The Edge of Heaven
After Almodrama, what about Inarruturama and Akinrama? The latter two don't quite trip off the tongue as smoothly as Almodovarian melodrama does, but Alejandro Gonzalez Innaratu and Fatih Akin seem to have taken Pedro Almodovar's kind of contingent contrivances and removed the humour and injected the portentous. Inarratu's approach to narrative form in Amores Perros, 21 Grams and Babel, has been to show that contingent events have knock on effects, that car crashes and misdirected bullets can generate narrative tension as readily as the Aristotelian idea of a strong character with a clear goal. This is partly due to the non-diegetic (extra-narrational) aspect of narrative over its diegetic equivalent, and can in fact return us to Aristotle's differentiation between story and plot. The story is the chronological unfolding of narrative event; the plot the order in which the artist chooses to deliver that unfolding. What we notice in Almodovar, especially in Inarratu, and now in Fatih Akin's The Edge of Heaven, is the degree to which melodrama isn't eschewed, but is instead non-diegetically revelatory as opposed to diegetically revealed.
To explain further we'll take an example from Akin's film. Early on we're following the story of Nejat's young professor at Hamburg University and at one stage during what seems like a dullish lecture in a two thirds empty lecture hall, we notice a student at the back asleep. After various events Nejat decides to give up his teaching job and to take over a German bookshop in Istanbul - the country from whence his family came. Is part of the reason why he can so readily give up his teaching post due to the young woman asleep during his lecture? As we watch him dutifully lecturing on Goethe's thoughts on revolution, we might believe this is hardly scintillating stuff, but it is the girl's sleeping that signifies its dullness. Yet later in the film, after we've folded back in time to follow another character's story, it turns out the young woman, Ayten, is asleep because she's basically homeless. She's a young woman who's on the run from the Turkish police and has escaped to Germany.
Here the revelation isn't chronologically, diegetically expositional, it is non-diegetically revealing. It reveals not due to character but despite character. At this moment in the non-chronological plot, it tells us something of which the characters are ignorant. At that moment narratively the characters cannot know that they are looking for each other (even though we in the audience, because of the play with time, know they should). From Ayten's point of view she cannot know spatially. She is looking for her mother, Yeter, with whom she's barely in touch, and does not know that she has taken up with Nejat's father, Ali, in Bremen. He cannot know temporally. Soon he will hear of Yeter's death, and try to track down her daughter whom he will assume is living in Istanbul. If Ayten had known where her mother was, and if he knew that the mother was soon to die, then of course there would be no problem (they could have saved her life) but this isn't so much dramatic, or tragic irony - where for example Oedipus sleeps with his mother without knowing it is she - because it isn't even as if, as in Oedipus, the temporal coordinates are in place to know. Even if in Oedipus we know what the characters don't know, we know it in such a way that the characters could also know it: a birthmark for example could have revealed to his mother she was sleeping with Oedipus and the incest could have been averted. It is still diegetic because the character could know but they are simply blind to the situation. In The Edge of Heaven it is not simply that the characters are blind to the situation, but that the situation hasn't yet fully taken place. Chronologically Yeter is not yet dead, so there is no reason why Nejat should seek her daughter out even as her daughter is sitting asleep in his lecture hall.
It is true that the spatial irony in relation to Ayten is more obviously classically ironic than Nejat's happens to be, but the ironic dimensions to this scene feel, for better or worse, very contemporary. It seems consistent with Wendy Everett's claims that, in an article in Studies in European Cinema, "it is my contention that in their exploration of the simultaneity and complexity of the postmodern world, at least a proportion of contemporary films are responding to new scientific discoveries in ways that foreground a new narrative and spatial awareneness based on multiplicity, simultaneity and fragmentation." This suggests, at least, that a different problematic is being addressed. Where Oedipus Rex would seem to work with the fatalistic - is Oedipus's fate not offered by the Oracle? - a film like The Edge of Heaven functions off the contingent.
But if we accept that this is true we might also add that there are strong contingencies and weak contingencies, moments that create spatial flavour; others that generate narrative force and still others that seem in between. An example of spatial flavour comes early in the film when Nejat's father, Ali, walks along the street and looks at the prostitutes in the basement plying their trade. When he chooses Yeter, we know that the others have been there simply to fill out the spatial necessity of having a street full of prostitutes. Something in between, though, would be the two Muslim heavies who overhear Yeter speaking to Ali in Turkish, and, after he leaves, tells her to be a good Muslim and to stop selling her body. Later again they catch up with her on the bus and say the same thing. Now we should remember that the film is presented in three chapters, and so we know that the chapter heading preceding these incidents has been "Yeter's Death". Surely we would be led to surmise that these aren't incidental to the plot but central to its thrust. As it so happens though it is Ali who kills her as he hits her in a fit of jealousy after she's gone to live with him on giving up prostitution. Ali's willing to support her, he says, if she sleeps exclusively with him. The two heavies have done nothing more than help her to realize that she should give up selling her body en masse, and settle for giving it to one man only. They are finally weakly contingent rather than strongly contingent - more important to the narrative thrust than the prostitutes we see working the same street as Yeter, but they could have been erased from the story without any dramatic change taking place.
