Istanbul theaters are showing films from all over the world. Of course our Hollywood action exports do the biggest business, but they also have a larger tolerance for the offbeat. The Coen Brothers are big here – and a couple of years ago, the poster for The Big Lebowski just showed a foot with the missing toe! This year, there are two major festivals here , one in the winter and one in the summer. In January, at the Istanbul Independent Film Fest, we saw the new Todd Solonz flick “Storytelling”; it was too brief, its framing device seemed artificial, and the penultimate scene was an abomination, but it had a couple of moments (one involving the maid and another involving a gay friend) that I will never forget. We also saw a BBC “Sound on Film” series, which was a collection of avant-garde films set to modern classical music. Most of them were terrible, even those directed by famous names (Werner Herzog! Nicholas Roeg!) but there was a gothic short by the Quay Brothers to the soundtrack of Stockhausen’s “In Absentia” – it scared the hell out of me and sent many of the people running for the exits – brilliant. I’m a hard man to please, but really, all I need are five great minutes out of 90, and I’m satisfied.
We just went to the movies the other day ago to see “Spider-Man.” It’s been 95-100 degrees here all week, which is bad enough (an air conditioner’s a luxury item which can be had starting at $500), but when there’s a power outage, there are no fans, and it’s miserable. So another outage forced us to run to the sanctuary of the next village’s theater with its splendid air conditioning. (Many theaters, including the one closer to our apartment, won’t run the a/c because they can’t afford it.) The film, despite having a couple of stupid gay slurs in it, was thankfully overlong – by the time it was done, it was the next day and power had been restored. Films here include an “Ara” – intermission – which involves, mid-sentence, them stopping the film an hour in and selling food and beverage right in the theater. They also have assigned seats, which they load up from the back row forward. I once saw a film here with six people in the theater, and we were all in the back row, right next to each other. After the lights went down, Elif and I went to the middle – the others thought we were weird. It harkens back to the 80’s, when Hollywood destroyed the local Turkish cinema, so that the bulk of films showing for that decade were porno films, and they’d seat people together in all movies to make you feel secure that the guy all alone in the corner wasn’t leaving a sticky souvenir on the seats that wasn’t chewing gum.
The current state of Turkish cinema is mixed: budgets are bigger, but the aesthetic is the same: crude slapstick comedies, and earnest, romantic, glossy epics. 70’s Turkish films are far more interesting, and endlessly fascinating. Their budgets were so small they’d make an Ed Wood film look like a Hollywood summer blockbuster, and they compensated by making about a film a week. The melodramas are most enjoyable – a girl becomes blind and then can see her true love, or a village girl gets raped and kicked around only to get saved, or a village singer becomes a national star but loses his soul in the process. The sound recording is also a delight: incongruent lip-synching (for the music) and outrageous sound effects (for the fight scenes); maybe five people handle all of the the voiceovers, and a stable of about fifty actors handle all the parts (you’ll see the same faces in every film).
We live among Turkish movie stars. Many of the former stars had lives worthy of their own Turkish film. The 80’s flooded the market with American imports, temporarily wiping out the Turkish film industry and forcing many of them into softcore porn; the 90’s saw their careers rehabilitated, and many got rich by attaching their names to businesses (mostly restaurants). One interesting is the death of Kemal Sunal, who died two years ago in a very interesting way – on an airplane, but not in a plane crash. He was a major star, playing a character “Saban” in dozens of comedies, as well as dumb characters who’d just come to the city from the village. He was always afraid of flying, but he was to shoot his new film in Trabzon and decided to fly to the shoot. He died of a heart attack in his seat before the plane left the runway. The stars who are still alive can be found walking, like us, on the streets of Suadiye. Elif (of course) is a bit of an expert in pointing them out to me (she spots them, and only then can I place their faces as they were 30 years younger. It’s sobering to see what time will do to a leading man.
I don’t go to the theater much because I’ve no need to barely understand Turkish productions of Shakespeare, or political allegories, or slapstick comedies. But we’ve seen some amazing international productions here, and they all played to packed houses, including a French ballet in March; an Italian branch of Grotowski doing “One Final Breath” (“One Breath Left”) in April; and the loopily whimsical Hashirigaki in May. Hashirigaki involved huge Robert Wilson-style sets, light displays, theramin gimmicks, Eastern instruments, and variety review – all set to the Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds album. Three women from the Netherlands, as giddy as The Singing Nun doing “Dominique” – writ very, very large. Tis rare to discover some happy avant for a change – even if they were bullshitting their way through the whole thing – to hear the koto blending into the opening rhythm of Caroline No!