Intensifying the Image
An attractive young woman walks into a store that sells rugs and looks less like she wants to buy one; more to exit with the young shop assistant's affections in her pocket. As she wanders around the shop, dressed in sultry summer clothes - a vest and a skirt clingy with humidity - he gazes at her like a man bewitched. The simile however proves redundant; Bekir's (Ufuk Bayraktar) feelings for her will become a curse as he leaves the wife and child he goes on to have, and follows Ugur (Vildan Atasever) around Turkey trying to win a heart that has already been colonized by another. She is horribly in love with Zagor (Ozan Bilen), a dangerous criminal who moves from prison to prison, causing chaos wherever he goes as we see she is possessed also. Was her flirtatious behaviour in the shop at the beginning of the film Ugur's attempt to escape the feelings she has for Zagor, only to spread this emotional infection rather than contain it? We realize later that Ugur doesn't go into the shop to buy goods; more that she is herself a damaged item, perhaps hoping to find another man who can make her whole again.
One offers this possibility as no more than a hypothesis in a film, Destiny, that isn't chiefly interested in complex motivation, but nevertheless instead searches out complicated feelings when they get caught in emotional no exits. When Bekir sees Ugur again, he tells her he is in love with her even if they've only met once before. He has been gazing for hours at the pictures she left in the shop as he sits listlessly yet impatiently at work. When he sees her on this second occasion and announces his love it may seem a gesture of impetuousness on his part, but we have watched her from his perspective: from her appearance as an apparition to the process of crystallization. The latter is a term from Stendhal, where he talks about the manner in which feelings become pronounced. "The wisest man, turned lover, no longer sees any creature, anything, as it really is. He sets his own qualities too low, and the slightest favour from his beloved too high. Fears and hopes at once take on something romantic and wayward." (On Love) But Stendhal announces shortly afterwards "who would think of falling in love with a queen unless she made advances?" Bekir is a man immediately put into a weak position, but he is put there only because Ugur looks like she wants to seduce him. If a cat can look at a queen then that is the process by which the animal announces its relative freedom, but if the queen looks at the cat, suggesting in her gaze a possible desire, and he falls in love, does that remove his very autonomy? Ugur is the queen that looks back, and Bekir is smitten.
Director Zeki Demirkubuz dawdles over these moments in a film that covers years in the characters lives: for it is here where the director finds his title, and indicates that to love, given a certain set of circumstances, is to be blighted. As the filmmaker opens on images of Ugur in the shop we might wonder from whose point of view these shots are offered: we could assume as she flirtatiously moves around the space that she must be offering her body language to someone. But no, when a few shots later we see another character, it is shop assistant Bekir lying half-asleep on the couch, as the opening might remind us of a combination of Rear Window and Eyes Wide Shut. In Hitchcock's film we have an initial scene showing a series of apartments, with the camera observing the actions taking place within them. But when the camera moves into central character Jefferies' flat, he is facing the other way. Any voyeurism we have perceived lies in our own gaze and the director's, not the character's. In Kubrick's film we open on Nicole Kidman's Alice stepping out of her dress, naked from behind, before the film then cuts and gives us no clue as to whether it is a point of view shot or not.
In all three examples, in Destiny, Rear Window and Eyes Wide Shut, the filmmaker offers an implicative look without generating an identificatory position for that gaze. But it is also as though in each instance the look belongs not to the general viewer or the character, but to perceptual intensity. Many shots in cinema do not possess this quality: they are pragmatic set-ups, often getting a character from one place to another, action set-pieces indicating the importance of the climax, love scenes that cement the couple, arguments that push the plot along. When Hitchcock shows the dog in Rear Window digging around the flower bed later in the film, this is a narratively obligatory moment, as he needs both Jefferies and the viewer to comprehend what might have happened in an apartment across the way. But the opening sequence could have been elided altogether, or could have been shown from Scottie's point of view. The absence of this point of view, and that it does nothing for the story except set the scene, allows nevertheless for a deeper importance than the narratively necessary or the characterising of character. If the point of view had been Jefferies' we could see that he is voyeuristic, and not long afterwards Hitchcock will give us exactly these type of shots from Jefferies' perspective, but in this opening scene it feels personal from the filmmakers' point of view and the viewers' partly because it isn't obviously constructed around narrative or character. This is equally so in that brief shot in Eyes Wide Shut. If it was clear that Alice was in a hurry it could be incorporated into the story; if it was viewed from husband Bill's angle it would tell us about his character. But instead it remains a mystery, a moment of absolute perceptual intensity.
