Guest DVD Review: Clouds Of May

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Back by popular demand. Here’s another Guest Voice review by Dan Schneider:

DVD Review Of Clouds Of May

Copyright 2007 © by Dan Schneider

I am usually very wary when people recommend art to me- be it a poem, a book, or a film. Usually they are in love with a certain work or artists, and are blinded to its manifest flaws because of some emotional attachment to it. It’s the first poem that ever touched them, it’s the first book that gave them the secret to life, or it’s the first movie where a girl ever allowed them to grope her breasts without screaming. In short, most people (including critics) are simply incapable of delineating the difference between excellence and likeability. Thus, it was with a twinge of skepticism that I watched Turkish director Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s 1999 film Clouds of May (Mayis Sikintisi- literally May’s Clouds).

Fortunately, it was the rare recommendation that was worthwhile heeding. No, it is not a great film, but considering it was only the third of five films the director has yet made, it shows potential for future greatness, albeit mainly in the cinematography- done by the director, and the effective intermittent use of a piano score that reminded me very much of Erik Satie’s heavenly piano pieces. Ismail Karadas is credited as the film’s sound man, and the subliminal score works well in subtly setting the film’s emotional tone.

The main problems with the film lay in its screenplay, also by Ceylan, and length- two interrelated disciplines. The film, originally released internationally at 117 minutes, is released on the Imaj DVD at a Director’s Cut of 130 minutes. Why 13 minutes were felt needed to pad a film in great need of trimming is beyond me.

The film is basically a self-reflexive film, in which a factory worker turned wannabe filmmaker from Istanbul, Muzaffer (Muzaffer Özdemir), is using his friends and family to make a film about his rural hometown in the Anatolia region of Turkey. It is claimed that this metafilm is really a recapitulation of the circumstances surrounding the making of an earlier Ceylan film, Kasaba. It also has manifest debts to Anton Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard, and the idyllic films of Iranian director Abbas Kiarostami. That the film is even dedicated to Chekhov is no surprise. And, if this film is any indication, Asia Minor is a near-Paradise.

The shots of nature- be they trees, the sun’s golden hue while low in the sky, the stars, tortoises, or obscenely red tomatoes rolling downhill, are simply gorgeous. Ceylan has a great eye. Rural Turkey also seems much more European than Middle Eastern in terms of culture and landscape. There are many shots which seem a direct throwback, of not outright quotation of some of the visuals from great European filmmakers of the 1950s and 1960s- specifically Italian giants like Federico Fellini and Michelangelo Antonioni.

That granted, the acting could have been much better. The cast credits feature several actors with the director’s surname; thus my surmise that the film is recapitulating the director’s own artistic fits and starts. The actor who plays Emin (Emin Ceylan), the father of the film in the film’s director, may also be Ceylan’s real life father. The old man is obsessed with beating local government officials who want him to raze the small forest on his property, lest they confiscate his land after decades of tending it. His wife, Muzaffer’s mother (Fatma Ceylan), is merely a throwaway role, with little to say or do of consequence. Her surname likely means she is the director’s real life mother, as well.

Many low budget foreign films make use of non-professional actors, but it’s a dicey proposition because for every great unaffected performance given there are a dozen or more wooden ones, such as that of the naïve and lazy Saffet (Emin Toprak), a co-worker of Muzaffer’s, who dreams of returning with him to Istanbul, for the director has promised to find him a job if he acts in his film. He thus quits his job, his wife protests, and then Muzaffer changes his mind about helping his friend, who meekly accepts the breach of trust. Little is made of this gravid moment, a potentially ripe situation to be dramatically enlightening of the characters. The final adult character is Muzaffer’s filmic assistant, Sadik (Sadik Incesu, who is also the real film’s producer)- a Turkish Bohemian who does little more than hold cameras.

In this film, the best performance given is actually by the child who plays Ali (Muhammad Zimbaoglu), a neighbor boy who tags along with the director’s crew. He has been given an egg to care for in his pocket by the director’s mother, and if he can prevent it from cracking for forty days the director’s mother (whom he calls Aunt- apparently a Turkish custom is to address older folk as Aunts or Uncles) will convince his father to buy him the musical wristwatch he desires, one which humorously plays My Darling Clementine. He tells Muzaffer he will not cheat to win the dare, but when the egg breaks while he does a good deed, he steals another egg. Later, he convinces his ‘Aunt’ that he still has the same egg she gave him, with three days to go, and she feels he has learnt enough of responsibility that she will convince his father to buy him the watch he desires. But, when he sees Sadik’s musical lighter and penknife, he says he wants that. When Sadik later gives him the lighter, he gleefully tells his aunt he wants his original choice, playing the situation for all it’s worth. It is in universal moments like this that the film attains its greatest art, and shows Ceylan’s potential for artistically growing beyond this film’s limits.

