A Cinema of Portent
Narrating the Modern Moment
What we might find in a number of recent films is what we could call a portentous cinema. We needn't be pejorative about this but we can see in half a dozen films we will look at, a cinema of concern that tries to suggest the personal is the political, yet where within the exploration of both, the films contain an aspect of monumental moralism, a moralism that on occasion hints at the apocalyptic. The films we will look at here are Climates, The Wild Pear Tree, Once Upon a Time in Anatolia, Leviathan, Loveless, and Roma. But we also have in mind Elena and Winter Sleep, perhaps as well as Babel, Reality, The Great Beauty, even Magnolia. These are all films that seem to be groping at meaning beyond the immediacy of the tales they tell, works contained by auteurs who are far from anonymous. Most of these are what might be called Cannes films in the dismissive language of both Stephane Delorme and Mark Peranson. These are festival films in Delorme's derisory term, saying "Who's the boss? Haneke of course, with his double Palme d'Or." (Cahiers du Cinema) Peranson reckons, "Cannes used to present auteurs, now it essentially creates them." (Cinemascope) These would be directors who have something to say alright and expect the viewer to sit up and listen. They are often not so much state of the nation films, as state of the world cinema. According to both Delorme and Peranson there are numerous filmmakers being made by Cannes. Peranson notes "Arnold, Nicolas Winding Refn, Dolan, Mungiu, Park Chan-wook, Mendoza, and even the Dardennes to some extent: though La fille inconnue is better than the last one, it still finds the brothers spinning their wheels, or, it might even be said, making films more for Cannes than for themselves". Peranson adds, "other members of this illustrious club certainly include Paolo Sorrentino (I'll say it each time it applies: at least he didn't win a prize this year), the great Maiwenn, Michel Franco, this year's Shorts and Cinefondation jury president Naomi Kawase, Nuri Bilge Ceylan, Jacques Audiard, Gaspar No, and, of course, Frmaux's dynamic duo of Michael Haneke and, ban notwithstanding, Lars von Trier." Delorme's polemic mentions specific films, The Measure of a Man, Amour, Son of Saul, Heli and The Tribe. Both Peranson and Delorme swing wildly in their attacks, caring less for the nuance of the critique than the bludgeoning of various individuals. They are amusing, often clued up pieces that take no prisoners but don't leave too many filmmakers left walking the streets either. Surely there are far too many fine films and directors they are throwing into the same cell block when some distinctions need to be made?
Our purpose is to see in the six films we will explore little more than a need to speak seriously about cinema, and thus differentiate the films from others that play up the frivolous, works that may also be 'Cannes' movies: The Neon Demon, The Duke of Burgundy, The Favourite. The latter are generic movies (no matter the efficiency of Lanthimos's), playing off codes and conventions to say often as little as possible while commenting on the process as much as possible. It is a sort of post-modernist's last gleaming, reflected well in Neon Demon director Nicolas Winding Refn's claim that he can't make a living from his films but from making ads for Gucci, Hennessy cognac and Lincoln cars. "They hire me because I bring the singular, the narcissistic, the high artistic endeavour..." (Guardian) Plenty directors struggle to survive by their film work, but only some could claim they are hired to do slick adverts because of it. This is quite distinct from the directors of a cinema of portent.
To understand what is at stake in the films we can usefully quote Caleb Crain who says, writing on Alfonso Cuaron's Roma, "the end of humanity isn't an explicit theme of Roma, but lately I've found myself wondering whether any artwork of the first caliber can be created anymore that doesn't somehow reflect a sense that there are changes underway in the world so grave that they are unlikely to be survivable in any form we have yet imagined." (New York Review of Books) We can see Peranson and Delorme after their cluster bomb attempts going nuclear on such a claim, seeing anyone who thinks that they have the capacity to say very much about grave changes should put their camera down and take to the streets. And we might be tempted to concur: do we really need more messages from the comfortably off about the world as it is rather than how we would wish it to be? Whatever our own reservations about the work we nevertheless find Crain's comment more useful than some of Richard Brody's claims in New Yorker, where he reckons Cuaron uses the film's central character, a housemaid in a wealthy Mexico City's family home, as too passive a recipient for the film's story. Watching "Roma," one awaits such illuminating details about Cleo's life outside of her employer's family, and such a generously forthcoming and personal relationship between Cleo and the children in her care. There's nothing of this sort in the movie; Cleo hardly speaks more than a sentence or two at a time and says nothing at all about life in her village, her childhood, her family.
