Author Archives: Afshin Forghani

On Certified Copy, an introduction

 

This is the transcript of  my introduction on “Certified Copy” prior to its screening as part of the special tribute to Abbas Kiarostami in “The Australian Film, Television and Radio School” on 2nd of Oct 2016.

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Thank you my friend Amin Palangi for your kind words and also for holding this session in tribute to the great artist Abbas Kiarostami by screening one of his latest and in a way one of his unusual works “Certified Copy”.

Tonight I’m filled with mixed emotions and thoughts and I will try to somehow share that with you as an introduction to the film.

First of all, I am thrilled and excited that I have the honour and chance to talk about Kiarostami and his movies in specific, especially in a place like AFTERS that is the generous home to many Australian Film-makers and Cinephiles. But at the same time I’m devastatingly sad because we holding this sessions when he is not among us. As many of you may know Kiarostami unexpectedly died at 76 in July this year due to something that seemed to be a simple medical condition but turned to be complicated afterwards and there is still lots of arguments and discussions about that in my country and also in the world of cinema. It makes this question inevitable that why we waited this long to get together to discuss about his cinema and his way of looking at life. but then as one of my friends suggested sometimes Death puts the final signature on the artist’s whole achievements which in turn opens up the opportunity to look at him more comprehensively! regardless, I’m not alone to say that I tribally miss him and the pleasure of waiting for his new film to come!

Abbas Kiarostami, born in 1940, he left home to study at the University of Tehran School of Fine Arts before 18, majored in painting and graphic design that even though it helped him in many stages of life and shaped his picturesque frame of his movies but never turned to be his main career, he never get tired of calling himself “a failed painter”, the fact that in reality took 18 years for him to change his pathway in life. In 1970 he made his first short movie in the Institute for Intellectual Development of Children and Young Adults (Kanun) in Tehran, called The Bread and Alley. A film that retrospectively you can see many of his future elements in that. Since then he made about 45 short and fiction length movies which cover a vast verity of subjects matters and styles as he never considered himself professional. He sincerely believed that you should not be a “Master” in Art and Cinema. You can be such a thing in certain skills and jobs, an expert technician, an expert manufacturer or a master engineer but to be an expert artist means that you do your creative job as like a career, not filled with amusement and wonder, but mechanically assembling pieces of work. And so he was trying to be different in each movie and continuing experiments with his selected themes! he loved to wander about finding the right style for his subject matters. His legacy in the world of cinema started by Taste of Cherry in 1997 when he won the Palme d’Or (Golden Palm) award at the Cannes Film Festival. It is the drama of a man, Mr. Badii, determined to commit suicide and is searching to find someone who can burry him after death or save him if he remains alive! The film involved themes such as “morality, the legitimacy of the act of suicide, and the meaning of compassion” which all were and still are confronting and shocking. It was just after this award that the Cinephiles and the festivals around the globe started discovering his other films. Films like Close up (1990) which by the way will be screening shortly, I guess next week in the Antenna Film festival and I strongly suggest you to see that if you haven’t seen that before, The Koker trilogy including “Where Is the Friend’s Home?”, “And Life Goes On” and “Through the Olive Trees” which are related to a village in north of Iran called Koker and the tribble 1990 Manjil–Rudbar earthquake, in which 40,000 people died. and list of his movies goes on. Here of course I’m not going to mention all his films and their importance as I can easily refer you to a useful website called Wikipedia where you can find all these details and much more.

