Theo Angelopoulos ushers in his films a different Greece, a different humanity: one that suffers from melancholia at the breakdown of democratic state policies;
In a memorable scene from his 1995 film, Ulysses’ Gaze, A. (Harvey Keitel), the exiled film-maker is being driven from Greece to Albania in a taxi. The taxi driver (Thanassis Veggos) halts when he predicts a snow-storm, and after sharing a drink, he cries out for his homeland in a lament, “Greece is dying. We’re dying as a people. We’ve come full circle; I don’t know how many years, among broken stones and statues… and we’re dying. But if Greece is going to die, she’d better do it quickly because the agony lasts too long and makes too much noise.”
On the 24th of January, 2012, Theo Angelopoulos, the director of this film and many other renowned ones, succumbed to his injuries sustained in a motorcycle accident, around the same time when his homeland, Greece, is suffering from a severe economic crisis, and to quote Fatima Bhutto in a completely different context, is on the verge of a “nervous breakdown”.
The magic realist of the Balkans, Theo Angelopoulos ushers in his films a different Greece, a different humanity: one that suffers from melancholia at the breakdown of democratic state policies; where Odysseus returns in the twentieth century to find a nation that mocks its classical past, thrives on repressive state policies and dictatorship, and corrupt and dynastic measures.
Angelopoulos makes nostalgic journeys into the past and weaves – much like the Manakia Brothers to whom he paid a tribute in Ulysses’ Gaze – epic cinema out of the fragments of ordinary life. His exiled travelling people never fully make it back to their Ithaca.
Through their “gaze” of the embittered landscape, and through the Nietzschian concept of eternal return, the hierophants of Odysseus desperately try to preserve humanity through imagined beauty. Hence it is only in Angelopoulos’ lens that fellow inhabitants of Sarajevo venture out on a foggy evening, when the smog renders it impossible for the snipers to carry out their mission, and remark at the beauty of the world, and be swayed wordlessly by classical music in a bombed-out, open air, makeshift amphitheatre.
The sad state of contemporary Greece is built against Angelopoulos’ poignant poetry of images. In The Travelling Players, Angelopoulos portrays a road narrative through the Grecian provinces, and reveals the fascism, the absence of democracy and national identity, at the face of the military junta.
In Landscape in the Mist the social-realist air merges into surrealism as the director takes his audience once again through misty towns and snowy wilderness. His life-long tendency to amalgamate Greek myths and history into current political events is revealed once again in his oedipal drama The Weeping Meadow. He stands – along with the few representing the Greek cultural Renaissance in the second half of the 20th century – as a testimony to the elites of his nation who have constantly belittled their culture in lieu of insatiable consumerism which has redefined Greek modernity.
The sensual medium: Ulysses’ Gaze
Greek protests over the years fall into a pattern. They take place usually at Syntagma Square; most of the demonstrators are peaceful citizens, shocked and saddened by the state of affairs; and have a fierce old man in the centre. Old and fragile, he is prominent in the crowd, is as passionate as the others, but not a leader.
Angelopoulos was six years old when Manolis Glezos climbed the Acropolis at night and tore down the Nazi flag. It is in the elegiac portrait of Alexander (Bruno Ganz) in Eternity and a Day, lamenting at the state of his country, and slowly coming to terms with his past, that we find the similarity with Glezos.
In this regard, it is necessary to bring some political perspective. Only a few days ago, armed robbers stole several dozen artifacts from the ancient Olympia museum. Last month, a senior cabinet minister admitted that he did not read the memorandum imposed by the Troika before voting for them. He disagrees with them now, despite having been instrumental in implementing them. Greece is being touted to lose its money by March, and the vicious cycle of appeal for bailout, money granted, and then spent, will begin all over again.
Angelopoulos shows that the journey of the modern Ulysses ends not with the return to his homeland, at least not geographically. He participates in a reconstruction, where the past comes alive to form an assemblage built on a collective memory. In Ulysses’ Gaze, the quest for meaning and identity ends its diegesis in a burning Sarajevo. The reels of the film are burned, and A faces the camera in tears.
But, does this really signify the end of history? The Manakia brothers began their personal quest by documenting the human life during the Balkan wars at the beginning of the century, and it is those very reels which are burned a century later in another war, in another fire. This palindrome movement of the visual image and of history launches a sequence of pure “time image”, where time is not integral to subjectivity, but rather, consciousness is internal and constituted by time.
One draws hope and motivation from Deleuze’s words, who relies on Bergson’s notion of the ‘duree’ to say, “What is actual, is always a present. But the present changes or passes. It becomes past when it no longer is, when a new present replaces it… It is clearly necessary for it to pass on for the new present to arrive, and it is clearly necessary for it to pass at the same time as it is present…”. Hence what is “now”, this too shall pass.
Ulysses´ Gaze: Dance Scene
It is this contemporaneity that connects the personal world view with History, and sustains the seed for the rise of a new collective image. The elite had once splurged into mindless consumerism, deliberately stifling their culture. The ordinary Greeks, the hard-working ones who are struggling to make ends meet, as well as the jobless, who are living under stringent conditions, should look back into their past, from the particular to the general, to achieve clarity. Perhaps the greatest motivation is provided by Benjamin who says, “History is the subject of a structure whose site is not homogeneous empty time, but time filled by the presence of the now”.
Angelopoulos had always treated his content through episodic narratives, providing space for the viewer to produce his or her interpretation. The new could just as well be forgotten as the past; the significance of which acquires a new meaning after its retrieval.
This retrieval is not the force of a classical age that reduces the present to a decadent descendant. It is a reconstruction that contains the dynamics of the original, but its significance and velocity starts from the “now”. The struggle for the revival of the country is being played out daily in the protests and campaigns. Ordinary Greeks have now the chance to redefine the meaning and values of the oldest European civilization.
Greece is no longer a dictatorship now. But Angelopoulos’s death harks back to an earlier time, when in 1971, the funeral of the Nobel Prize winner Giorgos Seferis became a symbolic movement of the resistance against the colonels. The death of the director has already led to a nation-wide soul-searching.
Ulysses’ Gaze: Lenin Statue
 Deleuze, Gilles. Cinema 2 – the Time Image. Trans. Tomlinson, Hugh and Galeta, Robert. London: The Athlone Press, 1989
Benjamin, Walter. Theses on the Philosophy of History in Illuminations, London: Fontana Press, 1992.
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