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Monday, June 16, 2003

Arts & Letters

Z, More Than Ever


It was a different time. I remember reading once that, following criticism of Z as being too “black and white” and not “nuanced” enough, Costa Gavras responded, But that’s the way Greece is: black and white, without nuance. When he made his film (and was answering those specious charges of bias), Greece was, of course, under military rule — and Z was banned in the country. If anything, Gavras’s assessment of the land of his birth was too kind by half. Even before the junta overthrew what passed itself off at the time as the “constitutional order” (but was really an institutionalized terror), if you were on the wrong side politically, it was mostly black.

This year, of course, marked the fortieth anniversary of the assassination — more accurately, the regime’s execution — of Grigoris Lambrakis. However, it also marked the seventieth birthday of Costa Gavras (I hope he forgives me for Hellenizing his name for this article). Gavras was born in 1933; Vasilis Vasilikos — author of the self-described “fictional documentary” that the filmmaker turned into a seminal political film — was born a year later. In the event, they were both entering the “age of reason” when the political experience that more or less determined the rest of their lives occurred.

I don’t want that last remark to be misunderstood: Vasilikos and Gavras had both embarked on their respective careers long before Lambrakis was assassinated. And there’s no doubt in either case that if Lambrakis had not been murdered (or if he had survived the attack against him), they would have stamped their presence and artistic identities on their chosen fields. Somehow, however, I can’t help but think that there was in Lambrakis’s death a collective epiphany that embraced not only Vasilikos and Gavras but an entire nation, and that in fact led to the Greece in which we all find ourselves today. (Obviously, this occurred after the crime, through the political contestation that had to be played out to the bitter end to resolve those historical contradictions that, to echo Marx, weighed like a nightmare upon the living.)

In search of lost time
I am writing this from southern Evia in the summer of the Year of the Great Crusade Between Good and Evil 2003. In the summer of 1963, I found myself in Salonika, immediately after Lambrakis’s murder. I had been born in that city 12 years earlier, but this was the first time I had been back since my family had finally emigrated to the United States nine years earlier. I remember well my mother taking me to the corner where “the communist Lambrakis” — as she put it — was slain. My mother was, and remains to this day, a royalist, which is to say a woman comfortable in her oblivious regression: She has, of course, voted the straight Republican ticket from the moment she became an American citizen in 1960 and cast her first ballot for Richard Nixon. (My father, on the other hand, was a Venizelist in Greece and a Democrat in the States. Don’t ask.)

My mother also had a political pedigree of sorts: Her father was a renowned right-winger in Salonika, and proud of it. When EAM/ELAS triumphantly marched into the city following the German retreat from Greece in 1944, my grandfather famously (or notoriously, depending on your point of view) hung an enormous photograph of then-exiled King George II from his office near the Dioikêtêrio (the then-ministry of northern Greece). Under the circumstances, he was soon on a hit-list of the KKE (Communist Party of Greece) and was only saved by my grandaunt, his sister-in-law, who was a relatively high-ranking local communist cadre and warned him to get out of town, which he did. (He had a chance to repay the debt. During the Civil War, my grandaunt was arrested, found guilty of “treason” — she had been involved for years with her husband in organizing tobacco-workers in northern Greece — and condemned to death. She refused to sign a declaration of recantation, although even her husband begged her to do so for the sake of their three children. My grandfather — I suspect because he knew the kind of stuff his wife’s younger sibling was made of and that there was consequently no other way out — went to Athens and secured a royal pardon from Queen Frederika herself, personally pledging responsibility for his sister-in-law.)

To this day, I can remember the tension in my grandfather’s house during that summer of ’63. It was, of course, the summer before the fall elections that were the goal of the “unyielding struggle” that had been waged against the 1961 elections “tês vias kai notheias” (of violence and fraud) in which George Papandreou and the Center Union party were blatantly robbed of victory by the same parakratos (parastate) that had assassinated Lambrakis. Nineteen sixty-three was also the year in which then-Prime Minister Constantine Karamanlis famously demanded of the royal family, “Who governs this country?” (Upon realizing that it was anyone but him, he fled under an assumed name to Paris, afraid that he’d end up sharing Lambrakis’s fate; he would not return until the military junta collapsed 11 years later.) Costa Gavras put it exactly right: Just black and white, no nuances.

