Seagal's Exit Wounds; Iran's The Day I Became a Woman Pulls Off What U.S. Films Can't

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Explosions, car wrecks and killings used to be called the "money shots" of action movies because they guaranteed box office. Now they serve an additional purpose of yanking sullen, downtrodden masses out of their humiliation and lethargy. Can't kill the boss? Sam Jackson will annihilate hundreds of Arabs for you (Rules of Engagement). Not making enough money? Let James Cameron waste millions for your vicarious enjoyment (Titanic). Can't shake that nervous, Jeffrey Dahmer feeling? Anthony Hopkins will legitimize it in Hannibal.

Steven Seagal's comeback movie, Exit Wounds, is pieced together from several such displaced social annoyances. Playing a Detroit cop, he starts off saving the life of a Jerry Brown-like politician whose gun-control speech is answered by would-be abductors/assassins equipped with bombs and automatic weapons. The precinct commander that Seagal exasperates explains the incident was the work of a "Michigan militant group"?meaning, I guess, some upstart Midwest militia. And when Seagal uncovers a ring of renegade cops, a few images of police beating down suspects is replaced by an elaborate, covert drug-smuggling scheme. It lets the action audience displace?and forget?Louima-Diallo anxiety. (An errant line of dialogue suggests that the movie might originally have been titled Excessive Force, but Exit Wounds proves a less controversial, if asinine, alternative.)

With all this noise, sublimation and repressed anger going on, audiences may not mind that Exit Wounds is a lousy, low-grade example of its genre. Director Andrzej Bartkowiak and producer Joel Silver repeat their grungy Romeo Must Die setpieces (all by-the-numbers and energetically so only at the end) but this time they're careful not to make the mistake of killing off their youth-audience draw, the rapper DMX. Here DMX (who joins forces against the drug dealers) lasts throughout the entire film, but he's so soft-eyed and low-voiced he doesn't quite cut an heroic figure. Though the oddly high-domed DMX is probably a perfect complement to the also high-domed, soft-eyed and low-voiced Seagal's laid-back vigilantism, the girls I sat in front of were more eager to see Seagal reclaim his action hero status. "I love him!" one said. "Where's his ponytail?" asked another.

But no one asked, "Why the inanity?" Hollywood has an unspoken pact with millions of politically impotent moviegoers. After years of Bruce, Sly, Arnold, Quentin, Sam and James Cameron's follies, they've been indoctrinated to accept action movies as either illusory empowerment or distraction from reality.

The Day I Became a Woman
Directed by Marzieh Meshkini

Simplicity and richness?two qualities absent from most American movies?define the best Iranian films. An appreciation for the texture of lives lived combines with a gift for radiating its complexity. American reviewers have justly acclaimed the contemplative, animistic style of Abbas Kiarostami, but all hopes for popularizing Iranian cinema rest with Mohsen Makhmalbaf. His naturalistic films permit dreaming?dreams that reveal, not anesthetize.

The center section of The Day I Became a Woman?written by Makhmalbaf and directed by his wife Marzieh Meshkini?could be a dream sequence, yet it has the look and feel of an event that is irreducibly real. Its effect is complex beyond the way Western audiences are used to looking at movies, more like how cinema felt to its first witnesses. For about 30 minutes a young woman, her head covered in a black chador, rides a sports bike along a beckoning coastline. Other similarly clad women join the marathon with her, but this one?Hoora (Shabnam Toloui)?pedals with special urgency and determination. She's in a race, but she's also escaping. Soon, teams of men in white, galloping on horseback, catch up with her, insisting on her frailty, demanding she return to her husband. Next a phalanx of whiskered, bare-chested elders (one, Hoora's old father) summons her. A third set of pursuers is younger men, muscular and compelling and adamant.

Sustaining metaphor and sensuousness, Meshkini makes this event immediate, but also evokes women's lifelong endeavors. When Hoora cycles toward a road sign stating "You are Here," the common detail suggests a larger, cosmic jest. Such complexity is familiar from other Makhmalbaf movies, but it will feel exhilarating to uninitiated viewers. Meshkini adds the distinction of a feminine focus?a serene compulsiveness?that is unique. No matter how doctrinaire the feminist premise, the sequence is extraordinary, echoing the essence of cinema history (early Muybridge and Marey experiments) while giving a young woman's psychological panic a physical sensation.

