Friday, February 14, 2014

Kulkedisi, aka Turkish Cinderella (Turkey, 1971)

In light of recent events, you'd think the last thing I'd want to do right now is write about another Turkish pop film based on Western source material. You see, just a few days ago I discovered that a British academic by the name of Lee Broughton had dedicated a large portion of his chapter in the book Impure Cinema to taking me to task for my Teleport City review of Korkusuz Kaptan Swing, a Turkish Western based on an Italian comic book, Il Comandante Mark, set during the American revolution. Nonetheless, I stand by my review’s main points: that (1) Korkusuz Kaptan Swing, with its ridiculously garbed British soldiers, plentiful anachronisms and slapstick comic relief, offers a weird, funhouse mirror vision of American history and (2) that it is awful.

Broughton, however, chose to cite my review as being representative of an America-centric attitude with a tendency to label inter-cultural products like Korkusuz Kaptan Swing as “impure” or “other”, counting me (i.e. “American film reviewer Todd Stadtman”) among, in the words of Andre Bazin, “staid critics and arbiters of taste who are governed by prejudicial value judgments”. Now, I am well aware that such attitudes exist, even within the cool headed world of internet movie criticism. I also view what Broughton and Bazin describe as the absolute opposite of what I try to accomplish with my film writing in general -- while at the same time wondering if he would hold the same opinion if he were aware of the many unorthodox foreign Westerns that I have championed. Still, it would be arrogant of me to assert that I’m immune to cultural bias, and the odds that I – as a white, middle class, middle aged, heterosexual American man – might say something culturally insensitive are overwhelming even on a good day. So I’m just going to consider this one to grow on.

Anyway, I get the feeling, going by the sheer amount of verbiage he dedicated to the task of spanking me, that Broughton kinda likes me, and that his razzing me in this manner is just his way of pulling my pigtails. And fortunately for him, I’m a huge narcissist, so I am far too tickled by the attention to register the slight on any deep level.

The extent that it did register, though, moved me to make an ill-fated yet solemn vow that, in approaching Kulkedisi, a Turkish adaptation of Cinderella, I would be open of both mind and heart, addressing it with a clean slate. These proved to be famous last words, as, at about ten minutes into the movie, when we catch our first view of the King’s throne room and the palace guards therein, Korkusuz Kaptan Swing reared its ugly head in a most unexpected way:

Those are the exact same fucking costumes that looked so risible on the “Red Coats” in Kaptan Swing!. At least now I know where they originated, because they look much more at home in Kulkedisi’s story book world (both films being made in the same year) than they do on actors portraying what are supposed to be Revolutionary War era British soldiers. Unless they originated somewhere else, that is. How many Turkish films might there be in which these oddly elfin habiliments appear? Okay, calm down, Todd… Don’t let it affect your expectations where Kulkedisi is concerned.

Open heart. Open Mind.

Part of a wave of fairy tale films that peaked in Turkey in the early 70s, Kulkedisi was shepherded to the screen by Sureyya Duru, who directed the films in Cuneyt Arkin’s long running Malkocoglu series, and was one of two films based on Cinderella released in Turkey during 1971. The other was Saraylar Melegi (Palace of Angels), directed by Aram Gulyuz. But what Kulkedisi has over that film is lead actress Zeynep Degirmendioglu, a popular former child star who started in the business at age two with the 1956 film Daisy. Her presence makes Kulkedisi something of a family affair, as the film was written by her father, Hamdi Degirmendioglu (credited simply as “Degirmendioglu”), a well-known Turkish screenwriter who penned the majority of her films. The additional presence of actor Sertan Acar in the role of the handsome prince further complicates matters for the lazy researcher, as Degirmendioglu’s husband, a famous Turkish footballer who appeared alongside her on screen on a few occasions, bore the almost identical name of Serkan Acar. He, however, does not make an appearance here.

