36th Istanbul Film Festival, 2017

This is about seeing six films in the Istanbul Film Festival, which began this year (2017) on Wednesday, April 5.

Kazimer Malevich, Suprematist Composition: White on White, 1918 (MoMA)

Friday the 7th

I would see my first film on Saturday, and it would be a film about the violent passions of youth. Meanwhile, I taught classes on Wednesday and Thursday. Friday was Istanbul Model Theory Day, also a priority over the Festival; and I had a freshman linear algebra course in the morning.

When I went to classroom, I met a girl and boy coming hand in hand. They had spent Wednesday’s class looking into each other’s eyes, if not actually pressing lips together: all I saw of the boy was the back of his head. The lecture hall was not a cinema, I said then; or it was a cinema where the screen looked back at the audience. I was talking not only to young Paolo and Francesca, but to the students hunched over their mobiles, or chatting with one another. The lovers did not get the message, so on Friday I told them again at close range.

Dante Gabriel Rossetti - Paolo and Francesca da Rimini

Instead of looking sheepish, they looked horrified. Was I breaking a taboo? I tried to tell the students that they could spend class time on the couch in the chair’s office, which was empty; but in class, their public displays of affection were a distraction, just as the bright screens of mobiles were a distraction, to other students, if not to me.

The couple still spent Friday’s class side by side; but mostly they looked at me.

Ayşe had offered to give the second hour of my lecture, so that I could be on time for the first model-theory talk, out at the Boğaziçi University campus. All three talks were good and interesting. They showed the broad scope of the subject, being respectively algebraic, analytic, and number-theoretic.

After the first talk, at lunch in the faculty restaurant in the Kennedy Lodge, we were joined by the economist who had once seen a paper of mine on the desk of his colleague, who was now among us. The paper had been inspired by Descartes’s interpretation of arithmetic in algebra. The economist had tweeted about the paper to his half-a-million Twitter followers (at least that’s how many he has now):

Photo of my paper, “Model-theory of vector-spaces over unspecified fields”

The first sentence of the tweet translates mine: “Parallelism is binary linear dependence.” Influenced by the English no doubt, the tweet misspells the Turkish paralellik. The continuation is something like, “These days, algebraists understand politics the best. Nothing else matters.” Turkish authorities had become obsessed with the “parallel state” (paralel devlet). This “state” was said to be composed of followers of Fethullah Gülen: followers who had gone from being collaborators with the government to being infiltrators. The coup attempt of last summer that would be blamed on them had not yet happened.

Saturday the 8th

On Saturday morning, the first screenings in the Festival were at eleven o’clock. Two of these were half an hour’s walk from us, at the shopping mall called City’s in the tony district named for the object at its central intersection: the Nişantaşı or “target stone,” an obelisk set up (I suppose) during the reign of Sultan Abdülmecid to commemorate some warrior’s achievements in archery.

I didn’t mind which film we saw, but Ayşe preferred Paris Pieds Nus. This was Lost in Paris in English, or Paris Magic in Turkish. It was in the “Antidepressant” section of the festival, but it was sold out. Not sold out was the American independent film in the “Mined Zone” section called Super Dark Times.

The setting was suburban or rural New England, one winter in the 1990s. Almost everybody was a high school student. Appearances and dialogue seemed just right. Violence, sex, and their relation was the theme; but in the end I could not tell just what was to be understood as dream or fantasy. I suppose the impalement of one boy on the samurai sword of the older brother of another boy was to be taken as real. So then was the conspiracy to hide the body. Beyond this, I am not sure, and this is why I was ultimately disappointed. The movie was thrilling, because (as a review on Screen Anarchy observed) the viewer had come to care about the characters; but I don’t know what the film offered besides a thrill.

The movie ended in a classroom, where a teacher asked a question about women’s contribution to the industrial revolution. We did not learn the answer of the girl who raised her hand.

In the afternoon at home, I had a two-hour nap. This was why I could stay up in the evening to meet three friends for drinks and dinner, again in Nişantaşı. They were two mathematicians and a violinist. One of the former was British and had come to town, as I understood, for reasons having to do with the United Kingdom’s planned departure from the European Union.

