It’s all surface. Every shot is pure style, but not in a good way. It’s got the logic of a music video: simply an excuse for letting cool images float around. Yes, you can talk about that kind of language being interesting, going back to Un Chien Andalou, etc., and for sure cinema is about making dream-like spaces you can float in. But it’s impossible to connect to the images Amirpour creates at all – it’s like there’s a barrier of self-conscious coolness around them, a kind of Leidenfrost effect generated by the density of artschool posturing. It’s the kind of coolness you find in advertising. Lots of adverts are way more cinematographically complex than the programmes they’re inserted into – but at the same time, they’re instrumentalizing that imagery purely to make an object desirable, so they’re uniform (like pornography is uniform). Adverts look like filmschool graduates want an excuse to indulge their snazzy editing and trickshot skills. This is 100 minutes of that: a cinematography showreel, not a film.
Now, I love gorgeous cinematography, formalist films, extreme stylization, etc. Conservative narrative cinema often bores me. Film is the only medium that has only ever been essentially modernist. To see people try and reduce it back to a sedate form of realism betrays everything interesting about it. So when it comes to film, I’m heavily invested in technique. But Fellini or Antonioni or someone intoxicates you with their images and at the same time has something going on beneath them. They’re like a good bottle of wine after a hearty dinner. This is a bucket of WKD on an empty stomach. Literally every shot irritated me. There’s not a single one that gets beyond collage. It’s the Tarantino spirit – a kid playing with his toys – yet lacking his dialogue or occasional charm. The general atmosphere is No Wave / Jarmusch, but with the worst kind of hipster pretentiousness instead of the grit.
The film’s mixture of cultures is actually pure US. Amirpour grew up in California and exploits her cultural background for hipster cred. Just like Wes Anderson sticks ‘Champs-Elysées’ at the end of his tiresome Oriental flick, she’s thrown some Persian elements into the mix because it’s cooler that way. That’s really as far as it goes. As with Anderson, the result isn’t any kind of interesting disorientation, just more insubstantial collage. However, I don’t think Anderson gives the impression he’s doing more than cream-puff cinema. That’s what makes him tolerable to me. Whereas this film isn’t about enchanting and entertaining – the kind of naive magic after which Anderson strives. It’s about coolness, about posture. In short, it’s self-regarding wank. She’s reified her parents’ culture, like she’s reified everything else. Amirpour’s Midas-touch produces a hodgepodge of knickknacks slung into an aquarium.
Ultimately, I think the film shows how you can’t really be an aesthete if you’re just a postmodernist. Flaubert’s “livre sur rien” is beautiful and substantial because he understands how irony and citation and subversion actually interlock with life. Pynchon at his best does the same. Or Agnès Varda. They are never just assembling surfaces. And I think for them, as for all true aesthetes, the uselessness of art is a kind of humanistic life-affirmation. This film just tells you how great it is to be cool, not human.
Watch it if you want a toxicology report on our times, preferably via bittorrent.