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But tonight I would like to briefly pause on Certified Copy and its importance among Kiarostami’s movies. and here it comes another one of my mixed feelings; I’m super glad to represent Certified Copy which I believe is one of his finest in story telling that encompasses elements of Kiarostami’s key concepts in his view to the life and being. And yet I extremely feel sorry for someone who is going to see this movie as his or her first encounter with Kiarostami’s world because it has nothing to do with what we know about his style in general and his stories in specific. Kiarostami’s stories in general are all stories of simplicity and character based in contrast with event-based usual stories. Often the story can be said in one line; look at Where Is the Friend’s Home? “a boy realises that he accidentally brought home a notebook belonging to one of his classmates and so he goes looking for his classmate”. or “Ten” where we see 10 episodes in a car which in them the main character talks to her son, her friend and so on. What gives the depth to Kiarostami’s movies are not the complicated storyline but the emotions and thoughts that has been wrapped in the movie. After the Cannes’ award of the “taste of cherry”  the American film critics divided into two distinct groups; the ones who loved the film liked Jonathan Rosenbaum and Dave Kehr and the ones who hated the film like Roger Ebert and Andrew Sarris. Ebert said at the time “I  thought I had seen an emperor without any clothes”. But Roger Ebert also mentioned something that here may clarify my position (well somehow!), “ A case can be made for the movie, but it would involve transforming the experience of viewing the film which is excruciatingly boring into something more interesting, a fable about life and death.” Which in principle suggest that we have to watch Kiarostami’s films differently or at least not in the same way that we see main stream movies. Godfrey Cheshire wisely tried to solve the puzzle by addressing both fronts in his remarkable article in Cineaste magazine; He said to the opposing team “ Realise that the order in which you approach the films is crucial to how you understand them” as he assumed this front is basically are the ones who just saw the Taste of Cherry and not for example the Koker Triology which has a very essential role in understanding Kiarostami’s world. At the time, Kiarsotami’s latest movie was The Wind will carry us, and today I can not be more agree with Godfrey when I representing Certified copy to the new Audience of Kiarostami. and he said to the overjoyed fan critics “Don’t neglect the Iranian context or underestimate its importance.” and by that he refers to the cultural frame of reference in Kiarostami’s movies which has nothing to do with Antonioni’s world as Jonathan Rosenbaum for example suggested. and to add to this, here is my notion; we have a new generation of movie spectators, these are the ones who does not come to movie just for fun, or date, these are the ones that seeing the movies as an art, eventually, as something that deals with the meaning of life, something that gives meaning to the life and being! and for them Kiarostami with his simple, poetic and enrich realism can be the answer. But is certified Copy has anything to do with what I said! well! not quiet! because here we have a story with some twist and turn that makes you bewildered what’s going on rather that sink into what you will be witnessing and this is one of the reason the movie might not be the right start point for someone who just started to know Kiarostami. But before some of you leave the theatre, I’m going to pinpoint some of the factors that make this film a great movie on its own that certainly worth watching!

Last week I had the pleasure of being among the audiences in the Sydney Oprah House where Stu Hunter, a rising star in modern jazz, Australian producer, pianist and composer and also Lior, an independent Israeli- Australian singer-songwriter came to perform but also share their thoughts on the concept of active listening! The main point was the fact that we have been surrounded by music everywhere in a way that we often can’t hear it! we listen to music but it’s just an allowance to fall into our own dreams and other issues in hand! This is what it may called passive listening in contrast to the kind of listening which involves our attention all the time, the one that help us to empathy with music, with notes. And as you know having have empathy does not mean being agree with that! it means being open enough to understand the other! to grasp an interior entrance to the artist’s world! and to put aside our beliefs. being in the moment with empathy! What I would like to add to this is the concept of active viewing! Because the situation is not much different when it comes to movies! But remember that because film is the mixture of picture and sound, it demands active listening as well as active viewing! here I won’t go to the neuroscience behind that! It looks already Complicated hun! but I’m going to make it a bit more complicated as I’m going to refer to Kiarostami’s concept of unfinished movie! Kiarostami believed that the final movie lies in the spectator’s head and perhaps heart! and so there isn’t such a thing as a completed work by itself because it practically finishes differently by every individual. Sounds strange but really it’s not! Remember that this approach does not come from a kind of formalistic desire and it’s not related to other artistic forms like literature or cinema itself. In fact it directly comes from the reality and life. In any given situation around us, we are never fully aware of what’s going on. We are never in the position to grasp that birds eye view to look at things from above and through time and space and so being in the judge’s seat to make the right choice or doing the desirable act. We just get bits of pieces and we make the rest up! we listen, we see, we smell and we feel but always just pieces! we have a sensory and emotional glimpses to the life and world and we complete the rest to make sense by ourselves which are not necessarily true or false (who can say!) And Kiarostami was such a fond of real life that decided to follow such a way in his movies. So in a way when you see his films there is a flux of attention towards the inside world of the movie that shortly after continues to stream outside the movie and covers the world around you. He enjoys stopping the narrative from time to time in order to look at the surrounding world. You will look at things differently when you leave the cinema and that’s his magic! he get his whole idea from the life and refers us back to the life! His movies, as a result, at the same time that show the presence of things and sounds, they refer to the absence of other things and sounds, the ones that audience completed in his or her mind. Sounds challenging! Certified Copy, in a different way among his films, can be a very good example for you to try look at the film this way. And this is one of those movies which has been made for that new generation of spectators that I mentioned earlier! But I also hope that I made it clear that there is no such a talk after the movie that what was this and or that! because there is no definite answer and I warn you in advance!

Certified Copy has been made in 2010 with Juliette Binoche which has been in Kiarostami’s mind from the scratch, and remember that Juliette also played a part in his previous movie of him called Shirin, and William Shimell who played the main male character after many others came into the scene and eventually has been sat aside including Robert DeNiro. William Shimell is a British opera singer and has never played in a movie before that and Kiarostami came to know him after he directed an Oprah with Shimell in the main role. When we heard that Kiarostami is going to have these professionals in front of the camera we could not believe it. By the time he was famous of not using professional actors or actresses and relay on non-actors for his roles. even though at couple of times he used professional ones like Shohreh Aghdashloo in The Report (1977) or Mohamad Ali Keshavarz in Through the Olive Trees (1994) but this wasn’t  his thing! Non-actors “react” rather than “act” and that was quite suitable to his way of story-telling where there is not much to do by characters! but we must be wrong! Binoche appeared in front of his camera and more than that, she received the Best Actress Award at the Cannes prize ceremony the same year.

