Geoff Andrew,
London: BFI Publishing, 2005.
ISBN: 1 844 57069 X
£9.99 (pb)
(Review copy supplied by BFI publications)

Few films seem as wholeheartedly concerned with “America”, in the sense of ruminating on the singular character of the American condition, psyche, and way of life, as Martin Scorsese’s Taxi driver (US 1976). What that film depicts, more than anything else, is the paralysis of a man who is nevertheless constantly on the move, whose restless and aimless driving anywhere, anytime, unconsciously seeks somewhere that genuine movement, a genuine motive, genuine emotion, would be possible, in a world where everybody else is constantly and mindlessly, individually yet according to a herd instinct, on the move and, indeed, on the prowl, both sheep and wolf – and it depicts the consequences of that paralysis in the form of an explosive passage to the act of homicidal violence. The power of its vision has led to a number of indirect remakes, first of all by its writer Paul Schrader, who has never ceased remaking it. But what is interesting is that these remakes have not been only American: there is, for instance, Josue Mendez’s Peruvian variation, Días de Santiago (2004), as well as Jafar Panahi’s Iranian Crimson gold (2003).

The parallels between Crimson gold and Taxi driver are remarkable, not least because, at a distance of 27 years and seemingly an entire world away culturally, the very same thematic description applies, as though in that time the American way of life and American psychosocial pathologies have traversed the globe, even unto its mutually avowed “enemies.” With a few differences, which are no doubt significant, the worlds presented in these films – New York in 1976, Tehran in 2003 (in both cases presented as the post-war environment of an ex-soldier protagonist) – suffer from the same forms of misery and madness, desublimated urban throngs depicted from the perspective of somebody incapable of accepting the constant invitations (as Stanley Cavell calls passionate utterances) to participation in the disorders of desire. [1]  Inexpressiveness and insignificance amounting to non-existence have as their end result an act of self-destruction.

Consideration of these parallels in turn casts light on 10 (2002), directed by the writer of Crimson gold. With this film Abbas Kiarostami has created anything but a straightforward remake of Taxi driver, as we shall see, but the worlds of these films, worlds in both cases presented from the perspective of a constantly moving vehicle and its perpetual occupant, are, again, perhaps not entirely unrelated. This possibility is notable because, as Geoff Andrew observes in his admirable meditation on the film, Iranian filmmakers and filmgoers have had very little experience of Hollywood cinema since the 1979 revolution (15). This alone makes Iran a fascinating cultural exception and experiment. And while this fact has been used to argue that Iranian cinema has retained a better memory for the techniques and approaches of European cinema of the 1960s than has the forgetful West – which, since Jaws (US 1975), has largely succumbed to the Spielbergian logic of the blockbuster – it also suggests the possibility that Taxi driver, which also preceded this revolution, and which is itself a film influenced by European cinematic techniques, may have persisted in the memory of Iranian filmmakers more lastingly than it has “at home” (although I have no knowledge of whether Taxi driver ever even played in pre-revolutionary Iranian cinema houses).

Kiarostami’s movies resist critical analysis, not because they are opaque or obscure, but on the contrary because their infinite subtlety is so expressive that translating this into a “review” seems inevitably to entail a net loss of meaning compared with what any intelligent and attentive viewer gains from simply watching them. Andrew thus wisely devotes more than half of his short book to topics other than the film itself, placing 10 into context in relation to Iranian society, Iranian cinema, Kiarostami’s prior oeuvre (including his poetry and still photography), the technological context signified by the decision to employ digital video, and the future context, the “zigzagging path” (80) continued by Kiarostami in the aftermath of 10 (he does not draw out any relation toTaxi driver, even though he notes that, if 10 is a road movie, it is urban rather than cross-country, circular rather than linear [61]). In this sense the book tends to spiral around the film rather than attempt to penetrate to its heart, a method which is not only successful but which suggests that Andrew may himself have learned a lesson or two from Kiarostami (and which makes the book a worthwhile supplement to the very context described by the author).

The most important and obvious difference between Taxi driver (and Crimson gold) and 10 is that the latter’s protagonist is neither an ex-soldier nor a man, but a reasonably affluent, educated, artistic, and middle-class woman. What is more, rather than suffering from being incommunicative, withdrawn, and incapable of expressing her desire, she is, if anything, somebody who talks too much (from her son’s perspective, at least), who insists on having her say and expressing her view, even when she knows it will cause her difficulties.

This might suggest that 10 is anything but a variation on the theme of Taxi driver (a film in which women are essentially seen through the very subjective eyes of the main character), and is instead Kiarostami’s attempt at redressing the fact that women have never played the main role in his films, films coming out of a society where to ignore the suffering of women would be a failure of political responsibility (in this context Andrew speaks of10 as having “made up for lost time” [47]). And there is indeed no doubt that 10 is about the imbalances, contradictions, and injustice of sexual relations in Iran, as well as the complexity of those relations, and that the central device of the film – a driver and her passengers – is a means of presenting these relations from a variety of perspectives. But this does not amount to a political statement about the treatment of women in Iran, any more than Taxi driver amounted to a political statement about the place of Vietnam veterans in American society.

