Some thoughts on the Greek blockbuster
Taking the release of Tasos Mpoulmetis’s 1968, I discuss here some issues on popular and commercial Greek cinema.
When it comes to a small nation and small national cinema like Greece’s, questions around popular audiences and cinema-going are very relevant. On the one hand we need to consider that the age-old concept of cultural imperialism remains quite relevant since in 2018 most of the cinema of any given nation is still Hollywood, in other words, not Greek. This forces us to think about the existence and merit of the Greek blockbuster and to also broaden the conceptualization of a popular national cinema since the films that audiences in Greece seek to pay for (this should also include non-Greek residents) are not Greek. Therefore, as Andrew Higson’s groundbreaking research has shown[i], any national cinema should include Hollywood films that prevail in the domestic box office. This is after all the cinema that audiences at home prefer and is part of the film culture of almost any given country that does not exercise strict quotas and import restrictions.
On the other hand, one wonders… is there a Greek blockbuster and can it compete with Hollywood in the domestic box office? What’s more, can a relatively small national cinema produce blockbusters on a regular basis and maintain its audience and does this mean that a Greek blockbuster could own a “Greek” identity or does it have to beat Hollywood at its own game, in other words, imitate the codes of Hollywood genres?
Tasos Mpoulmetis is the director of the 2017 production 1968 which revolves around the notorious basketball match that took place in Athens in 1968 between the Greek team AEK and BLK Slavia. It is said to have united the nation as over 80,000 attended the match (breaking the Guinness World Record for attendance) while many more thousands allegedly listened to a live radio broadcast. The Greek team won, signaling a great victory for the underdog, which is typically how Greeks imagine themselves. Interestingly, the film has not exactly united the nation but gave way to some polarization since there have been reports of fans from the area of Nea Smyrni in Athens threatening venues planning to show 1968. National affairs in Greece are all too often accompanied by nationalism and a culture of hooliganism that reveal the strong divisions of Greek society and the dominance of conservative custom and beliefs. These divisions have emerged even more strongly today with the ongoing dispute between Greece and Macedonia.
The film has been recently released to mild reactions as its first week in a total of 86 cinemas saw merely 33,000 tickets being sold.[ii] Not overall a strong start especially when one considers the legend of Mpoulmetis. Mpoulmetis is the director of one of Greece’s top grossing and arguably beloved films, Politiki Kouzina/Touch of Spice (2003) which in its first week alone sold over a million tickets leaving behind major Hollywood blockbusters like Kill Bill Vol. 1 (Tarantino 2003) and The Matrix Revolutions (Wachowski Brothers 2003).[iii] The film’s success was a landmark in recent Greek film history and the film per se was undeniably a watershed moment for the Greek blockbuster and Greek film culture overall. Although not the first of its kind, it played brilliantly on the codes of the old Greek cinema (“palios ellinikos kinimatografos”) and Greek nostalgia films. The latter may not be a genre yet in itself but certainly refers to a large body of films that have a number of recognizable features: the melancholy of coming-of-age tales, the loss of innocence and the tenderness of youth and childhood in Greece’s pre-junta era and pastoral landscape, the elation of first love and the passing of time. These films are often episodic with scattered comic interludes, love affairs, family dramas and intense personal passages from adolescence to maturity that manage to capture Greek audiences as these stories involve a great deal of history and national sentiments that allegorize a national trajectory and coming-to-being of entire generations. Most importantly, it is expected that audience members will include many who grew up in the 1960s and 70s. This I believe is one major secret to the success of a Greek blockbuster and particularly the films of Mpoulmetis who has found his comfort zone in the nostalgia genre.
Touch of Spice indeed captured popular audiences of all age groups as many had experienced the turmoil of the period after the war and up to the Junta and who felt that, regardless of any historical and factual merit, the film evoked the sentiments of an entire nation that has experienced great emotional upheaval. Many of these older audience members were said to be clapping in venues, creating the impression of an event, a happening that involves more than a mere screening[iv]. The film’s nostalgic allure is noted on every level of the film – from the characters, the references to Greek cuisine and mores and the melancholic soundtrack of Evanthia reboutsika replete with waltzes which has since then featured on TV and in other films. Touch of Spice was additionally translated in forty languages and did very well in international box offices. With his next film Notias (“southern wind”) from 2016, Mpoulmetis repeated a similar recipe with far less success attesting possibly to the genre’s diminishing popularity in the post-Dogtooth era. Indeed Notias sold only 41,000 tickets at 92 cinemas in total making the cut a little over Deadpool (Miller 2016) and just below The Revenant (Inaritu 2015)[v].
