Voyage to Cythera
A Cinema of the Sensible
It makes sense that Theo Angelopoulos's Voyage to Cythera is a film within a film, since the title had already lent itself to a Baudelaire poem and a Watteau painting. The title is used again here, however, less as homage than as echo, a subtle distinction, perhaps, but we hope a useful one. An homage indicates a work indebted to a predecessor, as Far from Heaven is indebted to Douglas Sirk, as Reservoir Dogs is to, amongst others, The Killing, and Stardust Memories to 8 frac12;. This is quite distinct from a rip-off, a sequel or a remake, and a film that owes a debt needn't fail in creating credit of its own. Far from Heaven is at least the equal of Sirk; in some ways superior to a number of the director's films as it ties very neatly into Todd Haynes' preoccupations.
But an echo is a different thing - it plays much more on the atemporal dimension to art, and sees itself as part of a given problematic. When Godard makes Contempt or Passion, when Coppola films Apocalypse Now, or when Antonioni makes Blow-Up, the references to the Odyssey or Rembrandt and Goya, to Aguirre, Wrath of God and Heart of Darkness, to Abstract Expressionism and pop art, are not homages - the filmmakers see themselves in dialogue with the world of the aesthetic. As Antonioni once said: "I'm not a painter - more a filmmaker who paints." (Architecture of Vision)
This might especially seem so when the title of Angelopoulos's film shares it with those of French artists who are nevertheless invoking the geography and mythology of Greece. It would seem a cultural paradox and an acknowledgment of inferiority to feel that all the director could do was pay homage to French nineteenth-century artists as he explores a Greek period of history while invoking the Ancients as readily as the relatively modern. It is a story of exile and returning, and cannot help but invoke Penelope and Ulysses, while all the time asking us to ignore such obvious parallels, or rather to call them into question.
There are two obvious reasons for this. One is that 20th century it has been couched as a Balkan country, and for much of its modern history has been a nation far from stable. Just after WWII it had a civil war that provides the backdrop to the film, with central character Spyros (Manos Katrakis) returning after thirty-two years in exile, building another life for himself in Tashkent after the Communist failure in the years betweenforty-six and forty-nine. Any notion of homage would have to contend with the problem Angelopoulos here addresses: the melancholy of history, the sense in which one's life, which may never be one's own, becomes all the more obviously that of another when it consists of building an alternative as one is unable to return to one's country. In one scene Spyros tells his wife Katarina (Dora Valanki) that he had a wife and three children in the Soviet Bloc. In another, his daughter tells him that her mother spent many years waiting for him, turning old and dry in the process. Katerina has lived as if her husband had died; Spyros has lived as though given a second life. Yet both would acknowledge that somehow their lives haven't quite been their own. If this is Ulysses and Penelope, then they pass through Angeloupolos' body language and film language. If in many Angelopoulos's films his characters are not youthful (Marcello Mastroianni The Suspended Step of the Stork and The Beekeeper, Bruno Ganz in Eternity and a Day and The Dust of Time) this isn't because everyone is old; more that everyone is weighed down and robbed of ready agency. If Homer could create in Odysseus and Jason figures ripe and ready for action (and easily utilised for Hollywood epic), Angeloupolos asks what might be the body language of history working on people more than people appearing to be working for themselves.
There is a certain irony in all those Hollywood historical epics: the films rarely give us any sense of the force of history that we are watching them from. The characters seem to have been born yesterday rather than thousands of years ago, and part of their purpose rests in dealing with issues that can play easily into a contemporary sense of purpose and injustice. Isn't slavery awful; how impressive that someone from the lower orders can take on great power, and how lovers can defy the odds? Whether set in BC or AD, in Ancient Greece or Medieval Scotland, whether it is the French Revolution or the American War of Independence, what matters are the tropes applied. The weight of history is buoyed up by the cliches of expectation. Colin McArthur puts it very well in his analysis of Braveheart: "what Braveheart is in initself, [is] a late twentieth-century, multi-generic Hollywood movie...aesthetically impoverished and uninflectedly derivative..." (Braveheart, Brigadoon and the Scots) McArthur goes on to use Roland Barthes to analyse just how much the film plays up ready tropes over any interest in historical specificity, and his close analysis could usefully take apart many an historical film made within a mainstream context. To put it mildly, history goes unproblematised, and the body language and film language reflect this. Nothing need slow a character down, and the film language can cheerfully speed up. Even in one of the better epics like Ben Hur, the chariot race is less a moment of history than a necessary scene from Hollywood epic narration: the cinematic set-piece; an early Anno Domini version of the car chase.
