Love, loss and all that jazz

Turkish director presents a wise and moving portrait of a fading romance

<strong>Climates (15)</s

Breaking up may be hard to do, but at least the estranged couple in Climates will have some cracking holiday snaps once the tears have dried. Although the film is not much of an advertisement for relationships, the Turkish tourist board couldn't hope for a better plug. It's a cliché of art-house cinema that the landscapes get more attention than the cast. But the actor/writer/director Nuri Bilge Ceylan, who made a strong impression with his dry comedy Uzak (2002), is not reverent towards his gorgeous locations. For him, a close-up of an actor's face is just as spectacular as the snowy terrain around Mount Ararat, or the ruins of Ishak Pasa. I imagine that's what he told his wife, Ebru Ceylan, who plays the female lead, Bahar. She gets enough adoring close-ups to excuse her husband from buying Valentine's Day presents for the next decade.

Climates is a family affair. The director casts himself as the dull, nagging university professor Isa. As the film begins, he and Bahar are holidaying in Kas, where they are experiencing allergic reactions to one another. Bahar argues with Isa over dinner, and dreams that she is being buried alive. Isa is frustrated by her refusal to be sensible - he complains when she falls asleep in the noon sun, or won't wear a jacket when it's cold. It is fair to say the magic has leaked out of their relationship.

Isa returns alone to Istanbul, where he gets on with work, mooches around town and sleeps with an old flame. As winter draws in, he hears that Bahar is in eastern Turkey, and flies out there with the intention of tracking her down and promising her the earth. The characters' motivations are kept so well disguised up to this point that we're surprised he is even thinking about her. And then, in a simple shot of Bahar standing in the snow looking forlorn, we understand. Suddenly the question, "Why does he want her back?" is replaced by, "Why did he ever let her go?"

This may not be the most complex role ever written for a woman - if you had to name Bahar's defining characteristics they would be: a) perfection and b) a tendency to look fabulous in knitwear. But Climates conveys acutely the sensation of a romance in disrepair, with its extremes of moping and hoping; by the end of it, you feel as if you've lived through the break-up, and the attempts at reconciliation, along with Isa and Bahar. It's a moving and exceptionally wise film.

As someone whose acquaintance with jazz began and ended with buying Miles Davis's Bitches Brew, listening to it once, and then putting it on the shelf for all eternity, I was prepared to be flummoxed by the documentary My Name Is Albert Ayler. In fact, it's the familiar story of an artist living in poverty and only posthumously earning the respect he craved in his lifetime.

Ayler was an African-American avant-garde saxophonist with a habit of talking in gibberish ("It can only be about what it is, until it's about something else") and a large tuft of white hair dangling from his chin, as if a handful of tumbleweed had got snagged in his beard. Despite being championed by John Coltrane, who requested that Ayler perform at his funeral, he was found dead in the East River of New York in 1970, aged 34. "He played as if his life depended upon it," observes Bernard Stollman, the first person to sign Ayler. "It probably did."

This Swedish-made film isn't assembled with much finesse - the padding provided by endless driving shots suggests there wasn't enough material to fill the running time. But the story pretty much tells itself. Ayler's brief career started on the "free jazz" scene in Stockholm in the early Sixties, where his abrasive playing was marginally more outrageous than his collection of leather suits. He probably didn't win many friends by comparing himself to Picasso whenever anyone objected to his playing style, or by telling his girlfriend that she ranked second in his life after his saxophone. Luckily, charisma was high on his list of attributes, and what little footage there is of him smouldering in a white vest goes a long way.

Pick of the week

For Your Consideration (12A)
dir: Christopher Guest
Hollywood satire from the Spinal Tap/Best in Show creators.

The Fountain (12A)
dir: Darren Aronofsky
Hugh Jackman searches for eternal life in a batty romantic fantasy.

Notes on a Scandal (15)
dir: Richard Eyre
On Oscars night, I'll be rooting for Judi Dench, sublime here as a crafty teacher.

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

This article first appeared in the 12 February 2007 issue of the New Statesman, Sunni v Shia

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Cake or Death: why The Great British Bake Off is the best thing on television

Those who are complaining that the show has “caved in to political correctness” have missed the point.

The Cake is a Lie. That’s what viewers of the Great British Bake Off, now in its fifth season, are complaining about in the run-up to this week’s final. Out of thousands of amateur bakers who applied, three have made it through the gruelling rounds of Mary Berry’s disapproving pucker and faced down blue-eyed Cake Fascist Paul Hollywood’s demands without a single underbaked layer or soggy bottom in sight - and two of them aren’t white. The subsequent crypto-racist whining from PC-gone-madattrons in the press - one paper suggested that perhaps poor Flora, who was sent home last week, should have baked a "chocolate mosque" - runs against the whole spirit of Bake Off.

The charge is that the competition is not merit-based, and the entire basis for this complaint seems to be that two out of the finalists are of Asian origin - which makes total sense, because everyone knows that white people are better than everyone else at everything, including baking, so obviously it’s political correctness gone mad. The fact that last week Nadiya Hussain, a homemaker from Luton who happens to wear a hijab, baked an entire fucking peacock out of chocolate biscuits had nothing to do with it.

For those of you who mysteriously have better things to do with your time than watch 12 British people prat about in a tent, let me tell you why all of this matters. The best way to explain what's so great about The Great British Bake Off is to compare it to how they do these things across the pond. In America, they have a show called Cupcake Wars, which I gamely tuned into last year whilst living abroad and missing my fix of Sue Perkins getting overexcited about Tart Week. 

