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Saturday, June 01, 2002

Book Reviews

Angelopoulos’s Gaze

Theo Angelopoulos: Interviews edited by Dan Fainaru. University of Mississippi Press, Jackson, MS, 154 & XXXI pages, 2001, hardcover & paperback, $45.00 & $18.00, respectively.

We are condemned to function with our obsessions. We make only one film.
     – Thodoros Angelopoulos

...[T]here is a certain fatality in a person’s style.
     – Pier Paolo Pasolini

From crisis to criticism…
Greek culture nowadays seems to have become an extended (and endlessly dispiriting) obituary. What are especially demoralizing are the sad, incessant ceremonies for those men and women who once defined contemporary Greece, but who’ve now reached that poignant age at which anniversaries are celebrated more than achievements, and for whom the critical phrase (in every sense of the term) is, “once upon a time.” It is not only individuals who grow old and withered; it is profoundly debilitating for an entire culture to bury a generation that it cannot replace.

To be fair to Greece, the problem is more general, indeed global – indeed, one of the salient aspects of globalization. As I was reading Theo Angelopoulos: Interviews, I was also reading Morris Berman’s The Twilight of American Culture, which argues, as its title baldly states, that American culture is on the verge of a new Dark Ages. This is not an original perspective, and it is increasingly shared, both on the right and left (which, if nothing else, proves, pace the pomos, that there is still a sense, among some of us at least, of a common culture of some sort worth defending). The problem with any notion of the degradation of American culture, however, is that, as with its economy, when the United States sneezes, the rest of the world catches a cold.

On every continent, in country after country, and (national, regional, or local) culture after culture, the despoliation and occasionally even extinction of another part of our planetary cultural ecology is a direct consequence in many cases of what Benjamin Barber (in his own analysis of the current “clash of civilizations”) has called “McWorld.” For those who ever had any doubts, it’s been made abundantly clear since the Soviet Union’s implosion that “globalization” is the American imperium writ benign. Indeed, in the domain of culture, the success of “non-American” corporations such as Bertelsmann or News Corporation or Sony or – most recently and notoriously – Vivendi simply confirms that the proconsular model works just as well in pacifying (and corrupting) hearts and minds as it does in securing territories.

“Cultural freedom” without cultural autonomy is, in fact, a conceptual (and ethical) fraud (something that the cultural agents subsidized by the United States during the Cold War apparently never understood). Europe as a whole, and Greece in particular, in 2002 are both freer now than they have ever been in their respective histories. Nonetheless, many Europeans argue that European culture has rarely been so insidiously – and deeply – at risk. The Ottomans at Vienna’s gates never posed the kind of fundamental cultural threat that AOL Time Warner’s minions pose today. Invasion, conquest, and repression, as well as all manner of political oppression, cannot undermine culture, it seems, as much as the “free market” – and one, moreover, that has become “globalized.”

...and from the core to the periphery
Which brings us back to Greece. Thirty years ago, Greek culture was a battleground; today, it is a talk show. Oprah is bad enough in Chicago; in Thessaloniki, it is grotesque. Oprah, of course, is an issue that goes much deeper than “taste,” or a culture’s descent into therapeutic bathos and ersatz sentiment (the vengeful triumph of pseudo-feminism), or even the corruption of the media. It is a basic symptom of the continual decline of rational and lucid civil discourse and the inexorable (and paradoxical) rise of subjectivity as a – indeed the central – form of social solidarity. Oprah represents (and continuously re-presents, in a never-ending loop) the social spectacle of competing solipsisms whose ignorance, incoherencies, bigotries, fears, and lunatic exhilarations become, through “the power of mass communication,” genuinely mass hysteria. Oprah is to the United States what the Coliseum was to Rome: a cultural arena in which a republic of citizens degenerates into an empire of subjects – and a society of spectators.

Which is precisely why Oprah is so dangerous when it is “globalized.” Once upon a time (there’s that phrase again), Che Guevara wrote of “America with a capital A.” He didn’t mean the United States, but, rather, what he also referred to as “our America,” that is, the entirety of America, in its completeness and integrity, from Baffin Island to Tierra del Fuego, America as a whole, before it was swallowed up by Leviathan. Those who would defend their culture(s) – wherever they live or work, including the United States – need precisely this sense of “the Globe with a capital G” or “our Globe.” Globalization has nothing to do with defending “our Globe,” or any constituent part of it. Globalization is – in fact, quite openly in most cases – an attack on “our Globe,” which explains why the notion of resistance at the periphery, or, said another way, defense of “peripheral cultures,” has taken on such salience in recent years.