Yet how does one problematise history, accepting of course that the filmmaker cannot time travel back to a previous era; that whatever the film the present is always the starting point? Three come to mind. One is Peter Watkins's, in films like Culloden and The Commune, which we might call anachronistic reportage. Watkins films the past as though it is the present, with the idea that events are being recorded live even if of course no cameras could have been around at the time of the battle of Culloden or The Paris Commune. But then how could any film be made since the nature of the camera automatically makes the film anachronistic? The second is the Straubs, re-historicising distanciation, where in History Lessons we have a man in a modern suit interviewing figures from Ancient Rome for example. The third is the one practised by Angelopoulos: a melancholy of representation that is also manifest to some degree in the work of Miklos Jancso (Red Psalm and The Red and the White) and Bela Tarr (Werckmeister Harmonies), but in this respect, though we might regard Jancso and Tarr as superior filmmakers, Angelopoulos is a master.
It goes back to our remark about body language and film language, a sense in which the Greek director takes the body as an exhausted space, and utilises film language to reflect this. We can think of the moment the father gets off the boat, returning from exile in Russia and being met at the port by his now middle-aged children. We know of his presence initially indirectly. The film follows the slow movement of the gangplank being lowered, and we see a hint of a reflection as he lands on shore, an image of him reflected in the wet tarmac. We first see him directly in a high-angled long shot on the shore, the boat behind him. The film then cuts to a shot from behind of his son and daughter waiting for him from a vantage point above the docks, and the camera zooms in slowly passed them and offers a high angled shot of Spyros as he looks up. He is an old man; Alexandros (Giulio Brogi) and Voula (Marie Hronopoulou) are far from young, and the sequence suggests the immense weight of time that sits behind this meeting. They would have been children when he left. Angelopoulos creates neither tension nor energy in the sequence. Nobody else seems to be getting off the boat, and there is no excited welcome for him as the director insists that his thematic preoccupations override verisimilitudinous event. This is what we mean by melancholic representation: how does the director film a moment in time whilst imbuing it with a stronger sense of time past than time present? When we invoke the Hollywood epic, it is to indicate that there is no melancholic representation to the image, no feeling of pastness to events. Watkins, the Straubs and Angeloupolos all seek different ways in which to make manifest this pastness, but few do so with more gravity to the image than Angelopoulos as he insists that this is an instinct. In a piece by David Jenkins in Sight and Sound, the director says "I'd describe myself as a translator, a translator of a sound, a feeling and a time that comes from far away. When it comes to me, I have no choice but to absorb it."
This notion of the far away coincides with our belief in melancholic representation; that any sequence must contain a time that is at a remove from the dramatic moment that we are witnessing. By introducing Spyros as a reflection, by showing the slowly descending gangplank, by showing his offspring from behind as the camera passes between them in a slow zoom, Angelopoulos finds the formal properties, the film language, to suggest a time beyond the frame. Yet this film language works especially well if accompanied by body language. In the next shot the father, Alexandros and Voula meet, but there is no rush towards each other, as though all of them are containing so much more time in their own body language than any present pleasure could entertain. This is partly due of course to the nature of the meeting, but also that their bodies all possess so much age within them. If there are directors like Fellini or Fassbinder who seemed often to cast for physiognomic appropriateness, Angelopoulos films for physiological exhaustion. He needs actors who can contain in their bodies a sense of slowness consistent with his camera movements. When he focuses on young actors (as in The Weeping Meadow) this can create a mismatch bordering on the risible. It becomes too contrived as we cannot quite believe in the gravity expressed in the bodies in relation to that contained by the body language. In actors like Marcello Mastroianni, Bruno Ganz and the actor playing Spyros here (Katrakis), the gravity is matched by the camera's pace, and yet we wouldn't want to insist this is only a question of age. Angelopoulos can use children very well (as in Eternity and a Day and Landscape in the Mist), just as he can use older actors less well (Harvey Keitel and Willem Dafoe). Thus the physiological exhaustion is only partly about one's seniority; it is also about one's place in the world - one of enthusiasm and energy, and one of despair and fatigue. Keitel and Dafoe have the body language perfect for Scorsese or Ferrara: directors suggesting the agitative and the restless. Yet not for Angeloupolos, which is why we talk not only of film language but body language too.