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The main idea of Certified Copy comes from another determining film of Kiarostami called Close up. In Close Up Kiarostami follows the story of the real-life trial of a man who impersonated film-maker Mohsen Makhmalbaf, “conning a family into believing they would star in his new film”. The film has a documentary tone but you will be unable to determine which parts are re-make and which parts are real. The point is that Kiarostami for the first time in his career left to follow what’s happening rather than creating one! Dealing with his new role as a director, so to speak, and following the ones who are not themselves either, but occupying others’ place and identity brought him the question of originality and its importance. what is original? It’s now years since Julia Kristeva declared that all we do or say is just part of a concept called intertextuality. We like it or not are constantly in the dialogue with what we know, what we read, what we see and what we shamelessly, knowing or not, burrow from other texts/concepts. In a way, in fact, part of the joy of being art critic or more specific film critic is revealing and exploring this hidden connections and dialogues. so if that’s so, is there anything original? In fact there is, even though not in essence, but in the form, in the presentation, in the sort of combination of bits and pieces. but here there is another philosophical question. When I say Original, am I referring to Original as having the main importance and value and the copy as a worthless attachment? This is where the central question of Certified Copy arises. Without going much further in the details, Certified copy in this way, is a platform to put this question in the audience’s mind and somehow is to say that Copy not only certifies the original but also has its own original value and its own originality. Each copy owns its own journey, which may or may not follows the same journey of its original, if there is such a thing! and this idea reflected in every single scene and story line in the Certified copy!

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But watching Certified copy for someone who is familiar with Kiarostami’s world has another great pleasure and it’s due to the high level of inter-relatability of his movies, in a way that you feel somehow all his films are strongly connected to each other. And it’s not just about the story line or the characters but also goes as far as cinematic style and moments. The central theme of the Certified copy remind us The Report (1977) where we also involved in the life of another couple with a child with all its complicity. I briefly touched on Close Up before. The continuous way of talking between two main character, especially when they are in the car, is very much resemble Ten (2002). and many other scenes of his movies that shows people talking in the car with each other. Kiarostami believed that this is the perfect situation for dialogue; two persons sitting in front seat, facing forward, each seems to be in their own personal sphere but talking to each other as like talking to themselves. and the whole lot happening in the car which is also encompasses personal sphere at the same time that it’s outside in the public sphere. Car, in this way, is what Jacque Derrida, could call Threshold; something in the verge of outside and inside and not belonging to any of them!

Anyway, we can spend the rest of the day talking about this movie and Kiarostami. But I’m pretty sure you are not here for this debate and so without any more delay, here I invite you to experience this new journey of yours by watching Certified Copy.

Thank you!

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On Saraband

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“Saraband” is a mournful, heart-wrenching piece of music. It came about during the very short period of time that Bach was free from any religious responsibility in Köthen. In this relaxing, fruitful period he created six suites for unaccompanied cello, but none is as doleful as the chord-less part of the Suite No. 5 in C minor. On the first anniversary of “9/11”, over the remains of the World Trade Center, where hundreds of innocent people had lost their lives, the music selected, unsurprisingly, was this saraband.  Years before that, when Ingmar Bergman wanted to reflect the feeling of utter abandonment in Viskningar och rop (Cries and Whispers, 1972), this piece of music also proved to be his best choice. But as the master filmmaker was about to wrap up his outstanding artistic career, and while he was aware of the new emotional atmosphere around it, why did he once again return to this melancholic masterpiece?

(I invite you to follow my note on Saraband in the latest issue of “Senses of Cinema”. This note has been written for screening “Saraband” at the Melbourne Cinémathèque.)


A Doleful Melody On Totalitarianism

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Nikita Mikhalkov and his real daughter in the film

I run a small friendly film club called Cinephilia, in which we get together to watch a film and share our thoughts about it afterwards. This Post is my take on “Burnt By the Sun” 1994 by Nikita Mikhalkov for Cinephilia. 

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When it occurred to Stalin that the country needs its own national anthem rather than the Internationale, his favourite poet was neither from the proletarians, nor from the abject peasants. He referred to a young children’s storyteller and poet from noble family of Mikhalkovs and so Sergey Vladimirovich Mikhalkov, 29 years old at the time, enthusiastically wrote the lyrics that soon after, every Russian knew by heart for years to come. Stalin dead in 1953. The country started to eradicate whatever was related to the dictator including some specific words in the Mikhalkov’s lines. There was nothing remaining of what could be assumed of a revolutionary generation. the world had been changed, but for new lyrics to fill the gap in Russian National Anthem, Sergey Mikhalkov was selected for the second time. The new Anthem introduced in 1977. Rumours say that Sergey and his wife were serving KGB  by introducing secret police members to foreign diplomats. In 1991, USSR vanished from the world’s map and so the Soviet Anthem retired. But ten years after, when Vladimir Putin decided to restore the old familiar music, 87 years old Sergey Mikhalkov was picked for the third time. During all these years, music score was the same but the poet had to write three distinctive lyrics and the content was changing entirely each time so like the country itself.

