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The Last Redoubt

As they say of politics, I have found essay-writing to be the art of the possible. Certain work can only be done in those spooky months when particular trajectories align: what was once opaque becomes transparent, and the story may be told in its complete complexity. Try to write such an essay at the wrong moment and your movement will be impeded. You will have the rudimentary shape you want, but all the curves and angles and lines will remain coarse – crude, compared to what you might have written had you waited.

 

I only really came to understand these things when I began to imagine an essay that I knew I must write, but equally knew I would fail at. For years I waited, and if I try to write it now, it is owing to an intuition that has arrived as a blessing of maturity. I have become the writer who might accomplish this task. On top of that, something has informed me that for a few ripe months the barriers are down, and I may cross in and out of this longed-for terrain unimpeded.

 

I must get this essay right. Each word that I put down becomes a part of my living memory – in a very real sense this is self-creation – and that first cut is always the deepest. Yes, it is possible to work around the scar later on – to revise, reformulate, rediscover, redirect – but that first attempt is decisive. Everything grows from those initial, indelible words.

 

It was a midsummer’s evening, and through the window looking down on the bay the sky reddened, the sun sank beneath the earth. That declining sun brought me fear. I reasoned to myself that so long as I could see the light, I was safe from whatever had come unleashed in my mind. But as that blackness climbed over the land, so too did some blackness encompass my head. This is illogical, I know – magical thinking – but these were my terms that evening. I was truly afraid of what the dark of night would bring. Certain events had come to pass, longed-for events I had set in motion. But I had not anticipated their overpowering results. I had never known a feeling of such helplessness before. I wondered what might occur if I did not stop this seeping black. I began to believe, entirely, that I was hurtling toward a terrible unravelling.

 

There was a DVD on my coffee table. It had been sitting there for weeks. The cover showed a drab motif of concentric circles in washed-out blues, beneath it a photo of two Middle Eastern men on a motorcycle. Alone, adrift, afraid, I thought this film might distract me. I slipped the disc into my computer. It was Abbas Kiarostami’s Close-Up.

 

*

 

Sabzian is an unemployed printer who makes a sort of Faustian bargain. He persuades a family that he is the famous Iranian director Mohsen Makhmalbaf. The family welcomes him, because its two adult sons dream of being in movies. During this charade they give him a trivial amount of money for a taxi ride. This is his criminal act, the fraud for which he stands trial. Kiarostami reads about it in a local paper.

 

Obviously, Sabzian doesn’t do this for the money. The exact reason for his performance is one of the questions on which Close-Up turns. No one really understands why he does it, and this, I’m convinced, is why Kiarostami filmed it. In one impulsive second Sabzian declares himself Makhmalbaf. A middle-aged woman believes him. Her husband and adult children believe her.

 

I sympathise with them, for who among us has never been seduced by the possibility that certain hopes might be fulfilled? All these people manage to deceive themselves because they are just as human as any of us – that’s the simple part, and the incomprehensible part lies in the humanity of it.

 

But did they all really deceive themselves? Because Sabzian gets to be Makhmalbaf. The sons get to be in a film. It all comes true, in some twisted, unforeseeable way, because Kiarostami films it, and instead of hiring actors to play these roles, he chooses to have everyone play him- or herself. The actual people that this happened to are the film’s actors, and they are playing themselves. And I understand them, because that night, the night I felt myself unravelling and I slipped Close-Up into my computer, right then I was feeling the after-effects of playing a version of myself the night before. A little like Sabzian, I had been able to become something that I didn’t really ever think possible. I had a taste of it – and then, like Sabzian, I was just my plain old self again. So when I first began to realise precisely what this movie was about, it felt eerie, like this was all meant to be.

 

It is hard to trust in anything that Kiarostami shows us. According to what this film wants me to believe, in Tehran in the late ‘80s the Iranian director Abbas Kiarostami convinced two police officers, a journalist, a judge, a victimised family, a criminal defendant, and a famous director all to play themselves in re-enactments of the bizarre series of events that brought them together. In addition to this Kiarostami got his hands on documentary footage – and he possibly even recorded some voyeuristic moments on the sly. What is recorded? What is re-enacted? What is documentation? What is pure voyeurism? The movie gives no indications to separate one from the other: all is integrated seamlessly, and we might only ever guess the difference via deduction – to reason that, say, it’s highly unlikely an Iranian judge would actually let Kiarostami cross-examine a witness in his courtroom, as occurs about halfway through Close-Up, so these shots clearly must have been patched in. But were they? After all, inventing such details would be contrary to Kiarostami’s purpose, which is to depict these events just as they were. But then, could Kiarostami have actually interrupted an Iranian courtroom to begin cross-examining a defendant on esoteric matters of art? Could this really be real? And if it is – if this really, actually happened – then where is the line between real life and the cinematic reality Kiarostami is creating?

