Tuesday, February 20, 2024

The Novelist's Films: The Cinema of Nuri Bilge Ceylan

Ceylan The latest film by Turkish film director, photographer, screenwriter, Nuri Bilge Ceylan, About Dry Grasses is three-plus hours of novelistic contemplation on human conditions in a stunning rural East Turkey backdrop.

Among the best Turkish New Wave directors, along with Reha Erdem (Times and Tides, My Only Sunshine) and Semih Kaplanoğlu (Honey, Commitment Hasan) Ceylan built a reputation as the world's most novelistic filmmaker, with deliberately slow pacing, long takes and themes steeped in vagaries of human existence, in often beautiful rural and urban settings in Anatolia and Istanbul. Indeed, experiencing each of his films is similar to reading a great thick book. And it's deeply satisfying, every time.

Ceylan studied engineering in school, then became a photographer: it is apparent that he has an eye for landscapes as you watch his films. Consider the snowy streets of Istanbul in Distant, ancient ruins on a hot summer day in Climates, the winding mountain roads from above at dusk in Once Upon a Time in Anatolia, the icicle covered resort in Winter Sleep, and snow-capped mountains in About Dry Grasses, just to name a few. And there is always a cinematic showstopper in every one of his films that makes your jaw drop.

Yet, it's his juxtaposition of close-ups of the faces and their surroundings that gives meaning to his work. We humans exist among those spectacular places, with our jealousies, greed, lust, pride and other qualities intact.

With his wife Ebru Ceylan as a writing partner on most of his films, along with actor/physician Ercan Kesal (Three Monkeys, Once Upon a Time in Anatolia) and actor/teacher Akin Aksu (Wild Pear Tree, About Dry Grasses), he sketches out great, lived-in melodramas like no other.

Within the generous running time -- since Anatolia's comparitively modest 155 minutes, the runtime of Ceylan's films are more than three hours -- we get to know every main character in an intimate way with their faults and weaknesses, as well as their redeemable qualities. We get to live with them, like a main character in a great thick novel, at least a short while in darkened theaters. With Winter Sleep, the Palme d'Or winner 2013, adapting Anton Chekhov's play, The Wife, Ceylan explicitly let his audience know where his influences originate and where his interests lie thematically, while not sacrificing his cinematic playfulness.

About About Dry Grasses: Screen Shot 2024-01-23 at 3.29.12 PM Screen Shot 2024-01-23 at 3.29.52 PM Screen Shot 2024-01-23 at 3.34.36 PM Screen Shot 2024-01-22 at 4.19.55 PM Screen Shot 2024-01-22 at 4.26.07 PM Screen Shot 2024-01-22 at 4.54.37 PM Screen Shot 2024-01-22 at 2.01.27 PM About Dry Grasses deals with the usual Ceylan themes: how to live within your environment without making your surroundings a personal living hell.

Samet, our protagonist, skillfully played by Deniz Celiloglu, is a teacher in a small rural village, returning from the summer recess. He is counting the days until he is to reassigned and out of rural living, after the government's mandatory assignment period ends.

He is easily irritable and self-centered. Overall, he is not a likable character, like many other of Ceylan's male protagonists. All three principal characters -- Samet, Nuray (Merve Dizdar, Best Actress at Cannes 2023), Kenan (Musab Ekici), and Sevim (16-year-old Ece Bağcı) -- are exceptionally great.

There are many great moments in the film but one showstopper comes in late in the third act of the film. After accusations of inappropriate behavior with the students quiet down, Samet's favorite student Sevim poses for him outside school in the snowy field, as he is an amateur photographer.

It's the closeup of Sevim's face, where Samet sees betrayal, lies and vengeance, while the audience sees innocence, beauty and indifference. While self-absorbed Samet might not realize, but we do, that it's our projection on others that makes our lives miserable.

Also, it is the first time in a long while Ceylan plays with the film medium. He used non-professional actors until the mid-2000s. He even starred along with his wife Ebru in Climates as a fictional couple in a tale of disintegration of a marriage shot on digital video.

