; movieschocolatebooks: April 2016


Tuesday, April 26

Climates or the movie of three seasons

The love in Climates, directed by Nuri Bilge Ceylan, brings to my mind a sonnet by Edna St. Vincent Millay about fickle love. Some would argue such inconsistency is related to age and lack of maturity, others would blame it on human nature. Either way, it speaks the truth, for love is always about murdering one and letting the other live with the consequences. It does not have to be a violent kind of slaying, the one that makes the headlines, it can be bloodless, yet meaningful. All timeless stories in literature and movies alike, are about the one who leaves and the one who stays, the one who dies and the one who survives. 

Isa and Bahar, played beautifully by director and real life partner, are a university professor and an artistic director caught up in a relationship. We do not get many details on either his field of expertise or the official status of their relationship because it makes no difference. An older man, a younger woman, their love story unraveled across a sunny summer, a rainy autumn and a harsh winter. Bahar, the woman's name, means spring in Turkish, one season their relationship is never meant to relive. Summer is the beginning of the end, when being on holiday, they spend time together, yet their inner feelings and thoughts belong to themselves alone. Their story is done without yelling or violence, without much explanation, reasoning or conflict, as it simply untangles in a poignant, impenetrable, intimate flow. 

The movie is made up of small, beautiful cinematic elements like a minute music box, a Domenico Scarlatti sonata, a wet, unanswered 'I love you', a pair of hopeless hands over the other's eyes, a nervous laughter, a nut on the floor, a pair of exciting pointed shoes and long, mute shots at faces, places and feelings. You get to watch the story, choking on words or sensations, almost feeling the unfiltered light or the sweltering heat on the skin, the crippled rain or the suffocating white blizzard. It is a quiet cocktail of Bergman, Antonioni and Dogme 95 techniques that unsettles the viewer with its snail-like flowing. The story gets punctured every now and then by extreme gestures like Bahar's getting them to fall off the bike or Isa's powerful, shocking possession of his ex-lover. After all, seasons may flow like beads on a string, yet no one can deny their unpredictable shapes and drastic outbursts.

And whether you read or not Millay's sonnet, Climates unfolds like some visual poem, charting the unfailing succession of seasons, the way the world keeps ticking away, regardless of broken hearts and little people. Isa and Bahar lie, suffer, get hurt, harm, cry, love, hate and it is all painted in naturalistic colors, drawing an accurate skeleton of a relationship with its own mysteries.

Saturday, April 23

Son of Saul or clinging to our humanity with both hands

I always come back to Tolstoy's saying about great literature inspired by a man going on a journey and a stranger coming to town. And it reads quite safely and reasonably because it makes you think of the joys of traveling, as a path to self-knowledge or the mysterious aura of the stranger that brings a bout of fresh air in a god-forsaken place or life. But what if the man takes the journey into himself because the stranger has come and disrupted his existence and deprived him of a chance to stay alive? Then, we have a great movie called Son of Saul that makes us shatter at the lack of boundaries of human imagination and the unmatched ability to tell the same painful truth again and again, without rendering it less important. 

This particular piece of truth refers to the drama of Saul Auslander, a Hungarian Jewish prisoner in the Auschwitz concentration camp in World War II. He is part of the Sonderkommando, a group of the so-called privileged prisoners who, in exchange for better living conditions and more food, burn the bodies of the dead. And they do it silently, quickly, efficiently, knowing that every two months, they will be disposed of and replaced with a new batch. Some of them choose to fight back and prepare for the right time to attack the Nazi soldiers. Others, like the Hungarian Jewish doctor, performing experiments on the prisoners to save his own life, have turned their skills into a indispensable craft. Saul finds a moaning kid in the pile of 'pieces' he is supposed to help put into the ovens, and claims him to be his son. Then, he gives up his duties and starts looking for a rabbi to perform the Kaddish prayer of mourning. 

The movie breathes into your face, like a disturbing fly that would not go away. In fact, it feels as if the mother of all flies itself has been buzzing into your ears, slowly getting inside your head and guiding you through the story. It must be a fly, for it gets you close to the stench of bodies, and past the abundance of decay and crawling on the walls of burning ovens. If the fly image is not relevant, then perhaps you should imagine climbing the back of another human being- meager, always hungry and thirsty, abused, exhausted, alone, desperate, frightened, humiliated, constantly facing death in the eye. The director Laszlo Nemes makes us Saul's invisible shadow, a kind of shared burden-  his to carry around and ours to bear. He avoids imbuing the story with very disturbing images and sounds and leaves almost everything to our imagination. The horror is slowly unfolding inside our heads and it is for us to decide how much we are willing to put up with or what we choose to believe. Abraham, another prisoner, tells Saul he has forsaken the living for the dead and that he does not even have a son. In his own words, he is telling him hope is a dangerous thing in a concentration camp and if an inmate chooses to fight for something, it should be against the oppressors, let alone a dream. 