A question we might ask in relation to Angelopoulos is: how much does a body weigh? This isn't a physical detail, but a metaphysical proposition. It is the weight of history on their shoulders; the nature of time in their gait, the exhaustion of the political in their demeanour. The actor playing Spyros cannot simply act; he has to be and this is partly because his actions are not of the present but of the past. The present action is a gesture in the context of his past. When he decides that he will not sell the land he owns while all the other villagers who have lived in the area throughout their lives wish to do so (though it needs to be sold en masse), he might seem to them like an arrogant figure returning home after years abroad. But he might see himself as someone who recalls what it means to fight for one's home by spending over years out of it after the Communist defeat. The others see land that is theirs. Spyros sees that land is fought over and is willing to fight again. It makes sense that Angelopoulos focuses on the later dispute rather than the earlier one. Thirty-two years before Spyros would have been a man of action, physically fighting for the Communist cause. Now he is a man of resistance, refusing to give up his land. When he is in dispute with another man of his generation over this land, they fight it out on top of the hill, yet there is no fight left in them. They're too exhausted to aim blows, and instead all but prop each other up. Angeloupolos films the exchange in long shot, watching two men at war but with no energy to fight. There is an absurdist dimension to the scene, with the other man running up the hill where Spyros is digging, and hasn't much puff left after exerting himself getting up it. Spyros is more the man of resistance, as if knowing he has little energy left and must use it well and carefully, but also aware that it is not easy expressing thirty-two years of thought and feeling when coming into contact with people whom he knew many years before but has not seen for over three decades.
This is central to the melancholy of representation, and the type of politics Angelopoulos is fascinated by. In Open Democracy he explains why he worked in Greece rather than in France, for example. "It's true. This is why I stayed in Greece. I came back to Greece; I had been in Paris, I was going to be working as the assistant to Alain Resnais in his next film, the horizon was open for me. And yet, I could not stay. I had to understand why that event made me think of an earlier moment, a moment when I had felt that for the first time history with a capital H, had entered my personal life directly." Angelopoulos adds: "This happened in December 1944, the so-called red December in Athens, during the battle between the right and left in which my father was arrested. He was then led outside Athens somewhere near Peristeri where he was going to be executed." Angelopoulos says: "As a nine-year-old boy, I remember wandering around the outskirts of the city, in the fields, with my mother among the many dead bodies lying around, looking for my father. So I felt that I had to come back to Greece. The incident with the policeman brought back to me that earlier period of my life; because the only way to understand the present is by returning to the past." He returns not as a man of action but as one of resistance, trying to find in the present the link to the past, and finding in both a means by which to represent the moment most profoundly.