Other major blockbusters adhere to a certain genre that is endemic to Greece: either again nostalgic coming-of-age tales (Peppermint [Kapakas1999], Piso Porta/Back Door [tsemperopoulos 2000]) or additionally nostalgic romance set in critical moments of Greek history (Nifes/Brides [Voulgaris 2004], Mikra Agglia/Little England [Voulgaris 2013], Ouzeri Tsitsanis/Cloudy Sunday [Manousakis 2015]) and finally the historical biopics of Yannis Smaragdis with Kazantzakis not shaping to be a massive success in the national box office either. It seems as though audiences are becoming tired of these cinematic standards. It is noteworthy then that a comedy rather than a nostalgia film has been the highest grossing film of the Greek box office, Nikos Perakis’s 2005 sequel to Loufa kai Parallagi/Loafing and Camouflage (1984), Seirines sto Aigaio/Sirens in the Aegean. The film deals with the life of a motley crew of Greek soldiers who live an idle life on an isle on the coastline that divides Greece and Turkey. The offspring of Sirens in the Aegean included a TV series by the same name. Sirens is a hilarious comedy that eschews from the sentimentality of Touch of Spice and which deals with more contemporary cultural and social norms that are familiar to younger audiences, especially men who have served in the military. The film has been celebrated and discussed[vi] as a distinctly “Greek” blockbuster. It features cultural norms and stereotypes, political issues and social classes that are akin to Greeks and an attitude to life indicative of Greece’s younger generations. See for example the scuffles between Greeks and Turks or the comedy that revolves around the Cretan soldier who embodies a village style that is stereotypically imagined as a feature of Cretan identity. Yet it is worth asking if this kind of blockbuster can travel and appeal to international audiences. Is there a Greek popular cinema outside Greece?
Neither has this category though withstood the passing of time as some of the next sequels were box office flops and cheaper productions with little ambition.
Where does Greece then stand when it comes to discussing box office earnings, popular audiences and national cinema? Surely, the definition of the latter can no longer be the classic example of Italian Neorealism – the national art cinema par excellence. At the same time, Greece has not developed a film industry that can compete against the behemoth of Hollywood. Nevertheless, it has shown that it has the capacity to promote films that speak to Greek and international audiences – Touch of Spice being a case in point. In addition to Mpoulmetis’s film, the queen of commercial cinema Olga Malea has gained box office success and international recognition with a feature in Variety Magazine[vii] . Her film O Orgasmos tis Ageladas/The Cow’s Orgasm (1996), a tender and at times feminist coming-of-age tale of two young girls, is possibly something missing today among the nostalgia and nationalism of Mpoulmetis and Smaragdis respectively. It spoke of the experience of young Greek women and featured familiar stars from TV and film. Moreover, it catered to a genre based cinema rather than art cinema which in Greece especially has polarized audiences who are resentful of the cultural elite, the so-called “koultouriarides” or culture freaks. Sadly, Malea seems to have retired with her last film Matzourana from 2013 ending pretty low at the box office.
So, to return to my initial questions: Greece can produce blockbusters that can under certain conditions be distributed to international audiences and appeal to them. Distribution is of course a complex subject that entails far more issues than genre and greekness. Living abroad, I doubt I will manage to see 1968 even though I am not terribly interested in it. I would maybe see it simply out of…nostalgia since, after all, I do miss my country, the language and a sense of belonging to all things Greek. Nostalgia I guess is relevant in our impoverished times. The recipe for a Greek blockbuster is there as much as the obvious hurdles – Hollywood, reluctant exhibitors, a volatile market. Moreover, I believe that commercial and popular cinema require creativity and innovation as much as art cinema otherwise it tends to become repetitive – Smaragdis’s obsession with biopics an obvious example. For a country like Greece, constantly caught in the maelstrom of globalization, European reform, Balkan nationalisms and contemporary migration flows, it is necessary that genre and artistic ambition do not prevail over national character and the kind of sentiments that bring together a nation in a film per se or a venue. This can be done though without resorting to kitsch nationalism or overtly sentimental evocations of the past. Obviously, brave exhibitors and distributors are needed and critics to encourage a popular cinema that does not diminish quality. Above all, we need young and smart filmmakers with an artistic vision and an aspiration to capture popular audiences rather than a cinephilic elite.
