Seagal’s Exit Wounds; Iran’s The Day I Became a Woman Pulls Off What U.S. Films Can’t

Written by Armond White on . Posted in Arts & Film, Posts.


Explosions,
car wrecks and killings used to be called the "money shots" of action
movies because they guaranteed box office. Now they serve an additional purpose
of yanking sullen, downtrodden masses out of their humiliation and lethargy.
Can’t kill the boss? Sam Jackson will annihilate hundreds of Arabs for
you (Rules of Engagement). Not making enough money? Let James Cameron
waste millions for your vicarious enjoyment (Titanic). Can’t shake
that nervous, Jeffrey Dahmer feeling? Anthony Hopkins will legitimize it in
Hannibal.


Steven
Seagal’s comeback movie, Exit Wounds, is pieced together from several
such displaced social annoyances. Playing a Detroit cop, he starts off saving
the life of a Jerry Brown-like politician whose gun-control speech is answered
by would-be abductors/assassins equipped with bombs and automatic weapons.
The precinct commander that Seagal exasperates explains the incident was the
work of a "Michigan militant group"–meaning, I guess, some upstart
Midwest militia. And when Seagal uncovers a ring of renegade cops, a few images
of police beating down suspects is replaced by an elaborate, covert drug-smuggling
scheme. It lets the action audience displace–and forget–Louima-Diallo
anxiety. (An errant line of dialogue suggests that the movie might originally
have been titled Excessive Force, but Exit Wounds proves a less
controversial, if asinine, alternative.)


With
all this noise, sublimation and repressed anger going on, audiences may not
mind that Exit Wounds is a lousy, low-grade example of its genre. Director
Andrzej Bartkowiak and producer Joel Silver repeat their grungy Romeo Must
Die
setpieces (all by-the-numbers and energetically so only at the end)
but this time they’re careful not to make the mistake of killing off their
youth-audience draw, the rapper DMX. Here DMX (who joins forces against the
drug dealers) lasts throughout the entire film, but he’s so soft-eyed and
low-voiced he doesn’t quite cut an heroic figure. Though the oddly high-domed
DMX is probably a perfect complement to the also high-domed, soft-eyed and low-voiced
Seagal’s laid-back vigilantism, the girls I sat in front of were more eager
to see Seagal reclaim his action hero status. "I love him!" one said.
"Where’s his ponytail?" asked another.


But
no one asked, "Why the inanity?" Hollywood has an unspoken pact with
millions of politically impotent moviegoers. After years of Bruce, Sly, Arnold,
Quentin, Sam and James Cameron’s follies, they’ve been indoctrinated
to accept action movies as either illusory empowerment or distraction from reality.


 


The
Day I Became a Woman
Directed by Marzieh Meshkini


Simplicity
and richness–two qualities absent from most American movies–define
the best Iranian films. An appreciation for the texture of lives lived combines
with a gift for radiating its complexity. American reviewers have justly acclaimed
the contemplative, animistic style of Abbas Kiarostami, but all hopes for popularizing
Iranian cinema rest with Mohsen Makhmalbaf. His naturalistic films permit dreaming–dreams
that reveal, not anesthetize.


The
center section of The Day I Became a Woman–written by Makhmalbaf
and directed by his wife Marzieh Meshkini–could be a dream sequence, yet
it has the look and feel of an event that is irreducibly real. Its effect is
complex beyond the way Western audiences are used to looking at movies, more
like how cinema felt to its first witnesses. For about 30 minutes a young woman,
her head covered in a black chador, rides a sports bike along a beckoning coastline.
Other similarly clad women join the marathon with her, but this one–Hoora
(Shabnam Toloui)–pedals with special urgency and determination. She’s
in a race, but she’s also escaping. Soon, teams of men in white,
galloping on horseback, catch up with her, insisting on her frailty, demanding
she return to her husband. Next a phalanx of whiskered, bare-chested elders
(one, Hoora’s old father) summons her. A third set of pursuers is younger
men, muscular and compelling and adamant.


Sustaining
metaphor and sensuousness, Meshkini makes this event immediate, but also evokes
women’s lifelong endeavors. When Hoora cycles toward a road sign stating
"You are Here," the common detail suggests a larger, cosmic jest.
Such complexity is familiar from other Makhmalbaf movies, but it will feel exhilarating
to uninitiated viewers. Meshkini adds the distinction of a feminine focus–a
serene compulsiveness–that is unique. No matter how doctrinaire the feminist
premise, the sequence is extraordinary, echoing the essence of cinema history
(early Muybridge and Marey experiments) while giving a young woman’s psychological
panic a physical sensation.