A reason to leave the EU was that it cost seventy pounds to change a light bulb in London, because of regulations made in Brussels. I suggested that regulations were there for a reason, a reason that might be found in a general sense by reading Marx’s Capital. Complain about the European Union if you want, but recognize the achievement of forming such a union among countries that have been at war in living memory. Brexit might or might not be a good idea, but it was absurd to overthrow the work of decades with a simple majority vote on a single referendum.

The possibility of such an absurdity was soon to come in Turkey. The Film Festival would end on Saturday, April 15, because Turks would vote the next day on whether to give their country to a dictator. The person who intended to fill that role could not campaign by promising to keep money at home that would otherwise go to Brussels. However, unlike Donald Trump, he could campaign on the basis of past success, as prime minister, in improving the lives of people. Unfortunately he did not seem to get questioned on why he had allowed Gülenists to join him in power, and then why he had allowed Islamic State volunteers to pass through the country and even base themselves here.

In Mahalle Cafe in Nişantaşı on April 8, there were some copies of a tabloid called Design Unlimited, the cover showing a colorless plastic shopping bag, tilted into the corner of a white square. This was an homage to the 1918 painting of Kazimir Malevich, “Suprematist Composition: White on White.” In high school, I had been fascinated by a show of Malevich and other Russian artists at the Hirshhorn Museum in Washington: this show must have been the one of 1980–1 that I find named on the web as The Avant-Garde in Russia, 1910-1930: New Perspectives.

At the show, lapel buttons were sold, depicting, on a white ground, a black triangle pointed down, with red bars crossing the lower point. A classmate at my boys’ school suggested that the crossbars represented menstrual blood. I can now find the image, if at all, only in a photograph used to illustrate the “Suprematism” article of the Art Story site.

A theme of discussion on Saturday night was education: education to be a musician, a mathematician, or nothing in particular. A specialized school may help you realize your passion, or find others like yourself; but then you may also need to learn that most people are not like oneself.

Sunday the 9th

On Sunday morning, either Festival screening at eleven o’clock at City’s seemed acceptable. Diamond Island featured “amateur actors on the streets of Cambodia,” so it would show us a new country. In The Death of Louis XIV, I didn’t recognize the name of the actor who played Louis, but Ayşe did. François Truffaut had cast the young Jean-Pierre Léaud several times as Antoine Doinel, starting with 400 Coups.

Here then was somebody who had practiced acting since childhood. Now we would see him as an old man, acting under a Catalan director. We scored two of the last seats. This meant they were some of the worst seats and were separate; however, much of the front row remained empty after the advertisements ended, and Ayşe joined me there from the second row when I moved in from the side.

We had to look up and turn our heads to watch the action, as if at a tennis match. There was little action though; almost all of the film showed a supine lethargic Louis wearing an enormous gray wig in a darkened candle-lit room as doctors and servants tried to minister to him. Louis eventually refused to eat, though a spoon was pressed to his lips, as if he were a baby. He had gangrene in his leg, but his main doctor couldn’t believe it. A quack offered an elixir made with the sperm of a bull, but it didn’t help. Too late was it understood that the leg should have been amputated.

The best scene may have been at the end, when Louis had died, and the doctors started cutting out his entrails. Organs were held up for examination. “We’ll do better next time,” said one of physicians. This was the age of Descartes. The body was a machine.

Ayşe and I had lunch at a new place she had noticed called Maya Lokantası. Restaurants are often given the name of a seasoning like ginger or basil; maya means yeast. We were at the edge of ritzy Nişantaşı, and the customers seemed to reflect this; but prices were as at any working-class cafeteria. We had oyster mushrooms in olive oil, green beans in olive oil, stewed spinach with yogurt, and dried beans stewed in tomato sauce. These were all standard dishes in Turkey, except perhaps for the mushrooms; but all of them had been done quite well, better than at the cafeteria next to our university building. It may be worth while to walk the distance regularly for lunch at Maya.

We had coffee and dessert near the Nişantaşı obelisk in a cavernous room that was nearly empty. The tables out on the sidewalk were full. The inside did fill up and became noisy, but apparently I was able to filter out the noise. Ayşe read War and Peace, while I studied the paper that I was refereeing for the Journal of Humanistic Mathematics. I thought the paper might benefit from a look at Descartes.

The four-o’clock movie was just about perfect. Weirdos was set on Cape Breton Island, Nova Scotia, July 3 and 4, 1976, and it was another film about youth. The dramatic date helps explain (at least to Americans and others who recognize it) how the film was Canadian-nationist, in a subtle Canadian way. An imagined Andy Warhol observed that the national symbol was a leaf, and trees did nobody any harm.