However, Ayten's meeting with Lotte is strongly contingent, a moment that immensely impacts on the narrative. Shortly after falling asleep in Nejat's lecture, Ayten's standing outside the university and asks a young woman if she can borrow three marks for lunch. Lotte says she only has ten, and they end up eating together in the canteen, hanging out together, and eventually becoming lovers. Catherine Wheatley in Sight and Sound may say "...in a film that sees a homeless Turk approach a stranger for cash and receive not only a meal but board and bed (a shared one, no less) it is clear that authenticity matters less than optimism..." But it hardly seems especially inauthentic if the Turkish girl is very pretty and the German girl gay: it seems entirely possible and is in fact consistent with that strongest of contingencies in Hollywood cinema: meeting cute - the contingent moment that first brings a couple together.
What we want to explore here is how much contemporary narrative maximises contingency and gets away with it, taking into account scriptwriting manual's advice that "whenever possible, strive to avoid coincidence, especially if it isn't basic and formative." (How to Build a Great Screenplay) The Edge of Heaven is full of coincidence. We have the formative and basic coincidence of Ali choosing Yeter. We have Ali hitting Yeter and her falling in such a way that she dies. Then there is Ayten meeting Lotte. Then, later, we have Lotte's bag stolen by street kids after she's retrieved a gun from where Ayten left it more than a year before, and the kids taking the gun out of the bag and killing Lotte with it. We have Lotte coincidentally renting a room from Nejat after she goes into his bookshop to check out a book. There is a lot of coincidence in The Edge of Heaven, then, and, what is more, strong coincidence, coincidence that impacts forcefully on the film. But there are weak coincidences too which play up the sense of chance in our lives. For example, in one scene we see both Nejat and Yeter on a bus while Lotte and Ayten drive by in a car. This is the second chapter, "Lotte's Death", so that we know narratively that Yeter's been killed, but chronologically she is still alive because this second story allows us to fold back in time. Here Ayten is looking for her mother, and we see them pass each other but oblivious to each others' presence. If they had noticed each other would Yeter still be alive? Later in the film after Lotte's death, her mother Susanne goes to Istanbul, and at the airport who do we see in the same shot but Ali, who is also going to Istanbul after being released from prison: having briefly been sentenced for the accidental death of Yeter.
In each instance nothing comes of these weak coincidences, and it is as though in this type of fractal filmmaking (to use Everett's term) we have a mixture of strong, weak and, if you like, red herring coincidences to show up a world working as much off chance as narrative expectation. When for example David Howard in How to Build a Great Screenplayreckons the writer should avoid obvious coincidences, he seems to be talking chiefly of the sort of scenes that make it too easy for all concerned. "If your hero paints himself into a corner and only then discovers there's an unlocked door conveniently waiting for him there, we'll reject the coincidence as being too easy on the character." Is a filmmaker entitled to a greater number of coincidences if they are neither easy on the character, nor always easy on the viewer. If for example a relatively sympathetic character like Ali hits Yeter and she falls down, knocks her head and dies, this is slightly different from the goodie hitting the baddie and the baddie instantly dying in the same way that Yeter meets her end. Pessimistic chance seems more earned than optimistic coincidence. By the same token contingent moments where nothing comes from the moment of contingency again appears more acceptable than chance encounters that lead to the concrete. Thus the examples here where the characters pass in the car while other characters on the bus, or Ali and Susanne at the airport, are acceptable because while they add to a sense of loss and the idea of the fleeting encounter, they don't work in relation to plot mechanics. So though the film is, when we take into account the number of chance encounters, the number of strong and weak coincidences, melodramatic, this is subdued melodrama: it seems to be pursuing something other than a melodramatic through line.
A useful way of exploring this further is to deviate from Akin's film for a while and look at two classic melodramas by Douglas Sirk, Magnificent Obsession, which ends optimistically, and Imitation of Life, which ends pessimistically. In each instance however the through line is melodramatic; where the through line in The Edge of Heaven is meditative. For example Magnificent Obsession may have fewer coincidences than The Edge of Heaven but they are decidedly narratively deterministic: in other words every coincidence must pay off categorically, as we'll propose with a bit of plot description.
