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Persistence of Vision: The Cinema of Theodoros Angelopoulos

An overview of the visionary Greek director on the occasion of a major retrospective in New York.
Theodoros Angelopoulos
So consistent was the vision of Theodoros Angelopoulos that nearly any of his films could stand as a leading representative work. When viewing all 13 of his features within a condensed period of time—an extraordinary opportunity to be offered by New York's Museum of the Moving Image July 8 - 24—one sees just how exceptional Angelopoulos’ filmography is, and how each title is an emblematic entry in the late Greek director’s catalog of persistent themes, tonal frequencies, plot points, and, perhaps most indelibly, sheer visual boldness.
Landscape in the Mist (1988)
IMAGES
It is in this last regard that Angelopoulos instantly and emphatically impresses. His cinema is punctuated by a remarkable succession of single images that linger long after the film has concluded, often retaining in the viewer’s consciousness more than an overall story or specific characters. Silhouetted bodies on a fog-shrouded border fence in Eternity and a Day (1998); a mammoth disassembled statue of Lenin floating downriver in Ulysses’ Gaze (1995); a huge stone hand hanging in the air in Landscape in the Mist (1988); slaughtered sheep dangling from a tree in The Weeping Meadow (2004)—these individual portraits, typically shot from a distance in a prolonged uninterrupted take, are the sort of purely visual accents Angelopoulos incorporates throughout his work. At times these images stand alone, resonating purely for their immaculate compositional beauty; other times, the imagery will be at its most effective when absorbed within the context of the narrative. See, for instance, the silent cross-river wedding ceremony in The Suspended Step of the Stork (1991), a visually evocative sequence, a significant moment of barriers failing against the tenacity of undiluted romance, and a powerful act of communal border defiance. In films that run as long as 222 minutes (The Traveling Players [1975]), not every single shot is going to be particularly memorable, but with Angelopoulos, more than most filmmakers, when one of these extraordinary moments appear, the result is expressively and cinematically breathtaking.
The Suspended Step of the Stork (1991)
Angelopoulos is widely praised for his lengthy tracking shots, slow pans, and plunging crane maneuvers, all executed in masterful strokes of directorial orchestration. Within cramped interiors, his camera likewise snakes along walls and mingles among the room’s dwellers like a stealthy unseen observer. The wandering movements mirror the characters as they too roam through their surroundings with a subtly coordinated momentum. Juxtaposed with this mobility, however, is a pronounced stillness, sections of Angelopoulos’ films where progress is stunted by a protracted pause in narrative and physical motion. With this tendency to linger on action (or inaction) long past the norm, sometimes for a frankly perplexing duration, Angelopoulos crafts remarkably painterly still frame configurations. And with few close-ups, the emotive resonance of his characters is largely conveyed in this extended stagnation and in the framing of their revealing posture. He will oftentimes deny the viewer a conventional degree of empathy, choosing to instead heighten the mood through a complex visual arrangement. Even extremely powerful scenes find Angelopoulos at an unrelenting observational distance. Take, for example, the devastating “field of honor” in The Weeping Meadow, with bodies of fallen soldiers strewn across the ground while grieving black-clad female figures shriek with haunting sorrow, all as the camera hovers above and from afar. 
Angelopoulos’ extraordinary use of location is similarly defined by the wide shot. His tracking camera surveys towns and landscapes as an unfolding scroll. Though his films are frequently in urban settings, usually bleak and dilapidated, he is at his aesthetic best when characters are amongst austere undeveloped settings. These rustic exteriors are swamped in a soggy, shrouded, misty grayness, giving the initial sense that something imperceptible is out there; pouring rain and fog can render characters barely visible, while solitary figures (at most joined by a loved one) are dwarfed by, and enveloped in, the scenery. Then the climate cover breaks and as if organically sprouting from the region, settlements emerge, flaunting the sheer scope of Angelopoulos’ rich production design, his peripatetic tracks taking it all in like a newly discovered land.
Alexander the Great (1980)
JOURNEYS
The primary natural attribute that appears in Angelopoulos’ distinctly Greek cinema is the sea, or some other body of water. Geographic partitions and man-made restrictions are some of the more revelatory features in his films, and perhaps the most prominent divisions are these tantalizing aquatic signifiers of what lies beyond. The sea, a great expanse of openness and possibility, is also a boundary that simultaneously hinders movement and thus keeps many of those in Angelopoulos’ world landlocked, literally and symbolically, for they are seldom able to escape the ties and trials that bind them to their fatherland. More often than not, as in Voyage to Cythera (1984) or Ulysses’ Gaze, even when one does leave there is an inevitable homecoming.