Yet perhaps in bringing together the two remarks we can comprehend a central aspect of this portentous cinema: the sense that characters are irrelevant next to forces beyond their control. This is partly what would make the films possess their element of portent: that the characters themselves are of little importance next to features that are much greater than their own agency. In Roma, set at the beginning of the seventies, the maid Cleo (Yalitza Aparcio) is at the mercy of the family's moods, her boyfriend's feelings, fate and even her own troubling sub-conscious and religious beliefs. In one early scene she is sitting watching the TV with the family when the mother tells Cleo to go and make some Camomile tea for her husband. The kids want her to stay nestled in, the mother insists she must make the tea. Later, Cleo's boyfriend will leave her when she announces she's pregnant in a proper moment of abandonment. He leaves the cinema and doesn't come back - at all. She eventually finds him at a paramilitary training camp and he throws a few insults at her before she leaves: heart-broken and with wounded pride wouldn't begin to describe it. Later in the film, she will meet him again. In a high- end store with the family grandmother she witnesses from the upstairs shop window the Corpus Cristi Massacre, with students shot dead by the police and paramiliatries. Her ex comes into the store, shooting customers but let's her live. The shock nevertheless induces labour and Cleo is rushed to emergency and loses the baby. Cleo by the end of the film breaks down believing that she wanted the baby dead and that perhaps this was God's way of punishing her. What we see is a consistent lack of control over her own life. But rather than sharing Brody's concern that Cleo is yet another poor character in cinema taken advantage of by a filmmaker to express his own preoccupations, we can claim instead that while Cleo is someone obviously at the mercy of forces greater than her own will, nobody is quite in control of their own life in Cuaron's film. We sense the father is frustrated in his marriage (which he leaves), can't easily park the fancy Ford Galaxy in the interior drive-way, and that the mother tries to make the best of a bad situation.
But Cleo's situation seems to exemplify limited life opportunities best. and some might see the monochrome photography and Cuaron's penchant for long takes that observe character rather generate identification as a means by which to reflect it. "And then, writing her character, I was forced to approach her for the first time in my life, to see her as a woman, and a woman with the complexities of her situation. And a woman that comes from a more disadvantaged social class, that also comes from an indigenous heritage in a society that is ridden by class, but very perversely, like in the whole world, race and class are intimate. There's the other perverse relationship between class and race." (Vanity Fair)
Yet any notion of class conflict seems to be absorbed into a question of portent, into an enquiry that is much bigger, more troublesome and obscure than class. It is not especially due to class that Cleo's boyfriend turns out to be so appalling: many a working-class man stays and devotes his life to the children. It is not that Cleo is impoverished that she loses her child: the film makes clear that because of her role in the family, the doctors do their very best to deliver a healthy, living baby. If Cleo had been bundled into a waiting room for a few hours and gave birth to a still foetus, we might have read class into it. Cleo's guilt too would seem to be her own, and it is while holidaying with the family at no doubt a comfortable resort that Cleo has her realisation. One wouldn't want to claim Cauron's film has nothing to do with class. That would be nonsense. We see again and again Cleo's status as second-class citizen in a first-class household. When for example the husband leaves, clearly with no intention of returning, the wife is quick to blame Cleo for the dog waste lying around the entrance. Cleo is someone who can be ordered around and pushed around, a woman who gets talked at far more often than she is talked to. That is her class position. But if Cleo will not rise above it, will not possess agency that might change her life, this is because Cuaron wishes to indicate a despair greater than the givens of the situation and finds it in a broader world than the individual. We needn't see this as a metaphysical position - though as we will see Nuri Bilge Ceylan possesses hints of it, and it is vital to Cuaron's compatriot Carlos Reygadas. But we might believe it is more than a social one. Indeed, it could be the need to examine the social without quite succumbing to the metaphysical that is vital to the other filmmakers who we are looking at here: Zvyagintsev and Ceylan.
There is in Andrey Zvyagintsev's work so obviously a Tarkovskian side to this filmmaker in his mid-fifties, but if Tarkovsky's work frequently seemed brilliantly oblivious to the social realities he was working out of as the Russian master created a body of work that was about as transcendent as any director could manage, Zvyagintsev appears to have moved ever more towards confronting social realities. He still maintains a Tarkovskian aloofness within the milieu he evokes, but the immediate social reality of that milieu is of great importance. In Loveless, Leviathan and also Elena, Zvyagintsev addresses not so much the class differences in contemporary Russia, as the oblivious wealth and the painful poverty of a country that more than most, during the nineties, had created a culture of haves and have nots. "It is true that I am unmoved by politics, believe it or not." the director says. "I am completely divorced from that context. And I mean that in a literal senseI have no TV at home. It's been more than a year now since I've watched the news. Thus, fortunately, I do not see, I am not observing this downfall of people right now playing a propaganda game. And anyway, I live by a different set of values and so forth." "But still", he notes, "it is impossible not to observe. It's impossible not to get caught up in these perceptual spaces, these relational fields of thought, about this or that... Naturally, I cannot completely turn off the external." (Cineaction) Leviathan is a film about Putin's Russia as an erosion of community just as Loveless is a film about Putin's Russia as an erosion of the family. In Leviathan, the central character is a reckless mechanic who refuses to accept that his house must give way to a telecommunications mast. The film quite literally plots his downfall as Zvyagintsev offers a dense story of manipulation, adultery and murder that indicates pride will inevitably come before a fall in a country that itself prides itself on corruption. Honesty is definitely not the best policy in contemporary Russia, the work suggests - the only options are to be lucky enough to have nothing to do with more powerful forces than one's own, to accept one's lot as a little man of no significance, or take advantage of others. The mayor of the town is happy to do the latter and will cheerfully use the church for his own ends and knows the church will make the compromises expected. Central character Kolya has no interest in selling out or being bought up, and in another film, in another time, he might prove heroically strong. But here he is hopelessly weak, his ostensible strength as he refuses to give way to the mayor's demands not too far removed from a self-destructive streak that shows a man who drinks too much and thinks he is always right when clearly he isn't.
