In an April 1998 review of Abbas Kiarostami’s Taste of Cherry in New York magazine, David Denby scoffed at the idea that other critics were calling it a masterpiece. “This is a movie of great interest—an original work,” he said, “but it lacks the courage, the surprise, the ravenous hunger for life, of a serious work of movie art.” Almost nine years later, in the New Yorker‘s listings, Denby promotes a Kiarostami retrospective at MOMA by calling the same film one of Kiarostami’s best, noting that he “redeems humanism by combining it with enchanting formal play” and “can turn the simplest action into a philosophical quest.”
It’s not quite a reversal, acknowledged or otherwise, but it does suggest a changed attitude, and a welcome one, perhaps spurred along by a desire to counter Bush’s demonization of what he chooses to call “Iran.” Or perhaps Denby has decided that a nonserious work of movie art can also be a philosophical quest that combines humanism with “enchanting formal play.” Still, there is one strange recurring element in his account of the film: his claim that the protagonist “tries to induce strangers to help him commit suicide.” This is a curious and decidedly nonhumanist description of a project he described accurately in another review. In fact, the protagonist offers to pay each stranger he meets to retrieve him from a hole in the ground if he’s still alive the next morning or to bury him if he’s dead.
In 1998, around the same time that Denby’s New York review appeared, he was lamenting the alleged decline of the art film in a long New Yorker piece called “The Moviegoers.” More recently he’s held forth on what he calls the new narrative disorder in movies. Noting that Alain Resnais “played the most extreme (and infuriating) games with time and narrative” in his early features but apparently remaining cool as a cucumber when it comes to a recent Resnais knockoff such as Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (which owes a great deal to Resnais’ Je t’aime, Je t’aime) or an antihumanist crossword puzzle like Memento, Denby shows nothing but awe and admiration for Pulp Fiction. Presumably Quentin Tarantino could teach Alain Resnais and Abbas Kiarostami a thing or two about “the courage, the surprise, the ravenous hunger for life, of a serious work of art.”