Late last night, while listening to Chopin, I heard of the death of the Greek film maker Theo Angelopoulos. The final scene of this great director’s life could not have been more symbolic: a pedestrian hit by a moving machine The 76-year-old Angelopoulos was crossing a busy street in the port of Pireaus when he was hit by an off-duty policeman on a motorcycle. Some reports have added that it took the medical emergency service close to half an hour to come to the rescue during which time Angelopoulos apparently suffered a heart attack.
I had not heard of Angelopoulos until the Harvard Film Archives showcased his work some years ago. At first viewing, the films seemed off, deeply strange, self-indulgent even. But second and third viewings revealed the singular style and sensibility of this chronicler of modern Greece caught between the glories (some invented, no doubt) of its past and the realities of its present desolations.
In the cracks and fissures of this tension, in the middle of these huge divides Angolepoulos’ films zero in on ordinary lives seized by something larger, hungry for some transcendance which they know will not come. They are figures against a harsh, often beautiful terraines of war, division, melancholia. From the fragmented landscapes of Greece and the Balkans and incomplete lives of their inhabitants, Angolopoulos aims, I think, for a cinema of modern myth-making. At the center of this search is the revised idea of the epic journey. In the modern context, we can only hope for passage and return, and that is why emigrants and exiles populate all his films, and that is why there is a great deal of walking in his films. All of Angolopoulos’ people are pedestrian of some sort, wanderers by necessity or choice, battling out the perennial struggle between solitude and community.
And because the pedestrian is the quintessential Angelopoulos figure, his films propose a radically new way of thinking about time. Commentators have criticized (even made fun of) the slowness of his films, their inertia. (Roger Ebert unabashedly calls Ulysses Gaze a boring film. I think it is a great film that turns the Homeric journey backward, and fixes its sight on the realities of the Balkans in the wake of the Soviet collapse.It’s long, three hours; it’s slow, very slow. But what a film, especially if you can sit through a second viewing right after the first!) Angelopoulos, I think, tries to find an accomodation between human time–the time of the pedestrian–and narrative, filmic time. A man of the left belonging to no prescribed ideological or aesthetic movement, he, of course, opts for the former. He is unflinching in this choice, and his films, all of them, are assaults on our preconceived notions of filmic time, and a return to the time of the exiles, wanderers, the outcasts. A return to the time of an old man who can cross the street at his own pace without worrying about a fast-moving motorcyle, or a crumbling economic system ideology, or a world gone global and atomized. Only in the cinema, only in the cinema.
(The January 26 and 27 editions of The Guardian have excellent material on Angelopoulos, plus images from his films.)