Mark Cousins on Argo, Iran and formulaic thinking

Writing exclusively for Bella Caledonia Mark Cousins voices some of his concerns over the new Ben Affleck action thriller, Argo

In the early 1990s, I started seeing films from Iran.  They startled me with their new ways of storytelling, unexpected intimacies and reach.  When I was director of the Edinburgh International Film Festival, long before DVD and before many Iranian films were available on VHS, I wrote to an Iranian film agency, asking if they could send me copies of films.  A shoebox of treasures arrived.

In 2001, I drove to India, from Edinburgh, in my campervan.  I stayed for three weeks in Iran, mostly in villages and in the hills, but in the big cities as well.  Though it is often in our news media, I found myself in a terra incognita. Where were the crowds punching the air? Where was the anti-Americanism, the aggression, the feral Iran that I’d seen for years on TV?  The Iran I encountered was off-the-scale hospitable and beautiful; taxi drivers refused to take money, villagers insisted on making me dinner, etc.  This was just days after 9/11.   Several years later (during the somewhat liberal Khatami regime, not the reactionary Ahmadinejad one) I went back to Iran, and I went back again, for much longer, to make a series for Channel 4 on the history and poetics of Iranian film.

On these trips I made friends in Iran, smoked the sheesha, walked the streets, spent hours in Tehran’s traffic, went to the Jewish cafes, saw how ardent and brave many of the young people were, saw how most didn’t identify with their current government, how Iran is not its government or Mullahs, saw how restless and urgent for reform the country is.  Mostly, though, I felt the welcome of the people.  Once, when we parked our campervan in the wrong place, a policeman asked us to move it but gave us a melon to apologise for doing so.

Two days ago I saw Ben Affleck’s Hollywood film Argo, about the US’s rescue of six of its citizens during the Iranian revolution in 1979. The film gripped me and moved me and I hated it for this. Affleck is talented, liberal and a nice guy – I met him recently.  And yet he has made a film which chronically under-imagines, or mis-imagines Iran.  I looked into its whirring thriller machine to try to glimpse even moments of truth about Iran, its people, subjectivities, lives and street scenes, but saw none.  For decades, foreigners, particularly Americans, have portrayed the country as a chaotic place of jeopardy and inhospitality. Instead of updating or even tweaking this portrait, Affleck and his team have repeated it.  Since their storyline is about a rescue against the clock, Iran is, also, in their film, a prison from which white people use their ingenuity and courage to leave. The film it most brought to mind for me was The Great Escape.  The most emotional moment in Argo is when, on the flight out of Iran, the air staff announce that since the plane has left Iranian air-space, passengers can now have an alcoholic drink.  So even the air has a kind of toxicity.

After I saw it, I did a series of tweets about the stereotyping of Iran in the film.  Some people agreed with my comments but many tweeted back to tell me that the film is a thriller, about hostages and, so, it had to tell its story as a thriller, from the victims’ point of view and, since the Iranians were a threat, Argo had to be presented as such.  To say this was (a) to misunderstand my point about a history of stereotyped representation and (b) to accept entirely Hollywood’s thought process in deciding to return, again, to a moment in history where Iran was the aggressor.  So many people told me that the film is “evenhanded”, in other words it criticises the CIA and mentions the American and UK overthrow of democratically elected Iranian Prime Minister Mossadegh in 1953.  Yes it does the latter (but doesn’t, for example, mention that the Revolution was originally Marxist and that it was hijacked by Islamists) but my objection was not related to this narrow good-bad paradigm of who did what in 1979.  I was objecting to a more general narrowness of visual discourse about Iran, a narrowness which, by dehumanising, makes possible a political discourse in which bombing the country can be talked about, and sanctions are seen as only hurting the government rather than the population of 75m people.

