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Thursday, March 1, 2012

This is Not a Masterpiece

-- By Tom Phillips

A video smuggled out of Tehran has reached our shores, the work of Jafar Panahi, a director under a 20-year ban on making movies, who is also facing a 6-year prison term imposed by the Iranian authorities.  His crimes were supporting the “green” movement that protested the Islamic government’s refusal to accept the results of elections in 2009, and something translated as “gloomism” in his earlier films – showing Iranian life in a dark light.  

The video -- titled “This is Not a Film” -- shows a day in the life of a film-maker trying to find a way out of his personal and artistic prison without violating the terms of his sentence. It shows Panahi in his Tehran apartment, eating breakfast, doing household chores, conferring with lawyers and colleagues, and trying to create art by reading a screenplay aloud amidst an imaginary set laid out on the Persian rug in his living room.  The New York Times immediately hailed the video as a “masterpiece,” in a review that called it a “subtle, strange and haunting work of art.”  I didn’t see it that way at all.   To me, it was a documentary of the ultimate punishment power can inflict on art –  snuffing out its life before it ever sees the light. 

What the Times review doesn’t mention is that Panahi, after shooting a couple of scenes on the Persian rug, with himself playing all the roles, gives up the project.   He starts out in good spirits but after a brief effort, rips up the set and tells us that there would be no point in making films if the process could be replaced by reading a screenplay in a living room.  This leads to a brilliant discourse on the art of film-making, illustrated by clips from his past films, examples of moments he now cannot hope to capture.  There’s a scene of an actor on a sidewalk, half-closing his eyes and rolling them up into his head in an agony of humiliation.  The actor was an amateur, Panahi tells us, no one told him to do that, he had never seen anyone do that before.  There’s a scene of an actress running wildly through a monumental building.   I’m not directing her, Panahi says, the columns and the glass of the architecture are defining her path, creating the drama.   The point is clear:  an artist cannot make a film without the freedom to move around in the world, to let other people, places and things play their roles.    

Still, the Times’ take on “This is not a Film” is seductive, because it tells us a story we love to hear: that art and artists are indomitable, that censors and judges and tycoons are no match for their cleverness and resourcefulness.  You can try to repress a work of art, but it will come out one way or another, even greater because of the misfortunes it has overcome.  Just like at the Oscars, “The Artist” always wins in the end.   We love this story because it reassures us about our world; even though governments and systems repress, imprison and even murder artists, somehow we never lose, because the artist always wins. 

The truth is harder to live with, but impossible to get around.  Art and artists are in fact easily thwarted, crushed, and extinguished by power.  The masterpiece that survives the ordeals of birth and infancy is probably the exception, not the rule.   For an example, I need look no further than the last review I wrote for this blog – of Diego Rivera’s murals at MOMA.   I realize now that something important was left out.   Off to the side of the exhibit there is a sketch Rivera did for his masterpiece – a huge mural commissioned for Rockefeller Center, titled “Man at the Crossroads.”  The masterpiece doesn’t exist, however, because John D. Rockefeller didn’t like what he saw in Rivera’s vision of the future, so he had the mural-in-progress torn down and smashed into dust.      

All that’s left is a sketch, and some unauthorized photographs.  Likewise, all that will probably ever exist of Panahi’s new film is a video of a one-man skit on a rug.   The moral is not that the artist always wins; it’s more like a line recalled from Jean Renoir’s World War One classic, The Grand Illusion: “Un prisonnier est un prisonnier.” 

I saw the premiere of “This is Not a Film” at Film Forum in New York, with a helpful introduction and comments by a friend of the artist, expatriate filmmaker Jamsheed Akrami  He had just talked by phone with Panahi and said the artist was not in a good mood.  He is still in limbo, awaiting a government decision to execute his sentence and send him to prison.  According to Akrami, he would rather be in prison than at home; if he can’t work, he would prefer to serve his time.  So much for the triumph of the artist.    

Full disclosure, though:  this video does score some points against the regime.   For his “day in the life” Panahi chose Fireworks Day, an ancient festival frowned upon by Iran’s Islamic authorities.  Its roots are in Zoroastrianism, Iran’s original native religion, a dualistic faith that sees evil as real and locked in a cosmic struggle with goodness and truth.   Fire is a symbol of purification.  While Panahi putters around his comfortable apartment, the streets outside are filled with explosions and bonfires.   And there is an elegaic, accidental ending to this frustrating, boring day – captured on film in the spontaneous style of the cinema artist.   A young man knocks at the door – an unemployed graduate student, picking up garbage from each floor in the apartment building, taking it down to the basement.  Panahi grabs a camera and takes the elevator with him.   And this little excursion to the depths -- with a peek at the inferno outside – may just serve as a hint of the Zoroastrian Hell that awaits the enemies of truth.  

Copyright 2012 by Tom Phillips