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“Like building sites” – Eternity and a Day

Eternity and a Day (Theo Angelopoulos, 1998)

EssayPart of Issue #11: Forever "Free Besieged" (?): Greek Cinema Throughout the Years

Eternity and a Day (1998) begins with a dialogue overheard between two children, both unseen, only one named: Alexandros. “Grandfather says that time is a child that plays dice on the shore.” The camera executes a dilatory zoom-in across a full two and a half minutes before cutting to the interior, where a child (presumably Alexandros) creeps through his bedroom, collecting his sandals, and making his way out into the hallway and down the stairs. In one tremendous cut, we are suddenly on the beach, gazing through the symmetrical central focus point of a small pavilion, which the camera pushes forward through, until the frame is filled with nothing but the vast empty seaside and shore, three small friends huddled in the middle as they jump into the water and swim away from us. The shot dissolves into an empty one of only water, zooming out until we see the present-day Alexandros (Bruno Ganz), seated and under the care of his housekeeper (Eleni Gerasimidou). He’s not doing well, and is expected to pay a visit to the hospital tomorrow. Time has taken its toll on him, as it will on all of us.

From this opening sequence, with Alexandros reminiscing on childhood, Theo Angelopoulos keys us in, yet again, on what has always been one of his main preoccupations: the passage of time, and how one might go about representing it visually. The repeated use of long, slow takes that move steadily (whether by zoom or by dolly) have been a signature of Angelopoulos’s visual style, adapted in part from the likes of Andrei Tarkovsky and Miklós Jancsó (although he personally rejected this connection, one cannot deny the formal and sociopolitical parallels). But, the Greek is unique in his implementation of such technical choices to illustrate the fluidity of time: the ways that it winds around and through us even when we think of ourselves as experiencing it in a strictly linear fashion. Time is ever-present.

Critic Geoff Andrew notes of Angelopoulos’s specific use of formal elements to reflect the fluid nature of time:

“…the protagonist, like the camera, passes through space and time, as characters and events recalled from the past, or indeed from private fantasy, invade the reality of the present. The result is dreamlike, often exhilarating (the gliding camera movements, immaculate compositions and lyrical use of color make Angelopoulos’s cameraman Giorgos Arvanitis a near-genius in his own right), and immediately recognizable as the signature of a supremely assured, imaginative poet of the cinema.”

The gliding camera works to interweave dreams, thoughts, histories and the present. This assertion is also confirmed by Angelopoulos himself:

“The characters of my film travel through time and space as if time and space do not exist.”

By bringing different points in time together in a single shot, the director highlights the extent to which the “reality” of space and time relies upon our own perception. His is a cinema of bringing headspace into the physical space.

Before ditching his apartment for the gray seaside streets of Thessaloniki (as he will not return to his apartment for the rest of the film’s duration), Alexandros turns on his sound system and blares a brief excerpt from Eleni Karaindrou’s stupendous ‘Eternity Theme’ near an open window. He turns it off and within thirty seconds the same song is played back to him from an open window across the street. Through voiceover the strange phenomenon is clarified only slightly: “For the last few months my only contact with the world has been this unknown neighbor of mine, who always answers to me with the same music. Who are they? What are they like? One morning, I wanted to go and meet them, but then I changed my mind. Maybe it’s better not to meet them, but to imagine them instead.” We never see the neighbor, nor is the incident revisited or later referenced. Yet, the idea that it might be better to imagine the person instead of meeting “them” return through our protagonist’s half-imagined apparition of his deceased wife.

When Alexandros pays a visit to his daughter (Iris Chatziantoniou), there is a clock on the living room table that projects a specter of the timepiece onto the wall: the passage of time is manifested as untouchable light—a stand-in for the cinema itself. As a silent farewell, Alexandros gives his daughter letters written to him by her mother, Anna (Isabelle Renauld)—remnants of the past that become a stand-in for human warmth and presence. The daughter reads aloud from one of the letters. At the time when Anna had written the letter, she was around the same age her daughter is now, a mirroring which reminds us of the cyclical nature of time, as does the projected face of the clock. The old man walks to the balcony and parts the curtains to reveal Anna, whom he greets with a broad smile. Though Alexandros will go on to encounter Anna various times throughout the film, it is through a mingling of seemingly real memories with current-day conversations about ongoing events—meetings which occur outside of “our time”, and inside Angelopoulos’s fluid rendition of time. The implication is heavy: the way we idealize our memories and our versions of the people who inhabit them will always be a separate, parallel entity to the person they actually were—like the clock on the table and its projection on the wall: while the projection can tell us the time with the same accuracy, it does not (meta)physically resemble its source object. Both are ghosts.

