Between One Embrace and the Next: Ulysses’ Gaze and the Pace of Discovery

And, if the soul is about to know itself, it must gaze into the soul.
–Plato, Alcibiades 133b

The film

In a quiet arthouse theater one night in May of 1997, a scene from Theo Angelopoulos’s 1995 masterwork Ulysses’ Gaze reached out and holds me still. In it the protagonist, A (Harvey Keitel), is relating a personal story to a curator from Skopje (Maia Morgenstern, who plays every woman Keitel encounters throughout the film’s nearly three-hour duration). As the latter runs alongside the train that threatens to vanquish their transient encounter, A’s story lures her into the clattering comforts of the car, and into the emptiness of his heart. He tells her of stumbling upon the birthplace of Apollo, of seeing there something so vivid that every Polaroid he attempted to take came out only blank, “as if my glance wasn’t working.” In those empty squares, those black holes made tangible, he sees both the past of which his body and mind were formed and the future into which he blindly walks.  Thus does Angelopoulos engage us, finding in this nameless figure an everyman whose quest for origins beyond his self leads only to a hollowing out of that self.

We see a film: Spinning Women by Yannakis and Miltos Manakias. It is perhaps the first film, speculates A’s voiceover. The first gaze. Yet once we are released from its black-and-white confines, the only gaze afforded us is of misty waters, indistinct and close to blanking out. Monochrome pales into color as we witness Yannakis’s last moments, and the single ship upon the sea that is his farewell.

The vessel looms like a face, fills the screen with its expressive pace, and breaks the seal on a filmic letter like no other.

“How many borders must we cross to reach home?”

Yannakis, we learn, left behind three reels of undeveloped film, and it is these A wants like a light bulb hungers for electricity that will one day pop its filament. We contemplate the ship and the three missing reels as A sets out on his personal journey. He hopes a film archivist from Athens may be able to help him, but is instead escorted through crowded streets in which A has not set for 35 years, and which echo with the controversies of his latest film beyond the theater doors it has closed.

A follows the trail into Albania, a land of snow and silence where refugees stare at the mountainous border as if it might speak on their behalf.

A woman who hasn’t seen her sister in 47 years since the civil war asks if A might take her along. His cab driver agrees and drops her off at Korytsa. Only she doesn’t recognize it as the place of her girlhood. She stands in the middle of the street, empty save for the agony of her shattered expectations. Part of us stays with her, knowing that all the comfort in the world will never alleviate the wounds she has endured to get here.

Haunted as much emotionally by the Manakias brothers’ film as we are visually by it, A maps a path of ruin through the Balkan Wars and the First Great War. The turmoil of the region is encoded in every frame of those missing reels. Yet the brothers were interested less in politics and more in people. They recorded “all the ambiguities,” A tells the woman from Skopje, who at first takes no interest in his obsession, which overtakes him to the point where he relives the brothers’ exile by the Bulgarian government as collaborators against the state, feels the confiscation of their archives like an artery ripped from his chest, smells the gunpowder of a mock execution. He wants to find his own first glance, long lost yet always tapping him on the shoulder, and his only way to know where it leads is to take on traumas of which he will never be a part.

His itinerary reads like a litany of destruction. He follows footsteps into a time where his mother can care for him, a substitute in memory for what eludes him in the present. Then again, in this film there is no “present” as such, bearing as it does an eternal trace of that which bore it. A shares a dance with his mother, and in the space of that dance a family is destroyed, dispossessed, and broken before posing for its final group portrait by an illusory photographer who may be the director himself, if not us in his place.

A awakens from that dream, shaken and silent. At the docks of an overcast morning, he bids farewell to Skopje, even as the head of an enormous statue of Lenin is craned onto a barge behind them.

The nameless woman questions his tears. “I’m crying because I can’t love you,” he tells her between sobs, and tears himself away from the only security he may ever know.

“The war’s so close it might as well be far away,” observes an old journalist friend in Belgrade, where the head of its Film Archives has agreed to meet. The man tells A he once had the reels, but after failing to devise the proper chemical formula to develop them, gave them to a colleague in Sarajevo with whom he lost touch during the war. Of course, A insists on going to Sarajevo. He rows a boat into dark waters (an allegory, perhaps, for the toughness of Balkan reality itself) and nearly falls into a double life with a widow in mourning.

“The first thing God created was the journey, then came doubt…and nostalgia.”

Upon arriving in the city, surrounded by bombs and crumbling edifices, he foolishly asks of those fleeing around him, “Is this Sarajevo?” as if his purpose in being there were more important than their demise. It is the deepest moment of denial, and therefore of weakness, in the film, and throws us into the soul of a man whose love for history has blinded him to the visceral impact of its making.

He finds who he is looking for: a film museum curator (the inimitable Erland Josephson) by the name of S. Even as the air explodes with dust and bloodshed, S commends A for his faith in having traveled this far for something believed to be lost.

S, we learn, has been searching for that magic formula for years, and A’s persistence emboldens him to finish his task.

“You have no right to keep it locked away. The gaze…it’s the war, the insanity, the death…”

It is in Sarajevo that we learn the true meaning of the fog, which creeps in like a protective force, a shroud in which one can live without fear, if only for a brief time. In its embrace neighbors can speak without words. In its diffuse glow a youth orchestra made of Serbs, Croats, and Muslims, traveling from city to city during ceasefire, can play its song for all to hear.  But even this screen cannot keep them from harm, for behind its veil children are shot before their parents, thrown to the water from which they took shape. And so, the man who rescued a gaze from certain death now becomes a part of it, but not before leaving the successfully developed reels.

