Turkish delights of the 1970s: movies of Metin Erksan

First ghost scene from Grigori Kozintsev’s Hamlet.

Metin Erksan (1929–2012) was no slouch. His movies were entered into major international competitions and sometimes won them. When Turkish cinema was having its heyday, in the 1950s and 1960s, Erksan was there. In the 1970s, though, he started making movies aimed at commercial success—or so the story goes—and on a couple of occasions at least, this seemed to involve taking well-known masterpieces of cinema and giving them a Turkish (and possibly Islamist) makeover for Turkish-speaking audiences.

Metin Erksan's 'Şeytan'
Metin Erksan’s ‘Şeytan’

The Yeşilçam (‘green pine’) period of Turkish cinema had entered its decline as Erksan was hitting his stride in the mid- to late 1960s. Making almost a shot-for-shot remake of ‘The Exorcist’ for Turkish cinema audiences must have seemed like a good idea. Erksan did it on a small budget and without much in the way of special effects. The makeover attempts to reproduce many effects of art direction, set design and music, but not very successfully. He gives it his best shot. In fact, he just steals the music. Erksan’s version, called ‘Şeytan’, was in Turkish cinemas at nearly the same time as Friedkin’s original. What was the point?

‘Şeytan’ (1974) removes all visual and narrative trace of Catholic heresy from William P. Blatty’s story. There are no Catholic priests in ‘Şeytan’, no cassocks, no seminaries and no desecrated statues of the Virgin Mary. When the possessed teenage girl is hovering above her own bed it is not “the power of Christ” that compels her to get back between the sheets, but an all-powerful Allah. So, at one level, Erksan was presenting Turks with a ‘Halal version’ of Blatty’s screenplay.

In the years following ‘Şeytan’, Erksan made five Turkish short stories into television features. Then, in 1977, he made a Turkish version of Shakespeare’s Hamlet, and he based it on the great, Soviet, cinema version of the play made by Grigori Kozintsev in 1964. This Soviet version was itself built upon a translation by Boris Pasternak and featured original music by Dimitri Shostakovich.

This time Erksan went further than making a Turkish Hamlet on the cheap. He added an unexpected extra element to the mix: he made Hamlet a woman. Highly-regarded Turkish actress, Fatma Girik, played the “Avenging Angel” of the title. “Hamlet” was the subtitle used on the posters, though the movie is usually listed as “Kadin Hamlet” or ‘Woman Hamlet’. Again, Erksan stole whatever was useful, chopping up Shostakovich’s score ruthlessly to make it fit his scenes, and echoing elements of the set and art direction. The effects fall short of Erksan’s aspirations: the ghost in ‘Kadin Hamlet’ looks less like King Hamlet than a somnambulant Bela Lugosi.

‘Kadin Hamlet’ was shown at the Filmex movie festival and was accepted into competition at the 10th Moscow International Film Festival (1977). At Filmex it was shown during the festival’s 50-hour movie marathon and greeted with hilarity. There’s no record of whether the jury was laughing in Moscow where, I imagine, there may have been serious discussion about the nature of cinematic homage, the political turmoil in Turkey, and the credit given to Shostakovich but not to Kozintsev.

Should we be laughing? I did. I’m not ashamed. But I wondered, also, whether there was something missing from this reaction, and if a cult of incompetence has grown up around certain movies—and ways of making movies—that makes it easier to laugh at them than to see what they were trying to show us. Erksan’s Hamlet stays in the background of her mother’s wedding, and she is dressed in a modern 1970s white suit. There is disco music in the background as the film’s first exchange takes place. Erksan appears to be making serious claims on behalf of his audience, including that Turkey’s decades-long reforms in favor of modernity, and equality for women, were not going away. Erksan smartly turns the duel between Hamlet and Laertes into a shooting-match with rifles in a forest.

Within a few years, the political situation in Turkey even more chaotic, other film-makers began cobbling together less respectful and less competent rip-offs of Hollywood hits. ‘Dünyayı Kurtaran Adam’ (1982), known as the Turkish Star Wars, is the most notorious example. It’s awful, and awfully funny.

Turkey was not the only country performing this kind of cultural appropriation. There is a Japanese version of Star Wars, called ‘Message from Space’ (1978) and an Italian Star Wars called ‘Star Odyssey’ (1979).

