Some Kashan pottery at the Gulbenkian Museum, Lisbon

Seljuk Period, 12th-13th century.

How can a film like A separation win the Academy Awards?

Keep it simple

“How can a film like A separation win the Academy Awards?” one asks himself.  “Films of this sort never win Academy Awards.  There must be a mistake.”

The mistake is one’s own:  Academy Awards — like most film awards — are not won by the best film, but by the film which ticks the most boxes; or, in other words, the film with fewest obstacles to winning.  Unlike other competitions (e.g. Cannes) Academy Awards judges don’t watch the films during public screenings, but on their own time, which probably means often not, which in turn means that obstacles to winning are in fact obstacles to watching.  This year, they may not have watched In Darkness for the same reason for which I haven’t (“Oh no, not another holocaust film”). They may have skipped Warhorse for shear surfeit of Spielberg.  But Separation seems timely (“we’re about to bomb them”) and Islam-engaged (“divorce in an Islamic state” — “they’re just like us”) and — who knows — perhaps reflects American industry’s desire to muscle in on the “Iranian-film” market. (All the critics rave, there must be a market there).

Given all these checked boxes, Separation‘s win isn’t really surprising.

Yet, the puzzlement remains:  Separation is an Old World movie par excellence:  it is “difficult”:  it it tells a complicated story — a story complicated by issues of class, modernity, and religion, all of which are sketched rather than spelled out; actor’s motivations are not explained — it is up to the viewer to figure things out; characters have depth; and their actions are motivated by a kind of guesswork regarding what their interlocutors are really thinking (and not saying); part of the act of watching is precisely this guesswork —  trying to figure out why x is doing what he is doing.  This kind of story telling is universal in the Old World — Koreans, Iranians, Bengalis, Turks, Japanese all make movies of this kind (in addition to whatever other movies they make); this kind of movies travels well — Iranians watch Ozu, Japanese watch Ceylan; and is highly regarded by a certain influential class of viewers in each of those countries.  This kind of movies wins international film awards in the Old World.

Yet, Americans rarely make such movies; some Woody Allen films are like this (“Matchpoint”), perhaps one or two Kubricks (“Eyes wide shut”).  (Who else?) When they do, they often make them abroad or with foreign money; and never make a success of them at home.  More disturbingly a crushing majority of Americans from precisely the socio-economic class which in the rest of the world can be counted on to watch, like, and discuss this kind of movies admits openly and without embarrassment to not understanding such films and not liking them.  Old Worlders uniformly find this shallow and disappointing — how is it possible not to understand this movie?  How is it possible not to like it?

Perhaps one explanation lies in the fundamentality of the American concept of K.I.S. — “keep it simple”.  We, Old Worlders, find life complicated:  it is complicated by issues of class and religion, of traditional morality, of appearances, of social compact; but to Americans — in our eyes at least — life seems simple: it is all about unfettered pursuit of happiness, the live- and-let-live ethos; we are not happy in our marriage, things are not working out, let’s not fight it, let’s not over-analyze it, let’s up sticks and move on, life’s too short to suffer.  (“Move to California, strike oil, become a millionaire”). 

Which is perhaps why things work in America in ways in which they fail to work elsewhere (highways, supermarkets, customer service, shopping by mail order, etc.); and why life there seems so much easier to new arrivals from the Old World.  We Old Worlders admire this, and long for it, and, upon finding ourselves in America for the first time, find the simplicity incredibly liberating; but, in our tortured Old World way, we end up finding it shallow and intellectually dissatisfying.  We end up wishing America would keep the highways and shopping malls and customer service but populate itself with cultured, cultivated, complex, psychologically interesting people like the Iranians, Poles, Portuguese with whom one can watch and discuss endlessly movies like Separation

People who probably could not set up a sensible mail order operation if their life depended on it.

Some details of the Gulbenkian “animals fighting” carpet

Perhaps the most storied of Gulbenkian’s carpets, “the animal’s fighting”

My first soumak, or, a historically-informed performance ruggery

It is, no doubt, a measure of my superior negotiating skills (not!) that the price of this carpet went up as we negotiated. I tell myself it was a good learning experience and I will be able to do better next time, but I am kidding myself: the truth is that no one ever wins against a carpet seller.

Actually, it is not a carpet (a knot-weave) but a soumak — a kind of flat-weave, similar to kilim, but different from it in that it sports an invisible (“internal”) structural weft. This useful, well illustrated page pretends to show you how to weave a soumak, but doesn’t: what they do there is a kilim; this technique is the one used in making European tapestries. A soumak will in addition have some fixed threads running left to right (“weft”). These threads support the structure of the cloth and make it stronger. They are hidden under the color threads (which make the pattern) but if you stick your finger in the fabric and poke about, you can just make them out under the pattern.

This soumak was woven perhaps 15 years ago in Tabriz by Azeri weavers. It was woven out of old threads pulled out from old cicims, which is why it has the intense colors of historical carpets — few modern carpets look this “authentic” — it is, in other words, “a performance on original instruments”.  A good deal about soumaks is explained here (along with some historical examples).  My favorite page on that website is the page about the Luristan bronzes (mother goddess, totemic animal finials et al.) — which only illustrates how sophisticated was the weaver of my new rug — he knew to play with all the totemic animals and all the rest: it is a “historically informed performance”.  Like a mamluk, it pleases in its ability to surprise:  seemingly symmetrical, when you look closer at it — it isn’t.

Actually, Luristan bronzes are pretty cool as well as mysterious (we don’t know who made them or what they meant). Check out this for some examples, and this for some discussion.

Some details of the Gulbenkian Isphahan

Isfahan/Isphahan, 16th or 17th century.