Four men in their fifties, driving back from a ski trip in the mountains. Late morning. They banter as they head for the city in a shiny new black Peugeot SUV, anxious to get home in time to watch a big game on TV. They’re all dressed for the slopes, in good humor, gabbing in that ironic, guy-talk way about work and women. From their conversation, it’s obvious that they’ve known each other all their lives. Three of them work together in a multinational advertising agency. The fourth is a dentist.
One of the men is on his cell phone, talking to his daughter in L.A. She has just given birth to a baby boy, the first grandchild for the group. One of the other men in the SUV will be traveling to L.A. soon with his new wife. “Is there anything he can bring you from here?” asks the new grandfather. His divorced wife is already in L.A. with their daughter.
The four men stop at a turnout on their way down the mountain, so that one of them can answer the call of nature. While parked, they notice an eight-foot-tall free-standing rock at the edge of the turnout. They decide on impulse that it would be fun to push the rock over and watch it tumble down into the lake far below. For the rest of the movie, they try to move the rock.
The film is based on a story idea by Abbas Kiarostami, Iran’s most influential filmmaker (A Taste of Cherry (1997), Crimson Gold (2003)). Mani Haghighi, the 38-year-old writer/director of Men At Work (Kargaran mashghoole karand), received his B.A. in philosophy from McGill University in 1991, an M.A. in philosophy from the University of Guelph in 1997, and an M.A. in cultural studies from Trent University in 2000. His grandfather is Eberahim Golestan, an important writer and filmmaker in Iran. I’d like to know how the story idea passed from Kiarostami to Haghighi – perhaps over dinner one evening? At any rate, Haghighi is on record as trying hard to resist the pressure on Iranian filmmakers to emulate the Kiarostami touch. Haghighi wants to introduce new styles of cinema into Iran. Haghighi: “When you say Iranian films, audiences expect 1.) a child, 2.) preferably, a child looking for something, and 3.) set in a rural context.” Men at Work is his second feature-length film. Later, when he made Abadan, he was criticized by the Iranian film board for making a movie that “wasn’t Iranian enough.”
When Angelina Jolie’s “A Mighty Heart” opened, there was some discussion about whether her celebrity would overwhelm the film. It didn’t. A similar question occurred to me as I watched Men At Work, because although the men could be returning to Denver from Aspen, or to L.A. through the San Gabriels, they are in fact descending into Teheran, with Iraq just over the horizon to the west. Could I watch a movie about ordinary men living their ordinary lives with ordinary concerns that seem so similar to my own, without being influenced by the U.S. Administration’s current posture toward Iran – the accusations, the general vitriol, the naval buildup in the Gulf, and especially the ongoing trainwreck in the country next door? As I started the movie, its livingroom seemed crowded with elephants, to torture the metaphor.
In the event, the first time through, the elephants set up a certain dissonance between what I was seeing onscreen and my mental image of the region and its people. Political questions distracted me. The second time through, however, having learned the characters’ names, professions, and basic histories, and having admired the scenery, which is spectacular, and having sorted out a variety of questions that arose for me during the first viewing, I found that my preoccupation with Iran qua evil-axis member had dissipated. No horns, pitchforks, or AK-47s visible in the movie. Instead, there was something quite heartening to me about watching these ordinary men grappling with middle age in a context perfectly understandable to me. An anecdote that one of them tells the others, which includes excellent English that they all understand, and California Dreamin by the Mamas and the Papas blaring from a car radio, add cultural linkages between the actors and the typical U.S. viewer. (Although one of the four did look a little like Saddam. But then, another resembled Richard Gere, and another, a cross between Richard Dreyfus and Freud. All four men are important in the Iranian film industry; none are principally actors.)
I read once that most Iranian films take place outdoors because there is a rule that to appear in a movie, a woman must keep her head covered, and filmmakers do not like to compromise their work by having women appear in their own homes with their heads covered. Don’t know if that is still true, but since this movie is shot at a mountain turnout on a cold winter day, the fact that all the women (in thoroughly modern clothing) had their heads covered didn’t stand out as a cultural identifier.
A moment that does highlight cultural differences: the men want to harness a donkey to the standing rock so that the donkey can pull the rock over. The donkey’s owner points out that if the rock falls over, it will plunge down the cliff with the donkey still attached to it. One of the four men points out that the fate of the donkey is in God’s hands. Although this line of reasoning is played as farce, it isn’t Hollywood farce (for the Hollywood equivalent, refer to Samuel Jackson in Pulp Fiction).
Do the rock and the men’s struggles to topple it comprise the elements of an allegory? Perhaps. Is the rock a symbol for an inflexible government? For a stultifying, immovable patriarchal system? Do the men’s struggles represent the simple idiocy of the male animal? An allegory in the cinema requires that the viewer accept the situation as it is, plus accept it as something else again. No problem doing this for Men At Work. Every individual action is natural; the complete situation is absurd. The presence of allegory and symbol didn’t engage me, but it relieved some pressure for me as I watched; it let me sit back and enjoy what I was seeing while I played intellectual hooky from that aspect of the film. At no moment was a correct interpretation of the symbolism in the film important to me. The rock is simply the film’s mcguffin. It’s job is to hold the four characters in place long enough for us to spend some time with them – time well spent in this case.
…A break here to note that there is digging with shovels in Men At work. Have I ever seen a hole dug realistically in a movie? The shovel comes out. A few spadefulls of dirt are turned over. Cut to a nice big hole and a sweaty actor with the shovel. When I go out in the back yard, a couple of licks and I’ve got my first blister. I remember no actors complaining about blisters from digging in a movie.
The film is made on DV and cleanly transferred to 35mm. Gray and black mountains, silent, unmoving, snow-covered on top, masses in the distance, with orange and red and gold strata miles wide running on a diagonal across the screen in the foreground.
The musical score is uncredited in the English titles and on IMDB, but is beautifully done – solo piano in a minor key with an electronic vibe, alternately spritely and contemplative.
The focus of the film is on the weight of accumulated history felt by men of this age. There has been disease. A new generation is entering the world. Careers have peaked. Marriage is history, not future. One of the men is divorced, recuperating from surgery, and lonely. One has a wife who is terminally ill. The wife of the third is a woman in her twenties, a beauty the age of the man’s daughter; the marriage, if in fact they are really married, is not expected to last very long. The fourth man says that his wife hangs out with “a collection of 50-year-old crazy women.” He meets an old flame at the rock, a woman of spirit and energy who reminds him what he missed when he let her get away; and then she is gone. The director cares about these men. He handles them with respect onscreen. The fact that he probably knows them all well in real life and that they are all fifteen years or so older than he is and well-travelled in the industry adds power to their presence in front of the camera, mentors to him behind it.
I had the sense that in the movie, for these men the past was as important or now perhaps more important than the present or future. I thought of Rupert Murdock, in his late seventies as he buys Dow Jones, and Sumner Redstone, in his eighties as he wrestles with his daughter over Viacom policy and tries to dump his 44-year-old wife. What percentage of men keep moving into the future; how many slow down and become permanently embedded in the past? Whatever the future holds for the four men in Men At Work, in the universe of the movie there is no future. It is the past that is present onscreen, in their conversation and in the aging and history marked in their faces.
Men At Work concludes with an unironic, touching ending that embodies the final innocence I’ve experienced in many of the Iranian movies I’ve seen.
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