Affleck and his scriptwriters did indeed try to be even handed about the US’s involvement in Iran, about the iniquities of the Shah’s regime, etc (and had Iranian director Rafi Pitts as an advisor) but they use filmic techniques and assumptions which belie their aims.  In many of the scenes set in America, for example, the camera is on a tripod or tracking, whereas in Iran, it’s more often hand held, wobbly, fearful.  Yes I know they’re trying to show instability and urgency, but set this in a history of representation and your eyes roll.  And their Iran is, of course, underscored with thriller music – drones and adrenalin percussion. This is formulaic filmmaking and formulaic thinking about a country.  I’d go further and say that because Affleck and his team didn’t intend to stereotype, their national insults, which demean and offend, are almost like parapraxes.  Just as the film 300 portrayed Iranians as exotic and effeminate (and, even, at one point, as creatures with flippers!), so Argo seems partially fashioned out of equally unconscious material: an American fear of Iran.  This is a parapraxis because it seems to leak out from the film the way a Freudian slip does.  To get the full sense of how Hollywood imagines Iran we should ask why this story, this bit of history? Why now? Why in the thriller mode? And if you want to make a thriller, why not do so about Mossadegh, for example?

I think the issue is psychological distance.  In the internet age, it’s not the number of miles between people which separates them and makes them distant from each other (Skype, Twitter, Facebook and the like dissolve those miles), it’s the mental distance, the empathy and knowledge gaps.  I don’t know if Ben Affleck has been to Iran but, judging by his film, I suspect not.  Argo presents a country which is, psychologically, a galaxy far, far away.  That’s its problem, that’s why it’s damaging.

All countries (including this one, Scotland) have their psychological distances, of course.  And I have, too. But if Ben Affleck would like to see what a great film about the aftermath of the Iranian revolution, with a film within a film, might look like, he should look at Mohsen Makhmalbaf’s brilliant, entertaining A Moment of Innocence.

It should be on the Argo Blu Ray and DVD.

(c) Mark Cousins, 2012



Categories: Uncategorized

Tags: , , , ,

29 replies

  1. Excellent article. Argo offers liberal America’s view of the ‘other’. As Mark writes: ‘To get the full sense of how Hollywood imagines Iran we should ask why this story, this bit of history? Why now? Why in the thriller mode? And if you want to make a thriller, why not do so about Mossadegh, for example?’

  2. A superb piece by Mark Cousins which asks the crucial question: why now? One doesn’t want to believe that Affleck is part of the propaganda conspiracy to prepare the American public for an attack on Iran, but the suspicion lingers that in some way he has been co-opted. Could he really be so naive as not to appreciate how the story would/will play? The current series of the TV thriller “Homeland” – with its appalling title sequence – already assumes that an attack has taken place and that the secret services are having to deal with the backlash. Both TV and film have in the past been used to prep the public for a planned event – most strikingly, perhaps, in the BBC’s dramatisation a year before 7/7 of an imagined ‘terrorist’ attack on London which had exactly the same scenario: three attacks on tube trains and one on a road vehicle. A consultant and participant in the programme was the CEO of a company specialising in ‘disaster response’ which happened to be running an exercise on the same day – involving precisely the same scenario. Coincidence?
    Many people are expecting an attack on Iran to be preceded by another ‘false flag’ event – just like the invasion of Afghanistan. Part of the prepping is, of course, the now routine demonisation of the target country and its leader(s).
    The US website The Greanville Post (www.greanvillepost.com) carried some responses to “Argo” a while ago at: http://www.greanvillepost.com/2012/10/29/ben-afflecks-argo-an-embrace-of-us-foreign-policy/#more-41526

  3. Oh Lord! Jamie does politics, “In 2001, I drove to India, from Edinburgh, in my campervan.” As you do of course if you’re a overpaid professional “Irishman”. For the very last time I ask what the hell has this got to do with Scottish independence. Iran is a theocratic dictatorship, imagine just for a moment you numpties if Scotland was governed by the Wee Free’s with guns, OK that’s the reality here. This is a country that if it was a person would be section-able. Chris Hitchens was absolutely on the money, you’re either with humanist modernity or you’re not and if you’re not then grab your prayer mat, pack your bags and bugger off to “paradise”.

