#45, Taste of Cherry. Dir., Abbas Kiarostami

“Change your outlook …” . This prescription is given to Badii by the Azeri taxidermist. Of the three passengers Badii picks up to solicit help in his plan for suicide, the taxidermist is the most vocal in his disagreement of Badii’s intentions. In sharp contrast to the young soldier, whose nervousness from Badii’s appeals made him tight-lipped and skittish, the taxidermist, an older, more reflective character, offers example after example of why life is worth living. But the taxidermist is also the one who agrees to go to the hillside with the hole under the tree and check to see if Badii is alive or dead. He also gets one additional chance to cancel his promise, because Badii returns to the taxidermist’s workplace to make a revision to the plan: the taxidermist is to throw stones and shake Badii, just in case he is not dead but asleep.

Contained in this partial summary of Taste of Cherry is the frustration you will feel watching this film. Badii’s reasons for suicide are never given, and the behavior of a life-affirming character like the taxidermist compounds the mystery of what is going on. Over an hour into the film, the viewer is not surprised that Badii does not change his mind to execute the plan to go to the place where he will decide his fate, but the taxidermist has just met Badii. What does the taxidermist see in Badii? Does he think it is necessary for Badii to go as close as he can to attempting suicide?

When I say Taste of Cherry is frustrating to watch, I sincerely mean “frustrating”, yet I am using the word for the purpose of recognizing Kiarostami’s genius. In other words, Roger Ebert’s infamous review of Taste of Cherry is right, but for the wrong reasons. When Ebert grew impatient with what Kiarostami withholds from the viewer–character background and the causes of suicidal ideation–he was right to want more from the film; but he was surprisingly reluctant to think through his feelings of frustration, to find the connection between the aesthetics of Taste of Cherry and this angry desire to know if the life of Badii is worth living or not.

Taste of Cherry puts the audience in a state that is intimately familiar to those who have experienced suicidal thoughts (which I have). In order to continue to live, you have to change your outlook (to put it very mildly), but the whole process of affirming life cannot function like the balance sheet of an accountant. There is no utilitarian sum or product to indicate the exact point when you have accumulated enough reasons to live. Is the taste of mulberries enough of a reason? Mulberries and cherries?

Then comes the controversial ending of Taste of Cherry. With one more parry, Kiarostami has you stumbling from your interest to know what will happen to Badii lying in the hole under the tree. Badii enters the hole at night and in a slow zoom towards the hole’s pitch-black opening, we anticipate we will see what comes after. CUT TO: camcorder footage of the same hill in daytime, which suddenly looks greener than how it was filmed hitherto. This footage is documentary-like. It takes place on the central hillside of the film, but we watch Kiarostami talking with the actor who plays Badii. We are on the film’s set and not in the story itself.

I am repeatedly shocked by this ending. I now know that it is coming, but my brain can never time the cut to the camcorder sequence–much like how Geoff Dyer speaks about the transition from monochrome to color in Tarkovksy’s Stalker. Producing one more bout of shock in this film is incredible because it reminds you that you can’t help it: even after three open-ended conversations about Badii’s desire to die, you are searching for a logical cause-effect substratum. The taxidermist gave lots of reasons to live, and you desperately want to know if they were effective in reversing Badii’s plan. Incredible.

#34, Andrei Rublev. Dir, Andrei Tarkovsky

Andrei Rublev is a beautiful study of an artist’s relationship with his/her social circumstances. With patient camera movement and long takes, Tarkovsky presents Rublev, the 15th-century Russian icon painter, as someone who is internally split between a desire to paint in ignorance of social turmoil and a curiosity to get as close as he can to feudal power, non-Christian beliefs, or the lives of the Russian peasantry.

There is no shortage of memorable scenes in Tarkovsky’s body of work, but the scene of the pagan feast in Andrei Rublev might be one his most masterful feats. In the beginning of this scene Rublev is in his curious mode. He is gravitating, almost floating, towards the bacchanal of naked men and women shouting, dancing and running between trees. For part of the scene it is easy to believe that none of the pagans see Rublev or care about his presence. When his trespass is finally noticed, the viewer snaps out of the dream at the same time as Rublev.

My most recent viewing of Andrei Rublev coincided with my reading of Arthur Koestler’s The Sleepwalkers: A History of Man’s Changing Vision of the Universe. As the latter looks at the scientific ideas of Johannes Kepler and Galileo, the book finds in the history of astronomy points when religion and science were complimentary to creativity and when they were in conflict. Religion and art are the two tectonic plates of Andrei Rublev; Rublev is the historical needle that is sensitive to their shifts and collisions.

