Saturday, March 21, 2009

MEN AT WORK (Kargaran Mashghoole Karand, 2006)

Iranian cinema has come into its own since the 1990s. Critics dig it because of the general neo-realist vibe and, I suspect, because of the vivid contrast the movies offer to the western world's imagination of the Islamic Republic as some dystopian desert bastard of Islam and Orwell. I've liked what I've seen from Iran so far, particularly the work of Jafar Panahi, whose Crimson Gold and Offside I'd rank among the best films of this decade. But I've always wondered whether we're seeing what the average Iranian does. My understanding is that the government bans certain films from domestic distribution, but lets them circulate internationally for the sake of prestige and, probably, revenue. So how well do the art-house dissidents represent Iranian cinema as a whole? I imagine there has to be a popular cinema of slapstick comedies and heroic action films with manly Iranian heroes blowing away 1)Americans 2)Israelis 3)Iraqis or Sunni Muslims in general or4)All of the Above.

Men At Work seems to be halfway between the art cinema we usually get from Iran and the trash that's got to be out there. To my knowledge, this film was not banned or censored in its home country. While the story comes from art-cinema kingpin Abbas Kiarostami, director Mani Haghighi probably deserves credit for the film's misanthropic goofiness. For all I know, Kiarostami probably scribbled a bare concept -- "a group of idiots try to push a big rock off a cliff" -- and Haghghigi came up with the rest.

What we have here are four middle-aged idiots eager to watch an Iran vs Japan soccer game. They stop on a mountain road so one of them can relieve himself. He's mesmerized by the site of a strange upright rock formation at the side of the road and the edge of a cliff. All of a sudden the foursome, guys of the sort you might see anywhere on earth, get the notion of knocking the thing down.

They try pushing it. They try charging it with a large tree branch as if they could joust it off the cliff. They buy a donkey from a passing peasant on the theory that if it pulls while they push, the rock will wobble and fall. The peasant is concerned that the rock falling might take the poor beast over the edge, but money seems to calm him.

One of their wives shows up and seems to have the right idea.

But she's soon caught up in the mania. She makes the sensible suggestion that a lever might tip the rock, but some of our crew, in the midst of their determination to throw down a rock formation of who knows what geological or historic value, balk at the notion of chopping a tree down for the lever. Later, one of our heroes has a better idea: uproot a municipal road sign!

In the meantime, the woman goes off to get a chainsaw for the tree, and another group of travelers briefly become a competing demolition team, equally futile. If the rock formation immediately evokes the 2001 monolith, inviting an alternative title of "2006: A Roadside Travesty," and the attack on the rock reminds one of Shane or Pale Rider, the escalation of obsessions on a mountain road suggests It's A Mad Mad Mad Mad World in microcosm. Except that the comedy in Men At Work isn't as broad or over-the-top. It works because you know the types of idiots who might embark on such an asinine project. In the end, Haghighi opts for a realistic dwindling of enthusiasm until there's one madman left, first trying to ram the rock with his car, then staying in danger of freezing to death in order to dig and undermine the damned thing until it topples....

The easiest way to appreciate the virtues of Men At Work is to imagine how Hollywood would remake it. Most if not all the scenes you're imagining with trepidation are not in the Iranian film. Strange to say, a more faithful adaption might look a little like a Jackass movie in its cinema-verite style and because the characters are jackasses -- just not as completely as their American counterparts might be.

Men At Work is part of the Film Movement international DVD-of-the-month club, which serves up a foreign or independent feature plus a short subject every month. The Albany Public Library has a bunch of these, and this was the first one I tried out. Thanks to this movie, I may try more.

No comments: