Saturday, February 4, 2012

A Film Master Dies in the Manner of His Vision

Last week an article in The New York Times caught my eye.  It was the obituary for Theodoros Angelopoulos.  If you’ve heard of him you’re likely one of two sorts: a true film buff or Greek.  And for those of you who think when you hear “Greek films” of Never on Sunday (not his, Jules Dassin was the director), Zorba the Greek (uhh, uhh, Mihalis Kakogiannis directed that one), or heaven forbid, Mama Mia, listen up.

Theo Angelopoulos ranked by many critics among the late 20th Century’s greatest filmmakers, but not all critics adored him, for he was the antithesis of Hollywood style.  His were moody art-house films, characterized by long, slow, silent shots and atmospheric, at times dreamlike enigmatic sequences.  In one film of three hours he used only 80 shots. 

Myth and epic were his tools of symbolism, and much of his work provided allegorical illumination of the painful history of Greeks from Nazi occupation through their brutal civil war.  He was likened to filmmakers Akira Kurosawa and Michalangelo Antonioni, and worked with stars such as Marcello Mastroianni, Harvey Keitel, Willem Dafoe, Bruno Ganz, and Jeanne Moreau.  

Irene Jacob, Angelopoulos, Willem Dafoe
Angelopoulos won a fistful of awards in his four-decade career, including the first prize Palme d’Or at Cannes for his film, Eternity and a Day (1998).  That one starred Swiss actor Bruno Ganz as a famous writer left with only a few days to live setting out on a journey in search of answers to vast metaphysical questions.
Winning First Prize at Cannes
But Angelopoulos was perhaps best remembered at Cannes for his behavior three years earlier in connection with his film, Ulysses Gaze, starring Harvey Keitel.   It won Cannes’ International Critics’ prize and was named European Film of the Year, but Angelopoulos had come there to win Cannes’ first prize.  At the awards ceremony when his name was announced it was for the Grand Jury Prize—second place.  For several seconds he remained in his seat, clearly enraged, and when he finally did step onto the stage it was to say, “I planned my speech for the Palme d’Or, but if this is what you have to give me I have nothing to say.”

He was born in Athens in 1935, studied law but found it dull and moved to Paris, ostensibly to study at the Sorbonne but spent most of his time at the Cinémathèque Française.  He returned to Greece and worked as a newspaper film critic before turning to filmmaking.  Angelopoulos directed more than twenty films and earned fifty industry awards.

I met him casually once or twice, and so I was drawn to the article when I saw his name.  But what caught my attention and stays with me was how he died and what he was working on at the time.

Angelopoulos died in Athens’ port city of Piraeus while shooting his latest film, The Other Sea.  News reports said the film was about immigration, the crisis in contemporary Greece, and the responsibility of the political class.  I couldn’t believe what I was reading.  Those precise subjects had consumed the last two years of my life, for they are the backbone of my new Andreas Kaldis mystery coming out in June (Target: Tinos).

Then I read how he died.  It was not from illness.  He was struck crossing a street in Piraeus by a motorcycle driven by an off-duty police officer.   There is no more dangerous activity in Athens than crossing a busy street, and nothing wilder on earth than Greek motorcyclists.  Yet, neither police nor government does what is necessary to make the roads and crossings safer.  And, yes, I’ll take the mail on that. 

Perhaps they put their faith in the ancient gods to protect the citizenry or upon some perceived innate deterrent effect of laws that send an offending driver to prison for any death caused by a traffic accident.  One can seriously debate that legal approach—there are a lot of hit and runs in Greece—and one cannot help but wonder what will happen in this case where the driver was a police officer.

At least one Greek news source reported the accident as follows: “The accident occurred when Angelopoulos, 76, attempted to cross a busy road without wearing a special reflective uniform.”

A special reflective uniform.  I’m sure that’s an item every Greek carries at the ready for those times a busy road must be crossed.

Angelopoulos actually died a few hours after the accident, in a hospital’s intensive care unit.  It took 35 to 40 minutes for an ambulance to arrive at the scene, because the first two ambulances dispatched to the scene had mechanical problems.   A representative of the paramedics union blamed it all on “personnel shortages and poor maintenance.”

Chilling, isn’t it, how one who spent his life immersed in capturing the essence of his countrymen’s tragic past died in a manner symbolic of what threatens it now—a system unwilling to accept responsibility for what all know must be done and quick to blame others for the inevitable results.

Anapafsou en eirini, Theo Angelopoulos (April 17, 1935-January 24, 2012).



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  3. I respect you for having written this entry. I can hear the passion in it.

  4. And an off-duty policeman, to boot. Irony never takes a day off. Great piece, Jeff.

  5. Very sobering article. The Greek do irony so well. It does sound like a very talented man with a wonderful eye was lost.

  6. Thanks, all. I tried to keep the passion down, Joe, but I'm afraid it surfaced. As for the irony...add this to the mix. It's a comment left on my Facebook by someone who read this post but is too shy to comment here:

    "I'm not sure if you read from the Greek newspaper comments, that the Greeks were actually mad that Angelopoulos was getting so much attention versus the motorcyclist!!"

  7. I must go and find some of his movies. Thanks, jeff.

  8. Me too. A new name to me. Thanks for the intro Jeff.

  9. My only suggestion, Stan and Dan, is buy the jumbo size popcorn.