My "Movie Camp" Vacation to San Francisco

   Before I start this article, I need to mention that this January 2013 marks the fourth birthday/anniversary of the ConFluence-Film Blog.  On a virtual blur of a day in January 2009, immediately after booking a U-Haul for emigrating to New York City from Philadelphia, the blog was launched.  At the time, truth be told, I never really thought that I would have still been keen on keeping it going for this long.  It was originally an act of caprice for which I eventually fell head over heels.  Thanks to all the people who have continued to loyally read what has been written and posted on this forum.  As people have been known to chant at political conventions, "Here's to four more years!"

    I have just returned from a venture out to San Francisco where I shot a new feature film, this time as co-director next to my friend Deniz Demirer, who is also currently editing a very exciting feature film called American Mongrel, due for release this year.  Our new collaborative feature is titled Ezer Kenegdo, and it is certainly a work of an extremely personal nature for both of us.  Truth be told, it is perhaps the most personal and most close-to-the-breast film I have yet made, as it explores and probes issues that have long been the subject of much intense meditation for me.  I think my collaborator would say the same.  The shooting of the film is something I have recently been fond of calling "Movie Camp," in that the experience of making it re-invigorated me and revitalized my filmmaking drive after it had been dampened by a prodigiously difficult and stressful production this past summer in Sag Harbor, Long Island.

   Deniz often works as an actor and editor for local Bay Area filmmaking legend Rob Nilsson, who recently published two articles on the ConFluence-Film Blog as a guest writer.  I got to spend some time with Rob, who will appear in a key supporting role in Ezer Kenegdo, and shared one particularly rewarding and engaging conversation of length with him.  We discussed mutual friends we shared, the dying art of making work that is true and good and worthwhile, our excitement for our upcoming projects and a variety of other things.
   While out in the Bay Area, I got my hands on a number of excellent films that I felt compelled to write something about.  So here it goes...

Nocturnal Jake (2009, Deniz Demirer) - Deniz prefaced his originally reticent screening of this film for me by referring to it as "an exorcism," which immediately turned my head.  On first attempt of viewing the film, I was so fatigued from a full day of shooting and schlepping for Ezer Kenegdo that I fell asleep somewhere in the middle.  Deniz, however, continued watching on his own, and reported back to me the next day how rewarding it was to see it again after a time of essentially half-burying it.  I informed him that, allegiances and friendship aside, I was absolutely entranced by the half that I saw, and that I had literally been fighting the tremendous weight of my eyelids the previous night, out of sheer old-fashioned exhaustion.  I later finished the entire film solo back home in New York, and I must say that if I were to return to re-compose my Best of 2009 list, Nocturnal Jake would certainly have found a place in the Top 10.
   As much as I would seem to admire the film, Nocturnal Jake is not an easy film to describe, and it would be foolhardy and half-hearted of me to attempt to do so.  Some films defy a reviewer's routine impulse to recount filmic event, by sheer virtue of the fact that the work in question is more of an experience to be had rather than simply a collection of scenes.  Nocturnal Jake boldly creates its own language, and immerses the audience in that storytelling language so that, by the time the deliciously enigmatic end rolls around, a thoughtful and intelligent viewer not just understands the language but will also find it challenging when attempting to indulge in watching a more traditional work.  After a film like this, you are spoiled by sheer originality.  Everything comes together, from the moody jazz music score, to its custom-made narrative voice, to its take-it-to-the-streets camerawork, and of course the performances, particularly that of lead actor, real-life jazz musician David Boyce.  Boyce recalls the quiet intensity of Dexter Gordon's tortured sax player in Bertrand Tavernier's 'Round Midnight.  The film also fuses so many forms so effectively that it leaves a viewer enrapt in the experience, and thankfully breathless.
   Last week, a friend of mine informed me about a L.A. Rebellion Movement film retrospective in Philadelphia, and informed me that Larry Clark's Passing Through (1977), the story of a jazz saxaphonist, was screened, along with Clark's previous featurette As Above So Below (1973).  I have seen neither film, but cannot imagine Passing Through being any better or more poetic with its form than Nocturnal Jake.  I have a natural soft-spot for impassioned grass-roots features.  Nocturnal Jake is also infused with the impetuous, irresistible "first-time filmmaker" spirit  that highly charged, almost tangible energy  that made debut works like Shadows shine through the dross that's all dressed up with nowhere to go.  Seeing a film like Nocturnal Jake exposes this dross for what it is: invalid and worthless when compared to a film of its like.

