Salute Your Shorts: "Close-Up Long Shot"

Movies Features Abbas Kiarostami
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Salute Your Shorts is a weekly column that looks at short films, music videos, commercials or any other short form visual media that generally gets ignored.

Occasionally a film can be so changed by other works that it can’t be viewed without their context. Most frequently this occurs, for pretty obvious reasons, with sequels and movie series—not much needs to be said here about that. But that’s not the only way this can occur, and for this reason it’s impossible to see Werner Herzog’s Fitzcarraldo in the same way after seeing Burden of Dreams. The two films end up overlapping and creating a different picture of the entire affair entirely, mixing together into a more complex work altogether. A similar case occurs with Mamhoud Chokrollahi and Moslem Mansouri’s “Close-Up, Long Shot,” a follow-up to Abbas Kiarostami’s well-known Close-Up that both radically changes its predecessor and continues with its central project.

For the uninitiated, Close-Up was Kiarostami’s international breakthrough film which focuses on Hossain Sabzian, who in 1989 pretended to be the famous director Mohsen Makhmalbaf to a small family and was then brought up on fraud counts due to his crime. (Fun fact: On IMDb, Sabzian is credited in Close-Up for the roles Himself/Makhmalbaf, perhaps the best casting credit ever offered.) Kiarostami heard about the man and made a non-documentary but extremely factual film about the entire affair, using all of the event’s actual participants as the film’s cast and featuring several arguably-documentary events without any indications about what was real and what wasn’t. The film remains completely unique and is a masterpiece of reconsidering what makes up truth in cinema, a mixture of Errol Morris and Roberto Rossellini that struck a loud enough chord with audiences and critics to signal Iran as a major force for international cinema during the next 15 years.

But there’s a second layer to the movie entirely, that despite its basis in reality it’s still a work of fiction, though how much exactly is made up is hard to say. Close-Up ends with Sabzian making amends with the Ahankhah family he wronged after an epiphanic journey with none other than his idol Makhmalbaf himself. After the medium of film has led Sabzian to a form of insanity, it’s also quite literally delivering him from this and he’s turning a new leaf. In stark contrast to the confusion that’s come prior, this part of the movie is told in a straightforward fashion with signals (incorrect ones) that unlike some of what came beforehand, what’s shown here is unequivocally non-fiction. Parts of the film were fabricated, but the happy ending is real.

Unfortunately, that’s not the case. Beyond Close-Up’s ending Sabzian’s real life interactions with cinema continued and just like before the trial, they’re disturbing and cross over the line into psychotic. “Close-Up, Long Shot” picks up with Sabzian six years after the feature’s release, and suffice to say that its star is not doing well. If Close-Up is in at least some respect a story of fall and redemption, “Close-Up, Long Shot” implies that this is a lie and it was just a fall. Not only that, but it was Close-Up that in fact contributed to Sabzian’s psychosis and has kept him from growing.

Close-Up, Long Shot” begins with a reevaluation of Close-Up’s artifice as seen by Sabzian’s friends and family. Not only do they question fundamental assumptions made about the man’s past, they also point out how even a great deal of the film’s trial was scripted, including Sabzian’s moving monolgues in his own defense. There’s certainly a level of truth in what we were presented, but there’s the implication that what Kiarostami was showing us to be fictional was a form of misdirection for what the director was really making up. Close-Up has a fundamental assumption that the director is attempting to show a non-manipulated factual situation after it happened, much like Errol MorrisThin Blue Line but with a different cinematic apparatus. Whether this is actually the case is left up to the viewer, but saying that how he manipulated things is problematic would be an understatement.

Much more disturbing than the ethics of Kiarostami’s methods, though, are the effects that the film had upon Sabzian, who if anything has fallen deeper into his lifelong obsession. By giving him a brief chance of entering film, Close-Up has given its star a taste for his drug of choice. We’re shown where he works and what his home looks like, where Sabzian is framed with two of the only books he owns: the Qur’ran and a book on shooting Super 8 film. As Sabzian tells his life story, it’s clear that his fantasies of entering film have destroyed not just his childhood, they continued to wreck his family, his career and every other facet of his life. Sabzian places much of the blame for how others now see him on the film, but at the same time he’s unable to escape the love he holds for a movie finally telling his story. As odd as this may sound, “Close-Up, Long Shot” refigures Sabzian from being a sort of Dosteovskyian tragic hero into something closer to Gollum from The Lord of the Rings.

An oddity of the short, though, is that while it does implicate Kiarostami in some unethical filmmaking, it doesn’t detract from Close-Up. While it shows off some of the gears that were turning in the director’s head and removes a bit of its mystery, it also adds a great deal more pathos to Sabzian and his plight. While it’s clear that Sabzian’s in need of psychiatric help, not a film being made about him, the way this obsession has affected him makes the film’s thematic emphasis on the power of celebrity and cinema deeper. The story of Close-Up and its construction are particularly inseparable and ultimately “Close-Up, Long Shot” tells us a lot more about what that construction really was.

Close-Up, Long Shot” is an important enough extra that after seeing it on Criterion’s release of Close-Up it’s impossible to imagine the film without it. Close-Up on its own is a difficult enough movie to make true sense of with its post-modern layers of construction, but with the accompanying short it’s obvious that even our judgments about that movie and its characters are suspect. After seeing the short, Kiarostami purportedly had trouble sleeping for three days thinking about what he’d done to Sabzian, but in 2006 he still attempted to make another movie with the man shortly before Sabzian died, which Sabzian was happy about even with all of the issues he had about the first film. It’s that type of ethical conundrum that makes the entire movie so interesting: Sabzian himself is clearly aware that impersonating Makhmalbaf, or making Close-Up, is a bad choice but he just can’t help himself. In both cases it’s a story of Sabzian’s tragically one-sided love, and who are we to judge the choices he made for it?

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