 

*

 

Have you ever looked in the mirror and thought what you saw might be a complete lie? I cannot remember a point when I ever believed in what I see.

 

I might be that thing in the mirror, or I might be something else, an unknown other that sometimes butts up against my temples and demands to be free. I cannot grant it the expression that it wants. I do not mean that I do not want to, or that I have not tried to. I mean that I am not fully capable of doing so. I cannot do this because I do not know its nature. I don’t know what it wants. I only know its demands as though it were a screaming baby. But how am I to comprehend its language? And which of its cravings am I to take seriously?

 

This thing, this screaming-baby-like thing fighting for its share of my body. It often scares me.

 

Still, I do my best to grant it expression, because I am haunted by the possibility that this thing is actually more authentically me than what I see every day in the mirror. I feel that not to investigate it fully would be to sow the deepest regret of my life. Quite possibly, if I do not get this right I will go to my grave believing that much of my life has been in error. So I do my very best to converse with this thing, to find out what it wants, and to become it.

 

But then again, such doubt. Perhaps I am wrong to try to free this second self? Do I attempt to serve a false god?

 

Is this so-called authenticity, or is it nothing more than fetishes and fixations too long indulged?

 

*

 

Close-Up begins with that terrible moment when all of Sabzian’s illusions evaporate. In just a few minutes, he will be arrested by the police, and he will never again be able to become the famous Iranian director Mohsen Makhmalbaf. He will be permanently, ineluctably Sabzian. I sympathise, for I have often felt much too permanently, ineluctably myself. I understand why Sabzian wants so badly to be an other. I’ve known the betrayal he feels when he’s forced to admit that he’s really just himself.

 

The police come by taxi. The film begins with a tight shot looking through the windshield of a cab moving amiably through a wealthy district of Tehran. The camera jumps between the driver, two police officers, and a journalist named Hossain. They are headed to the house of the family Sabzian has been lying to. He’s been lured there and made to wait.

 

When the cab reaches its destination, Kiarostami chooses to deny us our voyeuristic pleasure. The cops and Hossain head off into the family’s compound to make the arrest, but we stay with the cab. Instead of showing us the dramatic confrontation, Kiarostami keeps our eyes fixed on the fat little cabbie as he putters around. This tired-looking man has not even the slightest interest in the drama that has briefly entered his life. For him this is just another one of those empty stretches of waiting that characterise his line of work. He paces. He pulls some flowers from atop a trash heap, meticulously brushes them off, and sticks them on his dash. He kicks an aerosol can.

 

In due course the cops come back with the disgraced Sabzian, followed by Merhdad, the family’s aggrieved son. We only see Sabzian briefly; he looks sad, yes, but also determined. He wears a close-cropped beard, shabby clothes, keeps his eyes toward the ground. Is this the real him? Or is this a man who has just been arrested and wants to evoke sympathy? Or is it a man whom Kiarostami has instructed in how to appear as though he has just been arrested?

 

The cops stick Sabzian in the back of the cab, but they cannot yet leave: the driver must be paid. The debt is Hossain’s, but he has no money with him, so he casually asks the aggrieved son to pay the cabbie. Without a thought, Merhdad hands it over. This man, who has recently been conned out of 1,900 tomans by Sabzian for a taxi ride, now trusts that he knows exactly who Hossain is, no matter that he has just found out who Sabzian is.

 

I have always been struck by the simplicity with which Merhdad hands over the money. Close-Up is about those things that make it possible to know ourselves and others, those fixed and stable identities that let us live together in a community. This is one reason why Sabzian’s lies feel so grievous to the family: he has not only insulted them, he has struck at the very core of the social compact. Seeing how very deeply Sabzian’s deceptions hurt Merhdad, I understood how dangerous it might be to reveal to someone that I had a second self. But I also saw just how quickly Merhdad’s trust bounces back – that a person might overcome such a revelation. And, in due time, I saw what happens at the end of Close-Up, when Kiarostami brings us right back to this same place, and Sabzian and Merhdad meet again.