Over-Under Sideways-Down (1976, Eugene Corr, Peter Gessner and Steve Wax) -  This is the classic example of an unjustly buried film that has long been missing-in-action.  I myself learned about it only through having read a particular piece some time ago about Nilsson's Cannes Camera d'Or winning debut feature Northern Lights (1979), which was produced by a "Marxist-light" independent filmmaking group called Cine Manifest.  While Northern Lights developed more of a name and reputation, Cine Manifest's first feature film Over-Under Sideways-Down never quite made its spot in any kind of limelight, other than a one-off showing on a public television independent film series called "Visions" in 1977.  I asked Rob Nilsson, when first formally put into e-mail contact with him a little over a year ago, about how one could get a copy of that particular film.  Upon meeting him in the flesh just recently, Rob gave me filmmaker Eugene Corr's contact information and told me to get in touch with him.  Corr returned my inquiry quite promptly, informing me that "other than a single screening a couple years ago at Anthology Film Archives, the film has been unseen for 35 years or so."
   In the e-mail, he continued, "My old video tape copies of it deteriorated to the point of being unwatchable.  My intention is to make a DVD from the 16mm sometime in 2013.  Steve Wax in NYC says he has the internegative somewhere in storage but I don't think that's definite.  In any case, thanks for the interest." Then, in the very same e-mail, mind you, in a post-scriptum, he informed me that he did indeed locate a DVD copy from what he claimed was a substandard videotape recording, which he offered to me.  I enthusiastically took him up on the offer and arranged to pick it up from him the next day.  I excitedly plopped it into the DVD player as soon as I returned to my co-director Deniz's house, just for a taste-test.  Deniz and I were rather immediately entranced by the brilliant economy of the film, in that it was succinct both narratively and visually, and also poetic in its efficiency.  Quite honestly, it is a film that knows exactly what it wants to say and what it wants to do, with no namby-pampy sidelining of what is at its center.
   Wisely and quite fluently recalling the British "angry young man dramas" of the late 50's and early 60's (especially Richardson's Look Back in Anger, Reisz's Saturday Night and Sunday Morning and Clayton's Room at the Top), Over-Under Sideways-Down tells the story of a working-class couple, Roy and Jan, who live with their two children in a cramped tract home.  An assembly line worker in a steel plant with developing racial tensions, Roy entertains the escapist fantasy of moving from the local semi-pro baseball team for which he plays third base, to the big leagues.  I was likewise reminded of the homegrown indie work Eagle Pennell, as well as two other films, one being No Pets (1994) by Tony Buba, a native of my hometown Pittsburgh who makes films about the Pittsburgh experience, and the other being Sundance-winning friend Paul Harrill's ITVS short film Quick Feet Soft Hands (2008).  Incidentally, I sent Paul a copy of Over-Under after he expressed active interest in seeing it.  I hope he likewise shares the wealth.
   Corr should not have to scrounge for a new print of Over-Under Sideways-Down.  This is the type of film that someone should be spending money to restore and preserve.  The government with an endowment, perhaps?  I might be naive here.  Why am I worried about this statement being construed as naivete?  That's sad...

   I often feel that one of the duties for which I've been put on this Earth is to locate, excavate and circulate films like Nocturnal Jake, Over-Under Sideways-Down, and other wrongly neglected and unseen works that have fallen into the cracks of obscurity.  When I embarked on my India-lensed feature The Idiotmaker's Gravity Tour a few years ago now, it was likewise a little film called Montreal Main (1974) by Frank Vitale that gave me the energy to move forward with an all-stops-out feature-length DIY undertaking.  Over-Under provided Deniz and myself with an extra tank of gas to move forward with Ezer Kenegdo.  Nocturnal Jake gave me the faith that the co-director is a consummate artist with whom I'm honored to be collaborating.  That is what works like this have done for me, and this is what they can do for other filmmakers...others, that is, willing to dig up such priceless artifacts awaiting rediscovery.