At the beginning of Magnificent Obsession Rock Hudson's Bob Merrick utilises vital medical equipment after recklessly crashing his boat at the same time Jane Wyman's husband needs the same equipment. The husband dies, Hudson survives, and Hudson shows signs of guilt. As he tries to help Wyman he nevertheless ends up being responsible for her getting run over by a car and thus consequently losing her eyesight. Months afterwards Hudson helps befriend her as a stranger called Rob Robinson. After she finds out who he really is she doesn't hate him; she decides however that it is not fair that he should marry her out of what she perceives is his sense of guilt. She leaves the next morning and for years he can't find her. In the meantime he returns to the medical studies that in earlier years he was too lazy to complete, and once again gets news of Wyman. It turns out she needs a vital operation, and there is nobody to do it except Hudson. He operates and not only returns her to health, but he also helps her regain her eyesight.
We've chosen to pile-drive the narrative here to give some sense of the coincidences at work and how the film engineers them in such a way that the viewer feels the hoariness as much because of the through line as the coincidences as such. It is a coincidence that both the husband and Hudson need the same equipment at the same time, and it is a coincidence that Wyman gets run over. It also is a coincidence that the very operation Wyman needs at the end of the film can be done by Hudson who has luckily completed his medical studies and can thus perform it. Overall there are still far fewer coincidences in the film than in The Edge of Heaven, but they are all strong coincidences, undiluted by weaker ones.
To help us explain the difference between Sirkian melodrama and Akinrama, we can usefully invoke Paul Auster who has talked about chance in his work by saying "chance is a part of reality, we are continually shaped by the forces of coincidence, the unexpected occurs with almost numbing regularity in all our lives." The question is how does it enter and exit our existence, and this is where Sirk remains a melodramatic director because it enters and exits strongly, and if we're inclined to take Imitation of Life more seriously than Magnificent Obsession - beyond the rather more evolved mise-en-scene - then it resides in our second get-out clause for melodramatic coincidence: the pessimism of the film.
In Imitation of Life, Lana Turner and her black maid first meet coincidentally after Turner's daughter goes missing, and Turner finds her playing with the maid's child. The maid's more or less homeless and becomes Turner's maid while Turner herself struggles to find employment. The widowed Turner, the maid whose white lover ran off before her daughter was born, and the two kids share a small New York apartment while Turner starts to become a major actress. Another coincidence takes place when Turner becomes successful after an agent who's unsuccessfully and lecherously tried to seduce her gives her a phone when a playwright friend sees her picture in an advert and wants her for a role in a play. It looks like after she takes the part that she's going to be fired when she questions the dialogue she is meant to mouth, and while others tell her she is sacked, the writer admires the way she defends her character and stands up to him and gives her a better role still.
The coincidences in the film must pay off, and it is partly that they do so which gives Sirk's films their narrative tightness, even, in the case of Imitation of Life, their tragic dimension. For at the end of the film the maid dies, and her daughter who, trying to pass herself off as white, had told her mother she wanted nothing to do with her some time before, arrives after the funeral. As the coffin has been loaded into the hearse, so the daughter comes running through the crowds of people who've turned up for her mother's funeral (she was loved and respected by everyone except her daughter it transpires), and is distraught. She insists she basically killed her mother, and, due to the film's cause and effectually tight narrative, we might be inclined to agree. After the mother tracked her down some time before to a club the daughter was working in, her daughter tells her she never wants to see her again. The mother accepts her daughter's request, and then slowly deteriorates. The daughter's hyperbole is met by the film's determined narrative drive, and if she is consoled by Turner is it not because Turner herself has reasons for guilt? Turner after all has risen from unemployed actress to huge star and this results, as her daughter had earlier told her, in borderline neglect as a mother?
Thus what our digression on Sirkian melodrama allows us to pinpoint is how strong coincidences also lend themselves to strong endings, for unequivocally melodramatic conclusions that bring together all the strong coincidences and central conflicts (maid/daughter, Turner/daughter) along the way. Both Magnificent Obsession and Imitation of Life are strong melodramas, but the former we might find risibly upbeat, the latter despairing: it works through its theme of neglect by allowing its strong coincides to bring out its tragic dimension. How does Akin make a melodrama (the title could easily have been Sirk's) which nevertheless by the conclusion offers a very different ending no matter if it also at its heart a central conflict familial problem between a son and his father?
