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Monday, February 27, 2012

Yiptee Diptee Doo, Happy Shiny Day: The 2012 Oscars

Much as I’d like to fool myself and in spite of flukes, the Oscars aren’t about movies, craft, or art. They’re about fashion and culture. It’s the tough lesson of the film geek/snob, learned year after year, conveniently forgotten as he roots for a couple of favorites in late February. The Oscars are my Superbowl (with my team rarely playing or winning), and like the Superbowl, the play isn’t really the thing. Some weeks back, the radar of media picked up very little about the sport of football, and instead fixed its sights on the commercials and Madonna’s half-time performance. It felt like the closest the Superbowl discussion got to the sport was the subject of Gisele and her tweets, emails, or whatever the hell they were, involving her quarterback boyfriend. Even then, it’s news because it’s Gisele, which brings the sport back into the arena of fashion.

I was looking a little ridiculous last night at the Cowles Center in Minneapolis for the Official Twin Cities Oscar Party, which I was persuaded to attend in the waning Sunday afternoon hours. There were photographers, designers, gift bags, a red carpet, swanky gents in suits and beautiful women in luxurious dresses. In my childlike enthusiasm I was sporting my new official Drive jacket over an Oak Street Cinema t-shirt, Buckle jeans, and old Doc Martens. I was “representin’,” as they say, cheering on Nicolas Winding Refn and Ryan Gosling’s snubbed noir, which was merely up for the prestigious category of Sound Editing. Unsurprisingly, it lost. I contained myself and stayed away from the elevators.

Not that many of the party’s attendees had seen Drive. I dare say that 50% of them had seen more than three of the films nominated for Best Picture, to say nothing of 2011’s many excellent films utterly snubbed in all categories. Though I had a good time, especially after I wound up in the VIP section with an open bar, the jabber and networking between people usurped the interesting-looking moments of the broadcast, where actors discussed what effect movies had on them. Because the two most nominated films were films about film history – The Artist and Hugo – producer Brian Grazer feebly tried to channel cinematic reverence. I don’t think many people cared. Honestly, the most exuberant part of the show was probably the sketch starring Christopher Guest and company (Catherine O’Hara, Eugene Levy, Fred Willard, Bob Balaban, Jennifer Coolidge) playing the first test audience in 1939, commenting on flying monkeys and such in The Wizard of Oz. As with his films Waiting for Guffman and Best in Show, Guest and Co. are more us than we’d ever admit.

Meanwhile, the show tried to focus on the excellence of an art while itself being shabbily executed, with the sound going in and out and an inept handling of audience reaction shots to follow up on Billy Crystal’s jokes. Sounding hoarse and tired, Crystal quickly launched into his trademark “It’s a Wonderful Night for Oscar” medley, compressing nine nominees into verse when before he always did five. It didn’t quite work. Maybe the hooks in the songs were weak and the jokes lame, or maybe it was because too many of 2011’s Best Picture nominees were full of hot-air to begin with. I’m not even sure I could make out the song for what is universally acknowledged to be the least deserving of the nominees, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close. I did enjoy the opening montage, with Crystal intercut with some big 2011 entries, but wasting time with a Tin Tin homage plummeted the proceedings.

However superior the under-fire Oscars are when compared to other gala award shows like the Emmys and the Grammys, it’s now more than ever about the posturing of popular culture, instead of disappearing under the shadowy and archetypal wings of the masquerading icons and stories being told. Tweets and Facebook updates become the complementary narrative to what the Oscar producers are staging, the show besieged by a haughty and snarky backstage Chorus. Cynical viewers love to say how bad the Oscars are, while there’s another populace with their eyes laced to the red carpet pre-show. Both factions are eager to dig their teeth into celebrities baring too much skin and going over the top. The merit of The Artist or Christopher Plummer’s Beginners is not being chatted about today. Rather, it’s Angelina Jolie’s weight and thighs, and Jennifer Lopez’ apparently prodigious Frisbee nipples.

As far as winners go, the night wasted no time in launching into disappointment. The only widely predicted winner that ended up losing (if we don’t count Viola Davis’s Best Actress vie in The Help) was the first award of the evening, as Emmanuel Lubezki lost the Cinematography Oscar to Robert Richardson for Hugo. I love Richardson and Hugo, but there was something unforgivable about Lubezki’s loss. The Mexican cinematographer of Y tu mama tambien, Ali, The New World, Children of Men, and Burn After Reading had swept the critics’ awards and took the Guild prize, but his work also conveyed the meaning of Terrence Malick’s elusive and wondrous Tree, which I hold to be more pertinent to a philosophical discussion of cinema than The Artist and even Scorsese’s Hugo. It’s not just that Lubezki’s cinematographic achievement ranks for me alongside John Alcott’s work on Barry Lyndon (1975) or John Toll’s on Malick’s The Thin Red Line (1998); he and Malick made the screen a great window through which we look and find ourselves. What was so startling and magnificent about The Tree of Life was how if affected me and how I experienced the world outside the theater after the movie. The world was dancing, and a run around Lake Harriet or a simple stroll through Minneapolis was suddenly boiling over with sensation. Malick begins The Tree of Life with a little girl’s hands set on a barn window, crossing over the other side, and he ends it with a bridge. Lubezki’s camera is not a tool of escape or trickery, but a link that loops back on ourselves. Granted, Hugo has cinematography that is also aesthetically rich just as it is meaningful to its subject, bringing 3D and the digital realm back to a photographic, human-centered root. But I’d bet a little money that even Scorsese and Richardson would bow in reverence to what Malick and Lubezki accomplished.

