Classic Movie Review: Close-Up (1990)

Title: Close-Up
Release Date: February 1, 1990
Director: Abbas Kiarostami
Production Company: Kanoon

I remember in the 1990s reading about a movie renaissance in Iran, but never had the opportunity to see any Iranian films at the time and have failed to follow up in the ensuing decades.  So consider this my late arrival to the party.  This is a strange film in that everyone in the movie plays themselves, and yet it’s not really a documentary either. The movie documents the trial of Hossain Sabzian, a man who posed as famed Iranian director Mohsen Makhmalbaf, convincing the Ahanhkah family that he was going to have them appear in his next film.

Kiarostami learned of Sabzian’s arrest, which was sensationalized by the media, and got permission to film his trial.  He then got all the people involved, Sabzian, the Ahankah family, media, police, et al to play themselves recreating various parts on their story.  The film is edited to create a narrative form that appears that it should be a a fictional film starring actors.  The twist at the end of the film is perhaps the most surprising bit of movie magic.

I found it interesting to watch an Iranian trial as the defendant, plaintiffs, and witnesses all sit together. The judge talks with all of them at various parts of the trial instead of calling up one witness at a time like in Western courts.  There is also a heavy emphasis placed by the judge on asking the family to forgive Sabzian. Over all it’s a clever and interesting movie based on a somewhat mundane real life event.

Rating: ***1/2

Podcasts of the Week Ending February 16

There’s a rich crop of podcasts this week!  I wont be posting any podcasts next Saturday, so if you hear any good ones I shouldn’t miss, let me know in the comments.

Throughline :: How The CIA Overthrew Iran’s Democracy In 4 Days

The overlooked history of one of the worst crimes ever committed by the United States government.

Hub History :: Apocalypse on Boston Bay 

The indigenous population of New England suffered significant casualties from epidemics of infectious disease that swept their communities in the 1620.  The colonizing English saw these plagues as the grace of God to their settlement.

Tomorrow Society :: Peggie Farris on 50 Years at Disney and Producing Spaceship Earth

An interview with a remarkable woman who rose from being a ride operator at Disneyland to an influential Imagineer at Disney Parks across the world.

99% Invisible :: National Sword

China has enacted a program to no longer import recycled materials, which means that recycling collected from many US communities no longer is actually being recycled.  This podcasts prods consumers to “reduce and reuse” more than they recycle, but also questions placing the burden on the consumer and suggest industry needs to reduce the material created in the first place.

Smithsonian Sidedoor :: Cheech Marin Gets Antsy

Cheech Marin, famed for starring in stoner comedies, now works to bring attention to Chicano art in galleries and museums.

Planet Money: The Indicator :: The Strike That Changed U.S. Labor

The 1937 General Motors strike presaged a highpoint for union membership in the United States and a period of shared prosperity.  This podcast discusses how we got from there to today with record low union participation.

The Truth :: Meet Cute

A romantic comedy where one the members of the couple dies before the first date.  There’s a lot of clever twists in this story.

Running tally of Podcast of the Week appearances:

Book Review: All the Shah’s Men by Stephen Kinzer

Author: Stephen Kinzer
Title: All the Shah’s Men
Publication Info: [San Clemente, Calif.] : Tantor Media, 2003.
ISBN: 9781400151066


A gripping history of the first covert operation by the CIA to overthrow the popularly elected government of another nation in 1953.  That nation is Iran and the deposed leader is Mohammad Mosaddeq, the Iranian prime minister who dared stand up against Western imperialism.  The fascinating thing about this book is that for much of Mosaddeq’s reign many US leaders supported Iran’s self-determination and attempts at democracy.  Iran’s squabble was with Great Britain, especially regarding the exploitative nature of the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company.  When Mosaddeq nationalized Iranian oil, British leaders wanted him removed, but needed US approval which was eventually gained by the specter of Communism.  A number of familiar names play a role in the plot: Secretary of State John Foster Dulles, CIA director Allan Dulles, CIA agent Kermit Roosevelt, Jr.  (grandson of Theodore), and Norman Schwarzkopf, Sr. (father of the Desert Storm commander).  Kinzer tells the story in great detail with the ultimate outcome balanced on the coming together of some very unlikely events

Kinzer concludes that the immediate result – a stable and anti-communist Iran under the Shah – was beneficial to the United States but the long-term results were disastrous.  The Shah’s tyrannical rule in Iran, and the knowledge that the US supported him, turned most Iranians virulently against the United States.  When revolutionary Iranians took hostages at the US embassy in 1979 it was because the embassy had been a base of covert activity in 1953.  Finally, it set a pattern of CIA-sponsored activities in other parts of the world that have contributed to the loss of the USA’s image as a standard-bearer of freedom.

Recommended books: The Devil We Know by Robert Baer
Rating: ***1/2

Book Review: Reading Lolita in Tehran by Azar Nafisi

Reading Lolita in Tehran (2003) is a memoir about life and Iran and reading English language books by  Azar Nafisi.  My alumni chapter book club selected this book appropriately about a book club Nafisi started to read Western literature with young women she had taught at the university in Tehran.  The book is divided into four sections loosely draping Nafisi’s story over the works of four authors:  Vladimir Nabakov’s Lolita, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, the works of Henry James (particularly Daisy Miller), and Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. The first section focuses mainly on the reading group and the conversations therein, while the reamaining three sections are more of a straight-forward memoir.  Nafisi is educated in America (in Oklahoma, no less, which she makes sound like a hotbed of Iranian revolutionaries), returns to teach in Tehran right at the time of the revolution, loses her positions due to her liberal ways, returns to teaching (albeit compromising some of her principles), and then starts the reading group.  Finally, Nafisi departs Iran for good for the United States where she teaches and writes to this day.