[i] Andrew Higson (1989) ‘The Concept of National Cinema’ in Screen, 30:4 pp 36-46.
[iv] Eleftheriotis, Dimitris, “A Touch of Spice: Mobility and Popularity” in Papadimitriou Lydia & Yannis Tzioumakis (eds.) (2012), Greek Cinema, Texts, Histories, Identities (Bristol: Intellect).
[vi] Kokonis, Michalis, “Is there such a thing as a Greek blockbuster? The Revival of Contemporary Greek Cinema” in Papadimitriou Lydia & Yannis Tzioumakis (eds.) (2012), Greek Cinema, Texts, Histories, Identities (Bristol: Intellect).
Tzimis o Tigris (1966) / To Perasma (2007) / Casus Belli (2010)
Greece has had an enduring tradition in short films. Many of the country’s most acclaimed filmmakers, including Theo Angelopoulos, Pantelis Voulgaris and Constantinos Giannaris began their careers in short film. Moreover, the city of Thrama (Δράμα) in central Greece, which will be completing 40 years, hosts a very prestigious annual short film festival which tours around the country with special screenings and events. The format allows for diverse and original displays which can often be very personal and unconventional especially since it affords experimentation and a great degree of playfulness (see early European avant-garde films by Man Ray for example). Aditionally, they epitomize the art of condensation by compressing real and cinematic time with narratives that can span over a long period of time in just minutes. Very often, the opposite applies as a single long take can cover from one to ten minutes. I open this brief discussion on Greek short films with Voulgaris’s seminal first film Tzimis o Tigris and will continue with a discussion on more contemporary examples.
Tzimis o Tigris/Jimmy the Tiger 1966
Dir. Pantelis Voulgaris (14.23')
The first film of one of Greece’s most iconic filmmakers is nothing short of a masterpiece. Tzimis o Tigris is a cinematic adaptation of the folk song ‘Koutalianos’, a rempetiko style song that talks about a man who can allegedly chew on steel, bring down a mountain and roar like a lion but when he comes home to his shack he is scared of his intimidating wife like a little lamb. The film’s hero (Spiros kalogirou, who often played the tough guy) is based on the figure of Koutalianos, in the film a working class hero of the old Athens which survives in photographs, poems, films and popular iconography. He is a so-called ‘pehlivanis’ a derogatory term that refers to wrestlers and strongmen for the crowds of community fetes who, like a modern day busker, displays his superhuman strength in a central square for passerby. His audience is comprised mostly of tourists who began to enter the country during the country’s phase of international modernization. The film’s references however to Greekness and Modern Greek identity go deeper. The name Tzimis is not coincidental since most prominent Greek wrestlers of the time were inspired by the great Jim Londos, a wrestler of the Greek Diaspora in America. Originally named Christos Theofilou, Londos moved to the United States in 1912 where after working in kitchens, received wrestling training and became world champion and an icon of Greeks at home and abroad. Most prominent Greek wrestlers from the 1950s and on would be hence nicknamed ‘Tzimis’. So, not only is Voulgaris’s film replete with references to Greek folklore but it is also a metanarrative of Greek diasporic and national identity.