The subtext to this unfortunate start ties into the future of movies, and so makes the show’s narrative more dramatic. With Kodak going out of business and celluloid dying out to make room for the way of the future, the long-hold-out Scorsese finally embracing the digital (and doing it transcendently), giving the award to Hugo re-affirms the future path of Hollywood. Slumdog Millionaire was the first digital film to win the Cinematography Oscar (though it should have been Dion Beebe for Collateral in 2004), followed by Avatar the next year. Inception was mostly shot on film, but its victory over Roger Deakins’ True Grit indicates a trend to award bigger “oooo-ahhhh” films, heavily painted over with special effects. Lubezki’s great offerings are earthy when compared to such spectacle, using natural light whenever he can; even when he’s experimented with digital in a few shots in Ali, it was defiantly basic. During a recession, when a current golden era of television threatens movies, the Academy may want to reward pictures of great scale, dismissing the sublimity that sits right before us (much as audiences would dismiss The Tree of Life).

Hugo continued to reign with most of the technical categories, deservedly getting Dante Ferretti a second Oscar for Art Direction, in addition to Sound Mixing, Sound Editing (beating my beloved Drive), and Visual Effects. The one moment when my arm was raised in surprise and enthusiasm occurred with Film Editing, which I expected to be taken by The Artist or the great Thelma Schoonmacher for Hugo. Instead, it went to Kirk Baxter and Angus Wall, my picks, for The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo. The win was a shocker for me, not because of the industry’s tepid response to David Fincher’s magnificent Swedish noir, but because Baxter and Wall won last year, just as deservedly, for The Social Network.

It’s still somewhat of a pooper when Film Editing is the high point of Oscar night. The major awards went by the book, and deserved or not, it’s still a let-down. Christopher Plummer won for playing a gay man who comes out of the closet at 75 in Beginners; he was the deserving winner, but lacked suitable competition in snubbed peers like Albert Brooks (Drive), Viggo Mortensen (A Dangerous Method), Brad Pitt (The Tree of Life), and Christoph Waltz (Carnage). I had no problem with Octavia Spencer’s victory for The Help, though it would have been a welcome surprise had Melissa McCarthy won Best Supporting Actress for Bridesmaids; I also regret that Jessica Chastain was nominated for her fine work in The Help when she was so much better as the confused wife of Take Shelter and luminous mother in The Tree of Life, and the category was also marred by the dismissal of newcomer Shailene Woodley, who plays George Clooney’s feisty daughter in The Descendants.

Best Actor was something of a three-way front-runner horse race between Jean Dujardin (The Artist), Clooney, and Brad Pitt (Moneyball), with two unexpected dark-horses in the background (Demian Bichir in A Better Life, and Gary Oldman in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy). The category was really blunted by the Academy’s demand for the big names Clooney and Pitt, who are nominated – for doing some good work, I admit – at the expense of more impressive performances from Ryan Gosling (Drive), Michael Shannon (Take Shelter), Michael Fassbender (Shame and A Dangerous Method), and arguably Leonardo DiCaprio (J. Edgar) – and dare I say Mel Gibson (The Beaver). I think Dujardin’s victory still felt a little overripe in its predictability. Indeed, I was hoping my three front-runners would cancel each other out and Oldman’s George Smiley, the most haunting of all five performances (and the most revered actor of the bunch), would take the gold. Had this happened, I can guarantee you that half the articles this morning dismissing the Oscars as dull would be saying something different. An Oldman victory would have been the longest standing ovation in years, and the most career-affirming Academy Award for an actor since Al Pacino 19 years ago.

I guess we were supposed to think that Meryl Streep’s Iron Lady victory was the surprise of the night. It wouldn’t have been, had not the buzz in trade papers turned Viola Davis’ way a couple of weeks ago. In November, it was almost a given that Streep would get her third Oscar for playing Margaret Thatcher (she should have probably gotten it last year for playing the much more cuddly Julia Child). But reverence for the world’s greatest actress (if not actor generally, if we’re to be gender neutral) prevailed. My personal choice for the award was Rooney Mara, my new imaginary girlfriend, whose Lisbeth Salander in The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo was an uncanny creation, a harmony of performer, director, and music score. As with Oldman, the actor disappeared and the character haunted me for days afterward. Oldman and Mara gave performances that were ghostly in their silences and unblinking stares. As good as Streep, Davis, and the magnificent Michelle Williams (as Marilyn Monroe) were in their respective roles, I still wasn’t as transported.

