Monday, June 13, 2011

Times and Winds

Times and Winds has captivated my mind in a way which few films have, leading me to seek it out from the local library again and again in an attempt to recapture the fond memories I have of it and determine why exactly it affects me as it does. I will begin with an analysis of its peculiar traits which relate to dark humor, but I will conclude with a less technical discussion of the more readily visible but no less beguiling or unique elements. But first, I’ll start with the relation to dark humor: dark humor seems to be rather poorly covered on the internet, so it should be no surprise that I can find no instance detailing any concept of ‘anti-dark humor’ which would make sense when compared to the term anti-humor. Dark humor is often similar in function to anti-humor, presenting a framework which resembles a joke but fails to deliver the expected release of tension. I think the difference lies in that dark humor cuts off the expected result by counter-balance and anti-humor cuts off the expected result by a noticeable absence, and this absence is often absurd enough to elicit a purely comical reaction in and of itself, although the framework of anti-humor can allow for dark comedy to spring forth, as well. Beginning with the expectation of dark humor the issue is a bit more complicated – what happens when the expectation of tragicomic tension is replaced by an absence of this tension? At issue is whether this anti-dark humor would consist of a lack of the tragic dimension, the lack of the comic dimension, or the lack of both, and what would be the effects of each of these potentialities? The results may vary based on context, and it may be that any of the potentialities could result in tragedy, comedy, indifference, or something altogether distinct. That something altogether distinct could result may imply a shortcoming in the dualistic conception of tragedy vs. comedy, but that’s an issue for another day. With Times and Winds I will attempt to examine, based on my own reaction, the form and effect of the anti-dark humor found in one particular case. Other questions regarding the effect of the film upon me remain: does this film’s anti-dark humor only strike me in this way because I am such a fan of dark humor? Am I more able to recognize the anti-dark humor because I try to watch such at a high frequency and consequently readily identify the inherent structures, or is this a general phenomenon? This is a question I surely cannot answer without interacting with others, so I’m hoping that others will share their reactions in the comments section after reading this post (will anyone?) and perhaps even rewatching the film (an unlikely sequence of events, I know). Nevertheless, I will press forward as far as the topic has room to give.

Whenever a film comes along that forges its own particular identity which doesn’t conform to familiar structures and techniques and moods we can struggle in vain to use existing terms or we can invent new ones to describe these new sensations. I may be doing some of the former in a bit, so to compensate I’ll indulge in the latter in the meantime. Times and Winds functions in an oblique manner, never following a particular pattern and often burying what seem to be central conflicts within its web of intersecting stories and characters. Within conceptions of a ‘strong central storyline’ and other such mechanistic measures of efficiency this sort of thing may be frowned upon, but the only thing I frown upon is any sort of efficiency which robs me of the ecstasy of whatever-it-is that this film does. ‘Whatever-it-is’ is not a very descriptive term, though, so I’ll attempt to detail these conditions in order to arrive at a sensible term to describe my experience. First of all, these narrative conflicts arise out of the psychologies of the characters, but these characters are children and are thus guided by the narrative-confounding forces of fear, naivety, short-sightedness, and fickleness, among other things. Thus, in practice, the things that children set out to do often fail to materialize or result in completely unexpected outcomes and thus it is difficult to build tension toward an expected outcome when particular outcomes cannot reasonably be expected. Additionally, children’s actions defy the narrative driving forces of accountability and gravity because they cannot be expected to fully grasp the context of their actions and their consequences. These factors are embraced in Times and Winds to the detriment of narrative tension but to my gleeful surprise. Let me first establish parameters before I get into the nature of my surprise: Between a son repeatedly engineering efforts to kill his father, a student completely infatuated with his teacher, and a growing girl gaining responsibilities at home there is a certain expectation of dramatic consequences arriving, and I could probably name 10 different films offhand that reach the exact same conclusions stemming from each premise, each carefully detailed over the course of a film, and each of which ends in a manner that is so predictable that it cannot possibly be true to the nature of actual children. In Times and Winds each of these instances result in distinct anti-climaxes which completely strip away any bitterly vicarious tragedy, any absurdly humorous conflict, and leave in their place an ephemeral continuum gradually compounding into a concrete span of time which illuminates the invigoratingly simple naivety of childhood, the unimpeachable importance of human compassion, and the essence of the slow creep of time which reveals and destroys all.

