Oil and Water: Three Films by Nikos Nikolaidis

by Dylan Adamson

At about the half hour mark of Nikos Nikolaidis’ Morning Patrol (1987), the unnamed lead character wanders into an empty movie theater, drawn by the sounds of Rita Hayworth’s “Put The Blame on Mame” echoing down the street outside. In from a post-apocalyptic Balkan wasteland, she quickly finds herself ensconced in the warm glow of old Hollywood. As in Goodbye, Dragon Inn (2003), the boundary between life and death seems newly slippery in this temple where past and present nuzzle so closely. When we cut to the woman in the projection booth sometime later—unconscious, bloodied, and robbed—the unspooling film has nearly entombed her. Dreaming sweetly to the muffled sounds of Gilda (1946) resounding through the empty hall, blanketed in celluloid, we are left with her only a moment before she’s awakened. The sickly embrace of the past recedes, the grinding horrors of the present rush back—it seems almost an act of cruelty to have roused her.

From 1962 until his death in 2007, Nikos Nikolaidis directed eleven films, collected a record five Best Director awards from the Thessaloniki International Film Festival, wrote three books, and, according to his website, directed over two hundred television commercials. Across much of this vast body of work, an unmistakable presence persists. If Theo Angelopoulos’ long takes and relentless inquiry into Greek national identity became the most internationally salient products of the post-dictatorship Greek cinema, Nikolaidis was perhaps closer in step with other global cinematic new wave movements. The path forward, in Nikolaidis’ films, is carved with a feverish cannibalization of the cultural forms of the recent past. The imported culture of his youth—the Hollywood star system, jukebox pop soundtracks, film noir—forms the cultural well from which he draws. But as he returns to this concoction, the waters turn brackish at an astonishing rate, and the reflections they cast in the moonlight take on unforeseen, menacing shapes.

Sweet Bunch

Sweet Bunch, from 1983, is the second film in a trilogy that Nikolaidis would retrospectively title The Years of Cholera, spanning from 1979’s The Wretches Are Still Singing to 2002’s Loser Takes All. As might be inferred from the titles, Nikolaidis’ vision of the late twentieth century is not colored by a distinct sense of hope for the future. The film tracks the downward spiral of four petty criminals as the marginal space they’ve carved out for themselves is slowly foreclosed. His pessimism is bone deep, but his touch is still light. “I may be out of work, but I still have a career at stake!” Argyris, a once-promising television star, bluffs, lobbying Andreas to take his place in a porn shoot. These two, Marina, and Sophia skip out on restaurant bills, steal groceries, and prostitute themselves to get by. They live for cheap in a run-down mansion, one of many Nikolaidis locations in varying states of abandonment and disrepair. Bedecked to the point of suffocation in pop culture paraphernalia, their abode is a marvel of the “I Spy” school of set design. The camera tours the building in the first scene, surveying busts of Erich von Stroheim and Gloria Swanson, cuckoo clocks, and pinball machines as “Also Spake Zarathustra” bleeds into “Mr. Sandman” on the soundtrack. Nikolaidis can never be sweet without tasting the saccharine though, and his visions always bear the marks of their own expiration. Argyris, like J.G. Ballard’s Vaughan, recites the details of the James Dean car crash like a summoning spell. “So he takes a sharp turn near Paso Robles, California…” He intones over coffee. Soon, a mysterious man in a trenchcoat shows up outside. Andreas kicks a girlfriend out of the group’s stolen vehicle, telling her, “I think this is the ending of a beautiful friendship.” It’s more convincing when they speak of things ending than beginning. 

In his later career, according to some critics, Nikolaidis’ style would ossify. Regardless of whether this is true or even negative, the same particles in Sweet Bunch are still in the process of congealment. He once described Greek youth culture, “Shacked up in chic neighbourhoods for weeks, feasting on cakes full of hash and smoking hookahs with milk, only to freak out and attack each other with screwdrivers in the head.” But his tone here belies Sweet Bunch’s lingering quality, even as it provides a reasonably accurate plot synopsis. The film is imbued with a sense of tragedy because of the very sweetness he allows his troupe to indulge, the milky dreams they posit in the shisha clouds overhead. He is not quite hardened yet. It speaks to the breadth of Nikolaidis’ vision, if not the generosity of his spirit, that he can place fruit and mold in a single frame. To the rumbling sounds of George Thorogood, Sophia gleefully announces that she pushed a man in front of a train earlier that day: “It was just a back, and I pushed it!” As their shelf life expires, they are undoubtedly becoming something “other”. But impossible to forget still is the scene of Andreas’ reunion with the group outside of the prison. As they sprint towards each other, arms outstretched, Nikolaidis’ cross-cutting seems to only increase the distance separating them, and suddenly Andreas is tossing off his clothes, until he finally jumps, naked, into Argyris’ arms. Nikolaidis takes more than his title from Peckinpah’s film. The harrowing gales of doomed laughter that close out The Wild Bunch (1969) echo throughout Sweet Bunch. Bent over in hysterics, his characters flail against the closing door, but their fates are sealed in the dilapidated house, their bodies destined to remain among the icons their souls so revered. The past gave them dreams, but it couldn’t give them an exit.