This is horribly judgmental of me, especially to say of someone who lived under a totalitarian regime, but I found that Nafisi comes across as whiny, at least in the first chapter.  Marjane Satrapi (who is roughly the age of one of Nafisi’s “girls”) writes much more eloquently about the Iranian Revolution and the oppression of the Islamic regime, especially for women. The discussion of the books and life issues by the women of the reading group is supposed to be central to this work, but I never get the sense of individuality of the women in the group as if they’re only there to fill a role for Nafisi’s thesis. I warmed up to this book in the second section when Nafisi’s class puts the novel The Great Gatsby on trial, a clever way of discussing the book and the clash of cultures of the students in reading it.  Nafisi is at her best when discussing the books and I found her observations quite illuminating.  Especially for Lolita which I read many years ago but didn’t really follow it all to well.  I think Nafisi must be an excellent teacher and her passion for the novels comes across well in this work.  Ultimately this is a pretty good book, especially for its literary sections as well as a glimpse into life in modern Iran.

Favorite Passages

In class, we were discussing the concept of the villain in the novel.  I had mentioned that Humbert was a villain because he lacked curiousity about other poeple and their lives, even about the person he loved most, Lolita.  Humbert, like most dictators, was interested only in his own vision of other people.  He had created the Lolita he desired, and would not budge from that image.  I reminded them of Humbert’s statement that he wished to stop time and keep Lolita forever on “an islnd of entranced time,” a task undertaken only by Gods and poets. – p. 48-49

The worst crime committed by totalitarian mind-sets is that they force their citizens, including their victims, to become complicit in their crimes. – p. 76

This respect for others, empathy, lies at the heart of the novel.  It is the quality that links Austen to Flaubert and James to Nabakov and Bellow.  This, I believe, is how the villain in modern fiction is born: a creature without compassion, without empathy.  The personalized version of good and evil usurps and individualizes the more archetypal concepts, such as courage or heroism, that shaped the epic or romance.  A hero becomes one who safeguards his or her individual integrity at almost any cost. – p. 224

Authors: Nafisi, Azar.
Title: Reading Lolita in Tehran : a memoir in books / Azar Nafisi.
Edition: 1st ed.
Published: New York : Random House, c2003.
Description: 347 p. ; 22 cm.

Book Review: The Devil We Know by Robert Baer

I listened to the audiobook of The Devil We Know: Dealing with the New Iranian Superpower (2008) by Robert Baer and I can tell you right now that this isn’t going to be a good review because this book presents such a different understanding of Iran than any other perspective I’ve ever encountered.  Here are the highlights as I understand them:

  • Americans and the West in general have a distorted view of Iran and especially of what Iran wants.
  • Iran is a country that is trying to modernize, participates widely in the internet, and even watches a lot of American television.  They are not like some other Islamic states trying to return to pre-modern times.
  • Iranians desire empire and wish to be recognized as a major player in Middle East politics, perhaps even a superpower.
  • We should not be scared that Iran will build and use nuclear weapons nor that they desire some nihilistic destruction of the west. What Iran actually really does do and what they’re capable of is actually more unsettling if unnoticed by the West.  Iran succeeds through asymetrical tactics and weapons
  • Through proxy wars, Iran has carried out their quest for imperialism throughout the Mid East.  Baer asserts that through Hezbollah, Iran won the first military conflict against Israel in 2000.  Through cunning and strategy Iran has achieved many military goals and won over the support many Muslims even Sunnis & Arabs who traditionally are at odds with the Shiite & Persian Iran.
  • Nations the US currently allies with are weak (Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, UAE) or not really states at all just strong armies (Pakistan).  Plus the oil fields in Saudi Arabia are emptying out and Iran’s hegemony has them in position to control the oil supply for the future.
  • In general, Shiite Iran is hierarchical, commands come only from leaders with extensive religious trading, and they carry out their campaigns with specific goals and targets in mind.  Sunni Arabs are not hierarchical, leaders with no religious training give out commands (such as Osama bin Laden), and carry out attacks for slaughter’s sake alone.  Western governments have successfully negotiated peace with Iran because they can not only find someone to negotiate with but because they are open to negotiation.
  • Continuing on the present course will require a huge outlay of money and military force to either contain Iran in a 30+ year Cold War or to actually engage them in battle.  In addition to losing many lives and bankrupting the country, Iran would shut off our supply of oil. Baer does not believe the US populace would stand for any of this.
  • In the end Baer gives several reccomendations for the US to bury it’s pride and recognize Iran as a major power, grant them a role in restoring order to Iraq, and allow nations artificially created after WWI (such as Iraq and Pakistan) to be disolved into smaller states.  Baer believes this realpolitik approach to Iran’s de facto superpower status is are only sensible option.

I obviously know only a little about Iran and the Mid East in general, and Baer seems to be stacking the deck to support his thesis and has certain obvious prejudices (especially against Sunnis/Arabs.  Yet its a compelling argument, and a very nuanced understanding of today’s Iran.  It’s not likely that American politicians will follow any of these suggestions, and perhaps with good reason.  Still it’s an eye-opening account that challenges the accepted wisdom.

Some professional reviews:

Author Baer, Robert.
Title The devil we know [sound recording] : [dealing with the new Iranian superpower] / Robert Baer.
Publication Info. Westminster, Md. : Books on Tape, p2008.
Edition Unabridged.
Description 8 sound discs (ca. 74 min. each) : digital ; 4 3/4 in.