But Zvyagintsev shows him as a flawed character within a flawed world, someone who won't only fail to succeed by the film's conclusion as the movie works an inversion of the Western homesteader who wards off the villains, but who early on will reveal the sort of failings that are internalisations of the society at large as he treats his family less than well. Here is a milieu pickled in despair and corruption, and by the conclusion, the mayor will show that the healthiest position to adopt in so unhealthy an environment is to accept the reality of one's lot or to make a lot: to become rich on the back of other people's misery. As the mayor hears that Kolya gets fifteen years for a crime (the murder of his wife) we are in little doubt he didn't commit but for which there is enough evidence against him, so the mayor is cheerfully aware that this is what happens to unrealistic people who think they can stand against him when the broader social structures are behind him. We might, by the conclusion, be horrified at the injustice, but we can't deny that from the terrible point of view that is the film's examination of desperate living in contemporary Russian life, Kolya has been an idiot.
However, this would be to ignore the broader asocial framing the director provides - the perspective that we might resist calling metaphysical but that does seem so much more than the social. This is the portentous - the sense of a portent that suggests man has lost a vital dimension of his being when values are so corrupted that the villain of the piece can claim that a flawed hero is a fool, and there is little we the viewer can say to counter the belief. "The state doesn't want to remember that it's the role of the artist to be in the opposition," Zvyagintsev says. "Otherwise how do the people in power see their true face. In ancient times, kings would have clowns and jesters in court every day. On the one hand, they were there to entertain the king. But on the other they were the only people who were able to tell him the truth." "You ask me if I'm a dissident. When really, I think, I'm more like a clown." (Guardian)
This is the clown as fool, and the portentous then is the concern for values. The story doesn't so much have a moral, which would be closer to the western where the homesteader retains his home and the villains are vanquished. No, a film concerned with values does not expect the moral to become evident; more its absence to become pronounced. The film produces out of its story a moral vacuum, a hollowed out value system that forces upon the viewer the need for a value system, not its evidential working through. The Western usually produces a system of values, so clearly evident in Bazin's claim about "the appearance of the first conflict between the transcendence of social justice and the individual character of moral justice, between the categorical imperative of the law which guarantees the order of the future city, and the no less unshakeable order of the individual conscience." (What is Cinema? Vol. II) What we have in Leviathan is the absence of a guaranteed law and little place for the individual conscience which, unable to find justice, will likely lose itself in alcohol.
This is part of a broader Russian problem that Masha Gessen addresses. Speaking of the astonishing number of young people dying in Russia, she says, "the deaths kept piling up. Peoplemen and womenwere falling, or perhaps jumping, off trains and out of windows; asphyxiating in country houses with faulty wood stoves or in apartments with jammed front-door locks; getting hit by cars that sped through quiet courtyards or plowed down groups of people on a sidewalk; drowning as a result of diving drunk into a lake or ignoring sea-storm warnings or for no apparent reason; poisoning themselves with too much alcohol, counterfeit alcohol, alcohol substitutes, or drugs; and, finally, dropping dead at absurdly early ages from heart attacks and strokes." (New York Review of Books) She concludes her article with the idea that "Russians are dying for lack of hope" which isn't too far removed from saying they are dying from a lack of values. Zvyagintsev cannot produce a cinema of given values as the classic Western could without appearing nave, but by making films that generate the presence of a moral absence, he can suggest the very strong need for one.
In Loveless, the director moves from a tiny, coastal village to the urban centre. Set in Moscow and focusing on the loveless marriage of the title and in the early stages on a neglected son, the film becomes ostensibly a mystery film as they search for the boy when he goes missing. But the film neither plays up the mystery, nor indicates that in searching for the boy the love between them may return. Zvyagintsev says: "a version of the story has been told many times where good always prevails and there will be an inevitable happy end. It's like Novocaine for the soul - don't worry everything will be alright, so I'm tempted to look at it from a different angle and not look at life as a fairy tale, to look at what is really happening, can this injection of truth into our system be a stimulant and force us to rethink our attitude towards life and change our lives. Maybe it could work this way." (Independent) The point of the disappearance, the point of the disdain this comfortably off couple have for each other is to produce once again a cinema of ethical absence, to show that if money becomes a dominant force in the culture, it undermines the chance of a value higher than cash. If not everyone has filthy lucre, or everyone is fighting to get it, then this inevitably generates an erosion of values. Value as money and value as ethos are contrary: in the former we have quantitative gain, in the latter qualitative purpose. The couple in Loveless would seem to have bought their way into misery. They have wealth and comfort but no time for each other and even less time for their child. They often ignore the son and argue with each other.