Of course profound is a big word and one too easily used in film criticism - how many profound, moving masterpieces have we had? However, if we think of profound as deep insight it can usefully explain Angelopoulos's relationship with history and representation. As he talks of his father's arrest, he does so wondering how best he can capture history, and suggests he needs to do so profoundly, with resistance and melancholy - not action. Though we might recall the enormous statue of Lenin's head in Ulysses' Gaze, Angeloupolos's work suggests a thinker much less politically active than the leader of the Russian revolution, and numerous writers have noted the affiliation with Walter Benjamin. When Benjamin writes on his visit to Moscow in the twenties, he talks of those wearing black armbands on the anniversary of Lenin's death. "Russians' mourning of a dead leader is certainly not comparable to the attitudes adopted by other peoples on such days. The generation that was active in the civil wars is growing old in vitality if not in years. It is as if stabilization has admitted to their lives the calm, sometimes even the apathy, that is usually brought only by old age." (Reflections), This would be the 'Leninism' of Angeloupolos, consistent with another famous Benjamin remark from Illuminations. Talking about how he imagines the angel of history, he says "where we perceive a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage upon wreckage and hurls it in front of his feet. The angel would like to stay, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed." It is a claim not inconsistent with one of Nietzsche's three modes of history. While the monumental suggests epic admiration and the antiquarian the fetishizing of the past, the critical insists on examining, analyzing the historical. One "must have the strength... to shatter and dissolve something to enable him to live: this he achieves by dragging it to the bar of judgment, interrogating it meticulously and finally condemning it" (On The Advantage and Disadvantage of History on Life) Nietzsche's approach to critical history suggests rather more energy than Angeloupolos generally deploys, but a combination of the Nietzschean and the Benjaminian seems to pass through the director's work. History cannot be epically active or fetishistically admired; it must be reflected upon and melancholically comprehended.
Yet, of course, central to this reflection is the reflexive. In Angelopolous's telling of the anecdote about his father and his wish to return to Greece, so we can often see in his work the artist as a figure within the diegesis. It could be the filmmaker son here, the TV director in The Suspended Step of the Stork, the director looking to find information about filmmaking brothers from the turn of the century in Ulysses' Gaze. Sometimes one senses a surrogate through another art form, or through a metaphorical profession, as we find with the writer in Eternity and a Day, or The Beekeper in the film of that title. What matters isn't the reflexive as post-modern conceit, but the self-reflective as modernist form. Angelopoulos's autobiographical story about returning to Greece because of his father isn't that of the heroic son, but of the figure of conscience, someone who knows that he is not a free young man who can do whatever he wishes, but someone with obligations to his country and to his father. We see that the director's style is in this sense often obligatory. There is an awareness in his work of being indebted to the culture from whence one comes. This would seem to demand both a different film language and a different body language from a cinema that does not have this sense of obligation. In Eternity and a Day, Ganz's character returns in his mind to the place he was brought up; in Suspended Step of the Stork, Mastroianni's character would seem to be the same man who did a political disappearing act a few years earlier, but appears to have returned because he may a have son in the town and may wish to be present at a political crisis. Numerous refugees are gathering at the border near a town called the waiting room, hoping for a better life. In Ulysses Gaze, Harvey Keitel is a Greek filmmaker living in the US who returns to Greece hoping to find footage shot by the Manakia brothers many years earlier. What we find in Angelopoulos's work is reflective obligation and obligatory reflexion as he finds a form to reflect a debt one has to one's culture, homeland and relatives.
Thus the filmmaking son in Voyage to Cythera isn't only someone who wants to make a film and is in a state of confusion over its making, as we find in very different forms in 8 1/2; and Le Mepris. He is also someone much more tied than Fellini or Godard to notions of culture, homeland and family, and so also are other characters within the film. When after the father is reunited with his mother, the family sit and have dinner and his daughter can't believe the pig-headedness of this man who returns and wants to hold on to his land. It is here she talks about the difficulties involved in her father's absence, that her mother was involved "in a lifelong struggle raising us kids...A wasted life. Her body dried up, waiting for you." The daughter is here obliged to speak for her mother as she tells her father that he is obliged to his wife and they are all obliged to the community. This isn't a position the film simply agrees with, but it gives us a sense of the obligatory aspect evident in much of his work. In turn, Alexandros isn't just the son taking his father back home after meeting him off the boat; he is the filmmaker obliged to make a film about his father and about the idea of whether or not he should sell the land. Here Angelopoulos acknoweldges a debt to the modernist cinematic tradition of which he is a part. (John Orr in The Art and Politics of Film sees him as an example of a 'cinema of wonder' evident in Tarkovsky, Paradjanov and Kusturica; Andrew Horton refers to him as The Last Modernist, in a book of that name.)
