He was sensitive to light. A condition that required Abbas Kiarostami to wear his signature tinted glasses, which gave the impression he was always at the movies — in the dark, both storyteller and audience, watching life as if it were being projected inside his lenses.
He was sensitive to light, too, in his work. Those searching, pared down, coaxed-by-the-car conversations, and those patient reveals — if you can even call them that — are at the heart of Kiarostami’s most moving works. He was sensitive to light not as it improves on or clarifies truth, but how without it, there are no shadows: the unseen, what’s off-screen, what’s usually overlooked or what barely happens. Those revelations that can only occur when we’re no longer seeking what’s distinct but instead feel extra prone to life as it’s wonderfully, uneventfully, happening.
“I prefer the films that put their audience to sleep in the theater,” he once said. “Some films have made me doze off…but the same films have made me stay up at night, wake up thinking about them in the morning, and keep on thinking about them for weeks.”
He was sensitive to light itself. Like the vague mountain peaks that come into relief as the sun rises in “The Birth of Light,” a color short he made in 1997 to commemorate the centennial of the Lumière brothers’ first motion pictures. In less than five minutes, the world wakes up. The screen’s blackness is merely the day lying in wait and before you know it, the sky is tiered in various shades of yellow and blue, and that non-color one might only describe as “glow” or “glory.” Isn’t it remarkable to be quieted by something as routine as the sun rising? That was Kiarostami’s — not gift — but eloquence. How the prosaic, when given time to breathe instead of rushed into action — like chatter between two characters, for instance — can disclose life’s most electric pursuit: connection.
“My films have been progressing towards a certain kind of minimalism, even though it was never intended,” he told BFI programmer Geoff Andrew in 2005, in an interview that was later transcribed in the Guardian. “Elements which can be eliminated have been eliminated. This was pointed out to me by somebody who referred to the paintings of Rembrandt and his use of light: some elements are highlighted while others are obscured or even pushed back into the dark. And it’s something that we do — we bring out elements that we want to emphasize. I’m not claiming or denying that I have done such a thing but I do believe in [Robert] Bresson’s method of creation through omission, not through addition.”
In 2012 I was lucky enough to interview Kiarostami during the New York Film Festival. His Tokyo-set film, Like Someone in Love, was screening. Similar to its title, the film is unpronounced, barely beginning and only somewhat ending, but still beautifully portraying how the awkwardness between two lonely people a generation apart, is, maybe, a love story in and of itself.
One scene in particular, of the young lead, Akiko, is almost too painful to watch more than once, though I have now seen the film three times. It’s night and Akiko is sitting in the back of a cab, having just listened to seven voicemails from her grandmother. Her grandmother’s been waiting for Akiko at the train station all day and is now standing outside by a statue, hoping to meet her granddaughter before journeying back to her village. Akiko’s grandmother isn’t angry or even sad. She’s hopeful, stoic.
During my most recent viewing of this scene, I half-covered my eyes. There is nothing sadder than a grandparent’s voicemail — how trapped and lost it sounds. How voicemails make a fool of old, tired speech. As the cab’s blinker signals — blink, blink, blink — and as the car loops past on the roundabout, not once, but twice, and as we see the grandmother waiting, eagerly looking around for her granddaughter, my heart crinkled. It broke. Kiarostami’s films unselfishly encourage the audience to turn inwards. He has no interest in holding us captive, instead encouraging us to perceive, with greater understanding, our own lives. He gently nudges us to interrogate them. I wish I had asked him about that scene during our interview, but something tells me I wouldn’t have known, then, what to ask. That it’s taken me four years to revisit that scene and be moved by it, once again, is quintessential Kiarostami. His works encourage gradual, postponed appreciation. Aha’s with a lag.
A couple days after Kiarostami’s passing, I was reading Andrew Robinson’s Satyajit Ray biography, The Inner Eye. Two things struck me. The first were illustrations included in the book that Ray drew of other film directors. A thin pencil drawing of Sergei Eisenstein, detailing his big, bowed forehead. Kurosawa’s slight cleft chin; his shades and short-brim hat. For whatever reason, I imagined Kiarostami, had Satyajit Ray drawn him too. I imagined Ray’s rendering of those signature tinted glasses, of Kiarostami’s long, handsome face. His smile. The warmth he seemed to radiate, and the warmth he extended to me during our interview, easygoing and kind with my questions that were, unprofessionally, for the most part, praise. He was a teacher after all, and seemed interested in my hesitations. He encouraged me to make a movie one day. He suggested my questions indicated that I wanted to. He was right.
The second thing that struck me when reading Robinson’s book was a chapter that I both dread and relish: the one in every biography that details an artist’s unrealized projects. In Robinson’s book, it’s Chapter 27: “Unmade Films.” How overwhelming it is to read what a master had planned to accomplish but couldn’t in time. How exciting to know there was more. How sad. How strange to read about something that doesn’t exist — to stare at a building’s foundation and imagine windows, a roof, a family inside. How intrusive. How perhaps unfair it is, to Ray, for instance, that we’re privy to work he wasn’t yet ready to share. Or are we lucky to have someone document what could have been? To remind us that greatness doesn’t rest but reinvents and that sometimes projects take decades, and despite zero promise of completion, what’s the point in stopping? In stopping short? In deciding, this will be the last one. I keep thinking about all the Kiarostami we won’t get to see. All the Unmade Films. But then I re-watch Close-Up. Even just its last scene. Over and over. Or Taste of Cherry or Certified Copy. And then I realize, his films continue and become something else. And he continues, so long as I the audience, continues to watch them as I become someone else.