    • Wow, Martinthorpe your last sentence sounded like a sickening mix of BNP and George Bushism. I think you’re missing the point of the article and you sound like a racist.

      Mark, really enjoyed the article, think I’ll check out ‘a moment of innocence’. It lifts my spirits to hear of such kind, generous people, I wish our police handed out melons :) Thanks

    • Yer at the wind up, Martin!
      Iranian movies since 1979 and the groundbreaking film ‘The Cow’, by the likes of Panahi and Kiarostami and many others, have been a revelation. Their film industry is light years ahead of what we have here in Scotland, has a cohesion, integrity, artsitic and technical innovation way ahead of our own, and more importantly, has helped film audiences understand what wonderfully diverse not to mention gentle friendly people live in Iran. Film breaks down distance and preconceptions.
      These world class Iranian movies have an essential truth that is often absent from Hollywood, the dominant political narrative, and even sympathetic social documentaries. Mark Cousins has done more than most to bring them to our attention. Respect for that.
      What’s that got to do with Scottish Independence? You tell me.

      KW

      • Thorpe’s not just “at the wind up Martin” Kev. He’s spouting racist bilge and he’s a totally cheeky cunt about Mark.
        A beautiful piece of writing and confirmed my fears. The threat of attack on Iran grows by the day, though looks like poor Gaza was the trade-off…
        Skyfall is pish btw and Groundskeeper Willie doesn’t even attempt a Scottish accent!

    • Daily Mail readers trolling on the internet? And one always assumed they shied away from such ‘modern’ communications nonsense.

  4. Jumping on a bandwagon here, for which I apologise profusely, since my knowledge of film and my ability to write are both far below Mark’s, but… there’s a similar (admittedly less sinister) overtone to Skyfall’s representation of Scotland. It’s not the pace I recognise.

    Now, keep on topic and sorry for barging in…

  5. Not seen Skyfall. Heard its great.. but gives Scotland the usual Hollywood Groundskeeper Willlie once over. Unlike Iran though we’re in a position to laugh at ourselves without worrying about bombs falling through our roofs in the middle of the night, launched by oil thieves. (Aint we?)

    KW

  6. Well yes Kev, The iranians are beautiful people, it’s the eyes i think. It’s not an easy place to live sometimes, you can be lifted for holding hands in public and so on. I have no idea about argo’s portrayal. pulling up

  7. the filmmakers seems fair enough. Perhaps a scottish version would consist of being trapped in the shop in North Bridge. Anyway there are possibly multilple reasons why theres little scots film industry – a focus on music hall, inept casting and so on. Having said that, the ability to make actual movies is with reach of anyone now. For a special prize, please tell me the Iranian Oscar nominated film that is influenced by Scottish culture – a free guacamole from the filmhouse wanks to the winner : )

    • You can see my film, Afterimages. It’s not an Iranian film influenced by Scottish culture, but it is a zero budget film made in Fife (though I no longer live in Scotland now) that was heavily influenced by Iranian (and French and Hungarian) culture.

  8. idgi, iran has changed since the 80’s, the portrayal of Iran at this time is pretty accurate.

  9. What a terrific article this is.

    “(b) to accept entirely Hollywood’s thought process in deciding to return, again, to a moment in history where Iran was the aggressor. ”

    My biggest problem with the film essentially comes down to this. I’m Iranian but not old enough to remember the embassy seige. Although I know enough history to know that level of aggression existed back in 1980 and doesn’t in 2012 (or 2001, when you visited). But why such a major international debacle was never translated for the screen until in this very critical moment in the relationship between Iran and the West is baffling to me. Ben Affleck can make any film he wants at any time he wants, but the line of thinking that “this is just a thriller” dodges more important issues. I wrote in my own review that the Iranians in this film could be replaced with anybody so long as that anybody is fearsome and foreign. And I see that as a major problem. If you “just want to make a thriller” but you decide to set it in a foreign country and centre it around such a momentous event, why not contextualize your work? Why not analyze the identity of your aggressors beyond “bearded scary guys”? I really, REALLY doubt that sequence in the Bazaar can ever play out in reality the way it does in the film. I guarantee that half the merchants would be lining up with melons to apologize!
    Neither the haphazard opening animated sequence, nor the presence of the sympathetic maid at the Canadian embassy makes up for the fact that Iranians, their motives, the underlying reasons for their anti-West sentiments, and the overwhelming number of Iranians who do not share those kind of sentiments in the first place are either misrepresented, or not represented at all. It’s a shame, because visually Affleck’s team gets EVERYTHING right about Iran, down to every single motto and banner and costume, but they didn’t bother to dig beneath the surface.

