Monday, March 12, 2012

Once Upon a Time in Anatolia

The French film-maker Jean Renoir once remarked (I can’t locate the precise quote) that American film-making tends to focus its attention on a speeding train, oblivious to the fact that a very interesting young woman is looking dreamily out the window back in second class.

That was a long time ago…but I suspect contemporary Turkish director Nuri Bilge Ceylan might agree. “The problem with Hollywood," he remarked in an article in the Guardian recently, "is the audience expects to get the answers like a pill. They expect to know not just whodunnit, but the motives of the characters, the how and why. Real life is not like that. Even our closest friend – we don't know what he really thinks.”

It would be difficult, I suspect, to make a good film about what we don’t know about people, but in Once Upon a Time in Anatolia, Ceylan has done the next best thing. He has made a film in which we get to know people almost in spite of themselves.

The big answer is already right in front of us. The suspect has confessed to the crime. The smallish issue—Where did he bury the body?—serves as the focus of what little action there is, as twelve men, including the murderer and his brother, a doctor, the prosecutor, both urban and provincial policemen, and a couple of laborers with shovels, traverse the barren hills of rural Turkey in the middle of the night trying to locate it based on a few hazily-remembered landmarks.

Astute viewers will perhaps guess a few things in the course of the film about how and why the crime was committed, but after listening to two-and-a-half hours of idle chit-chat, we’ve also become well-acquainted with the men engaged in investigating it. Though parts of the film have a ludicrous humor reminiscent of Almadóvar or the Coens, its overall tone might better be described as Chekhovian.

The world these often heavily-mustached men live in isn’t a pretty one. (One can't help speculating it's because the women are too often kept out of sight.) They put one another down in traditional manly fashion, and they all seem to have domestic problems of one kind or another. A fragmentary conversation between the prosecutor and the doctor about a woman who died mysteriously, shortly after delivering a baby, takes on added significance as the movie progresses. And the appearance of a beautiful young woman—the daughter of the local mayor—in the middle of the night to serve tea also acts as a turning-point.

Those who come to the theater expecting a thriller or a shoot-em-up will be disappointed, but anyone with an interest in human nature—or art—is more likely to be quietly enthralled. On the way back to the car after the screening, scenes from early in the film will resurface unbidden and take on new shades of meaning.

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

California Coast: II

Not wanting to get sucked too deeply into the big-city hubbub, we’d booked a room in Marina del Rey, where Western grebes drift among the tethered yachts. But the next morning, after a stroll down Santa Monica Beach, we headed back into town up Wilshire Boulevard to meet an old friend at the La Brea Tar Pits.

And what more perfect place could there be to meet? The smell of asphalt filled the air, though it was less pronounced inside the archeological museum, where gigantic skeletons of mammoths and sloths, reconstructed using bones extracted painstakingly from the tar, loomed at every turn alongside stuffed mechanical saber-tooth tigers feasting on hapless bears. While touring the museum I occasionally got the impression I’d stumbled into an installation by Joseph Beuys—especially when standing in front of a backlit display of several hundred nearly identical wolf skulls.

Our next stop was the Japanese Pavilion of the Los Angeles County Museum next door. Some very lovely pottery and scrolls depicting misty waterfalls and flowering plum branches. From there it was on to the museum’s modern art wing. It occurred to me at one point that LACMA might have the largest collection of dreadful Picassos in the world. Then again, the Braque hanging on the wall opposite was the finest painting I saw in any museum during our trip.

We soon made a strategic retreat to the museum café and continued our chat with Betty, who lives in Pasadena but seldom ventures into town—well, Pasadena is quite a town in its own right. We talked about jobs, California real estate prices, retirement, her relatives in Kentucky, budget cuts to various space programs at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (where Betty works), mutual friends back in Minnesota, and the high price of gasoline. The lowest she could find on her way downtown was $4.35 a gallon; perhaps I made her feel better when I told her I’d paid $4.89 in Beverly Hills.

It was 4 pm by the time we said our goodbyes and headed west up the coast through Malibu and on into open country. A quick overnight stop at the Clocktower Motel in Ventura (which continues its slow slide downhill, year by year) and we arrived at the harbor in Santa Barbara under blue skies at 8:30 the next morning.

What’s the hurry? Well, the whale-watching boat from Condor Cruises left at nine. We never would have found the place amid all the boats if I hadn’t asked a passing stranger.

“Condor Cruises? They’re the best. But they’re over on the other wharf.”

“We usually use Island Packers down in Ventura, but they’re not going out today.”

“Well, drive into this parking lot—you’ll have to pay, of course—and continue on through the second gate. It will open automatically. Park at the far end. You’ll see them half way out on the pier.”

We followed the man’s instructions and eventually spotted a large boat with Condor Cruises painted across the back. The office itself was unmarked. It was ten to nine when we arrived.

“The nine o’clock has been cancelled,” the young woman behind the counter told us. “But we might be going out at noon. Give us a call in an hour.”

So we wandered out across the sand and sat on a bench, looking across the harbor at yet another pier. Snowy egrets were feeding on the beach in front of us and a cluster of orange kayaks appeared in the distance out of nowhere—it was obviously a class of some sort. I suspect Hilary would have been very happy to join them, and we were both disappointed when we called Condor Cruises and found the noon whale-watching launch had also been nixed. (I was on the verge of suggesting that they might get more business if they put up a sign.) Then again, we had just saved a hundred dollars, and we decided it might be a good idea to book a room somewhere near the beach.

But first, a visit to the bird refuge we’d seen on the way into town. We parked along the highway and walked inland alongside the lagoon. A homeless couple came by and the man said, “Did you see the giraffes?”

Not sure whether the man's rungs went all the way to the top, I said, “Yeah, I saw them yesterday.”

“Why do they only come out on certain days?” his companion mused cheerfully.

Trying to humor them as we walked by, I replied, “Tuesday is definitely their big day.”

A few minutes later, as we looked out across the pond, we noticed that there were two giraffes standing in the brush by a chain-link fence just beyond the refuge. The Santa Barbara Zoo!

We spotted a pair of acorn woodpeckers in a tree alongside the path, and there were scads of ruddy ducks in winter plumage out on the water. Black-crowned night herons lurked in the grasses at water’s edge, and we could see cars streaming past on Highway 101 off in the distance. But more beautiful than anything, perhaps, was Santa Barbara itself, with its red-roofed buildings set off against the backdrop of bristly green mountains rising gracefully from the sea.