Unfortunately, some diamonds get lost in the cocktail chatter. The greatest of the night’s acceptance speeches was courtesy of Asghar Farhadi, winning for Foreign Language Film with A Separation, from Iran. Accepting the award, Farhadi said, “At this time, many Iranians all over the world are watching us and I imagine them to be very happy. They are happy not just because of an important award or a film or filmmaker, but because at the time when talk of war, intimidation, and aggression is exchanged between politicians, the name of their country Iran is spoken here through her glorious culture, a rich and ancient culture that has been hidden under the heavy dust of politics. I proudly offer this award to the people of my country, a people who respect all cultures and civilizations and despise hostility and resentment.” It was an important remark, giving the night a feeling of historical significance, as maybe some viewers felt with Bert Schneider’s speech for 1975’s Hearts and Minds. In that case, a war had ended. Unfortunately for the present speech, one may be beginning. A close-up of Steven Spielberg’s quizzical face as Farhadi spoke injected ambiguity into the moment, so fitting for the writer and director of A Separation, which rejects the convenient clarity of a black and white universe.

I would think that a survey of 2011’s cinema would be an utter rejection of “convenient clarity.” The defining films of the year had so much ambiguity and irresolution, where things were left to us, the audience: The Tree of Life, Shame, Meek’s Cutoff, Take Shelter, Melancholia, Carnage, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, A Dangerous Method, Drive, The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, Sourcecord, The Ides of March, and of course A Separation. Yet with the exception of The Tree of Life, none of those films were nominated for Best Picture.

Every year, there’s a cultural shrug as every blogger, insider, critic, whatever, has to form their narrative of either the year in review, or of the Oscar race. You never read a positive take on things, how movies are getting better, how the nominees reflect something happening in the international sphere, like in Mark Harris’ book on the 1967 nominees, Pictures at a Revolution (where four of the five nominees were culturally significant: Bonnie and Clyde, Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, In the Heat of the Night, and The Graduate). Year after year we hear about how originality is dying, how all the films are depressing, how spectacle is taking over, and how the Europeans are doing it better than us. And that’s fine. Bitch and moan away.

But last year was really interesting. Of the 10 nominees, nine of the films were interesting fodder for a cultural critic or film buff. There was an idiosyncratic edginess to them, many being the visions of great cinematic voices: Darren Aronofsky’s Black Swan, David O’ Russell’s The Fighter, the Coen brothers’ True Grit, Christopher Nolan’s Inception, Danny Boyle’s 127 Hours. You had an out-of-nowhere uncompromising indie darling, Debra Miller’s Winter’s Bone. Lisa Cholodenko’s The Kids Are All Right was released months before the end of Don’t Ask Don’t Tell. Arab Spring was happening during Oscar season, the subtext of which was Facebook, social networking, the ubiquitous camera eye and impact of technology on the world, easily connecting things to the grand duel of David Fincher’s The Social Network and Tom Hooper’s The King’s Speech. The nominees were adventurous, significant, bookmarks for their year of release. Many of them will, I believe, be watched with admiration years from now.

Instead of “right now” movies, 2011’s nominees are about nostalgia. At their best, they may be the kind of masterpiece that is plugged into the “Eternal,” the deep past that loops around to the present. Whereas The Social Network is a zeitgeist “Information Age” masterpiece, The Tree of Life is a transcendental all-encompassing one. Hugo bridges the film technology of 1900 to 3D digitalism, and how the creation, manufacturing, and criticism of the Art is a religious process of Promethean fire-theft. The Descendants is a family drama on the surface, but with its images of Hawaii’s terrain and interest in how history is about kingdoms displacing and usurping old ones, it’s a cosmological story about accepting the slow continental drift of history, having the same Darwinian weight as Malick. Midnight in Paris is about our tragic pining for the “Golden Age,” while it also reminds us, in a materialistic present where people measure out their lives in tiny units and possessions, that “the past isn’t the past,” and how there is value in staying connected to the richness of history.

Elsewhere, The Help goes back to Jim Crow Jackson, Mississippi, being too reactionary for some of its critics. Spielberg’s War Horse goes to the Great War, but for whatever is there to move and thrill us, it still doesn’t offer much that resonates for the world of today. Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close is about a kid with Asperger’s, searching for some hidden clue that will connect him to the time before everything went bad, on September 11, 2001. Even films that weren’t nominated for Best Picture but won awards for their actors, are focused on the past. Beginners is about “historical consciousness,” while The Iron Lady is about a woman drifting into senility, her mind hopelessly wandering in the past.

Only Moneyball, also about a man haunted by his past and lost potential, seems of the zeitgeist variety (it was co-written by The Social Network’s Aaron Sorkin) that we had last year. It works as a film about digitalization and how technology affects us, but it also clearly talks about our political and economic struggle in America, anticipating Occupy protests centered on rich teams that have too much money while small teams have so little. Billy Beane’s pragmatism, for Aaron Sorkin, could be seen to reflect President Obama, while Art Howe is as obtuse as the congress of John Boehner.