As I said, my mother is as royalist as the former king. She’s also got an independent streak in her, however, that’s always stood out — especially as she’s a Greek woman of a certain generation. During that murderously hot political summer of 1963, George Papandreou (the current Greek foreign minister’s grandfather, after whom he was named) came to Salonika to address “ton lao tês symproteuousas.” (The translation, “the people of the co-capital,” does not begin to reflect the wonderful self-importance, and affectation, of the Greek original.) My mother decided not only that she was going to scout out the enemy’s forces — and, not at all coincidentally, hear for herself what “o Geros tês Dêmokratias” (the Old Man of Democracy) had to say — but that she was going to take me with her! My grandfather was livid. He would not allow it. The “kommounia” (commies) would provoke riots; the police were on alert; she was putting me in danger.

If there were any riots, of course, my grandfather must have known that it would have been the police organizing them. Besides, this was a Center Union rally, not one by the left, at a time when the “Old Man of Democracy” was carrying out a dhimetopo agona — a “two-front struggle” — against both right and left. But my grandfather was not a man to be swayed, least of all by his daughters. My mother, however, was just as unyielding (if I can use the adjective that was famous throughout the land). I was her son, and she would go and take me with her if she wanted to — which she did, and did. (Strangely enough, I don’t remember if she also took my brother, who was six years younger; I have to ask him one of these days.)

I was, to put it simply, scared to death. As a 12-year-old Greek American kid who’d been brought up on a daily diet of duck-and-cover, the pledge of allegiance, and Korean War movies with incredibly monstrous communist Asiatics (they weren’t yet Asians) continually defiling (or at least imperiling) invariably Catholic nuns, lay sisters, or just plain Deborah Kerr wannabes, this was a political — and existential — bridge way too far for me to cross. Thinking back on it now, I give my mother much credit for putting me through this bizarre baptism of Greek political fire — although I’ve never quite figured out why she did it (other than to irritate her father, which, on second thought, probably explains much of the world). In any case, I don’t remember very much of the rally in Plateia Aristotelous other than it was packed on every single side and that, just as it was about to end, a group of doves were released into the air.

The life of the mind being what it is, and the infinite influences on a child’s development and consciousness being what they are — and all these factors taken together in their organic interplay — I will mention one more memory from that Plateia Aristotelous that is no more. Sometime later that summer, my mother took me to the movies, to a therino sinema (open-air, summer cinema) in the plateia, exactly where Papandreou’s rally had taken place. (Needless to say, that wonderful cinema is long gone.) What is amazing about this fact is that my mother is, notoriously among our family, not a moviegoer; by her own self-deprecating admission, she falls asleep within minutes of the initial titles. (What is even stranger is that my brother became an actor and drama teacher and I ended up studying film — although I know that, in my case, I inherited my father’s cinephilia.) Nonetheless, my mother decided to take me to the movies in the plateia (funny how we remember the subtle generosities of parents only in middle or old age). The film playing that night — the only one I saw, in fact, that extraordinary summer of 1963, following Grigoris Lambrakis’s murder — was Citizen Kane. I understood very little of it, but I remember thinking two things. First of all, that it had been a strange movie, nothing like anything I’d ever seen (which is to say fascinating beyond my ability to explain). My second thought, however, went much farther afield and was frightening. I began to sense almost palpably and in a manner I had never felt before that adulthood was, somehow, in a way I could not even begin to imagine let alone articulate, as much a threat as a promise.