Because American critics have focused on the obviously cerebral Kiarostami, it's been a too-well-kept secret that the best Iranian cinema can be enjoyed without pedantic instruction. Makhmalbaf's movies (including the great A Moment of Innocence) are almost traditionally romantic, and under his tutelage Meshkini achieves a similar esprit. Hoora's cycling buoys one?the suspended camera launches a viewer's reflection, unlike Spike Lee's showoffy floating gimmick. Meshkini's purposefulness recalls the cinema of Clair, Bertolucci and Jancso, when dollies and pans used to be magical and conveyed meaning. Her sophisticated, easily readable technique includes a start-stop use of aural effects (the surf, spinning wheels, horses' hooves) uncannily like the stuttering guitar track in Mirwais' production of Madonna's "Don't Tell Me." (How apt, since it is the next generation of women?absorbed in their walkmans?who continue Hoora's life-or-death marathon). One can respond to Hoora's crisis viscerally because every detail is musically vivid.

This central episode of Makhmalbaf's script connects stories about women's natural, emotional resistance to social restriction. The three-story structure is similar to Makhmalbaf's 1987 The Peddler, which also examined a range of Iranian life experiences. Meshkini starts with a nine-year-old girl, Havva (Fatemeh Cheragh Akhtar), enjoying her last hour of innocence, then proceeds by generations. But Meshkini never loses the complication or wonder of life at any stage. If her imagery is not as luminous as what Makhmalbaf himself achieved in The Silence, it's still remarkable. When Havva is separated from her orphaned friend Hassan (Hassan Nabehan), the boy is seen indoors, behind yellow bars; both kids imprisoned by education, tradition, custom. They break free in a moment of audacious innocence?shared candy eating. The moment's presexual eroticism is overwhelming. Our adult knowledge, surpassing the kids', makes the sequence resonate. The symbolism is both natural and rich, as when Havva uses a stick to measure time. In such instances, Makhmalbaf and Meshkini go beyond mere "reality"?they rigorously refuse the ease of what's natural and find the exact actions and angles that provide meaning and revelation.

In the film's third tale, an old lady, Houra (Azizeh Seddighi), arrives at an airport and enlists a dark-skinned boy, Shanbeh (Badr Irouni Nejad), off the streets to guide her through a shopping mall. Ribbons tied to her wrinkled fingers remind the old lady to buy things she's never had all her life. Meshkini follows this have and have-not excursion as youngsters listen to the old woman's cryptic ruminations ("My own teapot is full of memories of that black man") then lay out her purchases on the beach. Like the cycling sequence, the overt symbolism in this story also puts us in the characters' minds, combining memory with dreaming. The surreal beach images of household commodities outlined against nature address the peculiarity of desire and affluence. This nearly perfect tale (reminiscent of Djibril Diop Mambety's Little Girl Who Sold the Sun) creates a parable on consumerism and self-determination. Returning to the film's first image of a chador as a makeshift sail, Meshkini creates a liberating metaphor for women's realization that tradition can be subverted to oppose persistent deprivation.

Each of the three women's stories illustrates the intrinsic, modern response to social confinement or the private urge toward freedom. Revolution isn't propagandized so much as dreamed?exactly the kind of humanist persuasion Vittorio De Sica explored in Miracle in Milan and that Makhmalbaf currently masters. Meshkini's tales?from a child's rebellion to adult sexual miscommunication, from a senior's loneliness to an orphan's regret?are all interconnected so that the discoveries of The Day I Became a Woman (including the unusual appearance and unity of dark- and light-skinned folks) are ongoing and cyclical. She proves personal dreams are renewed by communal experience. But it's Makhmalbaf's knack that makes those dreams seem urgent and real.

Hollywood movies have entered a new low point, but American audiences are about to witness an Iranian movie renaissance. The Day I Became a Woman will be the highlight of this year's New Directors/New Film Series when it premiers this Sat.-Sun., March 24-25, at the Museum of Modern Art. Meshkini's triptych on women's issues complements Jafar Panahi's stark, similarly themed drama The Circle, opening next month.

In addition, Friendly Persuasion: Iranian Cinema After the Revolution provides an informative introduction to Iranian movies. This documentary by Jamsheed Akramis will show March 23-29 at the Screening Room as part of its "Iran Through the Eyes of Children" retrospective. Akramis' overview brings together the great names, speaking on the enigma of a foreign, censored art movement that yet confounds restrictions and makes global impact. It's fascinating to hear Kiarostami explain, "Censorship is not a phenomenon that is terribly bothersome to us because we have discovered its antidotes [and] found ways to challenge any imposing force and circumvent it." But above all, The Day I Became a Woman?the movie of the moment?proves him right. That bike-racing sequence alone should become one of the famous emblematic images of our time.

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