The Road Untraveled
As someone prone to pining for the road not taken, I find myself on the eve of my Cineuropean Tour departure preoccupied by what I am leaving behind as well as what I was forced to cast aside when planning my itinerary. The “leaving behind” consists mainly of summer in Massachusetts, my favorite season in my favorite state, though I’ll still arrive home with a solid month and a half with which to relish it. I’m also lamenting that there won’t be time for a NYC excursion to take advantage of these exciting summer cinema offerings, though I made up for it last month after binging on two Rohmer films (including a re-viewing of one of my top three, The Green Ray) at Lincoln Center plus a second helping of my favorite film of last year, The Clouds of Sils Maria (just as good, if not better, than I recalled) at the IFC Center.
The “cast aside” I already obsessed over a few issues back, but I was tormented anew by the reports flooding in from Cannes over the past month. I’d crossed it off because it would have required a much earlier departure (uncomfortably close to the semester’s end) and considerably more expense than other festivals, but even so…Most exciting and tortuous was hearing that Todd Haynes’ Carol, an adaptation of Patricia Highsmith’s The Taste of Salt, was rapturously received and was awarded the Queer Palm by a jury helmed by (another favorite film of last year) Appropriate Behavior director Desiree Akhavan.
While the overall lineup this year seems to have inspired more appreciation than awe, it was also simultaneously uplifting (to hear) and disappointing (not to have been there) that Yorgos Lanthimos’ latest (and first English-language) film Lobster won the Jury Prize. I’m thrilled to learn that it was picked up for U.S. distribution, though I’d have liked to see it before the paper I’ll be presenting on Lanthimos’ breakout film Dogtooth at next month’s Screen Conference in Glasgow.
Speaking of Greek cinema, I was especially torn about whether to add Athens to my itinerary, being thoroughly entranced by the work to date by “New Greek Wave” filmmakers Lanthimos and Athina Rachel Tsangari (Attenberg). As I was narrowing my options, I also read a beguiling novel (Rachel Cusk’s Outline) evocatively set in Athens, as well as spending some intoxicating time revisiting the Southern Peloponnese-set Before Midnight for a Film Quarterly essay I was writing. Most tantalizing of all were the rooftop cinemas I’d come across while researching, including the Anesis, the Cine Paris, and Cine Thisio. I have no good excuse for axing Athens, save that I whittled down my list by prioritizing countries where I hadn’t been previously (only having passed through Athens en route to the islands 15 years ago). Knowing my tendency to dwell, I will doubtless be despondent (not to mention alliterative) for the foreseeable future, at least until I manage to make my rounds among those rooftops. But in the meantime, I’m finding great consolation in the filmography of recent Greek cinema that Alex Lykidis, Assistant Professor of Film Studies at Monclair State University, was kind enough to compile. In addition to Alex’s list, posted below, I also highly recommend his article “Crisis of Sovereignty in Recent Greek Cinema.”
The nearest misses of all are those that are happening in the cities I’m visiting but on dates that don’t coincide. The four days I’m spending in Istanbul unfortunately are those on which this smashing-sounding “My Way: Gender and Identity in British Cinema” series at the Pera Museum is dark, and just before the Nordic Film Festival opens at the Istanbul Modern. Though I did spend an engrossing afternoon at the latter, where the exhibit on Magnum photographers was highly worth a look, and where the best features in the “Past and Future” exhibit of permanent collection works by Turkish artists were by women artists and/or about women’s issues, including Nilbar Güreş’s Undressing (2006), Şükran Moral’s Bordello (1997), and Kutluğ Ataman’s Women Who Wear Wigs (1999).
I also regretted just missing Mari Spirito, whose Protocinema organization (based in New York and Istanbul) I’d heard about, but I’m grateful for her recommendation that I stop by SALT Beyoğlu. Even if it was too between installations, I was glad to have gotten to wander through the site’s serene spaces, featuring a walk-in cinema, rooftop garden, and well-stocked bookstore.