When fiction is truer than fact
I will never be able to be objective about the film, Z, although I’ve never had that problem with the novel. This might say something about me, but I actually believe it speaks directly to the differences between literature and cinema. What is most compelling — and subversive — about language is that it defies complacency. Reading is an ongoing contest with, and challenge to, a text. Barthes was obviously right about that. There is no text free of textuality, in the simple sense that reading is a continual confrontation with what is being read, if for no other reason than the reader controls the actual process of reading. With a movie, however, anyway you cut it, it’s still 24 frames per second. Which is to say that the actual process of perception of the cinematic text is in the filmmaker’s control — or, at the very least, more in her/his control than in the spectator’s. That’s why we poor cinephiles have to see a film over and over and over before we can feel (reasonably) confident that we actually know what’s going on. One can linger over a page, or a paragraph, or a phrase till the mind bends. Movies can only be accommodated at their (predetermined) rhythm (at least for those of us who dissent from the notion that cinema and video are synonymous). That is also why film is an infinitely “hotter” medium than print: it aims at a sentimental response — or, better yet, emotional complicity — whereas the written word is, almost by definition, an invitation to reflection.

Forgive me the cliché, but I can remember the night I first saw Z in 1969 as clearly as if it were last month. It was the first weekend following its opening in New York, and I was exceedingly irritated at the friend I was going to see it with because we got to the theater late, the line was half-way down the block, and tickets were running out fast for what was the last screening that Friday night. We finally got in, although I was forced to do something that I had never done before at a movie — and that I would never, ever do again: sit in the very front row, as there were literally no more seats left. (For those of you who have no idea, there are two kinds of cine-obsessives: those “film buffs” who, for reasons that have more to do with Freud than with film, will always be found in the first row of film festivals or in the theaters of the Museum of Modern Art in New York or in any art cinema in America, ready to be “flooded” by the images about to “wash over” them, and those of us who actually want to see the movie in question.) In over 35 years of systematic filmgoing, I have only sat in the front row of a theater once, when I saw Z for the first time. While it might not seem like one, it is, in fact, a considerable compliment. If nothing else, it testifies to an extraordinary impatience. It was almost as if in seeing it, I thought that I would be taking part in an act of…what, exactly?

Two things. The first I can only describe, unfortunately, as a sense of communion. Since solidarity with the people of the country in which I was born was not possible then with anything less than profoundly militant actions — today we would call them terrorism, although once upon a time they were known as resistance — being a part of the first-weekend crowds that were turning this movie into a palpable hit was about something else: namely, a repudiation of any number of falsehoods in which both Greece and the Greek American community were then enmired, and of which one of the most despicable was that the colonels then running Greece were “saviors.” Z exposed them as something else entirely: traitors, liars, thieves, and — as a consequence of these — torturers and murderers. It might only have been a movie, but at a time when “official” Hellenism in the US gravitated between the poles of George Papadopoulos and Spiro Agnew, you were grateful for the truth wherever it came from. (Z, by the way, did not benefit from the kind of ethnic word-of-mouth from which My Big Fat Greek Wedding was to profit grotesquely over 30 years later. Greek Americans were, in their vast majority, apologists for the junta; they dismissed the film as communist propaganda and were plainly nonplussed when it not only became the hit that it did, but won the Oscar a few months later for best foreign film. Am I comparing apples and oranges? Hardly, since the communal stance to both films revealed the community’s pathological ambivalence — and denial — as far as its principles and, above all, its origins were concerned.)

The second point was actually much subtler and, for me — and I suspect for many Greeks throughout the world — more significant in the end and certainly more poignant. It is extremely difficult in this (cynical and therefore utterly philistine) time to explain the feeling that I had at 18 knowing that a film had been made by some of the most important members of the French film world about Greece, my country, and, most unusually, about recent events in my country that even I, as a teenager, remembered and had indirectly lived through. This was not simply a movie (another Never on Sunday or Zorba the Greek). It was a tribute by the civilized world (ergo, one that excluded my ethnic community and the US government) to the pain and affliction and, yes, real terror (because it was inflicted by the powerful against the powerless) that Greece had suffered for the sake of that world. Beyond Yves Montand or Jean-Louis Trintignant or François Perier or Jacques Perrin or Charles Denner (all the actors, in other words, that were so familiar to anybody who knew anything about French cinema of the Fifties and Sixties), the idea that Jorge Semprun, author of the screenplay to Alain Resnais’s La guerre est finie (and future Spanish minister of culture), had co-written Z’s script, and that Raoul Coutard — yes, that Raoul Coutard, Godard’s Coutard, the man behind the cameras behind A bout de souffle and Une femme est une femme and Vivre sa vie and Les carabiniers and Le mépris and Band à part and Pierrot le fou and Alphaville and Deux ou trois chose que je sais d’elle (as well as Truffaut’s Tirez sur le pianiste and Jules at Jim) — had actually shot Z, was to me an absolute and ineffable moral and cultural validation. Knowing that Semprun and Coutard and Montand had allied themselves with Gavras — and with Vasilikos and Mikis Theodorakis (then interned by the dictatorship) and Irene Papas and with Greece and, most of all, with the memory of Lambrakis — was incandescent evidence that, no matter what the Greek Orthodox Primate of North and South America or the Supreme President of the AHEPA or the various self-appointed and semi-sensate capos of the Greek American community thought, we were right, they were doomed, we would win (no matter how long it took) and they would all be relegated to the landfills of history, along with the repellent dictators whom they serv(ic)ed.

