It Was Mother

It Was That

It Was That
Wayras Olivier
SEPTEMBER 2018


T HAT SQUABBLE, long ago, between Mohammad and Khomeini was unlike most civil squabbles. To point out that the Shah, in a relatively sympathetic manner, contested for; improved literacy amongst the country’s peasantry; land titles to his country’s farmers; and with-it women’s rights, was also the same secular-minded Shah whose SAVAK made the White Revolution hardly sympathetic. However, one is forced to consider who was displaced from Iran in the early sixties—a first-rate alternative? The theocratic-minded Ayatollah, who was kept abreast of every expostulated passing of the clock—minute the Jaleh massacre—by the mullahs who themselves, distressed by the non-Islamic tenor of the White Revolution, celebrated Khomeini’s eventual enforcement of the Velayat-e Faqih.

With zero interest in communism, thus having the U.S.’s sympathy to be Mosaddegh’s replacement once the CIA deposed him in 1953, the Shah later found himself without CIA comforts when Khomeini, who had zero interest in communism too, had the U.S.’s empathy to unmake the Shah, which included an austere Islamic rule of law, once Khomeini’s forces (a nascent pretext for the Pasdaran), supplanted the Shah in 1979.

It’s much more nuanced than that, sure, but one can be certain that neither despot, in their final days, sought aid or comfort in the reading of the Dissoi Logoi. The sophist-era text gives a run-through on dialectics, and foments that the intellect is properly forged through knowing how to articulate both sides of an argument. So here it is, that word—progressive, which, if ever the Shah or Khomeini was confronted with genuine retrospection and reconsideration, neither man was or became.

Phrasing it this way, one deliberates on Robert McKee and his magnificent book Story, where he explained how junctures in life are made dramatic. Traditionally, both described and ascribed as metonyms of the other—sympathy and empathy generally stood for one’s ability to identify and follow the motives of a character, which is, in essence, a rather unidimensional ability. Thank goodness for McKee, who cured such a definition of its own obscurantism when he put it something like this:

  1. A sympathetic character is someone who has our sympathy because we understand why they’re making a certain choice whilst concurrently agreeing with the choice that they’re making.
  2. An empathic character is someone who has our empathy because we understand why they’re making a certain choice whilst concurrently disagreeing with the choice that they’re making.

Give it a moment’s thought.

These two definitions, aside from being arresting, are no longer, in point, united in outcome. To understand and to agree, commonly assumed to be the same word-conglomerate, are separated from one another in McKee’s definition. In other words, separated, in the same way that church is from state. Thus, both still must co-exist whilst no longer being, by definition, able to make the other’s point or interfere with the other’s dictated terms, regardless of which word is employed to give holy order to meaning.

Also, apparent—although unexpressed—is, in McKee’s unique definition of empathy, a faint and subtle preservation of the memory of the aforementioned supremacy of being able to argue both sides of an argument—the Dissoi Logoi.

In the superb and brilliant film House of Sand and Fog one is expected to do just that: Side One, upon failing to reconcile a business tax claim, an impecunious white, single American female loses her home to the state-county, whereupon, Side Two, the home is legally purchased by an equally impecunious Iranian immigrant family man, fleeing Khomeini’s church-state.

But now, especially in the wake of the JCPOA, the culture slope is steep. Black-and-white thinking on Islam; either-or analysis on police brutality; and take-it-or-leave-it reasoning on the patriarch and American exceptionalism reveal that unless the film were to infantilize, House of Sand and Fog could not be made for mass consumption today.

Consider: which character has the audience’s sympathy, and which their empathy, if the combatants—Kathy Nicolo, the American, played by Jennifer Connelly, and, Massoud Behrani, the Iranian immigrant played by Ben Kingsley—lack, by design, situational fluency? Indeed, a meddlesome subtlety. Imposing and invasive, to any viewer who instinctively relies on a well-defined sympathetic character which always has, unlike an empathetic character, the moral high ground to be progressive in a conflict when righting a wrong.

W.