Babes-Bolyai University, Cluj-Napoca, Romania
Certified Copy – the new Platonic ideal
Abstract: A discussion regarding the concept of certified copy in Kiarostami’s movies and a close analysis concerning the relationship between reality – fantasy and original – copy as reflected in the cinema and meta-cinema. An important base of my inquiry is the text of Jean-Luc Nancy, The Evidence of Film, especially the interview between Nancy and Kiarostami. A secondary matter is the one revolving around the identity issue and the question of community recurrent in the Iranian’s director productions.
Keywords: Certified Copy; Reality; Original; Copy; Ideal; Identity; Community.
“It would be stupid for us to ruin our lives for an ideal.”
In his 2010 production, the Iranian director Abbas Kiarostami approaches a distinct subject than he did in his previous movies, but also in the way he chooses to transfer his ideas to the screen. Certified Copy is his first movie that was not filmed in Iran, and what strikes us from the very beginning to the end is that the only named character in the movie is the one performed by William Shimell, the writer James Miller. There is another important character who is named, whose presence is just a virtual one, and that is Marie, the sister of Juliette Binoche’s character.
The subject of the movie revolves around the issue of originality and copies, but this does not limit itself to the aesthetics query, but explores a more subtle concern, the authenticity of human beings and the genuineness of their emotions to one another. James Miller, the author of the book Certified Copy, arrives in Florence due to his book tour. He and Juliette Binoche’s character, a single mother and owner of an antique shop meet and, soon after, leave together for the village of Lucignano. The trip to the Italian village becomes the excuse to introduce both James Miller and the spectator into the life of Binoche’s character. The initiation of the man into the woman’s life and into her past reaches its apotheosis at the coffee shop where they arrive towards the middle of the movie. He tells her that he was inspired to write the book by a mother and her son. She quickly understands that the boy and the woman in his story are actually herself and her son. He too, becomes aware that the impulse to write the book came from the two he saw in the Piazza della Signoria in Florence and that the one sited in front of him at the table is in fact the same woman.
Before arriving to the coffee shop, they have a long conversation on the topic of originals and copies. The writer, James Miller, argues that the most important aspect is the manner in which the object is perceived. He uses two examples to support his theory: Andy Warhol’s Coca-Cola (“you take the ordinary object, put it in the museum and change the way people look at it, it’s not the object that changes, but the perception people have”) and Marie’s husband. Her husband, “the simplest man on earth to her is the best man alive”; the only thing that matters is that “the way she looks at her husband changes his value”.
A fundamental trait of the movie can be described by the joke about the man in the desert. A man lost in the desert finds a genie who will grant him two wishes. The man’s first wish is to receive a bottle of Coca-Cola which will never be empty. His two other wishes are the same as the first. The point of the story, explained by the character, is that the man is so simple that the only thing he needs is a bottle of Coke. The two characters have divergent opinions about what the purpose of man in the world is. These different perspectives regarding the meaning of life lead to the development of two definitions assigned to people. In the writer’s opinion “the human race is the only species who has forgotten that the whole purpose of life, the whole meaning of existence is to have fun, to have pleasure”, while the challenging part of life is how to figure out how to be simple. William Shimell seems to have a hedonistic view on life. In fact, perhaps his view is not as much hedonistic but an appeal to the plainness of the human condition. The message behind the man in the wasteland anecdote adheres to the character’s basic belief about people. A person who would be asked the same question would probably think about important things, things they lack and truly wish they had in their life. They no longer take into consideration that genies exist only in stories and even the attempt of figuring out the three most important things in one’s life is in this case nothing but futile. People take themselves too seriously as it happens in the case of the originality topic of discussion. Why would it matter what is original or not if the result is the same in both conditions, and that result is nevertheless beauty.
The two characters have complementary views about the human condition. While the man talks about the significance of keeping a simple attitude in life, the woman considers that people are meant to be complex and this is what makes them so special and sets them apart from the other living beings. What is more important to her is “the line between a simple person and a simple mind” explaining that “we are not supposed to be simple”.
The most important aspect in the story about the mother who explains to her son about David’s statue placed in the Piazza della Signoria is that she did not mention that the statue is not the original. Even so, the child was still looking at the statue as if it were “a genuine, authentic work of art”. Their discussion emphasizes the importance of the way one looks at something, an aspect which will be proved in the second half of the movie after the hiatus.
