline.

The hospital doctors are not evil schemers, but they are shown as rather frivolous and somewhat irresponsible.  The hospital administrators are corrupt and have no real mind for the public welfare.  As with so many bureaucracies, each functionary did the least possible within the specified rules of the organization. 

Ali, himself, was not so much malicious as much as he was simply an amoral opportunist.  He learned quickly to take advantage of situations in order to serve his own needs.  This is how one got ahead in the modern world. 

But “The Cycle” is not a simple moral tirade demanding strict honesty.  It interestingly shows more subtle shades of how compromises are made.  Esmail and Zahra were involved in petty corruption, too, but it was only nominal.  In fact in many ways their rule-breaking actions provided useful services to those around them and represented contributions.  But they knew where to draw the line on truly immoral behaviour and were operating in accordance with an ethical compass that was unknown to Ali.

Many educated and concerned Iranians in the 1970s were worried about this apparent deterioration in Iranian cultural values, as symbolized in The Cycle, and they were optimistic that a political revolution would bring changes for the better.  Much like the social participants in the recent “Arab Spring”, they hoped that political change would bring about a more inclusive and socially civil society.  They are still waiting for that transformation.
★★

“Goodfellas” - Martin Scorsese (1990)


Martin Scorsese’s best films were those that featured performances of Robert De Niro, including his breakthrough with Mean Streets (1973) and his greatest work, Taxi Driver (1976). Their working together seemed to bring out the soul of New York City – it’s 24-hour intensity, angst, and nervous vulnerability.  So when they teamed up again with Goodfellas (1990), it was no surprise that the result was another landmark in Scorsese’s celebrated oeuvre. In fact more than a few people say that Goodfellas is the greatest gangster film ever.  I am not sure if I would go that far, but the film does go a long way towards capturing the unique feeling of what it is like to be a New York gangster.  And in doing so, it featured a narrative scheme that was perhaps Scorsese’s best.

Actually, narrative structure is not one of Scorsese’s strongest points.  He is something of a master in creating a social milieu, often employing improvisational, ensemble acting that captures the spontaneity of a group situation.  But many times the engaging social environment never encompasses any real narrative goals, and the episodic story just seems to tail off at the end of the film, without achieving any closure.  In Goodfellas, though, Scorsese weaves a tale that makes that weakness into a feature of the film.  That is, the story is about people who cannot live their lives in accordance with the usual goals that most people set for themselves.  For such people (the gangsters presented in Goodfellas) ordinary life is too boring; they need to feel the rush that comes from drugs, sex, gambling, and crime.  And if they keep going at it, their lives will progressively spin out of control, as it does for the principal character in Goodfellas.  The great strength of the film is that it gives a viewer a feeling for this psychological sense of progressive desperation.

The story covers the experiences of Henry Hill, who as a teenager joins the Lucchese crime family, one of the five mafia families (the “Five Families”) dominating organized crime in New York.  In this underworld milieu, set mostly in Brooklyn, there are five principal characters:
  • Henry Hill (played by Ray Liotta), an Irish-born Brooklyn boy who gains entry into the Italian-dominated crime scene.  
  • Karen Hill (Lorraine Bracco), a Jewish girl that Henry courts and marries.
  • Jimmy “The Gent” Conway (Robert De Niro), another Irishman in the Italian mob scene and Henry’s hero.  Conway is a high roller who continually pulls off high-payoff crimes and buys off the police at the same time.
  • Tommy DeVito (Joe Pesci), a reckless, hot-tempered young gangster who often works with Conway and Hill.
  • Paulie Cicero (Paul Sorvino), a local “capo” (mid-level mafia captain) who runs the show in the Brooklyn neighborhood.
The narrative focalization is almost exclusively on Henry, but sometimes it includes that of his  wife, Karen. 

The film’s story is an adaptation of Nicholas Pileggi’s 1986 nonfiction book Wiseguy, which is evidently based on real people and events in the New York crime scene.  Scorsese and Pileggi  coauthored the screenplay, and what they achieved was something that depicts a life progressively spiraling out of control.  By the end of the film, the viewer is fully immersed in Hill’s self-induced maelstrom.  Along the way, the narrative passes through about eight levels of turmoil, from “out-of control level 1" to 8 (OOC-1 to OOC-8).

