Essay: A Time For Many Words – Canon Formation, National Unity and ‘The Travelling Players’

by Forrest Cardamenis

Invariably, any appraisal of Theodoros Angelopoulos’ 1975 film The Travelling Players makes note of its length—230 minutes, to be precise—as well as it’s ostentatious style—it consists of just 80 shots, almost all of which are sequence shots and hardly any are tighter than a medium close-up. Neither duration nor the length of a take is correlated with quality, but The Travelling Players’anomalous presence in the film canon ought to assuage any doubters. It is, alongside Angelopoulos’ more accessible Landscape in the Mist, the only Greek film on They Shoot Pictures, Don’t They’s aggregation of the top 1000 films of all time (clocking in at 204th place), and it stands alone in the top 250 of Sight & Sound’s 2012 poll (where it fared better, 102nd). This is noteworthy because it is a particularly stark example of “a certain tendency” of canon formation: it anoints a single film from a movement as representative or remarkable and then enshrines it, thereby casting aside countless other worthy films. It’s also worth underlining the paradox here: films from particular nations (and here I mean not so much Greece but even more so any number of Latin American, Middle Eastern, African, or Asian countries) have difficulty breaking through on the western festival circuit because a western audience is likely ignorant of that nation’s political and sociological circumstances. Those that manage to overcome this barrier are then stripped of so much of what makes them unique, vaunted instead for some supposed humanist power or alleged kinship with a more famous western filmmaker or, in the best of cases (as with Angelopoulos, and more recently Béla Tarr, Hou Hsiao-hsien and Apichatpong Weerasethakul), a supreme stylistic achievement. This is not only detrimental to film culture for its dismissal of other great films, but also because severing a film from its context, as if aesthetics were simply a grab-bag of techniques, each pre-loaded with its own meaning, results in overlooking much of what the film has to say.

To understand New Greek Cinema in general and The Travelling Players in particular, we must first know a little about mid-century Greece and its unique geopolitics. Greece at the time was a capitalist, Marshall Plan-funded NATO member in a region otherwise entirely Communist, yet it lacked the economic strength of its allies in Western Europe. The political left was heavily suppressed, and the government after the Civil War (1946-1949) was U.S. backed, but it did not suffer from U.S. colonization nor censorship to nearly the same extent as so much of Latin America. Both the German occupation and especially the Civil War emptied out the Greek countryside, spurring rapid urbanization and, consequently, a growing film industry. Film historian Vrasidas Karalis characterized mid-century Greek cinemagoing as “an experience of nation building” that, through historical films, informed a largely illiterate people “about the nation and its history through sanitized depictions” and “implicitly conditioned regarding public morality, gender roles, and political ideology” (80). Comedies, meanwhile, “depicted a society in transition from the customs of a rural mentality to the structures of an urban and capitalist organization of time and space” (129). Significantly, imported films, including Hollywood films, were not the primary draw in Greece; in fact, Greek film production briefly exceeded Hollywood on a per capita basis.

With the introduction of television to Greek society in the mid-’60s, however, moviegoing slowed significantly as the newer medium took over the sociological function enjoyed by movies in the previous decade. Cinema further lost cultural legitimacy following the 1967 coup d’etat and throughout the ensuing seven-year junta; Greece had transformed from a society marked by the recent war and urbanization into a society marked by political repression, and the nationalist cinema of the junta was unable to speak to that new reality, resulting in significantly decreased film production. Ironically, it was precisely the decreased interest in cinema that allowed it to flourish and paved the way for the New Greek Cinema. The junta largely ignored filmmakers and instead focused on imprisoning leftist poets and playwrights, as theater and poetry were historically associated with political rebellion in Greece.

To strip this context from The Travelling Players is to strip it of much of its narratological and stylistic purpose. Where early other junta films historicized the army officer as the hero and the communists as the nation’s enemies, it retold Greek history from a leftist perspective and, accordingly, was also antithetical to their Hollywood-inspired aesthetics. It is a film that, through a dialectical opposition of “high” and “low” culture, rebuffs hundreds of preceding films that sought to construct and reconstruct Greek national identity.

To better understand how this tension between rural and urban plays out in Angelopoulos, and to better explicate Angelopoulos’ relation to the political cinema of the time, it is helpful to compare it to the apparently dissimilar work of Pier Paolo Pasolini. For Pasolini, capitalism, “fascism worse than the classical one,” debased Italian culture in less than 20 years more fully than “classical” fascism had done in nearly 30 years, especially with regard to language and dialect (L’Espresso). His films attempt to depict this debasement by focusing on those who have managed to survive outside of capitalism at the moment they begin to change. Mamma Roma takes place in the outskirts of Rome just as several housing projects were under development, and those projects occupy a prominent place in the background of the film’s images. Pasolini described its characters as “a sub-proletariat at the moment when it is tending to become petit bourgeois and therefore perhaps fascist, conformist, etc.; the sub-proletariat at the moment when it is no longer barricaded inside slums but is exposed to and influenceable by the petit bourgeois and the ruling class” (Stack and Pasolini 56). Presaging a perception that Samardzija pinpoints, Pasolini believed these figures to be more “authentically” Italian—in their language, their habits, and their culture—than the urbanites.