 

*

 

Until I learned otherwise, I had always thought that the nature of one’s own wants would be transparent. Thirst, for instance: when you need water, it is obvious. Everybody understands what we want when we feel thirsty. Everyone knows just how to quench it.

 

I had imagined that all desires would be that simple, their priority and their means of satisfaction clear. The day I discovered this was false was a revelation. It was possible to want a thing with a true fervour and never know it; only to really understand what you wanted once you had it. To feel the elation travel through your arms and legs, to hear your stomach churn with anticipation. The way your trustworthy fingers fumbled as you tried to tear through the packaging. That slight sense of panic once you knew you were right there on the verge.

 

This lesson learned, I wanted to release every last desire I suppressed. I threw myself into the task of discovering the urges hidden down in my subconscious. Every desire fulfilled spawned two others. This project began making larger and larger impositions on my life and I gladly bowed to its terms, so ecstatic with the fact of what I was finally doing. But even as I became obsessed with the raptures of this new freedom, I never stopped worrying that these desires were, in fact, false. Not actual things I wanted, but mirages conjured by my need to be free, my need to know I was no longer afraid.

 

I might never have started down this road had I not met a young woman, a model who led a bohemian lifestyle and wrote poetry. We spent some evenings together and became friends, and eventually I decided to tell her a thing about myself I had only told to two other people. I had not wanted to tell those two people. Virtually anything would have been preferable to telling those two people. I had only told them this thing because I had become convinced that there was absolutely no alternative. So I told them, and my fears were realised twice.

 

But this third time, no. The bohemian poet reacted differently than had anybody else.

 

This admission opened in her a fascination that I encouraged, and it swept us down a path that culminated almost exactly 24 hours before I watched Abbas Kiarostami’s Close-Up for the first time. On a Friday evening she walked into my apartment. My life changed.

 

And the next day I watched Close-Up in a state of extreme fragility. Perhaps had I not found that disc on my coffee table I would have broken. It was there for me just hours after the violent whiplash of new emotions rushing in to fill spaces that had never before existed.

 

I am not a person who believes in magic. I do not believe there is a deity guiding our lives, and nor do I believe that things ‘happen for a reason’. My creed is more akin to the existentialist’s: the world is mostly unknowable, and we make what sense of it we must. But the fact remains that finding that film right there, right on that night, is a miracle that I cannot fully explain. That film was perhaps the only thing that could have kept me safe that night. And it helped me to address the most absurd and imponderable question I have ever asked myself. That film, plus a number of important authors and artists, plus theory, and a few other things: they have given me the language. If there were nothing else at all to justify the hours I pour into the arts, their help in this would suffice. Kiarostami most of all: his film has shown me a way to approach a subject I never thought I would be capable of writing about, for all the world to see.

 

The bohemian poet helped me get something that I had wanted for a very long time, so long that I’d lost touch with the fact that I even desired it. Its repression had simply become a fact, my diminishment the punishing sun whose glare you learn to look away from. And then in just a month’s time, I had discovered that this desire could be freed, my world reworked by a new physics. I let myself know just how much I wanted it and this elation gave way to the sharp emergence of this complicated absence. I saw I could not go back and I wept. Those tears soon proved heralds for the dancing thoughts arriving as though from another mind.

 

*

 

The fight for a space to know oneself better. What sort of a space is this? An artist’s studio? The real world? Might this quest be dangerous? Unethical? What justifies you in pursuing it?

 

This is Close-Up. It wants to understand this space, and it finds it along the border separating real and fake, invented and recorded. It is a border with which Kiarostami is as obsessed as I. We share many obsessions: identity’s fragility; role-playing; doubling; recursion; the uncanny; voyeurism; reproductions; projections; holograms; overlays.

 

How a copy becomes an original.

 

The reasons we sometimes put ourselves at another person’s mercy.