The coffee shop is the place where a rupture appears in the narrative web. The woman that owns the shop mistakes the man for the husband of Binoche’s character. Binoche does not correct the owner so when the man comes back and finds out about the misunderstanding, he too plays along. The line breaks but it is tied back quickly. He simply slips into the role of Binoche’s ex-husband. He assumes the role and he immediately becomes the person. He becomes the one that fills the gap, the certified copy of her husband. Nothing changes but the way she begins to look at him from this moment on. The man accepts “his wife’s” reproaches, her criticism and keeps on having the conversation with her on the exact same tone as they did before the switch was hit.
Kiarostami’s movie might not be only about people that are copies of one another or about how we like to believe that one is indispensable (although he or she is not), but also about how human emotions and love itself are replicas.
Our view is perhaps a pessimistic view on the movie but we can find the evidence in the ending of the movie when they arrive in the hotel room where they (or her and her husband) spent their wedding night. To her nothing has changed. One might consider that her feelings for her ex-husband are the ones that haven’t changed. The feelings she casts over William Shimell’s character are the ones that turn him into the man she used to be married with. When calling his name she intentionally stammers as the husband of her sister Marie does. Just like “J-J-J-J-James” tells her in the car before the alteration takes place that it is the way Marie looks at her husband which makes him special, this is the moment when his theory is proven right. Without le regard of the woman he would have remained the writer she had just met. The way he sees life and his argument about the Certified Copy become the primary justification when the viewer might be asking the question about the reenactment of the husband’s role.
Even if his entire history and relationship with the woman change, his name remains the same, but his past is completely different. The French author, Roger Garaudy, argues that with the beginning of cinematography, time ceases to be abiding and irreversible. Because of the cinema time becomes simultaneous and it is no longer a line with one direction. Man ceases to be caught in the transcendence of life. This movie mirrors what the French philosopher understood as the substance of cinema. The characters of Certified Copy defy the traditional understanding of time and the logic of continuity. What might arise from the movie is the understanding that time in this case becomes a secondary element.
The matter regarding the originality of a work of art, or even of a mere object, is transformed into the issue of the authenticity of human beings. Another question that is implied is the one concerning the work of art and the living being, especially how they interfere with one another and what are the dynamics of this affiliation. The film might suggest that we as humans have the legacies that the ones before us handed down. People are like dwarves standing on the shoulders of giants only that this time it is not only about the scientific discoveries but also about the empiric, biological progresses of human kind.
One poignant quote of the movie is “We are only the DNA copy of our ancestors”, meaning that it is difficult even to refer to us, Homo sapiens, as originals. If we were to make of this quote the core of the essay, we could easily come to the conclusion that the human itself is a certified copy. The definition of a certified copy understood as something which is recreated without being copied (contrary to the age of technological reproduction). Considering the premise true, the question which appears is: if humans, as the designers of the art are not authentic, to which extent of originality can we assume art is entitled to? Does art become more original than its architect? Even if we were to think about ourselves as originals, although we have in our past entire millennia of evolution and knowledge, the authenticity problem still rises. The inner self is not metonymic with the social self, just like in Freud’s point of view, the human psychic apparatus is divided in ego, superego and id, a parting which keeps us from being an undivided being. When it comes to the work of art, the varied, sometimes contrasting views with reference to the object come from outside, generated by the observer. People are nonetheless disrupted not only from the outside (taking into consideration the opinions of others, which often interfere with our own self perception) or from inside (given the complex classification ego, superego and id), but there is also conflict between the two dimensions: the inner self and the social self. Returning to the main issue, the problem is how can one be authentic if the two spheres which constitute human nature are not homogenous.
If the object is not mechanically reproduced, all replicas will have at least one unique trait. The aspect extends to human beings. What sets one apart from another is the distinctive appearance and personality. As the other types of copies, we too are common and uncommon at the same time. The most important feature of how we connect to others or with the work of art is – the glance (le regard). What matters most is how much we invest ourselves in what is in front of us, be it person or work of art. The glance is the most effective act to draw ourselves closer to what is around us. The way we look at something, the subjective, naïve glance is what supplies the person or object with an originality that we project into the item. This is what connects us to that particular element and empowers it with genuine value or not.
A copy might have two origins: reality and fantasy. The attainment of a fantasy, the materialized fantasy (the copy, if you may) will be almost always less than the existing idea. The accomplished fantasy will be inferior not only to itself, to what the original concept used to represent, but as an outcome will be negatively seen even compared to the resulting copy of an object of reality. The movie however does not engage into this dimension of the certified copy as result of fantasy, even if what happens between the two main characters is primarily a fantasy that finds its path to reality. Ideals are no longer perfect outside fantasy.
