In Abbas Kiarostami’s Ten, a woman (Mania Akbari) drives to the spot where she will pick up her garrulous son, Amin (Amin Maher). When she parks, we see through her car door a van from which Amin emerges to cross the road. There is a tense, shouted exchange, through the passing traffic, between the woman and her ex-husband concerning how many hours she can have the child and when and where she must return him. The woman drives off. A moment later, the van pulls up alongside the car; more heated words are exchanged in motion, and the van zooms away.
This scene is perfectly keeping with the peculiar, formal constraints that Kiarostami chose for making Ten: not a single scene in it takes place outside the woman’s car. But it also speaks volumes about modern life, and the role of the car as (in critic Mehrnaz Saeed-Vafa’s words) the “ultimate private space” – more of a functioning home than anything that has four, solid walls. It makes for a fascinating comparison with another, contemporaneous film, Claire Denis’ Friday Night (2002).
In a far-reaching essay called “Fate and the Family Sedan”, the Australian critic Meaghan Morris argued that a car is, in cultural terms, a curious kind of uncertain border space: it seals in the passengers in their rigidly circumscribed, social roles, but also cannot help but let in the multifarious influences of the outside world and its changing history.
This is partly what Ten – the most aggressively urban film that Kiarostami has ever made – is about. Everyday day life is portrayed as a small-scale but ceaseless war (each of the ten scenes is introduced with the sound of a boxing-match bell) in which traditional and progressive values duke it out, especially around the role of women in present-day Iranian society. And while there is a heavy pull towards the dour triumph of patriarchy, the bustling world which constantly forces its presence on the characters and us through the car windows suggests other possibilities.
Kiarostami finds a simple but brilliant way to express this dynamic: making his actors actually contend with real streets, traffic and strangers takes them out of the interiority of their little lives and stories, and puts them in a constantly surprising relation to the real world.
As Saeed-Vafa remarks, Kiarostami’s digital cameras mounted on the car dashboard not only capture of the intimacy of life in cars, but also suggest the cold eye of the surveillance camera – in other words, the convergence of private and public spheres.
There is another aspect or context to this camera set-up that generates the film. For Ten marked a genuine break in Kiarostami’s illustrious career. It was a break that many – some of his most fervent admirers and champions included – had a hard time coming to terms with, and maybe some still haven’t managed it.
A measure of the discomfort generated by Kiarostami’s surprising ‘Knight’s move’ can be gauged from the negative capsule review of Shirin (2008) that appeared in Cahiers du cinéma (no. 652, January 2010). Patrice Blouin – himself no stranger to the analysis of video art and digital culture, as his Art Press columns show – recalls the director’s “audacious gesture” in Ten of simply attaching cameras to the left and right sides of a car and letting his cast members drive off to improvise their conversations, ten times over. With this gesture, according to Blouin, Kiarostami sort to “do away with mise en scène” – meaning, all traditional procedures of scripting, staging, dressing the décor and setting the lights, choreographing the moves, guiding the actors … in place of which Ten instituted what the French call a dispositif, a fixed, rule-bound system for generating a work, a game which (in Kiarostami’s case) allowed for an “automatic recording”.
For the greater part of his subsequent output, Kiarostami went the way of the dispositif. This much is clear even from the titles, when Ten announces its structure of ten dialogue scenes and Five Dedicated to Ozu (2003) flags its five, static, long takes. Blouin, while sympathetic to the initial audacity of the director’s gesture in Ten, finds this career-reorientation a case of diminishing returns: once you, as a viewer, ‘get’ the game played in Shirin – the fact that you will only hear the soundtrack of an epic movie off-screen, and will only see a procession of women in close-up seemingly in the process of watching and reacting to it – there is nothing more to experience or explore. An endgame typical, we might say, of much contemporary art in the galleries: to know it is not to love it.
But Kiarostami is an artist who refuses to be contained by the categories we – particularly in the West – erect to comprehend him. The origin of his current evolution is perfectly clear: Kiarostami has long been an inhabitant of the international art world – as photographer, installation artist and videaste – and he has evidently been exposed to much on that circuit that has inspired and excited him. Presumably, he has found that work more inspiring and exciting than what he has seen lately on cinema screens. And who can blame him?
© Adrian Martin July 2003 / July 2010 / January 2014