During one of his performances, Tzimis encounters a young and beautiful German tourist Marilyse, who is fascinated by his performance and strength. Tzimis takes her around in the city, at working class restaurants and to the Acropolis where she photographs him in typical poses of male strength that are evocative of the spirit of the ‘noble savage’ which has been famously conjured in Zorba the Greek (Kakogiannis 1965). In this one day, which the short film format perfectly condenses in all its peaks and nuances, Tzimis experiences ephemeral love with Marilyse; he becomes something more than a street performer and lives his exotic fantasy of love and passion. At the end of the day, higher forces intervene and Tzimis parts with Marilyse in an emblematic sequence: Standing with his wife and brother-in-law, we watch them from Marilyse’s point of view in a taxi as she departs and they become distant figures. The fantasy of the average Greek nobody disappears like all ephemeral pleasures. As his counterpart in song, tzimis goes home like a timid lamb and receives a beating from his brother-in-law. This kind of depiction of Greek male working class desire has been immortalized by the actor Dimitris Iliopoulos in Nikos Koundouros’s 1956 O Drakos/The Ogre of Athens where a wretched nobody struggles to fit into the Athenian underworld only to find a sombre death in a garbage dump. With his film, Voulgaris adapted a folk song but in essence captured the sentiments of an entire nation struggling to be something in the face of the ‘Other’ only to become a spectacle, learning the hard way that what they crave so badly is beyond them. Tzimis is a Greek Cinderella and yet an endearing figure and Voulgaris’s film was national cinema at its best.
To Perasma/The Crossing 2007
Dir. Yannis Katsampoulas (22')
Like Casus Belli, The Crossing is a short film almost devoid of dialogue which however relies more on diegetic music and on a schematic narrative of hunter turned prey. The film’s focus is on the silent figure of a hunter (Yorgos Nousias) who encounters a group of traffickers on a snowy mountain in the north of Greece. The film first introduces us to a dreamy and melancholic landscape of snow, mist and melting ice reminiscent of Theo Angelopoulos’s image of Florina in the second phase of his filmography. Indeed, the first few minutes are steeped in dreamy and meditative shots of an evocative landscape hardly reminiscent of the Mediterranean. The soundtrack, composed by Vangelis Fampas, son of the great composer and guitarist Dimitris Fampas, unsurprisingly resembles the music of Eleni Karaindrou and enhances the pervading melancholy of the winter. The film suddenly turns menacing as the hunter encounters the traffickers in a moment that brings to mind the famous panning shot in John Ford’s Stagecoach where the shift in the soundtrack connotes the threatening presence of the Indians watching the settlers’ stagecoach – diegetic soundtrack at its best. In the following scuffle, the hunter accidentally kills the older refugee leaving his two kids alone and in shock.
From here on, the issues most commonly associated with representations of migrants and refugees take centre stage. The hunter takes the two kids to the nearest shelter where he struggles to come to terms with what he just did and to appropriately handle and possibly help the kids. In the cathartic finale, the oldest child grabs the hunter’s shotgun and aims at him. Feeling guilt stricken, he draws the gun and points it at his heart. The children instead hug him and cry delivering redemption and establishing a degree of closeness. To achieve this overall unbelievable scenario, the refugee children have to come across as stereotypical figures of human suffering – silent and traumatized. This is not merely an issue of political correctness. It ultimately makes the film predictable and tedious. The film’s premise rests moreover on the guilty conscience of the (Greek) hunter making the refugee kids mere sidekicks to his trajectory of crime and punishment/redemption.
The Crossing then is a rather dull and pedestrian ‘study’ of the hunter turned hunted (as the film’s epigraph on YouTube tells) which falls short because additionally the short film format, in this case, does not foster convincing character development and a realistic and nuanced depiction of human relations that transcend cliché and schematic binaries like us/them, Greek/foreign, hunter/prey.
Casus Belli 2010
Dir. Yorgos Zois (10.43')
A long dolly shot, cutting on concurrent dark surfaces, documents various social classes of people as though on a conveyor belt: consumers waiting in a super market, people queuing at the entrance of a club and then standing in line in an Orthodox church all of them documented on the straight line that the dolly shot affords. From the affluent and middle class consumers of goods, religion, art and mass culture, we transition to queues of lower classes, as though the long take is a scalpel dissecting in straight motion through the body of the nation from top down. The monotonous rhythm slows at the point where the cinematic apparatus and the shot itself will seemingly implode as we have transitioned to a queue of the homeless waiting in line at a soup kitchen - the byproducts of the consumerism and conformism of the preceding classes. And suddenly, like a pack of straight dominoes, from bottom up, the entire (super)structure collapses. The camera goes in backward motion documenting the absolute crash of every straight production line till the only thing left is a super market cart full of ‘things’ rolling down the road and stopping abruptly at a desert road where the angry man who ignited the crashing of dominoes stands confused staring at us.
