Scholars' Association News
Issue 22
May 2012


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The Greatest Greek Choreographer

Every text that wishes to respect the principles of dialectics must present its position as a result of a conflict between opposing ideas which it also owes to state. Once this inner “conflict” is expressed, the conclusion may then be clearly stated. In contrast to this, the present text shall state it right away: Theo Angelopoulos is the greatest Greek choreographer.

Undoubtedly, this may sound like an intellectual firecracker triggering a smile on the reader’s face, and this is precisely the reaction that prompted me to start writing this article.

Let’s quickly overcome the suspicion of a mocking title against the director and the Greek choreographers, and try not to prove it right but surge ourselves in the idea it is putting forward.

It instantly raises questions:

Why a choreographer? What is dance?

Why the greatest Greek? What is Greek?

On the one hand, there is this infamous line from a song by the Greek singer Dionysios Savvopoulos, “…who led a generation into the deepest yawns” along with all the equivalent standardized jokes about the New Greek Cinema and its representative par excellence; A filmmaker who is supposed to be slow, careless of the audience’s time or the actors.

Well, there you have the perfect contrast. What does this director have to do with the art of dance, the art of the fast body, the art that deifies the dancers for their personal virtuosity and that mainly satisfies a hungry audience for instant amusement?

But is this what dance is all about? For many people, whose only experience of dancing comes from the TV, this is what they understand as dance; young, healthy bodies with vague but nonetheless “great” emotions, faultless, rapped in ambiguous generalisations, distinguished only by one criterion; which is faster and stronger.

What could possibly be the relation between these ‘out of history’ bodies and the ones Angelopoulos features in his movies; tired, beaten, broken, tough, scarred as if they were wooden, bowed by the weight of the world.

From the guilty of escaping immigrant’s body in Reconstruction to the dragging into a constant path through time and space actors’ bodies in The Travelling Players, to the feeble but stuffed ones after the feast in The Hunters, to the slow-moving Megalexandros that gives the impression of a living statue, to the restless body of Thanassis Veggos that looks like it is constantly trying to dodge bullets, all the bodies in Angelopoulos’ films carry the weight of Greek history on their shoulders. And sometimes they even predict the future as they did in The Broadcast, where the acting of Th. Katsadramis’ prophesises the slimy, responsibility-averse bodies of TV lifestyle broadcasters.

Let us take a deeper look at two scenes from The Travelling Players as an example of the infamous long and slow shots that we identify with the director and have also been subject of derisive references.

The first one is the well-known tavern scene. It is an eight-minute single shot where the director through singing and dancing portrays the entire history from the beginning of the Civil War until its escalation. I am not going to evaluate the scene based on the lines of the songs, although we could understand History through songs as well. And yes! Amidst the Civil War, the music of the political regime, indifferent to what happens to the entire world, sings the building of love nests. Yes! Some Greeks welcomed the intervention of British forces in order to violently prop up monarchy. Yes! Other Greeks wanted a people’s republic. Yes! There was some General by the name Skobie with a bird as his military symbol on his shoulder. Yes! There were those who accused anyone who rejected oligarchy to be a Communist.

Neither will I dwell only on the tango-dance of some members of the pro-nazi group who would end up dancing alone with sterile bodies, capable only for death in contrast to the erotic bodies of the leftist couples.

Nor will I confine myself to a detailed structuralistic analysis of bodies. Yes! Some people took others’ women using violence. Yes! Some others were unarmed and alas they would never finish a dance. Yes, the respected “neutral ones” with their hand stuck and uninvolved behind their back would allow armed fascists into their tavern and would ask the unarmed leftists to stay passive.

So, what is Angelopoulos ultimately doing? Compressing? Symbolizing? Illustrating? Embodying? Well, he is doing all these things but mainly, in a remarkable way, he makes Dance, by definition a non-representational art becomes realistic. But if we focused just on these issues, we would end up presenting Angelopoulos as a good director of ethnological documentaries.

What I ask from you is to appreciate his art in the way he choreographically organizes the scene by combining the camera movements and the movements of the crowds of actors. This is where we can recognize the director’s decision not to limit a fact to its mere representation but to exceed it, seeking our critical reflections.

In contrast to the American movies and their exhibitionistic polyrhythms with which we all now have regulated our perception’s time, here the director deliberately eliminates his presence.

Watch the camera’s slow but also complicated movement which, initially following Eva Kotamanidou, enters the tavern, focuses on 1946 and then begins a circular motion, first by following the greasy haired choleric man as he approaches a company of thugs. Then it continues by focusing on the entrance of two couples that seem to be trying to embody the newly acquired freedom. Then it completes its rotation around itself by showing once again the stiffened up thugs with their hands on their concealed weapons, irritated by the appearance of the latter; thus placing us between the protagonists of the upcoming conflict.

As a change in expression, the movement of the camera changes direction together with the timed-sudden entrance of a waiter and while following him it turns towards the neutral tavern owner who, being probably concerned about his property, stops the music, something that accentuates the very first feeling of a crisis. All this is momentarily de-escalated by the reassuring statements of a young communist.

Subsequently, the camera moves back so that we can only see the tight, faceless backs and necks of the thugs until they disappear wrapped up in the libidinous explosion of the song and the couple’s dancing.