Shooting the film in black and white seemed an excellent choice. The countryside was gorgeous: perhaps the cinematographer gets some of the credit. The young people were as real as in Super Dark Times. I would say they were more likeable, but this might mean they were less realistic. You can infer from the title of Weirdos that in the end it’s all right to be weird.

The film was in the “Golden Tulip International Competition” section of the Festival. To me the film could have been one of the Antidepressants.

Monday the 10th

I have described three movies in the 36th Istanbul Film Festival:

  1. Super Dark Times (USA, 2017)

  2. The Death of Louis XIV (Portugal, France, and Spain, 2016)

  3. Weirdos (Canada, 2016)

We would see three more films:

  1. A Night of Love (Argentina, 2016)

  2. The Midwife (France, 2016)

  3. The Secret Scripture (Ireland, 2017)

The first three films were about youth: either first youth, or the kind of youth that may be simulated by old age and infirmity, particularly in an absolute monarch.

A Night of Love was different. It was about a couple, married for twelve years, with two children, having a night out for the first time since who-can-remember. Their night became a night out for Ayşe and me too. We had to take the subway to reach the cinema, which was new to us: it was in a shopping mall called Kanyon, which had a courtyard between sinuous walls. After the four o’clock screening, we dined on the top floor at the restaurant of a Turkish wine-making firm called Suvla.

The film was in the Festival’s “Antidepressant” section. I wasn’t sure this was the right designation. A theme of the film was the things about your partner, and life with your partner, that start to annoy you after twelve years. Leo and Paola are supposed to meet another couple for dinner, but then the woman calls Paola to say she has broken up with her husband. Paola and Leo go out anyway, but then they are made to wait at the restaurant, because now they are only two persons. Patrons with two-person reservations go ahead of them. When Leo and Paola are seated, they cannot get service. The waiter whom they do manage to speak to tells them that theirs is not his table.

Paola wants to leave. Leo is reluctant to make a scene. The wife insists, and so they leave.

At the Suvla restaurant, Ayşe had reserved a table out on the terrace. But a warm spring day in mid-afternoon felt different at dusk. When we were seated then, Ayşe felt cold. She wanted to move inside. Could we move inside?

The waiter didn’t know if there was a table inside. There was, but it was out in the foyer. We took it. This turned out to be for the best. There was a lot of space and little traffic, and plenty of light (while it lasted) from the French windows looking onto the terrace. At the table closer to the windows, two young women lingered over their white wine.

Most of the custom at Suvla Kanyon was female. So had been the audience for A Night of Love. Talking with Ayşe earlier, I had described the girl in Weirdos as being perhaps a fag hag. Now Ayşe wondered about a term for man who enjoys activities dominated by women. Not too many Turkish men would have a boys’ night out at a wine bar with appetizers of goat cheese, beet, and truffle oil, and pizzas garnished with cabernet sauvignon grapes.

The loo at Suvla was unisex. This was in a country where unrelated women and men were not seated together on intercity busses. But we were also in a country where the overwhelmingly dominant religion proscribed wine.

The catalogue says A Night of Love broke box-office records in Argentina. I suppose the success is deserved, though it may have come from the many viewers who can be amused to say, “That is my life on screen.”

We saw the film on Monday. Then we worked for the rest of the week, until Saturday morning. Actually we went out Friday evening to the brew pub across from our university building, in the old brewery founded in Ottoman times. There was discussion of the possibility that more Peace Academics would be fired on the following Tuesday.

Saturday the 15th

On Saturday, finally, we saw films at a traditional venue in Beyoğlu. The eleven o’clock film at Atlas Sineması might be sold out, but then the film across İstiklâl at Beyoğlu Sineması would be acceptable.

Sami Blood (Sweden and Norway, 2016) would have been interesting, at least, but we did not see it. There were plenty of seats for The Midwife, even though it was in the “Galas” section: “The Turkish premieres of blockbusters with A-list casts, crowd-pleasing films, and most anticipated works of the year.”

Such ambitious rhetoric might describe films I would avoid; but Sage Femme was fine. The Turkish title was Two Women, and it did seem right to allude to Catherine Deneuve’s character, as well as that of the midwife (played by another Catherine, Catherine Frot, but I didn’t know her).

