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DVD Review: Climates

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2006’s Climates (Iklimler, literally Weather Conditions) is the third film of Turkish director and screenwriter Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s that I’ve seen, and it is the first one in which he has starred in as an actor. Each of the films has gotten better than its predecessor, and, since his previous film, Distant, touched greatness, Climates had its work cut out for it; but it succeeded.

That stated, many critics who compare the film’s style and characterizations to those of the films of Michelangelo Antonioni, at his height, are only seeing superficial resemblances. Yes, both directors used long shots that feature landscapes prominently, and Ceylan’s cinematographer, Gokhan Tiryaki, works wonders with the camera; but Ceylan is interested, to a far greater extent than Antonioni, in the inner human landscapes of the psyche.

Antonioni’s films had protagonists which were never allowed to open up to the viewer. They were all surface, and no depth. And I mean that not in a bad way. Antonioni saw humans as props to explore deeper terrains, that which was transhuman. Ceylan does not. He is interested in the fundamentally human, and in this manner, he far more resembles the work of Greek filmmaker Theo Angelopoulos than Antonioni, although all three filmmakers have a definitive Mediterranean visual sensibility.

The screenplay of this film is one of its strong points, but it is not a classically great screenplay, in the sense that it tells all. The basic tale is this: a college professor named Isa (played by the director) is involved with a much younger female lover, Bahar (Ebru Ceylan, the director’s real life wife).

The film opens with them on vacation, touring some of Turkey’s Greco Era ruins. Isa is also a photographer, and plans to use the photos in his thesis. Bahar is involved in a Turkish television series, and blows with the wind. She is flighty, and reminds me much of the character Flyn, played by Kristin Griffith, in Woody Allen’s 1978 film drama, Interiors. She is vain, selfish, haughty, easily bored, and wrapped up too much into herself. She loathes her lover, and has dreams that he is out to harm her. But Isa’s no prize, either. He is vain, materialistic, lazy, and selfish. While visiting friends on the Aegean coast, they break up. On the way back to Istanbul, Bahar nearly kills them both when she covers Isa’s eyes as they ride his motorcycle. The middle of the film follows Isa through his new bachelorhood, as he rapes, or has rough sex with (it’s not clear), an old flame named Serap (Nazan Kesal), and comes closer to dealing with his own personal flaws.

But then the film reaches its climax, as months pass, when he flies to eastern Turkey, during winter, and begs Bahar to take him back. She refuses, and he flies away, as Bahar is left to look at his plane overhead, as snow falls down straight into the camera. Manifold interpretations can be made of the film, its use of symbolism, and so forth, but it is technically a superb film. Each succeeding film has seen Ceylan able to use more money on his films, and he does not waste any of it.

The film is a visual treat, and the acting is top notch; yet, the paradox is that neither of the main characters is remotely likeable, and that both are so repugnant would seem to make them a perfect match; save for the fact that people rarely are attracted to people who share their own flaws. Ceylan does not overtly give much in the film, in the way of dialogue, nor in the way of setting up predictable scenes. As example, when Isa begs for Bahar to return to him, it is in a van where people keep interrupting their conversation to get or return television equipment. It provides relief, to an extent, from the potential melodrama of the moment, but it also humanizes the scene. Compare this to many of the serious films of Ingmar Bergman (another director to whom Ceylan is oft compared), and you will see that Ceylan has already surpassed Bergman in this sort of realism.

It is also in scenes like this that Ceylan dashes many of the film’s critics’ claims that his characters cannot be related to. This simply is not so. We have all met and known Isas and Bahars. The reality is that most people do not like such people. But, liking someone, and understanding them are two different things, although often they are conflated. Another criticism of Ceylan is that "with all his visual brilliance, (Ceylan) primarily makes festival films — beautiful, but more invested in the world of art than in life itself." In short, the bad critics fall back on that worst and eternally debunked claim, that all art is (and must be) political, and by focusing on higher things, Ceylan is, in effect, delimiting his art.

Nonsense. He is, instead, freeing and universalizing it. As I stated, we all know Isas and Bahars; and this is precisely because Ceylan does not ground his work in the ephemera of politics. What would a viewer care, in 20 years, of the internal political milieu of Turkey, in regards to pensions or health care? But in 200 years, humans will still be able to instantly recognize the looks of hatred and apathy (often simultaneous) that the two leads give to each other. Ceylan, in fact, has said, "In real life we always lie, so dialogue doesn't carry so much information." This is why his visuals are so important.

