We've had some good movies this year make it into the art houses, from Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind to Before Sunset to Maria Full of Grace. But one of the year's best is playing for two nights only in Duke University's Griffith Theater. I refer to Uzak (Distant), a film from the exceptionally talented Turkish director Nuri Bilge Ceylan. It's a little puzzling that it falls to a campus film society to bring us this film, because it was one of the favorites at Cannes a year ago, winning the Grand Prix and a dual best actor award for its two male, non-professional leads. (Ironically, the notorius Brown Bunny, that festival's biggest bomb, opens this Friday in Chapel Hill.) One reason for this could be that there's no established market for Turkish films, which makes audiences wary, whereas we have a body of reference points with which to approach French, Italian and Chinese movies. But if interest can be generated in Iranian films, it seems that such a trick could be accomplished for the cinema of a country that is, after all, Iran's democratic and secular neighbor to the northwest. And for the last month, Duke's Screen Society has attempted just such an introduction with a program called "Arada/ Between: Contemporary Turkish Cinema."
Unfortunately, I came late to the series of 10 films, which began last month with a trilogy of films by Zeki Demirkubuz, who also appeared in person on a panel with Jane Gaines, Frederic Jameson and others. Frankly, the first Turkish film I caught, midway through the series, was a distinct disappointment. Despite its promising echoes of Fassbinder--homoeroticism and violence among immigrant hoodlums in Germany--the story gave way to film school faux edginess and a patently ludicrous finish.
Happily, however, the three films of Nuri Bilge Ceylan that wrap up the series this week are phenomenal, and the cumulative effect is astonishing as we see Ceylan's techniques, themes and confidence develop by leaps and bounds. All three are excellent, but they get progressively better and, as it turns out, they really should be seen in order, for each one is a commentary or reaction to the previous one, even if the three films taken together aren't, strictly speaking, a trilogy.
The first, Kasaba (The Small Town), played last Monday night, and it's a luminous and naturalistic account of a rural community in Ceylan's native Anatolia. In its evocation of timeless rural themes (including some rough treatment accorded a turtle and some goats) and the ruthlessly unchanging cycle of seasons, the film recalls the early efforts of Ray and Ozu, and also 19th-century painters and writers such as Chardin, Maupassant and Chekhov (with the last being an influence Ceylan would acknowledge explicitly in his next film). The film was shot with a crew of two and a cast composed of friends and family members, and it was a marvel.
But with Mayis Sikintisi (The Clouds of May), his second film, Ceylan seems to say, "Wait! I did the first one wrong." Indeed, The Clouds of May turns out to be a Kiarostami-style mix of documentary and fiction (resembling Through the Olive Trees in particular) and it tells the story of the making of his first film. Ceylan has said that he made The Clouds of May to atone for his bad behavior while making The Small Town and to show what his family and village are really like, truths that he'd suppressed in his over-determined script the first time around. So, in The Clouds of May, a filmmaker (played by Ceylan surrogate Muzaffer Ozdemir) returns home to make a film about his family but this time, the backstory is the story, and the filmmaker becomes a better listener. And indeed, we find out a lot--an awful lot--about Ceylan's father's battle to keep a disputed tract of forest land. Along with other actors from the first film, the turtle makes a re-appearance (and fares much better). Throughout, Ceylan's own cinematography displays a marvelous eye for color, composition and detail, bringing the texture of Turkish country living so close we can nearly smell it. The coup de theatre of The Clouds of May comes when Ceylan restages a key scene from his first movie, but this time it's from the point of view of the actors and their own concerns. A score featuring Handel, Bach and Schubert is icing on the cake.
Having made two versions of the same story in his native Anatolia, Ceylan moves the action to Istanbul with Distant, along with two of the same actors who proceed to play similar, if renamed, characters. As in The Clouds of May, Ozdemir plays the city artiste, here called Mahmut, while Emin Toprak reprises his restlessly dreaming hillbilly character from the first two films, this time as Yusuf. At the outset, Mahmut is living alone in Istanbul, working successfully but unhappily as a commercial photographer, when the newly unemployed Yusuf comes to visit, intending to quickly secure a job on a boat. But the city mouse and the country mouse have more in common than they realize, even as the situation becomes untenable. Things go from bad to worse as Yusuf struggles to find work and scares women away while the increasingly embittered Mahmut ponders his professional and romantic failures. What could have been a dreary exercise in urban alienation becomes a powerful and moving story about love and loneliness, thanks to Ceylan's unerring camerawork, the surprising amount of humor--including an inspired bit about a real mouse on the loose--and the rich performances of Ozdemir and Toprak. (Sadly, Toprak, who was Ceylan's real-life cousin, died in a car accident shortly after the film's completion and five months before he and Ozdemir copped the acting award at Cannes.)
Screen Society's survey of contemporary Turkish cinema wraps up this week with a single video screening of The Clouds of May at 8 p.m. on Wednesday, Oct. 20 and two nights of Distant, on 35 mm, Thursday and Friday, Oct. 21 and 22, at 7 and 9:30 p.m. Both films will be in Griffith Theater in the Bryan Center on West Campus. Admission to the first film is free and $1 to the second, if you're not a Dukie. Visit www.duke.edu/web/film/screensociety/Arada.html for more information.
Meanwhile, the Carolina Theatre kicks off a lively weekend of blood 'n' guts filmmaking from around the world in the second annual Escapism Film Festival. I've seen five of the seven titles on view starting this Friday, including one that has to be considered a weekend highlight: Ghost in the Shell 2: Innocence. This Japanese manga film picks up the story of cyborg cop Bateau (who looks alarmingly like Steven Seagal, but with superior emotive skills) as he investigates a series of killings by robots gone bad. In a nice incorporation of one of anime's less savory aspects, the film concerns the sexual exploitation of Japanese girls, whose souls are being stolen to supply the spiritual engine of the "gynoids." Ghost in the Shell is a visual knockout, even if it brakes to a halt for Matrix-style quotations from Milton, Descartes and Confucius a few too many times.
But the weekend's biggest draw may well be the one-time-only screening of Donnie Darko: The Director's Cut. Richard Kelly's film, already a classic, wasn't screened for the press in advance, but it provides an opportunity for the many people who've only seen it on the small screen a chance to see it writ large. Elsewhere, Japanese director Takashi Miike, known for such notorieties as Audition and Ichi the Killer, has a new one called Gozu, which features a plot that's loosely reminiscent of the mob brother stories of Mean Streets and A Better Tomorrow. Bang Rajan is a violent but competently filmed and earnestly patriotic account of Thailand's equivalent of the Battle of the Alamo. Yesterday, from South Korea, is a futuristic police thriller that involves cloning and mutation. It's slick and occasionally affecting; otherwise it's full of pointless bang-bang. And Primer, the Sundance Grand Jury prize winner for this year, is the big disappointment. Essentially a knockoff of Pi (but without the look or the arresting score) with stylistic shoutouts to Reservoir Dogs and In the Company of Men, it's a clever but vacuous tale of time traveling, double-crossing and (yawn) making a killing on the stock market. The film, too smart by half, is difficult to follow because most of the story is told in muffled expository dialogue.
For more info on the Escapism Film Festival, visit www.carolinatheatre.org/escapism.