In trying to understand a filmmaker's work, perhaps even in trying to understand a given film, it might be more useful to put aside the brilliance of their craft and play up the nature of their obsessions. That opening scene in Rear Window maybe devotes a little too much time to the woman in pink across the yard. In Eyes Wide Shut David Thomson wonders in his inimitably scurrilous way whether there was a particular fascination with Kidman. "Has he [Kubrick] ever worked with a great actress or a beautiful woman?...many people on the set note the director's special attachment to Kidman." (Nicole Kidman) Whatever we might make of the gossip, what we have are images that indicate in their relative irrelevance a more pressing pertinence, and few films capture this better than the early moments in Destiny.
Of course those who know Demirkubuz's work will also be aware that the relationship the film explores has already been partly covered in the director's earlier Innocence, where there is a lengthy sequence with one character explaining to another how he became obsessed with the woman he happens to be with. Destiny is that story opened up into an entire film. But it is the opening scene here cinematically that indicates the obsessive more than any ongoing obsession we find in the director's oeuvre. Just as we may know much about Godard's relationship with Anna Karina anecdotally, Toshiro Mifune's with Kurosawa, Scorsese's with De Niro, what is important is not the background info but the foregrounded cinematic look that offers a variation of Andre Bazin's scrutiny of reality which will destroy drama at its base. As Bazin famously said in an essay on Umberto D. : "the narrative unit is not the episode, the event, the sudden turn of events, or the character of its protagonists; it is the succession of concrete instants of life, no one of which can be said to be more important than another." (What is Cinema, Vol.ii) Yet here it is the very privileging of the moment that goes beyond narrative and character which generates the perceptually intense. It isn't a concrete instant of life, but the film giving certain moments a curious intensification. Instead of Bazin's realism destroying narrative as its dramatic core, we instead have fascination robbing the film of the narratively robust. Now this doesn't mean the story is weakened, more that its strength is not taken for granted. When Hitchcock shows us the apartment across the way, he finds the concentrated scrutiny within the alibi of setting the scene, but the sequence is cinematically intriguing because it goes beyond the scene-setting into the theme setting and the directorially indulgent: it sets up the idea of scopopohilia while exemplifying the director's interest in passive looking. Not all films possess this dimension, and many would seem to avoid it through concentrating on the exigencies of narrative. Other filmmakers however will eschew story so they can pursue with even more force this perceptive intensity.
Yet it would be wrong to assume the more experimental the film the more inevitable will be its presence. None of the examples we give are avant garde, even though Godard's work hardly passes for the conventional. Yet the moments in Rear Window, Eyes Wide Shut and Destiny, as well as moments in Godard. Scorsese and Kurosawa, incorporate the problem of self, and often it is narrative that most allows for this exploration. Narrative becomes not the story set in motion, but the perception given narrative form, the means by which the director gets to visually confess. The pool room sequence with Karina in Vivre sa vie is a wonderful example of this visual confession, with Godard filming his then wife in all her vulnerability and revealing a great deal of his own intense gaze. When Kubrick shows us the nude Kidman or when Hitchcock shows a fascination for the girl in pink across the way, the absence of point of view, yet the presence of narrative possibility, make the moments seem all the more confessional. Equally, as Demirkubuz shows us the film's fascination with the young woman, so the combination of the initially disembodied perspective and the deepening of that perspective through the development of narration, leads to the feeling we have of the film confessing to us (the title of another Demirkubuz film is Confession) rather than telling a story to the viewer. In Destiny it is as though Demirkubuz announces his fascination through the sequence, and then finds his alibi through a character that can pass both for his surrogate and his narrative cipher. The film is preoccupied by Ugur before Bekir happens to be, and while this doesn't at all lead us to distance ourselves from Bekir's feelings as he becomes obsessed with young Ugur too, it nevertheless makes us feel as close to the filmmaker as we feel towards the character.