To my mind, Saul's natural or fictitious son is nothing but an excuse to find purpose. Under extraordinary circumstances, the human mind resorts to all sort of artifices to cling to the last shred of humanity. Saul aka Geza Rohrig is looking for a symbol of the normality before Auschwitz when his life had meaning and there were things in his care. He holds himself responsible for the boy's safe passage into the kingdom of a lord in the name of whom he has been judged, marked, and sentenced to death. He still loves this maker of lives and beings and he chooses his own battle- the silent, dangerous pursue of a duty that lies above himself. He fails but the image of the Polish boy in the woods is worth a smile and the inescapable end. 

The movie goes beyond meaning and characters and it renders an effective narrative with no drama display or special effects. Saul's character speaks little in a faint voice but his face, gestures and movements express his inner battle. It is as if he walked the premises of the camp naked of clothes and feelings, of hope and cruelty, of routine or fear. And maybe the message of the movie is not about holding on to our humanity but to our faith, the kind of belief in our souls,in whatever there is that defines and shapes us while walking through Hell. 

In an accumulation of small unsettling details, Son of Saul makes us uncomfortable with ourselves, challenges our parenthood and sense of duty and two hours later, we come to realize we have lost some weight. Or have become lightweight. 

Sunday, April 10

In praise of messy lives by Katie Roiphe or the road not taken

I love to read or listen to reviews, interviews and articles in my favorite magazines, newspapers or websites like The Paris Review, The Atlantic, Granta, Electric Literature, worldliteraturetoday or NPR. I am that kind of a bookworm if you prefer mere simplification. I always go beyond the remarkable featured people or books, hunting for words and serendipity moments, and new reading material. In defense of e-readers and my reliable Kobo buddy, I cannot wait for new books to make it to the bookshop shelves, much as I organically enjoy the feeling of a holding a book in my hands. My waiting list is so long, I keep reading three or four books at the same time, depending on my mood and never allow myself to plod across the pages of a novel or non-fiction book if it does not keep me involved. I have come to the conclusion that one has to have fun when reading, as well. And by this, I mean that you need to feel an instant chemistry to the reading material, to capture that rare moment when it reads so well and feels so good, you hold your breath and almost choke on the prospect of ending the book. 

In praise of messy lives by Kathie Roiphe is one book that has the legerity to read itself. It is an intriguing potpourri of essays, critical comments, cultural references, memoir and passionate responses to criticism. She is one girl that either loves the subject and therefore, goes to great length to render it in a powerful manner or simply dismisses it by malicious comments. 

Kathie Rophie is well-read and opinionated. She is a single mother of two kids, Violet and Leo, fathered by two different men. She romantically refers to them as love children. Her book begins with a kind of informal introduction of herself as a woman on her own with a 'messy, bohemian, warm' family. In two of her essays, The Great Escape and The Alchemy of Quiet Malice, she explores the prejudices of parenthood and mothers raising children on their own, making references to literature -The Age of Innocence- and providing various, humorous examples of other people's families. All her pieces abound in literary quotations and she finds a quiet, yet purposeful ally, in books, characters and their authors. 

The essays on Joan Didion and Susan Sontag are meant to filter the obvious, well-known pieces of information on the two intellectuals by exposing them as frail and humane beings with provocative and dramatic comments. She has a penchant for unconventional women like herself that tore down barriers and made a worthy life for themselves. She likes bohemian educated women writers such as Jane Austen who, in fiction, gave all her female characters a chance to find Mr. Right, whereas, in real life, she consciously deprived herself of the prospect of married life which she envisaged as a certain environment to self-effacement. Katie Roiphe chose motherhood and she is ready to prove all prejudiced, judgmental others that being a mother does not make you less of a thriving human being. On the contrary, she militates against parents renouncing their careers or personal goals in life on account of having children -see parents using their children's pics as Facebook avatars.  

She then gives us her own piece of mind on how fantasies shape us and how the impact of controversial books such as Fifty Shades of Grey is but some display of women's submissive nature to men and sexual fantasies. Also, she discusses sex scenes as they are depicted and presented in novels by male writers in comparison with incest scenes abundant in literature written by women authors. In both situations we come to the point of getting so used to these that we read them in a numbed state of mind.

