Faraway, So Close
by Nick Pinkerton
Dir. Nuri Bilge Ceylan, Turkey, New Yorker Films
At risk of exposing how sorely my cultural credo is lacking, I must confess that prior to the NYFF screening of Nuri Binge Ceylan’s terse, minimalistic new film Distant, my entire experience of Turkish cinema was confined to a world of hirsute actors sporting anchorman hairdos, wearing spangled v-neck spacesuits, and karate-chopping their way through hordes of mangy homemade muppetry. The rabidly prolific Seventies and Eighties Turkish film industry with which I’m acquainted is the ne plus ultra for connoisseurs of impossibly naive, borderline-incomprehensible outre cine-curiosities. Its products come off as something like the exhaust pipe output of our Western mythmaking machine, where Euro-American pop iconography resurfaces, distorted and as surreally pear-shaped as the end result of a multi-national game of “telephone.” These are movies where it’s nothing unusual for a Machiavellian Spiderman to tangle with Mexican über-wrestler Santo while, by benefit of lax Turk copyright laws, chop shop Star Wars clips and bleary-sounding excerpts from the Indiana Jones theme are amply employed.
Distant, recipient of both the Grand Prix and Best Actor prizes at this most recent Cannes, and, as such, perhaps one of that festival’s few clearly discernible winners, is a Turkish film with a significantly more art-house-friendly pedigree. Written, directed, produced, lit, shot, and edited by Ceylan, it easily lends itself to auteur association, and its disengaged, articulate imagery, spread across unhurried takes, has the sheen of willful artistry. Really though, it’s just the sterile flipside of those old, haywire Turk cheapies; which approach seems to attract the most awards is no secret. With all this in mind, it’s not difficult to detect the snobbery in Roger Ebert’s flatulent missive from “the worst-ever Cannes” decrying “fashionably dead films in which shots last forever” featuring “grim middle-aged men with moustaches (who) sit and look and think and smoke,” targeting Cannes regulars Kiarostami and Angelopolos specifically, but Ceylan by proxy. In fact it’s the paucity of resources and careful economy at work in Distant that give the film its most winning qualities; every lighting gag is as proudly displayed and as appropriately impressive as a bank-breaking special effect, and the remarkable clarity of each image glows with a palpably handmade and pored-over feeling.
The narrative of Ceylan’s movie, when pared down to synopsis, is basically made up of standard-issue city mouse/country mouse and Odd Couple material. Yusif (Mehmet Emin Toprak) is an early thirtysomething hinterlander who leaves behind his work-impoverished village and dependent mother to seek send-home paychecks on the docks of Istanbul. During his days in the metropolis he conducts a futile and increasingly half-hearted search for employment, eventually just wandering the city’s shopping malls and oblique mid-winter streets. He lodges with his grudgingly accommodating hometown-boy-made-good cousin Mahmut (Muzaffer Özdemir), an erudite, spiritually rigor-mortised middle-aged commercial photographer who, we learn by way of dinner party conversation, once wanted to “make films like Tarkovsky,” but now shrugs with tossed-off certainty that “photography is dead, man.” The casting of our antagonistic Felix and Oscar, both nonprofessional actors, is spot-on; the quiet enmity which eventually defines the duo’s relationship registers in just a glance at their incongruous features: Toprak’s empathetic mug, with its broad, open guilelessness, is in sharp relief to Özdemir’s rumpled-in facial topography, unreadable behind a smear of ashen whiskers.
Thankfully, however, Ceylan’s study of his protagonist’s terse coexistence keeps a wide berth from Neil Simon-isms or the endless mincing of Tony Randall. The filmmaker favors long, intent static shots of crisp coherence and medium-low complexity, where the economy of his canvas amplifies his characters most microcosmic animosities. The co-habited apartment, decorated with a well-off aesthete’s cool, fussy sparseness, is the tidy vacuum against which Mahmut peevishly deodorizing his bumpkin relative’s loafers, assumes the proportions of a grand disgust, and every petulant scolding seems exponentially more scornful. Toprak, a performer of remarkable intuition, knows exactly how to move in this sterile plain; his every gesture is informed by a vague understanding that whatever place he deposits himself will be, inherently, the wrong place. Mahmut’s environment is hermetically adapted to him; when at his desk he becomes the focal point of his study, when sunken into his leather armchair, distinctions between the seat and the seated blur. Yusif is extraneous; the best he can hope for is to reduce himself as much as possible and remain out of the way, until the only logical option is to delete himself entirely.
