Posted by Pablo Kjolseth on February 12, 2012
Acclaimed Greek fimmaker Theodoros “Theo” Angelopoulos died last month. He was killed January 24th when he was hit by a motorcycle a few blocks from where he had been shooting his latest film, The Other Sea (L’altro mare, 2012) – it was to be the final installment of a trilogy on immigration. Suranjan Ganguly, a colleague of mine at the Film Studies Program here at the University of Colorado, Boulder, recently organized a private screening of one of Angelopoulos’ films titled The Suspended Step of the Stork (To meteoro vima tou pelargou, 1991). In memory of Angelopoulos and his work, Ganguly kindly agreed to answer some questions about the Greek filmmaker.
K: One of my favorite descriptions for the word “epic” is that of any narrative which tells the story of a tribe. With that in mind, would it be fair to say Angelopoulos was an epic filmmaker?
S.G.: His major films are epical in the sense that they focus on the processes of social and historical change within his native Greece, how people are both victims and makers of history. There is also the issue of scale: his films often cover a huge expanse of time as in The Travelling Players (1975) and The Weeping Meadow (2004) during which the lives of his protagonists are transformed over and over again by forces beyond their control.
K: You recently described Angelopoulos as “a filmmaker whose work means a lot to me.” What is it, specifically, about his work that resonated so deeply with you?
S.G.: I am drawn to Angelopoulos for a number of reasons: his ability to evoke the mythic within the everyday facts of history; his preoccupation with borders, landscape, and migration which have personal resonances for me; his extraordinary shaping of time and space through the ingenuity of his long takes; and his great gift for image-making which often generates a sense of transcendence.
K: To commemorate his passing you have opted to screen his film The Suspended Step of the Stork. Why this film?
S.G.: I decided to program this particular film partly because it is so hard to see in the U.S. and partly because it encapsulates many of his life-long concerns which I’ve described above. It is also a film which marks the start of his “international phase” with actors, like Marcello Mastroianni and Jeanne Moreau, appearing more and more in his films.
K: Angelopoulos won recognition at the Cannes Film Festival in 1995 for Ulysses’ Gaze (Grand Jury Prize) and again in 1998 for Eternity and a Day (Palme d’Or), but long before that he reached critical acclaim with The Travelling Players (1975) and Landscape in the Mist (1988). His career spanned 47 years. From your perspective, what were the highpoints of that career, and how did they differentiate from the films he made that, in your opinion, were not as strong?
S.G.: The early films, for me, are the strongest, culminating in The Travelling Players which is surely one of the great landmarks of world cinema. There is a falling off, in terms of quality, after The Suspended Step of the Stork (1991) as Angelopoulos begins to search for a global audience and tries too hard to please the festival juries at Cannes, Berlin, and Venice. Both Ulysses’ Gaze (1995) and Eternity and a Day (1998) with a cast of big names–Harvey Keitel, Bruno Ganz, and Erland Josephson–come across as contrived and pretentious for this reason. There is a striving for effect, a self-conscious, even formulaic, use of all the Angelopoulos “ingredients” which makes these films forced and artificial. However, The Weeping Meadow is vintage Angelopoulos–a return to form.
K: Given how much Greece has been in the headlines lately, in regards to the global economy crises, what insights do you feel that Angelopoulos’ films offer to outsiders about Greece – the country, the people, its history, and its place on an international scale?
S.G.: I think if there is a message it is about Greece’s ability to survive all the vicissitudes of history and endure as a nation with a profound connection to its historical and mythical past.
K: How do you think public reception toward Angelopoulos may have changed over the years, and how would you compare him against other filmmakers who are also well known for their use of long and uncut sequences?
S.G.: Here, in the U.S., Angelopoulos is still largely unknown to audiences because his major work remains unavailable. This is, of course, not the case in Europe where he’s regarded as one of the last great auteurs of the cinema. His use of the long-take aesthetic places him in the company of filmmakers such as Antonioni, Jancsó, and Tarkovsky who have all influenced him. I think Jancsó, in particular, taught him how to master complicated sequence shots through which historical processes can be unraveled. Put differently, the staging of history–which is so crucial to Jansco’s cinema–is very much in evidence in Angelopoulos’ work and is achieved primarily through the moving camera and the extended take.
K: Angelopoulos is quoted as saying that “being simple is the hardest thing.” What do you think he meant by that?
S.G.: I think he’s referring to the challenge all artists face–of conveying the complexities of a situation or event in a simple and yet profound way. Not to simplify but to convey the essence with depth and feeling.
K: What role did politics play in his films?
S.G.: All his major films are political in the sense that they focus on the making of modern Greece. At the same time, the infusion of the mythical, often replete with Homeric echoes, places that history within a larger context and creates a complex notion of time and space.
K: What closing remarks do you think would be appropriate in eulogy?
S.G.: There are few filmmakers left today who can articulate such a distinctive vision of living within history and myth, of reconfiguring one’s sense of self in relation to these larger processes. It is to Angelopoulos’ credit that, while his work is deeply rooted within the historical and political realities of Greece, he can make us reflect on our own preoccupation with identity, consciousness, and finding our place in a world of shifting boundaries.
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Suranjan Ganguly is from India and teaches film at the University of Colorado at Boulder. He offers a wide range of courses which focus primarily on poetic cinema and draw on the aesthetic, cultural, and philosophical contexts of international cinema. He is the author of Satyajit Ray: In Search of the Modern (2000) and is currently completing a book on Adoor Gopalakrishnan, India’s most distinguished contemporary filmmaker. His work has appeared in Sight and Sound, Film Criticism, East-West Film Journal, The Journal of Commonwealth Literature, South Asian Cinema Journal, and Asian Cinema.
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