A series of bizarre events coalesced around Close-Up, from its origin story to the making of the film to its reception. Close-Up is based on the erratic behavior of an individual, and Kiarostami adopted equally erratic methods in depicting that behavior onscreen. But the story of the film kept twisting and turning after filming was complete: when it hit Iranian theaters in 1990, critics were nonplussed. And yet here we are today, and Close-Up is widely hailed as a classic of world cinema. This makes it just about the complete opposite of Hollywood fare, stuff that’s engineered and tightly scripted to entice a particular audience and is, even then, largely indifferent to reviews. Nothing like Close-Up could come out of chaos-averse Hollywood [where the poorly received films rarely get another reckoning anyway]; indeed, it’s all stranger than fiction.
Or is it? Throughout the film, the viewer—any viewer with an inkling of backstory—is also engaged as investigator. Which elements are truth, which are false, and which are a little of both? It’s tempting to slice up the film scene by scene and declare that one reenactment and that one documentary, but Kiarostami’s methods were unorthodox throughout, so you’re left guessing even after you’ve done your homework. If you have the actual players “act out” a scene that has real-world consequences, to what degree are they acting at all? To what degree does the observation medium, the camera, change the behavior of those depicted? Rarely do life and art intersect so messily.
I suppose that’s why, for this scene analysis, I landed on what seems like it must be a pivotal point in the film, precisely because it’s messy and because it’s unlike any other shot in a film full of oddities. I can sum it up with a single screen grab:
See the green aerosol can? I’m far from the first to pick out this object in the film, but it’s irresistible because it so obviously means something. Kiarostami films the can twice, in markedly different ways. First, we see it set in motion by the cab driver, who’s idly waiting on the protagonist’s arrest and kicks the can for sport. Kiarostami’s camera lingers on it, following its trajectory for many seconds before it clangs into the curb. Shortly thereafter, though long enough for the can to become afterthought, it’s kicked again by the journalist who accompanied the arresting officers. This time, however, the camera maintains its distance, and the journalist’s kick reads as an involuntary action—kick as tic, maybe. But the can rolls on.
Why is any of this interesting? First, it’s a neat, if rather obvious, metaphor for the film itself, which involves a man compelled to do things without seeming to possess a clear understanding of why he’s doing them—like the can, he’s caught up in his own trajectory and goaded along by the figures who surround him. But Kiarostami traffics in ambiguity. He’s interested in the interplay between intention and chaos; even in seemingly controlled shots such as these, unpredictability factors.
Before I come back to Close-Up, I’m going to describe a scene from Like Someone in Love, which Kiarostami made 22 years later. That movie opens in a crowded yet intimate bar in Tokyo, with someone talking to a lover on the phone. But it’s unclear for quite a while what type of bar it is and even who’s talking; as people move around, the camera stays in place. Finally the audience finds out who’s speaking, who she’s speaking to, and why she’s at the bar, but for those first several minutes the scene is ambiguity made manifest. And that’s not even to mention 2010’s Certified Copy, which doubles down on ambiguity throughout the entire film [and is, for that reason, my personal favorite of the director’s output].
Anyway, my point is there’s something ambiguous about this stupid can. In a movie that plays with notions of truth, it’s seemingly trapped in the fact of its inanimate existence, and yet it’s not. We don’t know where it came from; we don’t know where it might end up next; we don’t know why it’s in the frame in the first place. Ultimately, it points to the extent to which we delude ourselves with the notion of control. Kiarostami as director can’t control exactly where the can will go or who will do what with it, just as his subject can’t seem to control his urge to impersonate someone else, just as his subjects couldn’t control him coming into their lives, just as a courtroom that invites a film crew inside automatically, to some degree, relinquishes control over a legal trial. In that way, Close-Up constantly cycles between objective truth and falsity under force, rolling along on the power of the ambiguity that exists between the two.