Thursday 8 April 2010

The theatre of the real

The Travelling Players (O Thiasos), directed by Theo Angelopoulos (1975)

Watching the 1975 Greek film, The Travelling Players (O Thiasos), directed by Theo Angelopoulos, is one of the most unique experiences a filmgoer can have. First, at 222 minutes, it’s a long film, but it works in a totally different way than some of the classic epics by David Lean, which were as long or longer than it. First, where Lean’s films have poetic moments, they are definitely novels on film; and by that I do not mean that they were merely screenplays adapted from novels, but their narrative thrust is very prosaic. They unfold in fairly straightforward ways, and achieve character development in ways that reveal bits and pieces of the characters through little moments- usually heightened, if not veering into melodrama. This is not to suggest that the Lean classics are not great films, merely to define their greatness.

Angelopolous does not work in that style, and having seen some of his later works, and earlier films, I can say The Travelling Players is a transitional film. It is not as deliberately slowly paced and consciously poetic as his later films, and, in fact, owes much to Alain Resnais’s classic Last Year In Marienbad. Like that film, none of the lead characters has a name. Yes, some are uttered, but the viewer is never sure whether the names uttered are the correct ones or not, for much of the film has the characters (a group of itinerant actors (not unlike those in Federici Fellini’s Variety Lights) referring to each other by stage names, such as Golfo, Tassos, Orestes, Elektra, and so on. Yet, this works, because the film is really not about the adventures of a theater troupe, but about the effect of two wars (the Second World War and the Greek Civil War of 1946-49) on a nation, which is represented and symbolized by the de facto anonymous players. In fact, the film’s title- at least in English, can be seen as meaning Players, not in the literal theatrical sense, but in the metaphoric Shakespearian sense (All the world’s a stage….).

The film is also one of the most purely symbolic works of art ever presented; certainly there are few films that are in its league as an exemplar of Symbolism. Even Last Year In Marienbad, while a great piece of cinema, is not as purely symbolic, for, since it has no ties to the real world, it can be seen as more didactic than purely Symbolic. By contrast, The Travelling Players takes its sweet time before revealing its true nature. Nearly ninety minutes go by before a viewer will try to stop taking things on face value, and realise that the film’s drift through time (often veering back and forth in a single scene or dolly shot), and its blackout sketches, are not meant to be taken literally in any way. They simply cannot be, for they make no sense, save as allegories that come, one after another, in a structure meant to tell its story via contrast and tangents, rather than A to B to C narrative. Only when one connects the dots, after enough iterations of the ‘real’ and ‘stage’ names of the players - Orestes, Elektra, Chrysothemis- to sink in, does the film’s status as a modernisation of the Oresteia cycle of tragedies by the playwright Aeschylus; albeit a modernisation sans the Furies and their creative powers. Regardless, it is at the ninety minute point that the film simply absorbs the viewer’s mind into experience. Granted, not many viewers, especially Americans addicted to Lowest Common Denominator MTV editing, will make it even to the ninety minute mark, but for those who do, the rest of the film is worth watching, and rewatching.

Now, for those who would think that I am alibiing for a bad screenplay, I am not. The chief flaw of the screenplay, and one that makes this film a near great, and not a great, film, is its inordinate length. It could easily lose an hour- both in unneeded scenes, and scenes that go on too long (recall, this film was made before Angelopoulos hit his mature stride). However, those detractors of the film, who claim it lacks a narrative or plot, simply are wrong. There simply is no such thing as a film without a narrative or plot- not even the Warhol Factory films fit that bill. The critics who state such simply have limited ideas and minds as to what a plot or narrative strategy is. Similar claims have been made about Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, but it clearly has a strong plot and character development. Proof of that is the fact that almost every person I meet, who has seen the film, points to emotions they felt during the scene where Dave Bowman (Keir Dullea) pulls the plug, so to speak, on the HAL 9000’s electronic brain, causing the computer to dive into madness, infantilism, then non-existence.

While there is no counterpart narrative nor single emotional crescendo in The Travelling Players, there are plenty of little moments that stick out, and pull a viewer in. There are deaths; executions; surreal interactions; sex; rape; full frontal male nudity of a soldier who is asked to undress, then humiliated by the asking female’s rejection; men paying young women to undress before them so they can masturbate; Nationalist thugs who break up a celebration with guns, just so the men can dance together; seaside scenes of blue mountains that seem unreal, even as they clearly are not filmed on a stage, but in the theatre of the real. And, while each of these scenes, by themselves, do not pack a wallop, when they are taken, one after another, they form a sort of layered total picture that gut punches the viewer about the tragic last century in Greek history.

I’ve often told others that Kubrick deployed a Matissean narrative in 2001. By that I meant that he told his narrative with a few well placed narrative strokes that forced a viewer to look on his cinematic canvas, and let their eyes and minds fill in blanks suggested by the strokes of the director. And, I stick by that claim - 2001 is definitely a cinematic Matissean masterpiece. But, The Travelling Players pushes that narrative form even farther. Instead of placing his Matissean narrative strokes all on a single canvas, Angelopoulos places each stroke on a figurative piece of tissue paper, and as each successive layer, with a single stroke, is placed on top of the preceding one, only then does the seemingly oblique narrative form emerge and harden. In that sense, this film is a more complex film than 2001. The problem is that the individual scenes/strokes on each piece of tissue paper are not as uniformly well wrought as the strokes on the single canvas of 2001, and the exceeding length of Angelopoulos’s film tends to layer on too many pieces of tissue paper, which sometimes obscure even the best and boldest strokes below. Yet, despite that flaw, overall, the film is a brilliant synergy, wherein even its least parts help the better parts resonate more deeply by simply being there as contrast. In this manner, Angelopoulos takes Whitmanian excess to heart, excess as a virtue in itself, and as a rational and integral part to the story. So, while trimming the film, logically, would make it better in many ways, it would also lose a vital part of its essence.

