Friday, April 27, 2012

Once, Twice, Thrice Upon A Time

Tell me a story, Daddy.

I find a parking spot, grab a shopping cart and walk into the supermarket. Then I realize I forgot my canvas bags. I return to the car and start back again when I’m approached by a man waving a petition and then …….

The latest film from Turkish director Nuri Bilge Ceylan, Once Upon A Time in Anatolia, was the Grand Prix winner at Cannes in 2011 and is a masterpiece of cinematic story-telling. The first forty minutes are excruciatingly slow. A stream of lights winding along at night in desolate, stark country looks like a train in the long shot but as the camera moves closer we see there are three vehicles. The lead car contains a police commissioner and another officer, the driver, a coroner, and a disheveled man. They stop and get out. In the second car are men with shovels and the prosecutor. The third is a military jeep.

Is it here?
Yes, I think here.
Where? Where?
No, not here.

The man under duress is a prisoner who has killed someone and buried the body. Again and again they stop, look and go on. It happens in what seems like real time. We are annoyed, irritated, even bored just as the officials are bored and the way life is boring between the telling points. The director is most concerned with what goes on in those between moments when the characters are so filled with tedium they start to reveal their stories. Interests shifts to the back-stories of the police chief, lawyer and doctor.

Everybody has a story. The man with the petition is asking people, Are you a registered voter? Three out of four say, No. I’m thinking, No wonder we ended up with Bush and the Tea Party. This is Santa Monica, not Bakersfield. Doesn’t anyone care?.............but that’s another story.

The best films tell their story with the camera. They give us fragments. They make demands on us. They digress us, draw us in with images, with tones of shadow and light, close-ups and wide angle shots. Ambient noises are heard. They tell it with pauses and elisions. We experience what is revealed or concealed as if through a window in the rain or are reminded of life’s randomness by the trace of an apple as it falls from a tree and rolls into a stream. We are not told in so many words.

The newspapers say that Obama has lost his narrative as if he misplaced it or fumbled the ball, as if there is only one narrative per person. We contain multitudes, Whitman proclaimed, in his barbaric yawp. People seem to elect the best story. Will it be a fable that puts them to sleep or a tale of awakening; words that pander to dreams deferred or a narrative that urges them to think beyond their fears and cynicism.

The lives in this movie are marked by regret, ennui and angst with a closing shot as the camera moves in and lingers on a face in transformation in which the brutal finding of science yields to a more humane version of the truth. Through cinema art, like any other, we come closer to our true selves. Yet there is an existential lawlessness at the center of human life, something buried perhaps, pulling apart our own stories even as we make them cohere.

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