On the continuum of contemporary Iranian filmmakers, Abbas Kiarostami is the brilliant but oblique one, Mohsen Makhmalbaf is the profoundly metaphorical one, Majid Majidi is the crowd-pleasing neorealist, and Jafar Panahi is sort of a hybrid of all three. Panahi's breakthrough feature The White Balloon (scripted by Kiarostami) followed a cute little girl through downtown Tehran in real time, balancing dry naturalism with the tension (and deeper meaning) of an innocent beset by adults. Panahi reunited with Kiarostami for Crimson Gold, which made a quick run from the festival circuit to the arthouse circuit to Wellspring's just-released DVD.
Hossain Emadeddin plays Hussein, a bulky pizza deliveryman who makes a shushing noise when he walks because of his layers of slick jackets and coats. But he doesn't walk or move much at allmostly he sits stock still on his motorcycle or stands motionless at his customers' doors, quietly hoping someone will ask him to come in and sit down. Crimson Gold follows a narrative loop, starting at the end of the story and jumping back to show the events leading up to it. Panahi underlines the circularity by cutting on motion and sound, bridging scenes in ways that make that make the movie feel like one continuous action. But it's actually episodic, lurching forward through scenes where Hussein is subtly (and not-so-subtly) humiliated.
Brilliantly observed set pieces abound, highlighted by a trip to a jewelry store where our man pretends to be rich but learns that he doesn't carry himself right, and a climactic delivery to an opulent apartment where our man shares pizza and sympathy with a lonely playboy. The key scene of the movie is an early one, where Hussein tries to make a delivery at an apartment building but is stopped by the authorities, who are arresting anyone going into or coming out of a party on the second floor. Hussein sits against a wall and takes in the scene, grumbling to a teenage soldier that he's taking the punishment without getting any of the action.
By the end of Crimson Gold, all Hussein wants is to be allowed to pass through a door and take an unhurried look around. That's a privilege that Panahi provides the audience throughout. Crimson Gold takes place in locations rarely seen in Iranian cinemapenthouses, freeways, pizza joints, etc.and the emphasis on voyeurism and slow-bubbling frustration is practically mood-altering. It's a testament to the DVD revolution that a near-theater-quality presentation of one of the decade's best movies can now be had by anyone with a spare 20 bucks and an interest in the human condition.
♦ The second season of Seinfeld co-creator Larry David's HBO sitcom Curb Your Enthusiasm has now been collected on DVD, with more quasi-documentary-style observations about David's life as a rich, idle comedy writer. The overarching story for season two has David trying to sell a new sitcom (starring either Jason Alexander or Julia Louis-Dreyfus) about a popular TV actor who feels trapped by the character he or she made famous, but most of the episodes are really about exaggerating vignettes of social embarrassment into miniature epics of outrage. David only has a minimal sense of decency: he thinks he knows enough to fake his way through most social situations, but he usually ends up inadvertently offending a friend of a friend or some member of the service industry, getting in deeper as he tries to set matters right.
The show can be shrill at times, and since the dialogue is semi-improvised, Curb Your Enthusiasm has a rougher, more offbeat rhythm than most television comedies. It's best when it stays close to reality: David taking a job as a car salesman doesn't generate much interest, but David complaining that uncostumed teenagers are "using Halloween just to get candy" is hilarious. Curb Your Enthusiasm's brilliance is mostly in the way David exploits his milieu. The action takes place in ritzy mini-mansions and nouvelle-cuisine restaurants, and the show's low-budget video look flattens the distinctions between the moneyed and the regular working slobs. Since a lot of the stories have to do with David's fortune being siphoned off by touchy proles, Curb Your Enthusiasm (like the equally essential BBC series The Office) gets its laughs by making the audience nervous.
♦ Most early animation is worth watching only for historical context, but the Winsor McCay shorts collected on Image's DVD Winsor McCay: The Master Edition are magnificent art in and of themselves. McCay was an inventor by nature, known for his vaudeville magic shows and his surreal turn-of-the-century comic strips Little Nemo In Slumberland and Dreams Of The Rarebit Fiend. When he started dabbling in animation, the artist sought to dazzle. This disc contains animated versions of Nemo and Rarebit, as well as his famous Gertie The Dinosaur cartoons, often cited (wrongly) as the first animated films. But if he didn't get to the medium first, he certainly expanded its parameters beyond what anyone would attempt for the next 20 years, until Disney started experimenting in the '30s.
As animation expert John Canemaker points out in his DVD commentary track, McCay was one of the first to attempt "personality animation ... that great American artform." His moving figures had weight and scale, but they also had character. Even more impressive is the sense of detail and perspective, which reaches a peak in McCay's 1918 docu-cartoon Sinking Of The Lusitania, where the ship lists, the waves lap, and the smoke billows ominously. These shorts are crude, yes, but that crudeness only manifests in some repetitive motion. The drawings themselves are fluid and lovely, with a heart beating beneath every hand-crafted line.