Zvyagintzev is a gifted filmmaker and a heavy symbolist, and it happens to be his skill with composition that allows him to give his cumbersome symbolism a retrospective vividness. Peter Bradshaw puts it quite well when saying "It isn't afraid of massive symbolic moments and operatic gestures; I was fractionally sceptical about these at the time, but they live and throb in my head hours after the final credit crawl." (Guardian) In both Loveless and Leviathan the director creates images that obviously reflect the meaning he wants to make clear but at the same time registers the milieu he wants to show. The apartment the couple own in Loveless, like the house of the wife's lover, are clinical spaces, a flat and a house that don't just illustrate coldness but make living in them generate coldness itself. People seem closed off from each other in full view as glass does its job symbolically for the director, and socially for the characters. One senses all it takes is the closing of a glass partition and the person is present and absent simultaneously. The symbols in Leviathan are classical as we see the carcass of an enormous whale reflecting the hollowed out values of the community. There is also the end of the world feel that suggests if Putin can reach this far Russia really is in trouble as the director films in the tiny town of Teriberka. Its population is less than a thousand, and we might wonder where does the president's reach not apply if it reaches here? In Loveless the film is much symbolically modern, evident most obviously in the crime scene tape which opens and closes the film. This is tape used to seal off an area, but at the film's conclusion it is still there, no longer part of a crime scene but part of nature: it has found itself stuck to a tree in a moment where the director allows the symbolic to impose itself on the plausible. Would it have really survived a harsh winter without getting blown rather further away than a few metres? It is what the director wants is to take from reality for the assertiveness of its claims. Zvyagintzev appears to suggest here that crime has become a natural part of the scenery and allows the tape to travel a few metres to let his statement stand imagistically.
It is nevertheless an example of overstatement, which we might define as the moment when a film doesn't only leave behind its realistic aspect but also its plausible dimension. If the realistic element is the film's interest in attending to the reality of its environment as we find in anything from neo-realism to Ken Loach, then the plausible dimension is a much broader demand. Casablanca may have nothing to do with the real Morocco, but it knew that it needed a reasonably large plane that would take people across the Atlantic. "The final scenes of the film, which required a backdrop of the plane ready to leave the airport, were shot at a soundstage without sufficient space for a real aircraft. The producers solved the problem by building reduced-scale cardboard replicas of the Lockheed, cranking up a fog machine to obscure the view, and dressing a crew of midgets in overalls to give the impression that the airport ground crew were working on a regular-sized aircraft." (Slightly Intrepid)
This is the difference between the realistic and the plausible. When a filmmaker sacrifices the latter to the symbolic, there is a reasonable chance the viewer will feel the portent over the story, the weight of significance over the dramatic principles. If we find the lengthy sequence where various people search for the missing boy in a disused municipal building so striking it is because we reckon the film manages to retain its sense of portent without succumbing to ponderous portentousness. As they search for the missing boy so also we can see they are searching amongst a now missing Russia - a former Communist country that for all its many failings also practised a communal spirit and manifested that spirit in the buildings it constructed. Now all that people can do is put together an ad hoc team of searchers in the absence of any proper police interest, and there they are looking for the boy in a building that captures well societal collapse. It is both realistic and plausible: the building is a ruin and it would make sense that someone who has run away might try to hide there. As the group search through the building we sense that they are also rummaging through Russia's recent past as well as looking for the missing child. While the scene at the end with the tape ties the film up neatly it does so a little too neatly: it possesses thematic tidiness but lacks dramatic plausibility.
We could see this as the weak side of a cinema of portent, and most of the films possess equivalent moments. Anyone determined to see overstatement and directors making overblown claims won't struggle to find examples, but that would be to ignore what the filmmakers have captured for an overemphasis on what they have symbolized. Critic Richard Porton believed "the disintegrating marriage of Boris and Zhenyathe melodramatic core of Zvyagintzev's convoluted narrativeis apparently meant as a somewhat opaque allegory of Putinesque malfeasance...Yet for many viewers, what will remain stuck in their minds is not Loveless' critique of Putinism, but rather its relentless misogyny: Zhenya is depicted as an unredeemable harridan and, as a consequence, she emerges as more of a villain than any politician or soulless oligarch." (Cinemascope) Porton notes that symbolism can turn a character into a a necessary evil from the political point of view but turns them into a terrible person from the human perspective. The symbolism dehumanizes. It isn't an unfair point but it seems like an exaggerated one, and if anyone is presented badly on screen does that mean they are reduced to the sum total of their gender? We can see an argument could be made that shows a film where women are consistently acting badly and the men are paragons, but Loveless isn't that film: the victim happens to be the son who witnesses his parents' collapsing marriage. Would the film have been so very different if the son had been a daughter? We think not, and thus feel the misogynistic claims as overstated as the director's overreaching symbolism. If we have problems with Loveless it lies partly in the director's overreach - that the emphatic symbolism serves as the means by which to suggest the metaphysical within the social. Some might see this more positively than we do, and Ian Christie reckons, when writing on Zvyagintzev's work more generally, in the essay 'Here Be Monsters', that "the father of The Return is rhymed visually with Mantegna's The Dead Christ, while the title of The Banishment refers to Adam and Eve's expulsion from the Garden of Eden." He adds, "in it there are two Leonardo references - a jigsaw puzzle of The Annunciation and a photograph of the drawings of St Anne and Mary, which Zvyagentsev drew attention to in an interview with James Norton as one 'I'm unhappy that nobody so far noticed'" (Sight and Sound).