Next up, I review Rob Nilsson's Chalk and What Happened Here.  To be continued...

Guest Article: Transfixed, by Rob Nilsson

A guest article written by Rob Nilsson

To me, George Lucas’ Star Wars films are enormous cartoons. Funny mechanical characters and one dimensional human characters together create a supremely expensive (and lucrative) comic book view of life. As much as I used to admire Camille Paglia, when she calls Lucas our greatest living artist I think David Letterman might as well be Socrates. At that absurd level almost anything is possible.

Joseph Campbell’s hero’s journey, Walt Whitman’s cosmic consciousness, Anthony Burgess’ created cultures and languages have no place in the Sunday morning funny papers, the ones the kids grab before the adults indulge in what once would have been a guilty pleasure. Today there’s no guilt in Dick Tracy. The parents have joined their children on a trip to the local museum where we find…Mirabile Sanctu!… that what we once thought was innocent fun, is now High Art. Except that there is no more High Art.

Alexis de Tocqueville was right. Our democracy has allowed a terrible thing to happen: a leveling of sensibility, a contempt for the work necessary to create a superior art culture, an excuse for adults to remain children, for children to father the family, and the museum and gallery world to laugh at the dearth of Art with cathartic depth.

I’ve re-read Re-Considering the Spiritual in Art, Donald Kuspit’s talk given at Virginia Commonwealth in 2003 which discusses Wassily Kandinsky’s 1911 essay Concerning the Spiritual in Art. Kandinsky blames Western materialism for destroying the spiritual underpinnings of art and Kuspit traces this blitzkrieg of aesthetic promise to the present day where the avant garde has become the establishment and art has become a pop, hip-hop, and shop till you drop Hollywood mantra. Kuspit says that the word “spiritual” has a somewhat sophomoric tone in 2013 America and suggests the German word “geist.” He says that if we want to describe a person of depth and serious “spirituality” we might call that person a “Geistiger Mensch.”

Kuspit says, “The idea that the artist might invest his or her subjectivity in the material medium, which is what brings it alive—indeed, the idea that the artist might have a profound subjectivity, and to be an artist you have to be a certain kind of person, that is, experience the inner necessity of spiritual aspiration, and that the only person who can legitimately call himself or herself an artist is the person who experiences art as part of a personal spiritual process—this idea is discarded as absurd and beside the artistic point. Thus the apparently revolutionary materialistic conception of art is emotionally reactionary.”

I don’t speak German but the word “spiritual” does feel uncomfortable to me. Too many tie-dyed t-shirts, bubbler bongs, and self-authorized gurus come to mind. Too many football Sunday devout Midwestern Protestant ministers yammering on. I was confirmed in the Congregation Church of Rhinelander, Wisconsin and my mother later told me how phony I looked up there with my abashed piety. Maybe that one comment suspends in amber how she and my Dad advocated secular honesty. But as much as I think organized religion is usually a dangerous soporific, I am an unabashed believer in art as an experience which transforms, transfixes and amazes.

Maybe the way I put it isn’t delicate enough, nuanced, suitably hushed. But I think a more muscular, na├»ve, and enthusiastic approach is a good thing to promote in this country where many potential adepts are stopped from experiencing the power of Art either by turn-off-hip museum guides in pressed khakis or little old lady docents with decent ideas, and thereby discouraged from experiencing amazement at the raging color harmonies in Kandinsky’s early landscapes, the brutal candor and self revelation of painters such as Jenny Saville, the refusal to be duped by consumerism in the painful exorcisms of Francis Bacon.