And though it makes sense to nominate Moneyball, Hugo, The Descendants, and The Tree of Life, and perhaps the fluffy satisfaction of Midnight in Paris and The Artist, Spielberg’s fine but autopilot War Horse, the Lifetime pleasures of The Help, and Extremely Loud, in addition to the warmth of the deserving films, drains out a lot of the sting from the list. All the nominated films have something of a tender and uplifting ending. The emotions, oftentimes, are clearly spelled out. In a year where there was a lot of ambiguity, only The Tree of Life is an elusive movie here – though it’s affirmation of all creation is fairly transparent.

There are no unhappy or challenging endings this year, though in recent years such endings have been on the up: No Country for Old Men and There Will Be Blood and Michael Clayton in 2007, The Departed, Babel, Letters from Iwo Jima in 2006, The Hurt Locker, A Serious Man, Inglourious Basterds, District 9 in 2009, and again, Inception, The Social Network, Black Swan, and True Grit last year.

Sure, happy endings are fine. I liked the euphoric dance coda of Slumdog Millionaire. But when you have War Horse and The Help and Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, and The Artist is almost a shoo-in winner (a film that is almost too likable), things just feel a little airy and light. Meanwhile, a famously dark filmmaker, Martin Scorsese, makes his most optimistic-feeling film (albeit with very rich subtexts) in Hugo, and Woody Allen, who loves to leave his characters frustrated and confused, recently in You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger, Vicki Cristina Barcelona, Cassandra’s Dream, and Match Point, has a euphorically delightful conclusion in Midnight in Paris, his most enjoyable film in maybe decades. Evil remains abstract, like in The Tree of Life, or as a cartoonish and materialistic woman, like Rachel McAdams in Midnight in Paris or Bryce Dallas Howard in The Help. But I still feel that the dark side of human nature, the Daniel Plainview side or Anton Chigurh side, is sorely under represented.

That would have made Drive or Take Shelter perfect. Are these men heroes and prophets, or psychotics? Are they both? In Brandon in Shame merely a sex addict, or is he an emblem for a whole culture of excess? Is Freud or Jung right in A Dangerous Method, un-meaning or meaning? The perplexing questions posed in the remarkable films of 2011 are hushed by the simple assurances of escape in The Artist, or feel-good progress in The Help. The film canon wasn’t particularly enriched by the 84th Academy Awards, and most of its content and highlighted movies will be soon forgotten, blips on an increasingly digital map. Whatever. Granted the disappointments of the evening, I put on my Drive jacket and take what has value into the future with me.

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Zero Sum: The Humanities and Asghar Farhadi's "A Separation"

Asghar Farhadi’s A Separation begins with identification documents being scanned under the light of a copy machine. The film, a deeply compelling contemplation about truth, immediately wants us to address the issue of a human life as paper, as official document, versus a nuanced and ineffable thing with unknown variables beyond the grasp of control. The obtuseness of judicial process, wherein all things are reduced to a zero-sum linear trail of action and consequence, arranges lives through religion, mores, customs, and government, but when Law precedes and authors existence, and even the most well-meaning instincts become taboo, haven’t we blocked out the most wondrous capabilities of human imagination? And doesn’t a strict adherence to penalizing transgressions, on such an automatic level, have us taking life for granted? A Separation demonstrates how the process of Law, led on by human passions, lures the ambiguity and uncertainty of motivation and action into the prison-house of language, where the dictionary definition of words are more significant to an occurrence’s historical truth than a detailed description of whatever happened. That A Separation should be released in America as some countries anticipate war with Iran in the next year, and that it should be 2011’s most universally acclaimed motion picture just as Iran censors and closes its own House of Cinema, bespeaks the significance of its themes, which pertain to why we need the Humanities.

So before digging into A Separation, let’s ponder some things that seem so separate from A Separation.

Last December, an investment banker’s email, detailing the reasons why a girl should go on a second date with him, went viral. The clueless fellow wrote over 1,600 words giving reasons why it simply doesn’t make sense why they shouldn’t go out again: You twirled your hair a lot, right? That means that women are interested. You like classical music – I like classical music! We’re in appropriate age ranges. Given your busy schedule, it would just be so convenient for you to date me, as we would both go to the Philharmonic a lot! You made eye-contact and concluded the date by saying, “It was nice to meet you.” If you were sending mixed signals, you were being rude, and should apologize. Despite the woman’s insensitivity, the email’s author states that he’d be up for another date. Call me. Or email. Please.

As you read the woes of the unfortunate investment banker, it seems less written by a human being than by one of those old computer games, where the player had to type in a game character’s action in a manner that the system understood. Or the banker is like one of those artificial intelligence robots in science fiction films, struggling to understand human emotions. Behavior should be reduced to a formula: Your hair twirling + your eye contact multiplied by “It was nice to meet you” and our Philharmonic interests (and because we’re both such well-read and thoughtful people) means you should want to date me. I cannot process why it should be otherwise.

