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Wednesday, May 7, 2008


Film may be a kind of international language, but sometimes, the true meaning of a movie definitely gets lost in the translation. Let’s face it - not every country gets its neighbor’s artistic temperament, and visa versa. The most constantly referenced and clichéd example of course is the French critical community’s abject adoration of Jerry Lewis. While Americans find him a goofy, often grating comic persona, Parisians palpitate over his high strung histrionics. Similarly, certain foreign film types fail to generate the same kind of response once they hit Western shores. The recent rash of J-Horror genre efforts proved Americans will only cotton to so much dark haired ghost girl gimmickry before turning back to blood and guts. 


Yet leave it to the Turkish to take the piss out of the entire interpretative back and forth. Instead of embracing movies from around the world, they simply rip them off and remake them, sometimes shot for shot. From ‘60s TV series like Star Trek to modern spectacles like Spider-Man, the Turks can take any franchise or film and mirror it. A perfect example of this copycat creativity comes in the form of 1974’s demon possession do-over, Seytan. Yes, one year after William Friedkin set cinema on edge with The Exorcist, his ode to familial dysfunction, the generation gap, and extracurricular cruci-fixation, the Eurasian madmen of the far off country’s movie business concocted their own frightmare facsimile.


That’s right - the same story, the same narrative structure. Now, the first thing you have to remember upon visiting something like Seytan is that it definitely comes from a different spiritual realm. Friedkin and his film were labeled blasphemous by Church leaders who felt the film’s demonic possession storyline went too far. Turkey is a nation made up of 99.8% Muslim, so messing with Jesus or any other Christian symbol just doesn’t impress. So in Seytan, priests are now professionals, the sacred vs. the profane is set aside with religious imagery kept to a minimum. Islam is never really mentioned by name, nor is the Koran.



Other changes derive from the sovereign setting as well. Gone are the moments of icon defilement and movie business schmoozing. In their place are endless interior shots and hardbound copies of Satanic How-To manuals. And our little heroine no longer abuses herself with a cross. Instead, a strange curved amulet is the defiler of choice. Similarly, the last act exorcism is not really a battle between God and Devil. Instead, it plays more like a snotty little girl giving a group of poorly trained specialists a relatively hard time.


Yet in all other facets, Seytan seems to follow Friedkin’s original subtext to a fault. Many have marveled at The Exorcist‘s staying power, commenting on how unusual it is for a film with less than state of the art special effects (they were impressive in the ‘70s) and an overdeveloped philosophical foundation can still scare viewers some 35 years later. Of course, what many fail to see is the movie’s subtle cultural context. The Exorcist came out just as the War in Vietnam was reaching a crisis point. Young people all over America were taking to the streets to protest (it’s a situation that’s referenced in the film itself) while the conservative Establishment sat bewildered, wondering what had become of their children. The Exorcist provided an obvious answer - they must be under the influence of the mangoat himself.


Indeed, the entire underpinning of Friedkin’s film rests on actress Chris MacNeil (played brilliantly by Ellen Burstyn) and the sudden, shocking change in the behavior of her teenage daughter Regan (Linda Blair). One minute, the adolescent is painting ceramics and giggling about her birthday. The next she’s channeling Beelzebub, peeing on the floor, and expectorating demonic bisque. It’s not a very subtle analogy, but then again, 1973 was not a very subtle time. But for audiences expecting a standard thriller, the notion of innocence violated, ambiguous metaphysical answers, unsure science, and a literal deus ex machina via a final leap of faith resonated like a Walter Cronkite commentary on the trusted CBS Evening News. While much of that makes little sense today, it was a shocker several decades ago.



Seytan sticks with the little girl unhinged ideal. Here, our pert adolescent Gül is Regan redux. She’s bright, chipper, inquisitive, and just a little precocious. Her doting mother (stripped of any career ambitions and left nameless throughout most of the movie) is not so much hapless as hindered by her gender. Many of the men she deals with - doctors, scientists, social workers - ignore her pleas and tend to take her insistences with a substantial grain of chauvinistic salt. Since special effects are less than plentiful in such foreign locales, heavy doses of green make-up supply the necessary Hellspawn glow, and when things really need to get dicey, straightforward camera tricks and old school sleight of hand is employed.


Director Metin Eriksan remains a leading light in the Turkish movie industry, He was an early agent provocateur who was required to go commercial when his country’s stern censorship started banning his more controversial works. Turning to horror and genre themes, he used the marginalized movie macabre to address themes of human frailty and loneliness. Seytan stands in sharp contrast with the rest of this filmmaker’s creative canon.


Indeed, one notes a definite sense of going through the motions here, specific blocking and compositions cribbed directly from Friedkin’s frightmare. Even worse, there are instances where Eriksan could have worked some subversive magic with this movie, adding some of the confrontational components of his previous efforts. Instead, we have moment by moment mimicry, complete with what appears to be actual lines of dialogue from the American original (apparently, screenwriter Yilmaz Tümtürk failed to fully understand the meaning of ‘adaptation’).



Since most bootleg versions of this film arrive sans subtitles, a lot of what Seytan has to say has to be inferred from what’s happening onscreen. Since it follows the original Exorcist fairly closely, recognizability helps with our comprehension. Gül goes through the same barrage of scientific tests, she gets the perfunctory psychological evaluation, both sides of the medical issue appear dumbfounded and clueless, and the last act arrival of our demon expert seems rather anticlimactic. When Max Von Sydow finally appears in The Exorcist, it’s like a date with destiny. In Seytan, the lack of a solid sacred subtext really puts the kibosh on the impact.


Something sinister can be read into the Turkish version of the film, a gender-mandated foundation that may be hard for Westerners to swallow. It is clear, when watching this adaptation, that women and their role within society are substantially downplayed. Gül is treated very badly, given little of the sympathy shown to Regan. Equally unsettling is how readily the entire situation is chalked up to female hysteria. While one has to read this into the onscreen actions, it’s clear that the men just don’t want to tolerate these emotionally high strung women. The bloated paternalism is present in every single frame.


This is one of the reasons why the chance to see a statement like Seytan is so enlightening - both culturally and entertainment wise. Most of the foreign films offered for US consumption tend to follow preconceived guidelines of subject acceptability. We like political drama, interpersonal intrigue, and the occasional bout of slapstick comedy. When you add in the genre efforts from Asia and the martial artistry of Hong Kong, the motion picture parameters are pretty well set. But because Seytan steps in and re-imagines one of our own classic contemporary films, it digs deeper beneath the social surface. In turn, it gives us a glimpse into a world (at least circa 1974) that we never would have seen otherwise.



From the opening archeological dig and bad papier mache demon statue to the dying mother subplot complete with a trip to the loony bin, Seytan is still all “Tubular Bells” and projectile vomiting. Some may see it as nothing more than a retarded rip-off and laugh at all the amateurish missteps. Others will look beneath the male-cenntric surface and see a sort of cinematic hate crime. But the truth remains that Seytan is nothing more than one country’s attempt to cash in on another culture’s social phenomenon. It’s clear that, in many cases, imitation remains the sincerest form of international filmmaking flattery. Sometimes, as in the case of Seytan, it can be a sure sign of creative cluelessness as well. 


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