 

After the initial scene when Sabzian is arrested, the bulk of Close-Up takes us through his trial. But Kiarostami has no interest in guilt or innocence. As the judge himself tells the director, there is nothing interesting about the case. Petty fraud, open and shut. An inquiry into guilt would have made for a poor movie. Kiarostami is instead interested in all the aspects of Sabzian’s story that our ready-made constructs have no easy way of assessing. This is the artist’s job.

 

Shortly after the film’s opening scene, we see Sabzian inside a prison. Kiarostami has just read Hossain’s article about Sabzian’s case, and now he has come to see the criminal. The shot is a long one that passes through a thick glass window. Kiarostami sits so that all we see is the back of his head and the frame of his glasses. As the two men talk, the camera slowly, almost imperceptibly, zooms in on Sabzian’s downcast face. He asks Kiarostami to make a film about his suffering. He asks him to help explain that what he did was not for reasons of fraud. He begs that he help bring the case to trial.

 

Is this scene real, or did Kiarostami reconstruct it?

 

Next we see Kiarostami meeting with the judge who will preside over Sabzian’s case. He asks for permission to film the trial. The judge stares down and opens his mouth, but before he can respond, Kiarostami insistently adds that he must also move the date of the trial up to suit his schedule. The man’s reaction is nothing, as though every day a movie director comes into his office with the most outlandish assaults against his authority.

 

Is this scene real?

 

Then we are in the courts, and, of all things, Kiarostami opens this shot by slapping shut a clapperboard. Take one! The camera centres on Sabzian, who has just entered the courtroom and had his handcuffs removed. With the judge presiding, and with the aggrieved family sitting behind him surrounded by curious onlookers, Kiarostami asks Sabzian if he will permit the trial to be filmed.

 

Yes, says Sabzian, because you are my audience.

 

Kiarostami further explains to Sabzian that a close-up camera will remain on him at all times, and he may interrupt the proceedings at any point he wishes in order to address this camera and explain himself, not before the law but before the artistic motives that have brought him to this juncture. The judge just sits there. Can this possibly be real?

 

And Kiarostami interrupts, again and again. No sooner has the judge asked Sabzian to clarify a point of justice than Kiarostami cuts in to ask him to clarify a point of art. It is like Sabzian is attempting to perform two different characters for two directors at once: the judge is pursuing a line of inquiry meant to determine facts, and Kiarostami twists these very same inquiries so that Sabzian might give voice to everything the facts cannot tell us. From judgment to understanding, from the clarity of law to the never-endingness of art.

 

Amid the trial, the movie jumps to a scene on a bus, the first of exactly two times that we see Sabzian play Sabzian-as-Makhmalbaf. This first time portrays the genesis of his crime: he is on a bus reading a book of Makhmalbaf’s when Mahrokh, mother of the aggrieved sons, asks Sabzian where she might buy that book. Sabzian says he will give it to her. I wrote it, he says. Here, let me sign it for you. He snaps out a pen and signs it without a thought, as though he has been signing Makhmalbaf’s name all his life.

 

Why is a wealthy man like you on a bus? she asks.

 

Research for a film. You find interesting subjects this way.

 

They talk, and as Mahrokh tells Sabzian about her sons, as she hints at their frustrated pursuits in the arts, you can see his plot forming. I am convinced that this is the moment when he decides he will be Makhmalbaf for more than just these few minutes. It has felt so very good to be Makhmalbaf, and he cannot yet give it up. The way this woman’s eyes have looked at him. The way this bus ride has become subtly different from any other bus ride before. He must know more about how life feels as Makhmalbaf.

 

Sabzian tells Mahrokh that her sons can call him any time. In fact, why not give him their number, so he can be in touch? And suddenly it is his stop, he gets off the bus. This is how Sabzian’s investigation into cinema begins, his personal film that somehow becomes Kiarostami’s film for all of us.

 

*

 

The thing I told the bohemian poet who was the first person to react well to what I had to say was that I have always felt an urge to be a woman. An absurd statement, one that feels to me like a flimsy truth; I can only say it with conviction because it has been with me virtually forever. A thing I hate to have to say because these words, the most serviceable words I have, are so inadequate. I do not understand my urge well. I feel incapable of ever unmasking it; it is a hard fight just to reach the place from which I can stare down its wooden countenance. I name it so for the sake of simplicity, my own concession to a crude language and a useful archetype without which this mystery would be even less utterable. But really, who am I to say whether I actually believe that I have always felt an urge to be a woman? How could anyone ever know such a thing about oneself? I am convinced that this urge is really some transcription of an even murkier need that could never be inscribed in any way. It is just something down there that has become fixed in my mind as this urge.

