two girlfriends and i went to buffalo yesterday to listen to joan copjec talk about “the imaginal world: islam, psychoanalysis, and the cinema of abbas kiaostami”, part of a lecture series at the albright knox art gallery.
we left a little early to check out the burchfield penney art center first. the art center is brand new, white, sparkling. i was not familiar with charles burchfield’s work but found his watercolors to be alive and imaginative. his paintings break from the stereotypical “flatness” one expects from watercolors by incorporating movement, texture and fancy into natural landscapes. some of this work goes so far as to possess van gogh-type agitation, rendered of course in a much more delicate medium.
although we didn’t have time to visit the albright knox gallery, whatever i saw of it was impressive. my eyes immediately latched on to a huge rauschenberg. there was miro’s “carnival of harlequin” which we admired for its dynamism and lovely inventive creatures scurrying all over the canvas, busy with trapeze and string. it reminds me of a flea circus. kline, hartley, modigliani, rosenquist, warhol, pollock, dekooning, lichtenstein, gauguin, cezanne, matisse, picasso – the gallery’s collection is like a who’s who of modern art, but in spite of all its temptations we proceeded to muse, to listen to joan copjec.
the lecture was dense and academic, much more focused on psychoanalysis than on kiarostami’s work. i was hoping for more film material followed by a contextualization of iranian cinema but this was not to be.
some of the points copjec made were interesting though. she talked about the islamic revolution in iran. the subsequent requirements of hijab became a deciding factor in how iranian films would be shot. iranian women do not wear the hijab at home but because this reality could not be captured on film, the focus shifted outdoors. we lost the “interiority” of people’s lives. i think of kiarostami’s “ten” in which the entire film is shot from a camera positioned on a woman’s dashboard, as she drives family, friends and strangers around the city. although the film delves into intensely personal, “interior” matters (divorce, a difficult relationship between mother and son, a lover’s rejection and the identity crisis it triggers, the musings of a prostitute) it does so by creating a relatively private space (the car) in an outdoor, public setting (the city).
copjec showed a scene from “wind in the willows”. a man from the city comes around to buy fresh milk from a young village girl. he enters a dark cavernous space. the girl begins to milk a cow in the dark, in order to fulfill his request. he recites love poetry as an act of seduction and we feel the girl’s discomfort. the entire scene is inappropriate. a timid, cowering village girl set against a much older, better educated city man who seems to be in control. the overture is unwelcome. it’s an act of harassment, of molestation. as copjec pointed out, cows are not kept in caves and milked in the dark (even in northern iran), so what is kiarostami up to? to me it is another example of the subtlety of iranian cinema. since they have to work within the confines of strict censorship, iranian filmmakers use oblique, highly inventive techniques to explore taboo subjects.
another cogent point in the lecture had to do with shame. copjec explained how after 9/11, neocons in search of the key to muslim psychology, adopted “the arab mind” by raphael patai as their bible. seymour hersh says as much in his article “the gray zone – how a secret pentagon program came to abu ghraib” (new yorker, may 24, 2004), where he talks about how two themes emerged in neocon discussions of arab behavior, informed by the patai book: “…one, that arabs only understand force and, two, that the biggest weakness of arabs is their great susceptibility to shame and humiliation”. this reading of arab behavior is manifest in subsequent policies governing the war on terror, abu ghraib being the most glaring example.
more about patai’s book and how it represents arabs in this boston globe article “misreading the arab mind” by emran qureshi, may 30, 2004.
never mind that the vast majority of muslims are non-arabs. only 20% of muslims live in arab countries. the largest chunk of the muslim population by far (about 30%) resides in the indian subcontinent. indonesia is the largest muslim country, by population, and is home to about 15.6% of the world’s total. even in the middle east, large muslim countries such as turkey and iran are non arab.
but going back to copjec’s point, in western minds “shame” (which was to become the tool of choice used to manipulate muslim psyche) is an inferior emotion. shame has to do with social sanction, with being under the gaze of others. it implies an externally-oriented standard of morality. more advanced western cultures are constructed around “guilt” which is part and parcel of an internal moral compass.
copjec disagrees with this theory. to her shame has more to do with the anxiety of being “modern”, of being cut off from the past, from what our ancestors did. instead we connect to a virtual, non-existent past – what our ancestors could have done but didn’t. in “wind in the willows” kiarostami explores this concept by the ubiquitous presence of a digger we cannot see. is he getting the ground ready for the installation of a cell phone tower or is he digging a grave? to copjec, the constantly shifting ground is a metaphor for the past itself being under construction.
apart from a few sparks of originality, copjec didn’t say anything profound or illuminating. she talked about iranian cinema much as an outsider. she attempted to explain the “exoticism” but was never fully capable of making a breakthrough and looking from the inside out – a much more rare and interesting perspective for most americans. being originally from pakistan, having lived right next door to iran and having been automatically immersed in persian language and culture (revered by the mughals of the subcontinent for hundreds of years), i see iran in a different light: not as an exotic, non-white world where the safe laws of the west collapse, but as an ancient culture replete with rich history and tradition, with refined ideas expressed in exquisite language, with a respect for the arts that transcends many art forms including cinema. there is also the gritty iran, the political iran, the nationalistic iran. but is that any different from other countries?
on the way back, we were rushed for time. i wanted to attend another lecture in rochester later that evening. about 10 minutes into our drive back home, however, we ran out of gas. no problem. we call AAA. the truck arrives in less than 30 minutes and the friendly driver fills up the gas tank. the car doesn’t start. maybe sludge got into the gas filter. so the car has to be towed all the way back to rochester and the three of us have to be smushed in the truck’s front cabin along with the driver. memorable drive home. blaring music by fleetwood mac…