Nikolaidis’ camera invariably confers both fetishism and the mark of death. It seems inevitable in his hands, as if a camera could have no other function, but it becomes clearer how he arrived at this cynical pose given his work in television commercials. Having a notoriously fractious relationship with the Greek Film Centre, the country’s main funding body for film production, Nikolaidis directed hundreds of television commercials between projects. As he told Playboy in 1987, this was “to get out of the red,” but advertising for Nikolaidis also represented “a field of unlimited experimentation.” Many of these commercials, which were broadcast widely on Greek television, are generously hosted on his website. Though hardly unique in the medium, under the harsh glare of the auteurist light, these advertisements display an especially frantic enthusiasm for the capitalist cornucopia. There are also frequent cross-pollinations with his filmmaking. Take, for example, an ad for Delta Milk, in which a yuppie couple arrives at a fork in the highway with signs in both directions reading “Chicago.” They pause, unsure which road to take, until a Delta Milk truck speeds past them to the right. They follow the truck. Viewed in context with his films’ unyielding bent toward imaginative bankruptcy and death, it gains a certain tragedy—this highway we’re on leads to only one place. Working throughout his career on this bleeding edge of cynical, profit-driven image making, the only way Nikolaidis was able to finance his films, it’s easier to understand how he came to view the function of cinema long since exhausted by the demands of product fetishism. In the same Playboy interview, he offered a weary piece of advice for the next generation of filmmakers: “And please, desist from seeking to revamp cinematographic language because, unfortunately, in cinema everything’s been said.”

Singapore Sling

Singapore Sling (1990) represents the final marriage of fetish and death in Nikolaidis’ filmography. If he tasted the murky waters before, it’s here that he begins to imbibe them with the abandonment of a man certain he will not see fresh water again. Subtitled The Man Who Loved A Corpse, the film loosely adapts Otto Preminger’s Laura (1944), though Nikolaidis’ interest quickly short circuits to the most tenebrous implications of that film’s investigation into an obsession with the past. The plot concerns an alcoholic detective named Singapore Sling, and the mother and daughter who kidnap him to participate in their incestuous BDSM games. Sling, so named for a cocktail recipe the daughter finds in his pocket, has tracked Sling’s three-years-missing love, Laura, to the remote Gothic mansion where the two women live with a mummified patriarchal figure. The co-mingling of eros and thanatos that lurks around the periphery of any good film noir is thrust into the center of Singapore Sling’s 4:3 frame, drawing the through line from Tourneur to Bava to Satō with such force as to render it difficult to forget. His exteriors, broken down cars framed by rain-soaked palm fronds, somehow manage to recall both I Walked With A Zombie (1943) and the cover art for Scott Walker’s Tilt (1995) in a single breath. Everything in cinema has been said, and Nikolaidis’ tactic here is to say it again and again, chantlike, and listen as the echoes reverberate into strange new arpeggios.

He has arrived at the promised Chicago at the end of his highway. The film darts from noir pastiche to postmodern direct address to certain scenes with little to distinguish themselves from fetish pornography—wholly invested in the duplicitous valences of the term “cinephilia.” Characters indulge in hedonistic rituals of consumption, hand-feeding each other poultry organs and fly-ridden shrimp, and even masturbating with food. But consumption in this film is always followed by regurgitation—a closed circuit. With nowhere to go, the only movement left is repetition. Nikolaidis’ sequences are cyclical, dizzying, and static. Roleplay is the last means of expression, and in short order Singapore Sling himself becomes an active participant. The mother, the daughter, and the detective each take turns as Laura, but this postmodern sense of play can never detach from the all-devouring sorrow at the film’s heart. Gradually, we arrive at the tragic realization with Singapore Sling that the pursuit of his lost love has not met its demise here, but rather its greatest possible realization. The love of a corpse is the only love that’s left, and maybe that’s all there ever was. “She gave her very first kiss to you,” an eerie cover of Sinatra’s ballad echoes, “That was Laura, but she’s only a dream.” Masturbatory and self-annihilating, of a piece with Abel Ferrara’s New Rose Hotel (1998), Nikolaidis’ film opens with a hand reaching out of a grave pleading for life; it closes with Singapore Sling’s hand reaching up from the grave to pull in another handful of mud.

