All Turkish, No Delight
The audience of critics at the recent New York Film Festival listened in awe to electronic crackle as the PA system amplified the voice of an unseen presence coming to them from a mysterious location abroad. It was the voice of a man who had been jailed by Turkey for being a Communist, released, jailed again for harboring terrorists, released again, and finally convicted of murdering a Turkish judge. But then he had escaped (the critics were told). Who could be better qualified to speak to them of repression, freedom, human brotherhood?
It was the most thrilling moment I have witnessed in New York artistic life since Philip Agee, the American civil libertarian, his disembodied voice also carried to the audience via telephone, addressed last year’s American Writers Congress, sponsored by the Nation. Agee spoke of the struggle of Nicaragua, Grenada, and El Salvador against the CIA. The Turk spoke of the struggle against Turkey’s “fascist” regime by freedom-loving Turkish gunmen (one of whom recently shot the Pope, it should be remembered).
Both voices, bounced off satellites in the great beyond, seemed to come from places where lions, for all we knew, might already be lying down with lambs, and where political assassinations, for example, could not possibly be taking place at the rate of one every twenty minutes—which unfortunately was the case in Turkey immediately before the 1980 military coup. But the difference between the Nation’s rally and the critics attending the New York Film Festival was that Philip Agee was preaching to the converted, while Yilmaz Güney, author of the new film Yol, distributed by Columbia Pictures and the first Turkish movie to play Third Avenue, was preaching to the ignorant.
For it must be realized that, with a few notable exceptions, most film critics seem to believe in what might be called a purely cinematographic culture. Which is to say, they feel that everything they need to know about the world, history, or governance can be learned by going to the movies. They supplement this cinema culture with generous gobs of television, no doubt, and bits of fiction here and there. But that is where it generally stops. Barring the notices of such flowerings of our civilization as The Greening of America and The Fate of the Earth, they show little sign of ever reading anything but movie reviews. This does not stop them from having very pronounced views on politics—provided the general outlines are kept very simple.
The critics at the New York Film Festival, knowing that the Turkish movie had already split the top prize at the more illustrious French festival at Cannes, naturally gave Güney’s Yol an ovation. And they gave Güney’s spectral voice an ovation. And when a reviewer rose during the press conference to ask fervently where he could contribute to the Turkish Liberation Organization (TLO), they gave him an ovation, too. It was liberation all the way.
Now, as it happens, less than a month after the end of the New York Film Festival, Turkey held an election. Actually, it was a referendum on a new constitution, but it would also install for seven years General Kenan Evren, the country’s present ruler, as Turkey’s duly elected president. The new constitution and Evren won by more than 90 percent. This in itself is no trick in a military autocracy, of course, but Marvine Howe of the New York Times (neither the reporter nor the newspaper being known heretofore as a tool of President Reagan or the Pentagon) hailed the result as a “sweeping victory” and a “strong endorsement” of General Evren’s regime. Although Evren ran under strict press censorship, and with opposition rallies banned, Miss Howe concluded that the General was nonetheless “genuinely popular,” and that it seemed clear the “overwhelming margin of approval” meant the Turkish people were voting “for him and for the junta that he heads.”
The Turkish armed forces were generally trusted as “guardians of the nation,” Miss Howe wrote. Since taking power in September 1980, they had ended political violence. Recent left-wing terrorist attacks on Turkish offices in Amsterdam and Cologne actually seemed to have been counterproductive at home, she said, striking a “nationalist chord” and probably winning Evren an even greater margin of victory.
The problem before us, you see, is how 90 percent of the Turkish people—right there in Turkey—should have been blind to truths so luminously evident to the assembled film critics at Lincoln Center. But let us examine Yilmaz Güney’s movie.
Yol, it must be said (for fair is fair), is a beautifully directed film. Since it was done by “remote control” while Güney was in prison, he did not direct it at all, but whoever did the job (the credit sheet lists Serif Gören) is a talented director. The wild Kurdish landscapes in eastern Turkey are stunningly rendered. The cast is very effective—not too common in Turkish movies. But the film has two joint theses, with which the viewer is beaten relentlessly about the head and shoulders: (1) Turkey is under a fascist military dictatorship which is repugnant to every right-thinking person; and (2) Turkey’s folk culture is savage and barbaric, and particularly hard on women.
With all due prudence, I would suggest that the first of these propositions has just been repudiated by the Turkish nation, and that only people in Alice Tully Hall do not know this. Fascism is demonstrated in the film by endless marchings about of Turkish soldiers as if in close-order drill, and by endless sound-track recordings of military jets flying overhead—even in desolate Kurdistan without a plane in sight. All this to create the atmosphere of oppression.
