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Watching Iran Some More

July 17, 2015

A follow-up to Watching Iran, though not its long-awaited conclusion; a gesture of goodwill in light of the historic agreement in Vienna that, it is to be hoped, will make film-making in Iran a little bit easier and flood the American market with delicious Persian pistachios 

Since writing about Iranian movies in February I have only watched one more, Men At Work (2006). The story is by Kiarostami but it was scripted and directed by Mani Haghighi. I resisted watching it for a while, afraid it would be lame, ruining my perfect record of appreciation for Iranian film. I know that eventually I will be disappointed, that’s just part of what it means to have a mature relationship with a national cinema, but I just don’t feel ready for that. It turned out to be entirely satisfying; slight, but good. Haghighi is not one of the masters, but he has learned from them and puts his movie together nicely.

The whole thing is shot on a desolate high mountain road. Four middle-aged, middle-class men are returning from a ski trip. Along the way they encounter a strange roadside rock. It is an upright pillar of stone, a natural monolith sitting at the edge of a cliff. They decide they are going to knock the rock over the cliff. This is the absurdist element of the story, which is otherwise very naturalistic. No reason is giving for this action and no one ever doubts its desirability. It turns out to be harder than it looks. Other characters come and go while they are at it, including two women of their party, a douchey guy and his people, and a donkey. It is a comedy.

The best scene involves a woman and a chainsaw. In movie history women and chainsaws have tended to go together very unhappily; this is a completely different kind of scene. It is one of those little, casual moments in a movie that just lights up, suddenly, unexpectedly comes alive. In just a minute that scene made the whole thing worth watching, if there were not enough else to make it so, which, in fact, there was.

An advantage of watching foreign films is that they allow you to observe characters with an innocent eye, seeing them in an elemental human way. A lot of what is lost in translation is bullshit. It is cultural garbage, prejudice, pretension, the accumulated barnacles of overly specific identity. That stuff can be interesting, it can certainly be funny (I am sure this movie offers more laughs to Iranians than it does to Americans), but you need to get free of it sometimes and get back to basics, building your understanding up from there. I have found Iranian films to be particularly good for this. Men At Work — essentially a character study built around a premise that, though potentially highly symbolic, is ultimately arbitrary — is a fine, if minor, example.

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