Close-Up: Deconstructing a Cinephile’s Identity

I remember standing amidst a bunch of Salman Khan look-alikes in front of a single screen theatre to catch a show of Tere Naam, about seven years ago. Most of them dressed in garish colors were sporting a hairdo like Salman ‘bhai’ in the movie – long middle parted hair which curved inexplicably to flick the eye-lids’ corner. These were the most passionate cinephiles I had ever seen. People who take pride in watching a movie, first day first show. For them, cinema is a medium which often helps them shelf their mundane concerns — being respectably educated, finding a job. I would come to the same theater a couple of months later to see them appropriately change their hairstyles, attire to accommodate their favorite actor’s current look. What is their identity then, you wonder.  And can a truly passionate cinephile attempt at having his own identity? Or would it always be a by-product of the work of art he is enamored by? Close-Up (1990), a docufiction (combination of documentary and fiction) by Abbas Kiarostami attempts to deconstruct this peculiar malady of people devoured by arts.

Hossain Sabzian, the protagonist of the movie, pretends to be Mohsen Makhmalbaf (the acclaimed Iranian director) to an affluent family in Tehran. He tells them he would like to shoot a movie in their house and also promises one of the members of the family, a role in his movie. However, a couple of weeks later, his sham is discovered and he is sent to jail. Kiarostami requests the judge to film the proceedings of the case, as he believes the case is not as flimsy as it appears to be. The judge relents. True to its part-documentary nature, all the characters in the movie play themselves. And the portions before Sabzian’s arrest which Kiarostami couldn’t have filmed as he got to know about the case after Sabzian’s arrest, have been re-enacted by the same characters.

Close-Up

The film’s primary curiosity is: why did Sabzian do it? Especially, when he did not have any established ulterior motives. He did not steal anything from the family. Neither does he exhibit any obnoxious socially deviant traits. And instead of choosing to impersonate someone very obviously famous (probably, a movie star), he impersonated a director, albeit renowned, but less glamorous. Sabzian had a rather succinct answer for his motivation – his love of arts. When Kiarostami interviews him for the first time on camera, just before the interview is about to conclude, Sabzian pauses and looks at Kiarostami – “I have a message for Mr. Makhmalbaf. His ‘The Cyclist’ is a part of me.”

A part of me.

Conventionally, there exists a line separating artists and consumers. The artist, creator of an art form plays an active role — creating things from scratch, while the cinephile plays a passive role – of consuming the art form. But that line begins diminishing when the consumer begins taking more than a usual interest in an artist’s work. Even otherwise, it is not unheard of people being fixated on a particular movie or an artist, (recently, such a topic even trended on Twitter — #MoviesIhaveSeen50x), discovering new things on every subsequent viewing – both about the movie and about themselves. In such an extreme case, who does the movie really belong to? Its creator or the consumer? Sabzian says in one of the interviews that he liked Makhmalbaf’s work because it delineated the tribulations of people like him. And also because, it spoke of things he would have liked to express. So when the woman from the Ahankhah family asks him on the bus, where did he get ‘The Cyclist’(the novel) from, and Sabzian says he wrote it, it’s not difficult to understand that this is no ordinary lie, but an attempt to attain an identity. And who could be better than the man one admires? As Sabzian signs the book for Mrs. Ahankhah, with his scrawny scribbling, he transforms into Makhmalbaf.

And in Sabzian’s defense, he still commited a minor transgression; there have been people in past who got so sucked into cinema that they blurred the line between the reel and real world. In the process not only losing themselves, but bizarrely, also becoming potent threats.  One such widely publicized case was John Hinckley, Jr.’sobsession with Jodie Foster (for her role in Taxi Driver, which ironically itself centers on an obsessive loner) who tried to assassinate President Raegan just so he could attract Foster’s attention.  Cinema often gives power to identity-famished people like Sabzian and Hinckley. In one of the later interviews, Sabzian says, “Being Makhmalbaf, made things easy for me. Before that people were reluctant to obey me.” Sabzian is clearly not happy being himself – a divorced middle-aged man with modest source of income.

Narrative wise, Close-Up is not only not chronological but also gleefully skips from documentary (interviews) to enacted scenes. And although the concept might appear jarring theoretically, it works on screen. It is a movie which doesn’t underscore the importance of scenes’ what and how, rather why. And although its story might seem simplistic (which it is), the movie is far more ambiguous. Our understanding of the movie comes primarily from Sabzian’s testimony – but what if he is lying to us? As he was lying to the Ahankhah family. Kiarostami even asks him – are you acting on the camera? We would never know the answer.  Godard once famously said, “Cinema is the most beautiful fraud.” Some, like Makhmalbaf, create that fraud. And some, like Sabzian, fixated on that fraud but not knowing what to do with it, chose to live it instead.

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