Rest in peace, Abbas Kiarostami.
I remember when he had his moment in the U.S., when Taste of Cherry made its rounds. It’s nothing to say that it’s a fantastic bit of cinema. It just is. I remember thinking how much I loved his lingering without ponderous sense of shot and attention to landscape, how people moved through the frame so naturally and normally that it seemed less like a film, more like looking out of a window. That’s why “realism” gets attached to a lot of his stuff, I guess.
After seeing Taste of Cherry, I found what I could of his films in translation and tracked down the Earthquake Trilogy. All of them are fantastic, but I was especially taken in by what, in the version I first saw, was titled in translation And Life Goes On. Now, it goes by the presumably better translation Life, And Nothing More, but the title And Life Goes On is especially important to me as a thinker and scholar. In fact, the title and the film’s content changed the way I think about the world and my own commentary on it. And Life Goes On is about a filmmaker and son driving, talking, observing, and seeking out survivors of an earthquake in rural Iran. The title I first saw – And Life Goes On – tells the deeper story of the film, that it documents, as a quasi-documentary, the relationship between traumatic events and the obstinacy of life. The fact that an earthquake might destroy everything, but life goes on even after. That is, there is never not life.
The film came to me as I’d finished my dissertation, revised it as a book, and was looking for a new project. Claude Lanzmann’s Shoah had really deeply affected me. So, I was starting to think very hard on questions of trauma and memory (one of oh so many doing that in the late-90s) and I read around the Holocaust memory studies literature. Nearly every source was fixated on fixations on the past, and for good reason; traumatic pain fixes attention on the past that recurs as a wound, re-wounding in each turn. But I was also thinking a lot about the Americas, especially the afro-Caribbean and African-American intellectual traditions, both of which made a lot out of a traumatic past, but without a similar fixation on fixation on the past.
I wasn’t sure what to make of that difference. But I saw this Kiarostami film and it changed so much for me. It changed so much for me because it was insistent on the presence of the traumatic past – the entire film, in some sense, is a tour of ruins and remains – and also insistent on a peculiar and enigmatic temporality: the future as obstinate, not just a projection of a looping past. A particular scene struck me, one in which the director stops to ask directions, and the man turns to help. The man is carrying a toilet seat.
I remember watching the film alone and stopping it right there, pulling out my writing notebook, and free-writing a response to this mini-scene. I wish I still had that notebook, for the sake of remembering the moment, but the words I wrote out don’t matter now. In a very serious sense, what I had to write is what I’ve had to think ever since then: perhaps our most profound sense of human temporality lies in the obstinacy of the future, how it comes and goes just because life goes on. Not because we have transformative projections of another kind of life (though that is possible), but because the mundane of life – from the toilet seat to the wedding, both of which figure among Kiarostami’s documentation of the ruins – persists and insists. In-sists in the sense that our very being derives its subsistence from that mundane, not in opposition to the profound, but as a condition of it, a companion to it.
I mentioned just this in closing an essay on subjectivity, loss, and the abyss from a collection on Levinas and Nietzsche, writing:
At this point, however, I’m drawn back to a pair of scenes from Abbas Kiarostami’s 1991 semi-documentary Life and Nothing More. In this film, the second in his Earthquake Trilogy, Kiarostami explores the aftereffects of a catastrophic earthquake in rural Iran. The lead character, a filmmaker, travels a devastated series of highways and side roads through equally devastated towns. In other words, it is a film about traumatic pain and its aftermath, in this case the traumatic pain of natural catastrophe. We might expect Kiarostami’s lead character to meet townspeople telling tales of the unspeakable experience of mass destruction. Indeed, the fixed, lingering shots that structure of the film suggest just such trauma. The trauma is there, without a doubt. But what is not there is the gravity of thought in response to such devastation. Rather, the filmmaker meets and talks first with a man carrying a toilet seat. Then an extended conversation with a young man who was just married in the ruins – quite literally on top of the rubble – of his community. What are we to make of Kiarostami’s witnesses to catastrophe? Are they inauthentically attuned to what has happened and how nothing can be the same afterward? Or do we theorists (of which Kiarostami may have been one) infuse such catastrophes with a gravity of thought that eclipses the mundanity of life when like not only does go on, but must go on? After all, the evacuation of one’s home and place does not mean one is also alleviated of the need to sit comfortably, in privacy, and, well, “to evacuate” oneself – or marry one’s beloved and begin the mundane domestic life the young male character embodies.
What kind of space of conversation might this mundanity of life open when life goes on? How are we to register the gravity of thinking after the abyss in that mundanity? How, indeed, are we to begin accounting for a conversation between the one who clings to the toilet seat and the one who proclaims the Overman or the ethical? This is an important conversation, for both the mundanity and the gravity of thinking after disaster belong to the same community of those who have nothing. And both belong to beginning’s abyss.
Every now and then someone asks me what my work is all about. The temptation is to say something about traditions and debates and the like, but I always come back to that phrase. My work is about how life goes on. Thinking from very small places and how those places are the meaning of all big places and big visions, really.
And so when I think about what my own work is all about, I think back to Kiarostami and seeing Ad Life Goes On and how it changed my thinking. I was never going to become a specialist in Iranian film. But I drew everything from this Iranian filmmaker, whose vision lingers in the camera and on the small place of life we really too often forget when we wonder about life itself. There is always life and nothing more, because life goes on.
Rest in peace, Abbas Kiarostami. You leave everything for us to think. Thank you for that.