You’ll have to forgive me for that last sentence – the initial incarnation was shorter, less detailed, but simply didn’t adequately trace the nuances I find so fascinating in the film’s method and I was thus forced to belabor the point in order to refrain from diluting the point. This is the same strategy the film uses, not coincidentally. I noticed this strategy in another fantastic film that I rewatched recently, namely a deliberate broadening of a film’s scope in order convey the passage of time more vividly. In this other film, which need not be named, a relationship’s change is documented not merely by illustrating the development of the two participants but also by illustrating changes in others' lives, changes which often barely relate to the either of the pair’s relationship or lives but which establishes a context in the place of the timeless vacuum that the power of linear editing creates. By not detailing the plot, or as much as could be called a plot, the film creates a sense of time which focusing on certain confined elements would prevent, a certain ‘enmeshed temporal foundation’. This same effect seeps into a number of elements in Times and Winds: the film is structured linearly in time but without any defined structural cohesion which would constrict the passage of time to a symbolic framework and frees it to brush up against the unpredictable contours of the characters’ lives, a certain ‘expressionist stitching’. The film’s invigorating stylistic flourishes, from the gentle steadicam shots following the children to the calm pans across children lying amongst leaves, seem similarly detached from any overt symbolic reference but function on their own as self-contained flourishes like a gust of fresh air through a house on a warm spring day, a certain ‘regulating aesthetic complement’. This is not to say that the film is stiflingly hot or stuffy, but just as a house crowded with furniture leaves little room to maneuver a film can benefit from a complementary addition of space. These elements detach from narrative thrust almost entirely, but there are elements which at least tug at something resembling a narrative thread before the thread is known to be but a part of a loose ball. The boy infatuated with his teacher finds his narrative thread untangle with the slightest of tugs, so there isn’t much to comment on in this context with respect to that one, but the girl’s story comes to a sharp point which I find so very magical.

And now I must find the words to describe it. The film establishes earlier that the girl is being pressed into responsibility by her parents, and reasonably if obstinately so, and while carrying out her duties one day while carrying a child she trips and the child falls out of her arms and onto the ground. The accident creates a panic among the nearby villagers and they all rush to aid the baby, a fury of activity which quickly disperses and leaves the girl standing there, frozen and dazed, until she collapses. What details we know of this girl’s life indicate that she was entrusted with caring for the child and performed sub-optimally – the accident contains all the ingredients for catastrophe. Once she hits the ground, all alone in the frame once the crowd has dispersed, a voice cries out and her father rushes to her aid. As far as narrative tension goes, this event dispels anything that could have arisen from the strict parenting laid upon her earlier in the film and breaks through the potential expectations of ‘conflict’ into a simple and un-dramatic display of compassion. In the wake of an event as climactic as a baby being flung onto the ground I have come to expect certain things of films - a child to be acting irresponsibly or a father to admonish too harshly, but here there is simply a child who I immediately understand is facing something unfathomable and overwhelming in need of comfort, of being told that the punishments she faces for minor errors aren’t multiplied a thousand times for this, that she hasn’t ruined everything she has been told to work for, that everything will be ok – and that is what she gets. And why do I feel so jubilant at this moment, so tingly all over and full of hope and warmth? Maybe it is because there isn’t enough of this in life, maybe it is because there is enough of this but it goes unsaid in film, maybe it is because I have that magical zone in my heart for protecting children, maybe it’s because I’m a bit of a child myself, wishing that my own mistakes would be washed away with warmth and compassion – I don’t know. It’s certainly not tension, and it’s not comic, and it’s not tragic, so what is the word? Is it a reflection of my own vicarious compassion for the fictional character, or is it a reflection of the joy of being surprised at the unusually honest and uncomplicated staging of cinema, or is it a reflection of my hope for the flourishing of compassion among people in the real world? Each of these has its term, but I can’t figure it out and I don’t know a term for all of them at once and maybe more. For now I will settle on this: This moment, of decentralized focus surrounding a crisis and the unexpectedly humane reaction, provokes in me a sensation of soaring, swirling reassurance in everything, all through the simplest of acts. Many people use the phrase 'life affirming' as a compliment to a film, but this is something else, the step not beyond confirming life but toward it. It doesn't just affirm that life is important, it affirms empathy, it affirms compassion, and it affirms these things especially at each crucial juncture, independent of the extenuating circumstances which are better served by contemplation in the expanse of time. Is there a word for that? I don’t know it. It’s not black comedy, but it so easily could have been, and while the world is in need of black comedy I can’t fathom a world without its opposite, and I’m ecstatic that this film has just such a thing, a thing to which I can’t seem to affix a name.