Perhaps we can explain this notion of cinematic complicity, of the gap between film and character that emphasizes rather than dilutes, by thinking of a shot commonly used in Tarkovsky, Angelopoulos, Antonioni and others. This is where a character seems to be watching something only to then enter what we have assumed is their own point of view. In such a shot the filmmaker indicates what we believe is the perspective of their protagonist only for the character walking into the shot revealing to us that it as anotherperspective: in fact showing us that it is actually the film's. When early in his debut feature Badlands Terrence Malick shows Martin Sheen's character apparently looking across the street only to then contain Sheen within the shot, this was a director taking responsibility for the image without necessarily containing it in narrative alibi. If some reviewers thought Badlands was an indulgent film because it was more about the director than the story, then this was couched (by Stanley Kauffmann in The New Republic for example) as an egotistical filmmaker failing to keep his mind on the generic story he ought to have been telling. But as Malick's work has progressed we can easily now see it as consistent with this notion of perception given narrative form: that the filmmaker's priority isn't to tell a story, but to utilise a story for the opportunity of seeing things intensely.
Indeed, Destiny isn't too far removed from Badlands, but it is played out here more as a love triangle than a couple on the run, but with the triangle closer to an isosceles than an equilateral one, with Bekir having easily the shortest side. Imagine if Sheen was in jail, Spacek following him from prison to prison, and there was someone else obsessed with Spacek, with the film telling the story from this other person's perspective, then this is close to Destiny. Imagine also that Sheen's character is barely present in the film except chiefly as an offscreen rumour, and we understand another aspect of the film's perceptual intensification. Here we have a character that might be peripheral and almost comedic in another work given absolute centrality in this one as Demirkubuz insists on giving him the dignity of a tragic figure and not the supporting qualities of a clown.
Demirkubuz chooses to do so, one supposes, because it doesn't only allow for greater perceptual purpose, it also gives the film a displaced sense of the tragic. Bekir is in essence a supporting character in the leading lives of other people, and this is partly why of course friends and family see him as ridiculous. When his father gives Bekir a pep talk it would seem long overdue. His wife has given birth and Bekir has hardly been there for the child, leaving his parents to look after the mother and the baby. His father tells him that he hasn't said anything up till now but it is about time his son took his responsibilities seriously, but the next moment we see Bekir again fascinated by Ugur. He is a man not so much addicted to love as infected by it, a distinction that helps us understand the problem at work in Demirkubuz's film. To be addicted for all the helplessness of the addict nevertheless indicates an agency missing from the infected: in the former one can 'simply' say no; an infection does not give us the opportunity for choice, however hard the choice happens to be in the former instance. Addiction might destroy the will, but that we talk of its destruction indicates that it is, if negligibly, in evidence. Infection doesn't destroy the will it destroys the body: the viral works wilfully at the cellular level and bypasses any power the person has over it. Demirkubuz suggests that Bekir does not have control over this situation, and while of course he does have a will, nevertheless the film presents it as though he doesn't. Yet even when we talk of someone falling ill it can indicate a similar agency as to say that someone is falling in love. To stay out all night in the rain and then become sick suggests the person has made themselves unwell, just as we might say that someone who spends all night waiting for someone outside a window is bringing anguish upon themselves. Yet it is this type of will that is at work here: a paradoxical will without will.
It is not surprising then that we see Bekir looking up at Ugur as she stands on her balcony, and yet the director knows that if he credits Bekir with too much agency in this situation, we would be less inclined to sympathise with his character, where if Demirkubuz presents Bekir to us as someone who cannot control his love for Ugur then what Bekir loses in agency (often a quality we expect and respect in and from a character) he gains in sympathy. Of course this isn't the director creating a likeable character, someone with whom we can project sentimental feelings upon, but we have to consider the problem of him possessing an element beyond his control otherwise Destiny would fall into the anecdotally irrelevant. How often do we hear of people who cannot end a relationship (or a crush) even though they know it isn't good for them, and how often do friends get angry with someone for them not doing so? Even the person in the situation, when eventually ending it, or escaping from the infatuation, often gets angry with themselves for not having finished the relationship sooner. Yet Demirkubuz wants to take what is often in one's life a minor story and elevate it to the tragically pertinent, to explore this uneven triangle and look at its weakest side all the better to understand the nature of love as an infectious disease of the body, and for its capacity to weaken the mind.