I like her because she is a bad girl, who never talks down to the reader and takes him/her for a knowledgeable person. I like her for sticking it to those parents obsessed with the so-called well-being of their children who put more effort into finding the perfect school for their kids than in actually getting to know their kids. I simply adore her for telling people how Facebook is the modern way of writing our own modern novel where we squeeze in personal info and photos, fostering a false self that is meant to obliviate the pains of real life in defense of the fantasized one. We stand creatures desperate to sanitize ourselves and our children and we often take offense when it comes to such books because they are meant to hold a mirror in front of us by tackling some uncomfortable subjects. By making it fun all the way, Kathie Roiphe does that -she sends us the message we own one life and we should live it to the fullest, without obsessing over conventional judgmental views and a glossy, false existence. 

Saturday, April 2

Desire for chocolate by Care Santos or how we live by our passions

A friend and I were talking about the few books written on chocolate as compared to the huge amounts of chocolate we openly or secretly allow ourselves to eat. According to Karen Coates, anthropologist and food lover, If ever a single ingredient epitomized human nature, it must be chocolate.  It stands one flavor that tore down cultural barriers and came to define civilizations and desires. We crave for chocolate like there is no tomorrow, mainly because we associate it with love, passion, old civilizations, refined taste, joy, and well being. 

From an economic point of view, chocolate consumption is a mark of how well people are doing and we marvel at measuring the kilos certain nations devour in comparisons to others. Then, as in any other situations when an inherent sense of balance must be struck, we associate chocolate production with child slavery practices and we are supposed to boycott large companies by not buying their products or at least, foster a sense of remorse or civic engagement. We don't. We covet it too much to give it up. We stand by our addictions.

Back to my American days, I experienced such a sugar intoxication that my body refused to get closer to chocolate. To anything remotely desert like no matter how hard I tried and how many new things I experienced. I came back, full of stories to share, one passion minus. And, the same friend told me it was a fleeting thing, a sort of readjusting to that particular reality and then slipping back into familiar shoes. But much as I hoped to fall back into love with Lindt, it turned out my American experience cured me of a gut bacteria that gave me the chocolate cravings. 

I might have cut down on chocolate consumption but I still feel drawn to the sight of it in shops, recipes, people and books. Especially in books such as Desire for chocolate by Care Santos, a novel I read among the first since it hit bookshop shelves a couple of weeks ago. What makes it exceptional it is not the chocolate subject itself but the way the author weaves it around the three stories of exceptional women. Here they are: three women sharing a common passion and its object of desire: a porcelain chocolate pot. The book depicts the story behind the birth of such an object and its journey into and out of the lives of women that feel absorbed by it, one way or another. 

Sara, Aurora and Mariana are drawn to the magical pot beyond their control and the stories get carried away in time along with the miraculous drink and their Russian doll nested passions. Apart from chocolate and the pot, there is Barcelona, a place rich in history that binds their destinies across time. If you have never visited the city, the book will offer you a free ride and act like an incentive for taste and mind alike. Books blending food, history and passion are meant to be an instant success or at least to draw readers into the layers of the story that unfolds in reverse chronology under different themes: gender roles, love, adultery, longing, loss, all under the same narrative arc.

From the point of view used to tell the story, the novel uses different person narrations. First, there is the second person that reveals the modern Sara keeping under control every aspect of her life, except her heart. The second part is set in the nineteenth century and reads like a mixture of first person narration and an alter ego. Aurora, the maidservant, is bound to give in to the magical powers of the chocolate pot that draws her into its presence, beyond control. The third part of the novel is a letter/play that renders the unfolding of events through a man's eyes. Together, they take you for a ride in Barcelona, across history and ages, promising no spectacular language display, no exceptional plot twists, no depth of characters, yet somehow manage to leave you, the reader, craving for chocolate if not more. In a word, it is a undemanding, quiet, elegant story that flows beautifully from one end to the other.

The friend I shared the book with, admitted to enjoying the second part of the story the most because it felt the closest to her heart. Indeed, the second story is given more detail and lyrical shape. It is meant to appeal to the sensitive side of the reader and elegantly manipulate feelings of empathy towards Aurora. I, as a modern woman, feel closer to Sara and her story, because not long ago, she was the chocolatiere I wanted to be especially since I was given the chance to make my own chocolate, bean to bar and enjoyed the process beyond words. 

Mentally speaking, I am still in love with chocolate and I like to think of it as a kind of mature love. The crazy, young days of chocolate binging are long gone and I have come to appreciate stronger darker flavors and far-fetched combinations and look deeper for the satisfaction of my peculiar taste buds. I might catch again that bug that ruins gut balance and messes with both body and mind; meanwhile reading about chocolate makes the best surrogate kind of love.