Kaveh Askari, Relaying Cinema in Midcentury Iran: Material Cultures in Transit (Oakland: University of California Press, 2022).
Jadaliyya (J): What made you write this book?
Kaveh Askari (KA): I was on a postdoctoral fellowship at the University of California, Berkeley and was looking for a distraction from the focused work of writing up my first book. The Bancroft Library had physical copies of Iranian newspapers from the 1920s and ‘30s, which provided a break from microfilm and digital screens. Reading through the cinema ads and translated movie stories, I noticed the ways films were repurposed and revalued as they moved across borders. I was interested in the practical dimensions of this process—which films were shipped to the Middle East, how they got there, how they were reedited and projected—but also in the stories exhibitors and translators told about the films premiering in Tehran sometimes a decade after their initial release. I was a short drive from several Hollywood studio and distributor archives, so I started to compare distribution accounting records memos with the exhibition records of the same films in Iran. This was the seed of a cross-archival project, eventually involving multiple trips to Iran and studio archives in Texas and Wisconsin, in which I reconstructed parts of a network that was not meant to be transparent. This circuitous exchange network, enabling the long afterlives of cinema’s objects, seemed to be a missing piece in the cultural history of cinema in the region.
J: What particular topics, issues, and literatures does the book address?
KA: I structured this book around a conception of relay, which evokes both mediated communication and physical movement. In its modern form, relay comes to everyday usage from wired and wireless communication networks. A relay point extends the range of a signal that has become weak and amplifies it. Such a conception of relay can foreground the movement of media while also accounting for decentralized forms of agency in this movement. This decentered agency is especially evident in relay networks where little practical hope for top-down management of the network exists.
In its second common usage, as a term of physical movement, relay refers to a race (archaically, to a hunt) that requires multiple animals (human or otherwise) who each hasten to a point of exchange. In athletics, the carriers of a baton in the first segments of a relay race cannot act upon, or sometimes even see, the actions of the latter segments. An object crosses a long distance through a sequence of individual races. Obstructions in the sequence are not failures of organization. They are defining features of a relay’s cooperative movement.
Relay thus highlights two dimensions of cinema’s movements that this history prioritizes. The first suggests amplification in sequence; it directs attention to the transformations that take place in networks. The second draws attention to objects in transit, to the potentially beneficial obfuscations and obstructions at each stage of a relay. Relay evokes circulation but with an emphasis on sequence, interruption, and incremental agency over top-down or seamless transparency.
J: How does this book connect to and/or depart from your previous work?
KA: My first book, Making Movies into Art (British Film Institute, 2014) was about early cinema in the United States. While Relaying Cinema in Midcentury Iran is not a book on early cinema, its methods are informed by my training in the field. Early cinema studies might seem like an odd place to look for insight into traditions that move from the 1920s to the 1960s, but methods need not belong to periods. In adapting some of them, I seek to challenge a potential bottleneck in the historiography of cinema in Iran (with resonances elsewhere) around familiar archives, national industries, and their groundbreaking films.
The field of early cinema studies has challenged, from its beginnings, a narrowed historiography around the classical film oligopoly, around a standardized formal system, and around a centripetal definition of cinema as a coherent medium. Early cinema scholars have emphasized the unevenness of cinema’s textual address over a stable image of the movie spectator and exhibitor control over hierarchies of circulation that would otherwise privilege production centers. They have valued traditions that might seem too early or too late and have succeeded at reading myths of origin as allegories rather than as truths or falsehoods. Faced with received ideas steeped in a cult of invention, they have sought out moments of media volatility or plurality not with the goal of not delimiting failures and crosscurrents but of exploring the ways these failures lay bare the fissures within traditions ordinarily understood as seamless or as heroic inventions. Wary of privileging films over cinema, of imagining the individual film as something separate from the often-contradictory forces that bring it into view, the field has helped frame cinematic prestige in structural rather than textual terms.