Nuri Bilge Ceylan is also a director who feels the weight of the social conflicting with the metaphysical and this is partly what distinguishes the directors we are focusing upon from not just Tarkovsky, but also in different ways the ostensibly much more political Miklos Jansco and Bela Tarr. Jancso in the sixties and seventies made films like The Round-Up, The Red and the White and Red Psalm that would take political realities and turn them into abstract cinematic entities exploring power. Tarr's films abstract still further - there is no historical event Damnation, Satantango and Werckmeister Harmonies directly draw upon. But in both Jancso and Tarr, like with the Tarkovsky's interest in the divine, we sense that the political is subservient to the properties of power and evil respectively, and the impossibility of these struggles. As Mira and A. J. Liehm say of Jansco's work: the persecutors and the persecuted of his films merge into a strange whirl which carries them all towards an inevitable and merciless end: there is no hope for either group." (Cinema: A Critical Dictionary) Tarr reckoned: "we started to realize what problems there were, not only of a social nature, but ontological and cosmic problems as well. And then we found out that even the weather, everything was bad and from then on there is nothing else to do, but make it total." (Enthusiasm) Ceylan and the other directors we are focusing upon here do not make it total. But at the same time, they do not make it a social cinema either. There are many films from Couscous to El Bano del Papa, from Central Station to The Measure of a Man, that look at the state of a society and a community at a given moment in time. Yet they remain modest in their aims as they insist on the socio-political nature of their problem. It would be too simple to say that if society were a little more just the problems would go away, but there is a feeling that the problems are within the social rather than in the metaphysical, within that broader problematic that Tarr so readily acknowledges even if in the same interview he claims, oddly, that there are no "allegories in any of my films and there are symbols and any kind of such metaphysical things." We would be inclined to agree with him that he resists symbolism as Zvyagintsev does not, and that his films are not allegories, which suggest a preformed idea that then receives its illustration in allegorical form as Christie explores. Yet Tarr's tangled sentence can help us to explain what a cinema of portent happens to be, one that isn't resistant to symbols, doesn't quite achieve the metaphysical and is nevertheless suspicious of allegory. We believe that Tarr's cinema, like Jancso and Tarkovsky's is metaphysical, if we see metaphysics as the Aristotelian question of seeking first principles, hence Tarkovsky's interest in the Divine when he says "the only function of consciousness is to produce fabrications. True knowledge is achieved in the heart and the soul." (Time within Time) As a rule what we are finding in a cinema of portent is the social meeting the symbolic without quite achieving the metaphysical. If Tarkovsky and Tarr's cinema goes beyond the symbolic is rests on asking a question and determining a principle that cannot be answered by symbols. When Christie comments on Zvyagintsev's work he suggests the work can be answered by symbols, and in the main we could say he is right. It is centrally what makes the work portentous.
If we see Ceylan as a subtler filmmaker than Zvyangintsev it rests on a greater interest in the individual. It is ironic that the Turkish Ceylan's nuance towards characterization comes partly from his fascination with Chekhov (never more present than in Winter Sleep and Once Upon a Time in Anatolia and often openly acknowledged by Ceylan) while there is nothing Chekhovian in the Russian director. Yet there is still in Ceylan's work a symbolism that indicates character is often secondary to an abstract meaning. Perhaps the best way of explaining this is to think of moments where characterisation becomes categorical, as if a moment is being offered to us to the detriment of character but for the purposes of symbolization. First, we can think of Climates, and the scene when the central character goes east in search of his ex-girlfriend, who is working on a film there. Isa (played by Celyan) takes a taxi, gets into conversation with the Cabbie, takes some photos of the young man and the driver asks if he will send him a copy of the photos, giving Isa his address. Just afterwards, Isa scrunches the note up and leaves it in the ashtray shortly after they part. It is a heavy gesture that says more about the director's need to say something about his character than about character itself. Obviously. this is a problem of characterisational dramaturgy. How do you indicate that the character will make no effort to keep in contact with a cab driver without making it so definitive? Maybe a scene or two later he is emptying his pockets, sees the number, thinks of putting it in his wallet, sees his wallet is full of junk as it is, and then deposits it in the bin. He wouldn't come across as a man of great sensitivity, but he would at least have given the gesture a moment's thought. True, Isa is far from a nice man, someone whose ex-girlfriend Bahar was smart in leaving him and stupid when she takes him back after his pleading, However, unpleasant people aren't unpleasant because they are more obvious than pleasant ones; Isa's categorical gesture seems to say little about character and more about the symbolic utilising of character. Isa looks like a symbol of the new Turkey, a dissatisfied, bourgeois alienated from those from a different class and a different region who has become so self-absorbed he can only see his own needs.
