Thursday, May 03, 2007

Day 6: Turkish Cinema, the Sequel

Please note: my previous post on Turkish Cinema has been revised--extensively or not may depend on when you first read it...

Omer Kavur's Anayurt Oteli (Motherland Hotel, 1986) may be in part inspired by Kubrick's The Shining, and the latter may be the far more complex intellecutal puzzle, but I think the former has a power all its own.

Based on a novel by Yusuf Atilgan, the film is the story of Zebercet (Macit Koper), the hotel's manager, whose family has owned the establishment for three generations--the film opens on Zebercet facing the camera, reciting his lineage and its long realtionship with the hotel. Zebercet is the quiet, reliable type, as one of his acquaintances puts it; he has neat, regular habits, he knows how to accomodate his guests and how and when not to accomodate them, he's the kind of polite, unassuming presence that you can count on to render consistently good, tactful service. Only problem is, he may be slowly going insane.

See, the film's real opening image is a beautiful woman (Sahika Tekand) gazing directly at the camera, her lips moist and slightly open, her eyes frank and inviting, her address a direct challenge: "have you a room free?" The woman is the object of Zebercet's dreams, the constant subject of his at times idle thoughts and the cause of his imminent downfall--he pays off the newspaper delivery and tells the boy to stop service; he turns away guests, saying the hotel is full; he puts up the "closed" sign and spends his time in the girl's room, smelling her pillow and nightgown. His small spark of attraction is growing into full-blown obsession.

Maybe the saddest point in the film is when he attempts to break out of his fixation. He observes a woman on a park bench, a former guest, approaches her; she tells him that she will meet him at his hotel lobby in 45 minutes. He dresses, shaves; she doesn't show.

Unlike, say, Guney, Kavur represented a turning point for Turkish cinema; where the earlier films often contained a strong social content (the better ones, anyway) or at the very least subtext, Kavur's points inward, into the self--how does one deal with loneliness, reach out to someone, perhaps love someone? When does behavior cross over from eccentricity to insanity? More, what can be considered memory, fantasy, actual delusion, and what's the difference between all three--if any?

Kavur's style helps tell the story of this extreme case of cabin fever. Early in the film Kavur employs several shots panning either up or down; the impression these shots give is of a narrow space, very little actual floor but plenty of high celing. The implication beyond that is that Zebercet's outlook on life, his prospects, his very world is narrow, confining, claustrophobic (Kubrick's Overlook Hotel may be a triumph of set design, but has a more difficult time inspiring similar sentiments). More, Kavur has the outside world--largely glimpsed at through windows and doorways--bathed in an otherworldly glow, so that light streams in through these apertures, plunging the further corners of the hotel in shadow. Kavur is so successful at separating the world outside and the world inside the hotel that in a later scene, when Zebercet is standing in an outdoor market and the camera turns 360 degrees around him the effect is dizzying--you've come to expect the relative safety of the hotels' four walls. An intriging film, and one of the most harrowing portraits of the introverted mind I've ever seen.

Metin Erksan's Susuz Yaz (Dry Summer, 1964) is a stunning piece of filmmaking. In its use of high-contrast black-and-white phtography, in its series of often angled shots dynamically edited together, in the way it captures motion or creates it through camera movement it has the kind of hurtling visual inertia Kurosawa achieved early in his career. Bits of business stay in memory: a man's head looming in right foreground, a man in medium shot standing in the left background, the standing man moving behind to pop up at the head's right a second later. A man chasing a woman through bamboo grove, patterns of bamboo stalk and leaf, of flickering light and shadow giving the chase a strong erotic charge. A man cutting down a tree with an ax, the camera suddenly sneaking up behind as if to attack--and in fact does attack, in the form of several men with clubs; axe and clubs battle it out, the screen filled with pine branches whipping furiously to and fro.

The story itself is simple enough: Osman (Erol Tas) wants nearly full use of the water coming from his land, and builds a canal that cuts off much of the water to other farmers' fields; Hassan (Ulvi Dogan) disagrees, but is too distracted by his girlfriend Bahar (Ulya Kocyigit) and too intimidated by Osman's status as older brother to actively oppose him.