1.   Teenage Henry
The first stage is set in 1955, and Henry is a boy of about thirteen who dreams of being a gangster.  He detects that a neighborhood taxistand is a local outlet for the mafia, and worms his way into the confidence of the local operators by doing odd jobs for them.  Soon he is defying his parents’s strict rules and  playing hooky from school. 

2.  Young Mobster
By 1963, Henry is a full-fledged young mobster, and we see how the economic world of the mob works.  They don’t use traceable bank accounts, so money is exchanged in wads of high-denomination bills.  The economic life of the mob is purely extractive.  They don’t produce anything useful, they simply extract and squeeze money out of the existing population.  For example, there is a sequence where the proprietor of a  local nightclub hangout, who has been hassled by local toughs, seeks protection from Paulie.  Paulie agrees to become a partner of the club, but purely in order to liquidate it.  The local gang gradually sells off all the movable goods of the place, collecting cash in exchange for debt.  When the nightclub is finally hopelessly in debt, they have their boys set a fire to burn it down so they can collect the insurance. 

This kind of extractive economy is not unusual – in fact it is generally the way much of the world operates, as outlined in the book Why Nations Fail (2012) [1].  Large-scale organisations around the globe in the 20th and 21st centuries have operated according to such extractive principles, including (a) Kemal Ataturk’s Republican People’s Party in Turkey, (b) the Soviet Union’s Communist Party, (c) the North Korean Communist Party, and (d) the Muslim Brotherhood in the Middle East.  The main operating principles of these organisations dedicated to extraction is absolute loyalty to the team of insiders and bribery or bullying for outsiders.  They may advertise an ideology for propaganda purposes, but their main goal is prosperity for the elite at the expense of others. To become a member of the gang, you just have to be useful and loyal.  As Henry Hill says, he early on learned two important lessons: “never rat on your friends and always keep your mouth shut.” 

Henry now regularly works with Tommy DeVito under the command of Jimmy Conway in the course of hijacking trucks.  He also begins dating Karen.  When he learns that she has been groped by a neighborhood boy, he goes over to his house and brutally pistol-whips him.  He is now at OOC-2.  Karen is attracted to the flashy lifestyle, too, and soon she and Henry are married.

3.  The Murder of a "made" Gangster
The next sequences introduce the viewer to just how violent Henry’s associates can be.  Henry’s hotheaded colleague, Tommy DeVito, is obsessed about threat to his ego, and he goes ballistic when he feels slighted by remarks from another gangster, Billy Batts.  So together with Jimmy Conway, they brutally murder Batts in revenge. But even in the violent gangster world, this was a serious mistake, because Batts belonged to a different crime “family”, the Gambino Family. In addition, Batts was a “made” member of that family. Once a person is “made”, he cannot be harmed without bringing on the vengeful wrath of the crime family to which he belongs.  Anyway, Henry loyally stands by Tommy, and together with Conway they bury Batts in a secret location so that the Gambino family will not find out.

4.  Affairs with Janice and Sandy
On the personal relationship plane, Henry’s life also begins to unravel (OOC-4).  He start an adulterous affair with another woman, Janice, and later has relations with her friend, Sandy.  Meanwhile he witnesses Tommy murder an innocent busboy who insulted him, but Henry stays loyal to his mates. 

5.  Drugs
Eventually Henry’s criminal activities get him sent to prison, and while serving his four-year sentence inside, he begins to make money selling cocaine.  Upon his release in 1978, Henry continues his criminal hijacks with Tommy and Jimmy, but he keeps going with his drug dealing on the side.  The drug racket was something that Paulie and his crew wouldn’t touch, so this is a further step towards chaos for Henry (OOC-5).
6. The Lufthansa Gig
Jimmy Conway now engineers his biggest ever operation, an intricate heist of a Lufthansa shipment that nets six million dollars.  But Conway is paranoid and even more out of control than Henry Hill is.  He begins killing off his criminal partners for fear that their indiscretions will lead to his own arrest.  Also Tommy DeVito is murdered by the Gambino family in revenge for the murder of Billy Batts.  So now there’s noone left that Henry can trust in a pinch.