The DVD, put out by Zeitgeist Films, includes some nice extras, and shows the hour and 45-minute film in a 1.85:1 aspect ratio. There are interviews with Ceylan, in English, and with his wife and co-star Ebru Ceylan, in Turkish. There is a making of documentary on the film, but it is mostly behind the scenes shots and outtakes. There is no thread that ties the shots together and lets one know the processes that shaped the film. There is also the original U.S. theatrical film trailer, and a feature on the film’s cast and crew at the Cannes Film Festival. There is also, in the DVD insert booklet, a reprinting of New York Times film reviewer Manohla Dargis’s review. The DVD also features English subtitles, in white, which, thankfully, don’t distract too much from the film. There are a number of spelling errors, though, but they are minor, such as ‘though’ for ‘thought.’

Yet, the film succeeds because it is great on many levels: the writing, the visuals, the acting, and even the editing, especially of aural techniques. There are a number of scenes where the audio of a coming scene starts the bridge from the video of the current scene. This is best seen in the café shot of Isa that bridges into Bahar knocking on his door. It’s also an ample demonstration, indeed a refutation, of some of the negative claims about Ceylan’s films: that they lack a narrative cohesion. But these sorts of claims are made by callow minds. Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, as example, is often claimed to lack any real narrative and character development, but it simply employs a different sort of strategy to tell the tale — a Matissean one, where broad strokes evoke things in viewers.

Similarly, this film will use its pauses and silences to great effect. It’s not traditionally ‘moving the story,’ as defined by a Lowest Common Denominator Hollywood film, where all things are telegraphed in advance, but it does work. And it also employs what might be called red herrings to deceive a viewer into thinking the film will go in one direction, only to go in another. A good example is the scene where Isa meets some old friends at a bookstore. In a Hollywood film, this would have been the point of introduction for a major plot arc. Instead, as in most of our lives, it is just a moment, a face from the past, and one which Isa is not seemingly rapt with seeing, for he blows off his old acquaintance, who, it should be noted, equally blows off Isa.

Yet, this moment is character development and narrative push, for we get a sense of just how selfish and self-absorbed Isa is. Furthermore, the whole scene makes a statement about the Turkish intelligentsia of the day — a statement that can be seen as political. The point is, though, that Ceylan does not hammer his audience with the statement. It develops naturally out of a seemingly random, but plausible, life moment.

In this way, we see the complexity of this film that many critics wrongly label as spare or simple. It’s that they only can recognize one sort of complexity — the willfully complex, not that which is more ‘organically’ complex. And, while not always a given, a complex film, or complex art, if good or great, almost always gets better with repeated engagements, while simple art does not. And, in another way, this film also complexes, and that way is visually. The visual arts have the capacity to brand their import into the minds of a percipient the way writing or music simply cannot, because primates are hard-wired as primarily visual creatures. Humans are especially so, which is why humans are far more visually differentiated than any other simian species. And Ceylan realizes this brand, and uses a subtly shifting color palette to inflict moods, or ‘climates,’ into the viewers minds.

The film starts off sunny, bright, and Mediterranean, then gets brown and blue dark, like autumn, before ending in the muddied whites of winter. And, even though his characters do not vocalize much, this brand of image is powerfully resonant below the ability of most viewers to recognize. They just ‘feel’ something about this film. By contrast, writing is much tougher; it is the intricate carving, bit by bit, of ideas into pieces the percipient can use. And Ceylan is wise enough to let his screenplay use the visual power and immediacy of his images to not only construct his film’s narrative, but to propel it most of the way. So, those critics who have chided his writing ability are simply wrong, as they were with Antonioni’s films, and as they are with Angelopoulos’s.

Climates is a masterpiece, but it is more than that. It is also possibly an augur to even better things cinematically. It is not an overstatement to declare that Ceylan may be the best living filmmaker today. And, if one argues with that claim, then one might only add that he’s the best still at the height of his powers. Yes, Angelopolous’s Trilogy: The Weeping Meadow was great, but he’s been at a high level for decades now. Ceylan, on the other hand, is still in ascent. Watch Climates, and feel his pull.

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