If the run of Anatolia, Winter Sleep and The Wild Pear Tree gave the impression that the Turkish auteur is just making wordy filmed plays in a spectacular setting, About Dry Grasses will surprise you. There is a third-wall breaking scene in Grasses, where Samet and Nuray get intimate after being drunk.

The camera follows Samet to the bathroom, then out the door to a film set in a lot, revealing that the tiny apartment filled with trinkets of Nuray's life is indeed a film set, which takes you out completely from the film narrative. It gives you a sudden jolt that all the characters' lives, their thoughts and intimate details and blemishes that you invested in for the last two hours, are indeed a fiction. That now you can take a breather and reset.

With About Dry Grasses, we are witnessing a great, mature filmmaker paving his legacy as a novelistic filmmaker with a visual flair in the league of Tarkovsky and Bergman.

About Dry Grasses enjoys its U.S. premiere Friday, February 23, at Film Forum in New York City.

My review of Once Upon a Time in Anatolia (2012)

My review of Winter Sleep (2014)

My review of Wild Pear Tree (2018)

Friday, February 9, 2024

Greed

Unter dir die Stadt/The City Below (2011) - Hochhäusler Screen Shot 2024-02-08 at 9.00.45 PM Screen Shot 2024-02-08 at 9.02.55 PM Screen Shot 2024-02-08 at 9.23.34 PM Screen Shot 2024-02-08 at 9.37.01 PM Screen Shot 2024-02-08 at 9.46.04 PM Screen Shot 2024-02-08 at 9.52.14 PM Screen Shot 2024-02-08 at 10.02.48 PM Screen Shot 2024-02-08 at 10.07.35 PM Screen Shot 2024-02-08 at 10.18.11 PM Screen Shot 2024-02-08 at 11.23.45 PM Non-descript glass and steel skyscrapers of Frankfurt are as much characters as the cold and calculating people who inhabit in Christoph Hochhäusler's take on Global Financial Crisis of 2007-2008. A young couple Oliver (Mark Waschke) and Svenja (Nicolette Krebitz) just moved to Frankfurt because Oliver got a job at a big bank which is headed by the 'banker of the year' recipient Roland (Robert Hunger-Bühler). Oliver is one of the many ambitious young men who are jockeying up the corporate ladder in a cutthroat environment. They pose for a group picture while saying "GREED". The bank is in the process of acquiring a rival in a ruthless takeover under Roland's instructions while hushing up the kidnapping and gruesome death of an employee in their Indonesian branch, as the Asian Economic Crisis deepens. Svenja wonders through the urban jungle made of glass, lying about her work experiences on her CV as a photo editor while half-heartedly applying for jobs. She casually walks on by at her husband's high-tech, antiseptic new workplace, and catches Roland's attention. Against all his instinct and judgment, he becomes obsessed with the young woman. She as well, perhaps knowing who he is, goes along with his advances and ends up in a hotel room with him. Then they think better of themselves and go their separate ways.

An opportunity comes up to get rid of Oliver from the picture, dressed up as a promotion. It's the position of as the new head of their Indonesian branch, replacing the recently deceased. Even though he is not the most qualified, Roland pushes for Oliver, in pursuit of Svenja. Soon as Oliver leaves, their affair begins.

It is interesting to see their inexplicable attractions to each other, gliding over everything: the impact of the takeover resulting in the loss of hundreds of jobs, and their affair taking a toll on Roland's and company's reputation, possible death of the husband. The word love is never uttered by anyone. The affair is not even overly sexual. It's the greed that takes over in a highly capitalized environment where everyone unknowingly plays power games over each other. It's the greed that breeds like a disease. It's as if Roland and Svenja are there but not there doing what they are doing. The disease has taken them over and they are just going through the motions. The ominous ending, as mass of people running down the street, seen by the morally bankrupt, cheating couple, is chilling. The end of the capitalism has begun.

