“Life Follows Chekhov” for Turkish Director Nuri Bilge Ceylan
By Stuart Mitchner
Stirred from sleep by the sound of something large and loud moving in the night, I thought at first that someone was moaning. Really. It was like the sound of a giant enduring a massively bad dream. We were three hours into the Sunday morning after Saturday’s snowfall but our block-long cul de sac was not under attack; we were being rescued, liberated. Seen from the bedroom window, the larger of the two machines had an unreal immensity that made our little street resemble a road in the Caucasus. No wonder, I’d been reading Chekhov at bedtime after a long afternoon watching Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s mesmerizing Chekhovian epic, Once Upon a Time in Anatolia.
The sound of machines in the night sends my thoughts back to Ceylan (pronounced “jay-len”) and the sounds and images of the world we’d lived in during that afternoon’s white-out. Three sets of headlights, two cars and a jeep, on a moonlit steppe, converging now on one spot, now on another, searching for the place where a killer buried his victim. Voices shouting, swallowed up in the night. Is it here? Is this it? The handcuffed man is dazed, lost, can’t be sure. There was a round tree. Or was it a fountain? No. Not here. The accused killer, his face dark, flayed, tortured, at once christlike and satanic, sits in the back seat between a doctor and a prosecutor. Another stop, another futile search. When one of the policemen shakes the branches of an apple tree lit by headlights, a big red-yellow apple lands on the ground and goes rolling and bouncing downhill in a wayward trajectory seen first from the side, then head-on as it plops into a stream which carries it along while the men bicker. What do we do now? Give up? The apple’s journey ends against a row of rocks. Like an image of the futile quest, it has gone as far as it can go, the stream flowing around it as the voices discuss the next move. They’re tired, they need something to eat, time to take a break and calm down.
The Mayor’s Daughter
The party stops at a desolate village. The mayor or muktar has been alerted and has food ready for them. They eat and talk. The gregarious mayor is hoping for improvements to the cemetery. He wants a morgue. He’s embarrassed, apologetic when the power goes out. “The wind’s been wild this past week,” he says, sending word for tea to be brought. The room is in total darkness when the mayor’s 15-year-old daughter enters bearing a large tray, the glasses of tea rattling as she moves among them, her lovely solemn face lit by an oil lamp. The men are stunned and moved by her beauty, by the quiet grace of her movements, the killer touched and terrified, shaken, sobbing. Someone wonders how a muktar could produce “such an angel” and someone else says she will waste away in this village. All the while there’s the wind, the sound of objects being blown about, doors creaking, dogs barking, and the radiant girl moving gently, tenuously around the dark room.
On the Road
As the snow plows leave us for other streets, I click on the little book light and return to the passage at the end of the tale I was reading before I went to sleep, Chekhov’s “On the Road,” which takes place in “the traveller’s room” at a roadside inn and was surely meant to be read on a night whose story is being written by snow. A man and a woman have bonded, she’s rich and young, he’s poor and middle-aged and has lost everything but his six-year-old daughter and his gift for spell-binding narrative as he dazzles the fascinated woman with the story of his life. Chekhov weaves a spell of his own, and it’s as if Ceylan’s windblown steppe and our snow haunted weather had found expression in the words of Constance Garnett’s translation, “Outside, God alone knows why, the winter was raging still. Whole clouds of big soft snowflakes were whirling restlessly over the earth, unable to find a resting-place. The horses, the sledge, the trees, a bull tied to a post, all were white and seemed soft and fluffy.” The man tucks the young gentlewoman into her sledge; after it goes round a huge snowdrift, she looks back as though she wants to say something to him. He runs up to her, but she doesn’t say a word, she only looks at him “through her long eyelashes with little specks of snow on them,” and it suddenly seems to him “that with another touch or two that girl would have forgiven him his failures, his age, his desolate position, and would have followed him without question or reasonings.” He stands a long while, gazing at the tracks left by the sledge runners. The snowflakes greedily settled on his hair, his beard, his shoulders,” the track of the runners has vanished, “but still his eyes kept seeking something in the clouds of snow.”