  10. What a terrific article this is!

    “(b) to accept entirely Hollywood’s thought process in deciding to return, again, to a moment in history where Iran was the aggressor. ”

    My biggest problem with the film essentially comes down to this. I’m Iranian but not old enough to remember the embassy seige. Although I know enough history to know that level of aggression existed back in 1980 and doesn’t in 2012 (or 2001, when you visited). But why such a major international debacle was never translated for the screen until in this very critical moment in the relationship between Iran and the West is baffling to me. Ben Affleck can make any film he wants at any time he wants, but the line of thinking that “this is just a thriller” dodges more important issues. I wrote in my own review that the Iranians in this film could be replaced with anybody so long as that anybody is fearsome and foreign. And I see that as a major problem. If you “just want to make a thriller” but you decide to set it in a foreign country and centre it around such a momentous event, why not contextualize your work? Why not analyze the identity of your aggressors beyond “bearded scary guys”? I really, REALLY doubt that sequence in the Bazaar can ever play out in reality the way it does in the film. I guarantee that half the merchants would be lining up with melons to apologize!
    Neither the haphazard opening animated sequence, nor the presence of the sympathetic maid at the Canadian embassy makes up for the fact that Iranians, their motives, the underlying reasons for their anti-West sentiments, and the overwhelming number of Iranians who do not share those kind of sentiments in the first place are either misrepresented, or not represented at all. It’s a shame, because visually Affleck’s team gets EVERYTHING right about Iran, down to every single motto and banner and costume, but they didn’t bother to dig beneath the surface.

  11. Mark, I’m a big fan, but this article is utter nonsense. The questions you pose “why this story etc” …Would you really ask a director “why didn’t you make that film more like another director would, make it more like a director I like would” ? That’s unfair. Is it fair to be upset because a film doesnt chime with your political sensibility? If so your piece shows, to me, a form of narrow mindedness in that way that connoisseurs can be.
    You want to see a different representation of Iran, that’s fine. But no traveller, film maker, novelist, can see or tell a country in full. To say that another film makers vision is unreal, and yours is real seems to me to be folly. Worse, the Iran you describe and have in your mind, to me that sounds like a romanticised Iran, an iran experienced by someone expecting to find horror but didnt. Is the Iran you created to tell people it wasnt what you see on TV, any more real than Affleck’s thriller Iran? It’s an Iran you created with words, so how can it be?
    Of course it’s the place of millenia of culture and learning, of beauty and humanity. But no matter how much you don’t like it, Iran is also the place where they hung people from cranes. They still do it, more often in secret, to bloggers, gay people, intellectuals, opposition supporters… That Iran also exists, I’m afraid. You don’t like the film because it doesn’t meet the Iran you created in your mind. Fine. I would say if Affleck made his Iran more like your romantic Iran, rather than his “thriller” Iran… Hell, I’d think he was being dishonest to the story he was telling.

  12. Ben Afflect didn’t make Argo to promote intercultural understanding, and Argo is not about the nice people in Iran. It’s about people who took innocent people hostage for more than a year.

    The author thinks the makers of Argo should have made a different movie. Well, I don’t think it’s deniable that the subject of Argo was ideal for a thriller, and what’s more, it has the additional resonance of being true. Or maybe the blogger feels that if the moviemakers wanted to make Argo, they should have included a few scene-setting vignettes to show that the tens of millions of Iranians are not like the people in charge of the government or the hostage-takers — that the movie should have shown that Iranians are nice people.