Monday, February 5, 2024

Small Things

Perfect Days (2023) - Wenders Screen Shot 2023-12-10 at 8.25.56 AM Screen Shot 2023-12-10 at 8.35.39 AM Screen Shot 2023-12-10 at 8.40.51 AM Screen Shot 2023-12-10 at 8.42.28 AM Screen Shot 2023-12-10 at 9.04.54 AM Screen Shot 2023-12-10 at 9.25.52 AM Screen Shot 2023-12-10 at 8.44.47 AM It's been a long while that Wim Wenders made a good film. So this Japan shot with all Japanese cast Perfect Days is sort of a comeback for the filmmaker. And the beauty is in its simplicity.

Koji Yakusho plays Hirayama, a city worker who cleans the public toilets. His simple daily routine is repeated day after day, starting in his modest small apartment in Tokyo- he gets up at the sound of a neighbor sweeping the streets in early dawn, puts away his beddings, brushes his teeth, puts on his onesie blue uniform, picks up the items that are laid out on side table on the way out, picks up a canned coffee from a bending machine next to his house, off in his blue van full of cleaning supplies to the various public toilets in the city, eats his lunch in the park, takes some pictures with his old style 35mm film camera, works some more, goes home, change, goes to the public bath house to bathe, then to a eatery in a market for dinner, reads in bed a little bit, then goes to bed. Repeat.

He is a man of few words. There are some who knows him and regularly greets him. He finds life's pleasures in small things - the sunlight shining through the tree branches, listening to classic rock on cassette tape in his van, finding and reading books from a dollar rack at a local bookstore. He doesn't bother anybody and doesn't let others get to him too much. There are others - his young colleague and his girlfriend, his young niece who runs away from home to stay in his tiny apartment, an ex-husband of a bar hostess at the bar that he frequents on his day off. He interacts with them, not in many words, but with warmth and smiles. Yakusho, nearing his 70s, showing his age and experience in his bad-liver eyes, doesn't have to explain much. He's seen things and experienced things. And that's enough.

There's a certainly a backstory on Hirayama that is left unexplored, rather wisely by Wenders and co-writer Takuma Takasaki. Cleaning toilet is the lowest job one can think of. But it's just a job. If it's a self punishment, we do not get to know. But I think he is past all that. He's just an old man, living his quiet life all by himself happily. It's the repetition of his daily routine, and being happy to know that there is another day that he can see the sunrise, swaying leaves, listen to Lou Reed and Patti Smith and drink a canned coffee.

Shot on full frame and with simple but elegant layered black and white images and interior lighting that reminds you of Robbie Müller days, Perfect Days is a beautifully framed film.

There's a very zen-like quality in Perfect Days. Is that Wenders converting the Buddhism late in life? There's a scene where two grown men, one dying of cancer, playing shadow tag, like little children. Perfect Days is a guiless movie that makes you think about enjoying simple things in life. Forget about the complicated life you are leading in a complicated world for a second. Play childish games once in a while and enjoy the moment.

The film opens on 2/7 at Angelika Film Center and Lincoln Square.

Sunday, January 28, 2024

Oracle of Cinema

Images of the World and the Inscription of War (1989) - Farocki Screen Shot 2024-01-28 at 11.40.12 AM Screen Shot 2024-01-28 at 1.24.14 PM Screen Shot 2024-01-28 at 10.33.11 AM Screen Shot 2024-01-28 at 10.45.56 AM Screen Shot 2024-01-28 at 1.24.44 PM Screen Shot 2024-01-28 at 11.01.56 AM Screen Shot 2024-01-28 at 10.31.23 AM Screen Shot 2024-01-28 at 10.32.07 AM Screen Shot 2024-01-28 at 11.40.25 AM We first see the giant wave making machines at work in Hamburg. Scientists are trying to find the pattern in ocean waves however impossible of a task it is. Harun Farocki then connects that with the age of enlightenment and human technology. Enlightenment in German is Aufklärung which also means reconnaissance, in military terms, it's also flight reconnaissance. Photography was used for evaluators to evaluate the scale of the buildings without fear of falling to their death when measuring buildings. Photography is also used to verify the right targets in World War 2 during air raids.

