Sunday, February 26, 2017

61 Days

16th Annual Boston Turkish Film Festival
March 16–April 2, 2017
The Museum of Fine Arts

It could be any society in the world—ruled by dictators, oligarchs, or elected officials—for all societies have class divisions. The society we watch in 61 Days, directed by Yüksel Aksu, happens to be Ula, Turkey, in the 1970s, so we witness propaganda songs and daily routine in an almost utopian village celebrating Ramadan. In the surrounding countryside, poor workers raise and harvest the tobacco crop. They sing and make music during and after their backbreaking labor, reminiscent of slave songs in the United States, for in any society with an oppressed element, music lifts the collective spirit, as does belief in a God and following religious codes, in the case of this movie, Islam.
We don’t need to know Turkish history of the 70s, as the class divide in 61 Days is a universal, as is the character Karan’s (Yilmaz Bayraktar) attempt to unionize the field hands. His father owns their labor and takes the largest share of profits, ensuring their poverty. Karan mixes with the farm hands, brings them cases of soda while explaining their exploitation. At night, he and his communist friends paint red slogans on village walls. But the workers aren’t yet ready to form a union—they fear “communism”—but they like Karan and welcome his fraternal leadership.
The protagonist of the movie is Adem (Berat Efe Parlar), the son of field hands, who at the beginning of the movie graduates from elementary school with honors, along with Berna, his rich classmate with whom he shares a childhood love. Adem’s mother proclaims to her fellow field hands, “He’ll be a doctor! He’ll be an engineer!” Instead, Adem insists on working for the local soda seller Cibar (Cem Yilmaz), who spouts Ataturk and religious slogans as part of his mentoring role to the boy. Adem pedals the soda cart from town center to the Aegean seaside, calling out, “Soda! Soda!”
Village life and the soda apprenticeship set the scene for Adem’s journey in this movie: he has potential and ambition, he’s a protégé of both Karan and Cibar, who represent opposite ends of the sociopolitical spectrum—activism vs. tradition. The backdrop is Ramadan with its meanings and month of fasting. Adem listens to the local imam (Macit Koper) preaching essential codes of conduct—such as not eyeing women lasciviously or lying. Such sins result in having to double the fast to 61 days. Children aren’t allowed to fast, but many do for a few symbolic hours in order to appease their longing to participate in Ramadan’s requirements (though later we see adult practitioners cheating on their fast). Adem secretly takes on the adults’ total fast, which leads to moments of delirium, with animation, as he pedals the soda cart for miles in scorching weather. Viewers may watch his grueling effort and think about the effect of religious indoctrination on children’s imaginations.
The movie has some trouble because of its dual genre: comedy and drama. Village life plays out delightfully: the scenes of peasant life and village hubbub at the open market surrounded by shops create an idyllic community. The mosque scenes and imam’s preachings are laced with humor, such as when the townsmen beg the imam to switch the prayer hour so they can watch the last game in the World Cup. That scene of villagers under a makeshift roof in the town square, cheering at the TV rigged in front of them, becomes even funnier when we see one man on the rooftop holding up a tall antenna. Overall, the villagers know and accept each other, their positions in society, and the rote role of religion in their lives. Their intimacy, even in the mosque, exudes warmth and cohesion. In a way, the people are caricatures, never deeply developed, which fits the comedy’s light mood and aura of blemishless village life. So, when the movie turns suddenly serious with the class issue leading to tragedies, the mix of genres may disrupt the artistic continuity for some viewers—a similar shift happens in Robert Benigni’s comedy/drama Life is Beautiful (1997).
The outstanding parts of 61 Days for foreign audiences are its constant ethnic music, all varieties of it; its rich portrayal of the landscapes and cultural habits of rural villagers in southwestern Turkey in the 70s (harvesting tobacco by lamplight); and the exposure to a child’s experience of Islam and Ramadan. The movie’s light, ironic touch, its playful humor and caricature fall into conflict with the serious class-divide and political material, which then affect a maudlin ending.

