Thursday 14 January 2010

The obliquity of moment

The Suspended Step Of The Stork (To Μετέωρο βήμα του πελαργού) (1991), directed by Theo Angelopoulos

Greek filmmaker Theo Angelopoulos is so great an artist that he can achieve a high level in his art through many assorted means. Having just watched his great 1991 film, The Suspended Step Of The Stork, I am still amazed. He has hit greatness in other films, but this film reaches it by taking ordinary life moments, slightly displacing them from the norm, then stepping back to take in how it all unfolds to build narrative and character in a film almost entirely devoid of facial close-ups. It’s a remarkable achievement, on par with the use of still images in Chris Marker’s La Jetee, and the use of ultra-extended takes in Bela Tarr’s Satantango, because, like those films, it does not lack a narrative, as so many poor critics claim, it simply builds a strong narrative in a totally different way than most film does. This obliquity of moment, to coin a phrase, is used ceaselessly in this film- in fact, more so than in any of Angelopoulos’s other films that I’ve seen.

The story is rather simple: a Greek television reporter (Gregory Karr, aka Gregory Patrikareas) working on a story at the Greek-Albanian border, is befriended by a Greek military officer, a colonel (Ilias Logothetis) who explains to him life on the border, and the dividing line on the bridge that could provoke hostilities, if crossed. The colonel then shows him a nearby town where Albanian refugees (and other nationalities) are kept in one portion of the town. After shooting footage there, back in his Athens studios he sees he has captured the image of an Albanian refugee (Marcello Mastroianni), who sells potatoes at a produce market in town, who looks remarkably like a famous Greek politician, statesman, and social philosopher (also Mastroianni) who disappeared a decade ago.

The upper class reporter (he owns a flat screen television, in 1991!) becomes acquainted with the man, and, convinced he is the politician in hiding, encourages the politician’s French wife (Jeanne Moreau) to come to town to reunite (on camera, of course). At the same time, the reporter falls for the Albanian man’s daughter (Dora Chrysikou), but she is engaged to an Albanian on the other side of the river. When the politician’s wife meets the refugee, she claims it is not her husband; but later facts in the film suggest she may be deliberately lying, or just wrong. This film, made thirty years after Mastroianni and Moreau’s great performances as a troubled married couple in La Notte, takes advantage of that cinematic memory, as we see the same pained looks from Moreau’s face- almost as if Mastroianni’s refugee is not only the politician, but the author husband she was so equivocal about in Antonioni’s film. Yet, Angelopoulos does something quite interesting. He films their meeting from afar, and we never see the two principals in the same shot. We only see Moreau via a video camera’s feed back to the reporter’s and his crew’s truck, and after a few seconds of looking offscreen, in Mastroianni’s direction, she turns directly to the reporter’s camera (not Angelopoulos’s) and denies the man is her husband. The man’s daughter, however, marries her Albanian fiancé in a ceremony held by both participants’ families across the river from each other.

Later, after dancing with the reporter, the daughter admits she is conflicted over her feelings for the reporter. The reporter goes to the bridge, and stands with one leg suspended in mid-air, like a stork, as Albanian guards are at the ready (a replay of what the Greek colonel had earlier shown him), and seemingly poised to see if they’d really shoot him. The film ends with the reporter trying to reveal if the refugee is really the politician, but he escapes back across the river to Albania, and the reporter is left with a mystery only he seems intrigued by.

Yet, if this sounds like a trite Hollywood thriller, that’s only in recap. It’s how Angelopoulos tells the tale, visually, in editing, in outstanding scoring, and in many other features, that determines how well this film moves one’s emotions. Many critics saw the film as an allegory of the then contemporaneous fall of the Soviet Union, but, nearly two decades later, the film’s resonance shows, again, how shortsighted most critics are. Mere politics do not define this film, for it is a transhuman essay on loneliness. Even an extraterrestrial species would likely be able to ‘get’ the most wordless images’ meanings. A good example comes in the de facto ‘love scene’ between the reporter and the refugee’s daughter. It consists of the couple entering his hotel room, a scene filmed in sepia, where the reporter is kissing the girl’s hand, as if a scene from a Renaissance painting, implying some higher power or divinity to the girl or moment, and then cuts to them, post-coitus (presumably), and back in normal color, in the dance hall. It is spare, eloquent, and not too overly artsy, for the sepia scene only lasts a minute or so.

Another hint to the universality of the tale should come from the fact that none of the characters are ever referred to by their names, or simply do not have a name. As example, the lead character, the reporter, is often referred to as Alexander in the film, yet never so in the English subtitles. Granted, there are some stretches of dialogue that go untranslated, but I never heard the word Alexander uttered, either. As in such films as Alain Resnais’s Last Year In Marienbad and Michelangelo Antonioni’s Blowup, the device of naming the main character is likely gleaned from a bit of promotional material; but not the art itself.