The second proposition (that traditional Islamic society is repressive, and particularly repressive of women) wins considerable sympathy from me—but I do not accept Güney’s view that the present regime encourages everything that is socially retrograde, and that if only the film’s insurgents were to triumph all links with the horrid past would be broken. One of Güney’s principal characters spends a good bit of time staring longingly across the barbed wire toward Syria—the land of freedom, apparently.
In Yol (“the way”), four convicts, imprisoned on a Turkish island in the Aegean, are granted furloughs to visit their families in Turkey’s hinterland. The film is a portrayal of Turkish society as seen through their parallel furloughs.
Convict No. 1, the most handsome, meets a pretty girl in his home village, she indicates her fondness for him, and they become engaged. He thereupon begins to treat her in the most obnoxious manner possible, angrily forbidding her to wear pretty dresses, to talk to other men, and even to engage in idle chitchat. For himself, freshly engaged to be married, he goes off to a whorehouse for entertainment. This section of Yol is a ringing condemnation of the double standard and the repression of women, and here Güney has my full support.
Convict No. 2, a Kurd, on furlough to his home village, is revealed as having committed an act of great cowardice, abandoning a brother-in-law to his death while under fire on some criminal enterprise. The judgment of the dead man’s family is that he should be ostracized, but the culprit’s wife joins him in defiance of this judgment, for which act of love and forgiveness her own younger brothers gun her down: wife and husband together. Here I am somewhat equivocal. The punishment we are shown is savagely out of proportion to the offense committed. But having spent formative years in the military, I believe that bravery under fire is one of the virtues without which nations cannot survive, and I can understand a community’s desire to punish cowardice, as I can its urge to esteem valor.
In the story of convict No. 3, another Kurd, Güney curiously switches around and seems to agree with me, shifting his ground in accordance with the situation. Convict No. 3, when not staring soulfully at freedom across the border in Syria, spends most of his time pinned down in peasant huts while Kurdish insurgents (off camera) take on the Turkish army. Here bravery under fire seems to be a good thing, and cowardice very bad.
But the story of convict No. 4, still another Kurd, is Yol’s longest and most elaborate. Learning even before his furlough that his wife has run off to a nearby town to become a prostitute, the hero returns home to find that her relatives, for the honor of the family, have recaptured her and have been keeping her in chains in the cellar for the last eight months, not even allowing her to wash. They wanted to kill her out of hand, but, with a discriminating sense of niceties, have kept her alive, feeling the husband himself would want to perform this cleansing act. When the husband finally sees his erring wife, she begs him to allow her to bathe before he kills her. The whole story of this man and his wife is horrifying and seems, alas, true to life throughout the entire region (more true of Syria, in fact, than of Turkey).
The prestige reviewers were enthusiastic in their praise of Yol: “a miracle,” “a revelation,” “shattering,” “unbearably courageous.” Two weeks after the Turkish elections, of which he seemed blithely oblivious, a critic from the Village Voice provided the keenest ideological analysis of the film, declaring confidently: “Güney produced a movie so explosive that were it shown in his homeland it would signal the prelude to revolution.”
Here the reviewer seemed to realize that he was in trouble. He had declared sweepingly that the center of the whole film was the repression of Kurds—but why should Turks rise in rebellion to free Kurds from Turkey? Would Spaniards rise to free Basques from Spain? The British to free Belfast Catholics from Britain? The French to free Bretons from France? To resolve this problem, the Voice reviewer made a dizzying semantic leap, proclaiming: “Yol is about the essential, unspeakable Kurdishness of Turkey . . . all Turks are now Kurds—the oppressed of the oppressed.”
The only remaining problem was that unenlightened Turks in Turkey do not seem to know that they are Kurds. They give every sign of thinking they’re still Turks. (In fact, most of the Kurds in Turkey seem to think they’re Turks.) But the critic dashed fearlessly on, dealing now with the sexual question:
To be a Turk is to be a Kurd, to be a Turkish woman is to be a Kurd’s slave—such is life before the revolution. Virtually the only other recent political film I know that constructs so vivid and devastating a model of pre-revolutionary consciousness is Vivienne Dick’s super-8 Beauty Becomes Beast. . . .