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In 1994, when Sergey’s son, Nikita, was about to make the first post-Soviet-era pic to degrade the political legacy of his country, not much of what used to be his country had remained. He stemmed from a family known in Tsar period with lots of admirals, governors, and princes, but in spite of that, his father had an admirer like Stalin who made him a national figure. This controversial background continued by his parents’ service to KGB during destalinization and ended up earning 2nd class “Order For Service To Fatherland” by his father for his contribution to culture of Russia in 2003. Nikita knew each side. He knew that there is no angel/demon story. There is just one story; the story of the human being trapped in circumstances that he can’t fully comprehend and yet has to do something about; has to choose, act and move on.

Burnt By The Sun” is the story of a senior Red Army officer, Sergei Petrovich Kotov, who respectfully lives in his dacha in 1936. His lovely family and the people from the collective farm surround him with warmness and joy and in respond, he serves them with his charm and fame. The cheerful atmosphere, which is the odd mixture of a peasanty life with an aristocratic eagerness, disturbed by Mitya, a senior Soviet political police officer and an old-known family friend, who comes to the house after more than 10 years of disappearance. He comes to arrest Kotov in the line of totalitarian tendencies of Stalin and his delusional suspects of counter-revolutionary movements. But Mitya has another reason for holding a grudge against Kotov; Kotov married his love of life, Maroussia, and he suspects that it is was all planned. They both know that this confrontation is inevitable but none of them would like to raise a tumult. And in the meanwhile, Kotov’s sweet young girl, Nadia, who loves his father, unknowingly escorts his father towards death.

Mikhalkov never directly depicts the past, and instead, by narrating the past events through different characters, he even deliberately leaves us in a fog. He makes it clear that what really happened in the past can not be fully captured because there are so many ways, so many viewpoints, to grasp the sense of past events. So the key is “what are we assuming as the past?”  and this consumption, whatever it is, true or false, guides us to act at present time. And this eagerness to fill the gaps in the past, persuades the audience to precisely follow every bits and pieces and simultaneously feel the joy of life in the Russian culture.

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Years after Mitya lost his dreams and just when in a climax of hopelessness the Russian roulette gives him another chance to go on, he comes back to serve his cold and tasty dish of revenge dressed with a hidden alive hatred. A hatred that can’t bring about anything but devastation, like the fireball that moves around while Mitya tells his story to the household in that relaxing afternoon; In that day, Mitya makes up an imaginary tale to include the searing pain of love and the sorrow of unwanted exile. An encrypted fairytale that everyone but Nadia could decipher. An uneasy silence covers all over. The wondering restless fireball which was searching every corner the whole time, hits a tree and sets it on fire. The same fire of hatred that burnt the whole Russia by its wariness and rage. At the end, Kotov, wounded and arrested, is in the way to his execution and as the postscript says, Maroussia also arrested later on. But did they, as Mitya expected, offer any comfort? The truth is that only the death can fade the fireball of angst just like it did only when Mitya embraced his death exactly the same way that Maroussia unsuccessfully did years before; Maroussia was lucky enough to forget warming up the bath before opening her vein, Mitya was not! And surrounded between the futile battle of power and wrath, people have no better fate than the lost man in the film who constantly seeking the right address, and at the end does not find anything but his death.

77251-050-7201ADA7“Burnt in the sun” is a film full of masterful performances; Nadezhda Mikhalkova as Nadia who is also Nikita’s real daughter, fills the entire film with her sweetness and beauty. Nikita Mikhalkov as Kotov with his unique blend of patriotism, dignity and charm, is a true representative of the Russian passion for life. Ingeborga Dapkunaite as Maroussia portrays an innocent love-seeking woman who her worried eyes looks the other way to evade reality. And Oleg Menshikov as Mitya struggling with his paradoxical feelings, sets such a delicate trap that can not be forgotten.

In the Oscar ceremony, Mikhalkov said that there is no reality without humour. And as such, “Burnt …” is an intact depiction of a cruel reality that can not be confined to the geographical boundaries of Russia and its implication covers all the countries that are wrestling with totalitarianism. Or as Mikhlakov himself believes; “Burnt by the sun” dedicated to all who were burnt by the sun of the Revolution.