As we've suggested, not least by utilising as many weak coincidences as strong ones, by foretelling the story in titles informing us of a character's impending death, and having a narrative form that folds back on itself to slow down the narrative pace. For example after Yeter dies the film is interested less in melodramatic intensification than, as we've suggested, melodramatic irony. With melodramatic intensity we might have expected the son to have found Yeter dead, the father now on the run, and the son determined to find him. But what Akin does is allow each episode of melodrama to fade back into low key drama, so that the father is promptly imprisoned, Yeter's body taken back to Turkey, and Nejat gives up his job in Germany and looks to take over the bookshop in Istanbul.
This is also where the folded back narrative helps; rather than increasing the film's pace it allows it to slow down by re-identification. We don't get lost in Nejat's story, with either his anger towards his father, or even his quest to find Yeter's daughter. Instead the film if you like re-dramatizes as it folds back to tell Ayten's story, a story taking place at the same time in Turkey as her mother's relationship takes place in Germany, though at this stage we might assume it is consecutive. But someone might argue is this not what happens in Sirkian melodrama as well: doesn't Sirk shift our sense of perspective also? In Magnificent Obsession for example the film seems equally about Wyman and Hudson, but at a certain point Wyman disappears from the narrative and we follow Hudson becoming a doctor and not Wyman's disappearing act? In Imitation of Life Turner's story fades away and the maid's becomes more central in the last act. This is true, and yet for at least two reasons the approach is very different. The first is temporal: Sirk's films work chronologically, so that even if near the end of Magnificent Obsession the film follows Hudson rather than Wyman, it does so with no temporal shift. Secondly, it follows the path of most melodramatic intensity - it follows the narrative drive. It follows Hudson's determined search for Wyman, and then his equal determination in becoming a hard-working and successful doctor.
Again, we might say in The Edge of Heaven that the film shifts from Nejat to Ayten because Ayten's escape from the Turkish police is more exciting than Nejat's search for her. But this finally seems less about narrative drive than, to use Wendy Everett's term, "the architecture of complexity". This is a sort of lateralization of melodrama that replaces drive with context, that fills out the context of the world more than it pushes narrative forward. When the film moves from Nejat to Ayten's story, certainly we're thrown into the thick of things as Ayten gets chased by the police, yet this seems less an issue of narrative drive (no matter the drivenness of this particular scene) than working with a certain melodramatic irony.
There is Ayten chased through the streets by the police while at apparently the same time Nejat is also searching for Ayten. So though we have the relative excitement of the chase, at the same time it is contained by our belief that Nejat is also looking for her, and then later in the film there is a further irony in that temporally Ayten wouldn't have been looking for her at this time - chronologically the mother is not yet dead. This, then, is the architecture of complexity as much if not more than it is the melos of the melodramatic where, in Thomas Elsaesser's words: "In its dictionary sense, melodrama is a dramatic narrative in which musical accompaniment marks the emotional effects. This is still perhaps the most useful definition, because it allows melodramatic elements to be seen as constituents of a system of punctuation, giving expressive colour and chromatic contrast to the story line by orchestrating the emotional ups and downs of the intrigue." (Film Theory and Criticism) Later in the article 'Tales of Sound and Fury', Elsaesser says something that resonates with the fashion for fractal filmmaking when he talks of melodrama and two of its key fifties exponents, "Minnelli and Sirk are exceptional directors in this respect, not least because they handle stories with four, five, or sometimes six characters all tied up in a single configuration, and yet gives each of them an even thematic emphasis and an independent point of view." This undeniably chimes with network narratives, where there is a certain virtuosity in maximizing the number of leading characters - twenty four in Short Cuts' case, around six to eight in Magnolia, Paul Haggis's Crash, and Code inconnu.
Yet the term contingency would seem to have little place in fifties melodrama, and central to takes on such films, by Elsaesser and also Geoffrey Nowell-Smith in 'Minnelli and Melodrama', is the bourgeoisification and repression involved: as Nowell-Smith reckons, "the address is from one bourgeois to another bourgeois and the subject matter is the life of the bourgeoisie." From this point of view how could contingency play much of a role? Traditional melodrama would seem (no matter the coincidence of maid and Turner befriending each other at the beginning of Imitation of Life) to work off the claustrophobic; fractal cinema off contingent interconnection. As Everett says, "the chance events that structure each film [Code Inconnu, Short Cuts etc.] are played out in relation to the concept of the network, in acknowledgement of the fact that we live in a connected world." This seems an antithetical statement to Nowell-Smith's above.
