Wednesday, 25 January 2012

Theo Angelopoulos: Voyages, Partings, Wanderings

The Weeping Meadow (Directed by Theo Angelopoulos)
The great Greek director Theo Angelopoulos was tragically killed yesterday while filming in Athens. Widely regarded as a true master of modern cinema, Angelopoulos developed one of the most unique styles in the history of film-making, involving an innovative handling of time and space based on long, elaborate takes of great eloquence and beauty.

He established his international reputation with the epic The Travelling Players (1975) and went on to direct the remarkable O Megalexandros (1980) and Landscape in the Mist (1988). In his later films Angelopoulos used well-known actors to reach a wider audience - Marcello Mastroianni in The Beekeeper (1986), Harvey Keitel in Ulysses’ Gaze (1995), Bruno Ganz in Eternity and a Day (1998) and Willem Dafoe in The Dust of Time (2008).

The critic David Thomson wrote of Angelopoulos that: ‘By now, it has become clear that his style is deeply personal and poetic - and, of course, it has to be experienced, for the work is not just plastic but temporal. When Angelopoulos moves, he is sailing in time as well as space, and the shifts, the progress, the traveling make a metaphor for history and understanding.’

This is a transcript of a speech 
in which Angelopoulos reflects on cinema, his work and Greece. It was delivered at the University of Essex in 2001 when Angelopoulos was awarded an honorary degree from the Centre for Film Studies:

My relationship with Cinema began almost as a nightmare. It was in ‘46 or ‘47, I don’t quite recall. The post-war years, a time when a lot of people were going to the movies and we, the kids, sneaked in among the jostling adults standing in line at the box office, in order to disappear in the magic darkness of the balcony. I saw many movies then, but the first one was a Michael Curtiz film Angels With Dirty Faces.

There’s a scene in the film where the hero is led to the electric chair by two guards.  As they walk, their shadows grow larger and larger against the wall. Suddenly, a cry…‘I don’t want to die. I don’t want to die’. For a long time afterwards this cry haunted my nights. Cinema entered my life with a shadow that grew larger on a wall and a cry.

I began to write at a very early age, at the same time, overwhelmed by the tumult and the emotion that the turbulence of previous history had created in me. The sirens of war in 1940.

The Travelling Players (Directed by Theo Angelopoulos)
The German army of occupation entering a deserted Athens. First sounds, first images. Then the Civil War of ‘44. The slaughter. My father condemned to death. My mother’s hand trembling in mine as we searched for his body among dozens of others, in a field. A long time later a message from him, from afar. His return on a rainy day.The first stories. The first contact with words, words in search of an image  I didn’t know then. I understood quite some time later when I wrote the words in my first script.  The words were ‘it’s raining’.

In my days, Homer and the ancient tragic poets constituted part of the school curriculum. The ancient myths inhabit us and we inhabit them. We live in a land full of memories, ancient stones and broken statues. All contemporary Greek art bears the mark of this co-existence.

It would be impossible for the path I have followed, the course I have taken, for my thinking not to have been infused by all of this. As the poet says, ‘they emerged from the dream, as I entered the dream. So our lives were joined together and it will be very difficult to part them again.’

From very early on, my relationship with literature and poetry brought me close to all the investigations, whether language or aesthetics, of modernism. Later, in the beginning of the sixties, in Paris, in the days of political activism, Brecht’s epic theatre which refuted, up to a point, Aristotle’s definition of dramatic art, was becoming a point of reference.

It was years before I went back to Aristotle and his definition of tragedy: ‘Tragedy is an imitation of a worthy or illustrious and perfect action…’ It was years before I discovered that Molly’s monologue in the last chapter of James Joyce’s Ulysses is nothing but a distant echo of the astonishing description of Achilles’ arms from Homer’s Iliad.

Reconstruction, my first film, was born in the period of dictatorship of the Colonels as an attempt to piece together the truth out of its fragments. Reconstruction not as a goal, but as a journey. The little stories as they are reflected but also determined by the greater History.

Ulysses’ Gaze (Directed by Theo Angelopoulos)
The father is symbol, presence and absence, as a metaphorical concept as well as a point of reference.  The journey, borders, exile. Human fate. The eternal return. Themes that pursued me and still pursue me.  All my obsessions enter and exit my films, as the instruments of an orchestra enter and exit, as they fall silent only to re-emerge later. We are condemned to function with our obsessions. We make but one film, we write but one book. Variations and fugues on the same theme.

Many of those who have done me the honour of concerning themselves with my work think that my manner of writing is the result of political choice. That’s not quite how it is. Of course, while I was shooting Days of ‘36, a film about dictatorship during a time of dictatorship, it was impossible to use direct references. I sought a secret language. The allusions of History. The ‘dead time’ of a conspiracy. Suppression.  Elliptical speech an aesthetic principle. A film in which all the important things appear to take place off camera. But my choice of long takes does not stem from this fact.

Working with long takes was not a logical decision. I have always thought it was a natural choice. A need to incorporate natural time and space, as unity of space and time. A need for the so-called ‘dead time’ between action and the expectation of action, which is usually eliminated by the editor’s scissors, to function musically, like pauses. A concept of the shot as a living cell which inhales, delivers the main word and exhales. A fascinating and dangerous choice which continues to the present day.

I have been working with the same team of collaborators since the time I began. They know me and I know them. With the years they have become my family. They often make me angry when we work, I miss them when I don’t see them. I feel uncertain when a new technician joins the team, as though everything depends on this new person. I talk to them about my plans and my uncertainties. So many years have gone by and still the same agitation, the same uncertainty, the same need for us to be close, holding our breath, and waiting for the end of the shot.

O Megalexandros/Alexander the Great (Directed by Theo Angelopoulos)
Voyages, partings, wanderings. A car, a photographer friend driving in silence and the road.

Very often I think that my only home, the only place where I feel a sense of equilibrium, a peace of mind, is sitting next to my friend who’s driving. The open window, the landscape flitting past.

Images are born during these journeys. I don’t have to keep notes. They are born with their silhouettes, with their colours, with their style, very often with their camera movements as well, with their aesthetic balances, with their light. The hundreds of photographs serve as memory. But nothing ends before the film is shot. During the shooting of the film everything is recreated on the basis of this new reality.  Actors, unforeseen events, fortunate or unfortunate, sudden ideas.

And yet the beginning has preceded it. Long before. From the time when out of nothing, the idea for the film is born. Almost thirty years have gone by since my first film. I could paraphrase TS Eliot and say:

‘So here I am, in the middle way.

My years largely wasted amid the rages of History,

still trying to learn to use images.

And my every attempt is a wholly new start and a kind of failure because we only learn when we no longer have to express ourselves.

And so each new venture is a new beginning in the general mess of imprecision of feeling. Undisciplined squads of emotion.

A raid on the inarticulate.

To recover what has been lost, and found, and lost again.

To recover…

In my end is my beginning.’

- Theo Angelopoulos (1935 - 2012)

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