June 2, 2011 / Filmwell
One wuxia film has withstood the test of time, and, in my opinion, stands head and shoulders above the rest of its peers, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon included: Zhang Yimou’s Hero (2002).
June 9, 2012
THIS MAY BE LESS A REVIEW than a reflection, on 2011 Cannes favorite Once Upon a Time in Anatolia, now available on DVD — from varied angles of view, ranging from the objectively-technical to the subjectively-personal.
First, a technical primer, or refresher, for some– on focus. Recall that in bright light, the camera opening is tighter (think: squinting). Ergo, maximum “depth of field,” i.e. everything is in focus. In less light, the aperture opens wide (think: dilated pupil); focus is limited. A narrow depth of field means background and foreground can’t both be in focus the same time, rather one or the other. To shift between planes is to “pull focus,” or a “rack focus.”
Turkish director Nuri Bilge Ceylan is a master of shifting between planes, visual or otherwise.
Among his many talents, Ceylan plays depth of field like a Stradivarius (or, conversely, a Stratocaster). He may well be the young boy Ali in his early film Clouds of May who conducts that classic kid experiment, covering and uncovering one eye to marvel at the jumping change in perspective. Or the photographer in Distant who flips the light switch to watch textures dance in his apartment hallway. In Ceylan’s latest effort, Once Upon a Time in Anatolia, the director toggles between surface and depth, from, say, a dirty window on a garage to the action unfolding inside. Or from the stories we tell each other and ourselves to what lies beneath – the “raw facts” (which may, after all, be just another story). Or from the world of ordinary perception to something entirely Other.
Ceylan’s filmography charts his journey across many dimensions. His first feature, Small Town (1998), combines black-and-white “well-made” European art-house film style with Chekhovian-talkiness. Abruptly, Clouds of May (2000), surrenders to the influence of Iranian neo-realism, as if a classically-trained musician had discovered the blues. The difference between these two modes has been described by film critic André Bazin thusly: classic style is like crossing a creek over a well-built bridge (with the implied needful violence of cutting, pounding and imposing order). Neo-realism, on the other hand, involves going downstream to find stones already there, a natural crossing.
This director, however, shows equal affection for other influences, which may also be pitched as opposites: the open contemplativeness of mystical Russian director Andre Tarkovsky vs. the closed Modernism of Michelangelo Antonioni. Both these artists’ work has been described as “elliptical.” For the latter, the ellipsis contains a Nothing. For the former, a Something. Both meet at the razor’s edge between the Infinite and the Abyss.
In Ceylan’s early films, as he toggles between his disparate influences, we see flashes of brilliance – visual and otherwise. This may be because of or in spite of the disparity; they are not yet integrated into a single cinematic vision. Certainly much of what we may begin to identify as Ceylan’s mature aesthetic would seem to require a level of technical control (of camera and lighting) tough to achieve under often primitive neo-realist conditions.
Astonishingly, he finds a synthesis in only his third film, Distant (2002) – about an artist, ironically, who’s lost his way. With breathtaking ballet of geometric composition and movement, Distant manages to defy gravity by anchoring its mesmerizing imagery in a sustained mood (a brooding existential angst). The film won Cannes’ Grand Prix.
Climates (2006) was well-received, but some might argue it did not keep the balance as well, stringing hot and cold relationships across varied weather environments. Three Monkeys (2008) better distributed the angst among a noirish family melodrama, a piercing interplay of image and mood, of secrets and textures across the focal plane.
With Anatolia, Ceylan sharpens the central tensions in his work, bringing the visual and thematic oppositions together in literal and metaphoric darkness and light. The director plumbs hitherto unknown depths of field in a revealing nighttime landscape…
ANOTHER TECHNICAL PRIMER. “Magic hour” is that fleeting golden moment at dusk or dawn when the quality of light is such that a film artist may wait for it all day and night. And when it arrives, she must work in a frenzy, before the light fades into a more unforgiving shade. An irony of the digital revolution is that as celluloid fades into the sunset, new film stocks make it possible to shoot in lower light than ever, extending Magic Hour into the night with stunning detail, rather than the traditional abrupt drop into black.
Anatolia’s nighttime countryside vista, instead of ugly murk, reveals a range of greys from the dirt road in the foreground, across fields of wheat, into hills, mountains and clouds in the background sky. Car headlights, on such sensitive register, “pop” into blinding yellow blurs, leading vehicles down winding roads in a way that recalls Ceylan’s favorite master, Iranian auteur Abbas Kiarostami. There are additional touches of Kiarostami, from exterior car shots cut with interior dialogue, to the long journey of an apple down hill and stream, a flourish here incorporated like an old blues lick by an arena rock star.