See also:

How Iran’s ‘filmfarsi’ remains the biggest secret in cinema history (Guardian)

George Franju’s «Blood of the Beasts»

Click to start or stop video …

Our attitudes to butchers and meat have changed in ways that our parents and our parents’ parents could not have imagined. Firstly, there is the matter of the declining status of butchers. It is a worldwide phenomenon. In the UK in 1980 over one hundred thousand people were employed in privately-owned butcher-shops. By 2008 the number had fallen to about thirty-five thousand. In New Zealand, and elsewhere, negative growth in employment of butchers outstrips the negative growth in most other trades during the past couple of decades by at least a factor of ten. It is not just a recent trend. CSIRO research on meat retailing once claimed that numbers of butchers in Australia dropped 40 percent, from ten to six thousand, between the 1950s and 1980s, and said…

There are two main reasons for this decline; firstly, [butchers] will be replaced at the counter front by sales persons, who will be trained in consumer contact skills and not in meat preparation. Secondly, there may be a move to centralized packaging, employing capital intensive gas flushing techniques for primals and sliced and trayed meats. These trays will have extended shelf life without the dull presentation of vacuum packaging and be capable of being stored in the retail shop until used, thus relieving the necessity for shop butchers to break down carcasses.

Secondly, we can add to the simple fact of decline the observation that technology and supermarkets have had their effect on how we think about the places, sensations and people associated with meat. Yes, supermarkets have butchers we can sometimes glimpse working in a space whose design has changed; but gone, very gone, from many people’s lives are the smell of the butcher-shop, the bloodied aprons, the wood shavings on the tiled floor, the tools dangling from the leather belt. Yes, gone—and a good thing, too, I can hear some of you say. Very well. I understand that.

Third, our meat no longer looks like what it is. It comes, instead, skinned, weighed, seasoned and cooked, packaged in plastic trays, labeled, branded, transported, stacked. Often, it does not even have bones. Many people have come to react with revulsion to meat that has any bone in it, as if the bone reminded them they were about to eat an animal. (Jacques Derrida said that the very word ‘animal’ carried within it a presupposition of the cage and food.) A bone in a fish is an existential threat. Look—I’m not going to mention offal (the meat world’s unmentionables), or Masterchef (cooking turned into melodrama). The whole “protein” thing makes me very mad. I’m not going there.

Jacques Derrida talking about 'animals.'
Jacques Derrida talking about ‘animals.’
Zuckerberg strangled a chicken.
Zuckerberg choked the chicken.

Mark Zuckerberg said somewhere, because everyone is pretending that his aspirations and thoughts are now public, that he was going to try to eat only meat from animals he himself had killed. Suddenly, I have the thought in my head of one of the world’s richest men chasing and choking a chicken. Or, confronting a cow with its ultimate sunset clause. And, then, a series of other thoughts… Of course this idea that one should only eat what one is prepared to kill comes somewhere from the desire to live a healthier life and to live in a way that reduces the effects of animal cultivation and destruction on the environment, and hence on the planet. I am about to agree this seems like a very good idea. (Peter Singer has remarked that this answer to the problem of unnecessary violence only affects a tiny fraction of the slaughtered animals.)

Blood of the Beasts is a kind of homage to butchers and, simultaneously, a commentary on the need to do ugly things to survive and perhaps even to fight just wars.

Then, I wonder about the practicality of this resolution. Chickens, yes, I can imagine most people coping with the consequences of the resolution. There are problems with some of the other animals. Cows are, plainly, rather huge. You would have to share. Actually, you would have to get help to move the poor thing, especially when dead. There is the difficulty of learning the butchering techniques, safety issues, storage issues, and so on. Other animals, smaller ones, present difficulties of scavenging and hunting, not least that you need a lot of time.

Somehow, I don’t believe Mr Zuckerberg’s idea is as easy or as noble as it sounds. I think there are going to be a lot of compromises. Compromises that involve hunting, plucking, gutting, butchering. He only claimed he was going to try to do the killing himself, so perhaps this is all going to be achieved with a Taser and a team of assistants.

I wish him well in his efforts to save the planet and his soul.

Blood of the Beasts is as disturbing as it was in 1949. Many people are not used to seeing animals killed, and would be wrong to think that modern movies and games had inured us to the sight of it.

Which takes me to my point: the disturbing and great film, «Le Sang des Bȇtes», by George Franju. Made in 1949, and now dubbed in English and available to be viewed on YouTube, it shows butchery of horses, cows, calves and sheep with poetic and dispassionate realism, emphasising the professionalism and expertise of the butchers.

Charles Trenet's La Mer
Charles Trenet’s La Mer

In the final minutes, as the blood of the beasts is being washed away from the streets around the abattoir, we hear one of the workers singing ‘La Mer’, by Charles Trenet, a song that would have been only recently released in France at the time Blood of the Beasts was made. (Was it the first time ‘La Mer’ had appeared on the soundtrack of a movie?)