 

I have come to love this urge as my own, and if you offered me the chance to be free from it I would decline, but in all honesty I find these words I use to describe it far too simple. It feels too much like a loose end grabbed happenstance from the culture around me, very nearly a cliché. None of which makes it any less substantial – because what are we if not a bunch of odds and ends pulled opportunely from this world? – but still, I want to know its real nature better, I want to tease it, trick it, poke it, force its jaws wide open and look down its throat. I should find down there some clue as to why. Why this urge? Why me? I have fought for the language of this why. I have fought for the language of self-comprehension. I want to know the truth of this most stubborn of needs. I may as well ask why I love a pot of coffee at midnight, or why I adore the curious pain that comes when I press cold ice into the tendons just above my ankle. I think it possible, quite possible, that buried in those small years whose memories are just beyond my grasp are things that took my sense of masculinity and twisted it, wound it tighter and tighter until what came out was distorted beyond repair. It might be that I was disgusted by a certain spectacle of masculinity on display in my childhood home. Some ugliness that I despised the thought of ever becoming.

 

But these are speculations, and I have no desires to break down to some deeper psychic substratum and discover a ‘real me’ that is unconflicted about my gender. Everything I have in here is me is me is me. I love it all, no matter where it came from. I own it all, as each of us must own our life’s experiences. There is no reason they are ours, they are just ours, to measure if we dare, to make from them what we can.

 

The most solid things I have are feelings. I know the feeling of lying in bed after I have awoken in the morning and wondering for some minutes if I would enjoy life more if I chose to become a woman. I know the deadening envy that can take me when I see a woman walk down the street, distraught I cannot so simply and so naturally inhabit femininity. I know the electricity of holding in my hands a dress that I am about to put on. I know my preference for friendships with women over men, and how much more intuitive I am with the former than the latter. I know what it is to slip into a woman’s garments and feel a calm and a happiness unlike any other. I know the small disappointment that always comes when I take them off. None of these are proofs, but these feelings have remained so intractable against all adversity, so stubborn despite the vehement denials I once made of them, that I have no choice but to treat them as rock solid.

 

They are my intimates, and I have learned to live my life in a way that responds to them, but they are never fully satisfied. If I neglect them for too long they are always there to nag at me, to chastise that I am not fully me. Ever to walk this earth wholly and unambiguously male would be to very quickly forge within me a profound falseness. I know because I have tried, and I have seen the dreams that come, the sadness and the unreality that soon comes with them.

 

These were not things I understood how to say on the night I made my admission to the bohemian poet. All I told her that night was of frustrations, and those rare, strange days when I inexplicably felt free to be as I wished; on these days I discovered the most treasured moments when, at last, my sense of manhood slipped free, and for just a moment I freefell into the belief that I was female.

 

She looked at me, not shocked, not surprised, just bemused, possibly impressed. I had told her an extremely intimate thing, and she was flattered. More than that: she was delighted by the thought. This was so implausibly fortuitous. I had read that things like this could happen, but never did I hope that they would happen to me. An actual human being –a woman no less – who was fascinated by my urge. She asked if she could meet her. More than asked, she asserted – I want to meet her – and I found this exciting. My response was equivocal only because I was ashamed to reveal how desperately I wanted this. In fact, I had not known it myself until right that moment. I wanted it so badly, I suddenly knew it, and it humbled me, as though I was asking for a thing I did not deserve. This irrevocable step shook me with fear. I wanted to be acknowledged as something that I could barely believe I had any right to be. I wanted to shatter any possibility that my urge was a secret I could tidy away again when doubt struck. I wanted to be seen. I was tired of that sad, conflicted expression in the mirror as I slipped off my garments one by one and washed off my make-up. I no longer wanted to think of myself alone with my secret. I wanted to say those words I was afraid to utter, crossdress, transgender, transvestite.

 

I taught myself to utter them. I learned to say them, not as an ashamed whisper but correctly, and at any moment I chose. The apologies that once spilled out alongside them dried up and disappeared. I mastered these words. And it’s funny, because now, no longer bullied by them, I again avoid them: they have come to feel like little white tiles that I place in people’s hands, and I have never liked any word that felt this way when I used it. Falsifying words, crude labels. Things without definitions that it is assumed everybody understands. I want none of this. The only words I want any more are the ones I am trying to find in this essay.