Here is where Destiny combines tragedy with naturalism, taking from the tragic the notion of the flaw, and from naturalism the crack or the hole. The term for flaw in Greek is hamartia, described by Aristotle as evident in "a man who is not eminently good or just, yet whose misfortune is brought about not by vice or depravity but by some error frailty...this hamartia, often called the tragic flaw, may be caused by bad judgement, bad character, inherited weakness, or any of several other possible causes of error." (Poetics) Naturalism as practised by Emile Zola in novels like L'assommoir and Therese Requin focuses much more on the inherited weakness, evident in the passage from La bte humaine where the narrator tells us: "the family was not really quite normal, and many of them had some flaw. At certain times, he could clearly feel this hereditary taint...attacks of instability in his being, losses of equilibrium like cracks or holes through which his personality seemed to leak away..." Destiny combines both Aristotle's notion of tragedy with Zola's naturalism to arrive at a negative destiny, one where the characters do not fulfil their ambitions but get debilitated by their drives.
If for both Ugur and Bekir it is the drive towards mad love; for other characters in the film it seems closer to mad violence. Zagor remains mainly offscreen as he gets moved from one prison to another after reacting violently inside, but we do witness him at work in one early moment where he clashes with another character of immense violence, Cevat, the young man who lives with Ugur's family and looks after them. When Cevat takes on a member of a bullying gang after he insults Ugur's brother, Zagor steps in and Cevat says the problem has nothing to do with him. Zagor keeps advancing towards Cevat and the latter pulls out a gun only for Zagor to tell him to go ahead. Cevat hesitates and Zagor stabs him to death. Both Cevat and Zagor are clearly characters given to violence, but while Cevat's aggression seems generally contained within a notion of duty, Zagor's is insouciant, blind pride. He looks like a man who rises to a challenge as if to say that death wouldn't simply be the end of his life but the final recognition of his fearlessness. In this exchange, though Cervat shows a certain relish within the violent act, it nevertheless seems contained by a higher value. In Zagor we might believe his destiny is in his genes: in his need to define himself through violence, and not use violence as a means of protecting others. There is little sense that when he comes to the beaten up character's rescue he is interested in the victim. It is more that he cannot countenance Cevat's act in his presence: it is an indirect attack on his status as a man of violence. However even Cevat's act, while honourable, contains within it the dishonourable as he kicks a man while he is down. It is as though both Zagor and Cevat are driven by violent impulses, just as Ugur and Bekir are driven by love.
Yet if the violent men suggest Thanatos, Ugur and Bekir manage to move in the same direction even if driven by the opposite impulse of Eros. When Ugur again comes to the shop still in the early stages of the film, and Bekir tells her that he loves her, he has no sense of hope on his face as he says it. His body language is defeated and shrunken before any actual rejection on Ugur's part, and he is the condemned man sentenced to a living death by his own feelings. Ugur is the image of Eros but contains within her Thanatos: a kind of grim reaper of love. Halfway through the film they are sitting on a park bench far from Istanbul with Bekir trying to persuade Ugur to return with him to the city where they can get married and he will look after her family. Ugur tells him that she will continue making her living as a singer and prostitute because that is the way it is. Bekir reckons there must be a reason and she insists that there isn't one. It is her nature, she seems to suggest, the nature as naturalism that Zola writes about. But if Bekir searches for a reason, he is no less a product of the sort of blood reasoning the French writer so often dramatises. Much later in the film after Bekir has once again followed Ugur across Turkey he finds her in a low-grade hotel, and after the owners try and throw him out for the trouble he creates, he slits his wrists.
The event happens offscreen after Ugur yells at him for being a jerk and having no pride. She disappears into the hotel room and starts to pack, before looking ambivalently at a photo of her and Bekir that is framed and had been sitting on her table. She then goes out into the corridor and the film cuts from her opening the room door to a long shot from the other end of the corridor incorporating both Ugur and Bekir, with the latter a figure lying beneath the window. Demirkubuz offers melodrama in the argument but no melodrama in the suicide attempt, and even a little horrible irony in the scenario: would Bekir have tried to take his own life had he known Ugur thought enough of him to keep a framed picture of the pair of them? Here is a man who finally decides he has nothing to live for and that the blood coursing through his veins is a virus best left to harden on the floor of a small town hotel in Kanya. The director's use of the long shot when we would expect instead a closer view from Ugur's perspective resembles the opening moment: a shot that might have us assuming a point of view but where no point of view appears to manifest itself. If Destinyfeels like a very personal story about obsession made more so by the film functioning a little like a prequel to the earlier Innocence, then this is made even more evident by the position of the camera at certain instances. Bekir attempting to take his own life is one thing, but how to film the intensely desperate nature of that act: to indicate that the film is somehow on the side of such an action? If the camera in the opening scene is the desirous onlooker; here it is the troubled one. In both instances the camera appears to be 'siding' with Bekir, taking seriously his interest in the lovely young woman who comes into the shop, and offers a contemplative seriousness when Bekir accepts there is no chance of persuading her to come with him. The latter sequence could have been filmed with Bekir slitting his wrists within the argument, but instead Demirkubuz directs as if to say it isn't the melodrama that interests him, but the character's feeling of aloofness that can only come when the blood is no longer circulating in the body. Bekir will survive this suicide attempt, but he will only be living literally what he has been living for most of the film: as the living dead.
