Where Forgotten Films Dwell

Welcome to this site! It exists for one reason: to preserve the memory of films that have been forgotten about or under-appreciated throughout the ages. Take a seat, read an entry, leave a comment. You might discover your new favorite movie!

Sunday, September 23, 2012

Susuz Yaz (Dry Summer)

Directed by Metin Erksan

Film, despite its wide proliferation throughout the world, is a tragically delicate medium. Unless it is gently cared for and preserved, film negatives will deteriorate in a matter of decades. Film enthusiasts and scholars mourn the cold statistics which pronounce that only 10 to 15 percent of silent cinema has survived until today. Therefore, the rediscovery and restoration of lost films is a cause for celebration. But silent films from the cinema’s infancy are not the only ones at risk. Many more recent films have fallen victim to political repression and destruction. One such cinematic treasure was Metin Erksan’s Dry Summer. Despite its enthusiastic reception in the West (even winning the 14th Berlin International Film Festival’s Golden Bear for Best Film), it was swiftly suppressed by the Turkish government for giving the “wrong” image of Turkey. Never mind the fact that in Erksan’s film evil is punished and justice prevails. The hammer fell and Dry Summer was locked away and forgotten about for 45 years. And yet, like Lazarus, Dry Summer has emerged from its tomb thanks to a rigorous restoration by the Cineteca del Comune di Bologna. Now, once again, the world can witness this masterpiece of Turkish cinema.

It all begins with two brothers. The eldest, Osman, decides quite suddenly one day that he will dam up the spring that forms on their property, thereby choking all of the other villagers downstream. The decision comes as quite a shock to the younger brother, Hassan. After all, Hassan explains, water is the earth’s lifeblood. You can’t own water. But Osman doesn’t care. The water may belong to everyone, but the spring is on their property, ergo anything it produces belongs to them. Unable to dissuade his older brother, Hassan and his beautiful wife Bahar are forced to help build the dam.

Naturally, this invites the wrath of their neighbors. Without the water, their tobacco crops will die. The villagers appeal to the court system who quickly agree that Osman’s actions are illegal. The dams are destroyed and the water flows freely once more. But literally within days Osman appeals to an even higher court who supports his claim of ownership over the spring.

Meanwhile, Osman lusts for Bahar, spying on her via a peephole while she undresses and makes love. Erksan and his cinematographer Kriton İlyadis frequently highlight Osman’s desire by cleverly framing him so that he is never far away from Bahar. If she is in the bottom foreground, Osman is in the high background. Part of the pleasure in watching Dry Summer is reveling in the geometric variations that such shots provide within the frame’s diegetic space.

An example of Erksan's compositions with Bahar left foreground, Hassan middle background, Osman right mid-ground.

It isn’t long before Osman seizes on a chance to get Hassan out of the way so he can have Bahar all to himself. When a small group of villagers attack Osman’s dam one night, he manages to shoot and kill one of their number. When the police arrive, Osman manages to convince Hassan to take the blame because “they’ll give a younger man a lesser sentence.” So Hassan is sentenced to eight years in prison. Unbeknownst to Bahar, Osman destroys all of Hassan’s letters. Osman swoops down on Bahar in her grief, trying even more explicitly to seduce her. His passions reach their highest point during an astonishingly erotic scene where Bahar is bitten by a snake and Osman sucks the poison from her wound with extreme gusto.

When word gets out that someone with Hassan’s surname was murdered in prison, Osman tells Bahar that her husband is dead. After torturing Bahar emotionally and psychologically for so long she gives to Osman’s advances. I won’t reveal the ending for two reasons. First, most of you have probably already figured out the twist. Second, I don’t want to rob anyone of the pleasure of the final few scenes. It’s rare to see a film with such a violent climax that doesn’t seem forced or unnecessary. The final denouement and confrontation are arise organically.

This may be cloying sentimentalism bordering on hyperbole, but I truly believe Osman to be one of the best antagonists of European cinema. He isn’t a villain that audiences love to hate like Hannibal Lector or Darth Vader. He doesn’t have a grand scheme or plan. He has no reason for hoarding his water. The summer may be dry, but at no point is it indicated that there will not be enough water for everyone. Osman builds the dam for one reason: because he can. Whenever he is confronted, he gives the same excuse that it is his water and he can do whatever he wants with it. There are several moments when Hassan and Bahar rebel and tear down the dam. But Osman has an almost preternatural ability to suddenly appear whenever they do so he can put the dam back up. During one sequence Osman is attacked by several armed villagers. It appears that the unarmed Osman is doomed. But then the scene shifts and we see a battered but otherwise confident Osman re-appear at his house. How did he survive the attack? It’s never explained. Don’t misunderstand me: there is no mystical or supernatural element to Dry Summer. The film instead invokes the techniques and tones of Neo-realism. Osman just has an uncanny (and unfortunate) knack for being in the right place at the right time.

But Osman is not the only reason why Dry Summer stands as one of Turkey’s greatest cinematic triumphs. Take, for instance, the spell-binding black-and-white cinematography. I’ve always believed that black-and-white photography can be more inherently colorful then even the brightest Technicolor when put in the hands of a master. The Turkish countryside in Dry Summer is brought to vivid life in Erksan and İlyadis’ hands. Rarely has water seemed so beautiful and refreshing. Let us not be like Osman and hoard Dry Summer to ourselves. This is a film that needs to be seen, to be respected, to be cherished.

