How the Film Distributor Zeitgeist Made History

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The film business is notoriously unstable, and the path is especially hazardous for any company that dares to think of cinema as an art as well as a business. So it’s a cause for celebration that Zeitgeist Films, one of the most eminent art-house film distributors, has just reached its thirty-fifth anniversary, and Metrograph is aptly celebrating with a monthlong series of in-theatre and online offerings, spotlighting some of Zeitgeist’s most significant releases. Even before I was a critic, when I paid little attention to the business side of film, I’ve been honoring Zeitgeist from afar. As it happens, the company was co-founded by a friend of mine from high school, Emily Russo, together with Nancy Gerstman, and I’ve always taken special vicarious pleasure in the company’s successes releasing independent and international films that might otherwise have gone entirely unseen in the United States.

Zeitgeist’s influential releases are too numerous and varied to do justice to in a brief column. One could point to its release of Todd Haynes’s first feature, “Poison,” from 1991, which not only put that director on the map but helped launch the New Queer Cinema movement. Or one could note its line of ingenious docu-fictions, including Tony Buba’s “Lightning Over Braddock,” Agnès Varda’s “The Gleaners and I,” and Yvonne Rainer’s “Privilege.” Or one could recall that, with Jia Zhangke’s “The World,” Zeitgeist distributed one of the best films of the twenty-first century. But, in my view, no achievement has been greater than the vital role the company has played in bringing to the attention of American viewers one of the greatest of all filmmakers, Abbas Kiarostami, with the release of the 1997 film “Taste of Cherry” (which, now, is streaming on the Criterion Channel and Max).

Contrary to what you may have heard, the nineteen-nineties were a terrible time to be releasing independent and international films. The decade’s reputation as a boom time for American independents holds true mostly for Hollywood-proximate, commercially oriented independent films exemplified by “Reservoir Dogs.” More artistically ambitious fare—such as Wendell B. Harris, Jr.,’s “Chameleon Street,” Zeinabu irene Davis’s “Compensation,” and Eric Mendelsohn’s “Judy Berlin”—went either unreleased or severely underreleased. Moreover, many of the best international films of the decade, too, remained undistributed; shockingly, Philippe Collin’s “The Last Days of Immanuel Kant” and even Jean-Luc Godard’s “Nouvelle Vague” (starring Alain Delon!) are still unreleased here.

Thirty years ago, the business of independent film distribution looked very different from the way it does now. Today, the pipeline from the New York Film Festival to commercial release is wide open, and the flow is fast, but back then it was more of a dribble. Today, social media creates buzz quickly and spreads critical enthusiasm at the speed of light; back then, online life was mainly e-mail—which, in the film world, mostly amounted to cinephiles being able to privately gripe slightly faster than they previously had. Kiarostami’s films were emerging in that inhospitable environment, and it is hard to remember, given his now-undisputed eminence, just how long his career languished in the shadows.

Born in 1940, Kiarostami had been making films since 1970 and made his first feature in 1973. As a reader of Cahiers du Cinéma, I’d been aware of his work since around 1990. The movie that served as his first breakout was the 1987 drama “Where Is the Friend’s House?”; I also recall reading about his 1989 documentary “Homework”; his first widely acclaimed international masterwork was the 1990 docu-fiction “Close-Up,” which wasn’t released here until 1999. The New York Film Festival showed his feature “And Life Goes On” in 1992 and “Through the Olive Trees” in 1994. By the mid-nineties, having seen one or two of his films, I was certain that Kiarostami was one of the most original, conceptually daring, and aesthetically exquisite filmmakers working, and I was dismayed that his films had no presence in the American market. “Through the Olive Trees” was first acquired for theatrical release in the U.S., but it was ill-served by the company that acquired it, Miramax. The movie must have looked like a good bet for art-house popularity: notwithstanding some metafictional maneuvers, it’s a wistful and warmly comic romance. But it seems Miramax got cold feet. It gave the film a nearly unadvertised, pro-forma release in a single obscure theatre, in February, 1995; it went on to keep the film off the home-video market for an unseemly while.

A few weeks before that fiasco of a release, I was in Paris, and, in the role of an unofficial emissary from a small (now defunct) U.S. distributor, I paid a visit to the sales agent for Kiarostami’s earlier films. The distribution company was hoping to release one of Kiarostami’s films, but the agency informed me that a substantial advance would be required, and the company didn’t have the budget for it, so that was that. I tell this story to indicate that the stakes for Zeitgeist were major when it acquired “Taste of Cherry,” in 1997. The film won the biggest prize, the Palme d’Or, at that year’s Cannes Film Festival, and the distributor picked up the rights less than a week before its U.S. première at the New York Film Festival; with such a high profile, the film doubtless placed weighty demands on Zeitgeist—all the more so because of the nature and subject of the film.