Aesthetics are not effete to me, not exclusive and proprietary. When I look at a painting of Jerome Witkin’s I am filled with awe, energy, and hope. Here is an artist who wants to say it all, who neither spares our feelings, nor suspects we are too weak to receive his messages. He believes in the capacity of people to be “large” and to “contain multitudes.” In front of epic sized multi-canvas works such as his Taken, I feel like I’m being re-built in some way, that I know myself better and want my own work to be deeper, fuller, wilder, both more sensitive and less, an affront to some as it is an inspiration to others. I always think of Whitman’s “barbaric yawp” when I look at Witkin’s work, or that of David Park, Elmer Bischoff and Richard Diebenkorn back in the days of what was called the Bay Area Figurative Movement. They took the daring energies and free wheeling techniques developed by Abstract Expressionists such as Jackson Pollack and Willem de Kooning and returned the human figure to natural landscapes bathed in California sunlight. Visit the Venice Biennale, Art Basel or Art Basel Miami today. You’ll find that anything human (or anything like sunlight) is in short supply.

I like Donald Kuspit because he’s one of the few commentators on the current art scene who doesn’t like scenes. For him it’s not about the crowd, the herd, the literati and gliterati and what they do or say. He sees viewing art as an experience, a thing you do in order to know what you feel, or who you are. Emotion, intuition, whatever you want to call it, something inside you is responding, wind chimes in a hurricane, or a hurricane inside wind chimes. I don’t think anyone’s gone beyond catharsis as the ultimate goal for significant Art: “a sudden emotional breakdown or climax that constitutes overwhelming feelings of great sorrow, pity, laughter or any extreme change in emotion that results in the restoration, renewal and revitalization for living.” Sounds dry, until you do the work which lets you experience it. Cinematographer Mickey Freeman calls it a “beckoning” and he’s not at all generous with it. He feels it or he doesn’t and he doesn’t lie. Over 14 films we’ve done together, and I think he’s mentioned two.

And for me, if I don’t wander in the Park City snow after viewing A Woman Under the Influence, wondering why, or cry on the shoulder of a woman I once loved on the corner of Bleecker and Thompson after seeing Wild Strawberries again, or had my life changed at the now vanished Bleecker St. Cinema where I saw Shadows and realized that film can be about the “you’s and I’s” of this world, then I may be watching good films or seeing good pictures, but I’m wasting my time. I don’t know what the word “spiritual” means but I think what it’s trying to describe is what I’d call the poetic impulse. To me, this is the overwhelm of sensory and psychic inspiration at something in life too powerful to bear without speaking out, singing out, painting out, getting it out in the form of Art. The universe’s natural processes are so powerful that if I ever do find another more powerful plane I can call spiritual, I’d welcome it. Maybe it would make me a better witness and hopefully, a Geistiger Mensch. Either way it’s a mission, a mission with a purpose. There’s a reason why Zen sitters seek satori. There’s a reason why there was once a four minute mile barrier, and now it’s closer to 3:30. We seed the clouds with our desire for some sort of transcendence, however momentary.  We hold our faces open to the rain and imagine the ultimate. I believe that poetry is the impulse, and that Art is the realized icon of our desire to know, to feel, to be.

Guest Article by Filmmaker Rob Nilsson — Exceptions and the Rule: Thoughts on the 2011 Film A Separation

A Guest Article Written by Rob Nilsson

ConFluence-Film Blog has a very special guest article to share.  In my travels to San Francisco to shoot a new feature film, I recently had the supreme privilege of meeting and sharing a nice long chat with a filmmaking hero of mine, after having exchanged e-mail correspondence with him.  Bay Area independent film icon Rob Nilsson, winner of the Cannes Film Festival Camera d'Or for his debut feature Northern Lights (1979) and the Sundance Grand Jury Prize for Heat and Sunlight (1987), patented a brand of independent filmmaking known as Direct Action, an improvisational theater approach to filmmaking that takes a "just do it" approach to making movies, allowing creative storytelling about real people in real circumstances.  Nilsson has acquired a dedicated coterie of admirers, which includes none other than the late John Cassavetes himself, who called his Signal 7 (1985), "A seminal work."  Rob is helping us with our film as well, and gave my film The Idiotmaker's Gravity Tour a lovely promotional quote this past year.  Mr. Nilsson penned a response to the 2009 Iranian film A Separation.  I am honored to be featuring it on the blog as a guest article.