Talk about catharsis. I’ve never been able to watch Z without an Aristotelian breakdown. Is it a great movie? That’s an insensible — actually, disorienting — question. Casablanca is not a “great” movie either, but when my wife and I got married, we chose “As Time Goes By” for our wedding song. (I hasten to add that, as Melanie was a defendant in one of the more significant political trials of the Sixties in the US, she wasn’t exactly a dewy-eyed romantic; in the event, she knew then — as she does now — the difference between pushpin and poetry.) John Ford was an unquestionably greater filmmaker than Michael Curtiz but How Green Was My Valley “works” in precisely the same way as Casablanca or, for that matter, Z. There is a mode of political melodrama in which the melodrama is so accurate in its emotional depiction that the politics are “simply” the predetermined narrative conclusion and reflection, or better yet, the sense — quite literally, the aesthêsis — of that fact. Melodrama then becomes a kind of emotional voluntarism: it clears the narrative path of the mines of abstraction for the intellectual assault that was long preordained. Is Z “as good as” La guerre est finie? One might as well ask if It’s A Wonderful Life is as good as Nights of Cabiria (both films are about protagonists who can’t catch a break) or if The Power and the Glory is as good as The Charterhouse of Parma (both novels are about priests and revolution). This is an obtuse, and ridiculous, way of going about things. Especially because, as far as film is concerned, so much of its resonance is directly related to its generic function — or, if I can again use the more apposite Greek term, leitourgia.

This Greek sense of the ritual behind the function speaks directly to cinema’s liturgical role in the consciousness of the twentieth century. It has been commented on by people much smarter than me almost from the very first moment that the Lumiére brothers unreeled their wondrous invention to a speechless café audience communing in the dark with a world of light in a new (and modern) rite of passage. There’s the world and then there are movies, and then there are movies in the world. It might be a secular liturgy but it is no less powerful or deeply rooted in a noble (yet concrete) faith for all that. It also explains why Z will always mark a seminal moment in the history of cinema’s political presence. On that note, by the way, I can’t help but add that Z described a time and place in which moral desertion went by the name of government, cynicism was disguised as faith, and power became the simplest — and certainly most realistic — definition of virtue. This all sounds strikingly contemporary, of course. I should also add, however, that when the film came out, none of us knew its final ending. As it happened, it was cruel and tragic for Cyprus. Still, art is long and history longer, which means that the former consoles as the latter retrenches for its vindication. The good guys ultimately won in Greece, and it looks like they’re on the verge of a well-deserved, and long overdue, victory in Cyprus.

Finally, the last word, rightly, to Grigoris Lambrakis. Forty years and a month — almost to the day — after he was struck down, the new, historically staggering, and (for anyone who has any sense at all of the blood-soaked millennia that have led to this wildly unprecedented moment) genuinely thrilling constitution of a democratic, self-determining, and united Europe, east and west, north and south, rich and indigent, formerly communist and forever capitalist, will be announced in the city in which he last saw the light of the world. Z? Zei kai vasileuei.

Peter Pappas is co-founder of greekworks.com.
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