“Taste of Cherry” tells the story of a middle-aged man named Mr. Badii (Homayoun Ershadi), who drives in and around Tehran and picks up a series of passengers in the hope that one will take a quick job he is offering. He’s planning to lie down in a remote ditch in the nearby countryside that night and take an overdose of sleeping pills, and he wants to hire someone to come by in the morning to check on him. If he’s alive, they can help him out of the ditch; if not, they can cover his corpse with shovelfuls of dirt. Badii never discloses his motives, but he is clearly arranging for his putative suicide to be undetectable if it’s unsuccessful, and therefore he requires the services of a stranger. He’s willing to pay lavishly, offering a sum that it would take a manual laborer six months to earn.

Almost all of the film’s action takes place in or near Badii’s car, and most of the action is dialogue—extended scenes of discussion, in the car, in a hilly rural area outside the city. Badii attempts to persuade, in succession, three passengers to do the job. One is a young draftee in the Iranian Army; one is a seminary student; the third is an older man who works as a taxidermist at a natural-history museum. There’s something cagey and manipulative, yet quietly desperate, about Badii’s manner as he offers major money for a job that he refuses to describe up front. His webs of persuasion are elaborately spun—and part of his spinning is his insinuating curiosity about his interlocutors’ lives, his eliciting of their stories of need.

In other words, Badii is something of a reporter, and the people he meets have troubles of their own: the soldier is a Kurd who has felt the effects of the Iran-Iraq War in his rural home town; the seminarian is an Afghan who elected to leave his war-ravaged country; the taxidermist has a sick child in need of expensive treatments. Of course, it’s Kiarostami who’s the quasi-documentarian, not just in his construction of the inquisitive story but also in his filming of it, starting with his view of the barren, sandy, and forbidding rural zone where the action takes place. “Taste of Cherry” is something of his version of “Two or Three Things I Know About Her,” a story of transformative industrialization and modernization that entails new forms of isolation, frustration, and despair. Kiarostami’s filming has a documentary-like attentiveness—to landscapes and faces, to situations and ideas—that matches the drama’s incremental, investigative, observational poise.

Yet beneath its surfaces lurks radical wildness and radical irony. For starters, suicide isn’t just taboo, it’s a violation of Islamic law (the seminarian himself says so), and, as a result, “Taste of Cherry” was not only banned from screening in Iran but was nearly banned from export (and therefore from Cannes). Thus it’s a tale of explicit defiance, an appeal to another authority that subsumes both civic and religious ones. In effect, it’s a movie of moral and bodily autonomy, of the ultimate freedom to be or not to be—a vision of suicide as freedom that picks up where André Malraux and the existentialists left off. And, at the same time, this vision of freedom involves not control but a renunciation of control, a submission to the existential flip of the coin, to the random question of whether the overdose will work. With that undercurrent of ironic uncertainty and decisive indecision, “Taste of Cherry” morphs into a film in a strange category: it’s a comedy of suicide, akin to the last film that Jerry Lewis directed, “Cracking Up.” One example of its outrageously macabre humor involves a moment of distraction while Badii is driving on a narrow road bordering a sheer sand cliff: just as he’s about to go accidentally careening down, his tire gets stuck in the sand. (The sequence thematically rhymes with one in Lewis’s film.)

Even the title turns out to be ironic. It suggests the basic and sensual pleasures, the lode of memories that give life meaning and pull a person back into daily doings with a kind of gravitational force. Yet the fondest memory that Badii summons is anything but a bowl of cherries: he remembers his military service, an activity that he specifically describes as requiring a readiness to kill. For that matter, there’s another wild paradox in “Taste of Cherry”—its ending is no spoiler. I won’t say what becomes of Badii, but, in any case, that’s not the ending; rather, Kiarostami leaps outside the frame of the action to conclude with some lo-fi video of the crew shooting the film, of the director calling out to a troop of marching soldiers to get back into position for another take. He ends with a seemingly infinite regress of the reality of the simulation of the reality of the officially sanctioned and mandated, state-approved and religion-blessed power of the dealing of death.

On its release in 1998, “Taste of Cherry” made a mere three hundred thousand dollars in theatrical box-office. But it was named Best Foreign Language Film of the year by the National Society of Film Critics, was a runner-up in that category for the New York Film Critics Circle, and placed fourth (just ahead of “Goodfellas”) in the Village Voice poll of the best films of the decade. In short, Kiarostami, from then on until the end of his career—he died in 2016—could no longer be denied. “Close-Up” got a belated release in 1999; his 1999 film “The Wind Will Carry Us” was released here promptly the following year. His work has been a mainstay of the American art-house scene, and a prime reference for American critics and filmmakers, ever since. Zeitgeist may not have made a mint releasing it, but the company made history. ♦


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