Early cinema scholars, a community that overlaps significantly with that of archivists and curators, regularly confront questions of ethics and accuracy that arise when working within the realities of severely limited access to material. These questions proliferate if one’s primary focus is not Europe or North America. These kinds of challenges are familiar to media historians working on regions where the oligopoly encountered serious obstacles, where exhibitors dismantled hierarchies of distribution, where film texts often did not address a stable spectator, and where it remains difficult to avoid painful shortages, blockages, and imbalances of archival evidence. While the period of early cinema in Iran ended long before the postwar era, a reader familiar with these methodological interventions and research challenges will see similar strategies for widening historiography in each chapter of this book.
J: Who do you hope will read this book, and what sort of impact would you like it to have?
KA: The book crosses national traditions and borrows methods from different academic communities. My hope is that its readership will follow this pattern and not be concentrated in a single field. The book supplements some of the exciting new work being done in Iranian media studies, and I think many of us are enjoying a moment in that field where one can explore a very targeted topic and low-traffic archival collections without feeling pressure to reinvent the wheel.
I import and develop different methods for each chapter of the book so that I can address varied topics including distribution networks, engineering labor, film music, transnational genre, and coproduction. Individual chapters can speak to those with specific interests in these fields. While I would not want to consider the book’s conclusions to be generalizable, I would like to think that some of its methods are portable and can spark ideas for others working in neighboring fields or for students in a seminar on media historiography.
J: What other projects are you working on now?
KA: I am currently researching global histories of media education in the 1970s with specific attention to transnational partnerships involving universities, commercial media organizations, or government agencies in Southwest Asia. The first part of this project makes use of the archive of the M. Ali Issari’s Iran Film Project here at Michigan State University. I am also collaborating with Ehsan Khoshbakht on an illustrated guide to the popular cinema of Iran before the revolution. This volume will feature quality reproductions of poster art and film stills, and it will accompany efforts to program new preservations of popular Iranian films at festivals and film museums.
Excerpt from the book (from Chapter 3, pp. 94-102)
Temp Love, Out of Sync
Consider the asynchrony of the trends in film music in Iran and the United States. What creative and marketing opportunities did this asynchrony afford? The film studios in midcentury Iran used American scores composed when the pendulum had swung away from compilation scoring norms of 1930s Hollywood. Then, by the late 1960s both industries had swung past each other in the opposite directions. Just as Hollywood was rediscovering the compilation score and directors were rekindling their temp love, the film industry in Iran began to favor original scores from its own composers, and its remaining compilations turned away from their rowdier past. The cyclical trends for or against compilation were, for these two industries, about as far apart as they could be.
This was the period in which Max Steiner, Hollywood’s celebrated golden-age composer, famously spoke out against the compilation score. It was a period in which he helped to consolidate control of the score around the composer, and film studios packaged and sold this music apart from the films as part of a campaign of tie-in branding. These efforts created the conditions of recognizability that inadvertently gave the scores their currency in compilations abroad. It is important to see these scores made in Iran as a creative interaction not just with found melodies but with the commercial life of this branded property. The patterns of sampling film music at midcentury were wildly out of sync with the commercial trends that produced the source material, which made it possible to resynchronize new forms of recognizability and commercial viability.
Some recycled scores in Iran appeared at the speed of global fashion. Remember that while some of these scores came from film prints themselves, better sound quality could be transferred to magnetic tape from commercial LPs. Vinyl was both stable and fast. Music editors’ collections were archived over years to be sure, but vinyl could circulate in ways that distributor-controlled film prints could not. This portable format met with a nimble soundtrack technique in which all dialogue, music, and effects were recorded and assembled last, with the rapidity of a temporary preview track. This resourceful production method not only saved time and money, it gave the industry opportunities to create novel forms of tie-in simultaneity. One way to trace this simultaneity is to compare newspaper exhibition records for Hollywood films in Iran with the release dates of the Iranian films that recycle their scores. It turns out that some Iranian filmmakers were able to integrate music quickly enough to score their own films with musical themes from imports that were still playing in first-run cinemas.