Farocki rightly questions the acuities of 'seeing is believing' with the example of why Auswitz was never bombed by the Allied despite two escapees testimonials of atrocities there. It didn't look like a munitions factory and therefore not a priority. It was two Pentagon officials in 1977 who admitted that they were examining these aerial photos and clearly seeing crematorium and air vents and lines to the gas chambers.

Images of the World and the Inscription of War predicts our current world - drone warfare, surveillance state, deepfake and misinformation wars in astonishing detail without ever mentioning internet or AI. A photographer from the occupying forces in Algeria took photos of Algerian women without their veils and published the photo book in 1960. At one point, a voice of a woman who has been narrating the film in absolute objectivity until then, asks, "How can a face of a human being be described with certainty, so that it can be recognized by everyone, by a machine?"

Both nazi's and concentration camp survivors took detailed records in numbers - one the evidence of genocide, the other, coded evidence for preservation and uprising.

Farocki, as a film essayist, shared many of the same traits as Godard and Alexander Kluge, but he was more direct and succinct than the other two. His ability in provoking the audience to think for themselves while guiding slightly with big ideas had no equal. With wars in Ukraine and Gaza in the internet age, the misinformation wars are raging like never before and I can't help noticing how prescient Farocki's film is.

Thursday, January 25, 2024

Mix and Match

The Seeding (2023) - Clay

Barnaby Clay's The Seeding mixes and matches The Hills Have Eyes with Woman in the Dunes. But it lacks the grit, fast pacing plot of the Hills and the aesthetic beauty and metaphorical depth in storytelling of the Japanese New Wave classic.

Don't get me wrong, a movie doesn't have to be anything other than what it promises - with the implication of the title and the macabre poster, The Seeding is a horror through and through. Yes, with the first glimpse of the 'strays' (the young cannibals who prey on tourists), you know where exactly the movie is headed.

A photographer (Scott Haze) gets lost in a California desert after documenting a solar eclipse. He then gets lured in by a woman (Kate Lyn Sheil, Kate Plays Christine, She Dies Tomorrow) singing at night. She lives in a shack at what seems to be the bottom of a quarry drained of water, which is only accessible by a rope ladder. For the next one hour and forty minutes, things don't go well for the photographer. After getting stuck down in the quarry with the not-so-talkative woman who wouldn't divulge any useful information for him to escape or call for help, he tries to scale the wall with a pickaxe, only to end up injuring himself. And who are these feral marauding teenagers who at first seem to be helping him but ending up with toying with him and taunt him? The woman is vague about these 'strays' about their origins or their intentions. With an injured leg and without prospects of escaping, the photographer slowly begins to accept his fate and gives in to temptations, after seeing the woman taking sponge baths in front of him night after night. Now that she is pregnant and only food and supplies are from the strays above, by lowering down with a rope, he tries his hands at some farming and engage in pleasant conversations with the woman who doesn't seem to be aware the comfort of the modern world.

Clays sets the tone early on with moody score and a shot of feral child munching on a severed finger. And there are some pretty experimental blot art sequences throughout. But the film's predictable storyline and uninspired dialog will certainly invite a lot of scrutinizing: Why did he climb all the way down the ladder at night in the first place when he could've simply call her from above? Why didn't he forcefully get the story out of the woman in the first place? Why there are no search parties or park rangers to look for him for nine plus months? How can the woman and strays and their ancestors not be noticeable in the national park all these years for generations? Where does the woman get electricity to light the shack and cook meals?

The Seeding features some striking sceneries and sets an impending doom with great sound design but with stilted performances and plot holes, it stops short at delivering an intense psychological survival horror usually associated with 'trapped' narrative.

Friday, January 19, 2024

Warm Bodies

Fallen Leaves (2023) - Kaurismaki Screen Shot 2024-01-19 at 3.45.23 PM Screen Shot 2024-01-19 at 12.08.29 PM Screen Shot 2024-01-19 at 12.15.43 PM Screen Shot 2024-01-19 at 12.37.38 PM Screen Shot 2024-01-19 at 12.54.18 PM Screen Shot 2024-01-19 at 3.49.23 PM Screen Shot 2024-01-19 at 12.50.27 PM Screen Shot 2024-01-19 at 1.00.47 PM Aki Kaurismaki's micro romance Fallen Leaves isn't revolutionary or anything, but it nevertheless succeeds in warming your heart. It concerns two lonely working class Helsinkians crossing paths and falling for each other in that driest, most deadpan Kaurismaki way possible. And as usual with his recent films (Le Havre and The Other Side of Hope), the state of the world (Russian invasion of Ukraine just began at the time the film was being made), is always on the airwaves reminding us how f'd up the world around us is.