If you are someone like me, who tends to confuse the details of Cinderella and Snow White, the good news is: Kulkedisi does too! By which I mean that, if you are someone who hears “Cinderella” and thinks “that’s the one with the dwarves, right?”, Kulkedisi has dwarves aplenty for you. The first batch is a trio of male little people who attend to the king and prince, the second a trio of female dwarves who are faithful companions to Cinderella. These two camps of wee folk finally make a love connection at the film’s conclusion, and part of the “happy ever after” is the little guys tackling the little gals and rolling around with them in the dust as the closing credits roll. Further evidence of Turkey’s propensity toward taking innocent properties and making them just a smidge dirtier is the scene in which the Prince first lays eyes on Cinderella, in which she is skinny dipping, and a set of his and hers fantasy sequences in which Cinderella imagines herself and the midriff baring prince doing a sexy gypsy dance and the Prince imagines himself a sultan, with the midriff baring Cinderella a belly dancer performing for his pleasure.

It is at this point that I would normally offer the caveat that I watched Kulkedisi, a Turkish language film, without the benefit of English subtitles. The fact is, however, that, aside from those detours described above, the film stays pretty close to the original story’s script. Thus few challenges to comprehension are presented to those of us familiar with it -- even those of us who are waiting for the dwarves to show up. We see the pitiful young Cinderella reduced to a state of slavery by her wicked stepmother (Hikmet Gul) and nattering, vacuous step sisters. There is the witch, who, interestingly, appears to be played by the same actress, Suna Selen, who plays Cinderella’s Fairy Godmother, and may in fact be the same character (hey, I’m not saying that subtitles wouldn’t have helped). And then of course there is the royal ball, the pumpkin coach, the slipper, and at last, justice for Cindy.

In terms of production values, Kulkedisi is pretty much par for the course for a Turkish pop film of its era. However, that “school play” feeling created by the sets, which at times appear to consist of little more than brightly colored paper, for once lends the production a sort of charm, rather than just making it look silly (see Korkusuz Kaptan Swing). Director Duru and screenwriter Degirmendioglu also make some nice choices, especially in how they build up to the big reveal of Cinderella in all her dazzling, ball-going finery. If you reverse engineer it back through all the narratives that have since been called “Cinderella stories”, Cinderella is the ultimate revenge tale, the payback for every bullied child who’s ever thought to themselves, “just you wait and see”, and, hence, the impetus for 99% of reality television. Of course, no one understands revenge better than the Turks, and so the makers of Kulkedisi craftily delay Cinderella’s big moment for maximum impact.

Having not seen one of these Turkish fairy tale movies before, I really didn’t know what to expect from Kulkedisi. But what I really didn’t expect was for it to be as marked by tenderness and sincerity as it proved to be. I think a lot of this rests on Zeynep Degirmendioglu, who is an open and appealing presence. It also stems from the film’s attempts to be as much of a musical as possible, despite -- or, perhaps, because of -- the fact that, whenever one of its spirited/shambolic dance sequences features more than two people, they all look like they are perilously close to trampling one another. But the point is: they are trying. Turkish pop cinema, after all, is all about entertainment, and it is by those standards that I think it should be judged. Unlike Korkusuz Kaptan Swing -- a film that is not just awful, but awful by the standards of any culture, planet, or dimension -- Kulkedisi charmed and entertained me. Thus, this American film reviewer -- under no duress from the damning eyes of the intelligentsia -- is given no choice but to give it a big, Yankee style thumbs up.

So put that in your pipe and smoke it, Poindexter.


Ben said...

Given that the point Lee Broughton is trying to make sounds like a basically valid one, it seems a horrible miscalculation on his part choosing a writer as broad-minded and culturally non-judgmental as yourself as a whipping boy.

Oh well - one more demonstration of why I prefer to read about movies via outlets such as this blog rather than stepping into the realms of academia, I suppose.

houseinrlyeh aka Denis said...

