Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Film Review: The Dust of Time

"The Dust of Time" *** (out of ****)

Greek filmmaker Theo Angelopoulos, whom I refer to as "the master of imagery", died earlier this year. "The Dust of Time" (2008) has turned out to be the filmmaker's last achievement.

Today would have been Angelopoulos' birthday. Born in Athens, Greece in 1935, the iconic filmmaker was killed in a car accident, on January 24, 2012, when an off duty police officer, riding a motorcycle, hit him.

In America, among the film community, this hardly made news. Critics such as A.O. Scott, Roger Ebert, Rex Reed, Michael Wilmington and Manohla Dargis were silent. No retrospective look at his career. A pity and a shame. Roger Ebert, who only reviewed one of Angelopoulos' films in print, "Ulysses' Gaze" (1997), called the masterpiece "a bore" and gave the film one star! That's the reception Theo Angelopoulos was met with in America.

The tragic news of this event only came to my attention earlier last week. Three whole months went by. If Angelopoulos had directed a spider-man movie, his death may have made front page news. But alas Angelopoulos was a filmmaker who liked to deal with adult themes; redemption, youth, death, memories, the history of his beloved Greece and cinema itself.

I've reviewed some of the master's films in the past. Here's what I wrote when I discussed "Landscape in the Mist" (1990), a film which many consider his finest:

"Landscape in the Mist" is one of filmmaker Theo Angelopoulos' masterpieces. How sad to consider than that the name Angelopoulos means so little to so many people. Unless you are a film critic or a cinephile, you've probably never heard of him or seen one of his films.

Angelopoulos will never be a mainstream director. He has gained great international fame, but, in the United States, his name draws a blank. He is the master of imagery as far as I am concerned. "

Unfortunately my words ring so true. Even in his death American film critics couldn't pay respect to the visionairy director.

Here's what I wrote when I reviewed his "The Suspended Step of the Stork" (1992) regarding his reputation in America:

"Theo Angelopoulos is not very well known in America. In Europe his name is known all over. Five of his films have been nominated for the palme d'or at the Cannes Film Festival. One of his films won, "Eternity and A Day" (1999). Another, "Ulysses' Gaze" (1997) came in second place. His "Alexander the Great" (1980) won the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival. But in America he has never once been nominated for an Oscar. Several American critics throw out adjectives such as tedious and portentous when describing his work. They claim he has a big ego and his films often fall under the heavy weight of his confidence. I won't do these mean-spirited critics the justice of mentioning their names but read reviews of his work and you'll see what I mean."

Of course in Europe it is a different story. Our friends in the U.K. for instance have released the Theo Angelopoulos Collection on DVD. A three volume set featuring every film the director has made. In the newspaper The Guardian they actually took time to celebrate him. Contrast that to America, where his films are out-of-print on DVD.

In fact, in order to see "The Dust of Time" I had to buy the movie from Amazon.co.uk. "The Dust of Time" has not been distributed in the U.S. on DVD. I don't even remember if it had a limited theatrical run.

Like any great filmmaker Angelopoulos had a distinct style. He was known for his extreme long shots, hoping an audience would soak in every aspect of the frame. Scenes were done in one, long unbroken camera shot. His camera would linger on objects long after the "message" of a scene was made. On average his films would clock in around the three hour or so mark. You could compare his films to Hungarian filmmaker Bela Tarr or Antonioni.

You see some of that in "The Dust of Time". Not enough though in my opinion. The film was to be the second part of a trilogy Angelopoulos was working on concerning the history of Greece.

William Defoe stars as "A", an American filmmaker of Greek descent, who wants to film the story of his mother, Eleni (Irene Jacob). A woman whose journey to reunite with her husband, Spyros (Michel Piccoli), took her to Stalin's Russia, Germany and America.

But "A" has his known problems. His marriage to Helga (Christiane Paul) is over. His daughter, also named Eleni (Tiziana Pfiffner) appears to be mentally unstable.

"The Dust of Time" is a story about the past, memories, death, family, love and Greece. We can interpret the character "A" for Angelopoulos. In "Ulysses' Gaze", the film followed another filmmaker named "A", that time played by Harvey Keitel. Both filmmakers, the fictious and the real one, are directors staring immortality in the face.

At one point in the film "A" says "nothing ever ends". Stories keep being told. He's right. The oral tradition of telling stories will continue for as long as people are around. But the people telling those stories will forever change. Is that why "A" wants to tell his parents' story? To have their voice and his, forever recorded.

In cinema, some filmmakers say, we shall find the truth, but neither the truth or cinema can prevent death or erase our painful memories. "A" is going through that challenge as he tries to finish his film.

"The Dust of Time" is actually a more conventional film for Angelopoulos. It is two hours long, pretty short by his standards, and as a result doesn't display his normal camera traits. Angelopoulos' films are more an experience than a viewing. His works revolves around mood and emotion. That's why I find his camera so insightful. Here though he holds back.

Of course there are some great moments. Villagers gather with the military as Stalin's death is annouced. We see an huge crowd stand in the town's square. It is an over head, extreme long shot. This helps the viewer see the vastness of the area. The camera never breaks as each person leaves after the announcement. The scene also shows the power of the communist party to collect so many to create a spectacle to honor Stalin's death.

Another memorable scene comes when Spyros and his granddaughter are out running in the snow as a voice-over is done by "A". The combination of the image and voice create a moment of cinematic poetry. The words compliment the scene so well.

I only wished however there would have been more moments like this in "The Dust of Time". I was greatly impressed with the first part of the trilogy, "Weeping Meadow" (2004) for its startling imagery but here Angelopoulos isn't functioning at his normal high level.

William Defoe is a nice alter-ego for Angelopoulos. Defoe may appear a little stiff and restricted to a first time Angelopoulos viewer but Defoe's acting is in synch with Angelopoulos' style. Some people complain the acting and dialogue are not natural in an Angelopoulos film. But, they are missing the point in my opinion. Angelopoulos puts subtle demands on his actors. He is not interested in showing everyday, naturalistic life. He wants to make poetry, create social commentaries by introducing abstract concepts. Once you accept that, Defoe's performance will catch your eye and hold your attention.

It is not clear just how much was completed on the final part of this trilogy Angelopoulos was working on. Were their notes which another filmmaker could follow? A possible replacement that has been floating around is Bela Tarr. Though I doubt he would take over the project since he claims he has retired from filmmaker after the release of "The Turin Horse" (2011, which I have reviewed).

I'll miss Theo Angelopoulos. I always looked forward to seeing his films. I never tired of the experience. The world of cinema has lost a giant.

Here are my ratings for the Theo Angelopoulos films I have seen:

1. Eternity and A Day (1999) **** (out of ****)

2. Landscape in the Mist (1990) **** (out of ****)

3. The Suspended Step of the Stork (1992) *** 1\2 (out of ****)

4. The Travelling Players (1975) *** 1\2 (out of ****)

5. Ulysses' Gaze (1997) **** (out of ****)

6. Weeping Meadow (2004) *** 1\2 (out of ****)

For more information on Angelopoulos' death I have provided the following link: