A Servant of Ennui
The importance of Semih Kaplanoglu's trilogy rests chiefly on the last of the three films Honey, a film that focuses on the young boy, Yusuf, whose older self we have already seen in Egg and Milk. Over the course of the three films chronologically the boy will become happier the first film has what could pass for a happy ending. But if we view the films in the order of their making, unhappiness appears more pronounced. At the end of Honey, Yusuf discovers his father has been found dead and he retreats into the forest and into solitude. At the end of Egg, the taciturn poet who now owns a bookshop looks like he might just start seeing a beautiful cousin who clearly likes him.
Yet though Kaplanoglu's trilogy might seem a work of intricate manipulation, like a variation on Gaspar Noe's Irreversible, which over the course of just one film offers a happy ending from the film's point of view as it ends on a pregnancy, but a very unhappy one indeed if we think of the diegesis itself which in reverse-time shows the appalling events that will include rape and murder. The trilogy, however, is instead a work of quiet contemplation, as though wondering what resides in a man of misery, what leads a person to become a poet, what leaves us with a sense of unhappiness not easily overcome.
Yet though the sorrow can be traced to central character Yusuf's childhood, this is also the years of greatest beauty in his life as his father, his mother and Yusuf live in a rambling, typically Turkish wooden abode. He is close to his father and is well-treated by his mother but while Yusuf can read he cannot read aloud. The film explores this inability, alongside a burgeoning sensibility, as if the man we see in the earlier films will produce out of the child that he no longer happens to be the poet that we have not yet seen.
It is also though a work about urbanisation as the father's loss leads Yusuf and the mother to try (in Milk) to make a modest living selling farm produce after the first film showed that the father's death rested on his determination to search out locations for the elusive honey. Much of the misery may come from Yusuf having lost his father but the film indicates as well that many in contemporary Turkey have also lost out on a way of life. Kaplanoglu is not alone in searching out this theme in Turkish cinema, and nobody more than Nuri Bilge Ceylan has so consistently mused over the intertwining of the urban and the rural, from Clouds of May to Winter Sleep, Once upon a Time Anatolia to Distant. Others, like Demi Demirkubuz, have located themselves more clearly in the urban world, finding the tragedy less in the gap between the traditional and the modern than in the way the modern impinges on people's capacity for communication in Confession, Destiny and Fate.
But here we want to focus on Kaplanoglu and specifically Honey. The film's opening sequence is somewhere between a cinema of process (as Colin McArthur once defined it) and a cinema of suspense, even if often the two aren't easily separated. But there are frequently examples of the former without the latter and the latter without the former. In the former instance, someone builds a wall and the filmmaker shows the very process involved. In the latter, someone defuses a bomb. The two come together when the filmmaker shows the very process of the defusing so that we see in detail the deed while also well aware of the suspense. Many a filmmaker has taken advantage of the combination all the better to generate a tension that needn't be based especially in the editing (cross-cutting between one or two aspects of the bomb getting defused while focusing chiefly on the threatened crowd) but on the process itself as there is more than enough suspense in the specific action. Jean-Pierre Melville is a master of such sequences and none more so than in the lengthy jewel heist in The Red Circle. Hitchcock would often be more inclined to work the suspense rather than focus on the process, evident in the marvellous carousel sequence near the end of Strangers on a Train. While he cuts occasionally to the grizzled old man who manages to turn the carousel off from underneath, most of the time the maestro focuses on various other aspects of the sequence including the grapple between Robert Walker and Farley Granger.
The beginning of Honey doesn't seem like a suspense sequence at all as we watch a man in the middle of the forest filmed in a fixed frame long shot that his movements turn into a medium close up. The camera doesn't move as we see him come from the back of the shot towards the camera, and then walks in and out of the frame, setting up the rope that will support him as he will search for honey. Yet when the film cuts to an angle from above that illustrates his vulnerability, before a cut from below showing the risks involved, and then a cut to the branch beginning to give way before a long shot shows Yakup falling through the air, we have shots that would work very well in suspense-oriented narrative. The film then cuts back to the half-broken branch and follows with a close up of Yakup suspended in mid-air. His life is literally on hold and that is exactly where the film leaves him as we cut to the opening credits and follow the lives of this family of three that will lead up to the incident but which Kaplanoglu doesn't again show before the family will learn of his demise near the end of the film. There may have been immense 'suspense' for the family wondering what has happened to him, but hardly at all for the viewer as we know that he will almost certainly be dead.
Thus far we have invoked Noe's Irreversible and Hitchcock's Strangers on a Train to indicate what doesn't seem to interest Kaplanoglu. Noe is a teasing manipulator, someone who quite often wants to play crudely but brilliantly with the viewer's moral and perceptual assumptions all the better to inform people they are watching a movie, most obviously evident in his first feature Seul contra tous, where he offers a thirty-second countdown warning before showing us horrible things. Hitchcock was the master of suspense well aware that the viewer was in his hands because he had made his way into their minds. When he finally reveals that Bates' mother in Psycho is a skeleton, he does so to show us what has been in our head but what he hasn't at any stage shown. The image of the mother has been imagined by us; not shown by Hitchcock as he then reveals her to be long-dead. We don't want to knock manipulation necessarily after all if there is empty manipulation can there not be full manipulation too, and isn't Hitchcock a genius of this full manipulation? And haven't others utilised it since Hitchcock very well for their own ends, from Michael Haneke to Lars von Trier?
However, what might the opposite of manipulation be, and doesn't Kaplanoglu flirt with it? Boredom is the potential risk when a director appears not to generate the devices that engage us. Imagine if in this first sequence the filmmaker had introduced us to the weakness of the branch, shown that though it looked strong we would see, unlike Yakup, that it would be unlikely to hold his weight, then the cinema of process would be very much secondary to the cinema of suspense. But Kaplanoglu isn't afraid of tedium. "There is nothing wrong with a little boredom. As a whole I am interested in finding a rhythm between direction, camera, sound etc." (Qantara) The director here suggests he is less interested in the viewer than in the properties of cinema. Again these needn't be distinct like the cinema of process and the cinema of suspense they can often come together. Nevertheless, if we can differentiate masters of manipulation like Hitchcock, Haneke, von Trier and on occasion Noe, from servants of ennui, including Antonioni, Kiarostami and, perhaps on a less elevated plane, Kaplanoglu, then we can see that the Turkish director wants to undercut suspense rather than generate it. It isn't only evident within the sequence, it is clear in the very construction of the film. In a reversal of Antonioni, but with the same eschewal of suspense, Kaplanoglu turns the father's disappearance into an anxious mystery for the characters but not for the viewer. While Antonioni in L'avventura allowed Anna to disappear from her friends and thus from the story without ever being found, as even her best friend and her lover lose interest in her search, Kaplanoglu makes clear to us what has happened and waits till the end of the film for the family to find out too. In both L'avventura and Honey suspense is ignored even if in the latter the nature of the disappearance is conclusive; in the former an ongoing mystery that the characters get bored with in a cinema that earned Antonioni the nickname 'Antoniennui'.
Let us not spend too much time musing over comparisons between Antonioni and Kaplanoglu, nor say too much about the differences between Kaplanoglu and Hitchcock. All that matters for the moment is that the Turkish director allows himself to risk boredom in his refusal of suspense. There are many reasons why a filmmaker might do so but one of the most significant and perhaps the most obvious is that it can give scenes the perceptual qualities of the real over the generation of tension: it can give to screen space a vivid environment that needn't be absorbed within the exigencies of what might happen next. Even in scenes that might demand it (when the father has an epileptic fit in the forest; when Yusuf can't read without stuttering in class) the tension addressed is less important than the compassion presented, a feeling generated out of a mise-en-scene broader than the need to create tension within it. After all, there is potentially tension aplenty: the father is in the middle of the forest with only his young son close by; the boy is desperate to read out loud and gain the affirmation of his classmates and the badge that awaits him in the goldfish bowel which will acknowledge his accomplishments. But in the first scene, Kaplanoglu emphasises what we might call the felt reality of the vulnerable. The director holds on the long shot of the father collapsed on the ground, the boy standing over him and the horse present. As Yusuf goes to fetch a cupped handful of water, the camera follows him moving in closer before cutting to the boy looking across the stream at a deer. As the boy exits the frame so the camera remains for a moment on the stream in the foreground; the deer in the background. There is no hurry, no suggestion that we should attend to the crisis over a broader compassion that the characters enter and exit like an emotional frame. Equally, when we see first hear Yusuf trying to read out loud there is a tension in the scene that has very little to do with asking whether or not he will be able to manage it but instead what sort of sympathy can the director extract from the sequence.
It is as if in certain scenes of tension there are two poles the achievable and the compassionate. A director might ostensibly appear to care for a character but does so on the basis that we are concerned more with the achievement than the feelings of the character making the attempt. In such instances, the sympathetic is secondary to the suspenseful because we aren't concerned with the given state of the person but the investment we have made in whether the character will succeed or fail. A character might not need to succeed the first time, or even the second, but usually they must succeed eventually otherwise it will seem like a bad investment and the viewer might become disgruntled. Now, this doesn't mean a character has to win but they might instead lose with a dignity that generates a new value even if we might not quite call it compassion. If a well-known film like Rocky and a little known new movie about Inuit Lacrosse players, Grizzlies, share an affinity, and an escape from aggressive competitiveness, it rests on settling for a place halfway along that pole. In Rocky, the title character loses the fight at the end of the first film but the fact that he made it so far is seen as a great achievement. Director John G. Avildsen plays fair to the realism that the film does at least try to practise a realism completely absent by the time of Rocky III and IV.
What matters is that a poor Philadelphian with enough pluck, effort and ambition can get a title shot. In Grizzlies, the Inuit kids who've never played lacrosse in their lives get trained up and manage to raise funds to go to Toronto and play against others. They consistently get hammered and lower their ambitions all they have to do is score just one goal and find an innovative way to do so. The film is well aware that it would be leaving the realm of the relative realism it has set up, as it utilises its Inuit settings, to throw it away on an absurdly optimistic ending. The point is that they find purpose in their lives. Playing Lacrosse gives them that they don't have to be the best as Miranda de Pencier's film balances the compassion towards the characters and the conviction in the deed. But the deed is far from irrelevant as we are pretty sure they will go to Toronto and, once there, will score that much-needed goal. On the pole between the achievable and the compassionate a filmmaker can often modify a viewer's expectation but they are usually careful not to dash them. Honey does indeed willingly do this as it insists on remaining very close to the compassionate end of the pole. When the boy receives a badge like everyone else in the class it isn't because he eventually manages to read without stuttering, it is because the teacher feels that it is the least that can be done since the boy has lost his father.
It is why we have suggested Kaplanoglu is interested in the properties of film over the needs of the audience. It is partly a question of realism that Grizzlies and Rocky also entertain, but we might believe that with Avildsen and de Pencier's films there is a wish to please the audience but a need to resist it. They will be well aware the viewer wants their heroes to succeed but the film has also shown a respect for the realism of milieu and they wouldn't want to lose that respect in wish-fulfilment. Perhaps it is true we would like the boy at the end of the film to read without stuttering but it is as though Kaplanoglu isn't interested in allowing Yusuf even the smallest of achievable victories and allows 'only' a compassionate one. Earlier in the film as Yusuf tries to read out loud the kids laugh after he fails; here they sit and clap. There is no achievement at all to celebrate but compassion to acknowledge. We don't know what the teacher knows or what the other children know. They are surely at least aware that Yusuf's father is missing, but it isn't until the boy returns home that he sees the police informing his mother and others that the body has been found. Whatever the children and the teacher know, they respect a loss (temporary or permanent) even if they cannot admire Yusuf. He hasn't achieved anything at all and earlier in the film this failure elicited laughter. But what interests the director isn't to change the actions of the character but to elicit a different quality from the situation. Returning to our image of the two poles, this often requires a character to kill compassion with achievement: the boy who bloodies the nose of the person who earlier bullied him, or the girl who was laughed at by the richer girls in school but ends the year with the best grades. Kaplanoglu wants instead to elicit the maximum amount of compassion, which is quite different from sentimentality and partly why he is concerned with the properties of the audio-visual rather than the demands of the viewer. One way of looking at this rests on seeing the film as more than the story it tells, so that if it escapes merely telling its story it can find a range of properties which allows for feeling but needn't manipulate it. As Kaplanoglu says, "a leaf is as important as an actor." (BFI) We have already indicated this in the attention to nature over the nature of attention in the film's first sequence. It is there too when Yakup collapses and his son quietly and carefully places water on his face. And it is there again when the boy wins at last the prized red badge. In none of the sequences does the film indicate the urgency of action. In the opening scene, Yakup is stranded and no movement can help him escape from his precarious position as he must wait until he falls to his death. Yusuf gathers water but knows there is little he can do but wait for his father to recover from the attack, and in the third case, Yusuf still cannot read out loud though the others will clap and he will receive a red badge.
