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David Thomson on Films: A Requiem to an Unjustly Forgotten Filmmaker

In a recent article published in Sight & Sound just days after the death of Theo Angelopoulos, the director is quoted: “The only place I really feel at home is in a car next to a driver. I don’t drive myself, but I find the simple act of passing through landscapes very moving. The way I look at the world on my various travels is what essentially defines my filmmaking.”

Sometimes artists die in what might be incidents from their own work. So in Piraeus on January 24, as he and his crew were setting up a shot for his latest film, The Other Sea, the seventy-six-year-old Angelopoulos stepped aside for a moment and was struck by a passing motorcycle. How often in his films do characters move sideways or to another vantage, with the camera completing the adjustment? Anyone who loves his work will think of him as a poet of traveling, journeys and searches, all bound up in the “sequence shot,” a sustained progress of time, space, human action and the camera’s survey.

In the opening of his film Ulysses’ Gaze (1995), a painter is on a quay with a chair, his easel and canvas. He has waited so long to paint a blue yacht and now it is passing by. But at that crucial moment he has a heart attack and drops dead in his chair. The camera pans away and picks up another man, the protagonist of the film, and then pans back with him. This is all done in one shot, and we assume this man is going to examine the dead body, but the pan carries on and the painter, the chair and the easel are gone. In the continuity of movement, time has passed and mystery has been established. Not the mystery of a whodunit, but the uncertainty of what happens and how it is perceived. 

Theo Angelopoulos was a master in a kind of cinema that is not much appreciated nowadays. He loved space and distance and movement, as opposed to close-ups, rapid cutting and doing anything to hold onto our attention. He worked in the belief that we could examine a film as we might a place, a person or a problem—walking around it, meditating, taking our time. And he knew that a moving camera, panning, tracking, circling, was a perfect embodiment of such thought processes. He was not the only master in this manner: Antonioni, Renoir, Mizoguchi, Ophuls, Tarkovsky all had the same trust in a moving camera and sustained coverage. But Angelopoulos was committed to slowness and oblivious of changing fashions. So he was not well known, and far from universally appreciated. That means that several of his pictures never opened in this country, while only a few are available on DVD. 

Born in Athens in 1935, he was a child during the wartime German occupation, a youth in the civil war that followed, when the Communists tried to overthrow the government, and then a young man in the country led by the junta of colonels. Later still, he felt himself a citizen of the Balkans as ethnic conflicts made a nightmare of the area to the north. He has noted that the twentieth century began and ended with Sarajevo, and he always sought to explore a dialectic between history and the present. He made films about questionable and dangerous borders and the new race of displaced people. But he never forgot the Greek myths. In Ulysses’ Gaze, Harvey Keitel plays a Greek filmmaker who has become famous in America (he might be John Cassavetes as much as Odysseus). But he has returned to Greece in search of three reels of undeveloped film, made in 1906—he wonders if they are the “first gaze” of the movie camera on his old country. 

In Voyage to Cythera (1984), a Greek communist who has been exiled in Russia for thirty years returns to Greece and hardly knows his family. In Landscape in the Mist (1988), a teenage girl and her young brother go in search of their father. In The Suspended Step of the Stork (1991), a journalist sees a man who may be a leading politician who disappeared years earlier. He enlists the man’s wife in an attempt to establish his identity. In Eternity and a Day (1998), which won the Palme d’Or at Cannes, Bruno Ganz plays a poet who has learned he is dying. But he meets a lost boy who wants to get away to Albania and in trying to help him the writer begins to reappraise his own life. At the close of that film the poet dances with his dead wife, loses hearing and sight, and then makes his last journey. 

But before those pictures, just as the rule of the junta ended, Angelopoulos had made a trilogy of films about modern Greek history: Days of ’36 (1972), The Travelling Players (1975), and The Hunters (1977). The first and the last are done as murder stories, but the four-hour Travelling Players concerns a group of actors who return to their country after an absence and reflect on the changes. It has just over a hundred shots, so intense is its rhythm of sequence cinema. But Angelopoulos went further; he contrived to put the past and the present in the same shot sometimes, and that became a key to his unique and even intimidating style. 

The Travelling Players made the director’s name. It won prizes at Cannes and Berlin, and the British Film Institute awarded it the Sutherland trophy for the best new film of the year to play at the National Film Theatre. After that, Angelopoulos became a regular at film festivals. Not everyone admired the leisurely pace of his films or the unwinding camera style; not every viewer is content with films about place, mood and enquiry where there may be no definite resolution. He could be erratic: despite great moments—like the family reunion and the slow transportation of a vast concrete head for a statue of Lenin—Ulysses’ Gaze looks rather labored now. Its English dialogue is awkward sometimes and Harvey Keitel seems ill at ease. But Angelopoulos had elected to hire international stars to give the films a better shot at the box office. Marcello Mastroianni is the politician in The Suspended Step of the Stork (with Jeanne Moreau as his wife). Mastroianni also plays the central character in The Beekeeper (1986) in which a world-weary schoolteacher makes a tour of the beehives in Greece and picks up a hitchhiker along the way. More recently The Dust of Time (2008) was a co-production with money from other countries and a cast that included Willem Dafoe, Michel Piccoli, Bruno Ganz and Irene Jacob. I have not seen it, but reports suggest that it is a failure. 

Still, there are half a dozen extraordinary experiences, encounters with the world such as no other filmmaker has done. Irony being what it is, his death may bring the DVDs to America that are more available in Europe. But the television screen cannot contain the special gray light, the wild weather and the wintry terrain Angelopoulos favored—he does very little for Greece’s tourist industry. He is an artist of sky and distance, horizon and border, who needs to be seen and felt on the biggest screens possible, so that we can be accomplices in his journeys and enquiries. (Indeed, until DVDs came along Angelopoulos was unwilling to have his films released on VHS.) He rejects computer-generated imagery and winces at the idea of 3D—what is the depth and perspective he has been working on all his life? In that sense, he may be an artist tied to the short period from the ’70s to the ’90s, the last days of true cinema. And yet, the film on which he was interrupted is apparently about the current financial crisis in Greece. One wonders what he was making of that.

David Thomson is the author of The New Biographical Dictionary of Film and The Moment of Psycho: How Alfred Hitchcock Taught America to Love Murder.