Where Taxi driver can illuminate 10, despite and because of the differences, is in the fact that both films are about movement, motive, emotion, and about the consequences of simultaneously offering and withdrawing invitations to these. In spite of the differences between the protagonists, both suffer from blocked paths. What preoccupies Mania in 10, what she wants constantly to express, is injustice, whether it is the injustice of her son’s accusations, the injustice of Iranian divorce laws, or the injustice which is the end result of female emotional dependence.

Mania evinces her own restlessness, her own inability to find the next step on the path of her desire. But while it is not possible to doubt the legitimacy of her feelings, the audience cannot help but ask itself whether her preoccupations come at the expense of her feeling for others. It is not so much a question of whether or not she can see her son’s side in their struggle, or whether or not she perceives the misery of her friend whose husband has just left her. Rather, what the audience is drawn to ask is whether her response to the fact that she doesperceive the feelings of those around her lacks technique or timing, whether her impatience and frustration, that is, her sense of injustice, impairs her mode of living, whether the preoccupation with justice inhibits the expression of her concern for others.

How the audience understands the answer to this question will govern their response to the movie. At the end of the film her son does not seem to have appreciably altered his attitude toward his mother – if anything, the positions they occupy with respect to one another are frozen even more solidly in place. Our feeling about this conclusion will depend on whether we understand Mania as resigning herself to an impossible situation, or as beginning a process of letting go of a struggle in which there can be no winner, in order to open the possibility of a movement yet to come. For Andrew it is clearly the latter:

Kiarostami’s cinema of problems, obstacles, challenges and questions never offers facile solutions; 10 doesn’t end with the world changing or Mania finding her situation improved. But it does send her on a journey to “see what it’s like,” and she’s determined to be herself insofar as life allows. She’s no more able to rid herself of oppression against women than she can remove death from the question of life, but she can at least try to achieve some control, by loving herself rather than remaining, like her friend, complicit in her own suffering. (69)

Mania, stifled though she may be, does not succumb to paralysis. And, if she lessens her resistance, this does not equate to resignation but, rather, to the recognition that if a future is possible, it must be invented. As a cinema of suggestive possibility, rather than of fatal impossibility, 10 would be something like an anti-Taxi driver (which would not make 10 a critique of the latter).

But the possibility of 10, the possibility that this film could be made, however “repressive” the regime from which it emerges, may then lie in the differences between the Iranian and the American “ways of life.” Indeed, all of Kiarostami’s movies seem to Western eyes to present a society in which people speak to each other with peculiar directness, unafraid to interrogate one another about their feelings and their motives, where even metaphor and allegory are used in a way that penetrates the heart in a way scarcely present in the West, where a more refined sensitivity toward the emotional states of others seems normal, even though we also perceive a peculiar reticence, even though most dialogue is spoken in what seems an emotionally muted fashion (compared, perhaps, to the soap operas on which actual life is modelled elsewhere), even though situations that seem harsh or unjust are being played out. The mystery of these films for us lies in understanding how all this can be true at once. And all of this is complicated by our uncertainty about the degree to which these are characteristics of Iranian society, and the degree to which they are simply the characteristics of Kiarostami’s Iranian cinema. Compared with characters in Hollywood cinema, whether mainstream or “arthouse,” the characters in Kiarostami films seem to have an overdeveloped sense of modesty or shame, and an underdeveloped sense of justice. 10 is thus an exceptional Kiarostami film, not only because it has a female protagonist, but because this balance between modesty and justice is drawn slightly more in Western terms, yet what results is anything but conventionally Western.

Perhaps, then, we should rather say that Iran seems to be a society in which the tendencies toward shame and modesty (that is, toward a feeling for others: the connection between these and communal feeling being something progressively forgotten by the West; perhaps our political task is to invent new and non-repressive forms of shame) are engaged in a struggle with the counter-tendencies that come with Westernisation, modernisation, and urbanisation. 10, then, is a key example of this cinema of struggling tendencies, a cinema engaged in the act of thinking the relation between gridlock and movement. The extraordinary appeal of Kiarostami to Western cinemagoers, explored and appreciated by Geoff Andrew, who nevertheless correctly resists the temptation to reduce this appeal to anything like a clash of civilisations, lies not only in its portrayal of techniques of human relations all too rapidly being lost and forgotten by Western society, but in the invitation it extends: to begin those conversations in the absence of which all human societies are today headed for a dead end.

Daniel Ross

[1] Stanley Cavell, Philosophy the day after tomorrow (Cambridge, Massachusetts, & London, England: Harvard University Press, 2005), ch. 7; cf., Daniel Ross, “Review of Cavell, Philosophy the day after tomorrow,”Screening the Past 19 (2006).

About the Author

Daniel Ross

About the Authors

Daniel Ross

Daniel Ross completed his doctorate on Heidegger and the political at Monash University. He is the author of Violent Democracy and co-director of The Ister (2004).View all posts by Daniel Ross →