Thursday, December 20, 2007

The assassination of my Hellenic Pantheon

…or why film director Smaragdis should beg forgiveness of his peers

I believe El Greco and Constantine P. Cavafy to be the favorite gods of my own Hellenic pantheon. I title them thus mainly due to their amazing existential vertigos and the surprising and spiritual chiaroscuros of their works. Although I consider myself a persistent atheist, I say this because I feel that if god existed, he would be, in my opinion, someone very close to these people.
I understand why Latin American painter Nemesio Antúnez asked to be brought a reproduction of the View of Toledo in order to gaze at the chromatic shades of that amazing painting before he passed away. Personally, when I feel my last days of consciousness approaching I will ask a dearest friend to read me Cavafy’s Return in order to take courage for the ultimate dive into nothingness.

The lives of Domenico Theotocopoulos and Constantine Cavafy have always been a great inspiration to me and fuelled my imagination as no one else. Many moments of depression provoked by the painful contradictions of adolescence made sense after observing and reading the works of these wonderful human beings. I dreamt of meeting them, of witnessing moments of their inspiration, of knowing the places where they had lived, the “landscapes” which made them what they became. Now I’m older, I feel more than ever before that these two great men were of those rare beings who succeed in explaining the inexplicable.

Unfortunately, for various historical avatars and inner deficiencies, I never became a film director or a writer as was my wish and thus I became a simple journalist, limiting myself to the role of a more or less life-conscious story teller.
One night, following one of my idle pursuits, I suffered a tremendous disappointment in one of Athens’ open-air summer cinemas, which seem to me to be one of the most civilized things on earth. They are hidden gardens of climbing jasmine plants that release their perfume in the heat of the August night, where Athenians, having not yet escaped to the islands, join in groups to watch delightful movies with old-time-star Aliki Vougiouklaki, or Phaedra with Melina Merkouri, or Hitchcock’s The Birds. And this, as they sup a drink from the garden bar, munching on pistachios from the isle of Aegina and smoking –yes smoking- happily dozens of cigarettes until two or three o’clock in the morning.
In one of these “paradise cinemas” –as I decided to call them- in Lycabettus I think, I saw the film Cavafy by Yannis Smaragdis… The acting was regrettable, directing was precarious, the tempo stuttering, adolescent dialogues too predictable and narcissistic. In this way I played a hand in the disrespectful “assassination” of my favourite poet viewing images born out of the egoism and arrogance of a director who had understood nothing of the inner world of that wonderful poet and had created a film based on his own primitive ambitions. The movie combined the structural inefficiencies we see in films from under-developed countries with the incompetence of people who opt for flippancy and fail to approach their theme with any rigor at all.

For example, the film addressed the poet’s transcendental homosexual side with the most predictable and cheap clichés that only the most primitive of heterosexuals would use to describe gay people. The worst of all was that the film was almost entirely based on such clichés, repeating them mercilessly and meaninglessly; displaying a total lack of research of the sources, inspirational moments or literary motivations of the poet. The complete absence of intelligence on the part of the director and the producer of the film was terrifying for me. The only thing they managed to communicate was the attitude of those who think they know everything but understand nothing nor are they interested in understanding. In short, the film was just a pathetic “ego trip”. For me it was reminiscent of pretentious clothes in some Kolonaki boutiques for TV blondes; individuals who could use some serious time served in a Guantanamo-type rehabilitation center or a course of treatment in ethics such as at the refugee camps in Darfour. That sad night I barely stumbled back to my apartment in Exarcheia. My only recourse was to take a double dose of sleeping pills and liquor in order to be able to sleep.
There is another movie that has profoundly injured and left me with a taste of bitter sadness: El Greco. What’s worse is that this film comes from the same director who filmed Cavafy. The filmmaker’s second attempt shows his selfish existential motivation and inner poverty: creating a “marketing” or “merchandizing” strategy by choosing another of the principal Hellenic cultural figures as a “product for international export”. The problem is that Smaragdis has achieved the exact opposite. First of all, he has vitiated one of the great stories that culturally connect Greece to Spain; a story that another director could have used to give us a film production of authentic quality and refinement.
The genius of Theotocopoulos revolutionized the visual arts of his time with his personal and unique language. He was an artist who used his oil painting to highlight the cruelty of the Spanish Inquisition and its inhumane manipulation, the ideological weapons and the repression used by Spain, the superpower of that time. His life shows us how humanism confronts the most perverse side of religious exploitation, an antithesis that the Greek painter resolves with his sublime art. Doesn’t he deserve more respect for this?
What is painfully scandalizing in this film is the lack of veracity, the absence of love for El Greco (interpreted by a phlegmatic and weak Nick Ashdon), unconvincing settings, inconsistencies in costumes and filming backgrounds, interrupted and absurd narrative spin, an unfortunate deficiency in atmosphere and distinct lack of elegance portrayed using highly unsophisticated special effects; a fine example of which can be found in the scene where the snakes come out of the chimney and when El Greco’s pathetic “guardian” angels appear before him during the trial…
The list continues with uncoordinated dialogues in which communication codes of the 20th century sit uncomfortably in the time setting of the story. What is more, there are certain moments of infuriating nationalism of the style of Greek far-right party leader George Karatzaferis. Such moments continuously strike the viewer as the film stupidly and repeatedly refers to the “Greekness” of El Greco and his cultural background…
Juan Diego Botto’s acting as Niño de Guevara is barely convincing and powerless, as it transforms the hero’s ambivalence of feelings towards the artist into a parody… The sets are poor, repetitive, contradictory and frustrating. Painfully absent is El Escorial Palace –an architectural symbol of power of the time- which is only mentioned by name. The wicked but intense figure of King Felipe II, who never understood the art of Theotocopoulos, is also terribly missed.
In short, what is evident in this film is not just the tremendous void of material resources, but also spiritual and artistic; this is manifested in the infuriating details and annoying unfolding of the story that are sadly reminiscent of many pseudo-historical television productions broadcast in Middle Eastern countries today.