An Iranian Director's Film Class, but Without Film - "10 on Ten" Review

By Manohla Dargis The New York Times

In "10 on Ten," the critically revered Iranian auteur Abbas Kiarostami proves that pedagogy is not among his talents. A tediously didactic, often condescendingly reductive 10-part lesson on cinema that Mr. Kiarostami shot in digital video, this minor work principally consists of the director driving around in a 4x4 as he jaws on about the putative wonders of digital video and muses about some of his own work, notably his 2002 feature "Ten." Every so often, Mr. Kiarostami punctuates one of these lessons with an abbreviated scene from "Ten," which comes as a relief because that feature is very good.

In the main, "10 on Ten" is an 88-minute rationalization from Mr. Kiarostami about why he now shoots in digital video rather than on film. Among his numerous rationalizations is that digital video allows "artists to work alone again." That is all very fine and good, except that Mr. Kiarostami makes this specific statement over an extreme long shot of his truck slowly tooling along a dusty country road. Given that the camera pans to keep up with the car, you have to wonder who captured that image. Of course, Mr. Kiarostami may have used a remote-control device to get the shot, but a better guess is that one of the people listed in the end credits was on hand to assist with the director's solitary artistic pursuit.

Even when Mr. Kiarostami ventures into more reasonable territory, he ends up off the mark. Early in "10 on Ten" he claims that the digital video camera "frees cinema from the clutches of the tools of production, capital and censorship." For Mr. Kiarostami, who was once forced to submit his screenplays to Iran's Ministry of Culture before production, the last part of this statement is probably true. He says that the ministry now understands that it's no use asking him for a script. But what seems important here is not the specific technology, but the methodology. Mr. Kiarostami blurs the line between fiction and documentary in his work: he uses non-actors, begins production without a script and shapes the work as he goes along, which makes early interference from the ministry difficult, if not impossible.

Putting aside the fact that really good digital video cameras, like the nifty model Mr. Kiarostami uses in "10 on Ten," can be expensive and therefore require access to capital, a larger question emerges here. Does digital video really free anyone, the audience included? As the recent history of independent film in the United States makes clear, the radical promise of digital video (everyone can be a "filmmaker") is essentially meaningless - meaningless because digital video seems to foster solipsism more than it does art. The accessibility of digital tools has conned a lot of people into thinking they have something to say when they do not, and too many screens are now clogged with ugly, slipshod videos and video-film hybrids.

"10 on Ten" is divided into sections - like "camera," "screenplay," "the actor" and "the accessories" - and separated by the numbers from what is called Academy leader. Academy leader is used at the beginning of a film to help the projectionist count down to the opening image. In "10 on Ten," the numbers are used decoratively, perhaps even sentimentally. Mr. Kiarostami may have renounced celluloid and movie cameras, but he cannot give up cinema, or at least its idea and ideal. At the risk of sounding as didactic as Mr. Kiarostami, it is worth noting that the word cinema comes from the Greek word "kinema." Kinema means motion. Film moves at 24 frames per second; digital video does not.

Framed as a lesson for film students (or, more truly, students of digital video), "10 on Ten" is certainly not without glints of ideas. Mr. Kiarostami is an intellectual as well as an artist and has obviously given thought to the phenomenology of cinema. It might, I imagine, be fascinating to listen to him deliver a truly considered discourse on cinema. But "10 on Ten," with its Kant-for-dummies vibe and unacknowledged riffing on Andre Bazin (spinning in his grave like a top), is too simplistic to take seriously. This is a self-serving bit of rhetoric from an artist who has given the world the gift of superb works, including the features "Where Is the Friend's House" (1987) and "Life, and Nothing More..." (1992), both shot on celluloid.

"10 on Ten" is playing at Anthology Film Archives, which is simultaneously presenting "Ten" (not on a double bill). In this engaging feature (shot on digital video, transferred to film), Mr. Kiarostami turns his attention to women and does so with grace and intelligence. Shot entirely inside a car with two cameras mounted on the hood, "Ten" concerns a divorced woman (Mania Akbari) who while running errands in Tehran gives rides to her monstrous brat of a son (Ms. Akbari's own child, Amin Maher) and four other women, including a cackling prostitute. Although "Ten"offers little by way of visual pleasures, outside of the beautiful Ms. Akbari, this is a conceptual tour de force, a model of aesthetic economy and a sympathetic portrait of life under the veil of oppression.

Originally Published February 25, 2005

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