The film makes it quite evident, however, that despite the self-gained affluence which Mahmut wags chidingly at Yusif, the photographer is paralyzed by just as many—and subtler—agonies than his subsistence-minded cousin. Not that this contributes to any feeling of camaraderie; the company of men, it would seem, does little for misery, and Distant at its best is a great and deeply felt film about a uniquely masculine register of urban solitude. During Yusif’s daily, directionless cross-city walks, the camera isolates and lingers on passing females, faces and figures sometimes far off or barely discerned, only to watch them connect with waited-on boyfriends. As the observer’s faint hope drops away with a trap-door snap, one almost gasps at the swift chill of snuffed potentialities. In these scenes of an aimless Yusif adrift in his meek libido, sauntering at a safe distance behind pretty young anythings, or of Mahmut waiting for his unwanted flat-mate to turn in so he can impassively watch videos of peroxide blondes suckling one another in affected ecstasy, Ceylan records the fragile solo rituals of nagging sex with neither discernible tenderness nor sniggering disassociation, only unflagging honesty. At any rate, the moment when Yusif splays his legs for a moment of connection-through-frottage on the subway will register uncomfortably with anyone who’s added a patch of brightness to their day via a well-timed brush on the L train.
For all these qualities, there’s something naggingly unsatisfying about Distant, especially in the closing chapters when Yusif leaves Mahmut’s apartment and the film ends without so much as a goodbye note; the lone ember of human warmth that Toprak lends the movie is snuffed as he evaporates into the off-screen void with the clean quietude of an Antonioni heroine. But more problematic is that Ceylan’s movie never quite acquires the steadily smothering, heel-to-the-throat viscerality of the Italian filmmaker’s best; more often it feels as frozen and blankly articulate as the sheets of fresh-fallen snow that erase this wintry Istanbul. The director has doggedly set his focus on a void, striving throughout to capture people only incidentally, but the spaces between them specifically, until finally, with an unimpeachable logic, dead-ending with a steady-handed zoom into Özdemir’s arid, untranslatable visage. Says Ceylan of Distant in Cahiers du cinéma: “My first intention was to make a film on the emptiness of life, the sensation of the void and uselessness.” It’s a barren intention that’s rigorously followed through; there’s a real sense of unity in this so-aptly-named film, and if structural integrity is a measure of artistic success, then Ceylan may have constructed a kind-of seamless masterpiece.
Distant is the sort of spare, demanding work whose pared-down aesthetic requires a viewer who’s prepared to abnegate movie going’s instant gratifications. It’s the cinematic equivalent of fasting, undertaken with hopes of a glimpse at something larger than ourselves or at least larger than the screen, and of epiphanies beyond the facile pat-on-the-ass pep talks provided by mere “entertainment.” But as much as I admire Ceylan’s movie, I can’t help feeling that its overarching meagerness of design carries over into a leanness of spirit; the film is so singular and streamlined in its trajectory toward, well, “the emptiness of life,” it seems completely without room for the digressions, confusions, and general tousle of genuine spiritual inquiry; at times it feels as dry as a movie made by a slightly more self-aware and motivated Mahmut, which it almost definitely is. Of course when commencing to argue the case for or against transcendence at the movies one soon ends up knee-deep in the inexplicable, and impugning the validity of someone else’s revelation is the ultimate critical cul de sac. I can only allow this: For those who happen to see the face of God in Ceylan’s work, the fact that I sometimes found myself wishing the theme from Indiana Jones would come blaring onto the film’s soundtrack must thusly be attributed to my own lack of spiritual development.