Capra and Cassavetes



‘Frank Capra… in my estimation is the greatest of all American directors, a man so beautiful, so forgiving, so democratic, so damned talented, so full of life and energy that his films patrol the imagination of America today’. John Cassavetes

As you settle down this Christmas to watch Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life, remember that you are not watching a sentimental or light-hearted film, but a film about a desperate man, George Bailey, in irreconcilable conflict with the full range of social, bureaucratic and discursive conventions conspiring to thwart his hopes for self-expression and self-realisation; a film which depicts a ‘wild-eyed’ dreamer relentlessly frustrated and disappointed, who goes from one crisis to the next, suffers one wound after another, until his sense of defeat and estrangement is so great that he wants to kill himself.

This, at least, is the interpretation of It’s a Wonderful Life provided by Raymond Carney in his book, American Visions: The Films of Frank Capra, which touts Capra as a ‘poet of suffering and tragedy’ and aims to rescue his films – which include other classics such as American Madness, Forbidden, The Bitter Tea of General Yen, Ladies of Leisure, Lost Horizon, It Happened One Night, Mr Smith Goes to Washington, Mr Deeds Goes to Town and Meet John Doe – from accusations of ‘sentimentality’ ‘corn’ and fatuous celebrations of the American Dream, and establish him in a tradition of artists – such as Ralph Waldo Emerson, Edgar Allan Poe, William James, Edward Hopper and John Cassavetes – who examine the conflict between what American society offers and what it delivers, the gap between imagination and reality in which alienation exists, who are advocates for the man or woman who dares to dream or desires too much, and defenders of the visionary individual battling against systems, ideologies and cultures out to repress, control or crush passionate impulses and creative energies.

The phone scene (in the above video) gives a good idea of the almost unbearable emotional strain and tension that Capra makes George Bailey endure in It’s a Wonderful Life, the turmoil and suffering that permeate the film and which not even the film’s notoriously ‘happy ending’ can heal.

Indeed, in relation to the ending, Carney says that even though George doesn’t commit suicide and seems to have found renewed reason to live thanks to the love of his family and friends, he has gone through too much to be so easily redeemed or reintegrated into society.

‘Capra wants us to know that George Bailey's life is wonderful – not because his neighbors bail him out with a charity sing-along, and certainly not because of the damnation of his life with the faint praise embodied in Clarence [his guardian angel's] slogan, "No man is a failure who has friends," but because he has seen and suffered more, and more deeply and wonderfully, than any other character in the film.

‘This Cinderella, unlike the one in the fairy tale… is returned to the hearth… [but] with no future possibility of escape and with only the consciousness of what has just been lived through in the preceding dark night of the soul as consolation – [although] that, Capra argues, is enough. The adventure of consciousness that George has lived through in dreamland is greater than any of the romantic adventures he has talked about going on – but it is at the same time only an adventure of consciousness.’

Val Lewton's horror films



Above is the opening sequence from Isle of the Dead, one of the nine extraordinary horror films made by Val Lewton (Vladimir Ivan Leventon) in the 1940s. The best of the nine are Cat People, I Walked with a Zombie and Seventh Victim. Lewton, a Russian émigré, was fascinated by Slavic and Greek supernatural folklore, which informed many of his films. In Cat People, the tragic heroine is Irena Dubrovna, who is convinced she is from a tribe of devil worshippers in Serbia; while in Isle of the Dead, the action is set in Greece during the Balkan wars and involves the obsessively austere, tyrannical, hubristic General Nikolas Pherides (played by Boris Karloff) preventing a group of travellers from leaving a small island hit by septicemic plague, which Pherides fears will reach his troops on the mainland. As Pherides' stringent measures to contain the plague fail and his charges die one by one, the general loses his mind and begins to persecute a beautiful young woman, Thea, who he believes is responsible for the deaths, asserting she is a vrykolokas (vorvolakas), an undead creature that haunts the living world and murders and drinks the blood of its victims.

Isle of the Dead
isn't the best in the Lewton series – Seventh Victim is his masterpiece, I believe – but it contains many of the doom-laden elements that characterise his films – loneliness, obsession, madness, the liminal state between life and death, catalepsy, premature burial, sexual desire, repression and repulsion, the potency of the supernatural and the irrational and, above all, the supremacy of thanatos.

g Read more about the vrykolokas in Greek folklore
here and here.

g You can watch Isle of the Dead in its entirety at youtube, where you can also see all of I Walked with a Zombie, Body Snatcher, Seventh Victim, Leopard Man, Ghost Ship and Bedlam.g The Greek island in the film is inspired by Pontikonissi, off Kerkyra, which Lewton visited and extensively photographed, having become mesmerised by the depiction of the island in Arnold Böcklin's painting Isle of the Dead.