It made sense that the dude was an investment banker, maybe too fitting in how it fits in my own jaundiced philosophical deconstruction of the incident, which is then placed into a narrative of cultural criticism. As the economy now sucks, and one of the principle symptoms is the plague of student debt in a country that used to herald a liberal arts education, people are questioning the purpose of the Humanities. What use are libraries? Why should National Public Radio get any funding? And to waste away tens, maybe hundreds and thousands of dollars, to be a specialist in Literature, Theatre, History, Art, Philosophy, Cinema--? The misery you get afterwards, waiting tables and doing data entry as you move into your parents’ basement, is handily deserved. The liberal arts education, particularly when it deals with the Humanities, breeds parasites. If you’re going to go to school, get a Business or Management degree.

The capabilities of our information technology should be used to specialize in perfecting business skills, corporate management, accounting, investment banking. (Actually, we probably need more scientists and engineers.) Why spend four to five years at a university, attending lectures, reading books, essays on books, and attending parties on the weekend? As Monty Python’s Money Programme makes clear, “It’s accountancy that makes the world go round, round, round!”

In recent years people have turned to the apocryphal Winston Churchill quote about the Humanities. During World War II, it was suggested to him that funding for the libraries be cut so that more money could go to the war effort. “What are we fighting for?” is the response, which is probably more myth than any actual Churchill quote. But the letter of the investment banker seems to be as wonderful an excuse for the Humanities as Churchill’s mythical reply, and it isn’t apocryphal. Reading the email, and contrasting the concrete zero-sum world of investment banking to the mysteries of poetry, it dawns on us that the Humanities are called “the Humanities” for a reason. Much as this technology works to change us into more linear beings, we’re not quite machines yet.There’s another recent example, and it represents something that is hardly novel. The irrational reason of the Law always stands in opposition to what is human, and I’ve never been able to get my head around it. How do you quantify an act as a temporal sentence or monetary fine? And what reason is it to strictly adhere to the procedure of law? Beginning with the parents, who ask us angrily, “Why did you do that?” sometimes we can only answer, “I don’t know. Because.” “Because why?” “Um…Because because.” Or, when an act automatically merits two weeks of being “grounded,” there is the response, “I mean, c’mon!” And really, I mean, come on. In addition to being grounded, “Come On” applies to overdraft fees, some (hardly all) harassment accusations, speeding tickets, and the occasional impossibility to return a phone call. Just chill out and have a drink for Chrissakes, come on!

A recent example of the Law gone wrong occurred in Minnesota, involving Koua Fong Lee, whose Toyota tragically struck and killed three pedestrians. Though insisting that he tried to break when his car accelerated, Lee was convicted and sentenced to eight years. Eight years. Gone. Spent in a prison. Apart from family and friends. And for an action completely absent of malice and, assuming there were mechanical problems with the Toyota (as it seems there were), negligence. Why do prosecutors seek such punishment, when even the victims’ families do not want it? What’s the point? Life is precious and fragile, so why repay suffering with more suffering when it is, from a humanist perspective, unwarranted? C’mon. This is why I don’t want kids.

In light of new evidence, new attorneys, and the active kindness of strangers, in addition to a judge able to admit that she was wrong, Lee’s case was turned around. The prosecuting attorney, Susan Gaertner, kept on fighting Lee with the mechanical numbness of the white-faced Law to the very end, when it was ridiculous to keep at it. She went as far as to say that Lee could be released as long as he accepted his conviction. Which, pardon my language, makes absolutely no fucking sense whatsoever and practically demands an incensed tar-and-feathering crowd to hoist Gaertner away to an uncomfortable place. It’s as if the prosecutor is admitting that to submit to the Law, in a place as benign as Minnesota, is to submit to tyranny. It kind of makes me want to break windows, shout ‘anarchy,’ shave my head, and get a tattoo. I mean, sure, we need the Law, and lawyers, but it is a little stupid.

Did Gaertner, a lawyer, ever read Kafka and Dostoyevsky? Or see a film like Kurosawa’s Ikiru? If we pledge allegiance to boundaries, must we ignore the ineffable? I mean, damn. Come on, dude, take it easy…I would say that maybe if pot were legal to begin with….

So none of this is new. It’s the stuff of Kafka’s stories, the Inquisition, the Salem Witch Trials, the Red Scare, the Gulags, and so on. The Humanities will more frequently lose than win, but we still need them to keep a sense of reflection, even if they only touch 5% of the species. Terry Eagleton speaks of the crisis in the university system, where education, for the right wing, should suit the economy, while with the left wing education is for society. The right wing “priorities of the system” are now taking precedent. The machine, so to speak, is nurtured, but not the developing minds – individually or communally – that labor to make the machine function. The economic and official domain of expression is far removed from the everyday experience of life, between individuals thinking within themselves or communicating with others. Life reduced to a Xeroxed document is one dimensional, easily crumpled, filed or thrown away.

Maybe society would prefer things that way. After all, existence is hard. A life of total awareness must be analogous to an all-day casino dweller, where the victories are few and far between as debts are endlessly racked up, time slipping away quickly, and pretty soon you realize you’ve just sold your shoes for some new chips. As a movie blogger, one repeatedly hears how people go to the movies for escape, not reflection. I’ll be soon posting about The Godfather trilogy, and how maybe the popular success of Coppola’s saga has less to do with its tragic human dimension (where it has its true merit) than the fantastical wish-fulfillment we project onto it. In fantasy, we don’t have to deal with ourselves.

