Monday, October 08, 2007

Chicago Film Festival: Scream of the Ants

I purchased a ticket to Scream of the Ants based solely on my affinity for Mohsen Makhmalbaf's past work, which has a nasty habit of receiving no commercial distribution in the United States despite the relative box-office potency of his Gabbeh and Kandahar and the critical adoration of those films and several others. Which is to say, I lacked any notion of Scream's theme or plotline and could not possibly have forecast the poetic, festival-style justice of wandering in the space of a single morning from Wes Anderson's Kool-aid vision of India to Makhmalbaf's assiduously bleak travelogue of subcontinental misery and his fulminating screed against the venal idealisms and disavowals that so often typify a foreigner's passage to India. As an Indian journalist advises a betrothed Iranian couple aboard an Indian train, "Most foreigners who come to India are stupid. They come chasing all the wrong things." Not coincidentally, this pronouncement follows the woman's admission that she and her fiancé have come in pursuit of a "Complete Man" or "Perfect Man" reputed by an acquaintance of theirs to "do great things in people's lives." This is a harebrained, romantically superficial agenda to rival Owen Wilson's—though Makhmalbaf, already savvy enough to set the West aside and show how one south Asian culture trivializes another, is also attuned to how India exploits and mystifies its own. Not only is the journalist riding the train to investigate a rumor about an old sage who can "stop trains with his eyes," and thus to earn a living by perpetuating the very kind of hooey he pretends to ridicule, but he kills time aboard the train espousing his own strain of unqualified utopianism ("Life is a miracle – everything is a miracle!") that is ubiquitously undermined by the status quo of a country where 99% of a billion citizens live below the global standard of poverty. In a brilliant and wickedly funny masterstroke, when the train finally haps upon the celebrated Baba sitting cross-legged on the rails, he privately confides to the Iranian couple that he sat on the tracks one day in hopes of ending his misery, but the train conductors all persist in slamming on their brakes—and now, the adulating crowds of pilgrims who have gathered around and behind him refuse to release him or to desist from holding him up as a spiritual icon.

This 20-minute opening of Makhmalbaf's movie is rendered with the political friskiness and absurdist humor for which Iranian films, much less Iran itself, is seldom given credit, largely because Western festivals and distributors decreed the flowering of Iranian cinema based on the evidence of children's stories like Children of Heaven and somber meditations like Taste of Cherry. The Makhmalbaf of A Moment of Innocence or Gabbeh, and even more certainly his Iranian contemporaries like Kamal Tabrizi and Massoud Dehnamaki, would have spun a teasing but illuminating feature out of this comic entrapment and the serious currents of ignorance, projection, and desperation that give rise to it. The Baba himself, with his weather-beaten body and his doubly-elbowed arm—a souvenir, no doubt, of a long-ago compound fracture—is a transfixing character who may or may not be "in" on the joke of which his fate is the center. Therefore, it's with considerable regret that we watch Makhmalbaf and his characters abandon this anecdote for a shape-shifting movie that never finds any comparably fertile or crystallized point of focus, however much justifiable anger and philosophical ambivalence Makhmalbaf allows himself to vent through the ensuing hour of arguments, monologues, vérité photography, and narrative cul-de-sacs. The husband, a former Communist long disabused of any form of hope or belief in his fellow man, reveals himself to be a colossal narcissist and a chauvinist of epic proportions—not least when he hires a prostitute for an entire night to get down on all fours and serve as a table on which to set his teacup. The wife, comparatively sympathetic but worryingly recessive, hungers for the kind of fulfillment this lover will never give her and hangs more desperately on the dream of finding a Complete Man whom she doesn't even recognize when she finds him.

Scream of the Ants grows nearly intolerable as the two trade bitter barbs over the course of a long night, so much so that we excuse the totally incongruous edit that finds them reunited for a taxi-ride into the desert. In an even more marked demonstration of the narrative listlessness that afflicted his script for his daughter Samira's most recent film, At Five in the Afternoon, Scream of the Ants lacks anything like the muscular, compressed montage that typified earlier Makhmalbaf projects. He resorts to fixing the camera on scenes and objects which are themselves prodigious or harrowing or beautiful rather than making them so through framing and metaphor, as he did so indelibly with the floating prostheses of Kandahar or the titular character of The Cyclist. Scream of the Ants, whose title refers to the unheard protests of people in a godless world, lapses inexcusably into talking-head aesthetics, with various characters spouting different strains of Makhmalbaf's own frustrated and contradictory world-critiques... but then, just as the picture precipitously lost its footing after the first act, it recovers its visual potency, at the very least, in an extended finale along the shores of the Ganges: filled with bathers, bobbing with corpses, strewn with blossoms, lapping against the concrete banks where even the wealthiest of the deceased are burned by their families for want of a proper gravesite. Again, the strange and bitter world yields itself up to Makhmalbaf's camera without his necessarily intervening or shaping our impressions at the level of his most rigorous artistry. And yet, these moments of mysterious and discomfiting realism make Scream of the Ants an urgent record of a denied world (and not an emblem of that very denial, like The Darjeeling Limited is, for all its cosmetic wonders). In its visual austerity, its withering speeches, its unusual tolerance for nudity and verbal vulgarity, and even in its aesthetic self-sabotage, Scream of the Ants maps a Godardian arc from artistic wit and sophistication into dogmatic ideology and ascetic self-loathing, directed if not against the director himself than at least against his medium and against his world. Whether this breakdown is ameliorated or extended by the riverside coda is up to each viewer to decide, just as the question remains open as to whether Makhmalbaf has really made a movie here or else just crudely illustrated an Op/Ed that's been thundering inside his head.

