05 February, 2010

Kantin tableaux


Crosswalk i | after wenesday's snow

In yurt 76 there is a small kantin selling hamburgers, kofte, tost and other hot meals. There's a glass case full of fruit juices - and one lone tray of eclairs that makes you wonder how often an eclair is sold. I might have been the last to purchase one, last night. Doesn't look like the tray moved since then. The wall behind the cashier is lined with turkish snack foods - and Lay's potato chips.

Around a table, six young men gather. They are Moslim: one can tell by their clothes, sharp, yet every so slightly more conservative than than mainstream. One can tell by the way they greet - when a new one joins the group, all rising, touching their foreheads together on one side and then the other, rather than the traditional kiss. One can tell by the way they gather, with a bearing that belies religious brotherhood.

On the wall beside them is a poster outlining the illustrated history of earth. It traces the continents back, far past Pangaea to the earliest epoch known. The evolution of lifeforms unfolds in a sidebar. A lone student in another corner of the room bends a curly head to his course packet, a ring-bound collection of photocopies. He holds an electronic dictionary. At the other end of the kantin, a television drones softly: %100 futbol.

My kofte is ready.

Tomorrow, up at 4 AM to catch the bus for Kapadokya!

03 February, 2010

Ankara, and campus

Depth Perception

Scattered through the blogosphere, there are probably enough posts about James Cameron's "Avatar" to fill several books. And there is enough in the film to warrant books of critical, thematic, and technical discourse.

When a film is referenced by two professors, in two classes the same day, you know it's time to see it. So with the evening free, i took the bus off campus to Ankuva mall. I keep mentioning Real - like Walmart in size, only at least half the store is devoted to food - and beneath this massive store, parallel with two floors of underground parking, is a cinema multiplex. Picked up my 3-D gözluk and braced for - well, i didn't know. As i sat waiting for the film to begin on the biggest screen i've ever seen outside an IMAX, i didn't even know whether it would be in English, subtitled, or dubbed.

That every shot was pains-takingly planned for effect is clear. As other reviewers have observed, Cameron never uses 3-D to make the film pop outward at viewers (an effect which could have been well used in some of the flying scenes); instead, the background falls into the distance. Ranks of mercenaries on the transport shuttle offer some of the most effective uses of the technique; close-up shots brim with detail and depth, the contours of Sam Worthington's face standing in relief as his eyes blink open. When the action is fast, though, 3-D seems to disappear. I couldn't help wondering if, in making one of the most expensive films ever and advancing the cinematic frontier, Cameron's guiding intention was to produce a visual echo of the film's thematic depth. (The other thing which really caught my eye was the dazzle of cockpit reflections as Trudy's chopper first approached the Hallelujah mountains: "You should see your faces," she says, as if referring instead to rows of gaping movie patrons.)

Of the three theatrical elements - plot, character, and spectacle - Avatar is at first so slick and eye-popping that on the surface, spectacle dominates. Yet Jake Sully is paraplegic for a reason, or for many. His agency in the real world - the world he experiences through his own body - is limited; when he feels like striking out at Colonel Quaritch, he can't. Sully can only escape into the world of his Avatar, a world where his long, blue toes curl in the alien soil. His motivation to protect Pandora from industrial spoilage then, is not simply romantic attachment: if his mission to relocate the Na'vi is finished, this daily rebirth will end.

Long. So long. That the film was deliberate, and only broken by one discontinuity in storytelling (when Jake's avatar flees the lab prematurely, and meets Grace's avatar already in the forest) seemed to stretch it forever. In that expanse, there was much spectacle, but only two scenes stood out. The first, when Selfridge, Augustine, Quaritch (a.k.a. Colonel Asshole), and Sully are arguing over how to proceed with the Na'vi: the dramatic tension among the four actors is palpable, par excellence. The second: the moment when Neytiri at last embraces the real Jake Sully, the one whose fearless heart won hers. Of course that scene's a winner. The outcome remains unrevealed, but the connection between the two characters - who have known each other for months and now truly meet for the first time - raises the emotional stakes to a par with the film's third-of-a-billion budget.

I worry that the blazing neon message of the film (as one reviewer aptly described it) is nonetheless overshadowed by a bloated shamanic theme. Dr. Augustine's discourse on Pandora's bio-informatic connectedness gets about ten seconds of screen time, compared to long scenes of a thousand Na'vi beneath the Tree of Souls, swaying to a ceremonial chant. That there are different ways to describe the same phenomenon - through both science and primitive religious experience - rides backseat to the utopian vision of Pandoran life. Yes, it all is connected, i say silently, but the mixture of what Ken Wilber might call pre-egoic and post-egoic ontologies is dangerous, confusing to the uninformed. 

Avatar, it would seem, is a masterpiece of ironies above all else. It is an epistle of environmental sensitivity delivered in the most artificial envelope possible. In an age when we humans interact more and more often in a virtual world of online avatars, our protagonist achieves his connection with nature through a bioengineered surrogate body. Children will relive the "Avatar" experience through video games and action figures, not a membership to their local Audubon society. A film that would seem to focus attention more on our own pillaged planet works its magic on a CG moon where humans cannot breathe and, perhaps unfortunately, it is Pandora that remains in our consciousness. The afternoon before i saw the film, Dr. Mutman lectured in Visual Technologies and Visual Narratives: "we will see," he says, "that in Simulations, Baudrillard makes a challenging argument - there is no longer a difference between the world of reality and the world of representation."

