The Spirit Of Warhol And Ozu In Kiarostam’s Moonlight
By: Parviz Jahed
The Moonlight is the fifth episode of Kiarostami’s Five (2003), an experimental film dedicated to Yazujiro Ozu. Comprised of five long-take shots filmed around the coast of the Caspian Sea, they are uninterrupted naturalistic footage ranging from bobbing driftwood, to frogs under the titular moonlight. This last one, according to Kiarostami, took a period of five months to shoot.
This film doesn't attempt to fulfil audience expectations and challenges our understanding of cinema and its capacity for expression, especially with regards to the cinematic output of Iran.
Here I would like to discuss the Moonlight (Mahtab) as an example of Kiarostami’s experimental and minimalist approach towards cinema. As suggested by David Bordwell, Five could as easily have been called “Five dedicated to Warhol”.
Although Kiarostami claimed that he was inspired by Ozu and his lengthy and distant shots, his abstract and minimalist approach toward cinema in the Moonlight, is very reminiscent to the spirit of Andy Warhol’s experimental and underground movement of the late 60s. According to Kiarostami, Ozu’s “long shots are everlasting and respectful of the interactions between people and this is the respect that I believe Ozu felt for his audience.”
It was Warhol who believed the camera should be on a subject 24 hours a day, because something may happen whenever you switch off the camera. Currently his gravesite is covered by a live video feed. The same approach is utilized by Kiarostami as he fixed his camera on the pond in the Moonlight. In Warhol’s Empire (1964) we are presented with a totally white screen and as the sun sets, the image of the Empire State Building emerges. Moonlight similarly begins with a black screen that is revealed to be the surface of a pond at night and the moon's reflection gradually appears within it.
By simply capturing the light, sound and passage of time, Kiarostami makes use of the natural occurrence of audio-visual elements to form a style of beauty and narrative that is completely different to what we are used to. He claims his intention is to omit the director’s role in the process of filmmaking, but is it really possible to expunge the director from the filmmaking process?
Kiarostami attempts to challenge the auteur theory and the authorial role of the director in cinema. By emphasizing on the role of spectators and their engagement with the film, Kiarostami suggests a democratic form of cinema which is relied on the perception of audience.
He has effectively reduced the role of the director in the classical sense of the word, by minimizing his and the crew’s interactions upon the film’s subject. This does not suffice however in completely omitting the conscious input of the director.
The camera is fixed on the surface of the pond under a dark and cloudy night. Everything is inert except for the reflection of moonlight on the water, which continuously appears and disappears. This long and fix shot (about 25 minutes) has a compound sound bandwidth of the nature around the pond, such as the frogs croaking and dogs barking in the distance and the sound of thunder and rainfall. This static framing and long take, in the absence of any conventional action, compel the viewer to concentrate on the visual aspects of the image and absorb the abstraction imposed on the environment.
The Moonlight is a recite of love and fancy between the frogs and the moon. When the moonlight appears the croak of the frogs wanes away gradually and when the moonlight disappears the frogs are restless and their croaking goes to its climax. This occurs multiple times during the shot and when the screen displays complete darkness in between, the audience’s eyes are still trying to explore the screen.
The urge to listen and watch is sustained by the continuous nature of the scene. The game between the moon; the clouds; the orchestral hymning of the frogs is the narration. At the end, the sound of the rooster at dawn and a long fade in, the dark and semi rainy night concludes into a bright and beautiful morning.
By adopting a minimalistic approach and using a digital camera, Kiarostami tries to liberate cinema from boundaries imposed by the industry, and the criterion brought on by the involvement of producers and investors.
In this film he questions the need for all the principles and accepted norms of the filmmaking process. Such a tendency challenges a definite and precise description that we can associate with cinema. But Kiarostami is among the filmmakers who are always in search of exploring and expanding upon the visual possibilities and expressive capabilities of cinema. In this instance he has allowed the audience to deduce what they want from the scenes and fill in the gaps of the narrative and has therefore removed the “push” of the director in the interpretation of his own film.
As a result of this, the technological advancements in filmmaking are very important to him. The relation between technology and the method of filmmaking has always been a matter of discussion in experimental cinema around the world. Cinema and its proponents are empowered by the technology. Kiarostami was able to apply the practical capabilities of the digital camera to highlight a choice moment from the continuous, cyclic routine of life and nature around us which we would normally disregard.
This type of cinema involves the audience’s active participation in a similar manner to complex literature. As such, watching and listening to the film is just a part of constructing and defining the film. The typical film audience have developed the habit of watching a film in a more passive way, looking out for recognizable narrative techniques and the clichés found in commercial and classic narrative cinema. Understanding the essential significance of this can be extremely difficult for such an audience who are watching this with ingrained expectations of what a film is supposed to be.
Kiarostami once quoted Jean Claude Carriѐre, the French screenwriter who had worked with controversial filmmakers such as Godard and Bunuel: “an ordinary audience cannot bear the non-narrative films more than 10 minutes and will leave the cinema for sure.”
I saw this proven to be true as many left the London venue where Moonlight was being shown. But those who stayed were able to partake in this intricate and individual cinematic experience.
This article was first published in Fireflies magazine, issue.2 on Bela Tarr and Abbas Kiarostami.