Saturday, February 25, 2017

There Where Atilla Passes

16th Annual Boston Turkish Film Festival
March 16–April 2, 2017
The Museum of Fine Arts

Twenty-year-old Atilla (Émile Schneider), living with his Canadian parents who adopted him as a child from Turkey, must come to terms with his life, past, present, and future. A horrific memory haunts him—the reason for his transplantation from Turkey to Montréal, from one set of parents to another. His state of young-adult despondency has less to do with “being adopted” than with what his four-year-old eyes witnessed in his original family.
Besides being a story about Atilla’s acceptance of his life—and life the way it is for many, many people—There Where Atilla Passes also portrays with enormous success the pained love of a father (Roy Dupuis) for his adopted son. The director Onur Karaman has let his characters' faces reveal their interior struggles. The film has so few words it would be possible to watch it without the volume on and still fully comprehend the story—until the climatic ending, that is, when Atilla’s memory fills in the last gap of his childhood trauma. That moment goes swiftly with a too-distant camera shot, so that we miss the vital detail of a knife in a hand.
To a lesser degree the film tackles immigration, something that has been going on since the start of civilization. In this case, Atilla is quite assimilated with his Canadian parents and even resembles his adopted dad, Michel. But his heritage is with him, and as he moves through his workday at a Turkish restaurant, he slowly becomes close to the new Turkish cook, Ahmet (Cansel Elçin), the movie’s sage who helps Atilla find his path in life. Ahmet, too, has a horrific family memory and in mounting scenes imparts wisdom to his younger fellow-countryman: “One day you’re alive and the next you’re gone. Once you get used to this idea you can find peace of mind. You grieve and move on. But it takes time, like brewing perfect tea.” Later in the movie, over the tea they often share, Ahmet tells Atilla, “Life is like a short-lived bus trip. You make friends but everyone has their own itinerary. The only thing you share is that bus. Get it? It means appreciate solitude, it’s the only thing that belongs to you.”
At the end of the movie, we watch short clips of each character’s “own itinerary” and solitude: Michel with his deep love and loss; Julie (Julie Deslauriers), Atilla’s pregnant mother, waiting for a baby daughter to arrive; Ahmet in the restaurant kitchen, whistling a cheerful song and laughing at life’s absurdity, his personal tactic for survival; and Atilla with his girlfriend Asya (Dilan Gwyn) at the airport, embarking on his own life.
Again, love, loss, loneliness, and one’s own solitary experience infuse the movie from start to finish, and we understand all of that with our vision and our senses, not from the occasional philosophy coming from Ahmet. We see that a psychiatrist can’t bring words from Atilla to heal his past. If healing is to happen, it comes from within the individual and it never whitewashes memory: grief is always there, but it can be managed.
The movie’s shifting from scene to scene, cutting to the various characters and their habitual actions—the partying Turks led by Selçuk where Atilla meets Asya, Grandpa in his nursing home, Atilla constantly alone outside smoking weed and thinking—can feel formulaic, too much like a click, click, click before arriving at an important scene between father and son—for the father and son relationship is the heart (bleeding heart) of the story. On the other hand, at the end of the movie, some of these more peripheral-character clips add a layer of symbols and messages to the film, such as Grandpa getting closer to dying with his memory zoning out, while Atilla embarks on his own life with memory alive but managed trepidatiously. The arc of flying birds with purpose, direction, and freedom that Atilla watches at the beginning of the movie comes back at the end for his solitary dad to watch. Atilla’s hobby was making model airplanes and his dad holds one of these as he watches the birds soar away. Atilla has just flown to Turkey (and “flown the coop”). Holding one of his models is like holding onto him while allowing his flight, his own life and destination.
Overall, the movie is about love—love that binds a family, painfully, but then that’s what love is—painful. Yet its presence is the only solace to the individual’s solitude and lonely walk through his or her own life. Atilla will be back some day, the family will reunite, but perhaps with oceans and continents separating them most of the time. We do not know, nor do they. But we accept.