Chekhov in Turkey
I’ve been reading Chekhov ever since my wife and I watched Ceylan’s latest, even longer film Winter Sleep (2014) over the first two nights of the new year. Set in the fantastical landscape of Cappodochia, and haunted by the somber, probing slow movement of Schubert’s piano sonata No. 20 in A Major, the film is developed from two stories, “The Wife” and “Exceptional People.”
Ceylan’s first film The Small Town (1998) is dedicated to Chekhov. In a 2009 BFI Southbank interview he says there’s “an element of Chekhov” in all his work because he wrote stories “about almost every situation, and I love them very much. So maybe he’s influenced the way I look at life. Life follows Chekhov for me, in a way.” In a March 2012 conversation with The Independent, Ceylan calls Russian literature “maybe the biggest influence in my films.” Asked if he means more influential than film, he says, “Definitely. If I didn’t see reflections of Turkish people in Russian literature, I wouldn’t use it. But it’s valid for all humanity.”
Awake in the night of the snowplows, I imagine Ceylan filming a scene in the “traveller’s room” in “On the Road.” Scenes in his films are so Chekhovian in so many ways, it’s as if Anton Pavlovich not only helped with the screenplay but oversaw the furnishing and the lighting, as, again, in the sequence when the mayor’s daughter moves about with her tray of tea, her oil lamp lighting images on the wall of the room, casting light (in the words of the story now) “on a row of cheap oleographs, which maintained a strict and careful gradation in the transition from the sacred to the profane. In the dim light of the candle end and the red ikon lamp the pictures looked like one continuous stripe, covered with blurs of black.”
Having read through several volumes of Chekhov so far this year, I was aware of the Russian master’s influence all through Once Upon a Time in Anatolia, from the amusing banality of the conversations on cheese and yogurt to the need for improvements to the village cemetery to the incorporation of the plot of “The Examining Magistrate” as a way of defining and intensifying the relationship between the doctor (clearly meant to be a stand-in for Chekhov) and the prosecutor.
Still, it’s the poetry of the muktar’s daughter moving among the men (perhaps in homage to Claudia Cardinale bringing water to the workers at the end of Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time in the West) that seems especially true to the spirit of Chekhov, whose girls and women are so often seen, admired, wondered over, performed for, and playfully revealed, as happens during that wintry night in “On the Road.” When the young gentlewoman enters the “traveller’s room” she’s so bundled up and covered with snow that she seems to have “no face and no arms.” She’s viewed at first by the six-year-old girl who sees “two little hands come out from the middle of the bundle, stretch upwards and begin angrily disentangling the network of shawls, kerchiefs, and scarves. First a big shawl fell on the ground, then a hood, then a white knitted kerchief. After freeing her head, the traveller took off her pelisse and at once shrank to half the size. Now she was in a long, grey coat with big buttons and bulging pockets.” Removing her great coat, “which made her shrink to half her size again, she took off her big felt boots,” and seen now through Chekhov’s eyes “she no longer resembled a bundle: she was a thin little brunette of twenty, as slim as a snake, with a long white face and curly hair …. Swathed in a closely fitting black dress with a mass of lace at her neck and sleeves, with sharp elbows and long pink fingers, she recalled the portraits of medieval English ladies.”
So here we are in snowy Princeton on January 27, 2016, Mozart’s 260th birthday in the 400th year since Shakespeare’s death. Chekhov was born on the 17th of this month, Ceylan on the 26th, and Schubert on the 31st. You can find Once Upon a Time in Anatolia and Winter Sleep at the Princeton Public Library. I’m convinced that both films are masterpieces and that Nuri Bilge Ceylan is one of the greatest living directors. Every film he’s made has won a prize at Cannes, including the Palme d’Or for Winter Sleep. Typically, no work of his has ever been so much as nominated for an Academy Award.