 

*

 

By the time we reach the climatic scene of Kiarostami’s film, it is unmistakable. It starts with two men in the home of the family Sabzian has been deceiving, talking over their doubts about the family’s newest friend. A grey-haired man attempts to convince a younger one: the other day, he says, he saw someone congratulate Sabzian on a prize Makhmalbaf had won; unaware of it and caught off-guard, he attempted to brush off his confusion with a weak lie. The younger friend suggests that directors don’t always know when they have won awards.

 

A motorbike is heard, and the grey-haired man heads to the second-storey window where he spies Sabzian approaching the house. Shortly thereafter he enters the room. I do not know how to look at him. My mind is flummoxed by the choice of two identities, flickering back and forth and unable to settle down into a single gaze.

 

As the scene develops it becomes painfully clear that the grey-haired man has made up his mind by the insinuations with which he peppers his conversation. Mehrdad has made up his mind too: during the conversation he arrives to deliver the faux-director an omelette, but coldly brushes off Sabzian’s attempts to engage him.

 

Now I know how to look at this man: he is pitiable.

 

I think Sabzian now understands. He tells the grey-haired man that Mehrdad’s interest in the project is fading. He casts his eyes toward the floor. It is too bad, he says. Had he sustained his enthusiasm I would have worked day and night with him.

 

I feel the film tremble with the possibility.

 

It is becoming crystal-clear that we are right back where the film started: that very first scene where the cops come to make the arrest, except now we are inside the house, not outside it. There is a knock at the door. Sabzian and the men exchange glances. The whole scene grows tense. In walks Hossain, the sweet, boyish journalist, and he takes a seat. But then, suddenly, he gets up. He and the grey-haired man walk out of the room to confer together. A trapped look on Sazbian’s face.

 

Trapped within himself, trapped within this house. This is the moment, is it not, when he transits from Makhmalbaf back to Sabzian? This is how it looks on his face.

 

During the trial Sabzian recounted the afternoon when he received the 1,900 tomans from Mehrdad. He said that after he received the money he headed home, planning on using part of it to buy his son a gift, and this is when it hits him: he’s not Makhmalbaf, he’s just a an unemployed man with a family he can’t feed.

 

I want you to portray my suffering, Sabzian told Kiarostami. This is the burden of his deception. In recompense for every day he is allowed to become Makhmalbaf, there is that withdrawal back to Sabzian. This is the trapped look that appears on his face when he sees Hossain and the grey-haired man walk out of the room to confer.

 

I understand this all too well, this withdrawal back into a self that feels not quite right. What exactly would be right? And how would I manage to live it every single day?

 

Kiarostami draws the moment out. The young man is still seated opposite Sabzain, witnessing this entire scene, and he fidgets with his socks. In the distance, the journalist and the grey-haired man walk across the hall. Mahrokh darts confusedly out of the kitchen and retreats back in. Sabzian calls out to Mehrdad, but he has absented himself behind a lavish door panelled with coloured glass. In a long shot, perhaps Mehrdad’s view through the glass and down the hall, we see Sabzian seated there, small and alone.

 

He walks to the window and looks out of it, and there, when he recognises his undoing, he simply sighs out of the window, and I have sighed that sigh too many times.

 

*

 

I am relatively certain I am not an aspiring transsexual. It’s true that I often feel smothered by my masculinity, but I am too attached to it to want its eradication. And I have too much come to relish the role of the piece that will not fit in easily anywhere.

 

I have thought this matter over as seriously as I have considered any decision in my life. I went back to the beginning, and I asked myself: Who am I really, beneath all the taboos and freedoms one accumulates throughout a lifetime? What do I really want?

 

I was an extremely sensitive child, rarely aggressive or reckless. One of my oldest memories is of being very young and napping, and when I awoke I realised my mother had left home without my permission, and I cried and screamed for hours until she came back.