Nikolaidis has said in multiple interviews that he does not return to 1987’s Morning Patrol. “I will never watch this film again,” he told Lefteris Tarlantezos, “It’s something further, much further…” Whereas other Nikolaidis films seem compelled to stasis, Morning Patrol is defined by a relentless momentum. The film follows in the near or distant wake of some unnamed disaster, as a woman roams a wasteland populated by corpses and nomads. We learn from her voiceover about the Morning Patrol, who kill anyone they find, and the wanderers who travel forever west in search of the sea. As with Tsai Ming-liang, a fellow latecomer to his own new wave movement, the overbearing presence of rain and water in Nikolaidis’ films does not impede the decisive role played by thirst, standing in for yearnings less precisely defined. The woman keeps walking, but she knows neither where she came from nor where she’s going. “I have to keep talking or I’ll die,” she says. The same morass which swallowed Singapore Sling and the titular Sweet Bunch clings to the woman’s ragged boots. The past is no less curdled, the future no less foreclosed, but the woman is alone in Nikolaidis’ filmography in her obligation to persist. 

Morning Patrol

A worthy comparison might be Angelopoulos’ Ulysses Gaze (1995), in which Harvey Keitel wanders a similarly vacated landscape in search of a historical point of origin for a viable future. But Morning Patrol attempts to establish no such precise historical coordinates. It is a polyphonic work; the script comprises repeated excerpts from Rebecca (1938), Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (1968), The Big Sleep (1939), Summer of ‘42 (1971), and Nikolaidis’ own writing often blurs with these source texts. “Have you heard of Manderley?” the woman asks her companion, a disillusioned, unnamed man from the Morning Patrol. “I think that’s where I come from.” The past is irretrievable, replaced with orphaned signals from imported films. The siren song of Gilda is projected in an abandoned theater. The man promises to get her to the river, even as he himself doubts its existence. “Nobody ever makes it there, and it’s probably worse. A worse death,” he tells her. Much more difficult than the pleas for oblivion that resound throughout Nikolaidis’ filmography is the strange grasping for life that could persist in a world such as this. But such distinctions already begin to feel arcane. Something has been and something else will be; what persists will not be the same. “Oil and water are the same as wind and air to you,” Morning Patrol’s script quotes Raymond Carver. Or as the man says in the film’s closing minutes, “The sun has set, the night has come, and she’s not there. Neither is the river, nor is anything. And I am no longer there.” 

Nikolaidis would go on to make Singapore Sling a few years later, and his subsequent three features before his death in 2007 do not deviate from that film’s tact. His compulsions are his own, and optimism is not among them. As honest a cinephile and a fetishist of the past as one is likely to find, he summarized these thoughts at the conclusion of his Playboy interview, conducted shortly after Morning Patrol wrapped: 

“I rarely go out and do what you call social life. Of course, sometimes I get the desire for a good time out just like a recent night when, just before calling it a night, I got up, I shaved, put on my best and said to my wife: ‘We’re going out.’ She gave me a strange look since I don’t usually act like that. ‘Let’s,’ she answered for all that, ‘and where shall we go?’ ‘To a nightclub’, I said, ‘to listen to Rita Hayworth singing.’ ‘I don’t think that particular Rita is singing in the center of Athens,’ my wife commented as she looked at me oddly. ‘So then, aren’t I quite right to stay at home?’ And after I got undressed, I laid down to sleep.”

Dylan Adamson is a Canadian film preservationist, freelance critic, and programmer currently based in Athens, Greece. His work has also been featured in Tone Glow.

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One thought on “Oil and Water: Three Films by Nikos Nikolaidis

  1. A lucid and engaging exploration of a dark world. As much as it compels me to seek out the filmmaker’s work it has me looking forward to more from the pen (or keyboard I suppose it is) of the young critic.

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