Power Trips & A Lover’s Transport

“Everybody fucking knew” about Harvey Weinstein’s predatory side says screenwriter Scott Rosenberg in a self-lacerating post in which he called out complicit Hollywood. Rosenberg blamed himself and bigger players for their not-knowing stance toward the monstrous mogul. Rosenberg’s rant on the low motives that kept all of them on Weinstein’s team seemed spot on, but as I read him last night, I found myself resisting his larger claims for Weinstein’s cultural import:

What about what he was doing for the culture?

Making stunningly splendid films at a time when everyone else was cranking out simpering “Independence Day” rip-offs.

I associated Weinstein with B.S. Oscar campaigns for second-rate flics and Quentin Tarantino’s lift-off. (Oh yes, and Tarantino rip-offs like the one scripted by Rosenberg, Things To Do in Denver When You’re Dead.) Since Q.T. wasn’t my cup of tea, I doubted this movie-goer—or the culture—owed much to Weinstein. I’ll allow, though, when I checked what films Miramax had their hands in (or on), there were movies that mattered—Paris is Burning, The Crying Game, Little Buddha, Queen Margot, Happy-Go-Lucky…Weinstein was into presiding over zeitgeisty flics (there’s money in being punctual) but, on occasion, Miramax even got involved with movies that were ahead of the beat—the pre-9/11, anti-Islamist My Son the Fanatic (1999) comes to mind. So…every document of civilization is a document of a barbarism?

I guess. Then again, one movie on Miramax’s plus list, the late Abbas Kiarostami’s Through the Olive Trees might just walk us past such doomy double-truths toward a higher contrariety. Kiarostami’s supremely real and impossibly romantic film tells the story of a strapped lover who pursues his dear with a dogged yet un-imperial fervor that makes him a sort of anti-Harvey. This anti-heroic but fully human character (Hossein Rezai)—a local stonemason turned actor—has a role in another Kiarostami movie, Life and Nothing More, set in an Iranian village that has been devastated by a massive earthquake. In the course of filming that movie, Rezai has fallen hard for his leading lady, but her family is put off by her suitor since he’s poor and illiterate. The young woman he’s stuck on—a student named Tahereh—tries to evade him in Through the Olive Trees, even as they’re shown acting together in Life and Nothing More. Rezai keeps bending her ear when they’re off-set and she keeps acting like she ain’t trying to hear him. He quickly becomes a figure of comedy and pathos due to his irrepressible urge to win her, but no normal heart could look down for long on this clunky, country lover. We’ve all stumbled there, unless we’re as mad as Weinstein (or Trump) (or as horribly undeniable as some modern Steerforth).

Like every mannish boy who woos and waits on a dream, Rezai seems almost feminine. Per Roland Barthes in A Lover’s Discourse:

It follows that in any man who utters the other’s absence something feminine is declared: the man who waits and who suffers from his waiting is miraculously feminized. A man is not feminized because he is inverted but because he is in love. (Myth and utopia: the origins have belonged, the future will belong to the subjects in whom there is something feminine.)

Let’s hope so, though the virtue of being a Romeo at the mercy of the beloved—“I would I were thy bird”—will always be lost on macho power-mongers (and killer women too).

I’ll admit I was flummoxed to find out Miramax had something to do with Through the Olive Trees. What could Harvey Weinstein have seen in the delicacy of Kiarostami’s comedy—the gentleness of Rezai’s abyss?  Well, as it happens, the answer was: less than zero. According to film critic Jonathan Rosenbaum back in the day, Miramax didn’t so much distribute Through the Olive Trees as dump it. Rosenbaum’s angry account of what happened to the film in America is worth recalling now since he zeroes in on Miramax’s allies who should share the weight for promoting so much stunningly splendid crap in the ‘90s and ‘00s.

Many critics would simply accept Miramax’s judgment that the greatest of all Iranian filmmakers isn’t worth bothering with, and write instead about one of its inferior offerings whose ad campaigns are already burned into our retinas. Some people would argue I have a moral obligation to do this too, because, after all, muck like “Kids” is what everybody wants to see anyway. But given the self-serving prophecies that drive the movie business, how can anybody possibly tell what people want to see? For the past year I’ve been hearing that “Pulp Fiction” is some sort of grassroots, word-of-mouth sensation, but I’ve also been hearing that Miramax spent as much money advertising it as producing it. You can’t have it both ways: either the audience discovered it, or the audience got sucked in by the ad campaign (though one wonders whether it’s even possible for audiences today to discover anything that millions haven’t already been spent promoting).

Of course if making money is all that matters, then you can appear to have it both ways, because that’s the tried-and-true agenda of advertising: deception, lies, and bad faith. This helps explain why it’s convenient for the “New York Times” – which works hand in glove with Miramax in promoting many of its favorite goods, most of them antihumanist (like “Kids” and Woody Allen and “Pulp Fiction”), and trashing or ignoring some of its less favorite goods, most of them humanist (like “The Glass Shield” and “Through the Olive Trees”) — not to inform the public that it sponsors the Sundance film festival, so that when the “Times” offers “in-depth” coverage of Sundance every year it’s essentially promoting its own operation…

Per Rosenbaum, Through the Olive Trees amounted to a full-on challenge to an anti-humanist cinematic agenda. Take a peak (below) at the movie’s final scene of Rezai in romantic pursuit, with its open-ended—what does she tell him when he catches up with her?!—yet transporting finish. It leaves your heart in a highland far from the ambit of plug-ugly power-trippers.

Editor’s Postscript:  First respondent Phil Greene  completed my thought–and improved it–so I’m appending his comment:  “I had to re-read your set up (carefully this time…) and watch again to get the idea about that wonderful, daring  (for cinema with any kind of commercial ambition) ending. What I did get the first time was that the way he went down that hill he was no predator, but a lover desperately hoping for anything willing to take no for an answer while he waited for yes–hoping but not preying…She must have given him some hope, or he must have found some for himself, the way he runs back, and the music says good news.”  B.D.