These images so mesmerized me the first time I saw this film that I barely paid any attention to the plot. A synopsis, along the lines of, say, the typical Netflix abstract might be this: “A dozen or so law enforcement officers, with two suspects, in two cars and a military jeep, drive around looking for a body.” Those kind of reductions, of course, always miss the point of films for which plot is beside the point. Anatolia is, indeed, less about plot than atmosphere, an uncanny manifestation of the uncanny.
A clinical way of putting it might be to say that the uncanny involves a “surplus of meaning.” As in, “We’re gonna need a bigger boat” — only in this case there is no boat big enough. That is, the hypothesis or narrative is too small for the phenomenon in question, which must necessarily remain in question. There is no narrative that can cast its net around all the clues and capture a solution: the meaning always overflows the attempt at containment. This is the difference between an ordinary mystery and the Big Mystery: the mysterium tremendum.*
Consider, then, the oppositions between which Ceylan stretches not his net but his tightrope, in a tension suggested in that marvelously ambiguous word, “wonder.” In one sense, “wonder” involves curiosity and questions — and theoretically answers. In another, “wonder” is surrender to the unknown. Anatolia pairs both senses, in foreground and background, in a way I’ve not seen since Twin Peaks, David Lynch’s magical double-vision – of the numinous and the profane.
The resulting frisson throws off sparks of deep, wordless significance and dread that reflect upon every conversation, every character – each with their own secrets and stories. In this prism, wind blowing in the trees carries awful implications. The shadows reveal an even more impenetrable darkness. Ceylan stages real-time, late-night moral/mortal musings, amid the tense intimacy of a Tennessee Williams play. Blowing wind, barking dog, crackling thunder, a train passing conjure deep visceral night-ness.
At times, his focus-pulling seems like x-ray vision, going deeper into layers we didn’t expect to penetrate. The gruff police chief, for example, has his layers, pressures from his boss, from his wife. His cell ringer is an old cheesy love song. His child is ADD. The world-weary DA battles his own personal problems and treasures his own brands of romance. Ditto the Doctor, whose philosophic musings at one point are provoked by a brush with a weight unimaginable (for us who live in young lands) weight of Anatolian history. Everybody has a story. Not least, the mysterious suspect, clues on his face – fresh scars, stubble, sunken eyes lost in a terrible secret that powers the larger narrative.
And at the dead center of this unbearable tension in Once Upon a Time, we meet a shy, young girl — in whom so many of these alternative dimensions also meet: the hopes and fears of all the years, as it were. She suggests a certain deeper sense to many of the stories in play, which so often turn upon the love of a woman. And yet she also reminds us that making sense isn’t everything – we see it reflected in the faces of men dazzled beyond their own senses.
Here we find the still point of the turning world — or at least, the fulcrum of the focus-pulling of Anatolia. From one angle, solving the mystery is what the investigation or story is about. Perhaps, as some say here, philosophers and doctors and lawyers, there’s always an explanation. From another angle, though, any kind of explanation turns out to be an inadequate hypothesis.
AN ADMITTEDLY GEEKY TECHNICAL PRIMER (bear with me or exit while you can), on the division of human apprehension into “two ways of seeing” – variously labeled. For C. S. Lewis, Looking At vs. Looking Along. Filmmaker Nathaniel Dorsky opposes a Renaissance mode of vision to a Medieval one. A similar divide is marked by Catholic theologian David Tracy between Analogical and Dialectical knowledge. (Tracy’s dualism has been popularized by Andrew Greeley as the Catholic vs. the Protestant imagination.) Philosopher Suzanne K. Langer contrasts Presentational vs. Discursive knowing – she being a disciple of Ernst Cassirer’s similar opposition, with both sources taken up in turn by Walker Percy, who engages a fictional protagonist in Vertical and Horizontal quests. Percy also read literary theorist William Lynch, who split knowing into Univocal and Equivocal. These dueling dualities may conceivably map in some degree over others: Hellenism vs Hebraism, Romantics vs Classicists, Apollo vs Dionysus, Sephardic vs Ashkenazi, Newtonian vs Quantum, Spock vs Kirk, Scully vs Mulder, Magical vs Muggle, Ethics vs Aesthetics, Kansas vs Oz.