Ansa (Alma Pöysti) is first seen stocking the shelves in a grocery store under the watchful eyes of a bulldog-like security guard. She sometimes takes expired food home and also gives away expired items to others. Her daily routine is pretty monotonous and uneventful. Holappa (Jussi Vatanen) is a construction worker who is constantly drinking at the job. He drinks because he is depressed. He is depressed because he drinks. They first exchange glances in a karaoke bar, accompanying their more sociable friends. But they are not talkative types. Then they meet again on the street. They go out for coffee, then to movies. They watch Jim Jarmusch's zombie comedy The Dead Don't Die. She gives him her phone number which he immediately loses. They lose their jobs for stealing and drinking. They go through one low wage menial jobs to another. After waiting at the movies, he meets her again and she invites him for dinner. This time he puts her address in his wallet. Dinner goes well. But losing many family members to alcohol, she can't allow someone with drinking problems in her life.

I'm glad Kaurismaki is getting a lot of accolades for this film, but Fallen Leaves is not too different from any other of his deadpan comedies. While his fellow deadpan comedy comrade Jarmusch is delving into zombie genre, Kaurismaki is making romance. While sad songs punctuate and homages to many great romantic films where two would be lovers are separated and need to find their ways to one another play out, the Finnish master makes room in our darkest times for us to smile, even for a short while.

Monday, January 15, 2024

Soup for the Soul

Here (2023) - Devos Screen Shot 2024-01-14 at 9.27.46 AM Screen Shot 2024-01-14 at 9.39.49 AM Screen Shot 2024-01-14 at 9.48.09 AM Screen Shot 2024-01-15 at 8.38.08 AM Screen Shot 2024-01-15 at 8.50.26 AM Screen Shot 2024-01-15 at 8.52.33 AM Screen Shot 2024-01-15 at 8.55.23 AM Screen Shot 2024-01-15 at 9.09.20 AM Screen Shot 2024-01-15 at 9.00.15 AM Screen Shot 2024-01-15 at 9.11.37 AM Screen Shot 2024-01-15 at 9.01.24 AM Screen Shot 2024-01-15 at 9.10.31 AM Screen Shot 2024-01-15 at 9.19.27 AM Devos's nocturnal ASMR session continues with Here, after Ghost Traffic. Just like in his previous film, Devos explores the interconnected lives of immigrants in Brussels. If the night was the rug that tied rooms together, this time it's the forest in an urban setting. And as always, in its full frame presentation and still images, it's gorgeous.

A good looking Romanian construction worker (Stefan Gota) is about to take his well earned vacation and drive off soon as his car is fixed. In the mean time, he is clearing out his fridge and using all the remaining vegetables to make a batch of soup in order not to have them go to waste before his trip. He takes his soup in containers to give to his friends and relatives. A Chinese bryologist and lecturer (Liyo Gong) who is working at her auntie's Chinese takeout place meets him one day as he takes shelter from the rain and eats in the restaurant. They converse about his wet shoes.

When he walks through the park on the way to retrieve his car from the garage, he meets the bryologist again, studying and collecting moss samples there in the forest with her little magnifying glass. She introduces him to the world of mosses, and fascinated by the whole ecosystem through the magnifying glass, they are lost in time and spend all day together and walking and talking in deep of the park.

There's a little magic about the film. The mysterious seedlings that glow, the sound of nearby train running replaced by rustling of the trees and unseen birds, the well timed rain showers, etc. The little romance between the two charcters are so understated and happens literally off the frame, yet so sublimely lovely. Remember, making soup for somebody is the most romantic thing to do.