Reality itself seems to become an unfortunate copy of our dreams. The scene which depicts James Miller looking at the motorcycle shows the spectator another two copies of the character’s reality: one in the vehicle’s rear-view mirror and the other in the mirror placed in front of it. This scene emphasizes what relationships between characters seem to have become: a person is like a slightly distorted mirror which portrays the other through its filter. People seem to be like mirrors that reproduce reality and give another understanding to it.
Although Certified Copy is an unusual production for Kiarostami (if we were to compare its subject with the ones in his other movies) the director remains loyal to how he chooses to compose the image. The long nature takes seen through a window, the single shot and not the shot/ reverse shot used in the Hollywood films, the rupture in the movie and the motionless shots which “rouse the feelings” of the spectator. The image continues to have a crucial part in his movies as he avoids the story telling type of cinema. It is important to mention that in the Eastern perception, or to narrow it down, in Kiarostami’s view, the image is “a presence, a force”, and less of a copy like in the Western culture. A very beautiful and familiar scene is that of the woman that owns the coffee shop where the two characters arrive. She, like the woman in The Wind Will Carry Us, has a monologue about love, marriage and the condition of both man and woman when they decide to unite their lives.
Kiarostami’s movies seem to be placed between fantasy and documentary. He recomposes the real in the attempt to bring it as close to reality as possible. It might sound paradoxical, but his movies are similar to the line of a circle that begins in reality and is filtered through fantasy just to make it more authentic. All the actors in his movies (except Certified Copy) are simple people filling in the part of humble folk on screen. The most outstanding example is the child from The Wind Will Carry Us who follows the journalist. The boy is obviously shy in front of the camera but this is exactly what makes his role so authentic: his hesitance while filming is like the one a child has in front of a strange person.
In Kiarostami’s movies there are also various elements strongly connected to the idea of people trading places and successfully filling in the part of another. The parts of meta-cinema contribute and emphasize the idea of copies as well. The movies are envisioned as matryoshka dolls, one contained in another, with the effect of leading the spectator to the question of what is the consistency of his own world. As it happens in Taste of Cherry, the movie ends with the filming crew, a disruption of the dramatic and deep human experience depicted in the movie. The rupture is comparable to taking the spectator out of the emotional box he has created for himself during the movie, and yet, pushing him into another. The story is not only about the frailty of human life, but the end of the movie reminds you that the struggle of life and of putting an end to it was a small part of the production of the movie.
In the book dedicated to Kiarostamy’s cinematography, the authors, Mehrnaz Saeed Vafa and Jonathan Rosenbaum discuss the epilogue of Taste of Cherry which they consider important because of what it says: “It’s also a movie”. The emphasise on “also” (unlike the other interpretations of the ending which critics resume as “It’s only a movie”), shows that the understanding of the movie and the epilogue is synonym with the existance of two levels of understanting and creation: the movie, and the meta-movie. The ending does not revoke the meaning of the movie, but it shows another side of it. In the same time, by not revealing the secret of mister Badii and his suicidal impulses, the spectator might fall himself in the role of the passenger asked to take a decision, to help mister Badii or not. The epilogue is described as the place where the spectator is able to escape from the “oppressive solitude and darkness of Badii alone in the grave”, by going back to a plece where Badii admites he had been happy. This might be true, but only for a very short moment, because as soon as the screen darkens, the feeling of unsettlement might return. As Kiarostami confesses, the aim of his movies is to make the spectator reflect on the meaning of he movie, and there is no wrong interpretation. The epilogue might show that mister Badii’s story „Is also a movie” but even so, by being a fictional piece, the pain nor the suffering behind the cameras is real. One perceives it as real but with the appearance of the meta-cinema on the screen one comes to think how much of his own suffering is real and how much of it is just an illusion, the anxiety as a mask for a more important matter.
Something similar happens in Through the Olive Trees a movie about “fiction of a movie shot within a movie”. The meta-cinema is in this case the core of the movie and not the element of surprise. The movie begins when the actor playing the director (in the fictional movie) chooses girls for a certain part in the production. The way he decides upon what girl will receive the role in his movie already creates the impression of a miniature universe in which the higher instance delegates roles in the world. Several times one of the actors in the meta-cinematic production is replaced by another villager which is also the case of Tahereh. Those who do not fit properly into the role and do not follow the director’s instructions are replaced. No one is indispensable. It is interesting to watch the dynamics between the authority (the director) and the villagers who have a part in the movie. They disobey some of the instructions to which they do not agree and their disobedience will lead to losing the role. While courting Tahereh on the balcony during the breaks while filming of the movie, Hossein tells her that she must remember not to mistake the man he acts with who he is in fact. He is afraid that his part will change the perception Tahereh might have of him. Those who do not comply with the role assigned by the director lose the fictional part, and those who do comply with it might be mistaken for the ones they are portraying.
