The Early Films of Abbas Kiarostami Exude Charm

I've been in San Francisco of late working as both the Assistant Director and Script Supervisor for Eddie "The Czar of Noir" Muller on a short film called The Grand Inquisitor, which was being shot by my friend Jonathan Marlow. The movie was inspired by a different suspect than Robert Graysmith pursued in his books that inspired the David Fincher movie Zodiac, but I'll get to all that in my next post.

For years I've been hearing about how great Berkeley's Pacific Film Archive was, particularly their screening series. One day after we wrapped, Mr. Marlow brought me over to the PFA to catch a double feature by acclaimed Iranian filmmaker Abbas Kiarostami.

Kiarostami joined the Iranian New Wave in the 1970s after helping to set up a filmmaking department at the Institute for Intellectual Development of Children and Young Adults (Kanun) in Tehran, and many of his early films centered on children. Like a lot of people, I caught up with Kiarostami in the '90s when Iranian film exploded into worldwide consciousness. When he discovered video around the year 2000, his warm stories started to feel to me like cold and existential explorations that didn't strike as much of a cord with me.

This double feature reminded me of why I loved Kiarostami in the first place. Before each feature they showed some early short films. Colors (1976) is a 15-minute short that felt like an Iranian Sesame Street bit, with an awesome segment where a boy waiting for a light to change imagines himself as a race car driver. Shots of the boy in a car are intercut with a toy car driving around a slot car racing track, and what makes it great is that instead of just getting the point across, Kiarostami holds on the sequence for several minutes which gives it the feel of a full-on daydream. Another short, Solution No. 1 (1978), is about a man who's trying to hitchhike and ends up rolling a tire down a mountainous hill, which evokes themes that are more fully explored in his "car movies" from the '90s and 2000s.

The surprising thing about the features I saw, both of which are about boys who work in and around Tehran, is how they're both stylistically simpler and thematically more complex than anything that Hollywood has done in decades, if ever. The Experience (1973) is about a boy who works (and lives) at a photography studio, who is trying to impress a girl he likes but also needs to impress her family. The ending is startlingly abrupt, realistic, and far from a Hollywood ending.

The other feature I saw was The Wedding Suit (1976), which is about a boy who works at a tailor's shop who is being pressured by two competing friends to lend them a wedding suit on the night before it's due to be delivered to the customer. One wants to use it for a date, the other won't say why he needs it, and suspense builds when the suit may not get back to the shop in time.

Both movies take small stories and make them feel big by telling them in a straightforward and honest manner. Kiarostami's stories about kids are reminiscent of François Truffaut's The 400 Blows in their portrayal of lower class boys optimistically struggling to get by. And with these early films, you can see that Kiarostami was always a great filmmaker with a penchant for long shots and non-professional actors, and seeing these films made me long for the days when he was limited by the expense and the warmth of film stock.

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Andy Spletzer believes that if this Kiarostami retrospective tours around the country you should definitely attend.