Less technically: there’s general agreement that humans apprehend with either their head or heart.
That “either/or” is humanity’s “tragic dilemma” (says Lewis): because we can employ only one mode at a time.
And that’s my story – about why I had to go back and view Once Upon a Time in Anatolia twice in one week. Of course, who can say if it was the tragic limitations inherent in the human condition or just my own? But I found it impossible to keep the foreground and background mysteries of the film in focus at the same time.
Indeed, I was so dazzled by Ceylan’s nighttime vistas that I was thrust blinking into his daylight. At first I couldn’t see why the film didn’t end in that magical twilight. Gradually, I made out that the nighttime portion took up only the first half of a three-hour film. The second half rack focuses (through a middle section) to an entirely different plane: that cruel light of day. My first time through, I leapt to conclusions I would reconsider later .
Before landing, however, let’s pause mid-air and re-consider the leap, and its relation to the conclusions.
This requires one last technical primer (I promise). Depth perception depends on combining data from dual sources into one picture. The area outside the overlap in the field of vision is the blindspot, ergo the “jump” in perspective Ali sees opening one eye at a time. “Binocular vision” uses two slightly different-angled receptors, with the brain filling in missing data. Of course, the brain may leap to utterly false conclusions (a phenomenon exploited in optical illusions). Generally speaking, though, “false” conclusions may be all we have, inasmuch as the whole necessarily rises from fragmented parts: just like that fundament of cinema, the phenomenon known as “persistence of vision,” in which the rapid juxtaposition of stills gives us the illusion — the glorious leap to a conclusion — that is the motion picture.
Nathanial Dorsky takes this notion beyond the science of art, introducting even metaphysical inflections into the persistence of vision, in his essay “Devotional Cinema.” Here Dorsky champions film for its capacity to bridge our characteristic human gap by means of some “transcendental balance.” Likewise, C. S. Lewis suggests that our “tragic dilemma” of human knowing or apprehension may be temporarily compensated for by the “both/and” wholeness found in myth; others have spoken similarly of unifying power of imagination and image.
W.H. Auden’s own obsession with dualities and unification was manifest in his poetry and prose, including a review praising the author of a book for (and he used this phrase) “binocular vision” — asserting that the “one infallible symptom of greatness is the capacity for double focus…”
My first conclusion, which I leapt to, wrongly, on my first viewing of Anatolia, was that the director was going to somehow attempt with his daylight sequence a debunking of the mysteries of the night. No doubt, I needn’t have worried: first of all, the mysterium tremens can take care of itself. But secondly, an artist so clearly taken with Kiarostami and Tarkovsky – both unquestionably “devotional” filmmakers – must have a robust fluency in and respect for the ineffable. Even so, I worried whether Ceylan was up to holding the tension of his duo focal planes.
With my second viewing of the film, however, I better held that tension myself. I realized, for example, that moments in that nighttime sequence which I’d first taken as pure poetry, were actually expository – and so perhaps a bit less mysterious than I’d initially thought. And that daylight I’d feared overly-clinical now revealed gratuities and ambiguities of its own. In other words, the divide wasn’t as sharp as I’d originally projected: the polarities interpenetrated throughout, manifesting that singularly cinematic gift, of “transcendental balance.”
The whole of Once Upon a Time in Anatolia, I am happy to report, if only after a second viewing, turns out to be much greater than the parts. Nuri Bilge Ceylan continues to capture the Big Picture through “double focus” — juxtaposition of the polarities, pulling focus between varied planes.
Of course, double-focus (as we’ve seen) does not eliminate the problem of blindspots. For after even two screenings, I was still unsure whether the film was pushing back hard enough against one character’s assertion that women are at the bottom of most problems. (My guess is that closer to the bottom of most problems is our human habit of projecting our infinite hopes and fears on some finite person, place or thing.) Or whether the logic of the film’s dénouement (with what seemed a hint of “to know all is to forgive all”) leaned a bit toward “explaining” evil, which in its depths defies any such sense-making. I’m still leaping between conclusions.
That is to say, the game is still afoot. Once Upon a Time in Anatolia continues to bear further investigation. As one who spends an inordinate amount of time seeking films that bear further investigation, I’m entirely good with that. I do love mysteries I have to work to solve. Of course, I like mysteries I can never solve even better.
*For more on the Big Mystery vis a vis the Little Mystery, track down Bill Spencer’s excellent Mysterium & Mystery: The Clerical Crime Novel.