My latest review for All About Jazz is an extended critique of the controversial film Whiplash. Click the poster to read. For those who haven’t seen it, I’ve embedded the trailer below.
Dans la nuit
Music for the Silent Movie by Charles Vanel
Louis Sclavis clarinets
Jean-Louis Matinier accordion
Louis Sclavis violin
Vincent Courtois cello
François Merville percussion, marimba
Recorded October 2000, Studios La Buissonne
Engineer: Gérard de Haro
Produced by Louis Sclavis
Louis Sclavis, who had by this point already left indelible footprints in the ECM trail with such memorable recordings as Acoustic Quartet and Les Violences de Rameau, surely surprised many with the release of Dans la nuit. The album foregrounds the French multi-reedist’s visionary composing via incidental music commissioned for a new print of Charles Vanel’s tragic 1929 silent film of the same name. One of France’s last silent pictures, Dans la nuit needed a soundtrack. Says Sclavis of the task, “I had to compose music that takes into account the period, the atmosphere of each sequence and their cinematic aesthetic. The music, at times, should have an angle on the action, an attitude, especially during the dramatic passages, should be almost as it were out of synch, giving it a distance that allows the tempo and the light to play their part. On the other hand there should also be a play of simple proximity to the characters and their feelings, realist or expressionist passages; all of this without too many sudden breaks.” In addition to his meticulously timed score, he included improvised passages in response to the images, thereby underscoring the Vanel’s spontaneous mise-en-scène.
The film itself is an almost forgotten gem of silent cinema, as attested by the intensity of its acting, the expressionism of its lighting, the creativity of its camera work, the brutality of its storyline, and the confrontational ploy of its denouement.[*] Its opening shots introduce us to an unnamed French mining village, a place rife with the very brand of contrast borne out by the protagonists. Scenes of industry clash with the gaiety of a rural wedding party.
Friends and family drink and are merry, their revelry buoyed by the obvious happiness of the newlyweds in whose honor they have gathered.
Recurring shots of an accordion player give Sclavis an easy clue into the album’s instrumental spread, from which Jean-Louis Matinier’s bellows stand out for their fluid narrative power.
A dramatic cut sequence, however, upsets the certainty of the couple’s outlook as shots jump between a dolly pan of the wedding party and a crowd of miners headed for the local carnival. It is in the latter’s confines—the cacophony of which is palpable despite the lack of ambient noise—that these two worlds collide, and gives first indication that the husband is, in fact, a miner himself and is enjoying a rare reprieve from his toil. The happy couple rides into town by carriage, throwing bride (Sandra Milovanoff) and groom (played by the director) into a storm of activity. The ensuing whirlwind is expertly and descriptively captured by Vanel. Frantic overheads of swings and other amusements frame the bride in a blur of flesh and flowers, further unsettling her chances at happiness.
Before the newlyweds consummate their marriage, their faces are singled out by the camera in a montage of longing gazes, each a placeholder for the twist of resolution to be dropped like a lemon peel into the film’s martini glass in the final act.
Time passes, and wedded bliss has pervaded the wife’s daily routine. Viscous liquid flows down a sheet of glass placed before the lens, reverting us to the mine, where workers are preparing to dynamite the rock.
Children play in a nearby field, reinforcing Vanel’s penchant for contrast and painfully letting us in on the inevitable: the husband is buried by rocks dislodged from the blast.
He returns home, a disfigured man.
He bids his wife to fetch a mask from his belongings, which he wears to give his appearance at least semblance of normalcy. Life wanders on, but so do the wife’s passions, landing her in the arms of an illicit lover. The latter finds another mask (presumably a spare) in her husband’s likeness and puts it on. When the husband comes home unexpectedly early, the two men tussle for her hand. Vanel’s choreography makes it seem as if the husband has been killed. The wife and who she believes to be her lover dump the body, but when they return home, the man reveals himself to be her husband.
Even as she feels her entire world crumbling around her, she wakes up to find it was all a dream.
One could hardly dream of a more fitting score for this melodrama. Sclavis has forged no mere accompaniment, but rather a living entity that balances the film’s morbid undertones with a harmonious sheen. Two recurring motifs, “Dia Dia” and the title theme, lend the album a narrative arc all its own. Together, the former’s pairing of bellow (Matinier) and cello (Vincent Courtois) and the latter’s Yann Tiersen-like breezes lend a feeling of symmetry.