 

As a teenager I spent much of my time trying on my sister’s clothes, but I also excelled at other things. I was very good at the lonesome sports – running, tennis, and pitching in baseball – and I pushed myself relentlessly in tae kwon do. There exists somewhere a photo of me proudly displaying innumerable red lesions dotting the bottom of a fist I had just thrown through a cinder block. In a few calculated instances I coldly broke the bones of people who bothered me. As a rite of passage, I spent a long night in a strip bar at age 18. I adored science fiction and read books on astronomy and physics that most adults would not have tried. In fact, for most of my youth I thought I would become a scientist, and I still retain my sense of wonder over the discoveries made at the limits of the known world.

 

I might have developed a masculine side in these years had I not lacked for role models. I grew up in an antiseptic Los Angeles suburb where there was almost no rebellion and where one’s cultural outlets were blockbuster films and chain restaurants. The sexual, unruly energy we all doubtlessly experienced in high school was crushed by the hyper-awareness of academic achievement. In the eyes of our adults there were no ethnicities, no genders, no childish distractions – just potential and expectations. The duties charged to me specifically based on my gender were nearly invisible – save, of course, for the dearly felt injunction against ever willingly dressing like a girl.

 

So there I was: terror-stricken at every attempt I made to explore the femininity I felt pulled toward, and without any clear way forward as a young man.

 

It was only as I left behind adolescence and entered adulthood that I began to discover the many ways that men believed they should act. I found most of them silly. But enough of them I admired that I began to develop my own performance of masculinity. No doubt this is the experience of many young men who have never questioned their gender: ours is a postmodern world where lifestyles are casually applied and discarded. As the years passed I found it satisfying to hack together a male persona from the sundries that I happened to come across, and with time I found that people liked it. It turned out that being a man suited me. I now wear it so naturally that when I tell people about my urge it is common for them just to look at me, wondering if this is another one of the jokes I love to play.

 

Living life this way makes everything one does into part of a great search for self. Everything around you is grist for this mill. You can try on anything to see if it’s really you. Having done this, my conclusion is that both sides of this performance are mine. It took many years, but I have come to see how they are complementary, not opposed. I want them both – I want to play with them as the mood strikes, and I want the world to acknowledge my skill with each one.

 

This, I have learned, is a crucial thing. If personality is a performance, then there are certain parts of it that one only experiences in the presence of others. Shame, affection, desire, vulnerability; these are quantities whose experience in solitude is like the sound of a sonata heard by one faulty ear. The words that others bring to your performance, their gazes, their bodies, they all sow within the mind emotions that do not exist when one merely imagines people in absentia. In the presence of others, the scriptedness of practice gives way to reaction; we experience the feeling of authenticity; this validation, this spontaneity is like a special mirror that reflects our truer self. It gives us the choice to identify with what we see, or reject it.

 

The bohemian poet who was the first person to react well to what I had to say arranged that on a Friday evening she would come to my apartment to meet her. Thus began five of the most portentous days of my life. The tar-like sands that fell through the hourglass that week; the pounds I lost from anxiety.

 

And then finally, Friday. The last thing I did before I made myself up into a woman was to walk down the hallway stairs to the front door, unlock it, and tape a set of instructions outside above the doorknob. Then I walked back up the stairs and closed the door at the landing. I attempted to become as beautiful and feminine as I could. Later, I heard the sound of the front door opening and closing. I heard footsteps up the stairs, a timid knock at the door on the landing. I pulled it open, backpedalling behind it as though it were my shield. We stood like that for a moment, with just that plane of wood between us. I understood that she would not be the first to move.

 

Her first words to me were that I looked gorgeous, and I immediately comprehended that I was on unknown soil, because this is not a thing a woman says to a man so casually and so openly. A man and a woman are careful to protect themselves from that frisson. Here, however, there was no concern for those sorts of misunderstandings.

 

The lengths that were required before I would permit myself to be this vulnerable before another person.

 

How far were you willing to take this? the judge asks Sabzian. He responds: As far as they would let me go. There is the difference between us. On that day I wanted to go equally far, but the truth is that the bohemian poet was prepared to go much further than I. I could not go as far as she would have taken me. I was still too afraid and too careful, still just amazed that I had managed to take this step.

 

And in the years since then I have seen those boundaries broaden and broaden, I have scrutinised them and tended them, I have painstakingly pushed them back bit by bit, and in the process I have learned that they are just another way of imagining what we mean when we say certain words, words like trust and courage, assurance and vulnerability.