If I had only known about your (probably fiendish) agenda beforehand, I'd never have looked at your staid, othering film criticism. Or something.

Seriously, you'd think it would have been possible to find someone who is actually representing what looks like the total opposite to your approach to writing about film to me.

Todd said...

Thanks, guys. Best comments ever.

Ben, you're spot on. What irks me the most is that I agree about the basic point Broughton is making, just not about me.

I've on many occasions ranted against the tendency of American fan boys and critics to regard any commercial foreign film with familiar genre elements as an inferior copy of the American brand. I feel bad for those people, because they obviously miss out on the joys of a subversive Filipino parody like James Batman, or the reckless (and I'll even say liberating) plunderphonics of Turkish mash-ups like 3 Dev Adam and Kilink vs. Django.

I think one of the most influential reviews I read when I first started doing this was one that said a particularly shoddy late Santo film was representative of "Third World Cinema". Of course, the rest of us know that films like that are instead representative of ultra low budget cinema the world over, and that the Mexican film industry's reputation was such that it attracted talented filmmakers from throughout the Spanish speaking world and beyond to work at its studios. The ignorance of that statement (I can't remember by who; of course, it was online somewhere) strengthened my resolve to always put the films I write about in as much context -- both global and local -- as I possibly could.

As to why Broughton focused on me so much, I think the reason, ironically, is that not very many other people have taken the time to write about Korkusuz Kaptan Swing. This leads me to wonder where he heard about the film. Wouldn't it be rich if he found out about it from Teleport City?

Denis: Just doing my part to protect Amerikkka from the deviant cinema of lesser nations. We're the best, number one!

Mr. Cavin said...

...and that was to be my point: The sheer fact that you would write a thousand-odd word, and likely unpaid, contemplation of a thing pretty much negates the idea that the thing in question has been flatly dismissed. Meanwhile, in this case, the very content of your review is pretty upfront in exploding the perceived failures of the movie, even while owning-up to the fact that much may have been lost in the gulf of time, familiarity, and cultural—if not linguistic—translation. If it weren't for the liberally re-bracketed citations, I'd be unsure whether or not Lee Broughton had actually read the piece based his characterizations. To me it reads like nonsense—another academic speaking in tongues over his philosophers' stone in an attempt to transmute subjectivity itself.

Sadly, the "search within the book" function denied me access to the best page, 114, where the author may stoop to exploring your claim to being a tastemaker I sense it would only have made me roll my eyes harder. Seriously, fuck the po-po. If this dude thinks the ivory meritocracy is the answer to cultural inflexibly, he and I already disagree pretty fundamentally. Rock on. Horns. Keep up the good and likely unpaid work.

Todd said...

Thanks, Mr. Cavin. You are correct in surmising that my work at Teleport City is unpaid. However, Keith and I have a sort of economic suicide pact by which Teleport City will end in a storm of litigation that will enrich both of us but make it impossible for us to work together from that point on.

Miranda said...

A lot of world pop films, appear, at first glance, as a mess. However, if I've learned anything from the blogosphere and my own film jaunts, it's that some messes achieve their own goals and manage to entertain inside and outside cultural boundaries . . . and some films are just a mess, period. World pop reviewers *should* be able to tell the difference.

Passing judgment on a film based on a dire lack of entertainment value or craftmanship is VERY different than passing judgment on a film because of one's deeply held ethnocentric ideas. Luckily, your work at 4DK and Teleport City obviously place you in the first camp. Broughton, poor dear, might not be so fortunate.

Also, sometime I'd like to see a series of "Cinderella stories" compared across world cinema . . . I keep running across versions in E. Euro cinema, and it seems to me that the story is pretty damn resilient to cultural transplantation.

Todd said...

Thank you, Miranda. I have to say it's kind of overwhelming to be receiving all this support from such thoughtful and well spoken readers as yourself. I feel like the belle of the ball and, as such, like I'm living out a Cinderella story all my own. Bring on the little people!