TIMES AND WINDS (2006) : R.Erdem : 4/10
A major Mark Rothko exhibition has just opened in London, and several art-critics have quoted from a piece the artist wrote – perhaps partly in jest, perhaps not at all – back in 1958. He called it "the recipe of a work of art–its ingredients–how to make it–the formula," and it covers seven points: "a clear preoccupation with death"; sensuality; tension; irony; wit and play; the ephemeral and chance; and finally "hope. 10% to make the tragic concept more endurable."
A similar equation might be formulated by those familiar with a particular strain of arthouse film. Because while current cinema has more than its share of genuinely creative, risk-taking artists, there are many more second- and third- raters out there who know that prizes and adulation may come their way if they assemble a version of what Rothko's "ingredients."
Reha Erdem appears to have followed "the formula" pretty well with Times and Winds – the story of a group of children in a beautiful but poverty-stricken hilly/coastal village (For further synopsis, check out Variety's glowing review. I found myself unable to engage with the story to any great degree – prevented from doing so by some kind of directorial flourish or other.)
Previously barely known outside his native Turkey (his 'absurdist comedy' from 2004 is known by a pair of equally-unpromising English-language titles Mommy, I'm Scared and What's A Human Anyway?), Erdem – perhaps "inspired" by the recent prominence of Turkish directors like N.B.Ceylan and Z.Demirkubuz – has now decided to take the step into Serious Art. And the fact that his picture is appearing (to no small acclaim) on UK screens – albeit some time after premiering at Toronto in 2006 – shows that the gamble has largely paid off.
The "ingredients" in this instance are:
1) A title which sounds grandly profound (but is actually somewhat meaningless).
The original Turkish translates literally as Five Times – the film is divided into a quintet of episodes, each heralded by the stately appearance of a Turkish word in the middle of the screen superimposed into the image. These words – like the main title itself – are left untranslated in the version released in UK cinemas, and non-Turkish-speaking audiences would probably surmise that they referred to days of the week. Not so: they are the Muezzin's five calls to prayer; presented here in reverse order (why?)
2) A focus on a poor, rural community – specifically its children.
Funding-bodies, critics, festival-programmers and awards-givers never seem to tire of country-hardship tales (a Kiarostami-ish vibe is always a plus) and much of world cinema would grind to a halt if film-makers were forced to come up with stories which didn't involve the innocence (always "imperilled") of winsomely photogenic kiddies. It helps if the performers can act – an area where Times and Winds too often falls short. Even more distressing is the treatment of animals: a horse is whipped (in what looks very much like an unsimulated sequence) while a hapless scorpion is prodded and poked around. Such cruelties can – and should – be implied rather than shown.
3) A religious angle (preferably Islam.)
See (1) above; the main character in Times and Winds is the son of the Muezzin, and conceives a virulent, murderous hatred towards his father for reasons which remain unresolved. Turkey's notional position as the "tectonic plate" between Christian West and the Islamic East means that any movie hailing from this nation and dealing – in whatever fashion – with such subjects will automatically gain "Brownie points," though the sensitivity of these topics is such that directors, if choosing to tackle them, must surely do so with particular intelligence and insight. Both are lacking here.
4) Dysfunctional family relationships.
See (3) above. In fact, all of the families we see in Times and Winds are pretty dysfunctional. Good news, in world art-cinema, being no news at all.
5) Spectacular natural scenery.
To ensure that, even if the narrative is flimsy, we can marvel at the eye-popping splendour of the surroundings. Times and Winds takes place in a particularly beautiful seaside setting with varied terrain through which its characters can soulfully mooch. It's traditional for critics to complement the cinematographer for the "ravishing" images his/her camera has managed to capture – though if one shoots in such splendid locations, it's would be much harder to produce material that didn't stimulate the visual senses. DP Florent Herry falls down, however, with more intimate scenes – on several occasions the light seems to be hitting the characters' faces at impossible angles, obtrusively revealing the presence of high-tech lamps/reflectors.
6) Classical music – preferably Arvo Part.
Part is a terrific composer, and it's certainly not his fault that his compositions have become de rigueur for directors who realise that his sonorous compositions can instantly give the most arrant nonsense an air of Tarkovskian seriousness. This is even more the case if Part's music is juxtaposed with the Spectacular Natural Scenery detailed in (5) above – see Carlos Reygadas' Japon (or rather, don't bother.) Erdem goes a step further, slathering numerous Part selections – among other sources – over the majority of his movie, usually to a gratingly loud and intrusive degree. In a couple of sequences (a nocturnal bedroom-perambulation; and the sight of two dogs copulating in the street), this is such that one suspects he's spoofing the "genre." On balance, this seems unlikely. A five-year moratorium on Part in the movies is surely overdue.
7) Overtly 'artistic' interludes.
Erdem punctuates what passes for his narrative not only by means of those "call to prayer" chapter-headings, but also with numerous shots of his young actors lying asleep in various natural surroundings. Are they supposed to be "dreaming the movie", as some have claimed? Is there some particularly contagious sleepy-sickness going about? Is some symbolic meaning to be inferred? Who knows – but such sequences are entirely of a piece in which the camera will often hold a shot for a second or two after the participants have moved out of shot, just to tip us the wink that something Significant is going on. Elsewhere the general mood is one of ominous foreboding (only occasionally leavened with the energetic vibrancy of youth) portentously exemplifying what Bilge Ebiri, writing in Canadian magazine CinemaScope, identified as the "aestheticized melancholia on display in much … of today's Turkish cinema."
Given Erdem's adherence to the art-cinema "recipe", it's surprising – but also most welcome – that his picture is relatively brief: only 112 minutes, whereas one might have expected the running-time to sprawl beyond two or even 2 1/2 hours, so often the ploy of directors keen to buy cheap significance for their pretentious projects. And that's especially the case where directors serve as their own editors – a practice which seldom yields much in the way of particularly worthwhile fruit. It's depressing to see the meagre results obtaining such exposure in British arthouses – especially as so many infinitely more deserving titles from 2006, including Lisandro Alonso's Fantasma, Peter Schreiner's Bellavista, Ying Liang's The Other Half, Gerald Hustache-Mathieu's April In Love and Travis Wilkerson's Who Killed Cock Robin? – now seem doomed to be known solely by devotees of the festival-circuit.
112m (BBFC timing)
director : Reha Erdem (What's A Human Anyway?, A Run For Money, A Ay, etc)
editor : Reha Erdem (editing debut?)
seen 23.Sep.08 Newcastle (The Tyneside Cinema, Newcastle ( £3.00)