Living in the US, it’s hard to get your hands on recent Turkish films. Well, maybe it wouldn’t be so hard if I actually had much personal interest in following up with the the state of the film industry of the country I was born and raised in, of which I am still a half-citizen. If I was really interested, I’m sure I could find a lot of films available to download or order DVDs by mail through various web-sites. If you look hard enough, you can find anything sold on a website in America.
No, this is more of a guilt issue. Since I’m Turkish, whatever smidgen of national pride that’s left inside me guilts me from time to time and tells me that I should support my fellow half-countrypeople’s work by at least watching them. I’m actually not a big fan of Turkish cinema, especially contemporary works that I’ve seen before I moved to The States and a handful of films I’ve been able to watch after. Since the beginning of the 2000s, Turkish cinema seems to have been divided into two categories:
1- Broad and crass comedies that perpetuate horrible stereotypes. They’re so bad, they make Adam Sandler look like Charlie Chaplin.
2- “Minimalist”, Pretentious as hell, excruciatingly slow art-house films devoid of context or story. Films so unbelievably boring, you would rather chew your own arm off in order to feel anything.
I was suckered into going to a lot of films in both of these categories before I moved to San Francisco in 2003. After that, I would watch a Turkish film here and there every couple of years or so in order to witness that things haven’t changed that much. The last time I saw a Turkish film before the unfortunate events of last night was almost three years ago. After sitting through Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s Chinese water torture disguised as a feature film, I think I’ll be fine if I don’t watch another Turkish effort for 30 years and tell my Turkish guilt to shut the fuck up.
Nuri Bilge Ceylan is a former professional photographer (Strike one), who obviously idolizes Andrei Tarkovski (Strike two) and who has the brass balls to turn what could be a decent 20-minute short film into a 157-minute epic behemoth (Strike three, and you’re out!). He is not much more than a con man who suckered otherwise respectable film critic and art-house buffs into believing his digital cinematography and framing skills actually transformed him into a master storyteller worthy of a buttload of awards.
I avoided Ceylan like the plague once I saw his pseudo-documentary Clouds of May, and heard from other critics that his Tarkovski influence became stronger with each film he directs. So I made sure not to support my nation’s film industry by not watching his later films Distant and Climates, even though they were being screened at an art-house theatre only five miles away from my house. Meanwhile, Ceylan’s reputation only grew stronger and after his latest, Once Upon a Time in Anatolia won The Jury Grand Prize at last year’s Cannes Film Festival.
Even then, and after reading multiple reviews from Turkish and American film critics praising it, I didn’t bother seeing it when it hit theaters or even renting it when it come out on home video here. A Turkish film being released on American home video is a very rare occurrence, hell, it might even be the first Turkish film ever released on Blu-Ray in The States.
Yet even though I kept repeating to myself that I’m not afraid, the Geena Davis in my head kept saying “Be afraid. Be very afraid.” Finally, the nightmare caught up with me in the form of Ceylan’s masterpiece being available on Netflix instant, a subscription service where you can stream films for free on your TV. There it was, right in front of me, I could watch it right away without leaving the comfort of my couch and I didn’t have to pay a single dime for it. Yet I didn’t know I was going to pay a much heftier price.
There is no doubt in my mind that Ceylan and his videographer (let’s not kid ourselves) have masterful eyes. Shot on digital, the film’s photography and framing are pretty, sometimes gorgeous to look at. It’s a good looking film the way a lobotomized swimsuit model is good looking.
The attempt at minimalist storytelling and wildly unreliable characterizations stinks of Tarkovski. Characters who are supposed to be typical working class Anatolians turn into seasoned philosophers, giving deep, insightful monologues about the nature of life with the delivery and prose you’d expect from a member of the Royal Shakespeare company. When the character is done with his sudden transformation where he serves as the filmmaker’s mouth, he goes back to being a simple Anatolian. And are these philosophical monologues accompanied by five-minute-long shots of grass gently waving back and forth in the calm breeze? You bet your sweet ass they do.
The structure and pacing of the story is way off. A late night search for a dead body by the police and the confessed killer takes up two thirds of the film when it should be just the first act. The second and third act are then compressed into the final hour where we become privy to some character development, but at that point it’s too little, too late.
The frustrations that develop with the body search sequences are almost too painful to revisit. Apart from the aforementioned severely out of place philosophy lectures, Ceylan plays with his audience by promising actual plot or character development via certain visual cues and then giving them the middle finger. At one point when hopes for finding the body is at an all-time low, there’s a long shot of an apple dropping on the ground and rolling towards the bottom of the hill. Ceylan follows this apple so intently and closely that we are led to believe it will lead to a clue, or at least anything that has anything to do with the story at hand. Yet after two straight minutes of following the apple, it stops rolling, and that’s that.
You might say that this is a character study in the guise of a dry police procedural. What character study? We don’t get to find out any details about the main characters until a good 90 minutes into the film, and even then, the information we get about them is minimal at best. Until that point, the characters are pretty much either interchangeable, or cliched, like the typical hot-headed police chief portrayed by Yilmaz Erdogan, who at least brings some energy to his performance.
One element in the film is handled quite masterfully, and that is mainly because it actually follows some form of three-act story structure with a beginning, middle and conclusion. During the long search for the body, the prosecutor tells the doctor about a woman who died exactly when she said she would die. The story comes up again later on. And near the end, it pays off beautifully as we learn more about the mysterious woman’s true identity. The story is introduced at the beginning, it’s reminded to the audience near the middle and is revealed to be something completely different at the end. Nothing else in the film comes close to this kind of a heartfelt and concise delivery.
Look, I know I’m in the minority when I call this film a piece of shit. A lot of critics, Turkish and American, praise Bilge Ceylan to high heaven. The man is practically a cinema prophet in Turkey. Maybe I’m biased as a screenwriter who is indoctrinated over and over again by his mentors and colleagues that story is king. Yet I love films like The Tree of Life. 2001 might as well be my favorite film of all time. And these real masterpieces don’t offer much in terms of a coherent story and are criticized roughly for the same reasons I hated Bilge Ceylan’s film. So my defense is this: If you’re going to linger on an image longer than it takes for a dyslexic person to read War and Peace, you better make damn sure where you’re pointing your camera is worth looking at. Kubrick and Malick knows this, and Bilge Ceylan doesn’t.