 

*

 

The arrest from outside the estate, the arrest from inside it: these two moments of symmetry are the twin foci around which this elliptical film is drawn.

 

And then, what is this? The film ends as it begins, with a ride to the compound. This is the strangest scene yet: Kiarosami is filming through a telephoto lens from a car parked across the street, as though he is on a stakeout. Makhmalbaf of all people is there! He’s wearing a mic to give Kiarostami audio, and what he’s about to do is pick up Sabzian on his motorcycle.

 

It is the day after the trial. Persuaded by Sabzian’s testimony, Merhdad has chosen to withdraw his complaint. Sabzian has been forgiven and freed, and now he is exiting prison.

 

There’s something wrong with Makhmalbaf’s mic, and the result is that we can only hear about half of what he and Sabzian say to one another throughout this scene. Sabzian hops on the back of Makhmalbaf’s motorcycle, and they head off, Kiarostami following, filming, picking up audio as best he’s able. There’s a frantic quality to this scene, as though everything has gone off the rails and Kiarostami is rushing after a screaming, skidding locomotive. As though Kiarostami has finally played too hard with real life, and now it is screaming back at him and flexing its muscles.

 

The men on the motorcycle stop off and buy a tree as a gift. A tree in bloom with flowers. They end up at the family’s compound, right where the cabbie snatched those dead trash-heap flowers for his dash.

 

Sabzian rings the bell. Mehrdad opens the door and their eyes meet. As Sabzian gives him the tree, he is sobbing.

 

*

 

Why does Kiarostami title his film Close-Up?

 

I hear you’ve been taken for Makhmalbaf before, says the judge to Sabzian. Yes, he replies, I did not correct the mistake when others made it, but this is the first time I’ve done anything like this.

 

So there is much, much more to this story than what we see in the film. But Kiarostami chooses not to show us the string of failures Sabzian endured on the journey toward becoming Makhmalbaf. He is concerned with the instance in which he succeeds.

 

No one ever performs well the first time they’re seen close up. I take the blame for my own first two failures, those first two people who did not react well to what I had to tell them. They are people who love me, and I think their love would have won out had I the wherewithal to make my case as well as Sabzian made his that afternoon on the bus. But I doubted myself, and within a moment my doubt infected them, and we joined in rejecting what I had made us examine. But not that third time. On that third time I spoke without doubt, and I have done so every single time since then.

 

The following afternoon it was all in the past, and I understood that a portion of my life was ended. No matter my ache to see it go, the loss remained heavy. It was such a large thing I carried with me for so long, and my mind dumbly raced around the space it had vacated. We became frightened because there was nothing to perch on to. I bolted from my apartment, and for thirty twilit minutes I felt that mad circling calm down. But then I came back inside and I saw that soon the world would be enveloped by darkness, and, trembling with agitation, I felt the circling accelerate. I did not know what I would do. I did not know how to cope with just how vulnerable I had made myself to the world. To calm my mind I picked up the DVD that had been sitting on the table in my apartment for weeks, and I tried to make sense of the disorienting images on the screen.

 

At the end of the film Sabzian breaks out into tears. As he delivers the gift of a small tree to the family he has wronged, he begins to weep. With Makhmalbaf and the family massed around him he loses all control. Whoever he has become, he feels that the world now condones it, and that weight is overwhelming.

 

I think he has experienced what it is to be himself for the first time. Not entirely himself, but the first intimation of this thing he has suffered for. I understand this. I would never be the sort of person for whom self was a purely private matter. Whatever I wanted to be, I would not be it until I was at peace with it before the eyes of the world.

 

The morning after that hard night I knew that what had found its way into that emptiness could one day fill it, and this thought gave me a manic sort of happiness. That energy. I rode my bicycle for miles and miles that afternoon trying to exhaust it. It was too much energy, so much more than should ever had been made to fit inside my body. I was only just beginning to learn to acclimate myself to this new world. These were new possibilities, unsettling gifts that it was now my responsibility to own.



ABOUT THE CONTRIBUTOR


is the co-author of The End of Oulipo? (with Lauren Elkin; Zero Books, 2013). His writing has appeared recently in Music & Literature, Drunken Boat, and The Point. His criticism appears frequently in the Times Literary Supplement, the San Francisco Chronicle, and The Washington Post.