Sunday, February 12, 2017

Paterson—A Poem to Poets

A little googling reveals that veteran indie filmmaker Jim Jarmusch loves poetry, writes poetry, and was deeply influenced by one of his poetry teachers, Kenneth Koch. These poetry fixtures make their way into every warp and weft of Jarmusch’s new, quite lovable utopian movie, Paterson. So many “Jarmusch touches” we like from earlier films find a mellow presence here—his absurdist humor, his car-ride format, and his quirky characters with their just as quirky conversations. His head, his poetic head, is actually the centerpiece of this movie. The richness of the concoction makes it hard to find a starting point for talking about Paterson, but a few facts about the film are easy to tick off: It takes place in Paterson, New Jersey, a 19th-century factory town and the place that inspired William Carlos Williams to write his book-length poem titled Paterson. Williams said of this lengthy work: “A man in himself is a city, beginning, seeking, achieving, and concluding his life in ways which the various aspects of a city may embody . . . all the details of which may be made to voice his most intimate convictions.”
Paterson, the low-key, poet-bus-driver protagonist of the movie (Adam Driver) is that “man as city,” just as Jarmusch also is, being the poet-filmmaker of William Carlos Williams’s original notion. Both artists’ visions are set in the same working-class city, in the same scrubby park facing the Passaic Falls, which is also where Paterson the poet-bus-driver writes in his Secret Book, which all poets and writers have, including the filmmaker by his own admission.
Details were important to Williams and so they are to Paterson the poet and to Jarmusch depicting both the poet and the city. The tempo of the film has the same tempo of diurnal routine, which is monotonous. However, the pacing of Paterson’s day from waking to eating breakfast, to working and returning from work, to his nightly beer in the corner bar with the regulars, complements the tempo of the poetry spoken in the movie. The lines come out slowly as the poet is hearing them and writing them down. That pace, that thinking rhythm, that poetic meter, is the flow of the movie we watch. We hear the poems that Paterson writes in his head through voice over as he drives his bus, or as he sits in the park facing the falls and writing in his Secret Book. His lines have a gentle, down-to-earth cadence and create a magical component to his routine—and for the movie. All of the poetry and allusions to poets and poetry that thread through the film transform life’s routine monotony into the rich realm of art. Ron Padgett, a winner of the William Carlos Williams poetry award, wrote most of Paterson’s poems.
The story covers one week in the life of Paterson the man and Paterson the city, which again plays on Williams’s “man is a city.” Subtitles announce Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, and so forth, coming round to Monday again, when the film ends, and luckily, because we couldn’t have endured another week of Paterson’s routine. Long poems like Williams’s Paterson are often divided into books or numbered sections, just the way this movie is divided into days of the week. The movie proposes that routine has a counterpoint: What a poet—or any thinking, creative individual—can find within him or herself during that inescapable routine that pays the bills can be a gold mine, the real sustenance of life.
Life has catastrophes too, and one happens to our poet in the movie, though his face rarely registers a ripple, even when he jumps on Everett in the bar to wrest a gun from him. It’s a quick action without words. Williams once wrote that the course of Paterson’s river symbolized the course of his own life (and maybe ours): “the river above the Falls, the catastrophe of the Falls itself, the river below the Falls, and the entrance at the end into the great sea.” He also found that the sound of the Falls was a language, one he struggled to interpret in his long poem. But at the same time, the poem was “the search of a poet for his language, his own language.”
Jarmusch’s Paterson plays on the poet’s search for his own language in the ordinary, working-class milieu of Paterson, New Jersey, where hum-drum life repeats week after week without financial gain or promise. Poetry gives meaning to Paterson’s life as a bus driver, just as his wife Laura’s artistic endeavors feed her hopes for future recognition. Maybe her black-and-white, hand-painted fabrics will catch on so that she can open her own shop; maybe her country guitar playing will attain stardom; maybe her charmingly decorated cupcakes at the local farmers market will take off. (There’s a sly pun here: “sell like cupcakes.”) Laura (Golshifteh Farahani) is a classic Jim Jarmusch character—over the top but appealing. She’s Paterson’s muse. His love for her has no beginning or end—it’s the love of fairy tales. The audience sees her more critically, as ditzy, like a cuddly kitten in bed, fascinating in her mercurial antics, peppy with personality, and possibly a prototype for the surface qualities that attract men. She also comes across as self-absorbed. She sends Paterson out each night to walk her bulldog Marvin, and in other ways there’s a suggestion that he’s convenient for her. Overall, her character is intended as humorous.