But then what are the properties of the image so much greater than the characterisation and narrative aspect we might assume a film to pursue? We may notice from the opening of the film that the human sounds are no more present than the natural ones; the audio field doesn't privilege the human but insists the humanly focused becomes absorbed into a more general audio-visual world. Writing on figure and ground, sound and image, and above all about music in film, Indian filmmaker Mani Kaul says, in an essay, 'The Rambling Figure', "the notion of convergence wherein argument and counter-argument were poised in opposition to each other and fought a battle to reach a point of resolution has, despite the efforts by modern artists and philosophers never since left humanity." Kaul thinks that it runs so deeply in the psyche that many cannot conceive of events outside this framework: "many of the popular screenplay experts are led to believe that the particular shape of narrative is something eternal, handed down from the ancients...(Soundscape) The emphasis has been on human drama rather than the human within the world. But if perception is often generated by advances in thought that can hide certain truths (Kaul's point when he mentions the importance of perspective in western art for example), then sometimes advances in technology can take us further back. When Kaplanoglu says "in today's world, mankind is in great spiritual delusion. Therefore I think that art today needs to remind people even more about these values that we forget," part of the remembering, part of that spiritual realisation, can be invoked in film through advances in sound design. With modern sound equipment, with multi-track possibilities through sound systems like Dolby and Dolby digital. Kaplanoglu takes full advantage of these possibilities, saying: "when I start working on a film, I go to the location I have chosen many times...I pick out all the sound recording prior to writing the script...sometimes it takes about three months for me to have a complete sound design. It is a very important part of my work." (BFI) Whereas Kaul sees that cinemas too often prioritizes the conflictual screenplay over the world filmed, Kaplonoglu insists on giving the world its proper due as he pays attention to the sound design all the better to indicate a world that removes the human from its centre without ignoring the human that gives justification to such terms as humanity and humanism. When we notice that characters can fail but still succceed in films like Rocky and The Grizzlies they must do so within the context of a goal that is modified but that the goal remains of no less importance. Though Honey has two potentially significant narrative events it could set in motion (Yakup's disappearance and Yusuf's inability to read out loud) it instead generates a contemplative feeling that doesn't give undue regard to the possibilities available: the father's disappearance allows for a melancholic atmosphere rather than a frantic search, and while the boy wishes to read out loud in class the film doesn't take this at all as a central focus. The centrality of story gives way to the peripheral nature of the sound, as though the scraping of a chair is equal to a man falling out of a tree. From a certain point of view, this happens to be so, but it is a perspective that cannot easily generate tension and suspense and nor would the director wish it to do so.
It is here we can return to Kaplanoglu as a servant of ennui, with no judgement passed on it is an inferior or superior dimension than that offered by directors who do generate suspense. It all depends on what happens to be served in the process of eliminating or augmenting it. When Haneke introduces a tape that is put through the central characters' door in Hidden, he emphasises the suspenseful and the mysterious few watching the film won't be keen to find out who sent the tapes. Equally, in AntiChrist, von Trier isn't afraid to use basic suspense devices when we wonder what will happen to Willem Dafoe's character after his wife starts to attack and torture him. Here, the directors are playing with cinematic conventions without at all abiding by them: they are useful conceits to explore questions of entitlement in the first instance, grief and hysteria in the second. Haneke wonders what central character Georges will protect and deny in his life; Von Trier continues his ongoing and not unproblematic exploration of female sacrifice into areas of psychosis and vengeance. Our point is only to say that Haneke and von Trier draw upon generic cinema but quickly leave it behind for their own ends. Yet this also gives their films a suspense that indicates they aren't seeking a cinema of ennui. Kaplanoglu openly admits he is interested in a cinema that can incorporate what might usually be seen as the boring, reversing the commonly held assumptions that since life is dull, cinema should be exciting. "Real time should be readjusted to cinematic time. I want the feeling of real time to be transmitted in the film, because in everyday life we feel very little real time." (Camera Lucida). Sure, we're unlikely to have someone drop material through our door with threatening images (Hidden), nor have a wife who comes after us in a mad attack (Antichrist), but our actions however mundane are usually nevertheless purposeful: directed towards getting the shopping, driving home from work, meeting a friend in the pub. Whether work or play, they demand a movement towards a purpose. It is that type of movement Kaplanoglu wishes to still as the sound and image become properties in and of themselves rather than always engaged in reflecting action. In the opening scene, Yakup may be purposeful as he searches for honey, but at this stage we don't know exactly what he is looking for and the director films his actions at one remove from the tension the sequence could easily have generated. By the same reckoning, when Yusuf walks home from school he ostensibly follows a girl from his class, someone he has not long before been listening to reciting a poem without her noticing. But there is no tension in the scene, only a very low-key yearning evident when Yusuf notices she has dropped her hair knot. He picks it up and in the next scene we will see him playing blind-man's buff with it on his own at home. The father may have disappeared but at this stage what Yusuf yearns for is it would seem a girl in his class, a minor crush next to what will become a major loss but there is no irony in the sequence even if we more or less know, as Yakup doesn't, that his father has lost his life. It is a cliche to say we need to live in the present but is it not true that many a film puts us in an anticipatory future, expecting a plot to develop? Kaplanoglu, however, sees cinema isn't the means by which to generate anticipation but to allow for deep contemplation. He says, "yet in the end there is death. Now, what reminds us of death and what we call time is the main material of cinema, and the way we use it is an issue of moral concern. In my view cinema should be like a prayer, a meditation. It should be slow enough to allow the audience to feel the inner aspect of life and to see beyond outer appearances." (BFI)