The same dynamic, between urban and rural, or petit bourgeois and sub-proletarian, can be applied to Greece, but where Pasolini reveled in the low culture and ostracization of his protagonists, Angelopoulos aimed to elevate his by positioning them as the rightful owners of high culture. The film’s characters, members of an itinerant theatre troupe performing throughout rural Greece, are named for and take after Orestes, Electra, Agamemnon, Chrysothemis, Aegisthus, Pylades, and others. Early in the film, the Agamemnon character tells of his arrival to Greece as a refugee as part of the 1923 population exchange between Greece and Turkey, transforming one of Greek culture’s most mythologized heroes into a commoner and an immigrant. Later in the film, after Orestes’ mother and uncle rat out Agamemnon to the authorities, Orestes steps on stage to kill them, just as he does in the classical myth. In doing so, he posits leftwing political dissent as a form of literary heroism. In the latter half of the film, Orestes’ refusal to denounce the Communist Party and Chrysothemis’ son’s abandonment of his mother to join Electra and reconvene the troupe is a return of a communist resistance, and with it, a return of Greek culture and history, to the people and to popular entertainment, be it the peripatetic performance of the characters or, implicitly, the cinema of the film’s creators.

Immediately, then, there is a tension between, on one hand, the mythological foundation of the narrative, and on the other, its realization in rural Greece and the background of its protagonists. Balkan film historian Zoran Samardzija theorizes in his essay on the The Travelling Players that films which take place in rural areas are presumed to be closely embedded in cultural and national contexts, while those that take place in cities, sites of modernity and cosmopolitanism, are understood to cross borders more readily (261). Implicit in the argument is that the cities are also the dwellings of the educated and the cultured—forces that drive modernity and cosmopolitanism—while the uneducated tend to dwell in rural areas. When Greek parents name their children Plato, Samardzija argues, it is not an expression of their connection to the high culture of ancient Greece but an attempt to instill a connection to Greek roots they have been severed from. The decision to name itinerant actors after Homeric and mythological figures is similarly a statement connecting Greek high culture to the everyday people of the country. Where Pasolini believed art that too forcefully transgressed convention would be rendered ineffective, ignored by its target audience and commodified and appropriated by its enemies, Angelopoulos suggests it was necessary to reimagine history in a way that returns ownership of culture to the people.

Accordingly, high culture does not exist in a vacuum in The Travelling Players.The film observes the troupe’s repeated attempts to perform Golfo The Shepherdess between the tumultuous years of 1939 and 1952. The use of Golfo is a politically charged choice, as it was one of Greece’s most beloved folk melodramas and, accordingly, was frequently adapted for the screen: it has the distinction of being the source material for the first Greek film, one of the first Greek sound films, and the first Greek color film. It is, in other words, precisely the type of melodrama used for conservative “nation-building” in the ‘50s and ‘60s. Golfo is performed on-screen multiple times but is always interrupted—by the announcement of the first clashes between Greece and Italy (and thus Greece’s initiation into World War II); by air raid sirens; by gunshots; by Orestes’ patricide. The world of Golfo, with its happy peasants and concern only with romance, is revealed as a fiction, interrupted repeatedly by the forces of history. The “unified” Greece it posits does not and cannot exist. It is, as suggested by a scene in which British occupiers ask the troupe to perform the play, that the very idea of a unified Greece is a foreign one, revealing how the belief in a unified Greece is, as historian Michael Herzfeld has argued, a “crypto-colonial” project attempting to imagine a Greece according to foreign models. The interruptions, meanwhile, stand as a claim about the cinema itself, a call for a political cinema that suits the times to “interrupt” the status quo with a cinema more akin to The Travelling Players than the Golfo films (Angelopoulos would also dramatize a search for a suitably political, suitably Balkan art in 1995’s Ulysses’ Gaze, about a film director looking for the earliest reels shot by the Manaki Brothers, the region’s first filmmakers). The apolitical promises of national unity offered by something like Golfo are fundamentally incompatible with a nation such as Greece, whose recent occupation and war had deeply problematized claims of unity.

Seen through this lens, some received wisdom about Angelopoulos’ style take on new dimensions. His style is not simply in opposition to Hollywood, or even (following that line to its conclusion) to Great Man theory, nor is it merely an array of Brechtian alienation techniques deployed to prompt and allow the audience to contemplate the action. For Angelopoulos, the sequence shot is above all a critique of nationalism, a way to present an unbroken—and therefore unified—depiction of war and murder and even temporal dislocation associated with the lack of national unity. Taken further, Angelopoulos’ aesthetic is one that enables him to criticize ideas of nationhood tied to place (it is precisely this critique that helps us connect Angelopoulos’ films from the ‘60s and ‘70s with those he made in the ‘80s and later).

In the hands of a great filmmaker, style and technique are means, not ends. Understanding them as such allows us to grasp something about the world beyond what mise-en-scène and editing can convey in a vacuum. It is often stated that a film critic or a cinephile must be curious, but this curiosity must extend beyond films, out into the world that shapes them. Without that, the films we search for will never be as good as the ones we have already found.

Works Cited

  • Herzfeld, Michael. “The Hypocrisy of European Moralism: Greece and the Politics of Cultural Aggression.” Podcast. LSE Hellenic Observatory Annual Lecture.  4 November 2015.

  • Karalis, Vrasidas. A History of Greek Cinema. New York: Continuum, 2012. Screen Studies. Web. 10 Dec. 2018.

  • Samardzija, Zoran. “Rural Convergences: Constructing and Unraveling National Unity in Theo Angelopoulos’s The Travelling Players.” Representing the Rural: Space, Place, and Identity in Films about the Land, edited by Catherine Fowler and Gillian Helfield, Wayne State University Press, 2006, pp. 261–275.

  • Stack, Oswald, and Pier Paolo Pasolini. Pasolini on Pasolini: Interviews with Oswald Stack. Indiana University Press, 1970.

Forrest Cardamenis is a freelance film critic based in Queens, New York. His work has also appeared in Reverse Shot, Hyperallergic, MUBI, and other publications.

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