The Region 2 DVD, put out by New Star, lacks any extra features, but the film looks amazing - virtually flawless. The film is dominated by steel grays and blues, and other earth tones, as it is set in winter, and in the Greek highlands, but it is a visual treat of a part of a country too many Westerners think of as having only aquamarine skies, still seas, and eternal sunshine. The DVD cut is 136 minutes, although other cuts run between 126 and 143 minutes. It has English and French subtitles, in white, and is in a 1.78:1 aspect ratio. While there is no dubbed soundtrack in English, it does appear that the characters Mastroianni plays are being dubbed into Greek and Albanian. The fact that the dubbing is likely never going to enter the consciousness of most viewers, due to the lack of close-ups, is testament to just how well structured this film is. In a sense, it is on autopilot, despite its great casting choices.

The screenplay was co-written by Angelopoulos, Tonino Guerra, Thanassis Valtinos, and Petros Markaris, and the stylistic influence of Guerra, as usual, reigns supreme, and fortunately so. The music, by Angelopoulos’ long time collaborator, Eleni Karaindrou, is, as usual, superb. While Angelopoulos films do not use music as innovatively as Werner Herzog’s films, nor as pop culturally as Martin Scorsese’s films, few films marry image and emotion with sound and well. That stated. Few filmmakers can use the absence of sound as effectively, either. And, of course, there is the Angelopoulos long take, provided by cinematographers Giorgos Arvanitis and Andreas Sinanos.

Whereas the long takes of an Antonioni are wrought with tension, and those of a Bela Tarr are often elliptical in space and feeling, Angelopoulos’s are purely emotional, and often use symbolism. A good example of this comes in the final scene, after the reporter is done with the refugee, the town, the border, and the colonel. He walks along the river, past telephone workers garbed in yellow raincoats, as they ascend poles. There seem to be a couple dozen of the workers, yet few move. It is as if they are ancient stylites looking out over the rift that they can do nothing to heal. In fact, their very muteness and lack of motion make them even more impotent; as if guidons to some cause that simply is, but cannot affect, or musical notations sans sound. And this is reflected in the very real frustration portrayed by the reporter (and the actor who portrays him, Gregory Karr).

Another scene is a long tracking shot of boxcars where the Albanian refugees live. An accordion plays a folk song, and as the camera tracks it feels as if the hapless people are moving (and the deliberate iconography of the World War Two Nazi railroads to death camps lends a sense of hopelessness to their plight). Except, it is an illusion of motion, as the refugees are stuck in their plights, each boxcar with its own slack-jawed prisoners mutely gazing out at the cosmos. The riverside wedding scene, also done virtually wordlessly, is another example of Angelopoulos’s mastery of cinema, and is a key scene, for similar riverside scenes figure prominently in his earlier Landscape In The Mist and later Trilogy: The Weeping Meadow.

The scenes in these films are so similar that one almost feels they are prefigurations, or connecting devices between the films, as if the Angelopoulos canon is one extended, ongoing film, not separate works of art. The acting, done from a distance, and using the whole body, still conveys powerful emotions, and is lacking any musical score- only the sounds of nature (the wind, river, etc.) abound. I cannot recall any Hollywood film that would do such a thing- cast big name stars like Mastroianni and Moreau, and then not take ‘advantage’ (in the traditional sense) of their ‘star power.’ But it works, nonetheless, for this is a film that is so well wrought that, in essence, any actors could have stepped in and done a good job (recall my claim of being on autopilot; but in the best sense), for the lack of emoting via facial expressions, and the deliberate interchangeability of characters and actors is another element of the film that aids its universality.

But, above all, all of these techniques are simply variations on the obliquity of moment I mentioned earlier. A seemingly familiar scene is set, but then plays out slightly differently than expected. We visually are comforted, but the disjunction between the expected and the result lingers subconsciously, provoking a rewatch of the film, at most, and a desire to understand, minimally. A final example comes in a scene midway through the film, and one that is an astonishing long take. After some ethnic tensions in the town, between refugees, a man’s body is found hanged, dangling from the end of a crane. The colonel shows this to the reporter, and then orders the cadaver lowered to the tracks. As it slowly descends, we see women in babushkas wailing in the background. They run toward the figure, and we think that they are wailing for it. As the body comes to earth, the camera leaves the scene, and follows the reporter, as a train pulls in slightly farther down the tracks. He is there to greet the Greek politician’s wife, before she is to ‘confront’ the Albanian refugee. The camera follows him, turns 180° degrees, then before following him through one side of the train and out the other, we glimpse the pack of babushkas swarming on the corpse. It seems like they are predators on carrion, stripping it of possessions. What we thought was a scene of grief seems to have devolved into a scene of rapacity. But, this is all ‘minor,’ for the camera is more interested in the reporter and his quest. Still, that the camera never breaks away from the reporter, and all this plays out in the background, is a virtuoso achievement in technical, emotional, and narrative terms.

Even the film’s title, The Suspended Step Of The Stork, is oblique. Yes, there is the obvious reference to the way the colonel and reporter both hold their legs up over the border line, but it can also be referring to the suspended life of the Greek politician- a man whose life seemed a thing of beauty and hope for the Greeks, yet is frozen in the diegetic history of the film- or not?, if one believes that the refugee really was the politician. Fortunately, such a freeze does not affect the viewer, for The Suspended Step Of The Stork is a masterpiece of a film. True, many video game style Hollywood action and adventure film addicts will not ‘get it,’ but who really gives a damn what such folk think? They are the unobliqued in life, and this film shows how little such really matters, in the long run or short.


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