The subject of human identity and (non)individuality is also approached in Close-Up, where a poor man named Hossain Sabzian takes advantage of his resemblance to Moshen Makhmalbaf, a famous movie director, and enters the life of a family pretending to be him. Kiarostami was inspired by a real life event and the people acting are the ones that really went through the experience. They are playing themselves, except Sabzian who takes a double role as he did in real life: he plays both Makhmalbaf and himself. Kiaroastami also makes short appearances in the movie, never revealing his face, maintaining mostly a virtual presence through the sound of his voice. The main concern of the movie is what happens when the borrowed identity makes you feel more at ease with your own life. Sabzian slips into the role of another because, as he says during his trial, the respect and obedience shown by the family makes him feel more important than he is in real life. Even if outside their house is the “the same old Sabzian desperate for some money”, the Ahankhah family give him authority. In fact it is their glance and not his lie that turn him from the poor man with no job into the film director.
It is not Sabzian that changes but the way others see him. This is why the role of Makhmalbaf is not fully assumed by him. During the trial one of the complainants says “he spoke about moviemaking as if he were Makhmalbaf”, but what he fails to mention is that none of his family knew the director. How could they have compared Sabzian with someone they did not know anything about? The authority invested in the persona is provided by the family’s assumptions about what a filmmaker must sound like when talking about movies. What tricks them is not the lie they were told or the resemblance of Sabzian with the director (they don’t even know). They are deceived by the passion and the love for art which Sabzian declares in court as he did to the family. In the end Sabzian who is pardoned for his mistake meets the real Makhmalbaf and both of them go to Ahankhah family to ask for forgiveness and to thank them for pardoning him.
Devin Orgeron finds a resemblence between Close-Up and The Traveler, a 1974 movie where Kiarostami depicts the attempt of a boy who wishes to travel to Teheran for a game. Because he has no money the boy sets up a camera with the help of a friend, and invites the villagers to have their photo taken in exchange of a small sum of money. The punch line is that the camera has no film, so the villigers who pose in front of it are tricked into thinking they will also get a photo. In both movies, Orgeron sees „the fascinating idea of image-making as a key to social mobility”; the characters fiind a new meaning of authority thanks to the technological means of duplicating one’s image and creating a new version of cinematic reality. Elena Alberto when referring to Close-Up, invokes „the human need for dreams and the cinema’s power of fascination” and quoting Kiarostami, the author insists on accentuating the different between „the ideal self” and „the real self” as the main theme of the movie. The Spanish author describes the movie as „a complex game with mirrors”, where none of the characters are statisfied with their lives. She assigns Sabzian Dostoyevskyan qualities which are meant to discover certain traits in the Ahankhan family.
All Kiarostami’s movies contain a traumatic event which in the end brings people together, whether it is an earthquake (Life and Nothing More, 1992, Through the Olive Trees, 1994), death (The Wind Will Carry Us, 1999, Taste of Cherry, 1997), the irremediable loss of a loved one (Certified Copy, 2010), anxiety and low social status (Close-Up, 1990). The characters end up getting closer to each other and the spectator is introduced to the purest feeling of communion. What Kiarostami’s characters seem to be aware of is that life is futile and survining an earthquake, for example, does not mean that they will survive the following one. Is it as if they make time for remembering the loved ones but do not spend much time mourning their death. Life must go on for those still living because no one knows what the next day might bring.
