The Mental State of Istanbul – Under Western Eyes

in 32nd Istanbul Film Festival

by Jon Asp

So begins the “Under Western Eyes” chapter of Orhan Pamuk’s first-rate book Istanbul: Memories of a City from 2005. Pamuk, laureate of the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2006, gives his take here on a culture ruled for centuries under a Western spell: “My interest in how my city looks to Western eyes is — as for most Istanbullus — very troubled; like all other Istanbul writers with one eye always on the West, I sometimes suffer in confusion.”

These words, suggesting a long-time obsession with the judgment of Westerners, come tomind when I watch Lifelong (Hayatboyu, 2013), which screened in both the national and international competitions at the 32nd Istanbul International Film Festival. The film, which first played in Panorama Special at Berlinale this year, is directed by Asli Özge. Her first feature Man on the Bridge (Köprüdekiler, 2009) gained considerable festival praise and was theatrically released in several countries worldwide.

Özge was born in Istanbul but has lived in Berlinfor more than ten years.However, her sophomore film sketches a relationaldrama and a midlife crisis set in an urban milieu in contemporary Istanbul, in a world of secular scenestrapped between materialism and alienation (and within Istanbul’s heavy traffic).Ela is a respected conceptual artist, Can is a successful architect. They communicate sparsely and appear as shadows to each other in a stylish white house Can designed for them. The vertically-built house offers several floors, which makes it easy for them not to interact.

The film is told from Ela’s perspective and it is her feelings which the spectator can perceive. When Can is given arare sequence on his own, he is seenon a treadmill at the gym, staring into the camera with a total lack of expression. The scene goes on for minutes; it resembles a frame from a ’90s Haneke film.

With long steady shots, elegant interior design and explicit architectural compositions, middle-aged breakdown has rarely looked so elaborate. The couple literally livetheir life as a gallery installation, into which they invest all their emotional effort, intent on public acclaim.If they happen to head for a coffee with their visitingdaughter and her boyfriend, the camera (all too) symmetrically captures them from outside the café, all four lined up horizontally, one in each window.

Proceeding in this approach, Lifelong quickly turns into (and remains) an excess of alienation motifs and compositions, where not a single frame is allowed to breathe. Each small detail — whether acoffee table book or art and design or a repeated shot of aspiral stairwell, seen from top to bottom–heads in the same direction, bears a similar meaning. Lack of communication, lack of tools to communicate: a man and a woman who have reached the end of the roadon a standardized Western route. In this synthetic existence, only the uninterrupted threat of an earthquake — another cliché signalling the marriage’s rupture — contains natural associations. Accordingly, one of the few discussionsCan initiates is about installinga seismographic alarm to detect earthquakes.

Inspired by the works of Nuri Bilge Ceylan (Turkey’s most celebrated filmmaker by far), Lifelong seems to indicate the mental state of today’s Istanbul, in which European standards are becoming more and more important. Overdosing onquoted motifs and framings, the films breeds itself as a pastiche of Antonioni and Rossellini, fused together.

Many spectators and critics seem convinced by this approach. Özge was awarded best director in Istanbul’s national competition, and after the Berlinale premiere, Screen’s reviewer described the film”as a variant on the stolid deliberate dark-palette storytelling of Nuri Bilge Ceylan (who is thanked in the end credits). The drama should have a long ride on the festival circuit, where Turkish films draw audiences globally.”

Had he specialized in cinema, the legendary literary critic Harold Bloom would probablyhave relatedthis situation to the “anxiety of influence”, the phenomenon identified in his famous book from 1973. In the book he argues, in essence, that “the poet in a poet” is inspired to write by reading another poet’s poetry and will tend to produce work that is derivative of existing poetry and therefore weak.

This, of course, could relate to all artistic production, all artists being under the spell of another artist, a previous work. But I would claim that this is more the case with cinema than other art forms, and with Lifelong more than other films. Film — and in this case, Lifelong — is governed by a standardized Western canon, producing something which could be called a “cinema of epigone.” This is stated not torefute the actual qualities of Lifelong, but to draw attention to an old but steadily mounting trend within the globalizedmedium of cinema (a trend that critics could be more aware of).

Maybe Pamuk would agree withthis. Alternatively, he might identify hüzün — the famous Istanbul melancholy — from an even more geneticperspective, impossible to escape for a nation perpetually divided between two continents: “In the last one hundred and fifty years (1850-2000) I have no doubts that not only has hüzün ruled over Istanbul, but it has spread to its surrounding areas. What I have been trying to explain is that the roots of our hüzün are European: the concept was first explored, expressed and poeticised in French.”

So even if it is strongly filtered through Western eyes, the melancholy of Lifelong might actually rest on a foundation more original than cinema could possibly provide.

Cited literature:
Bloom, H ([1973] 1997) The Anxiety of Influence. A Theory of Poetry. USA: OUP.
Pamuk, O ([2005] 2006) Istanbul. Memories of a City. England: Faber and Faber Limited.

Edited by Lesley Chow