The entire restored film is available to view for free on youtube. Below is the link to the first part of the film. For some reason I can't embed it to this page.


Monday, September 10, 2012

Der amerikanische Freund (The American Friend)

Wim Wenders
West Germany, France

In a ratty apartment in Germany, an elderly painter mutters to himself as he stares at his latest creation. Surrounded by disheveled newspapers and dirty brushes, he inspects the painting, first covering his right eye, then his left. A knock is heard. “Who is it?” “It’s Ripley.” He pauses. “The door’s open.” A man in a dark suit walks in and tips a cowboy hat resting on his brow. The man hands the painter a wad of bills. “I sold one painting and ready to sell another one.” “How much?” “That’s 2,000 dollars for you.” The man in the cowboy hat walks around the painter’s apartment. “Now this...I think I can get even more for this one. I could use two of these in six months.” “In six months I can paint five. Try to sell five.” “Two. Don’t be too busy for a dead painter.” The painter looks at the other man, points, and chuckles. “Do you wear that hat in Hamburg?” The other man takes off the hat, briefly looks at it, and smiles. “What’s wrong with a cowboy in Hamburg?”

What, indeed, is wrong with a cowboy in Hamburg? Particularly when the cowboy in question is Tom Ripley, a wealthy American criminal who helps run an art forgery ring. A suave spectre of the European art world, Ripley has refined his criminal activities to a fine science. He attends art auctions where he bids on forged paintings done by the German, driving the price sky-high. He pockets the extra money and repeats the process all over again. It is a perfect system. Even Jesse James would be impressed.

In fact, the impetus of Wim Wenders’ The American Friend isn’t a failing of Ripley’s system, but a personal slight. During one auction, Ripley is introduced to Jonathan Zimmermann, a picture framer suffering from a rare blood disease. Ripley extends his hand, but Jonathan rejects it with a curt “I’ve heard of you” and walks away.

Ripley’s hand shrivels at Jonathan’s insult. “You mustn’t take that seriously,” an auctioneer quickly chimes, “Zimmermann’s under a lot of pressure...he’s ill. A blood disease. Little hope of recovery.” But Zimmermann’s fate is sealed. In a matter of days he will be embroiled in a terrible murder plot, pursued by gangsters. And it started, not with a crime, but with an empty handshake.


Perhaps it seems odd that such a small moment would ignite an entire film. It happens so fast that it is easy to miss. But The American Friend is a film of manners and style, knowing glances and seemingly empty faces. It is a love letter and subliminal condemnation of American culture. For Wenders, the style becomes the substance.

For those familiar with Tom Ripley, the main character of Patricia Highsmith’s “Ripliad,” a pentalogy of crime novels about a refined yet amoral criminal, what happens next to Zimmermann is shocking, but not unexpected. A French criminal named Raoul Minot asks Ripley if he could assassinate a rival gangster. Ripley refuses, but suggests an alternative. He orchestrates a plot wherein Zimmermann is convinced that his blood condition has worsened and that he only has a short amount of time left. Once Zimmermann is completely horrified of his “impending” death, Minot swoops in and offers him a massive sum of money in exchange for carrying out the assassination. Desperate to provide his wife and son with some money to survive on, Zimmermann agrees and murders the gangster in a subway station.

However, things are complicated when Minot reveals to Ripley that he was so pleased with Zimmermann’s work that he plans on using him again. Only this time, the murder will take place on a train with a garrote. Ripley is horrified at this development. See, Ripley had visited Zimmermann’s shop before and after the first murder in order to get a picture framed. An unlikely friendship grew between the two, all the while with Zimmermann completely unaware of Ripley’s machinations. So Ripley interrupts the second murder and dispatches the target himself. Afterwards Ripley reveals the truth to Zimmermann, leading to one of the film’s best scenes. Zimmermann offers Ripley the money for the hit. Ripley refuses and states, “I would like to be your friend, but friendship isn’t possible.” But their reconciliation is cut short when more gangsters arrive to kill them both for Ripley’s intervention. 

On the surface it might seem like The American Friend is merely a hollow adaption of Highsmith’s novel, especially when compared to the critical darling Ripley’s Game (2002), also based on the same novel. The 2002 film by Liliana Cavani focused more on the character of Ripley, portrayed by John Malkovich in a career-defining performance, than on his relationship with Zimmermann. Malkovich played Ripley as a sterile sociopath akin to Hannibal Lector without the sense of humor and cannibalistic craving for human flesh. But I find Dennis Hopper’s performance in The American Friend more intriguing. I still don’t quite understand Malkovich Ripley’s motivation for saving Zimmermann. But I can easily accept and sympathize with Hopper Ripley’s change of heart. He is a man so used to respect that Zimmermann’s insult seemed emasculating. I think it was no coincidence that Wenders framed Ripley’s rejected handshake as a deflating phallus.

This emasculation is further driven home when one examines Wenders’ thematic inspirations. Heavily inspired by American cinema, Wenders’ Ripley-Zimmermann relationship evokes hard-boiled film noir and 50s melodrama where masculinity was closely guarded and defended in the face of social and familial pressures. Malkovich Ripley saved Zimmermann because that’s what the story needed to continue. Hopper Ripley saved Zimmermann because he realized it was the right thing to do. So what, indeed, is wrong with a cowboy in Hamburg? One thing’s for sure: there’s more to it than Ripley’s hat.