‘Close-Up’: A Director Makes a Movie About a Man Pretending to Be a Director Making a Movie

By  · Published on February 13th, 2014

Looking for any excuse, Landon Palmer and Scott Beggs are using the 2012 Sight & Sound poll results as a reason to take different angles on the best movies of all time. Every week, they’ll discuss another entry in the list, dissecting old favorites from odd angles, discovering movies they haven’t seen before and asking you to join in on the conversation. Of course it helps if you’ve seen the movie because there will be plenty of spoilers.

This week, they appreciate the nuance of a meta movie that’s part documentary, part real-life recreation using people playing themselves.

In the #43 (tied) movie on the list, Abba Kiarostami becomes interested in the story of a young man pretending to be a famous director in order to take advantage of a family, and decides to jump into the middle by making the situation into a movie. Close-Up rings with dozens of moving parts, but it still takes the time to appreciate an empty can rolling down a hill.

But why is it one of the best movies of all time?

Scott: So the strongest question from Close-Up is how extremely our passions are capable of making us act.

Obviously there are horrific examples like John Hinckley, Jr., and I find those interesting to keep in mind as we relate to Sabzian. There’s a little-harm-little-foul element to what he’s done to earn a court date, but his excuse is both 1) bizarre and 2) easy to relate to.

All that to say: I hadn’t realized that if I pretend to be David Fincher, Fincher will let me ride on the back of his motorcycle.

Landon: Or being David Fincher means that households will give you free money.

Scott: Both, really.

Landon: It’s remarkable that what Sabzian did isn’t all that unheard of. In London, a con man named Alan Conway got in trouble for pretending to be the notoriously media-averse Stanley Kubrick, and that was also made into a movie (the forgettable Color Me Kubrick). But he was a con man, unlike Sabzian’s ironically sincere aesthete. So there’s a sense that people who love movies, at least, can relate to this desire to inhabit a beloved filmmaker’s life, even if that person’s behavior is sociopathic (harmless or not).

Scott: But let’s look for a second at how deep the meta rabbit hole goes with a movie that monitors and recreates the aftermath of a movie fan pretending to be a movie director making a movie.

My favorite weirdness parallel is that the reporter Farazmand hears of a situation in a house, sees a news story there and believes it will be a huge sensation – which it becomes because a director (Kiarostami) reads his story, it affects him, and he believes it should be a sensation – which it becomes as the director’s movie about the sensation becomes a sensation.

And now I need to breathe into a paper bag.

Landon: Haha. And that loop starts with the very first scene, with the very first shot of the film.

I also love the moment where the film crew is attempting to convince the judge to let them film in his court room, and he says that he doesn’t see anything worth filming. But the fact that we’re seeing this moment means it’s worth filming – it suggests that the act of filming a moment itself justifies that moment, gives it weight.

There’s some truly admirable subtlety to the layers of meta on display here.

Scott: Heisenberg would be beaming with pride. I’d also contrast that sense of “worth filming” with Kiarostami’s childlike sense of wonder when it came to creating it. In the Criterion special features, he says that the insecticide can scene was born purely from him seeing a can there and thinking it was a great opportunity to do a gag.

He thought he might not ever be on a sloping street with an empty can on a beautiful Autumn day again. So why not? Whatever! It goes in the movie!

Landon: I’ll get back to the film’s meta layers in a second, but I absolutely love that moment. I had no idea that’s how it came to be filmed, but it makes total sense. One thing I greatly admire about Kiarostami’s work is the prevailing sense he gives in nearly every shot of an entire world outside the frame – that opening car ride, for instance, in which we don’t see the passers by (the documentary elements in Kiarostami’s fictive re-creation). It tells me that there’s a whole grand world of possibilities for stories, and Kiarostami has chosen at this moment to point the camera at this one.

Watching the can go down the street when the characters have mostly exited the scene is indicative of that.

Scott: All to set up the can being booted happily by the reporter who I thought was going to be the main character. This was my first viewing, and list of shame style, I knew absolutely nothing about it other than its name and stellar reputation. Going in blind was quite a surprising experience. Delightful, really.

Landon: It’s a really rewarding film in the way it unfolds, and it seems to be the type of film that enriches on multiple viewings. This is the second viewing for me, and I was struck by how delicately disorienting it is, where you have to get your bearings again with nearly every scene, figuring out where you are in relation to the events. It’s a carefully crafted disorientation, though, one that creates an active relationship with the film, as if we too are participating in an investigation.

By the time we actually got to the interior version of the scene of arrest (and this has happened to me both times I’ve seen the film), it took me well into the scene before I figured out why it was so tense. There’s something comforting about watching such intelligent filmmaking that is always a step or two in front of you.

Scott: Everything about it is tonally sideways. The first moment of terror is because a reporter with dreams of being internationally celebrated has to scramble to borrow a tape recorder from a random household.

Then in the courtroom, Sabzian is incredibly eloquent (maybe a camera-aware performance?) instead of the babbling con attempting to talk his way in circles out of the conviction.

In fact, the courtroom sequences are remarkably tension-free beyond the repetition of why he impersonated his idol. And then the family forgives him. He’s gone from a calm criminal, to a passionate fan, to a pitiable product of the economic system, to riding on the back of a motorbike with his hero.