The outline of the film is that in 1952, the players debark and look back upon the prior thirteen years of their nation’s turmoil. The film then shifts back to 1939, and proceeds in a straight chronological fashion back to 1951. The players, who may or may not be related by blood, are a mixed lot of old and young, male and female. Early on, the young males join the Communist Party to first fight off the Nazi Occupation, and then battle the Nationalist Greek government. Yet, we barely see them throughout the rest of the film. No single actor dominates and all are fairly anonymous (which is why giving the names of the characters (the few one might be able to discern) and the actors is pointless; although, at three points in the film, characters break the fourth wall to speak directly to the audience in soliloquies. The first is when an old player talks on a train about his experiences battling the Turks in the 1920s. The most jarring- and least effective- is when a raped woman turns her suffering into a diatribe on the rape of Greece by outside forces. The final one is when a prisoner of war returns home to describe his torture, including the Sisyphan task of moving rocks up hills, only to move them back down. This usage, however, only emphasizes the fact that they are not real individuals, but a literal Greek Chorus, commenting on the history that passes them by, for never do they really participate. They are almost always passive observers. This is most starkly represented when we see the players scurrying in the dark foreground of a street battle between Communists and Nationalists in a lighted background. Both parties advance and retreat in a highly choreographed, symbolic, and beautiful way. Yet, never do the players take sides in the historical drama.

Another scene where this is made clear is when the players are stopped by British forces who make them perform their pastoral play, called Golfo The Shepherdess, on a beach - the only time we see the troupe get to perform it to its completion, for, before that, is always interrupted, but not in the humorous manner it would be in a Fellini film. When stopped, one of the older male players pleads for mercy to the British that they are not Communists. The scene ends with the Brits and players dancing together to an accordion version of It’s a Long Way To Tipperary, only to end with a gunshot piercing and killing one of the young British soldiers, who falls to his death in the sand.

In some ways, the narrative of the film also has the feel of an MC Escher drawing, with each scene seemingly connected to another, but in a disjunct manner that forces the characters into dead ends, and then Möbius Loops that merely serve to leave them where they started. This is almost certainly what the whole film is, with it ending in 1951, and the family debarking a train, only to have the narration tell us that it’s 1939, again. Perhaps this loop for the players will be a year shorter than the last, but there is no way to tell. The only certainty is that the players will never escape their history, and the players, as a collective whole, will endure, even as individual members wander off or are killed (sometimes via Classical betrayal). In short, there will always be Juvenalian Watchmen.

The transfer of the Region 2 DVD, from the Greek company New Star, is better than the version of Days Of ’36 that they released. It is nearly pristine. There are no extra features to speak of, save for coloured subtitles which allow for easier reading. The film is in a 4:3 aspect ratio. The scoring by Loukianos Kilaidonis rarely is extra-diagetic. Most of the music ushers forth from the characters and their natural surroundings, which only adds to the Symbolic quality of the film. The screenplay by Angelopoulos alone, is a damned good one, as described above. The only flaw being its length, one wonders if a more experienced (at that time) screenwriter could have convinced Angelopoulos to trim the script and film down into unequivocal greatness.

The cinematography, by longtime Angelopoulos collaborator, Giorgos Arvanitis, is superlative. There are scenes in the real world that feel otherworldly, and there are scenes that are symbolic that look real. Arvanitis makes beauty out of grubby alleys, twisted garbage and debris, and evokes emotions with long dolly shots, often looking away from the seeming main action of a scene to focus on a seemingly minor thing. He also will have the camera linger on a character’s reaction to something, without showing us the thing, or showing it only later than expected. There are also very few sunny shots in this film. In fact, the whole Angelopoulos canon has few shots that are sunny in it. Hibernal dawns and dusks, earth tones, and cool blues, abound. The man seems to relish the hues, real and psychological, that are evoked by overcast skies. It is also claimed that the whole 222 minutes of the film is wrought with less than a hundred individual shots- a remarkable show of formal patience, and trust in the images and audience’s appreciation for them, on the part of the director.

The Travelling Players should also be commended for not falling into the trap of caricaturisation, which often happens with clumsily deployed symbolism. No group - not Nazis nor Communists, British nor Italians, Nationalists nor Americans, are shown as without blame in the Greek situation. This is because the film, despite its abundant use of political symbols, is definitely not a political film, but a Symbolic one. The Symbolism dominates the political content for the focus is on illustrating human behavior in extremis; a condition brought about by the politics of the time. But, it could just as easily have been brought about by religious oppression, natural disasters, or disease. A final point about this remarkable and daring film is that, despite its length, and despite its deployment of Symbols, it is, unlike the films of David Lean, definitely not an epic. In fact, the film deliberately miniaturises history into the small moments, a collage of indignities, that define the lives of the players, and in that miniaturisation, it maximises the human experience for its audience. How many films, great or not, can stake that claim?


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