Because
American critics have focused on the obviously cerebral Kiarostami, it’s
been a too-well-kept secret that the best Iranian cinema can be enjoyed without
pedantic instruction. Makhmalbaf’s movies (including the great A Moment
of Innocence
) are almost traditionally romantic, and under his tutelage
Meshkini achieves a similar esprit. Hoora’s cycling buoys one–the
suspended camera launches a viewer’s reflection, unlike Spike Lee’s
showoffy floating gimmick. Meshkini’s purposefulness recalls the cinema
of Clair, Bertolucci and Jancso, when dollies and pans used to be magical and
conveyed meaning. Her sophisticated, easily readable technique includes a start-stop
use of aural effects (the surf, spinning wheels, horses’ hooves) uncannily
like the stuttering guitar track in Mirwais’ production of Madonna’s
"Don’t Tell Me." (How apt, since it is the next generation of
women–absorbed in their walkmans–who continue Hoora’s life-or-death
marathon). One can respond to Hoora’s crisis viscerally because every detail
is musically vivid.


This
central episode of Makhmalbaf’s script connects stories about women’s
natural, emotional resistance to social restriction. The three-story structure
is similar to Makhmalbaf’s 1987 The Peddler, which also examined
a range of Iranian life experiences. Meshkini starts with a nine-year-old girl,
Havva (Fatemeh Cheragh Akhtar), enjoying her last hour of innocence, then proceeds
by generations. But Meshkini never loses the complication or wonder of life
at any stage. If her imagery is not as luminous as what Makhmalbaf himself achieved
in The Silence, it’s still remarkable. When Havva is separated from
her orphaned friend Hassan (Hassan Nabehan), the boy is seen indoors, behind
yellow bars; both kids imprisoned by education, tradition, custom. They break
free in a moment of audacious innocence–shared candy eating. The moment’s
presexual eroticism is overwhelming. Our adult knowledge, surpassing the kids’,
makes the sequence resonate. The symbolism is both natural and rich, as when
Havva uses a stick to measure time. In such instances, Makhmalbaf and Meshkini
go beyond mere "reality"–they rigorously refuse the ease of what’s
natural and find the exact actions and angles that provide meaning and revelation.


In
the film’s third tale, an old lady, Houra (Azizeh Seddighi), arrives at
an airport and enlists a dark-skinned boy, Shanbeh (Badr Irouni Nejad), off
the streets to guide her through a shopping mall. Ribbons tied to her wrinkled
fingers remind the old lady to buy things she’s never had all her life.
Meshkini follows this have and have-not excursion as youngsters listen to the
old woman’s cryptic ruminations ("My own teapot is full of memories
of that black man") then lay out her purchases on the beach. Like the cycling
sequence, the overt symbolism in this story also puts us in the characters’
minds, combining memory with dreaming. The surreal beach images of household
commodities outlined against nature address the peculiarity of desire and affluence.
This nearly perfect tale (reminiscent of Djibril Diop Mambety’s Little
Girl Who Sold the Sun
) creates a parable on consumerism and self-determination.
Returning to the film’s first image of a chador as a makeshift sail, Meshkini
creates a liberating metaphor for women’s realization that tradition can
be subverted to oppose persistent deprivation.


Each
of the three women’s stories illustrates the intrinsic, modern response
to social confinement or the private urge toward freedom. Revolution isn’t
propagandized so much as dreamed–exactly the kind of humanist persuasion
Vittorio De Sica explored in Miracle in Milan and that Makhmalbaf currently
masters. Meshkini’s tales–from a child’s rebellion to adult sexual
miscommunication, from a senior’s loneliness to an orphan’s regret–are
all interconnected so that the discoveries of The Day I Became a Woman
(including the unusual appearance and unity of dark- and light-skinned folks)
are ongoing and cyclical. She proves personal dreams are renewed by communal
experience. But it’s Makhmalbaf’s knack that makes those dreams seem
urgent and real.


 



Hollywood
movies have entered a new low point,

but American audiences are about to witness an Iranian movie renaissance. The
Day I Became a Woman
will be the highlight of this year’s New Directors/New
Film Series when it premiers this Sat.-Sun., March 24-25, at the Museum of Modern
Art. Meshkini’s triptych on women’s issues complements Jafar Panahi’s
stark, similarly themed drama The Circle, opening next month.


In
addition, Friendly Persuasion: Iranian Cinema After the Revolution provides
an informative introduction to Iranian movies. This documentary by Jamsheed
Akramis will show March 23-29 at the Screening Room as part of its "Iran
Through the Eyes of Children" retrospective. Akramis’ overview brings
together the great names, speaking on the enigma of a foreign, censored art
movement that yet confounds restrictions and makes global impact. It’s
fascinating to hear Kiarostami explain, "Censorship is not a phenomenon
that is terribly bothersome to us because we have discovered its antidotes [and]
found ways to challenge any imposing force and circumvent it." But above
all, The Day I Became a Woman–the movie of the moment–proves
him right. That bike-racing sequence alone should become one of the famous emblematic
images of our time.

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