A Separation immediately puts us in the uncomfortable judicial position. So we can’t escape. We have to judge with the Law’s absolutist confidence a situation that evades any absolutes. Simin (Leila Hatami) and Nader (Peyman Moaddi), wife and husband, are in a judge’s quarters looking at us as they give their reasoning for a divorce. Simin has activated the proceedings because she wants to leave Iran with their daughter soon, as her visa expires in 40 days. But Nader will not come with because his father, afflicted with Alzheimer’s, requires care. He feels bound to stay. “He doesn’t even know you’re his son,” Simin points out. “But I know he’s my father,” is Nader’s reasoning. He will go through with a divorce if Simin wants it, but their daughter, Termeh (Sarina Farhadi), is closer to the father. Why is it so important that Termeh come with Simin? “I don’t want her to grow up in these circumstances,” Simin says. “What circumstances?” the judge asks. Simin evades answer, but we know enough to understand it has to do with the country’s spiral to a more conservative and totalitarian structure.

The opening sets up a magnificent dramatic quandary of conflicted motives, showing human complexity as regards what’s right and wrong in a family. Everyone is selfish, but for the right reason. Whatever passionate reasons attempt to find articulation, they are hushed by the cold logic of the Law. The judge, sitting from our audience perspective, cannot find “sufficient grounds for divorce.” The meeting ends. Nevertheless, the couple separates, Simin having some hired movers to take away her things.

As the movers take away the furniture, the theme of tyrannical efficiency continues emerging. The men were paid to move things down two floors, and even though Simin and Nader live on the second floor, the movers did not take the ground floor into consideration. They’re stuck on the stairwell until they’re paid for another floor. Traffic is otherwise stopped. Simin has to go back up and grab some money from Nader’s drawer – and her neglect (however not purposefully) to tell Nader about it will have dire consequences.

With Simin out of the house, Nader, who works at a bank, has to hire a woman to take care of his father during the days. On very short notice, he offers the position to Razieh (Sareh Bayat), a poor, pregnant, and devout mother who brings her daughter with her. Though Nader cannot pay her well, Razieh takes the job out of desperation. Her husband Houjat (Shahab Hosseini) is greatly in debt to hounding creditors who will put him in jail.

But hastily-laid plans, or the most detailed course of Law, cannot coast away smoothly from contingency’s surprise assaults. The mess and mystery of daily living mirrors the mind, an observation keenly felt while observing the Alzheimer’s afflicted old man, who has moments of utter blankness along with a random conscious familiarity with his surroundings. For example, he clearly is accustomed to having Simin around, and having two strangers in his environment may have an effect on him. Though his memory is being erased by disease, the old man is locked in habituation, needing his daily newspaper like a form of nourishment. His oxygen tank is as alien to him as it is to Razieh’s little girl, who has fun playing with it.

Razieh is thrown off-course when she discovers the old man has soiled himself. We understand that she’s already transgressing some kind of custom by working in the company of a man without her husband’s knowledge and consent, but how terrible would it be to clean the elder? She calls some kind of religious phone service, asking experts if it is a sin clean up Nader’s father. Again we see the asinine rigidity of Law, this time religious. Obviously the old man poses no sexual threat or has any desire, and he is clearly in an uncomfortable position. It would be inhumane not to change him. But sexual taboos are still perplexing for Razieh. Even so, it’s interesting as we listen to her discuss the problem, her form of desperate rhetoric steering the answer for her. The formation of the argument works to determine an outcome. She gets religious clearance to go ahead and change the man’s pants, though her daughter still says, “I won’t tell dad.” Rules make the problem insoluble, requiring a duplicitous or omissive ribbon on it.

The importance of language is stressed in Termeh’s studies. We overhear words being recited in translation that carry an important weight for our understanding and interpretation of Iran and the Muslim world, like “worshipping” and “insurrection.” Nader quizzes Termeh on certain English words and their Persian translation, but he’s perturbed when she answers one in Arabic. Termeh explains that it is how the translation is taught in the classroom, but Nader insists that the right way is to keep the translation in Persian. As a Westerner, I don’t know the significance of Nader’s insistence on the importance of a Persian translation. I can issue the novice guess that it has something to do with the changing state of Iran, those “circumstances” that worried Simin so much, as Iran becomes a more conservative nation cutting itself off from the West (the reasoning behind Iran closing down the House of Cinema was that it was under too much influence from the UK). Perhaps because of her education, Termeh seems more religiously minded and conservative than either of her parents, representing the developing attitudes of a new generation of Iranians in a theocratic nation, which are values clearly shared by poorer citizens like Razieh, who rely on an Islamic help-line for everyday instruction. But Nader and Simin’s home gives clues to their own attitudes and tastes, which were probably formed well before the 1979 Revolution. On the walls are pictures of Western figures, for example a Native American Indian, and Leonardo DaVinci’s self-portrait. Nader and Simin, though adhering to conservative customs (Nader tells Termeh to leave the room before exposing his father’s bare legs), are cosmopolitan, liberal people.