There is no more “peripheral” filmmaker in the world today than Thodoros Angelopoulos. And lest I be misunderstood (or purposely misconstrued), let me restate what I consider to be self-evident. “Peripheral” here means essential, unyielding (in Greek, the word anendotos has its own social and political history), opposed to a cultural strategy of cooptation, formulaic facility, and moot multiculturalism. (An “irony” of politically correct post-modernity, by the way, is that the more “multicultural” we become, the more each constituent culture on the planet loses its authenticity and grounding, and is absorbed into the enormous homogenizing vortex of the reigning – and manifestly unicultural – imperium.) Most important of all, peripheral in this context means a commitment to a democracy of culture(s), in which “hybridity” is not the result of fundamentally imperialist sanctions – bizarrely imposed in our day under the guise of “economic” agreements, most notoriously GATT – but of a genuine intercourse and exchange among equals, equally engaged in cultivating the new, the different, the provocative, the unbound. The periphery is in fact the last cultural frontier left, the last free space for intellectual and artistic dissent. As for the metropolis, it is circumscribed more and more by the cultural razor-wire of the (anything-but-) free market and – whenever anybody gets just a little uppity – by those truly disabling rubber bullets so beloved of “arts administrators” called bottom lines.

Angelopoulos, on the other hand, is peripheral, which is to say free. Dan Fainaru, the editor of Theo Angelopoulos: Interviews, writes in his introduction that one may love Angelopoulos’s work or hate it, but that one has to “concede the presence” of a unique filmmaker behind it. Well, it’s actually a bit more complicated than that. What has always attracted me to Angelopoulos’s work is that I hate and love it at the same time – if not in equal measure. It’s the way I’ve always felt about Andrei Tarkovsky, another “difficult” and, yes, peripheral artist (at least as far as mass consumption is concerned), whose name crops up several times in the interviews in this volume. One of the (very few) interesting things in this book, in fact, is Angelopoulos’s assessment of Tarkovsky’s last three films: “...I love…Stalker; Nostalghia I like less; Sacrifice, I do not like at all. As far as I am concerned, the Holy Trinity – that of the actor, the landscape, and the camera – is perfect in Stalker” (p. 64). Angelopoulos is absolutely right – or, rather, I agree with him – at least in his rankings. Stalker is, by far, my favorite film by Tarkovsky, while I think that Sacrifice is nonsense, pure and simple. I do not believe, however, that the issue is one of a “Holy Trinity,” but, rather, of the unmoved mover, that is, of the director himself – which gets us back to Angelopoulos.

Love, hate, and Thodoros Angelopoulos
In my judgment, Angelopoulos’s The Travelling Players is not only the finest Greek film of the last thirty years, but one of the two finest works in the history of Greek cinema (with Nikos Koundouros’s O drakos). Angelopoulos has also made what I consider to be the finest film – bar none – on the wars of the Yugoslav succession: Ulysses’ Gaze. (He was right to be angry when Underground was awarded the Palme d’Or in 1995 – although his public petulance was silly, to say the least. In the event, Emir Kusturica’s film was not so much a burlesque as it was a travesty compared to Angelopoulos’s profoundly sober, and moving, reflection on Balkan identity, and disintegration, at the end of the twentieth century.)

Any filmmaker – or, for that matter, artist – who can lay claim to one work, let alone two, that will remain securely embedded in human consciousness has, obviously, succeeded beyond any doubt. At this point, it doesn’t matter at all what I or anybody else thinks of Angelopoulos; he has in fact altered – almost completely for the better – the esthetic boundaries both of Greek cinema and cinema in general. What is even more important for Greeks, however, is that he has reimagined Greek cultural discourse. Indeed, in addition to being his country’s most important filmmaker (which, to be frank, is not all that difficult), Angelopoulos is – if for no other reason than the consistency and integrity of his work – the seminal Greek artist of his generation.

So where does the hate come in? Essentially, in the films between The Travelling Players and Ulysses’ Gaze. In any case, it is not so much hate as it is dismay and disappointment, and, worst of all, a sense of self-inflicted sabotage. Part of the problem, of course, is that Angelopoulos doesn’t work on an industrial (American) schedule but on an artisanal (European) one – that is, he’s made only (only?) 11 features in 28 years. Given that fact, two masterworks (named above), one exceedingly good film (his first one, Reconstruction), and three interesting ones (Days of ’36, The Hunters, and his most recent one, Eternity and a Day) is hardly an unimpressive record. Nonetheless, that still leaves a series of five films made over a period of 18 years.

Although I hardly know him, I did have the opportunity once to spend a tiny bit of time with Angelopoulos. It was a genuine – and deeply gratifying – pleasure to hear him just “talk movies” on the one occasion when we were completely alone (walking the streets of New York). It also confirmed my intuition that he was not the austere avant-gardist that he’s made out to be by his detractors, but an authentic cinephile, cut from the same Cahierist cloth as so many of his – and, for that matter, my – generation. Actually, that, I think, is the key to the issue.