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Manet; The Charm of a Gaze

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Eduard Manet, “The Luncheon on the Grass” (1863)

There is something annoying in some of Eduard Manet’s paintings that disturbs the tranquility of our pleasure. A quality that, I believe, reflects the self-reflectivity aspect of his pictures as the audience is referred to oneself through the paintings. In his paintings, hardly ever, individuals look at each other. There is a mysterious attempt among his personages to avoid eye contact and so, in a way, his characters live in their own solitude. Presumably, such an attitude should provide the perception of painting with the tempting pleasure of voyeurism as it does when you invisibly see the nudity in classic works. In Manet’s, however, there is always one character, usually female, who shamelessly stares at us. This gaze which makes us fully aware of our situation, forces us to think about the scene and its hidden confronting story. In “The luncheon on the grass” (1863), the nude woman who is freely sitting between two inattentive fully dressed men, has such a piercing gaze that made the Salon authorities at the time so uncomfortable and resentful that rejection became inevitable! Later on, Manet successfully presented the painting in “Salon des Refusés” that had been provided due to the large amount of refused paintings in 1863. As it can be guessed, he attracted a huge criticism but fortunately enough, he was more determined to his approach to have a u-turn. And so the gaze appeared repeatedly in his paintings for example in “Olympia” (1863), “The Surprised Nymph” (1859 – 1861), “The Garden” (1870), “The Railway” (1872) and even in “The Monet family in their garden at Argenteuil” (1874). But right when we get used to being uneasy, in his very last painting, he surprisingly depicts a distant, yet haunting, gaze. What has been secretly concealed in the bartender’s look at the Folies-Bergeres nightclub that gave it such an intriguing quality? What’s the story?

The Bar at the Folies-Bergeres, by Edouard Manet

Eduard Manet, “The Bar at the Folies-Bergeres” (1882)

For a modern Parisian Folies-Bergeres is just a music hall with some stage performances. But back in the late nineteen and early twentieth century, this glamorous building at 32 rue Richer in the 9th Arrondissement was the spirit of nightlife in Paris. This classic French cabaret was a perfect venue to get together and enjoy seeing seductive dancers and amusing jugglers, singers and clowns. Twenty years before Moulin Rouge gave birth to can-can dance and got a name, Folies-Bergeres allowed high class Parisians to be free from rules of society and be entertained with Music Hall performances which was new at the time. A touch of nudity, mixed with acts, and attendant girls with revealing dresses were the hallmark of the place since the very early days. But later on, the place turned out to be much more striking when the well known singer and dancer, Josephine Baker, wearing next to nothing, came forward with the Danse sauvage. And so erotic dancing found its way to cabaret. It’s not hard to imagine why a wealthy painter like Manet would spend lots of his time wondering about in Folies-Bergeres and also why his last painting allocated to depicting the place.

In “The Bar at the Folies-Bergeres” (1882), a girl is standing behind the counter with long, straight bangs which although give her a seductive look, is more likely to be a working class hair style at the time. There is also an unusual flower bouquet fixed to her bodice and to make it even more interesting, there is a bowl of oranges on the counter which Manet used to paint when referring to a prostitute! In the mirror on the wall, behind the girl, you can see that the people in the cabaret are drinking and talking while paying the least attention to the juggler on the far end of the upper left, that of whom only her legs can be seen. But the enigmatic part of the painting remains the picture of a staring gentleman in the mirror who in a way seems to be in front of the girl which in this case it’s hard to understand the real spatial location of him in the bar because no part of him can be seen out of the mirror. Many critics believed that Manet cheated a bit by changing the real perspective of the objects including the angle of the mirror in order to create a mysterious sight. However in 2001, Dr. Malcolm Park, an Australian art historian, showed how it’s basically possible to set everything exactly in the same way without cheating. His effort, I believe, revealed the deceiving aspect of gazes and Manet’s old interest in capturing the loneliness in the presence of the others; the man in fact does not look at the girl and nor does the girl look at him.

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Ambiguity, and the Engagement of spatial illusion within the surface of Manet’s Paintings (Sydney: University of NSW, 2001)

Now I try to imagine Manet cunningly about to paint his last work; he’d just turned 50 when late complications of syphilis added to his old misery of joints’ pain and rheumatism. He no longer could walk easily and his leg seemed to be indifferent toward his will. The pain was excruciating! Money was not a problem but doctors were unable to provide any ease. Part of his body was almost paralyzed. His doctor believed that his leg should be amputated. Years before, When Manet’s father passed away, he got married to Suzanne, his childhood piano teacher who also was his father’s mistress! And now the only ones around were his wife and his (or his father’s) son, Leon.