So the proper Village Voice “mindset” with which to view Yol, particularly regarding women, is that it is a vivid and devastating model of pre-revolutionary consciousness. Yet a recent documentary on the Public Broadcasting Service, for people of a similar mindset, proved conclusively that when Sadat tried to liberate Egyptian women the Egyptian masses did not like it, and that such an effort was therefore very misguided and even wicked. It is as if someone very, very high up had decided that to keep women in a state of submission in Egypt is wise, prudent, and statesmanlike, but that to keep women in a state of submission in Turkey produces a model of pre-revolutionary consciousness.
Behind all this gibberish lie some simple facts, which I disclose with the sad reluctance of a parent revealing that there is no tooth fairy. Syria (not a single reviewer mentioned it) has a two-year-old treaty of friendship with the Soviet Union. Turkey, on the other hand (also unmentioned, although some reviewers must surely have been dimly aware of it), is a member of NATO, the eastern flank of the Atlantic alliance. The Kurds of Turkey, like the ETA Basques of Spain and the IRA Provos of Ulster, have been selected (no doubt by someone very high up, again) as one of those worthy, wonderful ethnic groups in NATO countries whose separatist tendencies should be encouraged by all persons of conscience, even though their activities, sadly, will cause the maximum of havoc in the host country. It will be noticed that Güney himself, a Turk of Kurdish ancestry—always a Marxist and a revolutionary sympathizer, identified at various times as a Stalinist, Maoist, and follower of Albania’s Enver Hoxha—only “took up” Kurdish nationalism after 1975. But I would not presume to look into Yilmaz Güney’s heart; it might all have been the result of some sort of midlife crisis.
For those benighted Americans who cannot tell a Kurd from a Turk, all Yol’s ethnic abracadabra, to be frank, comes to strictly nought. For them, a lot of Kurdish nationalism has been wasted here. What these Americans are seeing is the film I have already described, a story of a people repressed by military dictatorship, with harsh folkways, falling with particular cruelty on women.
And Yol is having a substantial success—substantial for an Italian film, let’s say, and totally unprecedented for a Turkish film. It is one of the most successful foreign-language movies of the fall of 1982, which is to say that in the week I write, high-minded New Yorkers with concern for oppressed peoples and a sense of social justice paid $10,000 to see it. In the same week, other New Yorkers (whom I will leave it to the reader to describe) paid an even million dollars to see Sylvester Stallone’s new, quite amazingly martial First Blood. The two films’ respective audiences stand at almost exactly one hundred to one, a proportion worth keeping in mind.
Given the prevailing editorial tone of those newspapers read by moviegoers (an economic and educational elite, remember), plus that of the Public Broadcasting Service, and even of some speeches made on the floor of the Congress of the United States, one might have thought that the ecstatic reviews for Yol would have brought out bigger crowds. Where are the Third Worlders, the world bankers, the defenders of the pacific Islamic world against that ravenous predator, Israel?
The key to the answer might be in the behavior of the official representative of the U.S. National Endowment for the Arts at the recent UNESCO conference on culture in Mexico City, who (as reported by Dorothy Rabinowitz in the November 1982 COMMENTARY) went about assuring anyone who would listen that the U.S. had a civilization in no way superior to that of any other country anywhere. Now what would a woman like this think of Yol, which, for all its sins and false attribution of blame, bitterly condemns practices this woman would evidently rather not think existed to begin with? I have the conviction that most Americans of a “liberal” cast of mind, and hence almost by definition marvelously respectful of other cultures, are in a state of the most pitiful ignorance as to the true nature of these cultures they profess to admire. And they are staying away from Yol, as they say, in droves.
For all Yol’s skewed politics, I think these people should see this movie. Keeping in mind that the folkways depicted are not limited to Kurds, or Turkey, but with some variations are pandemic throughout Islam and have counterparts in many other parts of the globe, they might get some notion of what societies are actually like in that undifferentiated limbo they think of piously as the Third World. They should go take a good look. See what it’s like out there.
* * *
As the fourth anniversary approaches of my first contribution to COMMENTARY on film, I note with some surprise that I have not been attacked for what I was almost certain would provoke indignant protest: my contention that the cinema has become a highly ideologized medium. A friend, writing in the columns of Newsweek, has taken polite issue with me on a point or two. Spirited letters to COMMENTARY have taken issue with me on a great number of points. But my general thesis—so contrary to the popular wisdom that movies are “just entertainment,” historically encapsulated in the dictum, “If I want to send a message I’ll use Western Union”—has gone largely unchallenged. Except, as I have explained, in the peculiar fraternity of film critics, the recognition seems to be spreading that “quality” films in general have become heavily politicized. And so too have many mass-market, popular films.