With his emphasis on travel and the borders that inhibit passage, Angelopoulos emerged as one of the great storytellers of the immigrant experience. His films recount the treacherous plight one embarks upon when crossing divided regions and entering into uncharted national territory. A guarded line on a bridge can be a teasing demarcation and an understated provocation of the dangers that come with opposing border designations, while sweeping depictions of vast rural emptiness indicate an open though paradoxically frustrating restricted spread ahead. “How many borders must we cross before we get home?” questions Marcello Mastroianni’s wayward politician in The Suspended Step of the Stork. In Angelopoulos’ films, there are many, which is why certain locations also stand out for their stasis. The “Elsewhere” migrant town in this 1991 movie, for example, functions as a sort of multinational waiting room and its sedentary placement is counter to so much in Angelopoulos’ work, which is thematically, narratively, and visually preoccupied by movement. Similarly, the young lovers in The Weeping Meadow are perpetually on the run and are repeatedly thwarted by situations and locations that keep them constrained. And with its road trip structure, Landscape in the Mist has some of the most literal traveling in any Angelopoulos film, but for much of the movie, which follows two children attempting to make their way to Germany, there is a similar two steps forward, one step back obstruction.
Voyage to Cythera (1984)
TIME
Still, the journeys never stop. In fact, they grow deeper. In films like Voyage to Cythera, the notion of traveling is also an exploration of one’s past, of coming to terms with prior deeds, revisiting the people and places of days gone by, and then subsequently adjusting to these often unsteady reconciliations. In The Beekeeper (1986), the titular protagonist sets off with a map and itinerary, though it soon becomes clear his nomadic excursion is basically aimless in every respect except for his ostensible goal: reunions with estranged friends and family. References are made throughout Angelopoulos’ films about the role memory plays in these expeditions of the body and soul, and how the passage of time can be a mutable and at times dispensable concept. Eternity and a Day starts with talk about stories shared within generations of families and communities and how, through the years, there develops a search for what was buried and lost to time. These relics of and from the past can range from tangible documents to abstract longings (or to film itself, as in Ulysses’ Gaze). “Nothing ever ends” and “tomorrow never stops” are two key phrases from The Dust of Time (2008), in which Bruno Ganz’s character brings these notions together when he returns from what he calls a “voyage of memory.” That movie, Angelopoulos’ final feature, also depicts characters on the cusp of the new millennium, while New Year’s Eve is again a focal point in The Hunters (1977) and Alexander the Great (1980). This is no trivial date for Angelopoulos. New Year’s Eve is an occasion (one as arbitrarily assigned as the aforementioned borders) that revolves around the explicit recognition of time passing, with the past getting swept away by the present as all eyes look to the future.
Nevertheless, as time passes in Angelopoulos’ work there is a resulting awareness of inevitable death and fleeting life. In Eternity and a Day, someone wonders, “How long does tomorrow last?” The hopeful answer is the title of the movie, an everlasting allotment of what is, in reality, a limited amount of time. Questions such as “Why didn't anything work out the way we expected?” (also from Eternity and a Day) point to a retrospective crisis, where characters are tormented by the psychological pain of inadequate existence. Worse than death is the cogent realization of an incomplete life plagued by regret and things left undone. Often when we then see children in an Angelopoulos film, they are more than just young people; they are representative of a youth not yet wasted, of purity, and of unspoiled potential (in the case of The Beekeeper, there is also the suggestion of sensuous and spirited vitality lost and found). These youths are not hounded by the nature of transitory realities. The children in Landscape in the Mist, traveling with the false hopes of finding the father they have never met, are looked upon by a kindly young man with mystified awe: “It’s as if you don’t care about time passing, and yet I know that you are in a hurry to leave,” he says. “It’s as if you’re going nowhere, and yet you’re going someplace.” Older characters therefore cling to youth in Angelopoulos’ films, living vicariously through their innocence. In these youngsters, the aged individuals also find a mission, a purpose, and one last chance for a good deed. In Eternity and a Day, when Alexandre (Ganz) takes on the immigrant boy as a pet cause, he is not only sympathetic to the hurdles of the adolescent window washer, he finds his own personal redemption prior to death.
POLITICS
Surrounding these individual dramas is Angelopoulos’ notable devotion to the heavily populated masses, his depiction of large swaths of people in politically-charged arrangements recalling fellow master of the sequence shot Miklós Jancsó. When the throng of refugees open The Weeping Meadow, the narrator dubs the group a “mass of humanity,” an apt description for these assemblies of individuals seen throughout Angelopoulos’ work. While characters of effortless wealth and privilege are seldom treated with reverence (the aristocrats in Alexander the Great are promptly kidnapped, Days of 36 [1972] boasts a rather incompetent group of elites, and the bourgeois townsfolk in The Hunters are revealed to be most unpleasant), Angelopoulos is generally more compassionate toward the repressed, the victimized, the lonely, and those who tenaciously continue a quest for personal, familial, and cultural stability. It is here that Angelopoulos gloriously endorses an agrarian way of life, one that is beleaguered by hardship, sure, but one that is durably honorable. Bound by ethnicity, religion, toil, and art, these individuals are an insular group with a shared past united in county and ideology, their alliance expressed by joint resilience and joyous music (few Angelopoulos films do not feature at least one singing or dancing sequence). If there is one notable exception in this, it is Angelopoulos’ debut feature Reconstruction (1970), where murderous immorality blights a desolate village in stark black-and-white cynicism.