    But as a modestly educated and traveled American, I know that there are millions of people in every country who are nice. I know that a depiction of anti-Americanism in news or film does not establish that, in that country, there are no people who are nice to Americans, or that the people generally are not nice. So what? I don’t need Argo to give me a little speech about that.

    It’s a cliche that the rank and file millions in any country that is depicted as hostile to America are not anti-American. That was said of the Soviet Union throughout the Cold War, for instance. It’s a cliche that the salt of the earth in every country are eager to befriend Americans and ask about the culture they have heard so much about It would have been self-consciously politically correct, and silly, for Argo to go out of its way to mention that there are nice Iranians and Iranians who are kind to Americans.

    The blog reminded me of what it was like to be a Miami Herald reporter in Key West when I was 22-25. This is where I developed my lifelong hatred of PR and Chamber of Commerce types. Since the island depends on tourism, the business and political leadership is extremely sensitive to how the island is depicted to the rest of the world. Every day I would have someone telling me that my reporting was not fair because it was “giving people the impression” that, you name it, whatever I wrote about was something every tourist could expect to happen to him, every day. When I wrote about the Mariel boatlift, they had whole Chamber meetings devoted to denouncing me and The Herald as having depicted Key West as a place where tattooed Cuban criminals were rioting and raping in the streets. No story ever said any such thing, but the Chamber people wanted me to write a lead about how many Cubans arrived in the boatlift today, followed two paragraphs about the lovely weather and the fact that tourists could have a nice time without being mugged by raging former Cuban prison inmates. After the advertisement, I could resume telling the news.

    But in truth, none of the news stories about the Cuban boatlift ever said anybody was raging, raping or mugging anyone in the streets, or that tourists should avoid Key West. And Argo never said the Iranian people are not nice. Argo just told the truth about its subject.

  13. Reading this struck a chord with me when Mr. Cousins evokes the Great Escape giving the viewer similar thrills during the final completely fictionalized escape scene of the movie Argo. Notwithstanding Mr. Cousins accurate depiction of stereotyping that is abundant in the movie and his general critique, however, I cannot side with his experience-driven romanticism about the Iranian people, like the policeman who asked him to move his vehicle but offered him some melon when Mr. Cousins was visiting Iran. These same kind and generous people are ruled by ruthless clerical dictatorship, let’s not forget that!
    I especially like Mr. Cousins idea of a making a thriller about Mossadegh, now that make good material for a movie!

  14. talk about real Iran.
    As a Iranian I want to give my best regards to you.

  15. No substance here. Distorted view from someone who clearly just wants to make a horse and pony of their knowledge on Iran with no consideration to the films purpose. It’s not a documentary and it does not represent modern day Iran or the Americans in a good light this making this review totally redundant. This film was perfect and unless you were there at the time you cannot speculate as to its accuracy. This is the crappest film review I’ve ever read.

  16. As Cousins namedrops meeting Affleck, and as Cousins invokes Mohsen Makhmalbaf, I shall namedrop and say that I was speaking with Mohsen Makhmalbaf last week – and wanted to discuss Argo with him, but did not (I don’t think he’s seen it; he says he only watches movies in intense bursts, mainly as a judge at film festivals).

    That said, Makhamalbaf was the incarnation of kindness and generosity that conforms with Cousins’ romantic view of Iran. And I presume one could and should say that same about Cuba, North Korea, China, the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany: that of course, on the ground, most people are nice, pleasant and welcoming towards others. We are all human, after all.

    But humans are also capable of monstrosities and it is not for nothing that Makhmalbaf has not been to Iran in eight years. It is not for nothing that Jafar Panahi, Mohamad Rasoulof and other filmmakers have spent periods in the notorious Evin Prison, under house arrest, and have been banned from filmmaking (though this his not stopped Panahi from making a non-film).

    Contemporary Iran is a country that – to the best of my knowledge – is as human as any other – perhaps extremely human at both ends of the scale: generosity and monstrosity.