Early in Climates at dinner on the terrace with friends in the upmarket Turquoise Coast resort of Cas, Isa tells Bahar she is cold while she insists she is fine; later he will tell a work colleague who says he now has the upper hand with his partner after threatening to leave, he wouldn't be so sure the woman won't resort to her old ways if they marry. These earlier scenes however while acknowledging both the character's selfishness and sympotimising an aspect of the new Turkey, indicate Chekhovian subtlety. The later scene symbolises too readily his indifference and by extension the new class that has no interest in people from the provinces. We wouldn't want to create an exaggeration of our own just to undermine Ceylan's work. Generally, we find a filmmaker who in feeling and form is very sophisticated indeed. Just after Isa scrunches up the address, the film cuts to an exterior shot as the snows falls and we see Isa instead as the waiter serves him his food. It is one of many shots in Ceylan's work that finds the alienation within the specifics of Turkish culture. This isn't a generic moment of alienation, it is precisely located in the climate indeed, and in the architecture of place. We can say the same of an earlier long shot of Isa walking along the street in Istanbul, the snow falling, the tram moving towards the camera, and Isa moving towards us too. Istanbul is if course where East meets West, where Europe joins with Asia, but today it is as though the meeting of East and West also indicates the failure of the Eastern and the Western, the working and the Middle-class in Turkey itself. Interviewed by Ali Jafaar, Ceylan talked about the film as focused more on character than place, saying "people are lonely in life, and in relationships between men and women you feel this even more. This is the most tragic aspect of life, this melancholy: nothing else seems to be worth taking a film about." (Sight and Sound) But this is also a film that indicates someone who is western in his status and yet Eastern in his attitudes. Obviously many a western man would no less arrogantly than Isa indicate that a woman needs to be kept in her place. Turkey may not be an Islamic state thanks to Ataturk's insistent separation of the two early in the 20th century, even if Erdogan might be determined once again to close that gap, but it remains in many an Islamic country.
Perhaps at the time of Climates (made in 2005), Ceylan wanted to see himself as more European than Turkish, and Isa seems a character who could much more easily be situated in Berlin, London or Paris than, say, his central character in the more recent Winter Sleep. As Ceylan says, in an interview with Geoff Andrew on the latter film, "Aydin is a very typical Turkish intellectual, and there's a big gap between him and the poor people in the village...Then there's the fact that he's apparently not religious but writes about religious matters. In Turkey you're not really free to write about religion...Aydin is perhaps fairly typical in that he wants to be seen as a bit of a hero because he writes about religion, but at the same time there's a part of him that's quite cautious or timid." (Sight and Sound) Religion appears to possess a more important part in Winter Sleep and The Wild Pear Tree than in Climates, and also Uzak, perhaps partly because of setting (the latter films are situated in Istanbul), the former in rural Anatolia; perhaps because of Erdogan's rise, and they also possess a more portent aspect.
The Wild Pear Tree shows Ceylan bringing in the Kurdish question, religion, youth unemployment and education in a film that more than any prior Ceyan work has a social ambition: a desire to show a contemporary Turkey that seems to be failing. Why it is still very much a Ceylan film is that he couches it within his ongoing interest in disillusionment (and hence the ongoing influence of Chekhov). To say that Zvyagintsev offers disillusionment seems too weak a word and too personal, characterisational a response. Despair would seem closer to the word in the Russian director's work, closely affiliated with a greater narrative drive than in Ceylan's work. In the baldest of dichotomies, Zvyagintsev is a story director and Ceylan a character director. The Russian plots his despair, while Ceylan characterises his disillusionment. Both are offering state of the nation cinema, even state of the world cinema, to varying degrees, but the Turkish filmmaker seems much closer to his characters, seeing inevitable human disappointments rather than terrible human fates. It might also be why there is more comedy in Ceylan's oeuvre (often with hints of Beckett or Kafka), evident when the young central character Sinan goes to see an established regional writer and lectures the older man about the limits of his work. Sinan offers idealism while the older writer offers some pragmatic advice before acknowledging that the last thing he is thinking of is great prose when he has a splitting headache as he lets out his frustrations on the young man. Ceylan clearly has something to say about the state of literature but he still has more to say about the nature of his characters.
