Monday, 21 November 2011

DVD Review : The Theo Angelopoulos Collection : Volume One (1970-1977)

Half way through Theo Angelopoulos’ fourth feature The Hunters (1977), the film cuts from an extraordinary scene celebrating the election of Giorgios Papandreou in 1964, following a lone figure as he leaves a party to wander through the streets, to one of the same man making love. He pushes the woman from his lap, glancing right, as the camera follows his eye line towards a group of politicians and aristocrats gathered for a party in a time zone previously shown to be twelve years later. The group, seemingly watching him across time, move with the camera to take their seats at a table, around which they begin to eat and sing, accompanied by a figure screen left armed with a rifle and a guitar. From the back of the deep-focussed frame, an American woman enters, weighed down with fur and jewellery, and the camera follows her in a 360 degree circuit of the room as she announces “I’m going to buy this place”. She leaves, the camera settling back into its original position as the group continue their meal, only for three police officers to enter from screen right, demanding that the politician seated in the centre of the frame remove his clothes. The rest of the guests pick up their chairs, placing them screen right, an audience to proceedings as the table is wheeled out and replaced with another containing the body of an unknown soldier, one found dead in the snow in the film’s opening moments, a victim of the 1947 civil war. The politician moves slowly to the back of the frame, inducing a match-cut that follows his movement into a completely different time and place, one ending in a tableau announcing Papandreou’s resignation in 1965. This single shot lasts for seven minutes, twice the length of Welles’ opening to Touch of Evil, moves through three time zones and serves as just one (far from unique) example of the extraordinary sequence shots that form Angelopoulos’ singular style, redefining the possibilities of cinematic language by bending the temporal and spatial boundaries of the frame.

Angelopoulos’ style, firmly established in the formal rigour of the first four features which comprise volume one of Artificial Eye’s new, almost comprehensive series of DVD collections, eschews the traditional language of parallel editing; that of establishing shots, cross-cutting and close-ups, the rhythmic structure of a given scene occurring entirely in camera. His early masterpiece The Travelling Players (1975), whilst nearly four hours long, consists of just 131 shots, allowing the audience themselves to act as editor, gently but expertly guided by the movements of the frame. As Angelopoulos himself explains :

“The sequence shot offers, as far as I’m concerned, much more freedom, but it is true that the spectator needs to be more involved in it… film does not acquire an artificial pace at the editing table. Once you change the frame, it is as if you’re telling your audience to look elsewhere. By refusing to cut in the middle, I invite the spectator to better analyse the image I show him, and to focus, time and again, on the elements that he feels are the most significant in it”.

Whilst not a formal device used exclusively by Angelopoulos, similar examples of which can be found throughout the films of the likes of Mizoguchi, Welles and Antonioni (the final sequence of The Passenger (1975) providing an immediately obvious example), few filmmakers have resisted the long-held traditions of editorial montage to such deliberate extent. There’s an inherent musicality to such sequences, utilising the space that surrounds beats of action or dialogue in a way seemingly rejected by the vast majority of modern filmmakers; silence and stillness as intrinsically a part of the fabric of the shot as movement and sound. Where other filmmakers cut away, Angelopoulos fixes his gaze, allowing such sequences room to breathe; entire scenes covered in an extended take of singular beauty, its rhythm created entirely from within.

“In a certain manner, for me, each shot is a living thing, with a breath of its own, that consists of inhaling and exhaling. This is a process that cannot accept any interference; it must have a natural opening and fading”.

It’s not just the visual dynamics that require a degree of adjustment for the viewer, particularly with regards the early features that comprise the so-called ‘Trilogy of History’, for which a knowledge of the minutiae of Greek political history are a pre-requisite for appreciation of many of its multiple layers. Even those who find their way through the temporal dance of The Travelling Players, the centrepiece of the trilogy, may still have their work cut out in approaching The Hunters, a film that serves as a kind of allegorical epilogue, its historical specificity proving even more elusive still. In some respects, the best entry point to Angelopoulos’ work could be the ‘Trilogy of Silence’ which followed; films that individuate the effects of history on its protagonists in a way that the earlier films don’t. Where the likes of Voyage to Cythera (1984) and The Beekeeper (1986) could in the vaguest sense be approached as psychological studies, more traditional in their narrative focus, the figures presented in the historical trilogy are often archetypal, interchangeable or even faceless representations of social and political positions, ciphers through which to examine and comment on how the echoes of a collective memory of the past reverberate in the present.

The elliptical nature of much of what Angelopoulos chooses to omit in terms of visual or narrative information can prove a further hurdle to accessibility, as much a result of the political circumstances under which the films were made as a desire to keep his audience on their toes.

“It all depends on the spectator and to what extent he is willing to do his share of the work when he watches my films. The film supplies him with a certain amount of information, but it is only by completing it with his own input that he can hope to enjoy the film”.

The levels of censorship under which the Trilogy of History was made perhaps served to contribute to the extent of the symbolism and mythical allusion to be found throughout the films, explicitly in the naming of characters in The Travelling Players, implicitly in the common theme of returning exiles first established in his debut feature Reconstruction (1970) and continuing throughout his work. It also adds a further level of distanciation from the specifics of his narratives and characters in the Brechtian sense, closer to the archetypes found in traditional Japanese theatre, less concerned with the individual psychologies of his protagonists than their historical or narrative contextualisation. Thus Days of ’36, whilst offering specificity of time and place even in its title, hides its principal characters behind a closed door for the duration, its coterie of blustering bureaucrats as interchangeable and helpless as one another, the cast of characters making up The Hunters all without names. In the same way that myths are repeated throughout history, so history in Angelopoulos’ eyes is set to repeat itself, all its players no different from the actors in The Travelling Players; their performances on the literal and metaphorical stage continually interrupted by historical events. If life’s a stage, we’re all stuck performing the same play over and over again, never quite finding closure, let alone a happy ending.

From the stark, monochrome opening shot of Reconstruction, it’s immediately clear that landscape also forms an integral part of the architecture of Angelopoulos’ cinema. Grey, cloudy skies reflected as much in the faces of those that live beneath them as in the puddles through which they trudge, singing the songs of their fathers, bearing the weight of history. Music in Reconstruction seems to spring from the landscape itself; in The Travelling Players from the soul of an experience shared, again interrupted as the troupe come across two hanged villagers; in Days of ’36, a gramophone in the prison yard gives voice to all the prisoners, crowding their cell windows :

“I’m tired of your false caresses

Your vows, your kisses, your airs and graces

I’m tired of a love I dreamt of

In your blue eyes

I was fooled and mislead

By all your wicked games

But now, towards the end, I’m telling you truthfully

I’m tired of you”

These are films that demand multiple viewings; thematically and narratively dense works of singularly exquisite beauty. Socio-political importance and difficulty aside, their structural and formal qualities are nothing short of masterful, and represent a body of work not just unique in world cinema, but unique within Angelopoulos’ own canon; that of the world’s greatest living filmmaker.

Reconstruction – 1970 – Greece – 100 mins – Dir : Theo Angelopoulos

Days of ’36 – 1972 – Greece – 105 mins – Dir : Theo Angelopoulos

The Travelling Players – 1975 – Greece – 230 mins – Dir : Theo Angelopoulos

The Hunters – 1977 – Greece – 168 mins – Dir : Theo Angelopoulos

The Theo Angelopoulos Collection : Volume One is available now.

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