Blood of the Beasts is as disturbing as it was in 1949. Many people are not used to seeing animals killed, and would be wrong to think that modern movies and games had inured us to the sight of it. 

Working at the cusp of realism and surrealism,  Blood of the Beasts is a kind of homage to butchers and, simultaneously, a commentary on the need to do ugly things to survive and perhaps even to fight just wars.

More information about Blood of the Beasts: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Blood_of_the_Beasts

Description of the struggle

It is true the movements can sometimes go according to a formula and this is when they are least satisfying. In their defence, though, remember how the mind works when it is alone, grinding from scene to scene. Touch me there. And now here. Then there. Tick. Tick. It is necessary, somehow, to act as though the other were present in your dream and also dreaming. You are neither completely free nor in any way constrained. Finding one who is imprisoned there is, because of that, all the more terrifying. That “one” — of which there are many forms and faces — does not see the real features of the face or form with which it is confronted, but remodels them in the image of the dream before the action began. The whole procedure is rigid and precise — it could be said ‘scientific’, ‘experimental’, ‘repeatable’ — and cannot be repeated exactly, even once, without risking boredom. Many men and women are willing to take this risk. A small variation is introduced into the action. It may not be a variation of action exactly, but a variation of the attitude with which the action is performed. I do this now, imagining that so-and-so is doing such-and-such. Does that feel better? The life of the dream and the life of the action play at endless comparison and assessment — afterwards, that is. It is destructive to bring the force of memory into the play of your movements. To be present, engaged and unselfconscious is important, and almost impossible. Desire and love compete with each other. I want it this way, and that, then this. — Or — It is this way, and that, then this. You cannot take out wanting altogether, hoping to be left with a pure action. The wish guides you toward pleasure; without desire you have no identity, your ‘I’ disappears and falls out of your body as you say …am nothing. This is the struggle and the essence of struggle. What either one wants, at different times, is to be free of this struggle, to find the moment, several moments strung together, when the struggle disappears and ease and freedom take its place. An ‘I’ announces itself in a shout, not at the end of the action but at the beginning, where it is least expected and most clear. Then, it must be said, the sense of struggle does not leave either one entirely — for without it there is no reason to proceed — but is suppressed and becomes the platform of a noisy, messy construction. Both of them talk endlessly. A rule is invented which can be more or less easily broken and replaced by another rule. Thousands of small objects and motions pile up one on top of the other. The hand goes here. “Balance it just there. It is going to fall!” The whole, stupid structure can fall in a heap of laughter and the ‘I’ must announce itself in a shout again for the construction to continue. The play proceeds in waves and froth, swelling and crashing, one disaster and joke after another, crude, violent, farcical. (The one thing it is not — when it is itself, and what it should be — is silent. Silence takes the action, by force, to a place entirely enclosed by the desire of one or other of the participants and where movement is confined by studied schedules and policies. When the struggle is silent it takes the form of the simple wish to shout, to announce the presence of meaning. — But it is precisely this sound which is forgotten by rigid desire, alone with itself in a noiseless oblivion.) (There are also modulations, musical, recuperative and quiet, in which the struggle allows a different kind of silence. It is easy to become lost. As an example, I refer you to the Aria (Cantilena) from

Bachianas Brasileiras No. 5 by Villa-Lobos, where, from the beginning, voice and strings work in contrary motion but give confidence to each other, and each learns the other’s part. Voice and strings have the opportunity to speak a long melodic sentence, a sentence without words — ah — endlessly wandering and climbing and soothing. In the middle, when the music appears to have stopped, exhausted, and for a moment does, in fact, stop, both parts then discover the same text — a series of difficult, straining notes, repeated and sustained, slowly descending and then ascending — in which speaking is agony. Near the end the contrary motion of voice and strings reappears, the music expressing only the desire for release by asking the voice to sing with its mouth closed — by humming — mmmm… ) So much energy is expended in the struggle, in the falls and repetitions that are its progress, that the mind becomes drunk with chemicals released into its blood, and it is because they are drunk that each one has no fear to die. They do not know whether the struggle will fail and they will die or succeed and they will die. Knowing is the first thing to die and they are both stupid with love and desire. (…until the very end where both motions play the same, new part. The singer takes a breath before the last note and, with the teeth still closed, forces air into the head on such a note as makes the skull resonate, like a finger on the wet rim of a glass, and “ravishes human sense.” )

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