EDITOR’S NOTE: Please join Press Play in welcoming the unique and fearless voice of writer-critic Ali Arikan. Ali is based in Istanbul, Turkey.
By Ali Arikan
Press Play Contributor
“No cries, no convulsions, nothing more than a face fixed in thought. The gods no longer existed, Christ didn’t exist yet, and there was, from Cicero to Marcus Aurelius, a unique moment in which man was alone.”
– Gustave Flaubert, in an 1861 letter to Madame Roger Du Genettes (via Cultural Amnesia: Necessary Memories from History and the Arts by Clive James)
I recently went to see The Conspirator with a date. I had read that the film was dull as ditchwater, and I realize that even a great historical courtroom drama is not the best choice for a potentially romantic evening (unless it’s this). But there was a reason for my choice and it was obvious: I wanted my date to be so bored that, short of setting herself on fire like a deranged Tibetan monk, she would acquiesce to being fondled, feeling up an almost total stranger being the one shining lodestar in my otherwise blank and dingy universe at this point. Alas, it was not meant to be, since The Conspirator’s sheer miasma lulled us both into a state of torpor. In retrospect, maybe we should have seen Rise of the Planet of the Apes, the film that this column will eventually discuss once I finish regaling you with personal matters.
Despite my usual countenance that betrays bliss and merriment, the past few weeks have been infernal, and I’ve been trying to climb out of that bottomless pit with a steady diet of sex, booze and art. In this column, I will be talking mainly about the third item on that list, but I am sure alcohol and fornication will creep in, too. When the time comes, I will tell you how I broke down in tears after a bit of ’ow’s-your-father with a lady friend. How, after another session, I decided it was too warm for the three stray cats who live outside my building to stay out for the night and brought them into my air-conditioned flat, one by one, only to fetch them out in the morning with scratches on my arm and the faint smell of urine in my place. How I turned up at 11:30 PM, just after they’d cut the cake, for a fancy wedding where I was supposed to be an usher, looking — and smelling — like a cross between Werner Fassbinder and Grizzly Adams.
The occasional-but-inevitable digressions into my hedonistic (yet ultimately catastrophic) lifestyle notwithstanding, this weekly column will be dedicated mainly to cultural ramblings with a Turkish slant. I consider myself, in the words of Herman Melville, “a patriot to heaven,” but I am based in Istanbul. And even though I have spent most of my life abroad, both the Turkish culture and the appreciation of Western culture in Turkey fascinate me. I will be talking about relevant and sometimes not-so-relevant Turkish films, books and TV, as well as Turkish reactions to Hollywood films, and, occasionally, world events. If that sounds whimsically amorphous, that’s because it is. I intend to keep this as idiosyncratic and stream-of-consciousness as I possibly can.
We usually have to wait a good while for Oscar-nominated pictures to hit the screens in Istanbul, but summer films tend to open here and in the United States simultaneously. Interestingly, summer has always been thought of as a “dead season” for cinema in Turkey. The kids are out of school, yes, but we usually spend the holidays, well, holidaying. Kids go away to their relatives’ summer homes or summer camps, parents drive to the beach during the weekends and, generally speaking, good weather is presumed to be too great a commodity to waste in the dark watching people blow shit up. Winter in Turkey is absolutely abysmal, so we take summer very seriously, thank you very much.
Nonetheless, certain films still break out. The Dark Knight and Inception, for example, both opened in the summer and were sizable hits (no accounting for the public’s taste, I suppose), as Rise of the Planet of the Apes has become, which is interesting for a variety of reasons.
According to a study conducted in 2006 (there have been more recent ones that betray similar results that I cannot find off-hand), only 26% of Turkey’s adult population believes in evolution. This is lower than any other European country and even lower than in the States. Anything that suggests an evolutionary lineage between man and ape is thought of as preposterous, mainly for the mistaken yet prevalent belief (and not just in Turkey) that evolution just means “humans came from monkeys.” The simple fact that we evolved over the course of history from more primitive life forms, not just as humans but as living organisms, is an unpopular view to behold, as I have found out much to my chagrin.
It wasn’t always like this. Certainly, when I was in middle school, we spent weeks on evolutionary biology, and found it a mischievously fun pursuit to rile up our Religious Education teacher on how, as a devout Muslim yet a tutor in a secular school (the irony was lost on us at the time), he could justify belief in both. It was a more innocent time.
Recently, however, there have been a number of palpable changes in Turkish society. We have had a neo-Islamist government since 2002 (they prefer to call themselves Muslim democrats), and, even though there is an inherent chicken-or-the-egg paradox, under their oversight, the country has become more conservative. In March 2009, a government-sponsored-yet-somehow-premiere science magazine in Turkey sacked its editor for daring to put Darwin on the cover. Even though there were other political considerations that tend to tarnish said editor’s purity, the episode illustrated one of the key problems with science in Turkey. Though it is somewhat understandable, if wholly unfortunate, for evolution to lack support in a Muslim-majority population, it’s deplorable to see this from most of the top brass of the scientific community.
And this is not just the uninformed masses or the government-backed sponsors of science. I occasionally hear from people in my circles, people who are neither devout Muslims nor supporters of the government, that evolution is a fib. I have long given up arguing with them. If you are an affluent, “well-educated” 30-year-old member of society with intrinsic knowledge not just of Turkey but of the whole world and you still don’t believe in evolution, then a 10-minute verbal bitch-slap over a beer would be 10 minutes of my life I’d never get back.
So it has come as a bit of a surprise that Rise of the Planet of the Apes has turned out to be such a social event. Since the new football and TV seasons haven’t started yet, and since we’ve only recently been through a national election, water-cooler conversations are being dominated by talks about the film. Multiple viewings, not at all customary in this country, have become the norm. The film’s still playing in the larger screens of many a multiplex.
Of course, Apes does not offer any sort of scientific thesis in support of Darwin, and, as great as it is (I fucking loved it), it is more or less a very well made B-movie. But what it offers, and what I believe hit close to home with the Turkish audience, is the idea of rebellion itself. A parable is usually inchoate, and everyone takes from it whatever they desire. In Caesar’s evolution to a higher form of being through the work of godless science, maybe Turkish audiences see the idea of Darwinism itself. This is different from the obvious motif the film awkwardly weaves about scientific arrogance gone wrong. Maybe in the revolting, intelligent apes, they see the very idea of evolution, a man-made theory, standing up against its own creator, the “god-made miracle” that is man. In the parable, they see the justification of their own ignorance and prejudices.
Or maybe they just like the monkeys. That’s another possibility.
At the end of each column, I will offer a clip more or less related to that particular week’s piece. This one is most definitely appropriate.
Ali Arikan is the chief film critic of Dipnot TV, a Turkish news portal and iPad magazine, and one of Roger Ebert’s Far-Flung Correspondents. Ali is also a regular contributor to The House Next Door, Slant Magazine’s official blog.