Is there a contradiction here between an interest in the properties of cinema and Kaplanoglu invoking the audience? Perhaps, but one way of resolving it is to differentiate the audience from the viewer. The audience is an abstract entity often deemed to have expectations the filmmaker ought to meet; the viewer is instead the individual the filmmaker creates in the images he offers. Something of the ambivalence towards the problem we find in the director's claim that "the fact that I am producer of my own films also gives me an advantage here, or let us say it provides a certain ambivalent situation in which I am at liberty not to think about the audience that I am directing the film for. As a filmmaker, the bigger the audience I can reach, the better. But it is the films that matter." (BFI) Yet how do we differentiate between the audience and the viewer? One way would be to think again of masters of suspense versus servants of ennui but also to see that directors like Haneke and von Trier are much close to Kaplanoglu in their respect for the viewer rather than in their need for an audience. When Haneke and von Trier incorporate into their work the tense sequences that are common enough in other directors' films, they do so all the better to violate the narrative expectations they set up. They insist on the individuated viewer just as Kaplanoglu seeks the viewer he can call his own as well. To explain precisely how Haneke and von Trier do so would for another essay but hopefully we have gone some way to describing how Kaplanoglu works, how he wishes "to make films that express various levels of meaning and that can be interpreted differently by different people according to their own lives, origins, or where they happen to live geographically." (Qantara)
However, to make our point clear let us look at a brief sequence which hints at suspense but promptly denies it as the film sinks back into its much more despondent state. Near the end of the film, as the mother cooks dinner, Yusuf keeps switching the light on and off. He turns it on and we see the mother cooking by the stove; turns it off again and then he switches it on once more as she is sitting serving food. The light is switched off again and when it is switched on we see she has turned it back on and the boy is now sitting at the table. She switches it off and on again several times. When the light is off all we see in the shot is the stove burning in the corner, its orange flame failing to illuminate any of the space surrounding it. When the light is switched on we can make out the water jug, the chairs, pots in the stove, plates on the table and a few other things. But the lighting remains partial even with the light on as the director offers a still life within life, determined to find in the world the luminosity that gets distributed with the aide of natural light and house electricity as Kaplanoglu insists "I use no artificial lighting" (BFI). While they sit and eat, there is a faint sound and Yusuf and his mother are startled with hope. Is this Yakup returning home but no, as Yusuf goes outside to check, out of frame, when he returns it is clear it was just the cat we heard miaowing before he comes back in. Here the film offers a variation of the achievement/compassion we discussed earlier. It seems to instigate suspense and then, instead, demands compassion not least because we more or less know that Yakup is dead and that rather than sharing the false optimism of mother and son, we offer the compassion of one understanding the horrible hope that they are living with and its dashed likelihood. There is no manipulation as there would be if we didn't know as they don't. Instead, it is one of many moments of compassion in the film that asks us less to identify with the characters (the opening sequence creates the distance which makes this unlikely) than contemplate a predicament. In this scene one notices the means by which Kaplanoglu captures the chronicle of a loss cinematically foretold, doing so by carefully framing a mother and son's imminent grief. We are grieving for them before they get to grieve for themselves. This is why we talk of compassion rather than suspense.
Seeing the film within the context of the trilogy there can be no suspense in the father's disappearance: the earlier films have made it clear that the boy's father is no longer alive. That death moves the family out of the countryside and into a town, and then, eventually, leads to Yusuf becoming a published poet running a bookshop in the city. We might wonder what is the purpose of this reverse chronology, what leads Kaplanoglu to go back to the boy's childhood rather than forward towards his more recent poetic success? But as Egg makes clear, Yusuf isn't especially happy, hasn't written for a while, and would seem to be suspicious of achievement. Better, the director seems to say, to move backwards to indicate not the narrative power of ambition but instead the creative needs of the poetic. By ending the trilogy on the boy's boyhood, Kaplanoglu manages also to suggest that the purpose of a life isn't at all to succeed but to find in it the means by which we have come to be the self we happen to occupy, aware that it is a self in this instance made out of the varied sounds of nature and natural light. It is a self of contemplation rather than action, as though understanding moves backwards not forwards, that action may be the means by which we get through our day but cannot be the means by which we comprehend our lives.
© Tony McKibbin