Monday, July 30, 2012

The Theo Angelopoulos Collection: Vol 1

Theo Angelopoulos, one of the world’s most celebrated and revered contemporary directors, passed away earlier this year from being stuck by a motorcycle. It was only then that I realized I had only seen one film by Angelopoulos, a filmmaker many consider a master. Although there is no one to blame but myself, I nonetheless also hold US distributors partially responsible for my failure. Of Angelopoulos’ thirteen feature films, only a scant few are available commercially in the US: Landscapes in the Mist (1988), Eternity and a Day (1998), and The Weeping Meadow, my one blissful theatrical success. All are probably available to those who are clever with a computer (that’s not me) and those perfectly comfortable with subpar quality (also not me), but the point is that for 42 years much of Angelopoulos’ oeuvre has been ignored stateside.
My solution, combined with a modest goal, is to make this right through the power of the free market. Artificial Eye recently released three box sets in the UK that include all of Angelopoulos’ features, the third and final set coming a mere two months after his accidental death. (The possibly that these releases, 13 DVDs in all, were in anticipation for Angelopoulos’ final chapter in his trilogy on modern Greece, The Other Sea now languishing unfinished, is just another reminder of the loss.)
Volume 1, which includes his debut The Reconstruction, as well as the three films Days of ’36, The Traveling Players, and The Hunters, landed recently in NE Minneapolis. Here’s a rundown of the first four films of this dearly departed visionary and film craftsman.

The Reconstruction (1970)
It’s hard not to get hyperbolic with a debut like The Reconstruction, a film where traditional narrative structure and typical camerawork is abandoned for vanguard innovation. Angelopoulos uses a story ripped from the headlines much like Nagisa Oshima—as a static impression filtered with creative prowess. In this case, Angelopoulos maps a crime of passion from cerebral free-form ingenuity. Made in 1970 and shot in black and white, the film is set in Tymphaia, a town that is described in the introduction as having a population of 1250 in 1939 and a population of 85 in 1965. In this sleepy small town there was an absent husband, an illicit affair, and, upon the husband’s return, a murder.
Angelopoulos sets his thesis in motion from film one, exploring the patience and profundity of the long shot and meddling with the pliant nature of time in storytelling. Patterned with the failed attempt to conceal the crime and the eventual police interrogation, the action reveals method and madness, but very little passion from the earthy adulterous couple. Cleverly, The Reconstruction steers clear of melodrama, knowing that the most titillating factor of true crime is never really knowing what happened. The massaging of the details around the edges of the murder becomes a setup to the film’s last, elegant and ultimately overpowering final shot.

Days of ’36 (1972)
Theo Angelopoulos’ second film is a tougher nut to crack, mired in Greek politics to the point where my own historical research sent me back for a second viewing. Even then, I had a hard time grappling with the subtle political implications traversing the era in the film and of the film. 1936 was, from a scholarly standpoint, a precarious time in Greek history. In reality, it was no doubt chaos, built on years of war that left the country financially devastated and coup leading to counter-coup and another counter-coup and yet another. The result was a fragile monarchy, halfheartedly supported due to the threat from a Fascist Italy, which nonetheless led to the Mextaxas Regime, a fascist authoritarian leadership in and of itself. To say that people were exhausted and divided would probably be an understatement.
But that was ’36. In 1972, Angelopoulos found himself trying to make politically relevant films under the rule of a military junta. And his film, underscoring the government’s humiliation delivered by one man, silently addresses censorship, corruption, and ultimately the weak foundation the government’s power is built upon (critiques for dual eras.) Days of ’36 takes a documentary approach to the story of a man wrongly arrested for the assassination of a union leader. When the prisoner takes a Greek official hostage, the reverberations throw a giant monkey wrench into the wheels of authoritarian control. The camera never gets too personal with its characters, and Angelopoulos deploys some brilliant tracking shots, one specifically that culminates in the scenarios inevitable tragedy. The subtle political riddles are tantamount to understanding the film (which I can’t claim), but its tangible atmosphere of uncertainty is nonetheless something to revel in.

The Traveling Players (1975)
The proportions of The Traveling Players, with an epic runtime of 220 minutes, are equally matched by Angelopoulos’ artistic ambitions, elegant yet tortuously bleak. Following a traveling theatrical troupe, this meandering film chronicles the tumultuous years between 1939 and 1952 in Greek history. Punctuated by the troupes repetitive performance of the folk play “Golfo the Shepherdess,” mostly in the form of false starts interrupted by the calamities of reality, The Traveling Players critically confronts the seeds of contemporary Greece through the tri-tumult of the Metaxas dictatorship, German occupation, and the Greek Civil War stimulated by the apathetic Allies. While the politics of the film are a web of convoluted specificity, not unlike Days of ’36, the bitter cynicism is loud and clear. So loud and clear that many were perplex about how Angelopoulos managed to get the film made right under the nose of the regime he was not so obliquely criticizing. But both the personal and the political become intertwined in this time capsule microcosm, the wounds open and raw.
The structure and process that Angelopoulos has laid out is rigorous and Brechtian, but also enthralling and graceful. Angelopoulos and his cinematographer, Giorgos Arvanitis, are less concerned with the movement of the camera than the movement within a (mostly) steady frame, which often starts out as empty and is organically activated and populated. The tragic layers to The Traveling Players are enunciated with stylistic specificity—muted dusty tones, skewing amber, and precise, patient camerawork. Many of the shots are unblinking acknowledgements of time, with unadorned takes that refuse yield until the minutes pile up. And sometimes a character stares right back at the camera with a historical monologue. One such moment appears about midway through the film when a woman picks herself up from the side of a river after a brutal beating and rape from the night before to approach the camera and let the audience know that, for Greece, things get much worse before they get better. It’s an unsettling historical soliloquy that resonates far after the film ends, where the country’s post-war woes are tinged with an aftertaste of savagery.

The Hunters (1977)
Taking place in the present, a group of hunters stumble upon the body of a guerrilla fighter killed 28 years earlier but with wounds still fresh, like a teleported omen from Greece’s divisive past. Angelopoulos redefines the possibilities of cinematic language that is able to traverse time and parables seamlessly, sometimes all in one shot. The hunters, all Right leaning elite, and their ruminations over the dead body create an epilogue to the maelstrom of Days of ’36 and The Traveling Players. They drag the body, his wounds bleeding despite being dead for 30 years, to the lodge where they are staying with their wives. Through an inquisition, the film delves into their personal reflection, guilt, and misunderstanding of the historical implications of the cadaver.
The Hunters rivals The Traveling Players—its formal innovation in capturing layers of a collective unconscious through complex sequences that look deceptively simple is matched, on those same levels, by its narrative. It’s a two and a half hour surreal trial of the conscience, effortlessly dissolving back and forth between flashbacks, with only fantasies of an eventual conviction. In the end, the hunters have had enough, and they take the body, the unwanted harbinger of compunction, back out to the snowy field and frantically bury it back where they found it. The Hunters is easily one of the most amazing films I have ever seen, audacious and surprising in its absolute patience and steady vision.

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