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Split decision

In the first of his new monthly column, Brad Stevens ponders the difference between ‘best’ and ‘greatest’ films in the light of this issue’s poll results.

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The Suspended Step of the Stork (1991)

The Suspended Step of the Stork (1991)

Sight & Sound’s ‘Greatest Films’ poll generated some interesting discussions about the difference (if any) between the terms ‘best’ and ‘favourite’, the general assumption being that the films many of us consider the most important ever made would not necessarily be those we’d take with us to a desert island – that our intellectual choices would not neatly correspond with our emotional ones. S&S contributor Tim Lucas admitted on his Facebook page that his list of personal favourites would be quite different from the ‘ten best’ list he submitted to S&S, and would probably include Howard Hawks’s Man’s Favorite Sport? (a film that seems to me artistically superior to Tim’s number-one choice, Marcel Carné’s Les Enfants du paradis!). These discussions took place soon after the death of Theodoros Angelopoulos – a combination of events that prompted me to speculate on the relationship between emotional and intellectual responses to works of art.

My speculations focused on Angelopoulos for the simple reason that he was responsible for what remains by far the oddest reaction I have ever had to a film. I first encountered his The Beekeeper (1986) when it was screened on Channel 4 in the late 1980s, and to say that my response was a negative one would be putting it mildly: I found the film interminable, could see absolutely nothing of interest in it, and immediately forgot about it. Some six months later, I began thinking about The Beekeeper again, and realised that I had been deeply moved by it, but at a completely subconscious level. I should stress that nothing happened to remind me of the film: I didn’t come across a reference to it, or read something about its auteur. It simply bubbled up from my memory, and refused to budge.

I recalled this experience when I watched Artificial Eye’s DVD of Angelopoulos’s The Suspended Step of the Stork (1991) a few days after the director passed away, and was greatly affected – for reasons I couldn’t initially understand – by the final shot, a four-minute take showing the protagonist Alexandre (Gregory Karr) walking past a line of telegraph poles that are being ascended by workers holding telephone wires. In the documentary Balkan Landscapes: The Gaze of Theo Angelopoulos (shown as part of the Channel 4 series Rear Window in 1993), Jules Dassin insists this shot is entirely positive in its implications, relating it to the film’s concern with breaking down borders (“It’s saying, ‘Let’s reach the world, let’s talk, let’s communicate’”). But this image strikes me as far more ambiguous, the details of Angelopoulos’s mise en scène – the cloudy sky, the mournful music, the way the camera finally pulls back to reveal that river formerly associated with the border motif – suggesting little reason for optimism.

Angelopoulos represents an ideal of ‘pure’ cinema, one that aspires to the condition of poetry or music.

Angelopoulos’s work is often perceived as near incomprehensible to audiences unfamiliar with the details of Greek politics, but I would claim that this viewpoint is at best limiting, at worst actively misleading: tempting as it may be to see those dance sequences in which his oeuvre is so rich as being heavily symbolic, their function is clearly quite different. The Beekeeper, for example, shows a nameless young woman (Nadia Mourouzi) dancing alone to a song with the English-language lyric “All by myself, I’m bound to make it”, a dying man (Serge Reggiani) dancing by himself near the ocean and several guests dancing at the wedding of the daughter of Spyros (Marcello Mastroianni). One might expect Angelopoulos to make a distinction between the solitary and communal dances, but if Mourouzi’s energetic dance seems strangely joyless, the dance at the wedding lacks both energy and joy. Mourouzi’s character lives totally in the present (“I don’t remember anything,” she insists), while Spyros (whom she dubs “Mr I Remember”) is weighed down by the past, both alternatives coming across as equally unattractive. 

For Angelopoulos, community/memory and isolation/amnesia are less opposed terms than variations on a single dilemma, the problem of the group (or society) being the problem of the individual writ large. This idea is also expressed in The Suspended Step of the Stork: the men positioning the telephone wires are engaged in a group project, but nonetheless remain isolated on separate poles, the carefully choreographed precision with which they carry out their task and the way they remain motionless once it has been completed suggesting that communal and solitary activities are two sides of the same coin. The pessimism with which Angelopoulos regards Greece’s political dilemmas is simply one way of expressing a much wider pessimism.

What fascinates me is the realisation that I had not only ‘understood’ all this emotionally before I was ready to articulate it intellectually, but that I would have been quite unable to ‘read’ this scene adequately without the background of my initial response. Surely Esther Summerson, the heroine of Dickens’s Bleak House, was speaking for us all when she insisted, “My comprehension is quickened when my affection is.” When we talk about emotional reactions to films, novels or plays, we usually have in mind feelings of empathy connected with specific characters, and linked directly to our being caught up in the flow of the narrative. Yet my first response to The Suspended Step of the Stork had more in common with the kind of emotions one might feel on hearing a Beethoven symphony. 

Angelopoulos represented an ideal of ‘pure’ cinema, one that aspires to the condition of poetry or music, and I can see now that it was precisely his humanist pessimism – tinged with both optimism and sadness – that I first rejected and then embraced so enthusiastically when I watched The Beekeeper. Intellectual responses always develop from emotional ones, and may originate at even deeper levels, to which we can only gradually gain access. Which is one of the reasons why my list of ‘greatest’ films and my list of favourites would be absolutely identical.

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