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)

Jean-Luc Godard: Nouvelle Vague (ECM New Series 1600/01)

Jean-Luc Godard
Nouvelle Vague

Featuring the music and voices of:
Dino Saluzzi
David Darling
Patti Smith
Jean Schwartz
Werner Pirchner
Paul Hindemith
Heinz Holliger
Paul Giger
Arnold Schoenberg
Gabriella Ferri
Alain Delon
Domiziana Giordano
Roland Amstutz
Laurence Cote
Jacques Dacqmine
Christophe Odent
Laurence Guerre
Joseph Lisbona

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.

Harald Bergmann: Scardanelli (ECM New Series 1761)

Harald Bergmann

Harald Bergmann Buch und Regie
Walter Schmidinger Sprecher

Scardanelli André Wilms
Ernst Zimmer Udo Kroschwald
Lotte Zimmer Geno Lechner
Waiblinger Baki Davrak
Schwab Jürgen Lehmann
Räuber Rainer Sellien
Marie Nathusius Amalie Bizer
Wurm Raimund Groß
Die Maske John Chambers
Dr. Gmelin Günther Weinmann
Tischlergeselle Gottfried Pipping
Zeuge Schwab Heinz E. Hirscher
Zeuge Waiblinger Ernst Specht
Zeugin Lotte Zimmer Gertrud Fritz
Zeugin Marie Nathusius Elisabeth Scheib
Sammler Wolfgang Rin
Erzähler 1 Hans Treichler
Erzähler 2 Egon Schäfer
Gedichte gesprochen von Walter Schmidinger
Recorded 1997-1998

“Yes, the poems are mine, I wrote them, but this name is a fake. I’ve never called myself Hölderlin, but Scardanelli!”
–F. Hölderlin

German filmmaker Harald Bergmann was born in 1963 in the town of Celle in Lower Saxony, and studied film in Hamburg and Los Angeles. With the exception of his latest film, all of Bergmann’s major work has been dedicated to the life and words of Scardanelli, better known as Friedrich Hölderlin. After the more experimental Lyrische Suite/Das untergehende Vaterland (1992) and Hölderlin-Comics (1994), which chart the poet’s childhood and early adulthood, Bergmann turned to the later years with Scardanelli (2000) to complete his Hölderlin trilogy. This last film explores Hölderlin’s declining mental state under the care of carpenter Ernst Zimmer, and takes great care to reconstruct the latter half of his life solely from extant witness accounts. For 36 years Hölderlin was holed up in Zimmer’s tower in Tübingen overlooking the Neckar River, where he spent his days at piano and paper, producing on both a continual stream of verses, sounds, and images, and it is precisely this creative sustenance the film seeks to capture. Hence the production of this CD, which selectively documents the film’s spoken and non-diegetic soundtracks. Moments of private insanity intermingle with dramatic readings of poetry against a backdrop of music by Mozart, Bach, Schubert, and scorer Peter Schneider. The result is a self-styled “audio book” by which Bergmann pays homage to his eponymous muse. The German-only booklet and dialogue means this album will have a limited audience, and those who don’t speak the language may wish to turn to ECM’s fine recording of the Scardanelli-Zyklus by Heinz Holliger in order to gain a deeper insight into the influential effects of one of Germany’s greatest literary minds.

Eleni Karaindrou: Elegy of the Uprooting (ECM New Series 5506 & 1952/53)

Eleni Karaindrou
Elegy of the Uprooting

Maria Farantouri voice
Vangelis Christopoulos oboe
Socratis Sinopoulos Constantinople lyra, laouto
Maria Bildea harp
Konstantinos Raptis bayan
Sergiu Nastasa violin
Renato Ripo violoncello
Stella Gadedi flute
Nikos Guinos clarinet
Sopcratis Anthis trumpet
Spyros Kazianis bassoon
Vangelis Skouras French horn
Aris Dimitriadis mandolin
Christos Tsiamoulis ney
Panos Dimitrakopoulos kanonaki
Andreas Katsiyiannis santouri
Andreas Papas bendir, daouli
Eleni Karaindrou piano
Hellenic Radio and Television Choir
Antonis Kontogeorgiou choirmaster
Camerata Orchestra
Alexandros Myrat conductor
Recorded live March 27, 2005 at Megaron (Hall of the Friends of Music), Athens
Engineers: Nikos Espialidis, Andreas Mandopoulos, and Bobby Blazoudakis
Produced by Manfred Eicher

“What am I, if not a collector of vanished gazes?”
–Theo Angelopoulos, Ulysses’ Gaze

Elegy of the Uprooting condenses two decades of work by Eleni Karaindrou into what the Greek composer calls a “scenic cantata.” This is no mere retrospective, but a gravid musical statement in which the listener’s soul is carefully unfolded to reveal the sounds hidden within. Excerpting 13 scores for film and stage, this concert pulls out the red threads running through Karaindrou’s non-diegetic oeuvre with stunning video and audio clarity.

Of the 110 musicians seen in this live DVD—including an orchestra, chorus, and ensemble of traditional instruments—many of the soloists have been working with Karaindrou for many years, and their dedication shows. Of note are…

Vangelis Christopoulos on oboe:

Socratis Sinopoulos on the Constantinople lyra/Maria Bildea on harp:

Konstantinos Raptis on the bayan:

Vangelis Skouras on French horn:

Aris Dimitriadis on mandolin:

Panos Dimitrakopoulos on kanonaki/Christos Tsiamoulis on ney:

and the composer herself at the piano:

Much of the music will be familiar to ECM enthusiasts: Ulysses’ Gaze, The Suspended Step of the Stork, Eternity and a Day, The Weeping Meadow, and Euripedes Trojan Women feature heavily in this wide-ranging program, with the latter two in particular providing a larger thematic framework. Lesser known works such as the stunning Rosa’s Aria—from the film by Christoforos Christofis and reinterpreted here with total corporeal commitment by the legendary Maria Farantouri—should excite veteran and new listeners alike.

The staging was overseen by Manfred Eicher and is accordingly minimal. A large screen behind the musicians displays artfully arranged stills and clips from Angelopoulos’s films, as well as some computer generated imagery of swaying reeds, falling rain, and shooting flames.

It’s a joy and a privilege to see such a synergistic group of musicians banding together to share such doleful beauty, and to see the physical process of it all, the sheer assembly of talent and logistics required in putting together such a performance.

In all this rhetoric lately of carbon footprints and the detrimental impact of human activity on the physical environment, it’s easy to forget that our creativity often leaves the most “eco-friendly” impressions. Karaindrou has created for the world a statement without tangible shape, a visceral wave of melancholy into which we may project a semblance of ourselves. Like the water that figures so prominently in Angelopoulos’s films, her music ebbs and flows in spite of our foibles.

Elegy of the Uprooting is also available in this 2-CD set. I highly recommend both, for each is its own experience.