January 4, 2017

Beautiful People: In Which Dr. Chekhov Helps Perform a New Year’s Post-Mortem

By Stuart Mitchner

Medicine is my lawful wife and writing is my mistress. — Anton Chekhov (1860-1904)

In Turkish director Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s Chekhovian police procedural, Once Upon a Time in Anatolia, the daughter of a village mayor is serving tea to some detectives, a prosecutor, a doctor inspired by Chekhov, and an accused killer who has been leading them on a haphazard search for the body of the man he murdered. Heavy winds having knocked out the power, the room is dark, and the men are in awe of the beauty of the girl’s face cameoed in the light of the candle on the tray she’s carrying as she moves among them. Someone remarks on the sudden apparition of “such an angel.” Gazing up at her when she bends to serve him his glass of tea, the killer begins to weep.

Given Ceylan’s frequent references to the influence of Chekhov’s fiction on his work, the hushed wonder of the girl’s entrance may owe something to his story, “The Beauties,” which is told by a man looking into the cinema of his memory to a moment in his late teens. A 16-year-old girl at some miserable outpost swarming with flies in the middle of nowhere is serving tea. She has her back to the narrator at first, all he can see is that she’s slender, barefoot, in a simple white cotton dress and kerchief. When she turns around to hand him his tea, he feels “all at once as though a wind were blowing away all the impressions of the day, all the dust and dreariness.” Nothing matters but the peerless beauty of the girl, which fills him with a sadness both painful and pleasant, “as vague and undefined as a dream.” He feels suddenly sorry for himself and for everyone, even the girl herself, as though they “had lost something important and essential to life they would never find again.”

A few years later on the platform of a railway station he sees a girl of 18 with thick wavy fair hair, a black ribbon tied round her head, all her features either irregular, like her turned-up nose, or very ordinary, and yet the “whole secret and magic of her beauty” is in the subtle grace of her movements combined with her youth, her freshness, her laugh, and a voice that makes him feel “the weakness we love so much in children, in birds, in fawns, and in young trees.”

Mother Daughter Reunion

An hour into the new year, I’m thinking of the two beauties in Chekhov’s story when I see a tearful 19-year-old Debbie Reynolds in a somber moment from Singin’ in the Rain (1951). Since she died closest to the end of the year, hers is the first face of the 151 in CBS News’ online image stream “Notable Deaths in 2016.” Because the equally affecting face that follows hers belongs to her 19-year-old daughter Carrie Fisher, seen as Princess Leia in her film debut Star Wars (1976), it’s tempting to forget time and space, fact and fiction, and tell myself that the mother is weeping for the daughter who died only a day before her. It’s a thought right out of the sadness and wonder of the story, “as vague and undefined as a dream” touched with “the secret and magic of beauty.” The idea of a movie star mother and daughter united in death is also as wholly improbable, absurdly sentimental, and crazy-beautiful as Hollywood at its best (and worst).

Playing second fiddle to her far more famous and adored mother even up to the day of her own death, Carrie Fisher made the most of the situation by writing edgy memoirs and figuratively letting her hair down, as she does in the HBO documentary of Wishful Drinking, the solo show in which she spares no one, least of all herself. The high point of the performance is when she stands like a teacher before a sort of immense “FaceBook blackboard” tracing the tangled web of relationships, marriages, divorces, affairs, betrayals, adoptions, and related generational chaos in a course she calls Hollywood 101, all of it spawned by her parents, Eddie and Debbie, “America’s sweethearts.”

The over-the-top, off-the-wall finale of Wishful Drinking shows Carrie being borne on a stretcher through the wildly applauding audience, put into an ambulance, and driven off into the night, a piece of black-comedy grotesquerie Terry Southern might envy, as might Lenny Bruce. As for Dr. Chekhov, he would probably roll his eyes, heave a Russian sigh, and say, “There’s no understanding anything in this world” — a line from “Lights,” another story of his I read on New Year’s Eve.

Beautiful People

A line from the Beatles song “Baby, You’re a Rich Man” comes to mind whenever I scan the faces of CBS’s notable dead of 2016. As sung by John Lennon, “How does it feel to be one of the beautiful people?” has a cynical edge, and it’s worth noting that the song is played during the closing credits of The Social Network, which was released in 2010 around the time Carrie Fisher was playing her own chaotic family album of beautiful people for laughs in Wishful Drinking.

Speaking of the Beatles, number 119 on CBS’s social network of the no-longer-with-us is EMI’s George Martin, whose production skills helped make Beatles music into a force felt round the world. Unlike most people on the list, who are shown solo, Martin is surrounded by John, Paul, George, and Ringo. The brief bio quotes him saying “when you’re with them, you feel enriched in their presence, and when they go away, you feel diminished.” Another person associated with the legend, Alan Williams, the Liverpool club owner who got the boys the all-important early gigs in Hamburg, died on the last day of the year, too late to make the CBS tribute.

Lights and Camera

In his story “Lights,” Chekhov is seeing a specific portion of the world for us, for all time, somewhere in the Russian night where the lights stretch along the line to the very horizon, then turn in a semicircle to the left and disappear in the darkness of the distance: “There seemed to be something in common between them and the stillness of the night and the disconsolate song of the telegraph wire. It seemed as though some weighty secret were buried under the embankment and only the lights, the night, and the wires knew of it.”

It’s Chekhov’s eye for what matters that puts you visually into his world again and again in story after story, as if he were inadvertently leading the way to the worldwide phenomenon of cinema that would include the Turkish director whose films glow with his influence and the filmmakers pictured on the CBS site. Like Jacques Rivette, whose New Wave landmark Paris Belongs to Us was under the Christmas tree this year, and Polish director Andrzej Wajda, who thought he’d never live to see freedom and gave the world the moment in Ashes and Diamonds where a young resistance fighter sets glasses of spirit aflame in a requiem for his lost comrades. Then there’s Hungarian-born cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond, who filmed the lights of the descending mother ship in the denouement of Steven Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind, and the close-up of blissed-out Julie Christie in the last shot of Robert Altman’s McCabe and Mrs. Miller.

Another filmmaker who died last year, Iran’s Abbas Kiarostami directed one of the best films of the past decade, Certified Copy, which had to be made outside Iran. It’s about a couple playing at marriage (or are they really married?), a Chekhovian situation, with Juliette Binoche beautifully portraying a woman Chekhov, whose “mistress” was writing, would have admired with his gift for bringing to life, in a few words, a gallery of enfatuating girls and women: cunning countesses, and seductive Jewesses, heart-stirringly vulnerable peasant girls or lonely intelligent women like the title character in “The Schoolmistress.”

At their beautiful best in the CBS gallery, after the mother and daughter it opens with, are, among others, ZsaZsa Gabor, Patty Duke, Tammy Grimes, Gloria DeHaven, Nancy Reagan, Anne Jackson, ballerina Violette Verdy, and Madeline Lebeau of Casablanca. Not to mention rock stars like Prince, David Bowie, Leonard Cohen, George Michael of Wham, Greg Lake from King Crimson, and Keith Emerson of The Nice.

The Human Face

Last January, besides writing about the face of the girl serving tea in Ceylan’s Once Upon a Time in Anatolia, I was celebrating the faces in Brandon Stanton’s Humans of New York: Stories. The diversity of Stanton’s vision of humanity cuts through the implicit class boundaries in the dated jet-set connotation of “beautiful people.” In the same way, there are faces of 2016’s “notable dead” I didn’t mention, like Fidel Castro, Muhammed “I’m beautiful!” Ali, and Eli Wiesel that are beyond terminology limited to conventional notions of beauty. In an interview with the Daily Telegraph, Ceylan takes the notion to the limit: “I think the human face is the most beautiful landscape. The face tells you everything. It’s the only way to get to the truth because, most of the time, the words we say are not true. We have a tendency to deceive others to protect ourselves.”

In the run-up to midnight on CNN, as the big moment neared, it was, as always, all about the faces of celebration, multitudes of happy faces. On MSNBC, it was another story with hours of live coverage in the aftermath of the deadly New Year’s attack on the night club in Istanbul. I was wondering what Ceylan, who filmed Istanbul in his 2002 film Distant, would make of all the killing, all the unrest that has shaken his country. Given his knowledge of Chekhov, he would be aware of the fiction (and non-fiction like A Journey to Sakhalin) that hinted of the storm that would shake Russia so soon after the author’s death. I wonder how the events of 2016 will affect Ceylan’s conflation of Chekhov’s Russia and his Turkey.

Most of all, however, I’m thinking of a Turkish girl I interviewed for an April 2008 Topics of the Town feature. Arzu Komili was a Princeton University senior at the time, an art major doing a senior project at the Lewis Center she called Canvas of Wishes, based on the wish-trees of her native Istanbul, which she told me can usually be found at holy sites where people go to make wishes. “They tie knots of fabrics, plastic shopping bags, anything and everything, string, tissues,” she said. “Actually, most of the fabrics I used came from the covered bazaar in Istanbul. It’s an extremely common fabric in Turkey called Yemini. It’s what the Anatolian women use as a kind of head scarf.”

Arzu moved back to Istanbul after graduation and appears to have made a name for herself in the city’s art scene. Her presence in the stricken city evokes thoughts of a year of losses unimaginably greater than the 151 memorialized by CBS — in Paris and Brussels and Nice, Berlin and Aleppo and Mosul and on the streets of American cities.