The Weeping Meadow (2004)
Like the theatrical troupe in The Traveling Players, Angelopoulos is an artistic chronicler of Greek history, bearing witness to, then expressing, periods of turmoil. His attention to detail and his breadth of sociocultural investigation made him the dominant filmmaker from his county for nearly 40 years. Capturing and conveying cultural flavor with a journalistic finger on the pulse of the nation, Angelopoulos’ observations were and remain so perceptive it is tempting to assign a futuristic forecast in his films, as if he saw through the tea leaves Greece’s class struggles, economic instability, and the present European migrant crisis.  
Through it all is thus a further consistency in Angelopoulos’ cinema, again one reflective of his times, that of political strife, which is never far off from even his superficially apolitical films (there aren’t many). Some, such as Days of 36, are explicitly, almost aggressively, political, with state drama at the forefront of the story. But in most cases, the political factions and related incidents are momentous occasions forming part of the national backdrop: the rise and fall of Communism, the ravages of World War II, Greece’s unsteady march into early and late 20th century modernity. These external, troublesome conflicts impede the more poignant personal bonds, as characters desperately cling to their relationships while their associations unravel for any number of reasons, including the constantly interfering political intrigue and upheaval of the given era.
With this in mind, Angelopoulos can be politically daunting. Rare is the viewer who fully grasps every diplomatic nuance and partisan significance present in his work, yet this unfamiliarity seldom hampers the films as a whole. Amid the power struggles and uprisings, the general sentiment and essential application is nonetheless evident, gleaned by the emphatic humanity preserved and presented by Angelopoulos. Even as one may earnestly struggle with the historical points of reference, the true impact remains unambiguously clear when reflected in this universality. In this regard, and in his predilection for abstruse storylines, symbolism, and metaphoric situations, Angelopoulos’ cinema is a cinema of context and inference. At times there is no evident narrative trajectory, from scene to scene or within specific sequences; scenes begin with a sense of trepidation, as if easing into a larger relevance. Extraneous background elements may at first appear as cultural artifacts but will later surface as vital ingredients of the plot.
FREEDOM
Dreams, fantasies, and reality overlap without clear indications of where one starts and another stops, gliding back and forth with a casual ease as smooth as his trademark camera movements, transcending space and time and even life and death. Harvey Keitel’s Greek-American filmmaker in Ulysses’ Gaze returns to his homeland after decades of absence, then embarks on an odyssey through his memories and perhaps those of others; he encounters family members who have since passed, and various lovers both old and new (and all played by Maia Morgenstern). Buñuelian breaches of realistic continuity are evident in films like The Hunters, for instance, where the eponymous group of men begin reliving a collective past only scarcely removed from their present predicament, while in Landscape in the Mist, policemen are magically frozen by a snowfall, which allows for the escape of the young protagonists in a flight of fantasy that contrasts with the cruel, despairing reality to come. Liberated from commercial running time restraints, Angelopoulos takes advantage of tenuous temporal restrictions, with digressions, the revelation of multiple narrative threads, and moments of surreal humor and self-conscious daring. This formal luxury takes some patience on the part of audience (one can imagine Angelopoulos gleefully shouting “down with clocks” as those in Alexander the Great do, rebuking the notion of oppressive time constraints), but the result is worth the endeavor.  
The Beekeeper (1986)
Though his films are localized in scope and subject matter, Angelopoulos was a renowned international director, garnering nearly 60 awards from around the globe and leading to a roster of international stars lining up to be part of his truly distinct process, including Willem Dafoe, Ganz (twice), Michel Piccoli, Keitel, Erland Josephson, Mastroianni (twice), Jeanne Moreau, and Irène Jacob. These and other fine actors utilize Angelopoulos’ penchant for long takes to gradually develop a studied expression of deliberation, as weary protagonists who struggle with their goals as they meditatively watch the rest of the world play out—in this respect, Mastroianni, particularly as the passive and bewildered beekeeper, does a phenomenal job. Fittingly then, Angelopoulos’ primary characters are commonly artists—musicians, writers, filmmakers, actors—lending them a temperament sensitive to melancholic reflection and introspection.
In 2012, while walking near the set of what was to be his follow-up to The Dust of Time, a film called The Other Sea (which was about the Greek financial crisis), Theodoros Angelopoulos was struck by a motorcycle and died later at the hospital. It was a sudden and unceremonious end to a legendary career. But as is so often the case, with his passing came a widespread recognition and appreciation for his inimitable body of work and his notable aesthetic uniformity. In collaboration with cinematographer Giorgos Arvanitis, who shot almost all his pictures, Angelopoulos’ 13 features are generally long, contemplative sagas of Greek history and contemporary life. They are distinguished by a slow, hypnotic pace, emphasized by meandering single-take camera movements, elliptical narratives, and depictions of characters out of step with the modern kinetic world. Complemented by Eleni Karaindrou’s somber scores, Angelopoulos’ cinema collectively attains a harmonious measured tempo, ultimately arriving at a palliative humanist repose, the satisfying condition reached in all his best films.
Eternity and a Day (1998)

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