Hypnotized by Cinema

What do the new film by Turkish director Nuri Blige Ceylan and a DVD of early 20th-century silent film actualities from the Midlands have in common?

Actually, nothing much, except that each is, in its way, utterly hypnotic and a testament to the power of moving images on a screen.

Climates, Ceylan's new film, which opens tomorrow at Film Forum, is a terse, tense drama of romantic discord, with the director and his wife (the luminous Ebru Ceylan) play a mismatched couple struggling to make sense out of their foundering relationship. Ceylan works in long, long takes, but makes fascinating and effective use of foreground/background spatial relations to amplify our sense of the literal and figurative distance between the two. He is a middle-aged college professor, she a much younger art director for a TV series and, although his field is architecture history, they seem to have little in common. Almost from the first shot of the film, Ceylan is manipulating depth of field to keep them in separate planes within the image; even the two-shots end with her walking out of frame. The result is a portrait of two people held together by the inertial effects of gravity and little else.

There is an extraordinary shot two-thirds of the way through the film that sums up the entire project for me. On a whim, Isa (Ceylan) has taken a plane to the eastern part of the country, where Bahar is on location with her TV show. The sequence opens with a truly bizarre and haunting image, a passenger jet emerging out of a pure white screen, looking almost as if the image were solarized. As the camera pulls back and the shot continues we slowly realize that what we are seeing is a plane landing in a swirling, blurring snowfall. The sense of spatial dislocation and uncertainty is a reflection of Isa's own almost aimless emotions. The shot, like the rest of the film, is both eerie and riveting.

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That shot from Climates works in no small part because of the sheer fascination of watching filmed movement. After more than a century of motion pictures, the simple fact of moving images is still enchanting in itself. But to get a real sense of that kind of wonder, you have to go back to the earliest days of silent film. And that is
why Electric Edwardians: The Films of Mitchell and Kenyon is such an endearing and charming DVD. Sagar Mitchell and James Kenyon were filmmakers based in the north of England at the beginning of the 20th Century, shooting actualities of such mundane events as schoolchildren on parade, fairgrounds, crowds at sports events and the inevitable workers leaving a factory. They trumpeted their product as "Local Films for Local People" and their audiences clearly came to see themselves. In fact, their advertisements centered on precisely that possibility: "Come and see yourselves on the screen as living history." Of course, when one sees ostensibly documentary footage of ordinary people, there is the inevitable bittersweet realization that many of those schoolboys filmed in 1903 would be dead in the trenches in a dozen years. It is impossible to watch these films without a feeling a certain sadness for the evanescence of human life, yet there they are, "living history," given something like eternal life through the miracle of motion pictures. The disk is aided immeasurably by an excellent commentary from Dr. Vanessa Toulmin of the National Fairground Archive, University of Sheffield, and a lovely score by In the Nursery. You can order it from Milestone Films, and I recommend that you do.

Comments

You might also mention that Climates was shot on digital video but is really love to look at. (Not moving the camera much certainly helps.) I found his last film, Distant/Uzak, tiresome. But this more straightforward tale had me absorbed. As for Electric Edwardians, I've been wondering about coining a phrase for falling in love with people glimpsed on film from ages past -- especially the documentary footage they have in EE. Falling for a handsome or beautiful lead is boring, but when someone catches your eye and you know they're long dead or at the very least are extremely old and grey, it's kind of oddly moving. Cinenecrophilia? Whatever it is, I've got it.