The same may be said about Sinan's gambling father Idris, a formerly passionate teacher who the school system has disillusioned and who finds hope on the basis of an incremental gamble. Most of the time he loses and the sense of hopelessness increases, but he also has a dream: to retire into the countryside and live on a small farm. If in Leviathan the family home proves vital to Kolya's destruction, the dilapidated farmhouse that Idris works on is the arena of hope. To understand something of the different sensibilities of these two directors, perhaps even to understand an aspect of Russian pessimism versus Turkish promise, is to comprehend how Zvyagintsev sees the home as where the heartless can strike; Ceylan where a person can still strike lucky. Idris's very modest place can seem like a spiritual goldmine for a man who has tried his hand at gambling and lost an arm and a leg but more importantly has also lost his sense of well-being and self-respect. The modest home in the country can return those to him.
In a moment near the end of The Wild Pear Tree, Sinan pays a visit to his father and discovers that he has read Sinan's self-published tome, and more than that, reflected upon it and on his place within the work. We sense that Sinan is moved by his father's respect for the work and also aware, somehow, that his life is over before it has begun. As the camera moves ominously towards the well we find that he has hanged himself inside it, as Ceylan offers once again the image structure of the rope that we have been privy to earlier in the film and which could now be seen as a foreshadowing of his demise. But, like other scenes in the film, it appears it is a product of a character's imagination. We see the father wake up and Sinan digging the well as despair turns back to hope. This insistent need to find water is a gesture that goes back to earlier moments where others insist that there is no water to be found, but the father won't give up. While from one point of view this can seem pig-headedness, from another it can appear to be resoluteness. The action moves from the stubborn wish on the father's part to be proved right, to the simple need on both the father and son's part to retain hope. It is unlikely that water will be found, but this would seem to be a healthy improbability, as if hope doesn't rest on the odds in relation to a given deed, but on the spirit that one brings to it. If Sinan expects his book to sell thousands of copies and cannot live with the idea that it hasn't, he has located his sense of self outside himself. But if he accepts that his book didn't have to sell many copies, that it simply had to be written and made available to the world (in this case no more than his father), he has achieved success. Equally, as long as the father puts his hopes into gambling, he will not find a self that can provide equanimity; that requires a deeper, more contained hope that he would seem to find in retreating to nature.
In Once Upon a Time in Anatolia, a group of men including a doctor and a prosecutor are travelling through the countryside in search of a body. During the search they stop off at a village and are offered refreshments by the daughter of the family, a beauty whose looks we see as much in the reactions on the men's faces as evident in the beauty of her own. Afterwards, the prosecutor tells the doctor a story about a married woman who was pregnant with a child. She predicts the date of her own death and sure enough not long after the birth of her baby, and taking it for the first time in her arms, she says "I am now ready to die' and duly passes away from a heart attack. The doctor asks practical questions about the death, asking whether there had been an autopsy to find out exactly what happened. Nobody passes away because they say they will and then dies of a cardiac arrest. The prosecutor suggests the doctor hasn't been listening; as if the doctor has been hearing a practical story of medical matters, while the prosecutor has been telling a tale of metaphysical import. The story will be returned to at the end of the film as Ceylan finds the balance between modern science and ancient superstition.
Both The Wild Pear Tree and Once Upon a Time in Anatolia are wise films, epic in length and profound in attempting to understand and explore aspects of human nature. Ceylan films would seem to offer 'wisdom' - a word not without its problems, of course, and where those with reservation over Ceylan's work will seize upon it as a sign of his pretentiousness. But perhaps we can explore why many will balk at a filmmaker's wisdom, who will see in the three directors we have looked at a moralistic breadth they are not entitled to assume. Rather than condemning or defending their position, instead let us digress for a moment and propose that the filmmakers we are looking at here feel the need for wisdom without assuming that society any longer sanctions it. When thinking of fairytales or fables, we can see that these are socially sanctioned in the sense that they speak to everybody: they contain the sum total of a society or civilization's wisdom and go beyond the subjectivity of the teller or the affective demand of the receiver. How can we ignore in this context two important and useful texts, Walter Benjamin's 'The Storyteller' and Michel Foucault's 'What is an Author?'