In a brilliant article in the premier issue of the New Criterion (“The Literary Life Today,” September 1982) Joseph Epstein makes a convincing case that a comparable politicization has contributed to the impoverishment of the present literary culture. I am really not prepared to level such a harsh judgment on the present-day cinema, since a movie is the work of so many hands, often such a mixed bag of talents, and a film sometimes simply fails effectively to convey its didactic point (or is worth seeing for other reasons even when it does, like Yol). But that the movies are rife with political polemic is becoming more obvious every day, whether the subject is feminism, crime, foreign policy, gay rights, nuclear power, the press, the law, the environment, the military, “big business,” and so on, almost ad infinitum. For those who do not read the trade journals of the entertainment industry, I offer a few recent notes:
Actors’ Equity of New York, the actors’ labor union, has just awarded its annual Paul Robeson Award to Ed Asner—in effect, for his activity in favor of the rebels in El Salvador. (The winner of the first Paul Robeson Award, ten years ago, was Paul Robeson.) This same Ed Asner is at present playing the lead in a movie version of E.L. Doctorow’s The Book of Daniel (director: Sidney Lumet), a work which, shall I say, gives an attractive picture of two atomic spies strongly resembling Ethel and Julius Rosenberg. Gene Hackman (The French Connection) and Nick Nolte are in Mexico making a pro-Sandinista movie about Nicaragua. A new film, Endangered Species, which begins with the winning statement that it is based on “available facts,” has as its thesis that wealthy American superpatriots, in connivance with occult elements in the military and in Washington, are carrying on secret biological-and chemical-warfare experiments from an abandoned missile silo in Colorado and mercilessly killing all good, honest Americans who discover their malign activity. The film, although well shot by director Alan Rudolph (Welcome to L.A.), proved an ignominous fiasco and was withdrawn in two weeks.
The Rosenberg movie and the Sandinista movie may do no better, of course, at least in the United States. But it should not be forgotten that about half of the U.S. film industry’s total revenue comes from abroad, and that there are foreign countries, among them a number of our Western European allies, which just gobble up anti-American films from Hollywood. It is one of the less appealing idiosyncrasies of our present situation that some Hollywood producers—whose poisonously anti-American films are often humiliating failures in the U.S.—make great sums of money selling these same films in foreign markets. Movies championing the Rosenbergs and the Sandinistas, or affirming that the U.S. is illegally developing weapons of chemical warfare (breathing not a word of the Soviet “yellow rain,” naturally) have rosy commercial prospects in many parts of the world. Their producers, no doubt, would describe them as their contributions to international understanding.
As for E.T. (on whose magical success formula I have expounded in an earlier article, “Summertime Visions,” August 1982), its admirers should be pleased to learn that it has just been awarded the United Nations Peace Medal for its “special and unique contribution to the cause of peace.” Only someone who has sat (as I have recently done) through hour after hour of the vicious diatribe that passes for debate in the United Nations, gotten a feeling for the lynch-mob atmosphere that pervades the place, and heard the enraged vilification to which the United States is subjected there by some of the world’s most violent and repressive governments, will fully appreciate the honor of such an award. As it happens, the United Nations’ approval rating in the U.S. has fallen so low that E.T.’s distributors made no use of this unexpected distinction, but Steven Spielberg, the director, appeared at Turtle Bay to accept the medal, believing as he does in peace, and no doubt even in the United Nations.
The good news from overseas is that Stripes, Bill Murray’s huge box-office hit in America last year, is now a huge hit in Lebanon as well. I argued at length in these pages (“Arms & the Movies,” October 1981) that Stripes, although a comedy, is distinctly patriotic—something of a turn-around for Murray, who seems to have come by his patriotism by a process of trial and error. But about other elements in the film there can be no argument, and they provide points of almost eerie correspondence. Murray’s side-kick is a Jew (unmistakable). American soldiers, they fight their enemy, the Russians. They win. And at the end it is The Stars and Stripes Forever. If the Lebanese are lining up to see the movie Stripes, they just might be telling us something.
But the most astounding example of political content has just occurred in no less a movie than the giant hit of the fall season: Sylvester Stallone’s First Blood. And this political content has gone entirely unreported by film critics. The general social context of this film is best set out thematically.
The United States has just inaugurated in Washington, at long last, a Vietnam Veterans War Memorial. William Broyles, the new editor of Newsweek, a former Marine lieutenant in Vietnam, declared in a highly emotional article that these men had answered their country’s call, and fought bravely and well, and, also, that the memorial was “less than the dead deserved.”