Government is a four ring circus, each ring defined by a word beginning with P: Power, Protection, Pride and Profit.  Sad as this might sound we would never want to add Purity as the fifth P.  It’s the Pure I’m most afraid of.  Almost as much as the Sure.  Beware the “V word” too.  Virtue attends every inquisition, every bloody purge. Yes, we should advocate truthfulness, empathy, courage, honesty and other “virtues” but these are not ends in themselves.  How could they be?

Politicians are circus performers and we are the animals.  And in their four Rings our political figures perform many merry acts with and upon us, while regaling us with “truths” mostly lacking in empirical proof. When they are seeking election, they’ll say almost anything with the authority of worldly savants possessed of special understanding.  We listen to them pontificate and judge their obvious distortions, skeptical, but then, who else do we have? When they are elected they can’t act nearly as irresponsibly because now they are engaged in the actual work of governance.  And here, as greedy, petty, and venal as they may be, they need to be listened to.

Because it is through a process of intense debate with opposing peers that we get the best that can be gotten from the political process.  If we were to toss aside all the prevaricators and ask for the coming of the new Akhenaten who would toss out all uncertainty (and therefore all debate) in favor of sun worship, we would reap, eventually, the same as that all conquering poet.  Disaster.  His city deserted.  His tomb desecrated.  His memory besmirched.  Like Lenin.  Ghengis Khan.  Xerxes.  And as for Revolution as a means to achieve justice, which would you like to have lived through:  Russian, Chinese, Cambodian… ? Luckier the American or even the French.  But luck runs out and I don’t like the odds… or the body counts.

The only hedge we have against disaster is constant debate, constant struggle, constant warfare between competing notions, 1/4 of which will be too difficult for most to follow, 1/4 of which will be so self interested none of the opposition will support it, 1/4 of which will be criminally stupid, or insane, and 1/4 of which offers enough wiggle room for the kind of compromise which can actually benefit opposing sides.  This is a hard ball game in a stadium with owners prepared to give out the signal to kill, maim and destroy if this compromise cannot be reached.  Therefore, something as tenuous, mysterious, and poetic as truth, or virtue, or beauty can only be achieved outside the political realm, perhaps on the level of what we call Art, be that poetry, music, sport, dance, philosophy, literature, or whatever it is when we contemplate the wonders of the natural world.

I think it’s Eric Rohmer who said, “Life offers only exceptions.”  In spite of all our language, laws, beliefs and rational decisions, life almost always turns out different than we expect.  We write a Constitution, a Bill of Rights, and a whole host of laws.  You’d think we might be able to have a social structure with these helpful guidelines alone.  But we can’t.  Every day in every town, county, state, and city, there are hundreds and thousands of trials before magistrates, juries, and judges requiring fallible humans to interpret human experience on the basis of law, but a law never flexible enough to cover all the human contradictions, paradoxes and “exceptions” certain to crop up.

Everything written must be interpreted on the basis of what people actually do.  So this huge infrastructure of crime and punishment, of mercy and judgment, of sentences and acquittals, everyday grinds out decisions, some clear cut, some obfuscating, but all some sort of acknowledgement of compromises necessary because of the crazy prolixity of human need, desire, and belief.  When law and what people do seem to jibe, perhaps because of common customs and long standing traditions, everything seems more simple.

But rarely is.  In our democracy appeals can and do go on for years, leading us to understand that there are so many social, personal, religious, spiritual, ethical forces in play, that absolute certainty is impossible to attain.  Sure a person may be guilty, but was he insane?  Was he tortured, misled, confused, accused, molested, lost his capacity to reason?  And who is to blame for that?  And how much?  And, since the problem is difficult to resolve, can aggrieved and accused reach an agreement out of court?  Or plead diminished capacity?  Or… pay blood money for the whole thing to be dropped?