This feeling of genuine understanding and communion between people reaches the spectator, not only as a result of the stories Kiarostami approaches, but also as a result of the single shot scenes. As he confesses to Jean-Luc Nancy in 2000, this manner of materializing the relationship between the two characters has the purpose of including the third gaze, the one of the viewer. “Now it’s this looking – says Kiarostami – that makes the two relate to one another”. Returning to the problem of the ideal (the perfect fantasy world which can not be attained on earth) Kiarostami takes on the matter of the ruptured picture and the cracked wall from Life and Nothing More. The picture portays a peasant, the prototype of happiness as understood by Iranians, being surrounded by everything a simple person needs: bread, tea and meat. This idealistic perception of what peasants must be like is tragicly opposed by what the spectator sees through the eyes of the man who plays the director: cracked walls and rubble, but also beautiful takes of nature. It seems like in this case it is not the picture which is a copy of the people, but in fact the villagers are unfortunate copies of the picture. In Iran the photo has become the poster for the movie, Kiarostami also adding beneath it: “The earth shook, but we are unshaken”. In cases of tragedies it is the real world which lives on and not the ideal version of it. Reffering to this scene, Kiarostami says that “the picture doesn’t just represent reality, it also posseses truth”. From this statement one could understand that the picture contains fantasy, the ideal version of life (what he reffers to as truth), elements which surclass reality. In this case the picture is like a mirror in which the peasant is supposed to look at and recognize itself. In this particular movie things do not happen like this. In stead of recognizing themselves, they see all the things they – are not. Compared to the “ultimate dream of the Iranian peasant” reality becomes the ugly side of existence.
Movies like Life and Nothing More (1992) and Through the Olive Trees (1994) spin around the theme of living with urgency. Kiarostami uses in both movies couples that marry a day after a natural disaster (an earthquake). They are not only the stories which resemble each other, but we can easily notice that in both movies the house, the characters, their actions and lines are mostly the same. The significant difference is that in the scene from the 1994 movie, thanks to the meta-cinema, we can take a look behind the camera, at the life the characters have in the movie (not in reality). This is how we find out that what in the meta-movie is a recently married couple, in the movie Hossin courters Tahereh but she refuses even to speak to him. Reality is distorted in the movie, as it happens to the ideal in the real world, or how Kiarostami chooses to depict it, the meta-cinema is the small box inside the big box which is the cinema, inside the bigger box which is reality, inside the bigger box which is the ideal. They are all the same box, it is just that they are of different sizes.
This seems an apporpriate solution to describe reality and fantasy, real life and transcendence. One of them mimics the other without turning into it. This is the reason why one can not talk about copies, but reproductions (or certidied copies as they are named in this essay). These dimensions (and what they contain) resemble but are not entirely the same, they are, as said, certified copies. It is difficult, to change a box for another, reality for fantasy. The perception one has over things allows to change their value, altough the transformation is illusory, deceptive. Perhaps that as long as we do not take ourselves, reality and fantasies too seriously there is still a chance of making the best of our dim reality.
Fig. 1 Certified Copy, 2010
Fig. 2 Close-Up, 1990
Fig. 3 Life and Nothing More, 1992/ Through the Olive Trees, 1994
Fig. 4 Through the Olive Trees, 1994
Alberto, Elena, The Cinema of Abbas Kiarostami, translated by Belinda Coombes, 26 Westbourne Grove, 2005;
Freud, Sigmund, Beyond the Pleasure Principle, translated by C.J.M. Hubback, London, Vienna. Intl: Psycho-Analytical, 1992 New York, Bartelby.com, 2010;
Garaudy, Roger, Despre un realism nețărmurit: Picasso, Saint-John Perse, Kafka, translated by Paul G. Dinopol, Bucharest, Editura pentru literatură universală;
Nancy, Jean-Luc, The Evidence of Film, translated by Christine Irizarry and Verena Andermatt Conley, Yves Gavert Publisher;
Mehrnaz, Saeed Vaafa, Rosenbaum, Jonathan, Abbas Kiarostami (Compemoporary Film Directors), University of Ilionis Press, 2013;
Orgeron, David, Road Movies:From Muybridge and Méliès to Lynch and Kiarostami, Palgrave Macmillan, New York, 2008;
Sterritt, David, With Borrowed Eyes:An Interview with Abbas Kiarostami, http://www.filmcomment.com/article/with-borrowed-eyes-an-interview-with-abbas-kiarostami.
 David Sterritt, “With Borrowed Eyes: An Interview with Abbas Kiarostami”, Kiarostami on the meaning/ interpretation of his movies: „People do have different ideas, and my wish is that all viewers should not complete the film in their minds the same way, like crossword puzzles that all look the same no matter who has solved them. Even if it’s “filled out” wrong, my kind of cinema is still “correct” or true to its original value. I don’t leave the blank spaces just so people have something to finish. I leave them blank so people can fill them according to how they think and what they want. In my mind, the abstraction we accept in other forms of art—painting, sculpture, music, poetry—can also enter the cinema”, http://www.filmcomment.com/article/with-borrowed-eyes-an-interview-with-abbas-kiarostami.