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Thursday, January 26, 2012

Rest in peace, Theo Angelopoulos

Theo Angelopoulos

Yesterday, just like many other times, I woke up to the beeping sounds of Facebook chat, alerting me of incoming messages.

It was a film festival programmer friend of mine, his message was this:

Edmund, this has to do with one of your favourite film topics, Theo Angelopoulos. He had just died in a traffic accident, ran over by a motorbike!

I sat up, suddenly wide awake, and started retrieving more news of his sad passing just hours earlier. The Greek master filmmaker had indeed died of heavy injuries after being hit by a bike near his film set. He was in the middle of finishing his trilogy that started with THE WEEPING MEADOW and THE DUST OF TIME. Angelopoulos was 76 years old.

The motorcyclist, who was hospitalized too, is an off-duty cop.

To be hit by a bike near your film set while you were in the middle of a shoot, how horrible!

This brings my mind back to THE DUST OF TIME, a 2008 film that will end up, sadly, as Angelopoulos' last completed film.

That was the very first Angelopoulos film I've ever seen that introduced me to the rest of his filmography. It was in February 2009, I was at the Berlin Film Fest for the Talent Campus, just two weeks after I've completed the shoot of my short film KINGYO, and a couple of months before I would edit it. It was also a couple of weeks before I would launch myself into Woo Ming Jin's WOMAN ON FIRE LOOKS FOR WATER (the very first feature film I produced and edited in its entirety)

Desperate to learn, I attended numerous workshops at the Talent Campus, one with Wim Wenders, another with Janus Kaminski, the famed cinematographer who had shot all of Spielberg's films since SCHINDLER'S LIST. Then, one more with Tilda Swinton, who remains one of my favourite actresses today.

Aside from these workshops, I tried my best to attend as many screenings as I could. After all, to me, one of the most essential education in filmmaking is to watch as many bloody films as you can, especially in a film festival, where you were able to discover gems that you never would do so under different circumstances.

I remember going to the gala screening of AN EDUCATION and watching Carey Mulligan from afar, and then, witnessing for myself, the birth of a star. I even ran through half the city of Berlin, and then hitchhike my way (a nice young German couple offered me a ride when I asked for directions) to another cinema where I could catch ECCENTRICITIES OF A BLONDE-HAIRED GIRL by then-101 year old Portuguese director Manoel de Oliveira (he turns 104 this year). I saw him deliver his opening speech, but was already so exhausted that I passed out during the first scene of the film, and woke up by the sounds of clapping during its end credit. A fact that I feel ashamed of until this very day.

The press screening of Theo Angelopoulos' latest occurred in the afternoon. I arrived early to queue up for a seat. Intrigued by the synopsis of THE DUST OF TIME that I read on the festival catalogue. Being highly ignorant, I have only heard of Angelopoulos' name a few months earlier, when a Greek friend of mine who saw my old showreel told me that my visual style reminded him of the works of Angelopoulos. Being highly prideful, I remembered the name because I was curious to know why my humble little short films like LOVE SUICIDES and FLEETING IMAGES would invite comparisons to the oeuvre of a master!

I managed to secure a seat to the press screening. The film began and within its first ten minutes, as Willem Defoe launched into another one of his strangely-worded long monologues, I found myself drifting in and out of consciousness.

"Darn," I thought. "I should have drank some espresso before the film started."

A film-viewing experience without popcorn to munch on can be every intimidating. Alas, most film festivals disallow popcorns during their screenings, in order to preserve the PURITY of that viewing experience, to hear every single detail intended by the filmmaker without being drowned out by annoying crunching sounds of popcorn munching.

Around me, at the DUST OF TIME screening, were faint sounds of people snoring. The images onscreen became increasingly bizarre, like a half-remembered dream.

A half-remembered dream...

Ironically, this is how some people would describe an Angelopoulos film.

I feared, briefly, that I would doze off through the entire film like I did a night earlier with the de Oliveira film. My wounds were still fresh.

That was, until I reached a scene where a huge crowd converged at the city square after Lenin's death. The images were majestic, the score was haunting, I was suddenly very much awake.

I would remain awake through the rest of the film. Occasionally rolling my eyes at the "stylized" dialogue and maudlin histrionics, occasionally mesmerized by the poetic images I witnessed. Some scenes were indeed beautiful, some of his trademark long shots were indeed awe-inspiring. Seeing a long tracking shot where a character wanders in and out of his own memories, from present to past and then present again, speaking to people who could be ghosts or just conjurations of their own memory or imagination. How very art house! Or perhaps Art house with a capital A since it had so solemnly announce its own importance!

Seeing Willem Defoe in it, I thought of Carson Clay, his character in the second Mr Bean film. A parody of Art house filmmakers in film festivals filled with pomposity and pretensions. My mind wandered a little to the film within a film in Bean 2 and felt a little amused. That made me enjoy DUST OF TIME more.

Throughout the screening, some snickered, some continued to snore, a few seats away from me, a man was sighing a lot while scribbling on his notepad. A displeased film critic, it seemed.

"What was THAT?" I thought as the screening ended and I left. I was dazed. Until this day, I grimace at the mention of THE DUST OF TIME. But nonetheless, images from the film lingered in my mind for a long time, and I was adamant to find his earlier films, most master filmmaker have a, er, clunker. It would be stupid to write him off just because one of his latter-day works didn't turn out to be that good. That's like condemning Antonioni after watching his segment in EROS, or damning Kubrick for EYES WIDE SHUT (which to me, is still a bloody good film).

And because of this, I began seeking out other films by Angelopoulos. I started with LANDSCAPES IN THE MIST, followed it with the Cannes second place winner ULYSSES' GAZE, and then, the Palm D'or winning ETERNITY AND A DAY. Although I liked them to varying degrees, they all bowled me over by their scope, ambition and poetry.

Just look at that scene with Lenin's statue in Ulysses Gaze.

The flashes of brilliance I saw in THE DUST OF TIME were in full display in his earlier films, his style was very distinctive, somewhat Tarkovskian because of his meditative long shots and contemplative tone, yet different at the same time in terms of the recurring visual motifs and themes. Less bleak and more wistful and melancholic, maybe.

He, along with Tarkovsky, Bela Tarr,Wong Kar Wai and Edward Yang, are the few filmmakers I referenced most when I prepare for my film shoots.

Over and over again, as I find myself stuck while writing a script, I would pop in a dvd of an Angelopoulos film and study his craft, his tone, his rhythm.

I cannot count the amount of times I've watched bits and pieces of ULYSSES' GAZE and ETERNITY AND A DAY in the past two years, or the amount of times I've shown people one of his long takes, and then ask loudly "how did he do that??"

How indeed.

I would shake my head at parts of his films that didn't seem right to me. Even his masterpieces of the 80s and 90s (prior to that, his films were more emotionally distant, ALEXANDER THE GREAT is an example) The stylized acting, the stylized dialogue, the overblown melancholy, the manly monologues of melancholy delivered by his angstful protagonists.

And then I would smile, like how one would smile at the familiar antics of a fond one. "How very Angelopoulosian."

Yet I know that I would always revisit his works. Again and again. Perpetually studying. Perpetually seeking inspiration. There's always something new to discover.

Rest in peace, Theo Angelopoulos.

(I started to write this while I was in the middle of my 13-hour flight to Amsterdam. I continued fine-tuning this after reaching Rotterdam. When I was done with the entire entry, I realized the screening of my short films was an hour and a half away.)