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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.

2 comments:

  1. What a beautiful and haunting film. It is rare for a film to capture moral ambiguity this well. And bravo for the defense of the humanities, and libraries, too.

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