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Manet sadly was aware of what was expected of him in life, and so as a farewell work he picked the place that could summarize the happiness and wealth; i.e. Folies-Bergeres. In the painting though, the glory and ecstasy of Folies-Bergeres has been reflected in a mirror behind the bartender; an allegory of what he left behind, what that’s passed. If that’s so, the girl’s eyes can not be hers, they should be Manet’s. Everything starts to make sense to me; the only eyes in all his paintings that made contact with ours, were his eyes; that was him who looked at us through the eyes of that naked girl in “The luncheon on the grass” to say look at me, this is the body of yours, this is you without any piece of cloth to hide yourself behind, the clothes that makes you different than others, the clothes that makes you a lord or a slave, this is you in your ultimate equality. That was him who stared at us in the “The Railway” to invite us to see the perplexity of change in the modern world with all the smoke in the background. And this is him in the bar that no longer invites us, challenges us or accuses us. He is bewildered and desolate but at the same time he never praised life as masterfully as he does in his last look.

The doctor was right; the left foot needed to be amputated, it was gangrenous. But even that, did not help Manet and eleven days after, he died. There are many things that one can remember about his paintings but there is one thing that can not be forgotten; the distant gaze of a girl behind a counter in Folies-Bergeres in 1882.


A Bitter Afternoon with Bacon

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     I stop walking and looking around. I’m afraid of others, of myself. Then I recall Edward Prendick, the protagonist in the The Island of Doctor Moreau (1896 – H. G. Wells), when he eventually had been rescued from the human-like beasts of the island. People

call him mad as he recounts an unbelievable story. They harass him and he loses his instinct to distinguish between human and nonhuman, wondering if he really is rescued or not! As like him, I’m thinking who really we are! And where we are aiming for in this life. I remind myself that Art is not for distraction, it’s for reflecting our issues and showing us the way. So I should start searching within my own mind right from where I’m standing; in the middle of New South Wales Art Gallery amongst Francis Bacon’s paintings. Where should I start from?

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In a rumpled corner of a room, on a loose towel left on a chair, a frozen naked woman is drying her feet. There is nothing glamorous or attractive in her pose. In other pictures, with a similar approach towards immobilising time, a woman cleans her small bath tub or drys her nape. Reluctant to be called Impressionist, Edgar Degas (1834-1917) who created these everlasting paintings, can not be called otherwise; he was able to capture the impression of a moment, picture Time in a timeless manner and surprise the audience who used to see the human body in its godlike perfection. A new concept found its way in our conscious mind: movement and the way it turns our familiar world to something unfamiliar.

jumping-93     Around the same time, years after his acquittal on the grounds of “justifiable homicide” of his wife’s lover, the British photographer Eadweard Muybridge (1830-1904), inventively used multiple cameras to capture the motion. The cameras in a line across the mobile subject took photos in fractions of seconds, one after the another, and then Muybridge represented them beside each other. This way he successfully provided serial photos of a horse at gallop which was revolutionary in recording every single position of a moving subject but also revealed deformed configuration of the body in movement. The embodiment of time and its impact on the spatial aspect of versatile animal or human in his photos was mesmerising. And so, his compelling achievement caught many artists’ eyes which among them Francis Bacon (1909-1992) can not be missed.

     Francis had a hectic childhood. He was one of the five children of a British captain who unfortunately had a passion for racehorse training and as a result poor Francis had to struggle with breathing all the time due to what later on turned to be severe allergic asthma toward horses. It’s not hard to imagine that his alienated body which was not transparent as we naturally feel, very soon made him think about the true essence of the body. Years after he saw paintings of the Great Picasso and decided to be a painter, the serial photos of Muybridge and also the new breakthrough of X-rays films came quite handy for him. They were presenting an estranging aspect of life; the same aspect that was reflected in Picasso’s images. Francis proposed that a head and neck were only space-occupying Things just like a vase on the table or a chair in the room. It was like saying that we are nothing more than a bizarre combination of organs that stupidly has been assumed perfect or just a moving mass with the most eccentric of figures. In the warm hand of one’s lover there is nothing except a bunch of bones and muscles, nerves and blood vessels. And the sparkling eyes of a beloved darling are merely a set of lenses and wires of nerves. Soaked in the warmness of the gallery that was packed with huge frames of Francis Bacon’s imaginative paintings, visitors often find that they can’t look into a mirror in the same way as before anymore.

Francis Bacon Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion 1944

Francis Bacon Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion 1944

     But it’s not all about the body. In fact, this deformity forms another yet strange element in Bacon’s paintings. They are abandoning the corporal consistency in favor of depicting the essence of the humankind and through that Bacon affirms not only the man’s disturbed appearance but also his tortured soul. In his pictures, people are screaming, sometimes through their monstrous mouths, and there is nothing to promise hope as the nightmare looks eternal. But why?