Is this what makes Angelopoulos's films weighed down, as though under more obligations, both cinematic and cultural, familial and geographical, than most? Perhaps, but we offer this neither as criticism nor compliment. It is a diagnostic claim: a means by which to understand the self-reflexive as the reflective; slowness as a sociohistorical mandate applied to the self. When Alex and Voula first reunite with their father it as if they have to match the slowness of his body language with their own, as if the films take their moral pace from their oldest member. This is a cinema not at all of the senses, but of the sensible, in the Oxford Dictionary's foremost definition of the word. "Done or chosen in accordance with wisdom or prudence" If neither the camera nor people tend to move quickly in Angelopoulos's work, nor the immigrants in the Suspended Step of of the Stork who might have cause to do so, nor the people fleeing after their village is flooded in The Weeping Meadow, nor the prisoners released at the beginning of Alexander the Great who barely scuttle through the prison while the camera remains in a fixed position, it rests on the acknowledgement of the sensible. Even the young immigrant boy in Eternity and a Day when he runs away from the police does so with none of the pell mell pace we would expect from a potential chase sequence. It is Ganz's 'sensible' pace that dictates the film. This need for the reflective over the reflexive, or rather incorporating the reflexive within the reflective, is partly why the film is under no mandate to reference Baudelaire or Watteau. A film inclined to play up the reflexive over the reflective might be expected to do so - to acknowledge its forbears as influences. But, taking into account our notion of the obligation, what matters more is an awareness of cultural forbears in the broadest sense of the term, and not the narrow ones of high culture.
"I am mostly interested, much like Antonioni, in portraying people in a dialectical relationship with space. We do not exist independently of the space we occupy, outside our immediate environment, therefore a wide shot offers more than just a beautiful landscape." (Scroope) Angelopoulos was writing in a Cambridge architectural journal, but his claim could just as easily have been discussed in a historical one. Time and space in his work are given the maximum amount of amplitude, taking from another key influence, the aforementioned Miklos Jancso, a need to undermine the anthropocentric determinacy of an individual life, and opening it up into a cultural condition. We say cultural condition rather than cultural tradition to suggest that while a tradition indicates a debt, a condition suggests a belonging. Whether it happens to be Spyros's obligation to the land, or Alexandros's need to find a story that reflects his father's return, Angelopoulos asks what is the condition that a culture finds itself in; what demands are placed upon it at a given moment in time? A tradition indicates a debt that is always there; a condition asks what debt do we owe and what can be learnt from one's cultural past in the condition of the present? When Angelopoulos says that he likes the long take that can absorb more than a beautiful landscape, this is the cultural sweep.
We might even say the very self-reflexive allows for this broader exploration. As the film opens with Alexandros looking for someone who would work best for playing his father, so we go through various castings before one day in a cafe he sees a man selling stuff and thinks this impoverished figure might make perfect casting. He follows him along the street and his body language quite literally imitates the older man as he tries following him without the other noticing. As he does so he reflects to himself as the film moves from the present to perhaps the past, perhaps to the film within the film as we see his daughter calling to him on the dock saying they must hurry: the ship carrying their father is about to arrive. In the casting of a street seller in the role of the homecoming father who refuses to sell his land, Angelopoulos says that the range of society must be acknowledged. The other actors who audition seem to lack this sweeping possibility; they are too narrowly representing the character they are expected to play. Alexandros needs to cast someone who in their body language has both defeat and dignity naturally in their gestures.
