Sunday, November 8, 2009

Some Thoughts on Angelopoulos

I once showed Theo Angelopolous' seminal work, Landscape in the Mist, to a dear friend of mind who had not seen many art films. I think his favorite film at the time was Pi or some such thing. There were times during the screening at which, to my dismay and confusion, he chuckled to himself. After the film was over his review was this: “At least the director acknowledged his heavy hand (referring to the scene in which the hand is lifted from the water).” It is unfortunate. Academics and movie buffs alike have an arbitrary border between good art and pretentious art. The ideology of the day seems to entail that good art is art that can be readily disseminated to and digested by a populace that the individual deems equal to or slightly less sharp than himself. Anything above that line is heavy-handed.

Angelopoulos is not light. He is grave and grand. His films have the weight of the world in them. This weight is perhaps emphasized by script writer Tonino Guerra who co-wrote Tarkovsky's Nostalghia another film and filmmaker widely considered to be “heavy.” These films are serious. They are not larks to be certain. But heaviness is not the whole story for Tarkovsky, for Guerra, for Angelopoulos in general or specifically for Landscape in the Mist. It is in fact about the contrast between heaviness and weightlessness, between light and dark. Consider that the heavy hand rises up out of the water and floats. Remember that the film begins in total darkness, and ends in light. More specifically it ends in mist which is a brightness that has some of the obscuring visual effects of darkness.

Tension between opposites is an important principle for Angelopoulos. The world in Landscape is at once dreamy/absurd/surreal and dirty, gritty banal. The scene in which the young Alexandros confronts the dying horse in the street could have come from Bunuel or De Sica. The same could be said for what I will call “random moments” - the fiddler palying for Alexandros in the cafe, the long shot of the people in the yellow raincoats sliding across the film frame on a hand-propelled rail cart or the scene where the man sneaks up on the chicken. All these events are perfectly normal because random really happens in everyday life. Even “staged” shots like “The first snow,” as dreamlike as it is because all the adults have stopped in a pose but the children move among them, has the feel of authenticity to it. Is not memory always more photograph than a movie?

Symbols also embody a tension of opposites in Angelopoulos. Landscape uses symbols in two ways. The first kind of symbol and requires no special knowledge of anything outside the film, in other words it requires no academic training. Recognition of Orestis' motorcycle as a symbol of freedom for example is made possible within the narrative structure of the film. The children have traveled by train, which is slow and increases their risk of being caught by the authorities; by a truck, which turned out to be driven by a rapist; and on foot, which has consisted largely of trudging through the rain. Orestis' motorcycle is, quite practically, the best way to travel. What's more Orestis and his motorcycle are responsible for all the happiness that the children experience along their journey. The three are tied together through the motorcycle. It is their freedom from the mechanized and littered landscape. The motorcycle as a symbol of freedom lives in the experience. It is not merely evoked, but seen on screen.

Though it is a machine, it is through the motorcycle that they experience a closeness to nature; riding through the dunes with the wind rushing over them. In the company of other bikes, Alexander’s motorcycle becomes another machine polluting the world, and the free spirit it brought out vanishes. We can see that Alexander has an understanding of this as we watch him part with his bike. He is pained to sell it because it symbolizes his freedom, not to the viewer, but to his character. The motorcycle is freedom. When surrounded by other bikes, however, that freedom is limited. With impending loss hanging over Alexander the motorcycle is transformed into something ugly. The connection with the children, with nature, with the eternal is gone.

There is another kind of symbol in Landscape. It is the kind that my friend found pretentious. This is the kind that makes reference to a cultural tradition outside of the specific narrative framework of the film. Though “The hand in the water” episode and “The tree in the fog” episode reach out to other works, I would maintain that they do so not to turn the film into an allegory through, but to enrich the world of the film. Is this necessarily pretentious? In Bergman’s Seventh Seal, Felinni’s Satyricon or Godard’s Hail Mary; knowing the reference points is not essential to understanding the film (for it should have its own internal logic and cohesion), but it usually does grant more meaning to a specific moment.

The obvious reference point for the hand that rises up from the water to point at Orestis is the hand of God in in Michelangelo’s Creation from the Cistine ceiling. What makes the shot interesting are all the ways in which the would-be symbols breaks down almost immediately upon recognition. The index finger, the link between God and Adam, is broken off. As the helicopter flies away, carrying the hand beneath it, Orestis calls out, “If I shout, who will hear me in the kingdom of angels?” From his statement, as well as from the context of the story as it has been discussed thus far, it is clear that Orestis feels a separation from the eternal. He is no Adam, and Orestis is threatened by the giant hand even in the absence of the accusatory finger. I suppose it depends on what you mean when you say “heavy-handed.”

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