An extraordinary Iranian film A Separationdirected by Asghar Farhadi and winner of the Oscar for Best Foreign Film, 2012 shows how the attempt to achieve justice can be extraordinarily painful and difficult when people come from different social classes and levels of education.  A labyrinth with no easy exits.  As an exercise I tried to write down its complex twists and turns.   After four pages, single spaced, I still could not re-construct everything.  And this is after watching the film twice.  But this should not stop anyone from going to see it.  The plot of A Separation is rare because its twists and turns are based on the human complexities mentioned above and creates a rambling blueprint for moral ambiguity and the interstices between truth and fiction where we spend most of our waking hours.

Most films with a lot of plot make few concessions to this kind of complexity.  They ramble on assuming people only want suspense, mystery, a thrill here and there, some plot “oohs and aahs” and a conclusion.  The tyros never tire of talking about stories needing a beginning, middle and end.  But nothing has a beginning, middle and end.  Everything in life is in flux, always changing, one form into another, a form into a color, into a contretemps of both, a Gaudi construct, a Chihuly flourish, a Mandelbrot mystery, commonplace, expected, unexpected.

Art which stops at “story” has stopped too soon.  There are no stories out in the world.  As adults we don’t live in stories.  We live in circumstances which change and evolve, and are ourselves, changing, changeable creatures, wanting one thing one day and another thing another.  When we were children stories were read to us.  But now the opportunity for a truly poetic immersion in the ebb and flow of things beckons us.  Unfortunately most of us don’t heed the call.

A Separation is that rare film where plot can’t be put on a graph and parsed out by acts.  It follows a precarious path of human need set against responsibility and social mores.  It’s a hard film to summarize and makes us feel like we’re watching everything else going on around us which we can’t quite figure out.  Two types of Iranian families create the conflict.  A modern family of some means, the husband, Nader (played by Peyman Moadi) works in a bank, the wife, Simin, (Leila Hatami), is a teacher, and both come into conflict with a traditional family when a caretaker for Nader’s father (Ali-Asghar Shahbazi) a victim of Alzheimers, is needed. Razieh, a pregnant woman with a traditional Islamic background (Sareh Bayat) is hired and immediately a problem arises.  She can’t let her husband, Hadjat (Shahab Hosseini) an unemployed cobbler who is currently in legal trouble due to his inability to pay an onerous debt, know she is working in a home with no other women present (Simin has left Nader and gone to live with her mother.)

Complications ensue when the grandfather wanders away and Razieh is hit by a car while trying to rescue him.  She tells no one about the accident and later blames her employer, Nader, for a miscarriage, claiming he pushed her down some stairs.  Legal problems result and Nader will be charged with murder if it can be proved he pushed Razieh while knowing she was pregnant.  Hadjat feels obliged to avenge the death of his unborn child and is seen stalking Nader and Simin’s daughter, Termeh, (Sarina Farhadi). Blood money enters in.  If the modern school girl, Termeh, is in danger of Hadjat’s revenge, it seems that tradition allows for monetary compensation to substitute for the “eye for an eye” solution.

The plot is rich in uncertainy.  Razieh has told no one about her accident but is her failure to speak a “lie”?  Did she miscarry because of the accident or because she was pushed by Nader?  She says she isn’t sure.  Nader admits he pushed her, but not hard enough to make her fall down the stairs, and claims he never knew that Razieh was pregnant, but later admits to Termeh that he overheard it.   But to admit that in court would mean being tried for murder, with no one left to care for her or her grandfather.   Would Termeh want that to happen as a consequence of the “truth”?

Termeh’s tutor, who knew the woman was pregnant, swears on the Qur’an to a magistrate that, based on the position of people in the room when the pregnancy was discussed, the husband could not have known Razieh was pregnant.  But she later recants, possibly fearing for her own safety.  Now Termeh, who has great respect for the truth, is the only available protection for her father, Nader, and she tells a lie in court to protect him.