If, then, in Hollywood melodrama we have bourgeois critique, in the fractal film melodrama is undermined partly due to social complexity. A bourgeois critique would only cover one aspect of a contingent world, and Short Cuts remains perhaps the key fractal text not least due to its range of social possibilities. From the working class Fred Ward to the upper middle class TV presenter played by Bruce Davison, from waitress Lily Tomlin to well known Jazz singer Annie Ross, the film proposes less social entrapment than social encroachment: the way lives bleed into each other and create states of indeterminacy and confusion. For example the overworked baker played by Lyle Lovett gets angry with Andie MacDowell's mother, not knowing that she hasn't picked up the cake she's ordered for her son's birthday because he's been lying in a coma. Then there is Chris Penn slowly feeling he is losing credence as his wife makes a bit of money offering phone sex. As he watches her change the baby's nappy he notices how their domestic life is being violated as Jennifer Jason Leigh coos at her baby at the same time she offers sexual details down the phone to the excited customer at the other end.
Akin's world is one that simultaneously absorbs melodrama and at the same time cannot expect to work tightly within it: in some ways narrative and society has 'moved on'. What he wants to offer is more encroachment rather than entrapment, as if the bourgeoisie's fear lies less in finding themselves trapped within their existence, than fearful of encroaching possibilities. We can see this clearly in relation to Susanne, Lotte's mother. When Lotte takes Ayten back to her mum's house and says she can stay, we notice a house that seems accommodating and a mother much less so. The house suggests someone who is open to the world and has perhaps furnished it through her visits to other parts of that world (later we find out that in the mid-seventies she passed through Istanbul on her way to India), yet the hippy ethos in the house isn't quite shared by the mother - who is suspicious and doubting. Susanne wouldn't especially feel trapped - there is the suggestion that in the past she's been quite adventurous. Akin of course suggests that may be so in the past, but her present seems much more stultifying, and it is Akin's purpose to shake up life by the ontingencies of encroachment.
Thus the mother ends up after her daughter is killed returning to Istanbul for the first time since the mid-seventies, and becomes absorbed once again in another style of life. This is really exactly what happens to Nejat as well - he goes in search of Yeter's daughter, pops into a bookshop, likes the feel of the place and gives up his job in Germany to run the shop in Istanbul. In each instance this is less melodramatic insistence, less repressed and confined characters needing escape (much melodramatic criticism utilises Freud and Marx), than characters for whom a chance encounter alters their lives.
So just as we've proposed the contemporary fractal melodrama actually eschews much of the melodramatic, and works more with the problem of encroachment over repression, so Akin wants to show us repositioning over release. When for example Fassbinder remade Sirk's All that Heaven Allows as Fear Eats the Soul, he wanted to suggest the degree to which the cleaner Emmi's escape from social convention was an escape, was a complete cultural volte face as she took up with a black immigrant worker she meets in a bar, and thus held to the tropes of melodrama but pushed further the critique. Akin is interested instead in subtle shifts in consciousness, so that the characters aren't especially repressed, nor want total liberation, but instead realize they want something from life other than what they thus far assumed they wanted.
It is this that partly explains again the eschewal of the melodramatic as Akin generally goes for realist colour over expressionist colour. Certainly the early scenes in Yeter's prostitute abode, and later ones in Susanne's hotel in Istanbul, utilise rich reds, but usually Akin searches out the undetermined found realities. These are found realities that can absorb a character rather than radically transform them: one of the key elements in Todd Haynes' faithfully Sirkian fifties set Far From Heaven lay in the colour scheme: the degree to which we sensed the characters trapped in a universe of oppressively rich colour. This is a colour scheme that, though the film's colour arc allowed the colours to become more muted as the film went on, still never became naturalistic enough to allow the characters to live in a real world rather than a preconceptually stifling one. This isn't to say Haynes wanted a symbolic style to express the characters' feelings, especially; more that he wanted a visual universe from which the characters couldn't readily escape. Akin's naturalistic use of colour and the lived in feel of the interiors (especially Susanne's house) hardly suggest the graphic melodrama beloved of Sirk in his (mainly colour) fifties films.
Here we can think of the ending that yet again undermines the melodramatic. There Nejat is sitting on the shore of the Black Sea waiting to see the father whom he'd earlier disowned. This is an ending that is clearly reflective rather than melodramatic, and surely fits into the tenor of the film in a way that a melodramatic ending would not. Like Akin's previous film, Head On (which still played on the melodrama of repression through the Muslim character trying to escape familial oppressiveness), the director seems to want melodramatic moments over a melodramatic tone, for what he offers is less repression released than a series of healthy encroachments that may leave two of its six leading characters dead, but at the same time leaves the four still living with a permeating sense of well-being, a permeation indicative less of melodramatic collision than fractal possibility.
© Tony McKibbin