The descriptiveness of each tune speaks in the language of cinema, so that François Merville’s light percussive appliqué in “Le travail” gives just a hint of the labor it names. (The stark textures here recall Philip Glass—and indeed, one may wish to explore the American composer’s own scoring for silent films for more in this vein.) “Fête foraine” (Fairgrounds) lays tightly wound strings over martial snare, shifting midway through to mallets before returning to the procession. Such changes beguile throughout. The full import of the wife’s “Mauvais rêve” (Bad dream), for example, finds perfect introduction in the clarinet and cello duet (“Retour de noce”) that precedes it. Fantasy (“Amour et beauté”) changes hands with reality (“Le miroir,” in which violinist Dominique Pifarély sounds like a ghost), excitement (“La fuite”) with comeuppance (“Les 2 visages”).
Two of the album’s finest moments occur in “La peur du noir” (Fear of the dark), which expresses itself through a nervous heart murmur of solo accordion, and in “L’accident,” a two-part fragmentation of the film’s underlying tensions that works its corkscrew into a bottle long emptied of its hope.
Meticulously composed, arranged, and performed, Dans la nuit stands tall in the Louis Sclavis lineup—not because it is relatively “accessible” (which it is), but because its storytelling is so enmeshed with its source. It’s brittle continuity maintains shape even in the emotional push and pull in which it finds itself caught. Like the nameless wife’s nightmare, the music carries in its breast a hint of its own anxieties, reliving them for as long as there are mirrors, smoke, and light…
[*] I regret that I was only able to obtain an untranslated VHS library copy of the film, from which I could only extract stills by photographing the screen with my iPhone.
The Dust of Time is the last film of Theo Angelopoulos, a status it attained only after the Greek filmmaker unexpectedly disappeared from the mortal landscape in 2012. This film was the second in a trilogy begun with The Weeping Meadow and set to be completed by The Other Sea, in production at the time of his passing. It is at once his most complex and simplest film. Because it is his last, we may feel tempted to see it as the capstone to his oeuvre, a summary and reflection of things past. We might also experience it as an inception, a regression into birth.
“Nothing ended. Nothing ever ends.” The voice of our protagonist. As in Ulysses’ Gaze, his name is A (Willem Dafoe), this time a director making a film about his parents’ perseverance in the post-Stalinist era. Sweeping through Italy, Germany, Russia, Kazakhstan, Canada, and the US, its manifold narratives take shape through soft address. A for anonymous. A for atrophy. A for apotheosis.
The film works on multiple levels. One finds A in the backwash of the tense politics that so fascinate him. His own film faces logistical difficulties, the weight of which, when combined with that of personal demons, seeks to break him. His anxieties shuffle into level two: his parents’ tale. Here the reality of cinema comes to life, indistinguishable from A’s own.
A clandestine exchange on a train introduces us to his father, Spyros (Michel Piccoli), whose twisting of the system has earned him an identity and the chance to see his beloved again.
A man hands him a fake passport: “From now on, you’re playing with time.” Words to live by for A in the present, and a clue into the film’s title. Like the coating on old stock, dust plays with the imagery of our experiences in microscopic dances of light and shadow, holds those experiences like a bottle holds wine. As A watches archival footage of communist propaganda, a patch of light covers his eyes like a protective mask.
As in so many moments of what follows, he bleeds into the biography he imagines. Witness in that alternate time his mother, Eleni (Irène Jacob). See the many border crossings etched into her face, the force of her abandon in the arms of the only other human being on her radar.
“It’s you. You’re here,” she says to Spyros, holding him at long last.
At the station, a crowd gathers before a statue of Stalin, disperses, and leaves us dangling in A’s pragmatic concerns.
He surveys the margins of a soundtrack rehearsal, thus enacting one of Angelopoulos’s deepest intertextual sequences. Dafoe cues a melody for a dance in the film (a dance that comes later, in the comfort of water).
Although I hesitate to compare Angelopoulos to Tarkovsky, I cannot help but see the ringing phone that interrupts the rehearsal as an analogue to the unexpected call that startles the heart of the Zone in Stalker. Dafoe answers it, only to be confronted with voiceless street noise. He hopes it is his daughter, also named Eleni, and fills the studio with her name in vain. He returns home to find his daughter missing, and on her bed his mother’s lost letter to Spyros.
Back in their story, Spyros and Eleni are captured in the wake of their lovemaking, leaving only tire tracks and brokenness to show for their catharsis.
This inspires a series of letters that she knows will never reach him. She flees to Siberia with their son and puts him on a train to Moscow in the winter of 1956.
Her heart allows room for Jacob (Bruno Ganz), a man whose head is a museum of broken statues: monuments whose bodies have dilapidated yet whose messages resound.
A’s daughter’s room is the physical equivalent. She has plastered her walls with heads of popular culture, each a window into aural upheaval and antidisestablishmentarian politic.
