If alienation and passivity are your bag, Judge Joe Armenio has got a film for you.
"You used to say then you'd make films like Tarkovsky…"—Mahmut's friend
Distant, a film by Turkish director Nuri Bilge Ceylan (Clouds of May, The Small Town) is an art film about passivity and fatalism, which is to say that not much happens, so those looking for a rip-roarin' plot will be bored stiff. The success of Distant comes rather from its creation of mood, its wry humor, and above all its stark images.
Facts of the Case
Mahmut (Muzaffer Özdemir, a non-professional actor who has also appeared in the director's other films) is a divorced forty-something photographer in Istanbul who once had dreams of cinematic glory but has drifted into advertising instead; his main gig seems to be taking pictures of bathroom tiles. Yusuf (Mehmet Emin Toprak, also a Ceylan regular) is a distant relative from Mahmut's home town who comes to live with him and look for a job after a recession has destroyed the possibility of work in the country.
The great Russian director Andrei Tarkovsky (1930-1986) is referred to several times in Distant. Mahmut's photographer friend upbraids him for giving up on his dream of making films like that master, and in two scenes Mahmut watches Tarkovsky films on video (Stalker and, I think, The Mirror). Many critics have pointed out Tarkovsky's influence on Ceylan, and there are similarities—the latter's shots are long and rigorously composed, his storytelling indirect, his characters introspective. One could, however, say that of many art-film directors who aren't particularly influenced by Tarkovsky. The differences seem more substantial: Ceylan is funnier, more grounded, less mystical and portentous. A more apt comparison would be with such modern masters of deadpan observational minimalism as Jim Jarmusch or Tsai Ming-Liang, although Ceylan is still very much his own man.
Mahmut is defined mainly by his passivity, both in his work and personal lives. He seems unhappy with his work, but resigned to the fact that he's incapable of producing art; "Photography is dead," he tells the friend who chastises him for giving up his dreams. At one point, Mahmut goes on a trip to the country to take pictures, bringing Yusuf along as an assistant, but even when he admires a magnificent setting he can't be bothered to set up the camera. In one of the film's wordlessly comedic set pieces, Mahmut watches Tarkovsky's Stalker on video, then switches to a porno tape when Yusuf has gone to bed. He is still in love with his ex-wife, who has remarried and is moving to Canada; he has a girlfriend (or "lover," as she is described in the credits), but apparently she is little solace. The two have no dialogue together, and the clear implication is that Mahmut is impotent. Urban life, Ceylan is saying, has this isolating effect; Yusuf seems to fall into similar habits when he arrives in the city. He spends most of his time onscreen either half-heartedly looking for a job, without success, or staring at and following around pretty girls to whom he can't bring himself to talk.
Ceylan drives home this theme of urban alienation with his gorgeously chilly images. He prefers long shots to close-ups, and his human figures are often dwarfed by the snowy cityscapes and looming corridors in which he places them. The pictures are what remain in the mind when the film is over: Mahmut and his mother seen from the back, walking down a dim hospital corridor; a tiny Yusuf slowly approaching the camera through the snow, mountains framed majestically behind him. There is a certain emotional chilliness to the film as well, as Ceylan prefers to suggest emotions rather than show them. This indirectness is also a hallmark of many art house directors, but Ceylan takes it to an occasionally uninvolving extreme. Contrast, for example, the final shots of Distant and Tsai Ming-Liang's Vive L'Amour, both of which are extended takes of the protagonist sitting on a park bench; while Tsai's heroine cries, Mahmut smokes contemplatively, his inner workings remaining a mystery.
Distant is a film which begs to be seen in a good 35mm print on a big screen, but in the absence of screenings, New Yorker Video has done an excellent job with the DVD. The widescreen transfer is clean and crisp, and the Dolby Digital 5.1 sound is sharp; there isn't much dialogue in the film, but it relies quite a bit on atmospheric sound (barking dogs, car alarms, neglected TVs) for the creation of mood.
The most interesting among the extras is Ceylan's first film, a 17-minute black-and-white short made in 1995 and entitled Koza, which translates as "Cocoon." Koza shows the influence of Tarkovsky much more than Distant; it's a wordless, non-narrative succession of mystical, pastoral images, filled with burbling water, waving wheat, raging fire, and in a particularly striking and haunting image, a dead cat. The three human characters are an old man, an old woman, and a young boy, who wander among the natural wonders and give the camera soulful looks. The old man appears to be ill or dying, a situation which recalls another classic of the Russian cinema, Alexander Dovzhenko's Earth. It's a lovely film, as Ceylan's eye never leads him astray, but perhaps a bit too overtly Tarkovskian, right down to the Bach on the sound track. Its inclusion show how far Ceylan has come in forging his own distinctive style.
The DVD also includes behind-the-scenes footage, which consists mostly of Ceylan composing his shots or coaching his actors, followed by segments from the completed scenes. It's interesting to see Ceylan work, but a little of this kind of thing goes a long way; there are no interviews or other documentary material to give the footage shape, and after 42 minutes it becomes tedious. There's also a 30-minute interview with Ceylan, conducted in English, which gives a surprisingly substantive and in-depth look at his background and ideas about film. Its inclusion is appreciated, although it's edited so that we can hear Ceylan's answers but not the questions, which makes his comments occasionally a bit hard to decipher.
Distant is an aptly titled film. It can be a bit cold and forbidding, as well as dramatically static, with its thin, episodic narrative in which the characters make little attempt to escape the lives of urban anomie their creator has granted them. You should see it for the bleak majesty of the visuals—critics who overpraise any film with pretty picture-postcard scenery for its photography would be especially advised to attend this master class in framing and composition.
Yusuf might be guilty of an especially benign kind of stalking, but I don't see any other crimes here.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: New Yorker Films
• Short Film: Koza (Cocoon)
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