Angelopoulos has always been a director both elitist in his aesthetic (the last modernist) and democratically concerned with the people, aware that immigration is also migration: that if one is acknowledging people coming to Greece one must also acknowledge people leaving the country as well. The immigration theme of Suspended Step of the Stork and Eternity and a Day finds its opposite in Voyage to Cathera and focuses on the idea of a homecoming, also of course very ambiguously evident in Mastroianni's return in Suspended Step... When one thinks of immigrants we often think (whether liberally or illiberally) about destination, about the attempt at a better life. Angelopoulos instead sees a two-way street between leaving one's country and returning to one's homeland. This isn't special pleading for the poor but instead a realisation of the transitory. If borders are so vital to the director, evident in his borders Trilogy (Suspended Step of the Stork, Ulysses' Gaze and Eternity and a Day) it rests on the idea that the notion of nationality is secondary to the issue of belonging and the land. Angelopolous's work hints at Ancient Greece but just as much suggests the modern Balkans. If there is little sunshine to be had in the director's oeuvre it rests on trying to configurate a landscape of liminality that doesn't become a perceived holiday destination or cultural trip. This is a land mass constantly open to change while at the same respecting the people as a justifiable entity, and land as something that belongs to those who have for centuries lived on it, worked it and cultivated the traditions that can lead to a sense of place.
This is the idea of a people; quite different from that of a nation. This is where he differs from great pre-war directors like Eisenstein, Griffith and Riefenstahl, who were interested in the births of their respective countries in various manifestations. When Ernest Renan asked "What is a Nation?, he replied: "A nation is a soul, a spiritual principle. Only two things, actually constitute this soul, this spiritual principle. One is in the past, the other is in the present. One is the possession in common of a rich legacy of remembrances; the other is the actual consent, the desire to live together, the will to continue to value the heritage which all hold in common." (Nationalism) It is when the people become a crowd, a mob 'the volk', that problems arise, when the relation between past and present becomes lost, when nationality becomes a fixed entity, as it is offered as a status belonging to some and aggressively excluding others. It is partly why filmmakers like Jancso, the Straubs and Angelopoulos exist: to ask in what ways can cinema explore the notion of a people without reducing the people to a nation. After all, Voyage to Cythera is set chiefly in the Greek Macedonian village from whence Spyros came, and many will see that the people of northern Greece have as much in common with those of the Republic of Macedonia. What counts is the land, the songs, the language, the traditions, and out of these we have some idea of what a nation might constitute. Yet we might suggest that Angeloupolos would agree with Renan and extend his insistence on the soul into one of obligation: one's nation is what one feels an obligation over, what pulls us towards it and helps define who we happen to claim to be. This is not "the fervor of...emotional influence" that is "based upon sentiments of prestige" (Nationalism), in Max Weber's words, but closer to the quietism of obligation, the need to muse over where one's soul happens to be. How it can be understood with the aid of a reflection on one's own identity: its place in the world and the world that is its place. Angelopoulos's is the opposite of rabid nationalism that suggesst quick-moving thoughtlessness. His cinema is a slow moving meditation, a reflexive reflection that asks what our loyalties are to one another, and not to some abstract notion of a nation. It is partly this that means though Angelolopoulos has been influenced by Antonioni (whose work he watched repeatedly while studying in Paris) and Jancso, there may be a sense of homage in his work, but chiefly the reverberation of an echo that acknowledges cultural imperatives without genuflecting to aesthetic traditions. There is a sense of urgency within the slowness that acknowledges socio-political imperatives as readily as artistic ones. As he says, speaking of The Suspended Step of the Stork. "We are talking about a united Europe, and yet today we are creating ever more borders. Borders which are so small they will soon be outside my home. The borders will be right outside my house. In a while I shall be a state. Me." (Open Democracy) This would appear to run contrary to Angelopoulos as the haughty figure of high art presented in David Bordwell's Figures Traced in Light. Here Bordwell says "Angeloupolos's career has a self-fashioned unity characteristic of a 1970s filmmaker aspiring to high artistry" as he quotes cinematographer Yorgos Arvanitis saying "he is the image of his Alexander who ended as a tyrant." Bordwell offers a figure creatively elitist; Angelopoulos offers himself up as a man with a political conscience and a feel for the people. The truth no doubt lies somewhere in between, and the truth, finally, is in the work.
© Tony McKibbin