Like the soundscape that wafts in from the streets, they carry echoes of lost music, giving reason to a “strange anticipation” in A’s weary body. Together they are the song of a city greeting the new century. Later A stands before a movie theater, and in that moment realizes that his daughter’s collage is like the cinematic pantheon of which he is but a lost builder.
“For me there is no return. My destiny takes me somewhere else,” says Eleni to Jacob. She tells him to let her go, that no matter what happened between them she is someone else’s. Yet Jacob yearns for that return and finds its simulacrum decades later when Eleni and Spyros surprise A with a homecoming. It rings strangely hollow, however, and Jacob arrives in the hopes of reigniting what once so fleetingly was. (In a brief encounter, A admits to him, “I’m constantly traveling. Sometimes I don’t even know where I am.”) Jacob bears his soul to Eleni, invites her to touch the images burned into his mind. The trauma wells up in him. He raises his voice, as if he were onstage. He makes of life a theatre, replays scenes like an obsessed director.
Only with this emotional breach does A gain access to his mother’s youth, finding her in the mist in violent embrace. The camera revolves around them, as would a planet around a sun.
The final blow for him comes when his daughter threatens to end her life. In the presence of vagabonds and police, she gives in to her grandmother’s pleading, unlike Jacob who thereafter implores an invisible God before throwing himself into a river.
In the wake of these tribulations, A shares a ghostly moment, reflected on a passing car that bisects a line of eye contact with his ex-wife, Helga (Christiane Paul).
As Eleni falls ill, her hand drips with water.
At her deathbed, a great wind floods the room with the exhalations of an impending storm.
“Eleni, wake up,” says Spyro. “I’m coming to get you.” He reaches for her.
The girl takes his hand instead. It also drips.
Here is where the film manifests a third level: the pliant corridor of death along which our feet will all someday tread. For as young Eleni and her grandfather step out of the window into the falling snow, we feel in their traversal of logical space an openness of reason. Hand in hand, they run through the streets, deserted like the universe.
One can hardly discuss this film without noting Angelopoulos’s preference for back shots. Each portraits its respective character more insightfully than any close-up, and in the end shuffles our recollections until they unify.
A particularly moving example, however, is mother Eleni’s hair floating in the mist of her impossible reunion with A.
She is creation incarnate, the bringer of tears where only there is desert. But what is a desert without its sky? That is where the music comes in.
Dust of Time
Sergiu Nastasa violin
Renato Ripo violoncello
Maria Bildea harp
Vangelis Christopoulos oboe
Spyros Kazianis bassoon
Antonis Lagos french horn
Dinos Hadjiiordanou accordion
Eleni Karaindrou piano
Camerata – Friends of Music Orchestra
Natalia Michailidou piano
Hellenic Radio Television Orchestra
Alexandros Myrat conductor
Recorded January (tracks 9 and 15) & March 2008 at Megaron, Athens, Greece
Edited and mixed July 2008
Perhaps more than in any other film, Eleni Karaindrou’s score for Dust of Time wavers in the shadows. “To write the music I had to look for the film’s secret codes,” says Angelopoulos’s trusted composer, “I had to bring the essence of things to the surface and shed intense light on the sound colors underlining the timelessness of nostalgia.” This time the instrumental colors are most intimate, honed to evocative perfection by violinist Sergiu Nastasa, cellist Renato Ripo, and harpist Maria Bildea. Hailing from Romania and Albania, this trio brings its own traditions and nuances to a permeable set of motives. Of these, the “Dance Theme” and its variations figure centrally in both film and soundtrack. It is the music we hear in the pivotal rehearsal scene, homage to Karaindrou’s voicing and intuitive matching. “Waltz by the River” crystallizes the theme’s core values, adding accordionist Dinos Hadjiiordanou into the watercolor mix. As in so many of Angelopoulous’s films, dance animates the passage of time, the degradation of history, and the preservation of memory. Karaindrou’s attention to every movement wipes clean emotional dumping grounds for tragic pasts, purges war-ravaged biographies of their blood in single strokes.
Because the soundtrack’s 45 minutes were culled from over 100 minutes of music, what we encounter is a powerful skeleton. Between the harp and violin duet of “Le Temps Perdu” and the concluding oceanic currents of “Adieu,” Karaindrou figures the power of the melody with as much tact as her arrangements thereof. Along the way, threads unravel to reveal the tumult of wandering and exile in “Seeking,” while passages like “Solitude” speak in monosyllables of enchantment.
Dreams are not beyond us. They return. Like the old reels of A’s interest, they hold their images until the light of waking passes through them anew. Every picture, every note on a staff, is a voyage waiting to begin.
“Open always, always watching, the eyes of my soul.”