    But this is not supposed to be a corrective of the romanticism that seeps into Cousin’s article. He is entitled to that, and it does help us to re-think Argo, which can be no bad thing, since to re-think anything is only going to help us better to understand it (and how difficult it is for us to understand, or to overstand, anything).

    In this sense, Cousins fights fire with fire: a stereotyped image of friendly peasants to counter the stereotyped image of angry Islamists.

    Cousins evokes A Moment of Innocence, though he could invoke many Iranian films, from The Cow to Close Up, from The House is Black to, why not?, Kamal Tabrizi’s much more mainstream (if also banned) The Lizard. For perhaps the main beauty in Iranian cinema is its understanding that all is image. That is, Iranian cinema offers us lessons in what we might term relativity: that we can always see things differently, that we can always re-think things, and that seeing things differently is perhaps what makes us precisely human.

    However, in this sense, I think that Cousins’ critique of Argo does not work. From the presence of Rafi Pitts as the Turkish ambassador, to the digital and obviously not filmed on location Azadi Tower, to the fact that the film acknowledges that Iran is somehow like a Lucasian desert in a galaxy far, far away – I think we have here a movie that is self-consciously *a movie*.

    Cousins seems to be asking for a movie to be something that it is not: a means to show us “the real” Iran. And yet we only need look at Iranian cinema – A Moment of Innocence is a fantastic example – to know that we cannot pick apart the real from the image. So I am not really sure what Cousins’ point is.

    Or rather, I am certain what Cousins’ point is – but this is not really a fault of Argo. Cousins’ point is that *viewers* of Argo might take its depiction of Iran to be real – and that they might think Iran to be populated by fundamentalists baying for the blood of Americans – even though the film self-consciously demonstrates its own status not as reality, but as movie. In the same way that anyone who watches The Cow, Sohrab Shahid-Saless’ Still Life or the Koker trilogy might think Iran to be full of poor, earnest and ‘simple’ people. Even though these, too, are only movies – and ones in different ways and to varying degrees also explore their own status as movie.

    Cousins is touching upon something important, though. I’ll explain it by comparing Argo to another film by Mohsen Makhmalbaf, Salam Cinema.

    Argo reminded me very clearly when I watched it of Salam Cinema – to such an extent that I wondered whether Affleck had seen the latter film in preparing Argo, and in such a way that the visual reference to it was deliberate.

    In both films, crowds amass outside of a building and force their way through doors – and it is the in-crowd and the aerial handheld shots that both films share. But in Salam Cinema the crowds are trying to audition before Mohsen Makhmalbaf in order to be in a film; whereas in Argo they are trying to get to the Embassy to sequester its workers (and those Iranians after visas).

    Both scenes in some respects convey similar messages. In Salam Cinema, we see the power of the image, in that those self-same Iranians who kindly offer people food and who cruelly lock up their daughters for thirteen years (as happens in Samira Makhmalbaf’s Apple) – i.e. those *humans* from Iran – are desperate to be on/in film. They desperately want to be in cinema, to become its light and shadow, its colour. And as we know from Makhmalbaf’s Gabbeh, life is colour. Life is thus an image. Cinema is real, and reality is cinematic – such that we cannot tell them apart.

    In Argo, meanwhile, we see what at first blush is something like the inverse: people rally to get rid of Americans from Iran, with America no doubt best known to those Iranians in this crowd through its movies – that most insidious tool of what Ali Shariati defined as Westoxication – the poison that was corrupting Iran under the Shah. Hence the destruction of over 150 cinemas in and around the time of the Islamic Revolution, including the notorious burning of the Rex in Abadan with some 300 souls inside it. Hence the reduction of films permitted screening in Iran from over 2,000 before the revolution to about 200 after it. Hence the drop in domestic production from about 90 films per year in the early 1970s to only 14 or so after the revolution. And hence the Ayatollah finding cinema worth mentioning when he says that he is not *against* film per se, but he is against its being used negatively to influence people (Hollywood as poison).

