Pure Cinema: New Films by Celan, Zonca and Jarmusch
It's not that I'm indifferent to the new Star Trek movie--I'm so keyed up about it, I can scarcely type, what with my fingers locked in a Vulcan salute--but as the deadline for this article approaches, Paramount has not yet invited me to a screening, so I can't tell you on which notch the picture's been set: stun, kill or fizz. What to do? I suppose I'll have to report that the most exciting new film I've actually seen is a hand-crafted, microbudget production featuring four no-name actors speaking Turkish.
Although the doom of the art house lies upon it, this adventuresome film is presented in CinemaScope format, deploys special effects throughout (that is, postproduction adjustments to the photography) and draws you into many strange and mind-altering spaces--so it's not entirely unlike a science-fiction blockbuster.
There's even a thematic link to Star Trek, which (according to the trailer) has something to do with a young man's sense of responsibility toward his father. So, too, does Nuri Bilge Ceylan's Three Monkeys--although here the comparisons end. The crosscurrents of debts and evasions, guilty secrets and frustrated desires are so dense among all of Ceylan's characters that they seem to generate an atmosphere of their own: an envelope of heavy clouds shot through with electrical discharges, hanging over an alien world where we all happen to live.
Call it Istanbul. On the outskirts, overlooking the railroad tracks and a sea busy with freighters, stands the stalk of an isolated old apartment building, about five stories tall and one room deep. Here, edging past one another, live a handsome middle-aged woman named Hacer (Hatice Aslan), her layabout late-adolescent son, Ismail (Ahmet Rifat Sungar), and her thick-bodied, gravely mustached husband, Eyüp (Yavuz Bingöl), who works as a driver for a political figure. The family can go up to the roof to watch storms gather or maybe contemplate jumping. They can eat lunch at a table jammed against the window and ignore the framed view of the sea, which resembles a picture postcard of a place they won't visit, though they're already there. They can spy on one another. (It can't be avoided.) And they can experience the change in atmosphere, inside and out, when the husband is subtracted from this place and then returns, almost a year later, having made a sacrifice for Hacer and Ismail--or perhaps having made a sacrifice of them.
Eyüp has accepted a bargain that was offered, or demanded, by his boss Servet (Ercan Kesal), who at the start of Three Monkeys has killed a man in a hit-and-run accident and thinks that with the elections coming up, it's not an auspicious moment to turn himself in. If Eyüp will take the blame for him, Servet will continue to pay his salary and then will provide a large cash bonus upon his release from jail. An outrageous proposition, semi-feudal in tone, made by a man who has the head of Mussolini and the bluster to match; and Eyüp, who's been roused from his bed before dawn, scarcely hesitates before nodding his creased and weary face.
It's as if he'd given in beforehand. Over the next months, in his absence, Eyüp's wife and son will struggle not to be such pushovers.
But as Ceylan knows, the decisive acts in our lives are often the ones we don't carry out: the brushoff that Hacer doesn't give Servet, the insistent cellphone call that she doesn't answer, the prison visit that Ismail doesn't make, the familial violation that he doesn't confront. To an astonishing degree, Three Monkeys is made up of such non-occurrences, which Ceylan has a freakish talent for converting into endlessly sustained moments of intense drama. The violence in his characters' lives, though omnipresent, has always already happened or is only now about to occur. You see it on the living room floor, in drops of blood that have fallen from Ismail's injured hand (the injury unexplained, the blood unmentioned), or on the kitchen counter, in a knife that is trembling in the breeze, literally, as if demanding to be used. And when Eyüp returns, sex too is deferred, and threatened, and made indistinguishable from the potential for murder, in a breathtakingly protracted scene that keeps two characters on top of each other, and the camera on top of the actors, and you on top of the customer in the row ahead.
What is it about Three Monkeys that pulls you out of yourself? The answer, which marks this film as pure cinema, is "Everything at once." Where other directors might set the scene with an establishing shot, Ceylan uses sound. Where others would use sound to fill out the emotional volume of a sequence, Ceylan uses editing. And where others would introduce a car crash, Ceylan holds the camera steady on Hatice Aslan's face and lets her show you the light going out of her eyes. There isn't an element, a gesture, a moment of Three Monkeys that doesn't lock in with the others and feel true--even when the emphatically real environment of the movie turns other-worldly and the atmosphere of the family apartment becomes even thicker with the addition of a ghost.
This film is set on "stun."