While I was certainly intrigued by what I knew (or recently learned – thanks especially to Yaffa Fredrick’s “New Turkish Cinema in 20 Films” feature in Issue 6 below) about Turkish cinema, truth be told I hadn’t put Istanbul on my itinerary for the same reason I put my other destinations (rich prospects for cinema-going) but rather because I’ve been wanting to visit for ages and wasn’t sure when I’d again find myself (relatively) in the neighborhood. So while I knew going in that the cinema offerings were limited, I wasn’t quite prepared for the near-ubiquity with which the refrain “offers the latest in blockbuster films” appears in the individual movie theater listings in The Guide. Only two appeared to promise the sort of indie vibe I was going for: the Atlas Sinemasi founded in 1870 but worryingly playing blockbusters itself, and the Beyoğlu Sinemasi, less historic but playing more appealing titles (if nothing I couldn’t see at the Landmark Cinema back home). A walk through the Atlas was rather depressing, its forlorn lobby an afterthought in the recesses of what’s now a small shopping arcade off the hectic Istiklal Caddesi promenade.
Alas things weren’t much better at the Beyoğlu, though I was relieved upon buying my ticket to learn that the films were subtitled rather than dubbed, and priced at an astonishingly low 12 Turkish lira (about $4.50). Yet almost immediately the experience turned sour, as I was brusquely called away from touring the darkened lobby by an usher who seemed perturbed at having to stick around for the late show (9:15 start time – not exactly a midnight movie) for a mere two customers. The theater itself was more like a screening room, and no trailers preceded the film – only an extremely odd series of ads for an impossible to discern product. Just as I was starting to settle in to Far from the Madding Crowd, an impossible to ignore thumping sound started up and intermittently continued for the next ninety minutes; my two attempts to investigate turned up no visible evidence, just the auditory suggestion that the cinema is unfavorably within earshot of some substantial construction work. Interruptions aside, the film itself was the best part of the evening – and save a couple of riveting scenes featuring sheep in perilous situations and some reliably well-handled performances by Brits Carey Mulligan and Michael Sheen, it wasn’t a standout. Between the Atlas and the Beyoğlu, then, one can hardly blame Istanbul residents for favoring seeing Hollywood blockbusters in more luxe conditions…
Perhaps both cinemas would have made a more positive impression had I visited them during the Istanbul Film Festival last month — more bad, though in this case unavoidable, timing, yet I’d have sacrificed a number of screenings in solidarity with the protest against censorship that occurred there. Cinemas aside, Istanbul hasn’t struck me with the same allure that it seems to inspire in so many Western visitors; the city seems overwhelming in its city-ness while its charms largely eluded me – and this coming from someone who found Bangkok charming, though admittedly I didn’t feel that way immediately. Being the bad tourist I am, I will spare you my disgruntled response to the one day of historical landmark-hitting I managed, for I’m sure I felt too crowd-phobic and cattle-herded to fully appreciate the Topkapi Palace et al. For every atmospheric note (the five-times-daily calls to prayer echoing across the hilltops, the domed mosques dotting the skyline, the bright blue of the Bosphorus), there’s another that’s less than aesthetically pleasing (Beyoğlu’s “main drag” Istiklal Caddesi, the feral cats that accost al fresco diners, toxic fumes of all sorts but especially that of the ubiquitous cigarette smokers). Though it must be said that I’m leaving liking it more than when I arrived – so perhaps I simply haven’t given it sufficient time to reveal its charms.
Those that I have found, while hidden in nooks and crannies, are noteworthy. The up-and-coming waterfront area in Karaköy had a lively sidewalk scene that offered the perfect post-museum, pre-dinner aperitif. And I would be lying if I said I’d had a bad meal – every one was well above average, and two in particular were top-10-of-all-time-level sensational. The first was lunch at a tiny haunt on the Asian side named Ciya Sofrasi, the subject of a New Yorker profile and hence no longer a secret but still every bit worth the trek to get there (which, given that it involves a ferry ride, is rather pleasant in fact), and all the more enjoyable for being set within a district of picturesque food purveyors. The second was at the more upscale and Westernized but still sublime Lokanta Maya, where my octopus entree was perhaps my favorite dish of all time. Only because this is a film- and not food-related blog will I spare you the photos, but some of the more tantalizing dishes included spiced meat stuffed in eggplants skins and the seaweed-like sautéed greens known as samphire. Also well exceeding my expectations was Turkish wine, which is the only kind seemingly on offer but is delightful and affordable in both red and white varietals.
Equally memorable was being in residency at the très stylish 4Floors, which gained even more in atmosphere when the flat above us was taken over by students making a vampire film – a good omen, surely. So while my trip is off to a rather inauspicious start, with my regret meter registering substantially in favor of having chosen Athens over Istanbul, I’m relieved to be leaving the latter with a more positive impression than I had upon arriving, and am eagerly anticipating the cinematic cache awaiting me along my next stops.
Coming attractions: Budapest, Vienna, and the Midnight Sun Film Festival