Osman is reportedly one of the great villains in Turkish cinema. I'd argue he's one of the greatest villains anywhere--he's selfish and greedy, he always wants more power over his lands, he's intelligent enough to realize that water is a source of power and that by controlling it he in effect controls his neighbors. He justifies himself with all kinds of bull, but so cleverly worked out it's difficult to argue (on damming up the water, he declares that since he has the biggest fields (having quietly bought property right and left) he has the biggest needs). He goes on and on about his plans, cajoling people right and left in his efforts to either bully or persuade them. He's an appalling man, yet a hard worker, physically courageous and a charmer-you can see why people would give in to him, or at least fail to call him on his various prevarications.

And he's an irrepressible lech. When Hassan marries Bahar, Osman can't help giving the newlyweds raucous advice; when Hassan blocks the bedroom doorway with a wooden chest, Osman pushes a drawer out and continues chattering away; when Hassan blocks even that, Osman finds a crack in the wall and watches the two make love. Later, when Hassan is arrested and put in prison and Bahar is left in Osman's care, the decadent hedonist comes out in him: Osman sniffs at Bahars leg, demands that she wash his feet and give him backrubs, and in one rather startling moment, teases her by nuzzling a cow's udder with his lips. Playing Osman, Tas dominates the film the way Osman dominates both brother and sister-in-law, and it's obvious he's having great fun doing it.

By film's end Erksan creates such a powerful impression of water (life, the people's will, the natural order of things) dammed up by a canal (Osman's amoral cunning) that you can actually feel the pressure building, both dramatically, as Osman's triumph seems assured, and visually, as the water is sometimes let out (in short, carefuly rationed spurts), gradually falls to a trickle in the surrounding fields, and gurgles in frustration behind Osman's canal walls. Matters come to such a point that you badly want the floodgates opened, you want to hear the water rush out of its long confinement, you want to hear that triumphant roar so bad you can almost hear it in your head, and you know the sound will be blessed, blessed relief. Like Guney's Umut (Hope), a great film, absolutely.

Yasim Ostaoglu's Gunese Yolculuk (Journey to the Sun, 1999) takes place in Istanbul, a by the film's account beautiful and at the same time frightening place where the Hagia Sophia dominates the skyline (and is impossibly lovely during sunsets), but at any moment the police can pick you up, have your feet beaten, put you away in prison with around a fifty-fifty chance of ever being found again. In the background are hunger strikes, political unrest, military checkpoints and strangers leaving handguns in unmarked bags; God--or Allah--help you if the "uncles," the police, ever find you even sitting next to one such bag.

Berzan (Nazmi Kirik) and Mehmet (Newroz Baz) become fast friends; Berzan, a Kurd, is connected to shadowy network of political activists and refugees from the law; Mehmet, well, he works with the sewage service, using a hornlike device to listen to the ground for water leaks (you think of chimney sweeps, or charmingly outmoded occupations of yore--except this is Istanbul today, or of the late '90s).

Ostauglu's general background is grim, but his characters can't resist indulging the occasional flash of humor. When Mehmet finds himself arrrested, released, and rendered homeless (a red "X" at the door painted by people unknown guarantees immediate eviction), a prostitute approaches him, sitting with his TV set, and asks "are you and the TV always together?" When anyone asks Mehmet where he's from and he replies he's from Tire, no one believes him, a running gag that comes to a satisfying conclusion when Mehmet finally meets someone who does come from Tire.

When someone dies Mehmet finds himself forced to carry the body in a coffin across the country, in an effort to bury it; one thinks of Faulkner's As I Lay Dying, or even Peckinpah's Bring Me The Head of Alfredo Garcia (only a head is much easier to carry). Ostauglu's film reaches a pitch of deadpan black comedy one would not think possible, biting and grotesque and hilarious and sad, all at once.

(More Turkish films to follow--in a few days, maybe; I leave for Seoul in a few hours)

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