An ancient city, lost beneath the ocean. The stuff of history. Time, a young voice tells us, is “a child playing jacks on the beach.” A piano wafts through the image like a breeze carrying scents and sounds of retrospection—the film’s leitmotif. Here the past functions not as a repository for memory but as a palimpsest for a mind still practicing. It is the mind of Alexander (Bruno Ganz), an aging poet whose dark trench coat cuts a crow’s wing against director Theo Angelopoulos’s wintry palette. A slow approach to a window guides us to the film’s title by way of Alexander’s boyhood. The camera follows him as if through a ghost’s eyes.
When we first encounter Alexander as he is now, he holds a taste of the sea in his mouth…
…and clutches his throat as if breathing were a labor. This momentary inability to get words out is both curse and blessing: an obvious malady for a man of letters, but also a release from the world’s imploration to dress its dreariness in pretty semantics.
The sea follows Alexander. It is the tail of the dying comet that is his life. His dog looks toward that same sea, a place where music and memory are engaged in dance. A terminal diagnosis looms over him (his constant pill-popping brings rhythm to the narrative), mist over a landscape of uneven hills. He feels silence encroaching and fills it with regrets of unfinished work, of “words scattered here and there.”
Alexander welcomes a boy (Achileas Skevis)—an Albanian vagrant washing windows at stoplights for petty cash—into his car. His whim begins a final poem, a magnum opus borne of action and sacrifice that can never manifest as ink and paper but rather unspools across light and film. Yet while this charity saves the boy from capture by police and gives us the film’s first smile, it comes at the cost of ignoring the other boys into whose meager routine of survival he had fallen.
Alexander knows the ripple effect of his actions. He feels the churning waters of time as a swallowing force. Its life-giving properties are so far removed from the here and now that it is all he can do to plunge his feet into the mud of recollection. After spending a lifetime waiting for progress, he will spend another waiting for regress. Angelopoulos’s title does not compare eternity and a day, but equates them.
As Alexander prepares to leave his everyday existence and spend his remaining days in convalescence, he brings the dog to his daughter, Katerina (Iris Chatziantoniou). The contrast between her upscale apartment and her utter yearning for a transparent ancestry are but surface to the inner sanctum of her father’s raw linguistic materials. She displays her anxieties among the art objects of her living room, where a wall catches the circumference of a projected clock. As the film’s symbol par excellence, it hovers like a dedication page torn from its binding and pasted where a window might be. In this manner Katerina turns her glitches into quantifiable space.
During this visit we learn that Alexander is completing an unfinished 19th-century epic by Dyonisios Solomos. “The Free Beseiged,” as it is known, is mired in the Greek War of Independence, from which it draws blood to fill its pen. Alexander has been working on the project since the death of his wife, Anna (Isabelle Renauld), who comes to us in flashbacks. And while Katerina may not understand why her father would ever wish to graft his words onto another’s, she flows through him like the returning sea when he gives her letters written in her mother’s hand. Through her reading, Alexander is read anew, revitalized as if by the boy whose fate he has influenced.
The sea is a trance, pillow of scent-filled houses. Sleep and silence cohabit its ever-changing shoreline. Through her daughter’s voice, a resurrected Anna links newfound maternity with love, safety, and breath. The vulnerability of her body engenders absolute trust in, and safety for, her blossoming child. For Katerina is indeed a flower, the center of a family gathering in the sunlit prime of a warmer era. Even in life, Anna was constantly on the verge of dissolving, a wanderer in love. Alexander is moved beyond comfort, for he knows that his dissolution will bring him closer.
Like all reveries, this one is all the more poignant for its brevity and it is Katerina’s husband who breaks its spell. Put off by the presence of what in his eyes can be nothing more than a haggard vagabond, he tells Alexander he has sold the old house by the sea—the very house where Katerina tumbled into maturity—and that it will be demolished. He also takes unkindly to animals and questions any obligation to welcome the dog into his home.
The streets, paved in articulate indifference, keep Alexander in check. They are the insignia of a publisher far grander than anything he can contemplate with his ties to speech. In opening himself to a stranger, Alexander realizes he has found in the boy a beacon—not of hope, but of evenness. This balance is upset when he witnesses the boy being thrown into the back of a cargo truck.
He follows the vehicle to a shady warehouse where other urchins have been plucked from their rocks and are being sold into an invisible market. The boys, however, are wise to this and make a run for it in a ballet of quick thinking and broken glass.
In the ensuing chaos, Alexander saves the boy of his interest, giving all the money on his person in exchange. He puts the boy on a bus going toward the Albanian border, both in the hopes of losing him before he loses himself and in the hopes that there might be a home to return to.
The boy comes back to Alexander, having found a home in presence of the bearded stranger. He sings a children’s song from his homeland, tells Alexander of crossing the border, thereby revealing a likeminded fixation on language. Alexander takes him to the border, but they run when the boy tells him he has no one.