The camera pauses its movement at the same time a shot is fired and the couples stop dancing, this pause comes to an end and then the camera restarts by repeating the same travelling forward as in the beginning of the scene, re-crosses the room, leaving behind the thugs dancing with each other and then approaches Kotamanidou and while following her we find ourselves in another historical period of time.

With just one shot and its movement, it gives us the illusion of democracy within a decrepit background. It whirls us between the terrorism after the liberation and the futility of surrendering the arms, and proceeds to the inevitable outbreak of the Civil War. While at the same time, by mixing history and psychoanalysis, it winks the eye at the psychoanalytical interpretations of the homosexual expressions of Fascism.

And all these, within eight minutes, with no words and without changing the shot. Who can call Angelopoulos slow?

Why should shots be changed, anyway? At the beginning of the history of cinema, changing shots meant choosing a better position to make everything look closer to reality. Nowadays, it is a non-stop zapping to reality so that the exhausted consumer-viewer accepts the illusion that this reality can be tolerable. In this blizzard of uninterrupted changing of viewing positions, most films have already reached the end before they even start or they can never reach an end since they don’t take you anywhere.

Instead of yelling “cut” every three seconds and relying on the editor to make the image sequences easily pleasurable for the audience, Angelopoulos takes the responsibility and with artistic courage he organizes his famous long shots which, however, are almost never static since they are constantly under detailed planning of space and time elements in order to transmit a deepest truth; the bodies and their entire history are present in every particular place.

Let us take a look at a second scene, the one of the wedding at the seashore. Yes! It is the well-known scene with the grandmother’s emotional song, which the American officer who takes her granddaughter as a wife could not follow. But let us look at the dance itself. It is not exactly that the American does not know the slow, heavy, self-controlled steps of the syrtos dance from Epirus, dance steps of people who live in a difficult place; a place from which they emigrate but do not want to forget.

The American officer cannot and will never be able to follow these steps. The swing dance with which his friends finally adapt the Kontoula Lemonia and feel comfortable dancing is a winner’s dance full of devil-may-care spirits, indifference and light steps. The body uses only rush but no memory; the feet nonchalantly sweep over the ground; like in American musicals, a creation of the crisis of ’29 when the goal was to escape the pressure of reality.

Let us, then, appreciate Th. Angelopoulos’ theoretical adequacy and ideological purity; the postmodern ploy of rendering the Epirus folk song to a Swing reveals the modern globalized light-minded logic of “anything goes”. The song is being used in a critical way, uncovering not only the origin but the voracious imperialism of similar tactics as well.

Th. Angelopoulos; the greatest Greek choreographer. But why Greek?

Many people have tried to find the reasons behind Angelopoulos’ international success at the historical coincidence of the end of the dictatorship, the reasonable foreign interest for Greece etc. What they miss out is that Angelopoulos, through his works, took part in creating the main images of Greece. So, when we think about the Civil War now, we think of it through the images created by Angelopoulos. When we think about the resistance, we see the bodies of Stratos Pachis and Petros Zarkadis. If you try to think about the post-Civil War corruption of the Greek state, you will automatically recall Kostas Styliaris as a thug, shooting inside a tavern in ’46 and then you’ll imagine him at the beginning of the ‘50s being appointed to the civil service and lobbying votes for Pangalos and Pipinelis.

And why is he the greatest choreographer? You are right that there are many competitors worthy of this “title”, though I would call them comrades. Along with them, he creates a different history of depiction of Greek bodies and a different history of the Greek dance. He goes along with the zeimbekiko shown in the Nikos Koundouris film, Dragon, where the wretched luben-proletariats dance the zeimbekiko while, simultaneously, in a demonstration of a modernistic technique, they are narrating their short dreams which they can only come true with the money of the police, the dirty, Bacchanalian dance performed by Giorgos Dialegmenos in Nikos Papatakis’ The Shepherds of Calamity, the military body next to an uncontrollable female one in Alexis Damianos’ Evdokia, the heavy charged of desires bodies, transgressing gender in Dimitris Papaioannou’s Room 1 and the slippery bodies, unable to escape the upcoming Crisis, in the films of Nikos Perakis.

The Cinema of West civilisation (namely Hollywood films since these predominate the international cinema) shows the adventures of bodies surviving bullets, falls, conflicts and disasters, and mostly overcome the viewer-consumer’s inertia inside the auditorium. However, for the actor’s body to succeed in surviving all these, directors use stuntmen, special effects and hundreds of footage changes, limiting the life of actual acting to three seconds that is now the average duration for each shot.

But in Angelopoulos, as with all great artists, the body itself possesses time and accepts damage; its adventures are social, they happen for a reason and they connect with our own lives.

It reminds us of the Greek body, its adventures and what is worth remembering; it makes us proud and it encourages the viewer to reflect on reality. It is up to him/her to make a move and act realistically. Now that I think about it, Theo Angelopoulos is an action film director, spectators’ action director that is.

One final question remains; why was this article written?

Was it written to discuss the importance of the body in cinema, especially in Angelopoulos’ films?

The answer is yes. But it was also written in order to make us start thinking about the body of Greece.

And just like when we were kids, in every season’s change, we would read the announcement outside the cinemas Rendez - Vous in October…, this text was written as an invitation to a conference by Onassis Scholars' Association, The Body In Crisis, which will take place this October.

(Konstantinos Mihos is a choreographer.)

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