The late critic and essayist Susan Sontag claimed in a piece written in the last decade of her life that a certain kind of cinema she valued had died. She mourned the demise of what exhibitors once labeled “art house” fare: films intended for thoughtful adults that made the same kind of demands on their visual intelligence as a novel or an essay did on their conceptual muscles. For the most part, it is difficult to argue with Sontag’s proposition. The presence of this form of cinema in theatres has diminished in a similar fashion to that of certain genres – jazz or blues – on the radio. Most people experience the material at home, on DVD or over cable, if they encounter it at all.
At the same time, Sontag might well have exaggerated the absence of figures she compared to the likes of a Goddard or an Antonioni or a Bergman. One could argue that she chose to adopt such a dismissive tone rather than point to the successors to these titans. Individuals of comparable skill and complexity undeniably remain on the international cinematic scene, should one choose to seek them out and accept the parameters they establish on their own terms. It is just that Hollywood so dominates the global marketplace that alternatives to its hegemony have to sneak up on an audience these days, whereas they once were part of their regular diet of celluloid.
One individual a number of critics have proposed as a viable competitor for Sontag’s pantheon is the Greek director Theo Angelopoulos. Born in 1936, he has released a dozen features since 1968, and received the prestigious Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival for Eternity and a Day in 1998. On that occasion, he spoke mournfully of his peers, as “a generation slowly coming to the end of our careers.” David Thomson reinforces the tenuousness of his position when he applauds Angelopoulos in The New Biographical Dictionary of Film as one of the medium’s “masters” who creates “engrossing cinema, not fast or fluent, yet compelling once its rhythm has been yielded to.”
Even a cursory acquaintance with his work reinforces the deliberate, but never pedantic manner with which Angelopoulos commands the visual frame and the tempo at which images are displayed. His work takes its time, and requires, in turn, that the viewer abandon their habituation to fast cutting and incessant visual stimulation. Rather than the individual image, Angelopoulos commits his attention to the sequence: the kind of sinuous tracking shot that creeps up upon its subject matter with calm and unhurried deliberation that was pioneered by such figures as the Viennese Max Ophuls, the Hungarian Miklos Jancso and the Russian Andrei Tarkovsky. He equates the lens with our intelligence and commits it to the full inspection of a predetermined array of information. It is not that Angelopoulos allows us to pick and choose what to observe, as would a Jean Renoir or a Robert Altman. Quite the contrary, he knows exactly where he intends the sequence to end and what it needs to display, yet the pace at which he completes that process allows the audience to meditate over the information rather than take bolt it down like a bucket of popcorn.
In addition, Angelopoulos is not a fanciful filmmaker, but one who grounds his narrative in the long march of history and the havoc that individuals experience in the public arena. His images never abandon an attachment to the impact of events that impinge upon the individual characters and that which they have no control. That would presumably make his work morose and congenitally melancholic, yet the clarity of his imagery and its poignant evocation of the bounty of the physical world softens his attention to tragedy and turmoil. If the universe that Angelopoulos conveys allows for little sentiment or frivolity, it simultaneously astonishes us with a sense of the epic dimension of life and how much grandeur can exist simultaneously with devastation.
These characteristics imbue Angelopoulos’s most recent film, The Weeping Meadow. He intends the work as the first portion of a trilogy that will convey the sweep of the 20th century upon his native country and its citizens. This portion opens following the escape of refuges from the territory of Odessa to Thessalonia, and conveys their exploits during the outbreak of fascism in the ‘30s through the carnage of WWII and concludes with the shallow rewards of victory that followed. Angelopoulos grounds these events through the lives of a couple: the orphan Eleni (Alexandra Aidini) and her adoptive brother, Alexis (Nikos Poursadinis). Despite the fact that she has been married to Alexis’s father, Spyros (Vassilis Kolovos), the two young people cling to one another and run away. Alexi bears their twin sons, and is forced to give them up for adoption for the first several years of their lives. They pin their hopes on one another, and Alexis’s gifts as a musician. His skill on the accordion is reinforced by his fellow players, who convince him that this talent may well assist the couple in emigrating to a better life in America.
Music plays a prominent role in this film, as it does in much of Angelopoulos’ work. He has regularly worked with a female composer, Eleni Karaindrou, whose work seems as fused to his images as that of John Williams to Steven Speilberg or Ennio Morricone to Sergio Leone. The manner with which music permits his characters temporary release from the entrapment of history lends a particularly festive air to the sequences where masses of people partake in ceremonial gatherings. Nonetheless, these pleasures are fleeing, however much Angelopoulos’s camera conveys the temporary liberation from tyranny.
The comparison to Leone bears some further comment, for, like the maestro of spaghetti westerns, Angelopoulos’s characters possess a mythic dimension, as though they were meant to personify particular states of being rather than come across as well rounded, fully dimensioned individuals. It does not seem surprising, then, that despite the passage of time chronicled in The Weeping Meadow, neither Eleni nor Alexis age appreciably. They embody unblemished humanity buffeted by circumstances. However, in the harrowing final scenes of the narrative, the features of Alexandra Adini, a novice to the camera, bear the weight of the war and the loss of her family with utter conviction. The culminating images that show her dwarfed by the physical world whose immensity must forever remain untouched by her grief possess undeniable power and grace. They remind one as well how Leone would underscore the fragility even of his seemingly invulnerable antiheroes through the immensity of his widescreen landscapes.
The New Yorker DVD of The Weeping Meadow contains an impeccable letterboxed presentation of the film, although one has to admit that Angelopoulos is a filmmaker who deserves to be seen on a large-scale theatre screen. It also includes a half-hour subtitled interview with the director in addition to a print conversation with him as well as a detailed timeline of contemporary Greek history. Viewers who warm to the director’s vision are advised to consider the New York DVD of Eternity and a Day, which appends a documentary on the making of the film that illustrates the technical demands of his trademark tracking shots. Also, Peter Hogue, the author of a detailed study of Angelopoulos’s work, presents a clip-laden conversation on the director’s characteristic themes and techniques.
To return to Sontag, the cinema is dead only when we allow it to expire by refusing to seek out the kind of material that animates its potential. Theo Angelopoulos offers ample evidence that the medium is alive and thriving.