Yet we never see those reels, only their light flitting across A’s weary eyes. Whether or not he finds them is as immaterial as they legend they have grown to be. In those reels lies a dream, “a gaze struggling to emerge from the dark…a kind of birth.” And in birth there is no sight but the glare of strife, no sound but the wail of projection.

“What am I if not a collector of vanished gazes?”

And just what is all this gazing about? Beyond that of the camera, of the eye in reality (and of the soul in non), it is for me the slumber of the centuries, dismembered and left to drift like Lenin’s statue on river’s flow. It is the pathos of pathos, forever unrequited in the blink of a fettered eye.

As a teenager I used to have a recurring dream. In it I was younger still, perhaps 12, and clothed modestly in a tunic and brown leather sandals. I ran through a hilly landscape, dodging brush and fauna to the top of a rocky slope. And there I lay low beneath an olive tree, a quiver of arrows slung across my back, overlooking a landscape of ruins. I like to think that I was also gazing, like A, upon Apollo’s birthplace, of which I can remember nothing but the feeling: an unanswering abyss of rock and overgrowth into which I cast my questioning stones.

The more tangible it is, the more unrecoverable a past becomes, the more easily burned, the more easily dressed in the clothes of the dead.

The music

Among the many sonic cartographies it has innovated, ECM has redefined almost every genre it has touched. This includes the film soundtrack, which, through the work of Angelopoulos’s sonic partner, Eleni Karaindrou, has shown us music that stands alone before reaching toward the images it cradles.

Eleni Karaindrou
Ulysses’ Gaze
(ECM New Series 1570)

Kim Kashkashian viola soloist
Vangelis Christopoulos oboe
Andreas Tsekouras accordion
Sopcratis Anthis trumpet
Vangelis Skouras french horn
Christos Sfetsas cello
Georgia Voulvi voice
Lefteris Chalkiadakis conductor
Recorded December 1994 at Sound Studio, Athens
Engineer: Yannis Smirneos
Produced by Manfred Eicher

This soundtrack introduced me to the Angelopoulos’s cinematic world long before I saw a single frame. It would be two years before I had a chance to see the selfsame film, by which time I had heard the soundtrack and stared at the booklet stills so many times that I felt like I knew every ventricle of Ulysses’ pensively beating heart. Though set against a backdrop of primal discovery, it ends up becoming its own discovery, linking the personal to the political to the universal in one red thread, represented to its fullest by Kashkashian’s gut-wrenching playing. Though mainly driven by the soloist, there are splendid moments of conversation with oboe, as in “Ulysses’ Theme Variation II.” Yet what comes across as an intensely mournful theme can, with just an intensification of speed, turn into an exuberant dance.

Among the more touching moments in both film and soundtrack is “The River.” With its elegiac horn wafting out over the misty waters like a requiem for a fallen past never to be recaptured in the crumbling ruins of an age blinded by innovation, it breathes through our rib cages with voices of passage. The 17-minute spread of “Ulysses’ Gaze – Woman’s Theme, Ulysses’” is the album’s most enchanting encapsulation, the entire narrative telescoped into a single epic mosaic, drawn from the same ink as the tears of its characters. A lilting accordion carries us like a feather on wind into the inner portal of a traditional Byzantine Psalm, from which we emerge with that same thread in our grasp, sinking deeper with every reiteration until the seedlings of our plight become the stuff of myth and melted celluloid.

Ulysses’ Gaze bears dedication to the memory of the great Italian actor Gian Maria Volonté, whose role in the film was cut short by a fatal heart attack and recast to Josephson. In kind, I can only dedicate this review to the memory of Angelopoulos (1935-2012), a director in whose oeuvre everyone seems to find a ghostly double self, whispering at the fringe of conscious imagination.

May his gaze live on.

“I live my life in ever widening circles that rise above things.
I probably won’t come last, but I’ll try. I circle around God.”

<< Alexandr Mosolov: Sonatas for piano Nos. 2 and 5, etc. (ECM 1569 NS)
>> Thomas Demenga: J. S. Bach/B. A. Zimmermann (ECM 1571 NS)

5 thoughts on “Between One Embrace and the Next: Ulysses’ Gaze and the Pace of Discovery

  1. This is nice to read after looking at multiple reviews that denigrate the film as tedious and pretentious. I can see why that’s a natural reaction, but besides your comments I find it helpful to think of many of the scenes as drama (despite the cinematic theme) where with suspension of disbelief we slip between time periods and in and out of reality and surrealism. The multiple roles of Morgenstern also would seem more at home on a stage. Here also it helps to think of Homer’s Odyssey, where multiple woman serve as one Other for Odysseus in his travels. It’s easy to find many loose parallels, the various types of water transportation (Od. 5, 13), the fog and the rivers as the underworld (Od. 11), Morgenstern at the trains station enticed like Nausicaa (Od. 6) with a tale of Delos, as well as a widow who like Nausicaa is a laundry woman who imagines the stranger as a husband (Od. 6; cf. the Sara episode in Cold Mountain).

  2. Thank you, Jon, for the insights. I must admit this is a film I had to grow into, as great works of art sometimes ask us to do. It has been years since I’ve immersed myself in the mythologies to which you refer, and I think one of the film’s many beauties lies in its welcoming embrace. It takes us as we are: broken, ignorant, and searching for light.

  3. I’m looking for the song which laundry woman sing (maybe Nausicaa?) unfortunately i can’t find.Have you any information about this song?

  4. It’s not Ahmed Mala Musa,i guess it is Serbian or Bulgarian folk song.Nevertheless i really like Ahmede Musa Mala’s voice,thank you 🙂

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