Alexander tells him the story of the poet Solomos (Fabrizio Bentivoglio), Greek but raised in Italy, who returned to his homeland when he heard the Greeks were rising against the Ottomans. He does not speak the language, and so he buys words from the locals. Across a night “sown with magic” he travels, reaching deep into his reservoir of sentiments to produce the “Hymn to Liberty.” It remains a significant verse for Alexander, a bid for freedom from language, through language.
In the end, he entrusts the dog to his housekeeper, Urania (Helene Gerasimidou), interrupting her son’s wedding to do so. Spectators hanging from the gates mirror those at the border, each a living puppet frozen in the wake of a changing tide.
This leaves the boy, Alexander’s only link, his only mirror. “You’re smiling, but I know you’re sad,” the boy tells him. Such contradictions—in the end, not really contradictions at all—are essential to Angelopoulos’s cinematic world, a world where light and dark are so permeable as to be unquestionable. For while Alexander’s cape is the shadow of his deteriorating self, of a body blurring into lifelessness, it is also a flag whose communication harnesses wind like a sail.
He is a man devoid of contact, yet who is touched by humanity; a man in self-imposed exile, yet who knows the landscape as if it were his own; a man known for words, yet who pays for them with emotional currency. The boy wants to say goodbye, but Alexander convinces him to stay, will not accept that his hand may bring about another end.
Thus the camera looks beyond the curtain into the reflecting pool of the human condition.
His films are unfinished, stitched yet tattered. In allowing their seams the privilege of coming undone, he delivers messages devoid of hyperbole. The zoom, for example, sheds its derivative qualities in such a context, seeking not to focus our attention so much as to remind us of limitations. As in the films of Andrei Tarkovsky, the occasional close-up shocks with its candor, reaches into the pit of our complacency and stirs up the love we have forgotten. When Alexander turns his back on us, he turns his back on the world.
Composer Eleni Karaindrou has her finger so firmly on the pulse of Angelopoulos’s ethos that her flesh has melded with his images. Yet there is something more than the combination of sight and sound going on in Eternity and a Day, for this more than any other film she has soundtracked is an ode also to time.
Eternity and a Day
Vangelis Christopoulos oboe
Nikos Guinos clarinet
Manthos Halkias clarinet
Spyros Kazianis bassoon
Vangelis Skouras french horn
Aris Dimitriadis mandolin
Iraklis Vavatsikas accordion
Eleni Karaindrou piano
String Orchestra La Camerata Athens
Loukas Krytinos director
Recorded March and April 1998, Athens Concert Hall
Engineer: Andreas Mantopoulos and Christos Hadjistamou
Produced by Manfred Eicher
The title of the first piece, “Hearing the Time,” would seem to say as much: just as Angelopoulos puts an eye to lens, so too Karaindrou puts an ear to history. She draws thick yet airy wool over our eyes, that we might view the world through the blur of fibrous experience. Over an expanse of archival strings we hear a distant relay between violin and accordion. These punctuations are not ruptures but voices from below. The composer at the keyboard elicits “By the Sea,” a humid snapshot that segues us into the mandolin accents and silken oboe line of the “Eternity Theme.” As Beethovenian cellos churn, we think back to its corresponding scene in the film, in which we find Alexander listening to this very music on the radio. He shuts off his mechanical translator and looks out across to the other apartment complex, where the same music flows from another window. “Lately” he muses, “my only contact with the world is this stranger opposite who answers me with the same music.” Perhaps true to character, he decides against pursuing this fascination: “It’s better not to know…and imagine.”
And imagine is all we can do when taking this soundtrack on its own terms. The theme echoes throughout its architecture, inflected differently by each soloist. A bassoon evokes tears colored by fate, while clarinets drip from the great beyond with tastes of once-forgotten joy. A traditional wedding dance fills the air with bright steps, contrasting almost painfully with the solitude of “Bus,” and lends relative sanctity to Ganz’s recitation in “The Poet.” Yet it is in a little piece called “Borders” that the fluidity of his embodiment is clearest. Through it we realize that harmony needs change.
Like the film itself, the score of Eternity and a Day creates a somewhere far removed from its content yet which is equally cinematic. It is a looking glass unto itself, a kaleidoscope named “then.”
Andrey Dergatchev music
Recorded in Moscow
Mixing: Sergey Bolshakov at NGSU, Moscow
Boys. Locked in a tower without walls. Only way out is to jump, trailing naïve ribbons into ocean. Ivan fears for his life before it has begun, cringes, holds himself like an idol of sadness. His mother, afraid, finds among the clouds. Ivan insists, I jump, but doesn’t move. Coward. Pig. These, the insults that follow him down the ladder.