In Benjamin's essay on the Russian writer Nikolai Leskov, he ranges far beyond the writer under discussion and sees in the modern era the collapse of storytelling. There are several reasons for this but one happens to be the development of the novel, but even more the influence of the press. "It turns out that it confronts storytelling as no less of a stranger than did the novel but in a more menacing way, and that it also brings about a crisis in the novel. This new form of communication is information." Benjamin later adds, "there is nothing that commends a story to memory more effectively than that chaste compactness which precludes psychological analysis." (Illuminations) Whether it is our need for information or our need for psychological explanation the story loses its compact validity. The fable, the fairy tale and the parable all contain this compactness and whether it is the story of Jonah, Cinderella or the Tortoise and the Hare, they live long in our culture but are short on the page. We needn't wish for a return to such narrative forms, but we might wonder what happens when a modern filmmaker contains within their work an aspect of the fable etc. If they are accused of portentousness it rests in part on the need to express the singularity of their aesthetic choice within the broader question of a higher moral value. Benjamin notes that this value is intricately linked to death. 'It is, however, characteristic that not only a man's knowledge or wisdom, but above all his real life...first assumes transmissable form at the moment of his death." Benjamin reckons. "just as a sequence of images is set in motion inside a man as his life comes to an end...suddenly in his expressions and looks the unforgettable emerges and imparts to everything that concerned him that authority, which even the poorest wretch in dying possesses for the living around him." (Illuminations) Benjamin believes "this authority is at the very source of the story." Which filmmakers can claim such authority, such authorial omnipotence? (IIluminations)
One of Foucault's claims in 'What is an Author?' resides in the modern notion of authorship which credits the writer with a nominal status missing from earlier storytellers. "The author-function does not affect all discourses in a universal way...in our civilisation, it has not always been the same types of texts which have required attribution to an author" Foucault says, as he goes on to discuss storytelling. "There was a time the texts that we today call 'literary' (narratives, stories, epics, tragedies, comedies) were accepted, put into circulation, and valorised without any question about the identity of their author." Can a story that speaks to everyone have an authority because it speaks from no one in particular, and once the author is designated so he loses that universal aspect through his or her own particularity? If we often find certain filmmakers portentous it may reside in the nominal assertiveness meeting a narrative ambition. If a fable can speak to everyone because its authorship is negligible, can a modern film do likewise if its authorship is so pronounced? We can find numerous interviews with Ceylon, Zvyagintsev and Cuaron where they speak about their intentions while we have no idea of the intentions of the creators of fables, fairy tales and parables even if we do have a name designated to them, whether it be the Grimm brothers, Perrault or Aesop. The latter remain biographically anonymous just as they could take place in any number of countries and regions around the world.
The films we have focused upon here come both from the relatively biographically clear, and from the geographically specific. In various interviews, the directors have invoked the personal and autobiographical to describe their work. On Roma, Cuaron said "this is as personal as I can go, in the sense that 90 percent of the scenes came from my memory. The idea of capturing memory is what dictated the whole process." (Little White Lies) Speaking of the potentially personal aspect of making a film co-written with his partner about a couple breaking up, Climates, Ceylan reckons: "actually, we are not the kind of couple who are afraid to talk about the dark side of life. We like to talk about it. So if you deal with the dark side of life, you're safer - it's like therapy - and the dark stuff doesn't collect and grow." (BFI/Guardian) Zvyagintsev tends to be less personal but no less sure of his position. "If you saw Leviathan, you know where I stand vis-a-vis- the powers that be." Can we imagine the same remarks made in the context of Perrault's work or the Brothers Grimm, no matter if the latter were briefly elected to the Civil Parliament in 1840s Germany?
The modern narrator (be he or she a filmmaker, a writer, a playwright, etc) exists not as conduits but as creators. They are held responsible for the work they produce, and are usually expected in some form or other to defend it beyond the text. The more modest their aims morally, no matter their formal ambition, the more acceptable many will find them. The difficulty of making universal statements rests on the personal nature of the artist's role. Once the artist is present, when no longer a conduit but a creator, do we often find the work contains an aspect of portentousness that leads us to resist it? The danger here is that our resistance to the moral ambition in the work leads to a dismissal that is too strong, that films of far less ambition get praised for their modesty while those making films of portent get attacked for their arrogance. It is fair to say of course that overall the reviews for Loveless, Roma and The Wild Pear Tree have been favourable - we don' want to exaggerate our point. But the criticisms we find are telling. Writing on Roma, Brody notes "for all its worthy intentions, Roma is little more than the righteous affirmation of good intentions." (New Yorker). A. O Scott sees in The Wild Pear Tree an "unapologetic, sometimes heavy-handed literariness" in a generally favourable review, while no less favourably reviewing Leviathan, Eric Hynes says the film "can feel as constrained as Job", and sees that "such peerless craftwork can make things feel a bit locked-off and overdetermined." (Reverse Shot)
These claims could easily be expanded into a collective polemic attacking a type of cinema that wants to tell us how terrible our world happens to be. That certainly hasn't been our purpose, which has been more to say that we may notice how good cinema often happens to be when telling us how awful the world is. In this sense storytelling remains, in the hands of Cuaron to some degree, Ceylan more so and Zvyagintsev certainly, morally pessimistic within their cultural specificity. The films are clearly made about Mexico, Turkey and Russia in the way most ancient tales demand no such specificity. In this sense, they do no reproduce ancient wisdom but instead a sense of history, a feeling that what we are watching is Mexico, Turkey and Russia at a certain moment in time. It might be a character commenting on education as a great thing but this is Turkey in The Wild Pear Tree, at a time when many teachers and academics have been locked up under Erdogan's governance. It might be the shooting gallery in Leviathan where framed portraits of Russian officials are shot at, or the student protests oppressively put-down in Roma. These are historical markers that suggest a cinema of portent is also a cinema of historic reality. Any universalising instinct must be contained by national fact. It is subsequently a cinema that can tread on toes as it questions injustice not as an abstract ideal but as concrete national reality. The films may indeed be portentous, but they also in their portentousness tell stories that hint at things to come as they contain within them the times that have already arrived.
© Tony McKibbin