Commercial distributors will sprint in the opposite direction from a picture like this (check out the Variety review!), so I'm doubly grateful to the film festival. For better or worse, this side of Makhmalbaf is exhilarating at its best but still feels essential at its petulant and shapeless worst (embodied, for me, in a long speech by a German tourist who's repeating what a million college-campus T-shirts have contended for years). I wanted to scream several times during Scream of the Ants, sometimes for no better reason than the film's laziness and hectoring tone, but just as often for the same reasons that have pushed Makhmalbaf to this edge of his own outrage. C+

Photo © 2006 Makhmalbaf Film House/Wild Bunch

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

Dude, the Variety review is right on--Scream of the Ants is nothing more than a bunch of trite, simplistic metaphysical musings.

Makhmalbaf seems to objectify the "east" and presents predictable "soul searching" amongst the urbane Iranians as they travel to the "exotic" India.

This is regurgitation of trite 1950s French philosophizing.

You also failed to mention the gall that the Chicago Film Festival had for screening a review copy of the print and not telling film goers until AFTER they had purchased their tickets.

10:31 AM, October 10, 2007  
Blogger tim r said...

Also dude, why are you playing coy with that Yella grade? Out with it!

I'm seeing it again tonight, as it happens.

11:04 AM, October 10, 2007  
Blogger NicksFlickPicks said...

@Anonymous: But the film clearly knows that the Iranian couple's musings are trite, in their different ways: the rancor and arrogance of his pronouncements are underlined by the way he treats the Indian prostitute he hires (despite his many professions of aligning himself with the poor and the dispossessed), and her own insistence that beauty inheres everywhere was, for me, deeply challenged by her near-stupefaction near the end of the film. Even as she tries to commune with the Ganges, which Makhmalbaf refuses to film as a sublime or even a picturesque moment, she's virtually mute and her face is devoid of any implication that she knows what she's doing.

I'm not saying that Scream of the Ants altogether avoids being trite and simplistic—as I hope my review makes clear—but I don't think it falls into habits of objectifying and exoticizing quite as blindly as I guess you do. (And as for the print: I had my ticket a month ago, so I don't know what it was like to buy a ticket so shortly beforehand and then be disappointed, but I also feel that some exhibitors are bound to renege on sending their prints in a festival of this size (as apparently happened with Scream of the Ants, and I was happier to experience the work this way than not at all... plus, they did offer to refund the money if you left early.)

@Tim: More on that one soon, but my initial skepticisms turned to unexpected levels of admiration at how subtly the film was working. I just wish the ending weren't so literal.

10:52 PM, October 10, 2007  
Blogger tim r said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

1:34 AM, October 11, 2007  
Blogger tim r said...

Quite right, but a direct homage to this, though, no? Which allowed me to let it off the hook, kind of...

1:37 AM, October 11, 2007  
Blogger NicksFlickPicks said...

Yes, absolutely, but that homage already felt so deliciously in place. And subtlety is otherwise the movie's big calling card, right?

10:12 AM, October 11, 2007  
Blogger Indy said...

Definitely a classic movie. Has a few Bollywood elements to the movie, so if you are interested in watching move Hindi movies, check out - India's premier movie portal.

The latest movie to watch is Bhool Bhulayiaa. Check it out here:

Relax, take a break at Interval

11:15 AM, October 23, 2007  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I definitely agree with much of your review. The movie seemed to be a typical Western exegesis of existential suffering, set in a foreign location that the director cheaply tries to exploit in order to present an exotically 'profound' and philosophical insight that Iranians - or Westerners - are assumed to be ignorant of.

However, I should note that you make a critical error in stating that even the rich in India are cremated for lack of a proper gravesite. Certainly, there might a practical reason for espousing cremation in a country where there are so many people, but ultimately, the practice is rooted deeply in the Hindu faith. Makmalbaf was simply presenting a facile understanding of the idea that even in one's journey towards rebirth, class differences in India remain markedly pronounced and the rich are able to cremate their dead with greater expediency than the poor.

This is a crucial point because by committing such a mistake, one tends to offer support to the gross distortion that '99%' of Indians (which is actually stated as 90% in the original Farsi dialogue) live in poverty. Poverty is undoubtedly an entrenched issue in India, however, it does great harm to further stereotype the nation by presenting false statistics such as this. The fact is that the socioeconomic inequality in India has engendered a broad spectrum of wealth and the Indian elite are rich even by Western standards. Makmalbaf does a poor job of presenting this as his myopic perspective only allowed him to focus on the seemingly backwards immiseration of the vast majority. Again, this continues a long tradition of legitimizing colonial myths of India that is highly disappointing.

9:53 AM, December 02, 2007  

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