It seems clichéd, the idea that the non-smoking, non-drinking vegetarian should be an uptight person who needs to lighten up. This is what the 49-year-old midwife is; but she has good reason to be leery when she receives a message from the woman who left her father thirty years ago. Claire’s father killed himself afterwards. Béatrice had no idea. Behind her façade of joie de vivre, she is an old woman with a brain tumor and nobody to turn to. I mentioned the childishness of age and infirmity in connection with Louis XIV. Béatrice has this. It is a defense from regrets. Béatrice will not have moments of introspection, wondering what she has done with her life. She will continue to take what she can. Claire can be coaxed into giving it, and yes, she does get something in return.

I feel as if I am describing a cliché of a movie, but I don’t think The Midwife was just that. Perhaps it was a typically French movie; but that was a good thing. I have not mentioned the truck driver whose garden is next to Claire’s; or the son whose girlfriend is pregnant and who will drop out of medical school, figuring he can just be a midwife like his mother. Times are changing, but some traditional values remain. A cliché? Not only that, if expressed well, as I think it is in The Midwife.

The four o’clock at Atlas Sineması was another “Galas” film, this time a “star-studded psychological drama” by “Jim Sheridan, the director of My Left Foot and In the Name of the Father” (I saw the former, not the latter).

In The Midwife, the clinic where Claire had delivered many babies (as we had seen) was closing down: it was not profitable enough. In The Secret Scripture, the mental hospital where Rose has lived for half a century is being converted to a spa. We flash back to how she got there. She had fled Belfast for the neutral Republic during the War. In her aunt’s village, she looked men in the eye, and the priest diagnosed her as a nymphomaniac. Unfortunately this is a cliché of Ireland.

In discussing the first of our festival films, Super Dark Times, I expressed displeasure that questions of what was real in the film were not resolved. The questions are resolved satisfactorily in The Secret Scripture. The film is a good story.

In his column in the Guardian called “This Column Will Change Your Life,” Oliver Burkeman said that writing things down could actually impair your memory, though you may well want to write anyway. I like Burkeman’s column generally. I was a bit annoyed at this one, though I grant that the column has no space for all of the qualifications that might be needed to justify its thesis.

The past does not exist. It did exist, but it no longer exists. We can only infer what happened in the past from the traces that it passed along. False memories are demonstrably possible. But then, strictly speaking, there are no absolutely true memories either. We cannot compare the memory with the original event: that event is gone.

Such thinking may tend towards a skeptical end; but Collingwood bars the way. According to him, apodictic certainty is as possible in history as it is in mathematics. Do I agree with that? I am more of a mathematician than an historian. In mathematics, we believe in a power of logic that is stronger than we are. A theorem is not true because everybody thinks it is, but because logic makes it so. In history, what more proof can you have, beyond a common shared conviction that things happened the way they are said to have happened?

Well, as Ayşe pointed out on the walk home, lots of people in Turkey will tell you the Armenian Genocide never happened; but it did.

The Secret Scripture is set in a mental hospital. Rose’s story is found in the marginal notes that she has made in a Bible. The flashbacks that we see of the story cannot all be real. What is real? In the end, this is established by cold hard evidence.

At the end of the festival, it is sad to think of all the films that one did not have time to see. But The Secret Scripture was a most satisfying last film.

Sunday the 16th

Today Turks would vote on whether to remove the “inefficiencies” from their constitution. One-man rule could make things so much simpler.

Flowers made of flowers, Emirgan Korusu, 2017.04.16

After Ayşe voted, we went to visit the tulip gardens in Emirgan. There was a big traffic jam at the entrance to the park, and the park itself was jammed with people. One should perhaps go to the park to see them, rather than the flowers. Had they all voted? How had they voted? They may have been a better cross-section of Istanbul than what I see on a normal day.

As for the flowers, yellow tulips did not go with white tulips and red tulips. Graph hyacinths went better. I had the camera, but was saved from having to use it by a dead battery (I had not checked it at home). I did get out a couple of snaps, as to record the bizarre sense of taste that would construct large sculptures of flowers out of small real flowers (or were they fake too?).

Below the park, down by the shore, customers of Espresso Lab could use a terrace that caught some breezes on a warm spring day.

Ayşe looks at the Bosphorus from Çinaraltı, Emirgan, Sarıyer, İstanbul, 2017.04.16

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