Shortly before the inauguration of the memorial, Stallone’s First Blood was released. The critics called the film “stupid,” “implausible,” “violent,” the more thoughtful among them concluding that it sent a “mixed message” with respect to the military character. Should a civilized country have Green Berets? Or, perhaps, not. For John Rambo (Stallone) had been a Green Beret in Vietnam. (The literate will note that Rambo is a mere anglicization of “Rimbaud,” France’s dark genius, considered a poet of hallucinatory alienation.) The week ending October 27, First Blood was the number-one film in the country. The week ending November 3, it was the number-one film in the country. And so it went for the weeks ending November 10, November 17, and November 24, and the end is not in sight. The trade journals have just declared that First Blood is not only the biggest hit of the season, but, on that scale, it is the only hit of the season. I finally caught up with this First Blood, and found it delivered one of the most unmixed messages I have ever seen in a movie.
Rambo, wearing his old army fatigue jacket with the red-white-and-blue stitched over the left pocket, comes drifting into a small town in the Pacific Northwest to look up an old buddy from the Green Berets, only to find that he has died of cancer. Rambo is treated with the most extreme hatefulness by the civilians of this small town (much hyperbole here), is arrested for vagrancy, breaks out of jail, and carries on a one-man war (entirely defensive) in the hills and in the town to prevent his recapture. I will quote only two speeches. First, Rambo’s colonel from the Green Berets, brought in to reason with him, speaking to the local sheriff:
It’s going to look great in Arlington Cemetery. “John Rambo. Congressional Medal of Honor. Carried out countless missions behind the enemy lines in Vietnam. Shot for vagrancy in Jerkwater, U.S.A.”
Second, Rambo himself, his last lines in the film, delivered with great emotion to his colonel before he gives himself up:
I didn’t want to go there! You sent me! We did our best to win! But somebody didn’t want us to win! And then I come home and they call me a baby killer and I can’t even get a job in a car wash! . . .
Now I think that First Blood is one of the easiest movies to figure out that I’ve ever seen in my life. The vets understand it. The moviegoers understand it. Only the reviewers, for some reason, found it murky. Not a single major critic in the country even suggested that Rambo’s alienation from civilian society might have been produced by the way he was treated when he returned home from Vietnam.
I would not want to make First Blood appear either more or less than it is. It is a popular, mass-market movie. It depends a great deal on well-shot, violent action, the mythic theme of the loner, every man’s hand against him. It has Sylvester Stallone, a very big star (but who has had his resounding flops as well—there isn’t a star in Hollywood who commands an automatic audience). It is well directed by Ted Kotcheff (North Dallas Forty), who seems rarely to miss the mark when handling rough, violent men. Stallone himself is co-scenario writer. The film contains at least one grievous historical distortion. It was not ordinary Americans in small towns who were so contemptuous of the Vietnam veterans, but university students, the children of the privileged, who avoided the war thanks to educational deferments.
Still, what the film has to say stands forth with remarkable clarity. For it is civilians who draw “first blood” in their hounding of this alienated Vietnam vet drifter. And the title has another level of meaning as well: Who drew first blood in Vietnam? A controversial subject, some would say, but not, perhaps, Sylvester Stallone. I have the impression, moreover, that Sylvester Stallone is one of these simple people who feel that when a great nation commits itself to war, it should win. And if it fails to win, there is the devil to pay.
Well, they tell me it is over now. College students with educational deferments have stopped spitting on working-class youths serving their country Suburban hearts no longer leap high at the sight of the Vietcong flag brandished fearlessly in Scarsdale. McGeorge Bundy and Robert McNamara, whose exquisitely calibrated escalation promised us victory in Vietnam without our even feeling any pain, have recently, heads high, accepted a “peace” prize for a dazzling new initiative in the completely different area of nuclear-weapons theory. At the end of a week of commemorative ceremonies in Washington, neither Bundy, McNamara, Walt Rostow, nor Dean Rusk had visited the new memorial to the 57,939 Americans they sent to their deaths in Vietnam. But that was such a long time ago.
Speaking of the entertainment industry, I can report that Jimmy Stewart, who did more fighting in World War II than any other star of that earlier Hollywood, came to Washington and at Constitution Hall movingly read a patriotic letter from the son of a soldier killed in Vietnam. And now we have First Blood. I don’t feel it is overinterpreting this movie to think that Sylvester Stallone might want some inscription on that black mortuary monument to accompany the names of the 57,939 dead. It is a severe understatement of the burden of his film to say that an inscription might at least read: They died for their country. But this inscription is not there, and the names are engraved on a black, tomblike wall, for such was the decision of the panel of judges, who are artistic professionals of course, and, like movie critics, have no politics.