Razieh has taken on more than is possible for her. Exhausted by her pregnancy and homebound anxieties, the old man disappears from the apartment, out to a news vendor to get his paper. Frantic, Razieh is separated from the confused man by the erratic flow of rushed traffic (rarely have cars been such an irritating source of anxiety in a movie, whether inside the auto or outside on the street). Farhadi doesn’t show us how she retrieves him, but we assume all is well when Nader comes home. However, the next day Nader arrives to see his father slumped at the side of his bed, his hands tied to a post. Razieh and her daughter are missing.

When Razieh comes back, Nader is understandably incensed. Razieh says she was only running a quick errand, but there is no adequate excuse for the way Nader’s father was left alone, strung up and nearly dead. He also sees that his money is missing (the same money that Simin took to pay the movers). He believes Razieh took it and immediately fires her, demanding that she leave. Razieh demands her pay, which Nader won’t give because he believes Razieh’s robbed him. A skirmish begins. “Take your hands off me!” Nader comes to his senses, his conscience noting the taboo. “I won’t touch you. Just please leave now.” Her desperate obstinacy still forces him to shut the door on her, his body in physical contact with hers. Outside Nader’s apartment, the landlady discovers Razieh is hurt, limping away.

So what exactly happened? Did Nader throw Razieh? Hit her? Shove her? Push her? (And keep in mind an American audience only has translated words to work with). Though Nader was angry, he obviously didn’t mean to hurt Razieh. She wouldn’t leave his house. But because she was owed money, and is desperate for that money, we can understand why she would refuse to leave. And then we can see why Nader would nullify any payment to her because he believes (erroneously) that she stole his money – and of course she was grossly negligent of the old man. She makes her errand sound like it was frivolous (we later learn that it wasn’t).

Soon, Razieh is in the hospital. She’s had a miscarriage and is blaming Nader. Houjat wants the full weight of vengeance. The fetus was over four months old, so it qualifies as a human being, and if Nader knew that Razieh was pregnant and violently pushed/shoved/threw/hit her, he is guilty of murder. His whole life could be ruined. “I didn’t intend to push her,” he insists to the judge presiding over the case. How do we square away all of these variables, making a cohesive equation of human emotions, motivations, and underlying circumstances that makes us determine the truth of what happened? A Separation implies that it’s impossible to do so.

“Who throws out a pregnant woman?” Houjat asks. Nader claims that he didn’t know Razieh was pregnant, and there is enough reasonable doubt to believe him. Termeh wonders about her father, though. Is he lying? And if he’s lying, does it matter? As a witness, Termeh thinks that he must have known about the pregnancy. In private, the father makes his confession to his daughter. “I knew she was pregnant. But at that moment I didn’t.” We (presumably) understand what he means. When Nader threw Razieh out of the apartment, it was an impassioned and frenetic moment, with a lot of adrenaline involved: his father almost died. Do we really have a conscious free will, leading our every action on a leash, and so should be held completely accountable for everything? Sometimes emotions and the body precede the mind. The same fire is a more perpetual threat in Houjat, who becomes a dangerous presence around Termeh’s school. He’s an unpredictable loose cannon, frustrated by the loss of a child, harm done to his wife, in addition to the plague of his poverty.

The struggle to validate one’s own point leads to an inability to see the opposing vantage. The accusations of “twisting” information in the court, or insisting that “we’re humans just like you,” complemented by religious swearing (“You should fear God!” “For the sake of the Qur’an!”), have little to do with a resonant longview. Matters of principle for the warring individuals become as absurd as the bloodless dictates of procedural Law. Termeh is the most skeptical and perceptive of onlookers, but I find myself rooting for her to lie to the judge about her father’s knowledge of Razieh’s pregnancy. To be truthful, before God and society, feels like the wrong thing, and this by no means stops us from wanting the same kind of peace for Houjat and Razieh’s family. There is no single move or judgment that can satisfy any party. Even if it would be convenient for Nader to pay a blood money fine, ending the proceedings immediately, to make such a payment is an official admission of guilt, having ramifications on his social well-being. And – even if he knew Razieh was pregnant – the physics of the stairwell and the force of his “push/shove” are not convincing of his guilt in the miscarriage (even if his wife Simin thinks that he knew full well of her pregnancy and might have been guilty).

Can we allow ourselves to have doubts? About ourselves and our righteousness, or the structures of government, law, and religion? (Think not only of religious fundamentalists in our country, but also of strict constructionists, the dogmatic devotees to the Constitution). The circumstances of A Separation drive at this point of how one of the essences of being human (what those pesky Humanities work to reflect back onto us) cannot be reduced to the linearity of the Law, purely rationalized down to a stealthy mechanical sheen or a zero-sum equation for which all variables are neatly weighed and accounted. The most devout and certain character, Razieh, is overwhelmed by the specter of doubt. In a conversation with Simin, where the two discuss the payment of blood money, Razieh confesses some withheld information about the day before the miscarriage. When trying to get Nader’s father from the news stand, she was hit by a car. She didn’t tell anyone, because the old man’s short disappearance would have been cause enough for her dismissal: the disclosure of truth only leads to further questioning. Since the accident, she had been experiencing pain. Her “errand” was not to a store, but to the hospital. Though it’s not impossible that Nader’s shove/push/hit/throw resulted in the miscarriage, it’s more probable that the car’s impact killed the child. It was probably already dead before the stairwell altercation.