It’s easy to see that we could do a “cigarettes and coffee” discussion on poets, poets and cities, Paterson and Williams, Paterson and Paterson, and Jarmusch and his various tentacles to poetry that contribute to the movie. This is a film that pays homage to poetry and poets, in the form of being a poem itself. The way many contemporary artists mark their paintings with words, so Paterson, a visual work, has language typed into it, and language is the movie’s most important idea. It includes Paterson’s encounter with a rapper in a laundromat (Cliff Smith, “Method Man”). Paterson pauses in the doorway to watch the rapper wrestle to get his lyrics right. His cultural language is almost incomprehensible to us but captures the deepest core of his being and his experience. It’s authentic art.
One of the great successes of Paterson is watching Driver’s face as poetry lines come out of him. He’s in that space where his eyes and head have departed from reality and the fusion of language, thought, and feeling emerge, of their own accord, the door and channel to the unconscious mind open. It’s quite marvelous. When he’s behind the wheel of the bus, we feel the vehicle’s graceful gliding through the streets that seems to reflect Paterson’s interior complacency and mildly expressed curiosity in what his passengers are saying. His bus is always filled with diverse people—America’s melting pot—talking to each other in humorous or ironic ways. One small inconsistency in Paterson’s character involves cell phones. He doesn’t own one, but when he borrows a passenger’s to report the breakdown of his bus, he types away with both thumbs—no novice.
Details in Laura and Paterson’s matchbook-size home, neat and tidy, show us that he was a marine and now a bus driver. His basement study is full of literature, so that he’s not exactly “working class” but much more Rodin’s thinker. Will his poetry ever be discovered like Williams’s was? Williams was a physician with more steps up the ladder of influence. Is the message then that all through America’s working-class towns are Patersons, whose gifts will never be discovered? Do they have to be? Well, for economic reasons it would be helpful, but for a life worth living, a life with the reward of art, no, recognition isn’t necessary. It’s the gift of art and creativity that rewards. This notion, however, is another example of the movie’s utopian ideals, for how many people struggling to make ends meet at a boring job that eats up each day, really feel the bliss of art during that inescapable, often suffocating routine? And when finally released from it at 5 o’clock, the worker is too exhausted and drained to feel creative; weekends go to family chores; money is always an overriding worry. In real life, creative, artistic fulfillment takes money to buy time, or rare, sheer will.
The fate of Paterson’s Secret Book leads to one last Jarmusch-style encounter that gives the film one more fairy-tale or parable touch. A Japanese poet-tourist visiting Passaic Falls because of Williams’s legacy there, converses with a rather listless Paterson sitting on the park bench, no longer in possession of his Secret Book. The visitor is like an angel or a harbinger for Paterson’s future. He could even be a phantom that Paterson’s imagination conjures in order to pick up and carry on after his “catastrophe,” for by nature Paterson’s an upbeat guy who enjoys the details of his daily city rides and the odd conversations that take place in seats behind him. He has no enemies, he has no prejudices. He even accepts taking care of Marvin, the stout bulldog, who is jealous of Paterson’s intimacy with his mistress, and in this regard, Paterson’s complacency becomes his Achilles heel.
Monday to Monday,” depicting Paterson’s routine and Jarmusch’s layered meanings, nicely bookends the movie. But it’s a dream that routine could be so nice, and yet, poetry embodies the quality of dreams, and so, the total effect of Paterson moves beyond “language” to define it. Like poetry it flows toward “the end into the great sea,” laced with nuggets of gold.

Sunday, February 5, 2017

Julieta—Almodóvar’s New Film

Young Julieta just before she meet Xoan on a train.