The score for Fereshtei dar Khane-ye Man (An Angel in My House, Armais Aghamaliyan, 1963), edited by Dariush Azizi at Golden Age studio, opens with the piano theme from Billy Wilder’s The Apartment to accompany its nighttime shots of busy Tehran streets. The LP, Theme from The Apartment, was one of several cross-promotional efforts that succeeded on the music charts in the early 1960s. With this film, United Artists piloted rack sales of albums in cinema lobbies. The company expanded the program when the promotion proved profitable. The Apartment hit US theaters in 1960, but it premiered in Iran in October 1963 at the Moulin Rouge cinema in Tehran. An Angel in My House was released this same year. The soundtrack played in Iran simultaneously for Aghamalian’s urban melodrama and Wilder’s cynical sex comedy about the postwar managerial class. The choice gives Angel’s opening a contemporary feel. Wilder’s ironic uses of the song’s sentimentality are not conveyed in the new context, but something about its source still stands out. It would not have been unreasonable to expect it to be recognized given the commercial success of the album, the film itself, and the narrative significance of that particular song within the film. The Rickshaw Boy LP features visibly in the diegesis of The Apartment as a running cynical gag. Wilder’s film also had prestige associations in Tehran. The Moulin Rouge was a high-end cinema, and Jack Lemon was on his way to becoming a major star in Iran.
The same accelerated sampling happens with the score for the James Bond film From Russia with Love (Terrence Young, 1963). The film was released in Iran two years later with the descriptive title A Trap for James Bond. John Barry’s score for the film follows the other big-theme composers with its pop melodies tuned to marketing opportunities. It was Barry’s first in a series of Bond scores, which helped the franchise become famous for its branded music. The theme tied record sales and radio play to the film in most markets, but in Iran audiences may have heard it first in a locally produced thriller. Delirium (sound by Mohammad Mohammadi) was released in Iran the same year as A Trap for James Bond, and it makes use of two cues from Barry’s score. The musical cues in Delirium, as in Angel, do not call back to time-tested classic scores. They play simultaneously with anticipated new releases at first-run theaters. The business ties between Hollywood film companies and record subsidiaries by 1958, and the stylistic changes in theme music that followed, encouraged multimedia commercial viability. Simultaneous screenings of films that were produced seven thousand miles apart but that make use of the same scores illustrate how such commercial strategies could be repurposed.
In some cases, collage sound in films made in Iran may have traveled faster to cinemas than the original films for which the scores were composed. Take Hollywood’s orientalist battle spectacle Taras Bulba (J. Lee Thompson, 1962). The film did fine in the United States, but Franz Waxman’s score received radio play, multiple commercial releases, and awards nominations. I do not have an Iranian exhibition record for Taras Bulba, but I have found an instance of its soundtrack in the Iranian film Zamin-e Talkh (Bitter Earth, Khosrow Parvizi, 1963), which was released less than three months after a limited American release of Taras Bulba. The Iranian premiere of the score, in a compilation credited to Parvizi himself, must have preceded the local distribution of the film by at least a year. It even preceded some key US markets, as the film followed a standard staggered release pattern. As a result, when moviegoers in some US cities heard Waxman’s score for the film on opening night, they were hearing a score that Parvizi had already presented to Tehran audiences weeks earlier in his own take on the western genre. The score for a Yul Brenner action film set in the Eurasian Steppe had been reattached to a cowboy movie made in Iran before the Hollywood film had completed its first run in its own domestic market. The Waxman-Parvizi vector, outpacing the United Artists domestic release schedule, offers an acute example of what can be discovered when one replaces linear arguments about temporal delay with inquiries into circulation’s layered chronologies.
Iran’s temp love was all about the odd timing. Commercially available recordings of film music, products of one industry’s rejection of compilation scoring, transformed into a working archive for another industry’s exploration of the possibilities of compilation. The products of the cross-promotional strategies of Hollywood and its record subsidiaries around 1960 could be retooled for other kinds of crossings on the sound stripes of films and in the public venues that screened them. These processes help us to challenge assumptions that circulation follows a linear chronology from origin to destination with a kind of dilution marking each step. It shows that Iranian sound editors, who (like the composers they sampled) were keen to craft music with publicity in mind, took advantage of these records’ acclaim while reshuffling their linear timelines. They could return to a 1930s soundtrack over decades, create resourceful affinities with contemporary films, and even leapfrog Hollywood films’ domestic release schedules. Tracking patterns of recognizable sound draws attention to these essential networks of exchange without implying that asynchrony is a one-way street.