Had this been a fiction feature, people would write it off as unbelievable.

Landon: There’s definitely a truth-is-stranger-than-fiction quality, made more so by the matter-of-factness of his crimes as surveyed in the courtroom sequences. But there’s also that moment in the courtroom where the son of the family says to the judge that Sabzian’s testimony is yet another performance, but one of a different type. Whatever he said in Persian, Criterion’s subtitle is “performance” – not “con” or “deceit” – which both disrupts any straightforward documentary quality of the sequence, but brings another issue about truth/fiction into play: is this, in a strange and indirect way, the movie that Sabzian set out to make?

Scott: Right – what did he think/formulate after talking to Kiarostami and learning about the project? Is that where the movie pushes beyond the curtain? I’m not sure that “truth” holds up in any of it, really. No one seems to be egregiously mugging or anything, but the camera will always raise a question of how much behavior changes.

Not just Sabzian, but the family as well – would they have forgiven him in court without being recorded for posterity in such a grand fashion? Impossible to know.

Landon: Yeah, but I like that the movie plays it both ways: we engage in performances for an audience in “real” circumstances, and also the fiction – or constructed situations – has the capacity to give us real experiences, like riding on a bike with your favorite filmmaker.

Scott: Coordinated or not, that’s still a thing that happened, and it’s incredibly magical.

Particularly because of the last moment where a tearful Sabzian is embraced by the man who he conned. His passion somehow unexpectedly worked out in his favor. Meta elements aside, it’s primarily a story of mercy and potential redemption.

Landon: That’s key. Our weekend editor and non-fiction expert Chris Campbell is fond of saying that everything can be considered a documentary, and I felt the brunt of that statement watching film. Every film can be seen as a record of something that occurred in reality, and the reality of filmmaking is never separate from the film made.

Scott: Although I’ll say that my biggest disappointment with the movie is that Sabzian didn’t become a filmmaker – ideally a super famous one – following it.

Landon: Yeah, I couldn’t help but wonder what his life is like now. It’s also worth pointing out that in the US and UK, Kiarostami’s fame amongst movie circles has far eclipsed any prior international renown of Mohsen Makhmalbaf.

Scott: Right – I hadn’t seen any Makhmalbaf, but now I want to look for some. And apparently it was announced yesterday that he’s working on his first new movie in 5 years. There’s still time for someone else to impersonate him.

Landon: There have been so many great films to come out of Iran and from Iranian filmmakers, and they’ve been especially visible recently. Jafar Panahi’s This Is Not a Film, seems made in a similar spirit to Close-Up, albeit one of more direct political protest.

Scott: That’s the one where Panahi pretends not to be a famous director, right?

Landon: Haha yes, it’s Close-Up’s inverse.

Scott: See! If Sabzian had become a famous filmmaker, we could have had a sequel where someone pretends to be him. We were robbed.

Landon: Speaking of getting robbed, Kiarostami seems to fully implicate himself in this film. He certainly doesn’t position himself as a distant observer of events. That scene in the prison, for instance, where Kiarostami “meets” Sabzian, where Sabzian explains his case as “only looking like fraud from the outside” – I think that statement can be mapped onto the rest of the film. He’s interested in the status of art as “fraud from the outside,” i.e., a constructed experience capable of revealing Truth. And not truth in the objective or journalistic sense, but as a medium that speaks to us in affecting ways that a straightforward arrangement of facts can’t.

Scott: It could also serve as a true trailer moment: “It only looked like fraud…from the outside!” It also adds an extra dimension to starting with a reporter searching for “the story.”

Landon: “In a world where one man…pretends to be…this other man…”

Scott: But what Kiarostami recognizes is something universal – we tend to romanticize con artists and pretenders. Catch Me If You Can would make a great double feature with Close-Up.

Landon: Perhaps the con artist is such a fixture in our imaginations because we’d like to think that there is some strange honesty at the core of conning: something dedicated wholesale to activities we engage in on a regular, albeit smaller, scale. But that would admit David O. Russell was onto something.

Scott: Well, the “filmmaker” element is catnip for cinephiles, but Sabzian could have been impersonating just about anyone with power. Yes, he’s (theoretically) overtaken by his passion for art, but more than that he’s expressing his desire to (and then appreciation of) feel power and respect for once in his life.

Landon: And it’s difficult not to romanticize Sabzian’s pronounced love of cinema, especially during that motorcycle ride and (for me) the interior staging of his arrest. I think Kiarostami invites that, but he’s also put us as an audience in a place where we’re attempting to decipher the layers in a way that we’re also invited to be skeptical of our own romanticization.

Watching Close-Up is like experiencing two films at once: the movie on the surface moment to moment as it presents itself to be, and the implications of everything that lies below and beyond that surface.

Scott: And wouldn’t it have been a hell of an ending for Sabzian to greet Makhmalbaf by asking, “Who are you?”

Landon: I’m imagining a re-creation of the “You know nothing of my work” moment from Annie Hall.

Scott: Yes!

Landon: Ultimately, for me, what makes Close-Up a meta film done right is that it’s not a cat-and-mouse game for what’s true and what’s not. It’s interested in exploring the implications of the question being asked in the first place.

Next Time: Billy Wilder’s Some Like It Hot

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