This is an updated version of an article that was originally published in Thifonies, Issue No.2, December 1997.
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All filmmakers are seers. Some know it. And some over-know it.
What to make of the Greek filmmaker Theo Angelopoulos? David Thomson, in the 1995 edition of his A Biographical Dictionary of the Cinema, lists Angelopoulos as one of the world’s three or four great living directors. In Australia, his films rarely screen, so the mini-retrospective (Reconstruction, 1970; Voyage to Cythera, 1983; Landscape in the Mist, 1988; and Ulysses’ Gaze, 1995) presented by the Melbourne International Film Festival in 1997 was a welcome opportunity to sample some of the director’s oeuvre. I went along, both as a cinephile and cineaste, and it proved to be (along with some Japanese cartoons) the highlight of the festival.
Which is not necessarily saying much, all things considered. You see, in the ’50s, ’60s and ’70s, art cinema (for want of a better phrase) had a remarkable heyday, saturating the directly cultural arenas (festivals, magazines, universities) and also infiltrating into the more mainstream arenas (cinemas, TV, newspapers). Take the most commercial country as a marker: even America in the late ’60s/early ’70s had a thriving artistic cinema – Hellman, Peckinpah, De Palma, Cassavetes, Hopper, Rafelson, Scorsese. Since then, there has been a gradual decline in interest in cinema as an art form, world-wide. These days, even the Cannes and Venice Film Festivals are glitzy, commercial affairs. The most interesting directors of the last 15 or so years, the ones actually developing cinema as an art form (Mészáros, Iosseliani, Moretti, Ruiz, Garrel, Erice, Jost, Rainer, Haynes, Kiarostami, Ferrara) have had to work in almost total obscurity. The work of the lauded art directors (Kieslowski, Wenders, Campion, Lynch, Greenaway, Davies, Egoyan) lacks subtlety and in no way compares to the work of the previous generation of art/mainstream crossover directors (Bergman, Fellini, Antonioni, Pasolini, Buñuel, Godard, Truffaut). In this current climate, the work of Angelopoulos actually stands out, and I want to praise it, but not totally.
It is strange and exciting that a filmmaker like Angelopoulos is active now, in this era of hyper aesthetics (the electronic image, computer games, the internet). He is, resolutely, a classicist (with some modernist, but no post-modernist, touches): he tackles the biggest themes (history, politics, love, death) with a broad humanist agenda and a cinematic sweep that is both rigorous and graceful. In this sense, he is hardly Mediterranean: his work is like that of the Eastern directors Tarkovsky, Kieslowski, Jancsó, Wajda, Mészáros.
I must admit that I have not seen any of the films Angelopoulos made in the ’70s and that the only other one I have seen apart from the four shown at the festival is The Bee Keeper (1986). But, going on 1970’s Reconstruction (which I find cold, schematic, lifeless) and what I have read about the subsequent films, Voyage to Cythera seems to usher in a whole new period for Angelopoulos, one where his concerns are not only historical and political, but also spiritual and metaphysical.
Voyage to Cythera, Landscape in the Mist and Ulysses’ Gaze are grouped together (by critics, I think, not by the filmmaker) as Angelopoulos’ “voyage trilogy”. This is fair enough, but what is more pertinent is the consistency the films display formally and stylistically, marking Angelopoulos as a distinctly visionary artist. Average film-goers complain that Angelopoulos’ films are long, slow and boring, but that is exactly what they are not. They are too short (for the subject matters they cover, especially in the case of Ulysses), quite fast (within the image or sound or the narrative, there is always something occurring) and always fascinating (in the multi-layered way they mix the personal with the political, the aesthetic surface with the deeper meaning, etc.).
If one were to consider this trilogy of films purely in terms of their subject matters, there would not be much to rejoice about. The films show exiled or alienated characters, searching for reconciliation or meaning, but only finding death or despair. The films’ forms, however, show something else. As in the bleak cinema of Robert Bresson, there is transcendence beneath (or above) the immediate tragedy depicted. (Apart from in Ulysses, which seems to me to be about a beginning, the beginning of the 21st century.) However, unlike Bresson’s transcendence (which is sublime, spiritual and handed from above), Angelopoulos’ is quiet, earthly and earned (apart from in Landscape, because the protagonists are children).
What impresses me most about Angelopoulos, however, is his camera, and, therefore, his gaze. There is no doubting that despite the pre-determined nature of the camera’s plan-séquence design, there is genuine innocence in that gaze. One of the main subjects of his films is the cinema (this becomes explicit in Ulysses), especially the interstices between cinema and life, And, particularly, between looking and being. Angelopoulos is fascinated by looking: he looks with his camera, which almost always moves, and he loves looking at looking (the director following his father in Voyage, the people on the river bank looking at the Lenin statue in Ulysses, etc.). And this is tied in with the whole idea of travelling, and the state of exile: these are all modes of displacement, of the soul floating through things, losing its grounding, its being. But this displacement, of course, serves to bring the characters back to themselves, to renew their sense of being. As for Angelopoulos himself, he looks, and he sees, and it is an act of confirmation and love, and a renewing of his own faith in life and living. He reminds me at times of Rossellini (Voyage to Italy , and the plan-séquence form), and yet no article I have read on Angelopoulos makes that connection.
He also reminds me (as noted above) of Tarkovsky, and this is where, unfortunately, Angelopoulos loses me. Tarkovsky’s films are so heavy with their deep themes and forbidding style, that they get bogged down in a kind of morbid metaphysical quagmire. Angelopoulos avoids that pitfall, but he shares Tarkovsky’s penchant for grandiloquent designs and epic feelings. Because of that, Ulysses’ Gaze, in particular, misfires a number of times. Harvey Keitel is valiant and Maïa Morgenstern magnificent in the film, but their personal interactions are totally unbelievable. I feel Angelopoulos works best with modest material – there is a clash in Ulysses between the impressionistic, meditative style and the expressionistic, surreal devices (the love affairs, the symbols, the narrative scale, etc.).
For me, Voyage works the best. Its emotional outbursts (the simple line “It’s me”) compared to Ulysses‘ (long ramblings that come out of nowhere) are totally believable and effective. Voyage and Landscape are fluid, beautiful, genuinely painful, and totally integrated artworks; Ulysses is fractured, sketchy, and even conceited and a touch mad. (Still, it was probably the best release of 1997 in Australian cinemas.)
For me, overall, I have a love-hate relationship with Angelopoulos’ cinema, preferring the smaller canvases, sharper lines and bolder experiments of Godard, Rossellini, Bresson, Akerman. Still, there is no denying Angelopoulos’ greatness, or resisting the beauty of the feeling in his meaning and the vision in his gaze.