Brothers. Ivan to Andrei, younger to older. Ivan’s friends have turned on their axes. Andrei chases him through a blur of stone and shame. The specter of toughness looms, foggy and ephemeral. Home awaits, harboring an unexpected guest. Their father has emerged from the past, haggard and silent. His photograph rests in a book of Christian violence, smiling a scythe of absence. The consuming patriarch eats first, drinks first, speaks last. Andrei fills his plate. Ivan leaves his dry. A promise, a trip, the car a horizontal escape. Andrei’s eyes widen at the man’s strength. In the mother’s heart, a diary. Her pen now still, she writes lies of valor onto her sons’ pages.
Desolation. Bent telephone poles. Endless road. Curiosity in Ivan’s eyes. This man is not “Dad,” only the skeleton of one. Armed with a camera, Andrei shoots his brother through with holes. In town, the food is as scarce as the people. Father takes refuge in his rearview mirror, where a onetime stare flicks its tongue against his stubble. Ivan will not touch his fork. A thief, an opportunity to prove themselves. “You’ve got no fists.” On the pier, he trades secrets and wind. They camp, fish the waters of their stoic reunion, dreaming of somewhere far away. This man is not real.
Drive. Splash of pastoral color bleeds like a wound. Ivan abandoned, alone with his rods and tackle in a downpour. “Why did you come back?” he cries. “You don’t need us.” Father is a survivor. He hits Andrei.
Crossing. Tarred boat, passage of joy. Engine dies, elbows worked to the fulcrum. On the shore, by the fire, the man is downtrodden. Ivan: “If he touches me again, I’ll kill him.”
Anger. Ivan steals a knife, conceals it as they explore the terrain. Another tower. Father unearths a box, conceals it in their boat. Another hit to Andrei’s face. And another. Ivan wields the blade but cannot follow through. He climbs the tower, threatening to jump. Father falls to his death trying to reach him. They drag his body to the boat on a bed of branches. His body floats from shore, sinks along with the box into the blackness. Ivan’s obstinacy is Andrei’s fear. Ivan takes out the picture, from which the father is now absent. They drive off. Andrei’s camera gives up its ghosts.
Director Andrey Zvyagintsev has left us these pictures. With them, Andrey Dergatchev has left us their voices. More than incidental, his soundtrack relives the film as might a photograph relive a sunset. The mix is corroded as much as it is innocent, every image a feature of Ivan’s despair. It begins where the film ends: underwater. An old man sings, drawing threads of a past that only he may know, and weaves from them the very doll of memory that resides within the father’s box, a kiss lost to winds that blow like wicker brooms across a porch. Whispers of derision in sibling rivalry paint us along the hallway, catching sight of ghosts in the walls and ceiling shadows, for in the bedroom is where truths are spoken. Georgian folk songs glaze a thorn-patch of ambient sounds. These begin to surround us, as if we were locked inside a car flying through the trees. Ice and rain: each tells stories of its conversion into the other. We feel the swell of that forgotten childhood and the bond it was denied.
Sounds of insects. The title music opens its eyes half way. A tender enchantment, puff of dandelion through the inner ear, a place so deep that we hardly feel its electronic blips. Sons speak. Words create disturbances, reinforcing an absence whose return brings further silence. Arpeggios thread the cries of gulls that give them relief. Unlike them, Mozart’s Requiem spreads a wing in between acts, but never flies, melting instead behind a layer of silver water. Someone whispers and bids the cells to dance, finding that somewhere in the piano there may be hope stored like history. A skipping record, touched by the needle of the soul and swung around the filament of the credit roll, seeks familiar pathos in the final rainfall, rotting the boat that brought us here.
And, if the soul is about to know itself, it must gaze into the soul.
–Plato, Alcibiades 133b
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
(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.”
Featuring the music and voices of:
But I wanted this to be a narrative. I still do. Nothing from outside to distract memory. I barely hear, from time to time, the earth softly creaking, one ripple beneath the surface. I am content with the shade of a single poplar, tall behind me in its mourning.
In every Godard film, there are moments in which chaos reigns. Ambient sounds replace human voices. Animals, especially dogs and crows, always seem to have something to add. The mechanical world becomes part of the conversation. These intersections of sound and darkness, of silence and light, underscore our social inequities and nothing more. They pass without judgment, suddenly swallowed whole by accidents and unarticulated pain. Yet it is in precisely these gnarled irregularities that the larger construction of life, and this film depicting it, is betrayed. There is no order beyond choice, no means for permanence in a world so finitely recreated. The film gives illusory clout to its own staying power and falls flat against the screen long before its depth can be realized.