While the previous event was preceded in the film by only the slightest of what could in retrospect be called ‘exposition’, the boy who seeks to kill his father has a multitude of scenes which detail his efforts to this effect. However, by the same pattern of reversing the expectations of black comedy the plotline with the most backstory builds not to a fiercer crescendo but to a slow crawl. This crawl is punctuated by a scene which borders on parody, where the father-hating kid imagines that he will push his father off the cliff even though the film has illustrated by this point innumerably many details which imply that these children are not capable of enacting such wild fantasies, not to mention a pattern of events which imply an inversion of melodrama and a focus on the unexpectedly sublime. Thus when I watched this scene I felt that the fantasy, played out as if it were real, made no sense within the film, and this feeling proved true soon enough. This is not to say that the film is predictable, which really couldn’t be any less important in a film with as little plot as this one, but to say that I understood the tone and method of the dramatic composition at work. After all, the film does little to prevent a framework within which the viewer can understand the psychology of an incomprehensibly cruel act, but it does present the characters within a temporal space where the themes of aging, growth, responsibility, and death all have their place in equal measure against moods by turns tranquil, fluid, soaring, and somber. By being comprised of such balanced and complementary elements Times and Winds creates for me a perfect understanding of the characters portrayed, a great appreciation for the cinematic brush strokes which create such strong impressions, and a feeling of wonder at the way in which so little dramatics can make something so affecting, so surprising, so immediate, and so obvious feel like I could never have understood it on my own. And I probably couldn’t, because I’m trapped in a plot. Lying in piles of leaves gives a man perspective – this much I have learned.


  1. “Is there a word for that? I don’t know it.”

    I don’t have a word for it either, but I know what you’re talking about. It’s a kind of joy in the things that make life worth living. It’s “O brave new world that has such people in’t.” And I think it’s the unexpectedness of coming across this feeling that you’re experiencing as a sort of second-cousin to black comedy; and maybe that’s exactly what it is!

    While I didn’t get quite the same feeling, I love this film for the way it shows childhood, the way children love, worry, forget, sleep. I watched another movie recently (which also need not be named) that was about a childhood as “remembered” through family anecdotes, mental snapshots, moments of trauma. In contrast, Erdem is completely tuned in to these kids’ everyday emotional lives – not as a parent or a keen observer, not as an adult trying to recapture the past. He really knows how they feel.

  2. 'And I think it’s the unexpectedness of coming across this feeling that you’re experiencing as a sort of second-cousin to black comedy; and maybe that’s exactly what it is!'

    But my second cousins have names! And it may be a first cousin, or a brother, who knows - just because I don't know its name or because Aristotle didn't write about it doesn't mean that it isn't just as essential a mode of expression as comedy or drama or black comedy or... we just need better words, that's all. We have complex reactions and the standard words are far too simple.

    'Erdem is completely tuned in to these kids’ everyday emotional lives – not as a parent or a keen observer, not as an adult trying to recapture the past. He really knows how they feel.'

    I agree. Many films, like Malick's latest, have the sense of an older man looking back. I feel like this film is more difficult, more empathetic - capturing the essence of a viewpoint to which we all at one time were privy but by now is so shrouded in the complexity of experience that we no longer know the words, know the feelings - or don't unless they're presented to us and feel authentic. It takes a certain mode of expression free from a broad perspective, free from the overarching dramatic schemes, and free from the ambivalence that comes with experience - in essence, the absence of black comedy. And still distinct from 'bad drama' which similarly lacks perspective. At any rate, I think it's interesting how the seeming lack of underlying dramatizing techniques which are so common serve to create an impression of authenticity that some viewers reject on principle as if it lacked something necessary. They have learned too much, and the wrong stuff.

  3. Sam JulianoJuly 22, 2011

    Yes, this is as sublimely beautiful as the Turkish film BAL (HONEY) that released this past year, and it projects the quiet humanist power of Kiarostami. I think your persuasive passion for the work shines through in this fecund treatment. I can only add that Arvo Part's exceedingly beautiful score is another vital component.