We have become one with our avatar.

It was late when i arrived home, out of the wind-driven rain, and logged on to skype. I shall leave the last word to my friend Emin.

[2/3/10 1:26:57 AM] Emin Okutan: aliens were never like this before.
[2/3/10 1:27:02 AM] tavi: true that
[2/3/10 1:27:04 AM] Emin Okutan: they were the invaders tech advanced. zapping wiping out humans. here the humans have the technology and aliens are primitive. so maybe we are the aliens now
[2/3/10 1:27:54 AM] Emin Okutan: alien to our own habitat
[2/3/10 1:28:14 AM] Emin Okutan: avatar could mean that

The ~$300 million question, then, is - short of a new, blue body, how do we reconnect? The theme of expatriation will have to wait for another post.

İngilizce, part 2

"I love my language," Corrado said, giving a little sigh of satisfaction. Another Italian student had just left, and now he was marooned at a lunch table with three Americans and a Swede.

"Nobody learns English because it's beautiful," i reflected aloud. "There are two reasons to know English - either you grow up speaking it, or you want access to global economic opportunity." It's true; people learn other languages for aesthetic reasons. Not English.

English might be the most confusing language in the world. (Or that might be Hebrew, with its ten classes of verbs, each conjugated differently, each dependent on the gender and number of the subject.) All those irregular verbs; prefixes, suffixes. Turkish is pretty easy by comparison; i can't imagine learning English as a second language late in life.

Yet, i am reminded later the same day in Intro to Screenwriting, English holds a beauty all its own. "Behold," Ms. Appleton said, pausing in the middle of a text - "is such a wonderful word. Behold." Ms. Appleton has forbidden us to use her first name, Geneviéve, both because none of us could pronounce it correctly and, she said, because we would seem like her grandfather if we could. She looked around the classroom, trying to assess whether or not the class grasped the whole meaning, the subtle fullness of the term. Behold. English, i thought in that moment, can be a rich language as well - though it is rare to observe that richness in daily conversation. The other thing i thought in that moment is - i can't imagine what it's like to pursue your entire college education in your second or third language.

In the noncredit Turkish course which met today for the first time, there are seven students. One from France, one from Djibouti, and the rest American. Three of those are visiting instructors, who have come to Bilkent to teach. It's entertaining to watch them - smart people, academics, but completely out of their element as they guess at pronunciation or stab at the names of fruits and vegetables as the instructor shows them flash cards.

After meeting a friend for çay downtown, i stood at the Tunus bus stop, snow falling as it had all afternoon. I was curious about a sign - something to do with Haiti; i could understand a few of the Turkish words but not enough to decipher the message. So finally i turned to a young man next to me.

"İngilizce biliyorsen mu?"
"What?" he said.
"Oh, i was asking 'do you speak English'."
"Of course," he said, laughing.

Turns out he lives one floor above me in yurt 72.

02 February, 2010


This post is less about Turkiye than it is about Amerika. That's how they spell it here, and somehow the K carries with it a darker intonation, as if Amerika isn't always the good guy on the global stage. My screenwriting instructor, a Canadian expatriate, mentioned a film project she had worked on, 'The Arrow' - a docudrama about a Canadian aircraft years ahead of its time in 1958. Theory had it the Americans scuttled the project to preserve their own supremacy in aerospace. "So Canada and Turkiye have something in common when it comes to being paranoid about American intentions," she said. But i digress; this post has nothing to do with aerospace, unless by the roundabout path of Wallace and Gromit's "Grand Day Out".

This post is about peynir (cheese). And how much America sucks at cheese. Back in November i had the pleasure of accompanying researchers, farmers, millers, and bakers from the Northeast Organic Bread Wheat Project on an overnight trip to observe Quebec's organic wheat system. One of the sites we visited was perhaps the best example of integrated organic, value-added agriculture i have ever seen: Fromagerie Au Gre Des Champs. After a tour of the 33 swiss brown cow operation, we observed the artisanal cheesemaking process, guided by Stefan, a microbiologist from nearby Montreal who had found his calling in the applied microbiology of the cheese shop. The microorganisms cows consume with summer pasture, he explained, are different from those consumed in winter pasture, and thus summer and winter cheeses are different. And oh, that cheese. To quote Wallace himself: it was "like no cheese i've ever tasted!" I brought home wedges of Monnoir (a rinded, soft cheese), and the signature Au Gre Des Champs.

Now, Turkish cheese is nothing like the wheels of Fromagerie Au Gre Des Champs. It's white, mostly, softer, crumbly. But don't think for a second that it's feta. I don't know the names of any of them, but in Real, which is, mind you, the local answer to WalMart, the cheese case stretched for ten meters with different local flavors. I bought one, and ate slices of it with a breakfast of eggs, tomato, and cucumber slices. And the only thing i could think was - this is so much better than American cheese. It's a shame good old Amerika is such a cheese-impoverished place.

31 January, 2010

Just like home (sort of): volume 2

Where AIM is the instant messaging service of choice at home, here MSN rules.

Turkish sports news is focused on futbol, futbol, futbol; the rivalry between Galatasaray and Fenerbahce fans is as lengendary here as bad blood between the Sox and Yankees is at home. But the surprising second-place? Turks love the NBA.

The KFC and Burger King just off-campus deliver - on small motorbikes.

One of my roommates, Can, advises me not to walk on campus at night. The feral dogs travel in packs, he says, and recounts a harrowing experience of his own.