As a soundtrack, Nouvelle Vague is a rich experience, made all the more so if one has seen the film and has its images in mind. An earlier companion piece to the vastly significant Histoire(s) du cinema, this is the complete aural map of Godard’s multi-sensory essay. Like the soundtrack to Histoire(s), it brings to light not only the film’s interior but also its exterior nuances, probing its topography, if you will, with a practiced hand. This is strictly a descriptive engagement. As spoken voices fade in and out of a painterly mélange of musical selections, ECM and otherwise, our ears (and our eyes) spin the one continual thread holding it all together. The musics of Dino Saluzzi and David Darling figure most heavily in Nouvelle Vague and inform much of its dialectic edge. They are placed among, and in place of, dialogue, adding to a mounting intellectual cacophony. Darling’s cello merges with a beeping car horn and screeching tires, Hindemith graces the inside of every mask donned by the film’s characters, and voices cry out like solo instruments against a larger orchestral palette. Godard’s familiar splashing water also makes its requisite cameo. Yet it is Saluzzi’s bandoneón that provides some of the more understatedly dramatic moments. Its tearful, bellowed cry is as recognizable as the rhythms of the filmmaker using it, and ends the text on a stark note as a car speeds away in a swirl of filmic dust.
With this release, ECM redefined what a soundtrack can be: something that literally “tracks sound,” marking every stage of a narrative with its most fleeting aspects. Diegetic distinctions are arbitrary in Godard’s world. Sound is image is sound. Our own mental pictures are no less substantial than those captured on film, for captured is precisely what they are. Nouvelle Vague invites us to let the visual world unfurl—not through the sound, but as the sound itself.
Histoire(s) du cinéma
As one of the world’s most distinctive and important filmmakers, Jean-Luc Godard has not only an amazing eye for images, but also an astute ear for sounds. I first encountered the work of Godard in the singular experience that is Je vous salue, Marie (1985). Having now seen the film dozens of times (it remains one of my most cherished), aside from its unflinching tongue-in-cheek narrative, intimate atmospheres, and visual parallels I am always struck by the film’s innovative deployment of sound. Godard’s splicing of the Dvořák Cello Concerto simply makes sense. Like a rapid-fire commentator, he throws in descriptive snippets wherever and whenever appropriate, never afraid to cut them off at their most soaring moments. This technique has continued to dominate his subsequent work, and nowhere is it more fully realized than in his Histoire(s) du cinéma. What separates Histoire(s) from its predecessors and followers alike is an unequivocal sense of time and image. It is far more than a developmental exposé of the art form, twisting itself as it does into an utterly personal Möbius strip. With his characteristic rough-hewn grace Godard skirts the line between the sacred and the profane, holding a floodlight behind every palimpsestial theme to reveal the ravages of sight and the idolatry of retrospection.
After seeing Godard’s Histoire(s) I felt my view of the imagistic world forever changed; not because what he was doing was particularly revolutionary, but because it was so honest. Whatever one may think of Godard, one can hardly fault him for laying himself bare in every project he takes on. Histoire(s) is so unabashedly mitigated that it becomes translucent.
The ECM enthusiast will already know Godard, whether having seen his films or not, through the occasional visual borrowings manifest in a representative spread of album covers (Voci, Trivium, and Asturiana, to name a few). Regardless, the stereophonic intertextuality of Histoire(s) is obvious. More than just a thoughtfully arranged ECM greatest hits album, this complete soundtrack slithers through a provocative obstacle course sculpted and collaged from a vast archive.
Godard hammers his thoughts into the ether with his automatic typewriter, and its steady rhythm provides a pedal point to Chapter One as he calmly sketches the divisive nature of cinema, upholding its founders while reviling its abusers. Cinema was forged in black and white, he asserts: that is, in the colors of mourning. This is not to say that film was already dead the moment it was born (even if it was never alive to begin with), but that it has always been interested in that which is lifeless. Indeed, Godard believes the only two viable stories of the cinema since its inception have been sex and death.
“that which has passed through cinema
and been marked by it
can no longer get in anywhere else”
The sounds represented on this collection, slip-cased in minimal beauty, are as much something to behold as they are to be held. We may read the words, flipping through their corresponding pages with the careful patience of a novice, and yet we can never disassociate their orality from the visual cultures they describe. The cinema has already taken shelter in our heads by the time its music finds us. Godard is more literary than literal, undermining our wonder for celluloid in favor of the patchwork that is its constructedness.
