Archive for September, 2009

18
Sep
09

The rejection of Deus Ex Machina in the Magic City (Μαγική Πόλις).

Magic City (Μαγική Πόλις, Magiki Poli, 1954, Koundouros)

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Early 50s. Young director Nikos Koundouros debuts with Magic City. He is a 28 year old art school graduate that has already spent time imprisoned for political reasons in the infamous “Correctional Facility for Political Dissidents” on the island of Makronisos. The script is by Margarita Limberaki, a modernist playwright living in Paris [she will also write the script for Z. Dussen’s Phaedra (1961)].

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The film takes place in Dourgouti (Δουργούτι), an impoverished area next to the centre of Athens, where slum-like immigrant housing was built during the 30s. Open sewers, laundry hanging from house to house, children playing, streets without asphalt; This outcast urban setting and the world that inhabits it has interesting parallels to Evdokia (Damianos, 1970). The area is introduced by a commentator who will never reappear in the film. His short appearance sets the scene of the drama, as in a Tragedy.

“How can the story of a man fit in here; they have to fit their feet in as well as their dreams”.

This direct social comment is unique for the time in Greek Cinema, where poverty was seen as an affliction and not as a by-product of the social and economic structures.

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A young man, family supporter, is losing his truck which is his livelihood, due to debts. This storyline will be repeated by Thanasis Veggos in the amazing Thanasi Get Your Gun! (1972). This was a homage, in my view, as Veggos also debuted in Magic City as cast. Here, the young man is persuaded into working for a smuggler to recover his debts by letting the mobsters use his unlisted truck for their heists.

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The smugglers’ world is the one of downtown Athens, the night clubs, the bright lights, exotic dancers and alcohol. Though in walking distance from each other, the hero’s world of honesty – but not naivety – and poverty is as strange and foreign from the bright lights of the city as can be. The music soundtrack follows this binary: the music of the poor streets is the sounds of street music boxes (musical lanterns) while the music of the decadent and the corrupted is contemporary western tunes. The poor clean sewer water while the decadent occupy themselves with pornographic peeping boxes. This discrepancy though isn’t being used to create sentimentalism. The poor are shown with utter dignity. They are never ragged, they are never begging and they make the most of their condition. They do not ask for our pity but for social justice.

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There are also a lot of scenes with direct comments on sexual habits and morals of the time, realistic and imposed. For instance, the hero, is having an affair with a married woman who never sees her husband as he is a sailor. Her bed is framed with nationalistic imagery that accentuates the juxtaposition of those ideals and the reality, and also attacks the post-war touristic re-invention of Greece and unchallenged xenophilia. This ironic contrast will be used again by Koundouros in his following film O Drakos (1956) and the cabaret girls’ rooms. The prude seamstress that the hero actually loves, dresses up in her Sunday best for their date in a patisserie, as appropriate for those times, but she is eating her cake with an animal lust.

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There is also an obvious mention of the drug trade and that is the reason that the hero announces he is out of the smuggling game.

The mobster then buys off the track debt and sends the law enforcements to take possession of it. The whole neighbourhood though is alerted and in a collective action chips in and pays off the debt [reminiscent of the ending in It’s a Wonderful Life (1946)].

The end scenes of the mobster and the law enforcements being faced first by the silent, still, united working class and then the smuggler being hunted down but allowed to live by the lynch mob are quite striking even now.

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The cinematography has clear neorealist tendencies, though the script follows an almost traditional narrative of hero-challenge-confrontation-resolution.

The difference is that the resolution is not moral, but ethical. It is reached by the collective action of the neighbourhood. There is no Deus Ex Machina, rich prince or fate that intervenes miraculously. The ‘solution’ is not becoming rich overnight as was the dream of all the internal immigrants that moved from the countryside to the metropolis in the 50s and after, the same dream that was perpetuated by the majority of ethographies and melodramas even comedies of the time. Instead, the solution, resolution and salvation is to just give a young, hard working man the chance and the right to work. If this right is preserved, we, like the neighbourhood in the film, know that we will not be let down. The hero actually actively rejects the sudden acceptance of wealth that is not worked for, in the face of his married – now widowed – lover and her sudden inheritance. In fact he despises her for offering him the money in exchange for love and of leaving for a higher class, place and lifestyle. Like his seamstress girlfriend that chooses hard work instead of a wealthy marriage of convenience, he wants to work for his future freedom and independence, and not sell out in the process.

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Mainstream cinema and the audiences are equally complicit in the perpetuation of the Deus Ex Machina device throughout the decades that followed. Audiences are still thirsty for the one second that will change your life, the man, lottery ticket, boss, secret millionaire that will come and overhaul everything. Even films that showed an ironic approach to this cinematic device, like Slumdog Millionaire (2008) are again decoded by the audiences as exactly what they fight against. Fair Ladies and Pretty Women will always be around to seduce rich men, Willy Wonkas will always keep offering a rich new life to children; because rising from our social class to a higher is the aspiration we should all have, and it is this “higher” life we should all be jealous of and dream of, and because it is the prostitute’s fault and the underprivileged child’s parents that are to blame. That is the way to perpetuate the social structure.

