Sunday, September 2, 2012

ONCE UPON A TIME IN ANATOLIA (Bir zamanlar anadolu'da, 2011)

The English-language title of Nuri Bilge Ceylan's latest film is a literal translation from the Turkish, so there's no denying that the director works in the shadow of Sergio Leone -- except that's not quite accurate. The image isn't quite right. Think of Leone as the sun, rather, while Ceylan works in the shadow of Quentin Tarantino. That may not sound right to you, either, given how little violence or action this film has. But Tarantino helps explain the influence of Once Upon a Time in the West in particular among Leone's movies. You could reference a different film in acknowledging Leone's influence, as the Korean film The Good the Bad the Weird did. Why invoke Once Upon a Time..., apart from a belief that the fairy-tale prefix is cool? Tarantino does it in Inglourious Basterds with a title setting the picture "Once Upon a Time in Occupied France." This sets up the scene in which Christoph Waltz's Jew-hunter makes menacing small talk with a French farmer. The small talk makes it Leonean, makes it Once Upon a Time. More specifically, the time killing does. What set Once Upon a Time in the West apart from Leone's previous westerns, and reportedly turned Clint Eastwood off of appearing in it, was the lavishly protracted credits sequence in which Jack Elam, Al Mulock and Woody Strode occupy a train station and wait for Charles Bronson arrive. They're not much for small talk but Leone is fascinated by the ways they kill time, from Elam trapping a fly in the barrel of his gun to Strode accumulating water from a leaky ceiling in the brim of his hat until he can take a drink. Tarantino is Leone plus George V. Higgins (an author about whom I've written before and will have cause to cite again later this year). His characters kill the time with conversation, sometimes brilliantly but sometimes excessively (Death-Proof). Once Upon a Time in Anatolia applies the Leone/Tarantino method to a police procedural.


Following a prologue that seems to set up some action, only to cut away, the film proper follows a group of police investigators in three cars through the Anatolian countryside over the course of a night and morning, with two of the men we met in the prologue in custody. The cops, including a sensitive doctor who emerges as our POV character, want the suspects to show them where they buried a man they presumably murdered. The perps' memories aren't very good. One was drunk at the time and the other's kind of simple. They stop and start over again several times, the tougher cops getting increasingly frustrated. There's a lot of time for small talk, discussions of the virtues of buffalo yogurt, seeming tall tales of past cases. They stop in a village where courtesy requires them to settle down for a feast at the mayor's house, until the power goes out. They finally find the body, hogtied, the next morning. The cops' moods go across the board. Some of them are appalled over the killers' apparent barbarity -- turns out they hogtied the guy because that was the only way to fit him into the trunk of a car, and fitting him into one of the cop vehicles becomes a blackly comic problem later. But the prosecutor accompanying the cops cracks himself up by noting that the mustachioed victim resembles Clark Gable, only to be told by one of the cops that he looks a little like Gable himself. The onetime "King" apparently looms larger among Turks today than he does among his own people -- or else that's the Tarantino influence coming through again.


You get the feeling that the doctor doesn't really know how to deal with the whole experience, which proves a sort of domestic tragedy, the man having died because he started a fight after hearing that one of the eventual killers was his son's real father. Before he learns this he tends to be more kindly toward Kenan, the lead suspect, while the  more hardened cops warn him that Kenan is out to manipulate him. Yet we see Kenan blubber like a baby when the mayor's daughter offers him some honey, and overall he looks more like a sad-sack than a badass -- especially when he appears (unintentionally?) haloed by the headlights of the car behind him while sitting among his prosecutors. Through the doctor's eyes we see Kenan take a rock to the face from a kid in an angry crowd outside the police station -- the kid is apparently Kenan's natural child. While the other investigators find ways to objectify the victim -- the Clark Gable jokes, for instance -- that do little to restore the humanity Kenan had taken from him, the doctor opts at the end of the picture for an act of reticence -- he suppresses autopsy evidence indicating that Kenan had buried his victim alive -- motivated by compassion for perpetrator and survivors alike. Revealing that extra sordid detail would only cause more pain for everyone. It's probably also telling that while the victim is dug up and displayed in broad daylight, in full view of the camera, Ceylan always keeps his camera above the grisly work of the autopsy the doctor supervises. The Tarantino influence is more a matter of form than a matter of content.


Ceylan has established his own identity as an international arthouse mainstay over the past decade, and he has enough of a distinct directorial personality that the Tarantino influence might go unnoticed. Pictorially Ceylan is his own man. While taking full advantage of a wide screen, his effects are often more like those of a miniaturist in his attention to fine detail -- though I may see that only because I watched the film (in HD) on a tablet rather than a full-sized monitor. As was the case in his previous picture (and the only other one I've seen), Three Monkeys, his frames sometimes seem too carefully composed, too self-consciously painterly. His aesthetic sense remains underdisciplined, so that the brilliant compositions threaten to distract attention from story or theme. There's almost a show-off quality in the cinematography of Gökhan Tiryaki: look what I can do with lighting at night! The balance of style and substance remains uncertain in Ceylan's work, but any excess only enhances its attraction as a visual spectacle. His actors, however, are unimpeachable; it's hard to judge in a foreign language, but nothing rang false here. The writing, shared with his wife and another scripter, grounds the flights of style so that substance arguably triumphs in the end. That accomplishment may mark Ceylan as a director who shares influences with Tarantino rather than being influenced directly by the American. While Tarantino likes to wear his influences on his sleeve, Ceylan may yet transcend them and become an influence in his own right.

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