Theo Angelopoulos

Thursday, January 18, 2018
A Towering Gaze

As a young man Theo Angelopoulos realized he did not have the skill or craft to become the poet he wanted to be. Instead of dwelling on his perceived limitations he channeled his creativity and dedication to cinema and ultimately became the brooding Greek Chorus for his beloved county for over four decades.

Theo Angelopoulos films were challenging to the majority of film audiences. He was not a fan of hard or smash cuts, or even reaction shots between two actors performing intimately in the frame of a scene.  Some critics and detractors state he was maybe against the notion of cutting from a great take entirely.  A response to this critique is that he has authored on celluloid some of the most mesmerizing long shots in the history of Cinema, which catapulted him into a group of revered directors like Antonioni, one of the fathers of Italian Neo-Realism.

He did not care for imitation or mimicking what had worked for other filmmakers but instead, over the course of his first few films found his own style of storytelling.  Mr. Angelopoulos executed his pacing, framing, music, and storylines with austere control and complete visual precision.   This commitment to his instincts and sense of time and space garnered him some of the most prestigious awards in International Cinema and ensured he was safe from ever getting remake work of heist movies in Hollywood. There are big money directors, and there are filmmakers that author their vision from young men to old masters and fight all the way through for more time and money. Angelopoulos never directed a sequel in his career but he left a legacy that will be forever explored by cinephiles worldwide.

No matter how the business aspect of the movie business charted success and longevity, Angelopoulos retained a staunch apathy towards whether his films would ever be widely embraced or if he would ever become  "the hot director".  The man simply never cared in the same fashion that most true artists with a gripping vision never worry or pander about the masses.  (A small irony here is that he was a great fan of the old Hollywood Musicals and genre films.)

With a careful eye one can see the dramatic showdown in a dancehall in The Traveling Players as an ode to that first love of a Hollywood Ballroom Showdown. The stark difference is that a dance number in Angelopoulos' rendition was filmed for the sole purpose to speak volumes about political turmoil and basic thug force to reclaim even a dance floor in post-war Greece. By the time it ended up in THE TRAVELLING PLAYERS it never resembled what first triggered the image.

It would be impossible to capture the entire scope and sweeping power of a visionary like Angelopoulos in a short tribute like this. His life's work was that of a poet that succeeded in exploring Greece's glorious but troubled past in epic sweeps could never be captured in an essay.  Angelopoulos' vast vision included mythical and historical figures that played out often in a single shot, and then moved forward with so much left for the viewer to consider long after the film played out that no verdict ever came.

Life, for Angelopoulos, just as it is for the simple farmer or soldier in their day-to-day lives played out with past and present unraveling at the same time.  His films were filled with scenes that swirled with the weight of the past and the fuzzy shock of the present.  The images that he created resonated with the viewer and linger even deeper for further examination by the more cerebral of filmgoers.  He was never daunted by the incredibly elaborate and complicated shots he was committed to.  He followed them all to the hilt; if you want proof, screen LANDSCAPE IN THE MIST.  In that film, set in the port of Thessaloniki, the hand of God bubbles out of the water and slowly ascends and floats over the ancient city.

Theo AngelopoulosIt is one of the most haunting scenes ever recorded on film. It is an absorbing visual that one never forgets.

It is now the summer of 2012 in our great city of Toronto. For a second year we have succeeded to bring some popular and lost classics of Greek Cinema from decades past. We never anticipated the tragic death of Theo Angelopoulos this past January, especially myself. After a 19-year absence, I returned to Greece to attend the Thessaloniki Film Festival and begin the face-to-face building of a bridge between actors, writers, directors and producers in Canada and Greece.  This was and still is one of the governing principles that the GFR in Toronto adheres to.

The days leading up to my visit to offices of Theo Angelopoulos Productions, the city of Athens and the entire country of Greece, along with the scornful reaction of the European Union to Prime Minister Papandreou's call for a national plebiscite threw things into a tailspin. Our meeting was delayed, as he was preparing for his shooting of THE OTHER SEA, the last part of a trilogy that was the most timely, as it dealt with the crisis of money and debt in Greece.

We never met, which would have been a third encounter with a legend.

There is as scene at the beginning of THE SUSPENDED STRIDE OF THE STORK, where the soldier tells the Filmmaker, while standing on the border between Greece and the rest of the Balkan countries, "While I step here, I am in Greece. If I step over, I am lost."

The late great Theo Angelopoulos did in fact become a poet after all, but he wrote with images that warrant further examination.  God rest your soul maestro and thank you for the unforgettable landscapes you created for us.  Your point of view was a gaze from high up in a tower. You constantly looked further and wider and deeper than most that got behind the camera, and we miss you dearly.