    In other words, admittedly with some twisting, but perhaps the point can be taken: Salam Cinema sees crowds gathering (after the revolution) to be part of cinema, while Argo sees crowds gathering (at the time of the revolution) to get rid of cinema and the country that brings it into the nation.

    However, I am saying that they both point really to the same thing, and that is the intensity of feeling that cinema arouses in people. That is, humans do indeed mistake images for reality, or use images as their basis for understanding reality – rather than thinking for themselves, rather than re-thinking.

    And yet, if both films can – indirectly? against their maker’s wishes? – seemingly make the same point, then how is Affleck’s poorer? Argo of course tells us quite clearly that humans mistake cinema for reality, precisely because it is on the premise of making a film – Argo – that the rescue takes place at all. That is, cinema/the ‘cinematic’ bleeds into the reality of the situation, and it only follows that a thriller should ensue. Not least because this would have been psychologically how those Americans understood their situation, because we cannot help thinking that our reality is cinematic, that we are in some sort of movie. Perhaps this is why Affleck must also cast himself (for the first time in his own films) in a role that his brother or Renner (as the stars of his other films) could just as easily have done.

    So for me Argo remains, or resolutely is, a smart film – perhaps a smarter film than is Ben Affleck if we are feeling that, as an American, he must somehow be incapable of profound thought, and that profound thought can only come from the ‘humble’ Iranian filmmaker (both of which are stereotypes that we would do well to re-think). No doubt it is just that Cousins should direct viewers (in vain?) away from Argo as the source of all their knowledge about Iran and towards its brilliant and varied cinema (as I am sure he would direct people to many other ‘world cinemas’ beyond what is on at the multiplex, too).

    As a film, Argo self-consciously explores the way in which images are taken for reality, and that this is just image (why else do the opening exposition of Iranian history under the Shahs and the intervening Mossadegh government in animated form, if not to say precisely that this is not real, this is an image?). In fact, Argo explores exactly the same theme as, er, A Moment of Innocence, the very films that Cousins erects against it. As such, Argo, like A Moment of Innocence and like Salam Cinema, asks us to re-think what we see; to re-think how much our understanding of reality is dependent on and defined by images, by cinema. As such, it asks us precisely to re-think stereotypes.

    What seems, then, to be Cousins’ beef is the unthinking way in which people might watch his film – which itself runs the risks of unthinkingly thinking that people unthinkingly watch films, when this may be far from true (as the documented interpretation in Iran of Lord of the Rings as an anti-Ahmadinejad film perhaps testifies; people can read even the biggest entertainments in a political fashion).

    And he also seems to offer the old beef that Hollywood dominates the global film industry, not least through its stranglehold over/its ongoing prevalence in distribution circles (Hollywood dominates our choice at the box office, and we are inclined not to be interested in films that have not shown at the box office). Which also perhaps unthinkingly testifies to the fact that Hollywood unthinkingly has dollar as its bottom line. No doubt Argo is after dollar; it has to be; but this does not make it any less a smart film.

    To summarise: Affleck can only make the film he makes. It is not his fault – and he is certainly trying to make excellent films as his performance of humility testifies when he says that he is still learning how to be a real director. The issues that underwrite Cousins’ article are about audience response and asking why audiences do not watch foreign movies, and ‘slow’ movies, while at the same time promoting a bit of such cinema. And these are different – if important and to be discussed – issues. Nonetheless, Affleck makes a smart film *in spite of* being a Hollywood film. In this sense he should be praised. He does not have the luck of having been born Mohsen Makhmalbaf…

    (If Cousins – or anyone – is really interested in seeing overlooked but thinking cinema, then he/you won’t mind my promoting my own films – En Attendant Godard, Afterimages, Common Ground and China: A User’s Manual (Films) – on this posting. If you want to watch them, write to me at wjrcbrown at gmail dot com and I’ll send you, or anyone, copies of them. But most people won’t bother. Why? Because you’ve never heard of them, unless you have an eagle eye and saw the first two mentioned in Sight & Sound some moons ago. And because they do not have the endorsement of theatrical release, a DVD label or film festival prizes – because film festivals often don’t know original cinema when they see it, either. And because they are being offered to you for free – meaning that they must not be legitimate if not commercial. So, as my own agenda becomes clear as I endeavour to explain what I see Cousins’ real agenda as being, I wonder that we are all tainted by the stereotypical thought that if it is not endorsed somewhere and somehow, then it cannot be any good, and is not worth watching. But that’s a different issue. I promise you, I know my films are good.)

