A footnote, Noel Coward observed, is like going downstairs to answer the doorbell while making love. On this, and many other topics, Noel and I am in total agreement. But as always in life there are exceptions, and if there is to be an exception for me it is likely to be Geoff Dyer.
This is a footnote from an excerpt of his next book which happens to be about one of my top-five favourite films, Tarkovsky’s Stalker. It contains all the elements that make Dyer my most prized contemporary writer.
On the subject of quotation within film: an interesting study could be made of scenes in films where other bits of film are seen, glimpsed, or watched, whether at a drive-in, on TV, or in the cinema (Frankenstein in The Spirit of the Beehive, Red River in The Last Picture Show, The Passion of Joan of Arc in Vivre sa Vie). Actually, maybe it wouldn’t be that interesting after all; one wouldn’t get far without the word meta cropping up and turning everything to dust. But, as it happens, this sequence in Stalker is used to a brilliant effect in Uzak (Distant, 2002) by Turkish director Nuri Bilge Ceylan. Mahmut, a middle-aged photographer, is living in Istanbul. When his clodhopping cousin, Yusuf, comes to the city looking for work, Mahmut is obliged to put him up in his apartment. They come from the same village, but they’re worlds apart and Mahmut is not about to compromise his high aesthetic standards just because a dull-witted cousin has come to stay. So when we see them at home, feet up, watching TV, it’s not Top Gear or Turkey’s Got Talent they’re watching; it’s Stalker, the trolley sequence. The two of them are slumped and starched out in their chairs, in a torpor of concentration and boredom. Mahmut is eating nuts, pistachios presumably. Cousin Yusuf has nodded off. One can hardly blame him; even the most boring night in the village cannot compare with the depths of tedium being plumbed here. Professor, Stalker, and Writer are on-screen, on the trolley, heading toward the Zone, faces in tight close-up, while, in the unfocused background, some kind of landscape blurs past. The electronic score echoes and clangs through the apartment. Yusuf wakes up, amazed to discover that he’d only been asleep for a few seconds or, even more amazingly, that after a decent nap the TV is still showing these three old blokes drifting along the railroad to nowhere. Peasant he might be, but at some level he has intuited Baudrillard’s insight that television is actually a broadcast from another planet. The evening, evidently, is not going to improve. He decides to go to bed. They say good night. After a decent interval, Mahmut gets up, fetches a video, puts it in the VCR, and points the remote. Stalker is replaced by girl-on-girl porn. Everything else remains pretty much unchanged. Before, he had one foot on the pouf, and one hitched up over the arm of the chair. Now he has both feet on the pouf, otherwise he’s stretched out the same way as when he was watching Stalker. The only difference is that now, instead of this long magical sequence of three men clanging toward the Zone, we’ve got a silicon-breasted woman sucking the tits of a Page 3 model. Upstairs, Yusuf calls home. After a while he comes down again, and Mahmut, who has not budged, who is not jerking off, whose fly is not even open, just about has enough time to flip to a broadcast channel. The fact that the indescribably boring film they were watching before has morphed into some kind of comedy is not lost on Yusuf-this is much more his cup of tea-and stands there snickering a bit, so Mahmut flips channels again and comes to a kung fu movie-which is exactly Yusuf’s cup of tea. His evening has improved after all, but Mahmut’s has taken a decided turn for the worse: no Tarkovsky and no g.o.g. action, just him and his moronic cousin watching a kung fu film. It’s late, he says. Let’s turn that off.
If you want a definition of deadpan you could do a lot worse than choose this sequence to illustrate you point. In fact, thinking about it, this is probably the most deadpan sequence I have ever seen in a film. It’s so deadpan that you have to be a real cinephile to find it funny, and even then you don’t actually laugh out loud. You just sit there in the sofa with your feet up, munching pistachios, watching, snickering. If you laugh out loud it’s partly to show you get the joke in all its precise levels of denotation, but there’s an element of affectation about that laughter; it’s one of those laughs that contain the desire to explain why you’re laughing, why you’re so clever. If I were to make a film I would contrive a scene in which a couple of people were watching Uzak, though probably not this bit. That way I’d really show how clever I was, and it would give people in the audience a chance to have a good, third-degree, cinephilic metachuckle.