And that is why films like the Magic City are always desperately needed, to tackle the balance, even just a bit.

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02
Sep
09

The Lazy Ones (Οι τεμπέληδες της εύπορης κοιλάδας): Welcome To The House Of Sleep.

The Lazy Ones (of the Valley of Plenty)  (Οι τεμπέληδες της εύπορης κοιλάδας Nikos Panagiotopoulos 1978)

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“Does anyone know which month it is?”

So, let’s assume that due to an unexpected event we end up with all the riches of the world to support ourselves, forever. Let’s assume that there is a house somewhere in the province, beautiful like no other, with countless rooms, balconies and gardens for us to inhabit and roam through. And let us assume that there is also a maid that will cater for all our needs. Is this Eden? Is this Death? Is it Art? Is it simply Decay?

“When are we leaving here?”

Albert Cossery wrote The Lazy Ones, on which the film is based, in 1948. He was described as a “dandy anarchist” throughout his life. He notoriously lived and died as though time had frozen around him. He had no possessions apart from his books.

His ideas and works are infused by his complete contempt for the human struggle to accumulate material possessions and against the lust for material consumption, together with an alert consciousness of the abuse of authority, the injustice practised between classes and the fake façade of social formalities.

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“Why are you awake?! – We are awake only to eat.”

At the same time, he considered idleness a virtue; in contrast to laziness, he saw idleness as time for contemplation and realisation that was being forsaken in the quest for earthy possessions.

Panagiotopoulos chose this book and transformed it into this masterful film that won the Locarno Festival Prize in 1978.

“How can we be happy, when we know you are working?!”

The Lazy Ones is a mockery of the idleness of the upper-middle class. That is the obvious first observation, and a simplistic one. Most of the criticism regarding the film seems oblivious to the ideas of Cossery, though it is these ideas that render the film not easily understood. It is not only the middle class that is mocked; it is not only they who choose to stay in the House of Sleep. The servant girl – the working class – is complicit, too.

“It is unbearable to be alone,”

she confesses to one of the younger sons – also her lover – pleading for him to take her with him. One shot of her cooking even suggests she puts something in the family’s food to keep them catatonic. This is more than black and white leftist politics. We rush to categorize this film as a political statement because of the uncomfortable knowledge that a part of us is complicit, or at least complacent, too.

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“No love is better than our peace and quiet.”

To me, it even fits the pattern of the neo-Greek, post-war mothers and fathers, who, during the last decades, have been doing everything possible to castrate their children, making us lazy, unwilling to get a hard job, to have mature relationships (if any), to pursue independent living and housing, even to own a washing machine! Their earlier poverty and war trauma drove them to an intense focus on the material that has been sabotaging our generation. They are dreaming of the House of Sleep: where their children will never go away, never have to face the world, never leave them or stop depending on them, never hurt, never get disappointed, never take risks, never leave and never live.

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This is why this work will never lose its beauty and power over the years. It is so honest in all its macabre surrealism that it will be differently re-interpreted by each era. What was obviously a comment on the decadence of the bourgeoisie in the 70s, with or without the complicity of the working class, is to me a direct comment on the suffocating, overprotective comfortable families and societies of now.

Film synopsis

A rich family of a father and three young sons inherits and moves to a magnificent house somewhere in the country. The maid of the deceased follows them there. The beginning of their new life is idyllic: long walks, beautiful food, endless wine, captured in long, slow-moving dolly shots and the cinematography’s warm summer afternoon colours. All windows are always open, and air is flowing everywhere. Slowly the months start to pass, and the men become all the more inactive and idle. They start sleeping longer and longer until they wake only to eat – and one of them not even for that. Their relationships and the house gradually turn claustrophobic, the air and the light disappear, together with their civilised manners and language. They lose their touch with the outside world, their fiancés and friends and their taste for food, sex and everything else. The maid is the only creature in the house that endlessly moves, cleaning, tidying, serving them, physically carrying them, even fulfilling their passive and pathetic sexual requests. A camp artist neighbour inquires about their condition in awe, considering them “real artists” for sleeping for 7 years.

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In a moment of defiance, the youngest son decides to try and leave the house to go and work. He meets the furious despair of the rest and is coerced to stay. In the end he tries again. He practises waking up for days until one morning, with the maid by his side, he finally leaves the house. He will only make a few steps outside the grounds before tiredness takes him over. He lies against a tree. The film ends there. No one will ever leave the house and no one will come in. Decay rules.

– ulalume




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