  17. In so many words, the author of this piece is trying to persuade us that Ben Affleck is mounting an anti-Iranian propaganda campaign for, ummm, military purposes? Do I have that right? And of course, since Affleck has presumably never been to Iran and you have, that of course makes you right. But unless I’m mistaken, you weren’t in Iran circa 1979. Surely you aren’t presuming that the country then is exactly the same as it was when you were there. I think not. On the flip side, I’d say you’re guilty of a bit of a propaganda campaign yourself. Iranian cops giving out free melons because of the inconvenience of having to move your car? Seriously? I’m not saying I doubt the story, I’m saying it’s purpose here is as manipulative as anything in any Hollywood film. To suggest that Iranians all share this “give a westerner a melon for his inconvenience” thing is absurd. So what you’re arguing essentially is that Iran in 1979 isn’t like Affleck depicts it, since you were there of course. The siege on the embassy was clearly drummed up in all surviving accounts too I’m sure. And I’m sure the Ayatollahs stay in power through force, not because they have loyal followers in a sizable portion of the Iranian population. Lunacy. There is anti-western sentiment in nearly every country, even Turkey, so you can’t pretend that magically, in Iran, it doesn’t exist and all westerners can expect when they go there is a free melon. You conveniently ignore a whole host of incidents when writing your article because they don’t support it. What about Salman Rushdie? I don’t think the Iranians were looking to give him any free melons. As for your whole drummed up bit about Hollywood’s supposed anti-Iranian bias, using only Argo and the cartoonish ‘300’ (based on a graphic novel) to back that line up, did you forget ‘A Separation’? It was only a year ago that the Iranian film swept though the award circuit on its way to winning Best Foreign Language film. Where was Hollywood’s aforementioned, anti-Iran sentiment there? I don’t want a war with Iran and hope it doesn’t happen, but this kind of absurd, one-sided political correctness is just as nauseating as that spouted by the Neocons.

  18. a decent critique of the movie, but the premise of the argument is hardly novel: a Hollywood film is revealed as thinly veiled propaganda. What is more interesting is the motive: white Americans escaping a foreign prison (Rambo III, Black Hawk Down etc) is a cry/support for a more introvert foreign policy – less intervention/withdrawal from foreign conflict – as opposed to the current reality of gradual full spectrum escalation. Through art a society speaks to itself. Shakespeare wasn’t much interested in the internecine validity of Danish politics when he wrote Hamlet.

  19. Mark, one thing worth pointing out is that Iran in the 1990s or later is not the same sort of place as Iran in 1979. Any more than Britian or the US is. Things change. Did you notice how Afleck showed no problems at all getting round Tehran, except in the few places where there were organized protests? That was true-to-life. As true, indeed, as the images of the Belfast Troubles which make some (= lots of) Americans still think that Ireland isn’t really safe. I think it’s simplistic to say that Afleck was all that simplistic in his portrayal of the realities of the day. (I was 16 in 1979 watching TV in the States; you were, I take it, 14 watching TV over here. I have many Iranian friends and have spent some weeks in Iran on two separate occasions.)

Trackbacks

  1. MARK COUSINS ON ARGO, IRAN AND FORMULAIC THINKING » The Greanville Post | The Greanville Post
  2. Affleck and the Argonauts « shadowplay
  3. PPH end of year round-up part 1 | Editor’s top 10, the nearlies, and the never-weres « Permanent Plastic Helmet
  4. Awards Season Controversy – Responsible Cinema « Film Doctor
  5. Awards Season Controversy – Responsible Cinema | Film Doctor

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: