Up to The Wind Will Carry Us Kiarostami was in the running for Greatest Living Filmmaker but now his two most recent films to get any wide exposure are such abject and total failures that you have to wonder whether Sturges-like he’s suddenly lost his touch or he’s just going through a rough patch. To be sure, Ten (2002) is defiantly experimental, consisting as it does almost entirely of long-takes with the (digital video) camera on a car’s dashboard pointing at the passengers. (And “almost entirely” because most critics have claimed that’s entirely the film when in fact there is one exterior shot of a dark street corner supposedly frequented by a prostitute.) Whether this was a good idea or not, Kiarostami certainly doesn’t make much of it. The shrill little boy during the opening sequence is grating in his sheer clumsiness, deliberate though it may have been (under different cultural contexts it might be plausibly considered Brechtian or more accurately an attempt in that direction). The entire psychodrama is barely distinguishable from the Jerry Springer impulse and is barely art whether scripted or not. There are bits and pieces of minor interest in Ten but Kiarostami has always been a tad lax about discipline and he really lets this slip. Most conventionally, he does what countless male directors have done before him: If one person is going to be on screen for almost the entire film it might as well be a strikingly beautiful woman. Not that I’ll complain too much about that but it does seem like he didn’t have much other impulse behind the film. (Reports of Five (2005), a non-narrative Ozu tribute, seem more interesting because it sounds like a reinvention of structuralist films.)
ABC Africa (2001) can’t even claim to have any minor interest. It might well be the worst film by anybody who might be considered a major director though of course I have yet to see The Day the Clown Cried. Just imagine that it had a name attached such as, say, John Olds and it would never have seen the light of day. It’s not that ABC Africa isn’t really—or at least only partially--a documentary but that Kiarostami shows a kind of arrogance. Plopped among Ugandan orphans with AIDS? Well, I’m going to film empty houses and wind blowing through the trees. For the art there’s the long sequence in almost total darkness after a storm knocks out the power (one article claims this was faked) and Kiarostami is paying so little attention that one section about a meeting of local women is repeated later in the film. And just gosh darn isn’t it IRONIC that there’s a luxury hotel there. Really after some point it’s impossible not to wonder what on earth he could have been thinking. The Saeed-Vafa/Rosenbaum book and various profiles show Kiarostami as barely interested in film history or other filmmakers which may be why these two films show him floundering. It’s certainly a laudable impulse to do something other than a straight-forward documentary but a touchstone (though probably not a model) would be Shoah which used its various formal elements—length, long takes, focus on trivia, lack of archival footate, Lanzmann shown lying—to create the very point of the film: how do we know what happened and how should it be represented? 10 on Ten shows Kiarostami expounding on his filmmaking theories and practices though it’s somewhat opaque. At times he brings up the blandest truisms, others totally outrageous claims. If serious then he is one of those nitwits who happened to be good artists almost by accident, but I suspect that he may have been pulling a prank. Want to see what he really thinks? Well, he’s going to tell you but in such a way that you know less than when you begin.