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Portrait of Pope Innocent X

Francis Bacon was openly gay. He was a huge admirer of men’s bodies and loved to paint his male partners. He was extremely selfish, arrogant and talented. But life didn’t take it so easy on him; homosexuality was not welcomed at the time, and many including one of his major lovers, Peter Lacy who was an veteran army pilot, went to Tangier, Morocco, where the matter was quite accepted. Francis himself had been traveling back and forth to there too. To make it more tolerable, he was a loyal member of underground clubs, heavily drinking, recklessly gambling and of course passionately painting. Peter Lacy lost the game to death due to alcoholism and George Dyer another famous partner of Francis who was drinking like a fish, eventually committed suicide in a climax of depression. The small studio of Francis was always packed with piles of paint, rubbish, old photos, dirty cloths, broken mirrors, scattered books and lots of pieces of papers. Engulfed by the devious animal side of human nature, he would often sit in front a huge canvas and then suddenly would started painting without a draft while he was trying to be as open as possible to his instinct with no intention to excite anyone but himself. Having a continuous battle inside, seeing the emptiness of judgmental crowd and witnessing the craziness of people in two world wars, he questioned if there was any relief and liberation in life.

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Beautiful Gretchen in Faust (2011)

     In the dark time of Middle Age, “Faust” in Alexander Sokurov’s version (2011- Russia) was a scientist with a major concern; it does’t make sense to talk about the liberation of soul if we can’t find one inside the frame of our body. So he started to search for soul objectively through “unearthing corpses and rummaging in their guts just to localize the home of the soul”. Of course there was nothing to find but right at the pinnacle of disappointment, he fell in love with the only beautiful girl in town. He proposes that if there is any hope it might be hidden in “Beauty” and running the risk, he made a deal with Satan on having the girl just for one day at the cost of his life. Shortly after, he regretted that, because he could not hurt the girl in order to prove his assumption but by then it was too late. Years before that, Kris in Solaris (1972 – Andrej Tarkovsky) for the first time in the space st

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d himself alone while the ocean-made replica of his ex-wife, Hari, who innately couldn’t be separated from him, was not around. Searching all over, he finally noticed that the soul-less Hari had been silently sitting in the library bemused in front of a painting of Pieter Bruegel. For me the search is over. Now I know the secret of Bacon’s survival; Art and Beauty are not merely a way toward salvation and piety, they are “The Salvation” themselves.

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Undetachable Hari in Solaris (1972)


On Grotesque Canon Of Competition in Art

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What on earth can justify the viral growth of nonsense competitions in the film festivals? Who gives them the divine authority to praise some and discriminate some others? Losing and Winning are new concepts, contaminating our contemporary art, a diabolic innovation that diverts us from the pure elementary reason of art towards the filthy pleasure of business. Every single day a new pretentious self-centered film festival emerges from nowhere, all identical, claiming a different agenda, introducing “new talents”, praising the old ones and awarding so called the best. But how and when did it all start?

Two years after inauguration, Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel was the host of 250 people who came to celebrate the first Academy Award now known as Oscar. The hotel itself was part of the film industry family, as it was established by Douglas Fairbanks, Mary Pickford and Louis B. Mayer. And the ceremony was also like a family reunion, guests were greeting each other, drinking happily and passing gossips. At the end someone announced the award for the best film, a gesture that basically reflected the big studios’ respect for the most successful movie in the country. No harm, no foul so far. The Studio’s school was accepted and it was clear that they wanted their money back with maximum benefit and so nobody mistook this money talk as an artistic event. The year was 1929. We realised that business is a major part of this ill-fated child of art but as the money got bigger another mishap lined up.

Count Giuseppe Volpi, is known to every Venetian. He was the one who let this water engulfed land to glow at night by electricity. He also successfully negotiated to end the war between the Ottoman Empire and the Kingdom of Italy in 1912 which resulted to the attachment of a part of the northern Africa to Italy – today we call it Libya – including Tripolitania that Giuseppe Volpi himself governed for a while. In Mussolini’s era his business instinct mixed with political interests guided him to create the first international film festival in Venice (1932). Presenting movies from Italy and some other countries in one place was so exciting that the brilliant idea of competition made sense. He called the first prize “Coppa Mussolini” or Mussolini Cup to deceive people with the artistic aspect of Fascism! (What a brilliant idea!) And so the concealed compelling side of film industry was placed in full view and “Politics” laid his cards on the table.

Who would dare to say which one is better; Leonardo da Vinci or Rembrandt?

Who would dare to say which one is better; Leonardo da Vinci or Rembrandt? Flober or Falkner? Fellini or Ford?

The rest of the story is history; leaving “Art” as something in the line of a game, a commodity, or a skill at most, – something that you can judge, bet on and sell – competitive festivals contaminate the whole world and not only infect the cinema but also strangulate music, theater and television. Producers use the credit of the awards to have better options in distribution and advertisement after they convinced the audience that the importance of a film is firmly link to achieved prizes. And that’s  not all, in fact the silly part is still untold; people actually believe this deception as do the film makers themselves and the critics. They praise the prize when it goes to their preference and despise it when festivals apprise the undesirable. Thereafter, hilariously, they start to blame the jury for their political considerations or the lobbies for polluting the judges’ votes.