The Mask of Dimitrios



I’ve been reading Harry Petrakis’ novel Nick the Greek, an interesting and entertaining piece of Greek-Americana which is about the greatest gambler of all time, Nick Dandolos, who originated from Rethymnon. Dandolos, apparently, won and lost millions, although Petrakis suggests that an authentic gambler isn’t motivated by money, but by an extreme form of philotimo, a fearless gesture informed by self-abnegation and, ultimately, self-destruction. There’s a good chapter in Nick the Greek in which Dandolos spends time in Paris gambling and womanising with a fellow Greek high-roller, a sympathetic portrait of the arms dealer, the original ‘merchant of death’, Basil Zaharoff (Vasileios Zacharias). Zaharoff is supposed to have provided the inspiration for the character of Dimitrios Makropoulos in Eric Ambler’s brilliant noir novel The Mask of Dimitrios (1939), which relates the obsessive quest by an English writer to trace the career of the Smyrniot Makropoulos, who is a thief, killer, spy, assassin, drug dealer, drug addict, white slave trader and all the rest, a quest that takes him on a journey through inter-war Turkey, Greece, Bulgaria, Yugoslavia and France. The book was made into a classic film noir in 1945, a clip from which is above.

Takeshi Kitano and Zeno's Paradox



I’ve been watching Takeshi Kitano’s recent film, Achilles and the Tortoise, which uses Zeno’s paradox of the same name as a metaphor for artistic and human failure. The film is an extraordinary combination of comedy, tragedy, pathos and so on, which in its depiction of frustrated desire and thwarted endeavour reminded me very much of Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life. Kitano has been a truly great artist for a long time, and Achilles and the Tortoise confirms that he is a man that remains at the height of his creative powers. My admiration for this genius knows no bounds.
The above clip is from the start of the film, which explains Zeno’s paradox of Achilles and the Tortoise while, just in case you thought the film is an animation or set in ancient Greece, the clip below is more illustrative of the film and one of its themes, which is the insane and self-destructive lengths people will go to for the sake of art and self-expression.

Dogtooth



I watched Kynodontas (Dogtooth) a couple of days ago, a surreal and disturbing Greek film about a husband and wife who have made prisoners of their three children in order to protect them from what the parents regard as the evil influences of society. Unusually for a Greek movie, Kynodontas received an international release and, in fact, was on here in London for five or six weeks. Watching the film, I found it shocking and hilarious at times but didn’t really like it – figuring the attention and acclaim it received was part of this trend that favours ‘extreme cinema’; however, watching again the scene above in which the children perform a dance to celebrate their parents’ wedding anniversary and thinking about the film a bit more it has definitely grown on me, although I’m still confused by it, not sure what it’s trying to get at and what’s supposed to be going on. Not necessarily a bad thing, I guess.

You can download the film from Pirate Bay here.

The death of Hypatia



I managed to catch the Anglo-Spanish film Agora and an enjoyable romp it is too. The film is set in fourth century Roman/Byzantine Alexandria and purports to tell the story of the legendary philosopher Hypatia – neoplatonist, proto-feminist, Enlightenment heroine, described by her admirers as the 'last of the Hellenes' and as having 'the mind of Plato and the body of Aphrodite', who was brutally murdered by a mob of Christians as the sect gained the upper hand over Greek religion and the Greek way of life.

Indeed, the film – no doubt to make a point about contemporary religious fanaticism – adopts wholesale the version of events that has Hypatia as a martyr for reason and philosophy, a victim of religious dogmatism and bigotry, and portrays the hateful Christians as a barbaric mob of class warriors and misogynists and Christianity as an ignorant, anti-Greek doctrine; but the crudeness of its legitimate message aside, the film is not bad at all.  

You can download it, if you know how, here, from piratebay.

Knifer



Yiannis Economides’ vision is of spiritual, moral and cultural destitution and degraded human relations but you’ll have to ask him if he’s making a point about contemporary Greek reality or whether he’s saying something about the state of European civilisation or civilisation generally and so on. Whatever, the Cypriot film-maker’s third release, Knifer (Μαχαιροβγάλτης) – above, in full, with English subtitles – is a brilliant and deeply uncomfortable film noir.

And if you can stand the Cyprus Mail and the not very bright interviewer, here is a piece in English on Economides, in which he describes himself as a ‘a peasant’ and ‘a bit of a punk’.

The Balcony



There is nothing more ridiculous than the nation – except, of course, when that nation is your own, in which case it is the repository of all that is virtuous and progressive. But when it comes to other nations, it is clear to us that their claims, myths, institutions and practises are absurd, embarrassing and pathetic. If they could see what we can see then they would be ashamed of themselves. Never mind. The absurdity of the nation is the theme of the hilarious excerpt above from the 1963 filmed version of Jean Genet’s play The Balcony, in which Peter Falk is the chief of police plotting from an S&M brothel to put down a rebellion that has broken out and restore ‘authority’. The play has been lauded for recapturing the spirit of Aristophanes and classical Athenian comedy.

El Greco

The film of the life of the great Cretan painter Dominikos Theotokopoulos, El Greco (2007), can be seen here.

It is, unfortunately, a bad film, unwatchable at times, poorly conceived and disastrously executed, one of those horrible international co-productions – Greek, British, Italian, Spanish, Hungarian – doomed to failure by its desire to appeal to the lowest common denominator, involving, worst of all, a fatal dose of cheap Hollywood values and, for some reason, largely spoken in English. Make a Greek film about Theotokopoulos or a Spanish film about El Greco, but don't try and be all things to all men.

