First published (in 2003) by Movie Gazette – and my first dip into the oeuvre of the late Abbas Kiarostami…
When MTV arrived in the 1980s, it heralded a whole new way of presenting images. The station’s in-house style – a hyperactive succession of chopped up visual stimuli designed to bludgeon into submission even the most erratic of attention spans – turned a generation of young television viewers into sensation-seeking speedfreaks, and Hollywood, vying for the attention of the same market, was quick to follow MTV’s lead. So began a new era where advertisers and music video artists became feature directors, where all visual events were atomised by jarringly rapid, multi-angle editing, and where the short take became (and, at least in Hollywood, remains) king.
There have however been recent attempts to restore the long take to its throne. Béla Tarr’s The Werckmeister Harmonies (2000) and Gus Van Sant’s Elephant (2003) are built from prolonged sequences filmed as elaborate single takes – while, thanks to advances in digital video, it is now possible for films like Mike Figgis’ Timecode (2000) and Alexander Sokurov’s Russian Ark (2003) to be shot in one uninterrupted take of feature length. Of course, while all accessible enough, none of these is exactly in the mainstream and now Five (aka Five Dedicated to Ozu), the latest film by admired Iranian auteur Abbas Kiarostami (himself no stranger to minimalist editing), pushes arthouse provocation, not to mention the viewer’s patience, to new limits.
There is no dialogue, no characters, nothing like a conventional narrative – just five long sequences (hence the title) in which time is seen passing at various littoral locations. In the first, the camera follows a piece of driftwood, and then a small fragment that breaks off it, as they are rolled by incoming waves. In the second, people (and pidgeons) walk by along a promenade as waves roll in the background. In the third, a pack of dogs on a beach watches the sea in the increasingly blinding light of the sun. In the fourth, a veritable shooting gallery of ducks walks on the sand now this way and now that past a fixed camera. In the fifth (and longest), the moon, reflected in rippling water, disappears and reappears behind clouds, as first a thunderstorm breaks, and then more gradually dawn.
Five is the cinematic equivalent of ambient music – but unlike those videos of blazing fireplaces or fish-filled tanks that briefly enjoyed popularity in the early Nineties as moving wallpaper for the home, Kiarostami’s film is brimful of art, albeit art of the kind that conceals itself. The loose boundary between truth and fiction which preoccupies so many of the director’s earlier films (Close-Up, Through the Olive Trees, Where is the Friend’s House?, And Life Goes On…, Ten) is equally, if differently, present in Five, where lengthy snapshots of nature that seem to have been taken with no directorial intervention are in fact the product of careful contrivance. Kiarostami has for example admitted that it was only the off-camera offer of food which coaxed the ducks into their comic march (raising the possibility that the motions of the driftwood off-camera, and the pacings of the promenaders, might be similarly manipulated). The final moonlit sequence, far from being the single long take that it appears to be, was seamlessly cut together from about twenty takes filmed over several months, with all the sounds (frogs, dogs, rain, roosters) mixed in later to create an impression of continuity – so that the film’s subtitle Five Long Takes is itself strictly a fiction. Such artifice is only underscored by the choice to illuminate this entire sequence with the moon’s borrowed (and clouded) light reflected in the water’s shifting ripples (and of course projected onto a screen) – so compelling an emblem of the suspension of certainty that at times it quite literally leaves the viewer in total darkness.
© Anton Bitel