The famous ending of many of Chaplin’s films capture him whilst he carelessly turns back to the audience and rambles away. In many aspects I wish the serious critics could do the same and leave the festival game behind and wash out the disgusting glittery of the exclusive film magazines that suffocated with insincere smiles and laughable fashion. I wish they could deal only with the essential core of art to highlight the notion that It’s the diversity of art and an artistic point of view that counts and not the hierarchical approach of festivals.


On Oblomov; In Praise of Idleness

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Amazed by not only his incredibly diversified and compact adventurous life but also his profound scrutiny of art and its vivid links with society, I wonder if Nikolai Dobrolyubov knew his life would be as short! This famous Russian social activist and journalist with his huge passion for art criticism was only 25 years old when tuberculosis killed him, however he did succeed to leave many influential articles among which “What is Oblomovism?” is an unforgettable one. Ilya Ilyich Oblomov is the main character of Ivan Goncharov’s famous novel (Oblomov – 1859); a Russian gentleman whose apathy towards people and life, and his consequent utter inertness, left him nothing more pleasurable than lolling on his couch. Dobrolyubov uncovers Oblomov’s less colorful brothers in some of the great works of others including Pushkin, Rudin, Beltov and Turgenev. He then by bolding their resemblances concludes that

            “all the heroes in the finest Russian stories and novels suffer from their failure to see any purpose in life and their inability to find a descent occupation for themselves. As a consequence, they find all occupations tedious and repugnant.”

Outspoken as he is, Dobrolyubov continues to generalise this devastating lassitude and aims at the strong distinctive feature of his country that’s been kept in the dark corner of national ignorance; He asks “Where is the one who in the native language of the Russian soul could pronounce for us the mighty word Forward?” and then sadly admits that there is a part of Oblomov in every one of us.


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120 years after, another Russian artist , Nikita Mikhalkov, makes his own poetic version of the novel in a film with the same title (Oblomov- 1980). The initial scene, in contrast to its origin, depicts the young Oblomov as he wakes up, blossoming a beautiful smile, sunlight dancing in his hair, flying between the rooms, longing for peace in his mom’s lap. Afterwards, every now and again, the film delivers different scenes of Oblomov’s childhood, but the way he calls his mother and looking everywhere for her is almost identical. Here we see the same Oblomov; unable to make a decision, so self-centered to understand love and so indolent to change. Even his long-lasting friendship with an inventive hard worker like Andrey Stoltz, or his passionate love affair with a desirable elegant Russian sweetheart like Olga, who is also in love with Stoltz – a love triangle as painful as the one in François Truffaut’s classic Jules and Jim (1962)- can’t alter his destiny. But there is one thing that Mikhalkov wonderfully reminds us with his dreamlike scenes and the musical magic of Casta Diva from Norma’s opera – where she sings “scatter on the earth the peace, Thou make reign in the sky” – that Oblomov is the lost innocency, the forgotten purity and the spotless soul. We, he implies, may not able to pronounce Forward as an Oblomov but moving forward without him certainly isn’t worth much!

In the last scene, when Oblomov has died as silently as he lived, his young boy runs among the green hills and fields, joyfully calling out for his mom. Now his voice is the only sound that comes from love.


Zero Dark Thirty (Kathryn Bigelow- 2012) – The Dilemma of Morality

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Then exhausted and unexpectedly silent Maya (Jessica Chastain), without any sign of glory in her face, looks around in an empty military airplane only to realize that she will be as alone as she always was. The fateful operation finished and her obsessional desire for revenge fulfilled; Bin Laden killed. Somebody asks her, as he echoes her inner voice, where she wants to go now. And not knowing what life might mean from now on, she melts down on a chair.

In a furious review in “The guardian”, Zizek insists that Bigelow’s cool depiction is nothing less than endorsement and blames her for justifying the barbarity of torture by its blessing achievement i.e. demolition of al-Quaeda. However he ignores Biglow’s journalistic tone and the way she creates the final turn to leave us with the everlasting question of morality in the confronting context of modern life; what is the cornerstone of moral act? What’s right and what’s not? And the more important question of “should we judge the conduct itself (the deontological point of view) or the consequence of it (so-called consequentialism)”. The second would approve violent interrogation as it ended up to kill Bin Laden which is right (or is it?) whereas the former would argue that the inhuman act of torture is wrong no matter what, and that it’s like an opening towards an endless slippery slope. So although – as Thomas Caldwell mentioned in his clever analytical note on film – by the end of the day, the eventual vital piece of information was the result of brutal cross-examinations but In fact, in the film, overestimation of the attained information through the “classic” way of interrogation, diverts CIA to an astray for more than ten years. Bigelow, I believe, as a loyal reporter had less to do with the real chain of events and so she has reflected her feelings through her representation and the way she’s depicted the story. The final chapter of the film, in this way, has a pivotal role in decrypting the film.