Still, the scenes involving Titian are funny, I enjoyed the Cretan music and dancing, the filmmaker's love for Theotokopoulos and Crete is admirable and infectious, while the reproductions of Theotokopoulos’ work are stunning. They remind us what great art is and what it is for and give us the confidence and the right to reject the rubbish that constitutes the majority of contemporary art and the impostors posing as today’s artists.

A note on Nikos Kazantzakis and Theotokopoulos.
The ‘Greco’ in Kazantzakis’ Report to Greco is, of course, his fellow Cretan Theotokopoulos, while in his book on Spain, Kazantzakis describes Theotokopoulos as the ‘vehement taciturn Cretan’, whose ‘life had been strange, his words few and like the blows of an axe’ and who replied to the Inquisition in Toledo when it demanded to know why he was in Spain: ‘I do not have to give an account of myself to any man.’ Kazantzakis also quotes Theotokopoulos saying of Michelangelo: ‘A good man, but he didn’t know how to paint.’ Of Theotokopoulos’ spirit, Kazantzakis writes it was ‘pierced by light on the one side, pitch dark on the other; unapproachable, on the heights of endeavour, where, as the Byzantine mystic said, lies the starting point of divine madness.’

Needless to say, the kind of man Theotokopoulos was according to Kazantzakis is not the man depicted in the film – delicate, confused, emotional.

The painting above is The Death of Laocoon at Troy.
An extensive collection of Theotokopoulos’ paintings can be seen here.

'The Water Calls'



‘The water calls. It's a long time since anyone drowned.’
(Woyzeck)

In January, I wrote about Spirtokouto (Matchbox), an impressive first film from Yiannis Economides. Now, here, at Greek-Movies.com, it’s possible to watch the Cypriot filmmaker's second film, made in 2005, Η Ψυχή στο Στόμα (I Psychi sto Stoma – known in English as Soul Kicking).

Soul Kicking is even bleaker than Spirtokouto, depicting a world in which human relations have broken down and all that's left is violence, brutality, selfishness and loathing.

The film opens with a line from Georg Büchner’s Woyzeck (1836) – 'The water calls. It's a long time since anyone drowned' – and indeed Economides' film is a reworking of the play, which follows the tragic demise of an abused and harried man made insane by the obscene society in which he lives and is driven towards a sacrificial murder.

The very talented Erikkos Litsis, who had the lead role in Spirtokouto, stars again in Soul Kicking. In the clip from Soul Kicking above, Takis (Litsis) is called round to deal with a family dispute, but it's too much for him.

Also, here’s an article (in English)  about the new wave of Greek filmmakers.

This blog, in Greek, has more information on Yiannis Economides' films.

I should also mention that Spirtokouto can now be seen here, with English subtitles.

The Wolf of Wall Street

Chi-raq


Spike Lee's really disappointing attempt to apply Aristsophane's Lysistrata to contemporary Chicago. Unwatchable.

Matchbox



Above is a clip from Spirtokouto (2002) by Yiannis Economides, the whole of the film can be seen here at Greek-movies.com.

Spirtokouto (Matchbox) is an emotionally uncompromising and brutal film depicting family – and by extension societal – breakdown and disintegration, in which Greek family and Greek society is no longer a realm of solidarity, love, self-realisation, trust, honesty and mutual support, but of tension, cruelty, loathing, self-loathing, alienation, conflict, mental torture, frustration, selfishness, repression, disappointment, lies, where there are no boundaries or rules, where we cannot make others conform to our desires, see our reason or pay attention to the flawed choices we know they are making.

An uncomfortable film about how life is and not how it should be, Spirtokouto rebukes the prevailing fatuous, sentimental trend in Greek film, fascinated by sex, lifestyle, hedonism and romance and the imitation of American formulas; and asserts that the most interesting thing about Greece remains the Greeks themselves.

Spirtokouto also suggests a way out of the lyrical tradition that has defined serious Greek film since the 1970s.

Spirtokouto is the antithesis of an Angelopoulos film. Spirtokouto takes place indoors, in a confined space, over a short space of time, with protagonists who aren’t afforded the luxury of an Odyssean journey to escape or work out their alienation but are forced to deal with it in the place where it was created and continues to exist, whose language and emotions are naturalistic, confrontational and raw, functioning on the borders of sanity. Unlike Angelopoulos, in Spirtokouto there are no visionary moments, no imaginative indulgences, no poetic, philosophical or political ideals to be considered or which can be said to shape or motivate consciousness, no poetic reveries, no time for contemplation; silence is not a period of peace or epiphany but tension and danger, and life is inevitably a social condition and event in which solitary experiences, where they exist, are not opportunities for self-becoming but extreme states of alienation.

In the clip, brothers-in-law Dimitris and Giorgos fall out over a proposed business venture and Dimitris’ tardiness in fixing the air-conditioning.