Another great moment comes when Ali is watching old Emin, as he covers one of his eyes with a photograph. Ceylan switches back and forth in perspective, as the photo seems to cover the old man, from Ali’s point of view, then not, as if the boy is opening and closing one eye at a time. Zimbaoglu’s performance is one of the better child performances on film, and reminds one of some of the great child performances during the Italian period of Neo-Realism. It also stands in stark contrast to the rather stiff performances by all the adults, who seem to feel that staring blankly is great acting.

Yet, the relatively sparse dialogue helps alleviate this decidedly negative aspect of the film, even if it goes on far too long in nature worshipping shots. The problem is that not all of the shots are breathtaking, and, unlike a Werner Herzog, who will hold shots on things that promote narrative tension within his films, Ceylan merely holds shots till they become pedestrian, or the things gazed at are pedestrian to begin with.

Eventually the film in the film is made, after much trouble, loss of learnt lines, and Emin’s recurring fears of the government men who seem to have marked his trees for removal. But nothing much happens in the whole of the film, nor at its close. This is not a bad thing if a film ponders deeper questions of life, or leaves such queries within the viewer, but, as this is a slice of life film, and deeply personal, the lack of narrative, along with the lack of deeper probing, leaves the wonderfully evocative images of the ending feeling like a disappointment. While many foreign films seem slow in their rhythms, in comparison to the speed-addicted Hollywood pace, the pace of this film slips by mere languidity and almost into stupor, at times.

The first hour, leading up to the first scenes of filming, are, save for those scenes with Ali- especially a terrific one with Ali, Muzaffer, and a tortoise attempting to get away, simply lifeless. Some have claimed the film as a pastoral symphony, but there needs to be depth for a claim like that to stick, otherwise the visual grand music can merely become white noise. Failing that, the film needs some more humor, such as in Liev Schreiber’s Everything Is Illuminated- a film set in the nearby Ukraine, which, like Clouds Of May, also features a great scene set in a sunflower field. Perhaps the only laugh out loud humor this film has is in its sunflower scene, where Sadik squats and shits.

The DVD package is rather barebones- not even a scene selection in the insert. There is no English language dubbed soundtrack, and the white subtitles are in German, French, and English. The English ones are laced with many grammatical errors and misspellings, which makes one wonder how well the narrative is conveyed. That many spoken words also go untranslated could also be apart of the film’s seeming relative narrative lack. There is a 22 minute long making of featurette, but it lacks subtitles, and has no comments from the director, just unedited shots of the film being made, so is fairly pointless. A short trailer and a filmography are also included. It seems to be shot in a 1.66:1 or 1.78:1 aspect ratio, and in the little online information available, in 35 mm film.

Despite its flaws, many of which are manifest, the film is definitely worth seeing, and I am glad that the film is not something along the lines of the dreadful Afghani film Osama, nor the Eskimo film Atanarjuat, which were made and marketed simply as the first modern films those cultures had produced, regardless of their utter artlessness. Instead, it has more in common with Krzystof Kieslowski’s 1979 film Camera Buff, also about an aspiring small time filmmaker.

Whereas the earlier film had more of a plot, and examined the consequences and responsibilities of a filmmaker, this film is more existential, but that’s all it has more of. Kieslowski was farther along in his career as a filmmaker, and closer to his emergence as a great artist. But, Ceylan does show similar potential, if he can just master the art of effective storytelling. And by that I do not mean plot-driven hackneyed tales. He can still retain the touches of visual poesy that emerge in this film, he merely has to get better at editing out the fat that makes such moments seem rare, rather than abounding.

If he does that, he may be Turkey’s answer to American filmmakers like Terrence Malick or David Gordon Green. I recommend that anyone with an interest in this director’s work check out his website: www.nuribilgeceylan.com/. Even with its flaws, Clouds Of May is a cut above the usual tripe Hollywood unleashes. Let’s hope, as cineastes, that the influence flows from East to West, not the other way around, lest Asia Minor’s budding Terrence Malick blooms into its George Lucas or Steven Spielberg, or worse- Ron Howard.

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