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By Andrew Tracy
For filmmakers as for comedians, dying is easy—creating is hard. Those with the good sense to opt for a tragically early departure can gain much from the transaction. Not only does their work acquire a coherent narrative line and a tangible set of clichés for their immortalizers to endlessly dissect (think Pasolini, Fassbinder, Tarkovsky), but their talent is cut off before it threatens to go on the wane. Those filmmakers unfortunate or stubborn enough to refrain from kicking off, however, can have a subtler and more insidious death visited upon them: the black holes of distributional ignorance and critical inattention that continue to keep so much important work from North American screens, a void only tenuously bridged by the specialized environs of cinematheques and the global DVD market. How many false narratives of cinematic lives have been forced upon us, how many oeuvres reduced by the vagaries of distribution to a desultory couple of highlights shorn of context and continuity? For such continuity is necessary, vital. Even if the recent offerings of some auteurs are condemned by chronology—and, perhaps, accomplishment—to stand in the shadow of their beatified brothers, they are still points of entry to the source of those masterworks. And as such they are invaluable for giving us a glimpse, through the prism of an artistic lifetime, of where the cinema has been and where it continues to go.
It’s thus helpful that, with most of his work effectively unavailable in North America and the only comprehensive DVD collection outfitted exclusively with Japanese subtitles, Theo Angelopoulos has been acting as his own personal archivist throughout his 11 feature films. “The recycled figures, names, themes within Angelopoulos’ work…begin to form, for the viewer, one ‘metatext,’ one ‘megafilm’ in which the echoes from one play off against those in another,” notes Andrew Horton in The Films of Theo Angelopoulos, the only study of the director published in English. Where Tarkovsky sculpted in time, Angelopoulos builds in space. As Stanley Kauffmann wrote of Kiarostami, Angelopoulos regards cinema “not as something to be made, but to be inhabited, as if it were there always, like the world,” his intertwining classical, national, and personal mythologies creating an aloof cinematic landscape in the midst of the squabbles of the market, a country that waits patiently to be discovered.
As Angelopoulos has taken his past firmly in hand, so has he taken his future, conscious that the kind of cinema he represents is aging with him: “I belong to a generation slowly coming to the end of our careers,” he remarked in 1998. Clearly intending it as his valedictory project, the near-septuagenarian master has now unveiled the first part of a projected trilogy spanning the breadth of 20th-century Greek history. Trilogy: The Weeping Meadow follows the fate of Eleni (Alexandra Aidini), an orphan first seen arriving in 1919 Thessaloniki with a flood of refugees fleeing from the Red Army. Escaping from her adoptive father and would-be bridegroom Spyros (Vasilis Kolovos), the teenaged Eleni elopes with Spyros’ son Alexis (Nikos Poursanidis), suffering through the math and aftermath of WWII only to encounter her ultimate (though assuredly not final) tragedy in the Greek civil war of 1945-1950—roughly the same era chronicled, imperishably, in The Travelling Players (1975).
It’s indeed hard to speak of any film of Angelopoulos’ without making reference to that masterpiece, because for the great majority of us deprived of seeing the full extent of his work, The Travelling Players essentially is Angelopoulos: an epic both Brechtian and romantic, creating in the space of its four hours and 80 shots a cinema as weighty as it is ephemeral, a thereness to be occupied by our bodies as it is regarded with our eyes. It’s thus inevitable that the few, scattered later films available on these shores seem less part of a metatext than the receding echoes of their towering ancestor, a megafilm in its own right.
The prevalence of that false narrative is, unfortunately, little served by Angelopoulos’ increasingly pompous grandiosity, onscreen and in life—need we mention his notorious grumbling when Ulysses’ Gaze (1995) missed the top prize at Cannes?—as well as his rootless, abstruse symbol-mongering: see particularly the veritable comic book that is Eternity and a Day (1998), featuring Bruno Ganz’s perpetually overcoated dying writer as a kind of art cinema superhero. From the self-parodic title down to the belated Palme d’Or, the latter film would seem to cap Angelopoulos’ legacy at its plodding apex: the monumental has finally given way to monumentalism, the last of the century’s cinema pachyderms is safely laid to rest.
Angelopoulos, however, seems unwilling to follow the script. So another film, another narrative, another death. As soggy as its title, The Weeping Meadow assumes its designated place as the latest stage in Angelopoulos’ fossilization, his efforts to give the art of shadows body and mass irretrievably weighing him down. For all its prolonged moments of awe and beauty—a theatre-turned-refugee camp with families living in curtained boxes and tented stalls, a procession of rafts through a submerged village, a troupe of musicians weaving in and out of a white maze of gently windblown sheets—The Weeping Meadow is mired in the funereal; where Godard makes elogies of his elegies, Angelopoulos sounds a sluggish dirge. Small wonder that he finds little favour among those cineastes whom, as Phillip Lopate notes, “breathlessly await new works by auteurs whom they have identified as embodying cinema’s future. . . the more unfinished the better, since they open up a fantasy space of unlimited potential.” To this imagined future, Angelopoulos offers a self-penned obituary-in-progress, a tripartite tombstone embedded with tintype reproductions of former glories.
The book’s closed, then. We’ve cast our lot with the future, with the Jias, Wongs, and Apichatpongs, leaving Angelopoulos’ archaic meadow to weep itself dry. Our false narrative would be easily fulfilled if such cavalier dismissals were all it took to dissipate the slow wonder that remains—still remains—imprinted in Angelopoulos’ images. The power of Angelopoulos’ artistry is such that even overcomes the diminishing ability of its possessor to wield it. As with Godard in the beautiful, greyly receding dimensions of Notre musique or Rivette with the endlessly regenerative fictive universe of Histoire de Marie et Julien (2003), Angelopoulos has, irrespective of his own efforts, acquired a depth granted with age, sacrificing the striking clarity and precision of his earlier work for a contemplative freedom of movement through the spaces which those works had so memorably breached. The Weeping Meadow returns us to an historical and artistic past that has never ceased to be present in the work of its creator, an indissoluble form beyond the constituent parts—as Marker suggested of Tarkovsky, an imaginary house “where all the rooms open into one another and all lead to the same corridor.” The work eludes the terminus its maker relentlessly heads towards; the line submits to the circle, and we are again immersed in the world it encompasses. Greater than boredom while enduring The Weeping Meadow is gratitude for its return to that distinctive space, that thereness, for the palpable presence of films seen and unseen. If the future is growing narrower for Angelopoulos and his generation, each new film reminds us how much of their past still remains to be imagined.