The permanent cinema
Serge Daney, the French critic who was Cahiers du Cinema’s editor through most of the Seventies, spoke of “the permanent cinema” (as in, yes, the permanent revolution). Here is Angelopoulos, speaking to Gideon Bachmann in 1984: “The cinema is a disease. It outlasts the times when one is not accepted….I have had a very difficult time in the past. But the cinema is very strong – one cannot live without it. It’s not just a medium of expression; it’s a form of life” (p.35). Here he is again, speaking to Michel Ciment three years later: “...[T]he end of a certain historical period and of the ideals that kept our hopes alive carries with it a sense of frustration, as if [sic] being deprived of one’s roots….Cinema was once an integral part of our life, part of this world that has collapsed under our eyes. It was one of the means for keeping in contact with life around us and it was one of our creative options” (pp. 54 & 55). Here he is, finally, speaking to Bachmann again in 1997: “Truffaut used to say that we are more intelligent than that which we produce” (p.105).

That last quote is painfully astute and, as such, unremittingly poignant (like Francois Truffaut himself, in fact). Truffaut was right, as was Angelopoulos to echo him, and you see it in the films of both directors. For every Shoot the Piano Player, a Fahrenheit 451; for every Day for Night, The Green Room. After The Travelling Players, Angelopoulos had the right to a Voyage to Cythera; after Ulysses’ Gaze, did it matter that The Suspended Step of the Stork and, before that, Landscape in the Mist preceded? If art is not about patience – that is, about a continuous, achingly difficult, and often thoroughly unsuccessful, process of reflection, reimagination, and reconstruction – it is about nothing. Besides, in the end, no honest filmmaker has any choice but to plunge ahead, since the cinema is “a form of life.”

And a form of death, obviously – which also partly explains Angelopoulos’s films from Voyage to Cythera on. Angelopoulos is a seminal artist because he has described the arc of an entire generation in his work. Angelopoulos’s more private films might be too private for me (and others), but, then, every individual’s life is a bore to those who haven’t lived it – and a peripeteia (in the Aristotelian sense) to those who have. Do I wish that Angelopoulos had not made certain films – or made them differently? Of course. Do I understand why he made them the way he did? I think so – but I’m not sure. Do I think I need to see them again? Actually, yes.

And one other point, which Angelopoulos understands well, as does anybody who knows anything about movies, but which I suspect most filmgoers nowadays – especially young ones – are oblivious to. To put it succinctly, the history of cinema is the history of the “failure” of the individuals who created it: from Eisenstein, Dreyer, Keaton, Sternberg, and Flaherty, through Renoir, Welles, Rossellini, and Pasolini, to, most famously in our time, Godard – as well as many, many others. Film’s formal articulation has almost invariably come at the price of the audience’s rejection of the filmmakers responsible for it (although I hasten to add that this is a notoriously complex issue). Godard is an extremely painful example of (as Hitchcock and – in a diametrically different way – Bunuel are the most obvious exceptions that confirm) this rule. There is hardly a professional, let alone serious, filmmaker today who has not been influenced somehow by Godard’s radical revaluation of film values – and yet, where are the contemporary films that can even be mentioned in the same breath as his?

As it turns out, there are a number of them (mostly Danish and, lately, some Mexican ones, but that’s another story). In the event, they are all marginal, or, to use my earlier term, peripheral, and the truth is that Angelopoulos has made some. As with all demanding art, it is easy to dismiss it – and easier yet, if intellectually dishonest, to caricature it. The fact of the matter is, however, that it will be around – and viewed and reflected upon – long after its detractors are footnotes to memory.

Conclusion: A movie’s worth a (hundred) thousand words
I have not said much about the book under review. There’s not much to say; it does not shed a great deal of light on either Angelopoulos’s work or on the man himself. Put another way, it is not a book to put on the same shelf as such classics as Godard on Godard, Pasolini on Pasolini, or, most notably, Truffaut’s Hitchcock. (I don’t think it’s a coincidence, by the way, that all three books were published in the late Sixties; to echo Angelopoulos, film was “an integral part” of the generation of the soixante-huitards.) Angelopoulos unwittingly damns this effort himself when he answers the last question put to him in the book by its editor.

...[T]he more I read [film criticism], the more I suspect it has very little to do with real criticism. The things they publish nowadays are mostly very superficial, impressionistic, without much thought or reflection behind them. Personally, I consider criticism should be as creative and as challenging as the work it refers to….So what’s the use of reading at all. In the past I would read a review about one of my films, favorable or not, and discover, from time to time, certain things that even I did not realize before about them. Not any more. (p. 149)

He’s right, of course, and not only about the reception of his own work. It’s been a long time since I thought a university imprint ensured a certain quality – or at least coherence – in a book, but the last few years, it seems, have witnessed the utter collapse of publishing standards among university presses. I have no idea who did the peer review(s) for this volume (a question I ask myself more and more nowadays with academic publishers), but, whoever it was, the result is pathetic in its incompetence.