Simin agrees to keep this information to herself. If Nader pays the money and no one is the wiser for what might have actually happened, the better. At a meeting arranged by Houjat’s creditors, Nader makes one last surprising demand. Razieh must swear on the Qur’an that she knows Nader is responsible for the baby’s death. Nader’s own capability for self-doubt is his strongest late-inning device, because he probably understands that Razieh is not a bad person. She obviously can’t do this. The proposition, where words will invoke an absolute truth, changes everything for her, and the only thing of which she can be sure is that it would be a sin to take Nader’s money. She tells Houjat, “I won’t swear. I have doubts….I am scared – I’m afraid of something happening!” meaning divine retribution. Houjat, never having presumed the possibility of his wife withholding evidence, is swept into a tempest of his own doubt and begins to hit himself.

By the picture’s end, nothing is solved. Even if the call for “Justice” is dropped, the equation is left with empty and unspoken variables in the terrain of human interaction. Houjat apparently smashed Nader’s windshield with a rock, his debts remaining unpaid and his family in a terrible state of poverty and uncertainty. The epilogue of A Separation also reinforces the impossibility of closure for Simin and Nader. They are once again sitting before a judge, this time with Termeh, who must make a decision as to which parent she will live with. Apparently, the fact that the family is dressed in black means that there has been a death, implying that Nader’s father is gone. Doesn’t this mean that the divorce need not happen, and that the family can move away together without Nader’s weight of responsibility keeping him in Iran? The separation must not have been that simple, just as any debt and repayment is so soluble.

Termeh weeps before making her decision, asking that her parents leave the room. We wait with them in the busy government building, the two sitting on opposite sides of the hallway. Farhadi leaves us with total ambiguity, even teasing us with having the credits run as we wait with the couple. It would be inappropriate for us to be privy to Termeh’s final answer, because it would only leave us with a multiplicity of further questions, resentments, and debates. The easiest perspective on history is one removed by years, even centuries, the details of a maelstrom distantly seen as an impressionist painting and artifact.

Earlier in the film, there is a reference to Persian history. Termeh is being quizzed about the Sassanid Period, the last great Empire in the region’s history, 224-651 A.D./C.E., before the ascent of Islam. Termeh recalls from her studies how the Sassanid Period consisted of two main classes: the Royal/Ruling class, and basically everyone else. That kind of efficient history-text reduction and categorization is easy when it’s removed by 1,500 years, but the nonstop traffic in the present-day world of A Separation’s strict mandates, where laws are out of the hands of the judges because they are a priori of all human action, points to the chaos of all history, and the inefficiency of all efficient methods of categorization and final judgments. Like Nader’s father, we might have the news, but memory is harder to retain. In a tempest, anyone is susceptible to Alzheimer’s-like symptoms, as when Nader forgets that Razieh is pregnant.

I don’t know if watching A Separation will make anyone more perceptive to the mysteries of human nature. Maybe I can become better at overhearing my own jealous and petty thoughts, maybe not. A survey of the independent/underground cinema of Iran shows that Farhadi’s ruminations on the human experience are not unique to the region, and this pinpoints again to the importance of the Humanities, which work more vigorously to understand the impossibility to minimize and reduce human experience when there is so much social friction from the governing quarters that work to define and Xerox human identity. The Humanities show the struggle, like in the smallest chemical units in evolution, for the survival of our sense of awareness and possibility for discovery, like DaVinci’s self-portrait in Nader’s home.

For many Americans, Iran is reduced by a few associative images to a barbaric and cruel Islamic country that is more medieval than modern (though I resist from making the American government equivalent to Iran, I can’t help making the same smirking accusation of a “medieval” mindset regarding someone like Rick Santorum). Popular culture has given us pictures like the professional wrestler the Iron Sheik to help us define our geopolitical enemy, a point that Darren Aronofsky playfully worked with in The Wrestler, where the all-American wrestler’s archrival is a heel known as “the Ayatollah” – an Iranian character portrayed by an African American used car salesman. The 1979 Revolution’s history is itself a portrait of contradictory drives, where the progressive ideals of the Left were appropriated by more conservative factions, sending the country on an unexpected and unfortunate trajectory. The power structures in the West and in Iran have worked to reduce the event that created modern Persia to a single message and philosophy, completely missing the ball and only leading to more misunderstanding and conflict, in addition to an apathetic willingness for war. The title of A Separation applies not only to a husband and wife, but to the selfish impulses of strangers who refuse to see the complexity in their neighbor, and for that matter the barriers between separate nations and ideologies. The automata of Law won’t help us in building bridges of understanding. Though no one can be sure, I imagine that the Humanities, particularly the grand window of cinema’s picture frame, are probably our best bet.