7.  Penultimate Day 
The downward narrative spiral now settles on a single day in 1980, homing in on the deterioration of Henry’s control of what’s going on around him.  Addicted to, and insomnia ridden from, his own cocaine, Henry is nervously trying to maintain both his family and his illicit affair with Sandy, as well as trying to run his drug dealing operation.  It’s just too much for him; at the end of that very day he gets ambushed and arrested by the narcotics police (OOC-7).

8.  Selling Out
On his release, Henry realizes that he is out of options. Paulie has abandoned him for doing drugs, and Jimmy looks set to have him whacked. So he rats on his friends and joins the Witness Protection Program. At the end of the film, he has disappeared into anonymity and is ruing the demise of his thrill-studded existence. But although his life appears to be finally settled down and back in control, his ultimate act of gang betrayal means that the Lucchese family will forever be out to get him.

Scorsese effectively sets the tone in Goodfellas in a number of ways.  The use of contemporary pop music on the soundtrack establishes the social context, as it similarly did in Meanstreets, but it also conveys the general superficiality of the wiseguy social scene.  This lightweight, “cruising” mood is punctuated by the emphatic brutality of the beatings and killings that sometimes take place – evidence that savage hatred is just below the surface and can erupt at any time.  

The overall nervous tone is supported by the acting performances. Lorraine Bracco adds a memorable feminine component to the generally male-dominated scene (although I’m not sure why her role is given some narrative focalization and voiceover – she mostly disappears from our attention in the latter stages).  Robert De Niro is, as usual, intense; and he adds a crucial edge to the social climate.  But it is Joe Pesci’s performance as the loose cannon Tommy DeVito that puts the real stamp on the film.  His role personifies the reckless and combustible lifestyle of the mafia wiseguys. 

Scorsese’s cinematography is also integral to the storytelling.  There are many sinuous pans and tracking shots that conjure up the delirium in Henry’s agitated psyche, and they all fit into the expressionistic mood. In particular, there are two memorable long tracking shots that follow Henry into the interior of a wiseguy meeting venue and which stand out in my memory.  The second of these is about three minutes in duration and starts at the curbside outside of the Copacabana nightclub and then follows Henry and Karen down the stairs through the service quarters and finally into the main serving room, where a table is prepared for the couple in the company of their wiseguy companions.

All of this contributes to the principal evocation of how temporality operates for the wiseguys in Goodfellas.  For these people, life constantly needs the stimulation that comes from crime and violence, which becomes an addiction, just like heroin. These stimulating events provide the temporal order to their lives. William S. Burroughs long ago pointed out that heroin addiction is not just an addition to a chemical – the real reason why heroin addicts go back to their addictive behaviour, even after supposedly being “cured” of their chemical addiction, is because they want to live on “junk time” [2].  Junk time is how temporality is realigned when you are on junk (heroin). The ups and downs that come from craving for and finally getting a junk dosage is what provides the temporal movement in their lives.  When they are on “non junk time”, everything is flat and pointless – life has no meaning for them. The junkie then feels he has to go back to the junk. So, too, is the case for the thrill-addicted wiseguys, whose short-term cravings are for the thrill of being treated by their peers as “somebody”. 

To overcome this obsession with the staccato-patterned blasting of short-term events, we all need to think in terms of longer narratives and longer-term goals.  When we look over and recall things that happened over the entire course of our own experience, we sometimes realize that seemingly trivial long-ago moments of loving compassion for another person were profoundly eventful and meaningful.  We didn’t realize it at the time, but those quiet moments fit into a larger pattern of significance to our lives. Recognizing this bigger picture, we need to go out and help other people, other potential wiseguys, realize the importance of those longer-term narratives and how they are put together via small but meaningful interactions.
★★½

Notes:
  1. Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson, Why Nations Fail: The Origins of Power, Prosperity, and Poverty (2012), Crown Business.  See also their weblog: http://whynationsfail.com/.
  2. William S. Burroughs, Junkie (1953), Ace Books.