One of the best things about seeing the latest Almodóvar movie is being immersed in a world that is not America. The scenery, the characters, the daily life and overall traditions are from the director’s Spanish realm. After several decades of his movies, we anticipate what he’s going to present us next, for it will be something that holds our attention and makes us laugh or think. Above all, it will be the latest unveiling of an artist’s work.
Music plays a dominant role in Julieta, composed by Alberto Iglesias, a familiar collaborator of Almodóvar. The tone and atmosphere of the music as the movie opens set the stage for the coming content, and it’s dark, almost haunting, and subtly ominous. Its predominant characteristic expresses the dead feeling of depression. It always stays just below the line where life percolates, and over the course of the story at key moments rises just enough to deliver suspense but still remains under that non-living line. Without the music’s role in the story arc, the tale’s simplicity and the camera’s slow study of Julieta’s state of mind might have resulted in a dull film, for as Orson Welles once said: “Films should be able to tell you a story quicker than any other medium.” But Julieta succeeds in its objective of studying a woman’s loss, and loss is not something easily captured in words. The visual portrayal of loss has more power, and Emma Suárez, who plays the middle-aged Julieta, holds us still in our witnessing of her static grief, which is depression.
Julieta is loosely based on three short stories by the Canadian Nobel Prize–winner Alice Munro. The stories have been moved to a Spanish milieu and processed through the imagination of Spain’s greatest filmmaker. The opening music shares the screen with sensual red folds of fabric that then wrap a contemporary sculpture of a terracotta man with a oversized pipe for a penis.  An important blue envelope is thrown into the trash. We come to understand that Julieta is moving, packing and throwing out, cutting ties to her past. Her boyfriend, an art critic Lorenzo, arrives and their brief conversation tells us they are a happy couple moving to Portugal. In the next scene, Julieta encounters Bea, her daughter Antía’s closest childhood friend, and learns that Antía lives in Como. We witness Julieta’s stunned and ravaged face as she grasps onto this news of her daughter, and from that moment on, the movie delves into the past and how Julieta lost contact with Antía. She ends her plans to move to Portugal with Lorenzo. She rents an available apartment in the same building where she and Antía once lived on the off chance that Antía will try to reach her after thirteen years. She sits down, opens a large notebook, and begins writing to Antía the story of what happened to them. This narrative becomes the story of the movie, with Adriana Ugarte playing the younger, bombshell Julieta.

Middle-aged Julieta writing the story of what happened.

Colors mark the movie, deep saturated colors that deliver mystery and mood, or flamboyant colors like young Julieta’s shock of bleached hair and her bright facial make-up and clothing. We’re treated to idyllic seaside views of her lover Xoan’s home—he’s a hunky Galician fisherman played by Daniel Grao. The terra cotta figure with pipe penis seems to symbolize him, for the hottest passion imaginable strikes these two characters at the beginning of Julieta’s memoir to Antía, and results in Antía’s conception and the future of the family.
Just the way the music is almost ominous, almost sinister, Xoan’s housekeeper Maria (Inma Cuesta) fills us with uneasiness—is she good or bad? Her face when dealing with Julieta is cold and inscrutable, possibly plotting evil, but later with the teenage Antía, she shows her warmth and affection. This kind of suspense in character and music keeps us waiting for something to happen, and though something does, a tragedy, a loss, it’s not violent or visually traumatic. It’s depression.
The movie successfully explores depression caused by tragedy and loss. Perhaps the ambivalence an audience might feel when the movie ends has to do with not really feeling close to Julieta or Antía, despite comprehending their interior worlds through their facial and physical communication. We remain on the objective, viewing side of a situation, our minds involved but not our hearts, as if the work is a study.
It’s an incongruence in the movie that Xoan’s home and Julieta’s Madrid apartments are upper middle class in décor and possessions. She comes from a teacher’s background and Xoan is a fisherman, but their lifestyle, and her outfits, couldn’t be more bourgeois. Those furnishings for the characters stand out and remove the viewer from the willing suspension of disbelief. For Almodóvar fans, Julieta will be worth seeing as the latest from an artist’s oeuvre, but it won’t be as powerful as Bad Education (about Catholic-priest sex abuse) or Talk to Her (about friendship and love), or even, for those who can take it, the macabre thriller The Skin I Live In.