First of all, the orthography, especially of Greek names and places, verges on the bizarre – without any consistency of transliteration. To wit (in no particular order): Markensinis (for Markezinis), Peloponesus (sic), Karanghyosis, Zakhintos, katarevusa, demotiki, Palaiologlou (for Palaiologou), Tzortzolglou (for Tzortzoglou), just to cite 10 random instances. Strangest of all are the English spellings of the names associated with the tragedy of the house of Atreus: Clitemnestra, Egistus, Chrysotemis, Pylade, and, thoroughly illiterately, Agammemnon.

Second, and more to the point, it’s clear that Dan Fainaru’s knowledge of Greek film history is shallow (to be polite). On p. XIII of his introduction, he writes that: “Angelopoulos always shoots on real locations, never in a studio. In Greece there is not much of a tradition for studio work, and…he does not even attempt it.” Filopimin Finos is undoubtedly doing somersaults in his grave. As for those of us who are still alive – and grew up on the movies of Finos Film, Anzervos, Klearchos Konitsiotis, Damaskinos-Michaelidis, and Karayiannis-Karatzopoulos (just to name the most obvious, albeit apparently non-existent, Greek studios) – this is, to say the least, an astonishing assertion.

I must add, however, that I’m not sure how much Fainaru – who is described on the book’s back cover as a former “vice-president for [sic] the International Federation of Film Critics” – understands film in general. Just a few lines after the comment above about the lack of a Greek studio tradition, he claims that: “The cutting in Angelopoulos’s film baffles most traditional editors. Editing, as he as often pointed out, is done inside the camera, where the pace is established.”

I assume that what Fainaru is getting at here is, for lack of a better term, the temporal mise-en-scene that is so characteristic of Angelopoulos’s work. In the event, I’ve known film editors who may be enraged by it, but I confess to never having met one who was – or could be – “baffled” by it. It is as transparent and clear in its own way as the Odessa Steps sequence. As for “[e]diting…inside the camera,” the last time I checked, directors as varied as (in no particular order) Murnau, Dreyer, Ophuls, Ozu, Renoir, Hitchcock, Bunuel, Welles (most famously), and, most relevantly in Angelopoulos’s case (at least in my opinion), Mizoguchi, were doing it long before movies were appropriated by “film studies.” (I suggest that Fainaru look at Ugetsu again, by the way; the correspondences between it and The Travelling Players are not merely interesting, but provocative and profound.) In any case, as an astute student of film history, as well as someone who loves the cinema, Angelopoulos knows that there is no such thing as parthenogenesis in art.

Finally, the lack of any editorial framework in this book becomes most egregious when the historical context (of the work of a filmmaker who is profoundly engaged with history) is critical. Again, I’ll give only one example. In an interview reprinted from 1973, Angelopoulos is quoted as saying that Days of 36 – and not “The” Days of 36, as the film is occasionally, and sloppily, referred to throughout the book, thus thoroughly negating the title’s Cavafian resonances – “was enthusiastically received by the…left-wing parties,” while “[t]he ones who were really angry were the center parties.” As this interview took place in 1973, that remark is a historical non sequitur. Greece was under military rule in 1973; there were no functioning parties of any kind – left, center, or even right. Obviously, Angelopoulos meant something completely different when he gave that interview – I assume he was referring to the partisans or advocates of the various parties, both pre-junta and those involved in anti-junta activities at the time. In any case, anyone who is not intimately familiar with modern Greek history would get a completely distorted picture of the reaction to his film – and of the conditions under which it was made and distributed – from that unexplained comment.

It would be pointless to catalogue all the deficiencies and errors in Theo Angelopoulos: Interviews. The fact is that it is neither a good book nor a very useful one. Actually, I don’t understand why it was published. And that’s really too bad because Angelopoulos is an important filmmaker in – and for – the cinema today. As such, he – as well as all of us who genuinely respect, admire, and have engaged with his work over the last three decades – deserve much, much better.

The only thing that matters in the end, however, is the work itself. Angelopoulos remains as active as ever. The last time I was at the Thessaloniki Film Festival about a year and a half ago, rumor had it that he was embarking on a new trilogy. I – and many people throughout the world – look forward to its completion. As for this particular volume (not to mention all the critical detritus surrounding Angelopoulos), I can only paraphrase Hitchcock: It’s only a book.

Peter Pappas is co-founder of
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