Big mistake. Cupcake Wars is nothing at all like Bake Off. Cupcake Wars is a post-Fordian nightmare of overproduction and backstabbing filmed under pounding lights to a sugary version of the Jaws soundtrack. Contestants mutter and scheme over giant vats of violent orange frosting about how they're going to destroy the competition, and they all need the prize money because without it their small cupcake businesses might fold and their children will probably be fed to Donald Trump. Every week a different celebrity guest picks one winner to produce a thousand cupcakes - a thousand cupcakes! - for some fancy party or other, and it’s all just excessive and cutthroat and cruel. Cupcake Wars is Cake Or Death.

Bake Off is quite different. Bake Off is not about the money, or even really about the winning. Bake Off is a magical world of bunting and scones and dapper lesbian comedians making ridiculous puns about buns and gentle, worried people getting in a flap about pastry. There are very few hysterics. Legend has it that if anybody has a real breakdown in the middle of a signature bake, presenters Mel Giedroyc and Sue Perkins stand next to them repeating brand names and swear-words so the cameramen can’t use the footage, and don’t you dare disabuse me of that fact, because I want it to be true. The prize money, in a desperately British way, is almost never mentioned, nobody tries to sabotage anyone else’s puff pastry, and at the end whoever has to leave gives a brave little interview about how it’s a shame but they tried their best and they were just happy to be there and they’re definitely going to do some more baking almost as soon as they get home. 

Bake Off is the theatre of the humdrum, where fussy, nervous people get to be heroes, making macarons as the seas rise and the planet boils and the leaders of the world don't care that they've left the oven on. I’m always a little bit frightened by people who can bake, because I can’t even make a muffin out of a packet, although one danger of watching too much Bake Off is that you become convinced you ought to give it another try, and I apologise to my housemates for making them eat my savoury vegan chilli-chocolate cookies (don’t ask). They say that if you can bake a cake, you can make a bomb, and by that logic I should definitely be kept away from the explosives when the zombie revolution comes- but the Bake Off contestants are probably the sort of people who will be Britain’s last line of defence, quietly constructing landmines and apologising that the stitching on the flag of insurrection isn’t quite perfect. People with this specific and terrifying personality type are that are precisely the reason Britain once had an empire, as well as the reason we’re now rather embarrassed about it. 

For now, though, Bake Off is a gentle human drama about all the best bits of Britishness- and diversity is part of that. In fact, this isn’t even the first time that two out of three finalists have not been white - that was two years ago. But something seems to have changed in British society at large, such that the same scenario is now more enraging to the kind of people who get their jollies from spoiling everything lovely and gentle in this world with casual bigotry - they know who they are, and may their Victoria sponges never rise and all their flatbreads turn out disappointingly chewy.

Britain is getting harder and meaner, and even Bake Off is not immune. In the first season, it was more than enough to bake a half decent brioche. This season an affable fireman got sent home because the grass on his miniature edible Victorian tennis court was not the right shade of green, and I’m not even joking. In one of the challenges the bakers had to produce an arcane french dessert that looked like the turds of a robot angel, and most of them actually managed it. The music is getting more dramatic, the close-up shots of flaky chocolate pastry and oozing pie-lids more reminiscent of 1970s pornography. It’s all a bit much.

The human drama, though, is as perfectly baked as ever. Lovely Flora, the baby of the bunch who missed out on a spot in the final because her chocolate carousel centrepiece was slightly wonky, was actually one of my favourites because she's so deliciously millennial, with her pussy-bow collars and obsessive, Type-A attention to detail. Paul the Prison Officer was a delight, mainly because he looked so much like Paul Hollywood- cue six weeks of two enormous men called Paul having bro-offs over bread, nodding and trading gruff, dudely handshakes over the specific crunchiness of biscotti. One week, Prison Officer Paul produced a giant dough sculpture of a lion's head and Judge Paul gave him a special prize and then they probably went off into a gingerbread sweat lodge together and it was the manliest moment ever in Bake Off history.

This is what Bake Off is about, and that’s why the people who are complaining that something other than merit might have been involved in selecting the finalists have missed the point entirely. The point of Bake Off is not to determine the best amateur baker in the land. That's just the excuse for Bake Off. Even the gentlest TV show needs a vague narrative structure, and otherwise there'd be no tension when someone's blancmange collapses in a heap of eggy foam and broken dreams. But in the end, when all's said and done, it's just cake. If your ornamental biscuit windmill has a soggy bottom, well, nobody died, and you can probably still eat the pieces on your way home to have a cup of tea and a little cry. 

That's the point of Bake Off. None of it really matters, and yet it consistently made me smile during a long, weary summer of geopolitical doomwrangling when absolutely everything else on television was unremitting misery. I hope Nadiya wins, because she’s an adorable dork and I love her and she gets so worried about everything and I want nothing remotely distressing to happen to her, ever; I expect Tamal Ray, the gay doctor whose meat pie had me drooling, is the best baker overall, but I can’t be objective there, because I keep getting distracted by his lovely smile. Ian Cumming, the last white person in the tent (apart from both of the presenters and both of the judges) is a little bit dull, which is a problem, because of all the delicious treats produced on the show, Ian's are the ones I would probably eat the most. I want his tarragon cheesecake in my face immediately. I would just rather have a conversation with Nadiya while I'm doing it.

But at the end of the day, it doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter! And that’s the utter, unremitting joy of Bake Off. It’s possibly the last show on earth where in the end, it doesn’t matter who wins, as long as everyone gave it their best shot and had a laugh over a disastrous scrambled-egg chocolate tart or two, because ultimately, it’s just cake. And that’s marvellous. Now let’s all have a nice fat slice of perspective and calm down.


Now listen to a discussion of the Bake Off on the NS pop culture podcast:

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things.