Nuri Bilge Ceylan

The Small Town (Kasaba)

I try not to get too cynical about the cultural constraints enforced by popular film discussion, but here in Los Angeles, one of the NPR radio stations hosts a high-profile and thoroughly middlebrow program entitled Air Talk, which includes a weekly summary of opening movies called Film Week. The show’s faux-intellectual discourse wouldn’t bother me too much if it didn’t aggressively promote itself as the personification of cultural engagement. (“Join [host] Larry Mantle,” its website says, “weekdays at 10:00 a.m. for lively and in-depth discussion of city news, politics, science, entertainment, the arts and more.”)

A typical exchange occurred last week during its review of Turkish director Nuri Bilge Ceylan‘s Distant (Uzak, 2002), one of the most visually striking, profound, and internationally acclaimed of recent films.

After spending the bulk of the show talking about releases like The Forgotten, Shaun of the Dead, The Last Shot and the Star Wars DVDs, the show briefly considered Distant. Guest critic Jean Oppenheimer of the New Times summarized her take on the film:

“This is a story about two men who are very lonely, very isolated, very unhappy, but unable to talk about it, unable to share their feelings or their sadness with one another. It’s told in very lengthy, very static shots. There’s little dialogue but a lot of ambient sound. And I thought that the film actually beautifully captured that sort of frustration and despair of these guys and their ennui, and I think it’s actually saying something about Turkey and Turkish politics . . .”

Host Larry Mantle paused for a beat and then replied in his relaxed, skeptical manner, “Well . . . does it work for an American audience, though? Do you think it will be of interest to the average listener of Film Week?”

“Well, I . . . it’s definitely an art film,” Oppenheimer quickly qualified, “an art house film. And I think that if you want to go to something that’s quiet and will make you very slowly start to feel things, and you’re interested in isolation, alienation . . . yes, I do.”

“All right,” Mantle mused in a doubtful tone, and moved on with his program.

With cultural gatekeepers like this, it’s little wonder that Distant came and went with scant attention, having just completed its dismal one-week, one-theatre engagement in Los Angeles.

At the same time, L.A.’s fractured cultural milieu revealed itself by the fact that LACMA (the Los Angeles County Museum of Art) decided to program the early films of Ceylan last weekend in order to coincide with the local debut of Distant–even though the film had already vanished from L.A. by the time of their screenings.

However, I was delighted to see Ceylan’s films (which have already been released on DVD in Europe) on the big screen, and while they individually may not achieve the complexity of Distant, they are extraordinary in a cumulative sense. Ceylan begins with a short film, revisits its location and, possibly, characters in his second film, and references the shooting in his third film. In many ways, Distant shares enough situational and character similarities as to make it a virtual continuation of the story. Ceylan’s oeuvre begins in a rural setting and slowly expands to Istanbul’s urban winter.

Cocoon (Koza) (1995)

Ceylan’s 20-minute short film, with its meditation on faces (of his parents, Mehmet Emin and Fatma Ceylan) and poetic black-and-white images of nature, immediately reveals the influence of Tarkovsky, whom Ceylan directly homages in Distant. Lacking any dialogue, the narrative is beautifully suggested by the compositions–often an isolated face in the foreground being observed from someone in the background–and the way the two aging characters relate to one another, separate but together, questioning their relationship in intimate silence. The location was chosen from Ceylan’s youth and he films the swaying trees and grassland in atmospheric, loving ways.

The Small Town (Kasaba) (1998)

Based on an autobiographical story by his sister, Ceylan’s first feature fashions the images and setting of his short film into a study of Turkish provincial life. It’s arranged around the four seasons, and the beginning presents winter through the interactions within a children’s classroom. Ceylan’s quiet observation of the children’s behaviors as they ostensibly recite their studies is masterful. Cutting between the teacher gazing out the window at an increasing snow storm and the various unexpected moments of distraction within the classroom, Ceylan crafts a touching portrait of childhood.

Later, the film follows one of the schoolgirls and her younger brother as they play in the woods during the spring and attend a family camping trip in the summer. The latter scene is a vivid juxtaposition of characters as they address the path of their lives and debate such issues as chance and fate, faith and rationality. The young girl’s cousin, Saffet (Mehmet Emin Toprack, Ceylan’s cousin, who will star in the filmmakers two successive films before tragically dying in an automobile accident), is out-of-work and aimless, dreaming of seeking his fortune in Istanbul. In one scene, Saffet wanders around an amusement park, and the air-bound riders on a whirling swing revolve above his head like the many possible personifications of his uncertain future.

The film is again beautifully shot and evokes a rich autobiographical feel that stems not only from the offscreen realities of Ceylan’s cast but also from its aesthetic intensity shifting between the faces of his family and the natural details of their setting with equal, knowing clarity.

Clouds of May (1999)

Ceylan’s first film in color is also his warmest in tone. Shot amongst the golden fields and swaying forests of rural Turkey, the story concerns a filmmaker (Muzaffer ÷zdemir) who casts his parents (again, Ceylan’s own) in a film he is making; one of the scenes is a direct recreation of the camping scene in The Small Town. The filmmaker also has a cousin, Saffet (Toprack), who is looking for a job and like the Saffet of the earlier film seems caught somewhere between ambition and resignation.

Ceylan uses the similarities in his films as nuanced motifs. He’s not simply treading the same water again, but reframing issues in slightly different contexts. If Ceylan’s earlier work evoked Tarkovsky, this one harkens to Kiarostami, both in its film-within-a-film touches of contemplative irony (his parents argue that they cannot “act” despite having appeared in family videos) and in his focus on the charmingly simple exploits of a ten-year-old boy.

Ceylan is clearly part of the Bazin-Tarkovsky-Kiarostami aesthetic tradition, emphasizing everyday observation of people and nature in ways that challenge the viewer to ask immersive philosophical questions about the human condition. He’s definitely a filmmaker to watch.

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