“if George Stevens hadn’t been first to use
the first sixteen millimetre colour film
at Auschwitz and Ravensbrück
there’s no doubt that
Elizabeth Taylor’s air of wellbeing
would never have found a place in the sun”
By no means is Godard drawing a direct correlation here, luring the nascent viewer with the smoldering promise of self-destruction. Elizabeth Taylor flickers with all the iconicity of a votive candle, unspooling from her reel with a single expulsion of breath. She cannot last like death, and yet that is precisely the dichotomy we fervently hold dear. The march of cinema is a march of faces, each one more clearly disassociated from its body than the last, and serves to ritualize the art of viewing to the point of absurdity.
“technicians will tell you
it’s not true
but it’s worth remembering
that the nineteenth century
which invented all the technologies
also invented stupidity”
Such pronouncements remind us of our own complicity in the ethical vacuum of the cinematic enterprise. In the same way that every film is edited, so too do we clip our lives and adhere them back together in a series of lies and convenient elisions. That being said, I see no reason to believe that Godard is trying to be antagonistic. He is certainly not on a mission to open our eyes, for clearly they are already observing his work in tandem with its message. Rather, he seems to desire nothing but the recording of his desire. He doesn’t make films to be seen, but makes films to be read. With his hands hidden, revealed only by their periodic contact with an ever-present cigar, Godard is able to reform himself with the deceptive real time of his narration.
Chapter Two draws an implicit parallel between the development of recorded sound and recorded imagery. While the former preceded the latter, the two would require decades to synchronize. Godard is perhaps addressing the cinematic turn to melodrama, all the while lamenting over his slumber within, and painful awakening into, the whirlwind of moving-picture production. In human grasp, such a marriage is unavoidable and inviolably tethered to defaulted outlets of mass entertainment.
“to me, big history
is the history of cinema
it’s bigger than the others
because it’s projected”
In this sense, history is not the token of its own achievement, but the extant scar welted from centuries of picking and contortion. The master narrative in which we are schooled turns out to be nothing more than a flat image—there is none of the dimensionality we so readily accepted in our youth.
Time cannot be the sustenance of reason.
Chapter Three is a measured attack on the atrocities of European conflict. It is a scathing about-face related in a half-whisper, caressing the facts with self-reflexive pauses and audible punctuation. Politics ooze into a diatribe on the nature of their unraveling. The traversed border becomes the broken sentence, spilling its meaning like an inkblot across the map. Godard’s musical selections here are especially attuned to his subject matter, mimicking the mass media effect upon history: the dramatization of tragedy via the juxtaposition of graphics and sound bytes. It is the mise-en-scène of everyday life splashed against a backdrop formatted to fit our television screens. Our feelings are led down the aisle, wedded as we are to the didactic interpretations spun for our supposed protection, only to realize too late that the moving image is, at heart, motionless. If we accept Godard’s famous idiom that film is “truth 24 times a second” and that “every cut is a lie,” then the only way we can accept the truth of film is to package it in a lie. The editing room becomes the kill floor.
Chapter Four presents us with a critique of individualism through a visually marked conception of time. The filmic medium is no longer just a tool, but a way of life, a means of extending the reach of oneself beyond the world as one knows it.
“Alfred Hitchcock succeeded
where Alexander, Julius Caesar, Hitler, and Napoleon
had all failed
by taking control of the universe”
Cinema is not the key to conquest, but is one way in which we can visualize conquest and thus ensure its permanence. It allows us the luxury of repetition, the illusory mastery of time. And if the only mediation between an audience and the event depicted is the film itself, then the director has essentially offered him- or herself as a living replacement of the cause, in effect of the forces of nature.
“perhaps there are ten thousand people
who haven’t forgotten Cézanne’s apple
but there must be a billion spectators
who will remember the lighter
of the stranger on the train”
Although film, in Godard’s estimation, evolved out of painting, it has also destroyed the highly wrought image with the illusion of movement. Suddenly we can relate, seeing connective tissue where it had atrophied before. Like the film noir detective, we flit in and out of shadow—in and out of existence—as much in life as on screen. And so, whereas the museum piece reminds us of our transience by visually foregrounding an object that will outlive us, at least in cinema we find a kindred spirit willing to share in our self-deception to the point of death. Yet its indifference keeps us coming back for more:
“the cinema doesn’t cry
it doesn’t comfort us
since it is with us
since it is us”
Godard’s video essay is polyglottal and non-linear, a watershed composition for and of the twentieth century. Listening to the film on CD, however, I find that it speaks more directly. While the accompanying stills allow me to reenact the full experience as I see fit, I almost find them distracting when approaching Histoire(s) as a purely audio experience (assuming this is even possible). Godard’s voice becomes one of many, stripped of its paternalism through the concrete approach of his pastiche. We are implicated, imbricated, and insulated at every moment. Histoire(s) is inescapable. And yet, we can never be its prisoners, for the cage is honed in our very flesh.