Long films are scrutinized before they are watched. The prospective moviegoer wants to know if the long runtime is “worth” it, whatever that means. A typical Tarkovsky film is slow and long, and the unsympathetic audience hates the style that makes one of his films beautifully contemplative, often dream-like. Andrei Rublev is structured in eight parts and book-ended with a prologue and an epilogue. The film’s pay-off is that Tarkovsky is able use a long runtime to show the extent to which Rublev’s suffering is cumulative. The accumulation of suffering is revealed in the eighth part, when Rublev is a marginal observer of a young bell-maker tirelessly working to cast a bronze bell for a church. Everything Rublev has seen and done–including the killing of a soldier who attempted to rape Durochka–surfaces in his sympathy for the young bell-maker, who ends his successful bell casting alone in a field sobbing, thinking that he failed because he never knew his father’s secret to casting.

#1, Seven Samurai. Dir., Akira Kurosawa

Seven Samurai was not the first criterion in my collection, but it probably should have been. When I first watched this film–a loan from my library–I started to see my ignorance of cinema history clearly, without bias or defensiveness. If it had taken me this long to see Seven Samurai, there must be so many other films I was slow to discover.

A dear friend gifted me the criterion edition of the film. I watched the copy almost immediately, but then Seven Samurai remained on my bookshelf for years. If I had to guess why it took me so long to re-watch the film, I would say the simplicity of its plot is able to trick the person who has forgotten the details. Simplicity is not a bad thing, but when you forget particular images and only remember the story of samurai defending peasants against bandits, the reasons to return to Seven Samurai are hidden from your mind.

Being a samurai is hard work

The samurai film is forever linked with the western. Seven Samurai shows us that the American genre might not be able to translate everything. The easy part is substituting seven samurai with seven gunslingers; the harder part is compensating for the loss of Kurosawa’s curiosity about the physicality of being a samurai. They swing swords as cowboys draw pistols, but Kurosawa emphasizes how much a samurai needs to work, run, climb, build, run and run even more. Seiji Miyaguchi’s character, Kyūzō, is seemingly indefatigable, which is visually contrasted by the stillness of his face.

John Ford’s Stagecoach demonstrates that in the universe of the western, the cowboy is limited in physicality because he is the center that action revolves around. Even as the stagecoach barrels across the plains, the target of the camera is a crouching John Wayne; it is his attackers, indigenous warriors on horseback, that come in and out of frame by the acceleration of their horses. Parts of Seven Samurai show us what happens when bodies move in a universe with no fixity. Even with repeated shots of Kambei Shimada (played by Takashi Shimura) strategizing with a map of the village, the audience cannot assemble shots of huts, rivers and pathways into something logical. The samurai organize the space for themselves, but with a lot of hard work. In fact, Kurosawa gives a lot of the film’s running time to show us all of the human energy behind the plan to have bandits attack from just one direction.

Laughter in melodrama

Plenty of comedies are funny because nobody in the film laugh. It is good that nobody laughs because we need flawed characters to accept the ridiculous premises of a situation with absolute seriousness. This is Spinal Tap, for example, is funny because you are watching an unbelievably bad band dedicate itself to producing great rock ‘n roll. No member of band can see that it is their fate to always fail in embarrassing ways.

Parts of Seven Samurai are humorous and I would even guess some viewers would audibly chuckle at some of its bits. Interestingly, people in the world of Seven Samurai frequently laugh, particularly at the oddball behavior of Kikuchiyo, the ronin jester. This decision of Kurosawa–to let characters laugh when failure, trickery or buffoonery would be funny in the film’s internal world–is important to have the film carry emotional force. The decision works because it balances the darker sides of the melodrama.

I do not know if there is a definite point where Kurosawa’s use of humor would have gone too far and become cheap comic relief; but there might be a way to intuitively know Kurosawa achieved something masterful. Melodrama in film is a tricky balancing act, where so many little things can cheapen or kill the rousing of emotional feeling. Kurosawa shows that moments of sorrow or despair can actually be amplified when characters prefer the emotional states of joy and laughter to anger and sadness. The other samurai laugh at Kikuchiyo because they need an antidote to the cold structure of feudalism. In fact, laughter is a democratic wrecking-ball that breaks the social barriers between samurai and peasant.

This is not our victory

Kurosawa puts an exclamation point on his story by giving the cruelty of medieval Japan the last word in Seven Samurai. When the remaining samurai can only watch the celebration song of the peasants, the audience shares their feelings of exlcusion. In the last remaining minutes of a 207-minute epic, Kurosawa carefully lets the barriers of feudalism return to their repressive heights. Earlier in the film, villagers were rebuked for shamelessly begging for help at the feet of passing samurai; now, during the finale, nobody can imagine that samurai and peasant are equal.