Her mother, Simin, fails to tell Nader of a visit she has with Razieh who tells her she doesn’t want Simin’s family to offer blood money because, since she is not sure how she lost the child, she could be committing a sin which could have negative consequences for her own daughter.  But Simin knows that if the blood money is not paid, Termeh will be in danger from Hadjat, and Nader will be required again, to prove his innocence in court.  Here’s a potential impasse which seems beyond solution.

However, a meeting does take place between the two families.  Nader is ready to make out a considerable check to the family of Razieh and Hadjat.  This solution would cross the divide between two ways of life and save Nader from formal prosecution, save Termeh from fear of a revenge killing, help Hadjat pay back his debt, and allow everyone to go back to their own lives.  It even appears that Razieh is ready to stay silent and to go along with this solution in spite of her fear of committing a sin.

However, Nader has not been told of Razieh’s reservations and of the meeting between her and Simin and, perhaps not realizing how precarious the situation is, commits the only error which could jeopardize the agreement.  Insisting on being assured that he is in the right, in spite of being willing to pay the price for being wrong, he asks Razieh to swear on the Qur’an that he, Nader, caused the miscarriage.  All he wants, as compensation for the money he feels he is being coerced to pay, is that Razieh, do the one thing she cannot do: swear on the Qur’an that something is true, which might not be.  The fear of the sin trumps all worldly considerations.

People try to wiggle out of things.  This is one of the conundrums the film explores.  Customs which require strict adherence to codes are always difficult to honor and here, it seems no one wants to be a martyr to the truth.  Razieh has caused a great deal of pain by not admitting she was hit by a car.  And, on principal, she is opposed to doing anything which might be considered sinful by her traditional religious code.  However, she has allowed the meeting to take place and so it seems that she will evade her moral dilemma by simply not saying anything.  But when Nader needs to know that he’s paying the money for a literal truth, (which is, quite likely, actually a lie) rather than compromising with social demands which can’t be controverted, he assures the failure of that compromise.

Hadjat is amazed and shattered that Razieh‘s fundamentalist fear of a sin makes a worldly agreement, agreeable to all, impossible. Now Hadjat will be unable to pay his debt and, facing debtor’s prison or worse, he rushes out.  The modern family walks to their car to find a rock thrown through the window, revenge on the man who was ready to write the check which would have solved all their problems.  In the end two fundamentalist positions, one Eastern, traditional and based on religion, and one Western, liberal and based on reason, make it impossible for a compromise to be made which would have benefited all concerned.

This is the great achievement of A Separation.  It never says so, but it illustrates, with great subtlety, that the only really humane decision must always be a compromise.  Absolute truth is absolute tyranny.  Ideals show desirable moral and ethical positions, but they must be interpreted, made flexible by circumstance and human feelings, proving out the one human truth we’ve never been able to circumvent: to be human is to disagree.  And disagreement must be kept short of the line which, once crossed, results in the mayhem and violence we see all around us, and which we are almost always powerless to prevent.

Life offers only exceptions.  And I would say that the “just exceptions” we seek are best obtained in a system where everyone accepts the proposition that absolute truth is impossible to achieve, and where everyone accepts mediation as the only way to avoid chaos.  And maybe we have that system in America where the burden of proof is on the state.  We’re innocent until found guilty.  Judges and juries make decisions.  Right and wrong ones.  Elections are won and lost. But time allows for new decisions, postponements, appeals and repeals.  Even if there is insufficient variety in our two party system, even if there is racism, class struggle, gender and sexual conflict, leadership can, and does change, laws are repealed and new ones created and even if the whole unruly process seems something of a freak show, we have the world of Art and Nature to repair to when politics, law and government get it wrong.

Except that here we find an “exception” with terrible consequences.  Today everything and anything is ART.  If enough so- called, and often self proclaimed, experts anoint and proclaim it so, however spuriously, it is SO. Which really means that nothing is Art. And so our real Masters are often ignored and their social power to instruct and delight is wasted. Jerome Witkin, for example is the greatest living American painter you’ve never heard of.  And his relative obscurity represents just one of many crimes committed today by the art establishment.  And nature is severely threatened by our expanding economies and wasteful use of resources.  Exceptions...which prove the rule.