At this point, we learn that our protagonist is a writer, and one who has left a great deal of his work unfinished. This is a deliberate early hint at a kinship with Greece’s so called “National poet”, Dionysios Solomos, who then appears in the flesh almost halfway through the film, a poet who also left a significant number of his works unfinished. Though he is not explicitly named as such, it is clearly intended as some rendition of the man himself. He appears in a shot which pans right from Alexandros and the Albanian child (who are speaking about the poet) across the water, when to our shock a man is suddenly standing there in full 19th century regalia. Notably, Solomos’s best-known work is ‘Hymn to Liberty’ (1823), which Greece adapted as its national anthem in 1865—Cyprus followed suit 101 years later. Alexandros’s daughter asks about his progress on Solomos’s unfinished epic, ‘The Free Besieged’. And indeed Alexandros is a man trying to free himself: from the past, from the present, from inescapable illness and the inevitability of aging… from the weight of knowing everything must remain unfinished…

Just as language is of the utmost importance to both authors—the anonymous poet and Alexandros (whom one could say is a stand-in for Angelopoulos to a degree as well)—Angelopoulos’s visual language is of the utmost importance to his work.

“[Solomos] has this Dante-esque idea to bring about a reunification of the Greek language. For him language meant freedom. Not like Heidegger, who said that language was our home. Solomos tried to write in a form of Greek from which all Greek poetry after him is derived, as Dante did with Italian. At that time it was not [considered seemly] to write in the language of the simple people.”

Just as Solomos wrote in the language of the simple people, Angelopoulos speaks to us using the people’s art of his era (cinema), and using simple visual language to express his idea of time—and freedom from our preconceived notions of how time functions.

When Alexandros first meets the Albanian boy, he is wiping windshields and hoping for a modest tip. He runs with a crew of like-minded younglings, clearly affiliated through some sort of adult-run organization. The police arrive to catch the illegal workers, and Alexandros tells the boy to get in his car. After dropping him off, Alexandros follows the boy until he reaches a desolate spot alongside the highway where the Albanian children are being sold off in human trafficking. Just how sinister the homes are that the children are sold into remains ambiguous. Alexandros manages to get out with the child he met earlier (but not before first paying for him, every instance of freedom comes at a cost). Alexandros longs to free the boy from a cruel fate, and intervenes a number of times to prevent such an ending, so that he might know he at least left one unfinished work able to achieve self-completion. That is to say, completing the part he is able to: getting the boy on a boat toward salvation, to escape his past.

At another point bicyclists clad in full yellow rain suits pass our protagonists. They seem to belong to the same clan spotted climbing telephone poles at the end of The Suspended Step of the Stork (1991). These yellow suited workers appear as a reminder of the time passing in the outside world, beyond the immediate concerns of our characters. That for everyone outside of our narrative, the work must always continue. Societal infrastructure could be crumbling under the force of ecological disasters, politicians could be dooming their constituents, or an individual could be dying (or even just suffering through a personal, emotionally turbulent episode). No matter the case, the work must continue, be it as a personal numbing or coping method or as a way of rebuilding what has already been destroyed, despite the fact that it is guaranteed to fall again, if not soon then eventually. Yet, this entire reality sits parallel to and just outside of the bounds of the world of the film, which is firmly rooted within the limits of Alexandros’s perception (and the extent of his imagination).

The work of the yellow rain suit workers will always remain unfinished, because there is always more to do, as long as we are alive. The only true release from the “cage” of life is death, though as Alexandros shows, having money certainly allows a certain superficial freedom; he is able to roam as he pleases (despite the fact that he should be preparing to report to the hospital). He has carved out his own freedom through his self-appointed mission to protect the child’s future, if only for (an eternity and) a day. We spend our lives working on work which can never reach completion, time passing all the while around us, until we reach the end:

“Alexander hopes to find a bridge that will allow him to transcend death, and that bridge, he believes, are the words that will keep him alive, whether he will physically cease to exist or not.”

Following The Suspended Step of the Stork (1991) and Ulysses’ Gaze (1995), Eternity and a Day is the final chapter in Angelopoulos’s ‘Border Trilogy’. But the border dealt with in the film is not a physical one, as Angelopoulos points out:

It is the border between life and death, between those two limits that enclose us.

When Alexandros finally bids farewell to the Albanian boy, sending him off on a boat, he seems to finally feel the emotional resolution to leave this world peacefully himself. The boy crosses a physical border, Alexandros is freed to cross the metaphorical one. As Angelopoulos himself has stated:

“In my film, time is the central theme. As Heraklitos said: What is time? Time is the small child playing with pebbles on the edge of the sea. […] In the film we also see short, other experiences of the man, and you get the feeling that he consists only of these short expe­riences (“des breves rencontres”), except for this last, real experience of his life (“Ia seule, vraie rencontre”).”

But the boy is a small ray of hope for the future of humanity, and Alexandros is freed by finally having had this “last, real experience”, yet the work necessarily remains unfinished. In response to the question of how he could even finish a film, Angelopoulos offered:

“I can’t. You will have noticed, if you look carefully, that my films never really end. To me they are all “works in progress.” Like building sites.”

We are all just neighbors, playing our music through the windows, hoping to be heard.

Quotes  from Theo Angelopoulos Interviews, edited by Dan Fainaru, University Press of Mississippi/Jackson, 2001.