There are of course other fine sequences where the film captures Bekir's sensitivity without quite claiming it as Bekir's own. In a scene where Ugur and Bekir are out driving with another couple and arrive at the sea, we watch Bekir looking at the other couple as they put their arms round each other watching the horizon, and the film cuts to a close up of Bekir as he turns round in the direction of the car where Ugur is sitting. The camera doesn't follow that look, but cuts to a shot of the car and then pans towards Ugur in the back seat. In each of the three scenes (the opening one, the suicide attempt and here) the director removes perspectival agency from the character and gives it back as a certain type of formal sympathy. While we might understand Ugur's fury that this man won't stop following her around, the film follows Bekir around with a worried concern. This is a story of possession not as generic horror but as naturalist inevitability. The film accepts that there is nothing Bekir can do about how he feels and that there isn't much Ugur can do about what she feels, but that the film needs to examine the story from Bekir's perspective and understand at the same time Ugur's. By the conclusion it as though they haven't so much grown up as started to grow old. Ugur is now scarred down one cheek, and Bekir's shaved head shows a couple of similar scars on his skull. Here are a couple of characters literally and emotionally wounded by life, and they are like animals finding a quiet place to die though they still look like two people in their twenties, certainly no older than their early thirties. It is a point clearly made when Bekir tells Ugur about someone in the Istanbul neighbourhood who died in an accident and Ugur says he was so young, around their age.
Ugur is now married with a young child, but the husband is elsewhere, after beating and stabbing Ugur after she tried to visit Zagor in jail, and we see the baby lying in the cot. As they talk in conventional shot/counter-shot, we see Bekir glance at the wall and there are two photos, one above the other. The top one shows Zagor and Ugur; the one below Ugur and Bekir - the picture she was looking at the moment before Bekir attempted suicide in the hotel in Konya. Here they now are in the cold, mountainous Kars, near the Armenian/Georgian border, and Bekir tells her how got there. He was feeling an emptiness in his stomach, was missing her immensely and got on the bus. He tells Ugur that she is his faith, and he knew when he got on the coach that he was stepping into another world, but it is this world that has meaning for him, and not the one he could have with his wife and now two children. As he talks the film moves from a shot/counter-shot to Ugur in the foreground out of focus; Bekir a little further away clearly seen. It is a Bergmanesque shot of inextricable human contact no matter how negative happen to be the consequences. The film has turned life inside out, with the family unimportant next to what the characters repeatedly call their destiny. There is Ugur still following Zagor around Turkey, and here is Bekir doing likewise with Ugur. The closing shot of the film is a close-up of Bekir sitting in one room and the door gently opening as we see in the out of focus distance Ugur consoling her daughter as she cries. In another film this might indicate conciliation, but in Demirkubuz's we might wonder what destiny awaits her, after the various tragedies that have befallen the main characters in the film as well as the tragedies of other characters they know.
Demirkubuz's film is less than a hundred minutes long, but has the feeling of transitional magnitude, the ability to pass through years in the characters' lives and make the gaps in them feel like valid time passing and not abrupt leaps from one dramatic sequence to the next. Perhaps the director manages to do so because the images burn with that perceptual intensity which leaves time past always a little in the present too. One of the dangers of films dealing with the passing of time is that not enough of that time past clings to the present for it to seem memorable, even to be remembered, so that the events from the past into the present feel disjointed. Demirkubuz's film aches with the loss of time because it can put into its images the feeling that such time is lost as years in the characters' lives, but is at least contained by the sadness of their memories. This is perhaps finally what the film's slightly aloof approach to its melodramatic story achieves, and why Destiny is such an important if little known work.
© Tony McKibbin