The film makes a clear call to arms but is nevertheless playful and inventive rather than polemic. This I believe made it very appealing to audiences and further hints as to why the film was very successful in the national and international festival circuit. The format of the short length film is very accommodating because it transforms a rather opinionated assumption into a punchy statement and film - short sharp and undeniably cinematic. And yet, the director achieves this with the most laborious and demanding shot as indeed one needs to wade through each travelling shot of long queues in order to reach the core and to ‘get it’. This brings me to the subtle political overtones of the long take famously declared by Jean-Luc Godard in 1959 at a roundtable discussion about Alain Resnais’s Hiroshima mon amour (1959). Godard made the resounding statement that ‘tracking shots are a question of morality’ which broadly referred to the failed responsibility of cinema to portray the experience of the Holocaust. Godard in particular condemned the use of intrusive means when it comes to filming delicate political issues. The film critic André Bazin on the other hand argued that the uninterrupted shot is the only way to document and evoke the fluidity of the ‘real’ which cannot be experienced through the frenzied montage of Sergei Eisenstein hence the long take featured strongly in the manifesto of Italian Neorealism. Interestingly, the long take(s) of Casus Belli is almost identical in form and content (visual and semantic) to the notorious seven-minute travelling shot of piled-up cars in Godard’s Weekend (1967) another film that denounces consumerism and capitalism through a dolly shot. Furthermore, Casus Belli lasts just two minutes over the travelling shot in Weekend. So, while a seven minute long take could feature in various parts of a film, a long take could be a film on its own. For example, take this uninterrupted long take of one of the masters of the form, the Hungarian auteur Bela Tarr and his short film Prologue (2004) commissioned by the Visions of Europe program. It is comprised entirely of a five minute long take which documents a long queue of people waiting at a soup kitchen which we actually notice at the end of the shot. If it weren’t for the duration of the single shot, the point would be entirely lost on us.
Dir: Yorgos Lanthimos
A breakthrough for Greek cinema
To launch this website on Greek cinema, I found it quite appropriate to start the discussion with Dogtooth. This is not because I believe it to be necessarily a masterpiece or otherwise, but because of the incredible impact it had both at home and abroad at a focal point for Greece and Greek cinema.
Dogtooth is seen today generally as the first film to firmly place Greece in the international arena of film distribution and cinephilia and more so within the European and international festival circuits. It features among lists of top films of the 00s by critics, like The Guardian’s Peter Bradshaw and BFI’s Mark Kermode and major journals such as Sight & Sound. I actually still recall being a master’s student of Film Studies in Edinburgh and seeing with amazement at the local BFI cinema a large dark red banner advertising Dogtooth, preparing audiences for a bizarre film from a small country that has seemingly never released a film internationally. Indeed, with few exceptions, the only Greek films to be released to audiences abroad before Dogtooth were those by acclaimed art cinema behemoth Theo Angelopoulos whose films have very often divided domestic audiences because of his slow, meditative and demanding style that is generally associated with that annoying term - ‘high art.’ Dogtooth was a great success throughout the art-house circuit, especially in the UK.
It signaled the first of several awards that Lanthimos would receive at the prestigious Cannes film festival, the Prix de la Jeunesse and the Un Certain Regard award that is only a couple of steps below the Palme D’ Or (which he is anticipated to receive at some point as he has become a favorite at Cannes). In 2010, Lanthimos’s film was a forerunner in the Foreign Film category of the Academy Awards in Los Angeles. While it did not win, it gained further in international appeal. The Greek press in the meantime was raving about a fresh film by a young, brave and talented filmmaker who was ushering in the ‘spring of Greek cinema’ and leading the new generation of Greek filmmakers, while making a name for Greece abroad. The success of Lanthimos and the widespread popularity of his signature deadpan cinema kick started a new trend in Greek cinema with some notable achievements especially from female auteur Athina Rachel-Tsangari and Alexandros Avranas whose Miss Violence draws endless resemblances to Dogtooth in both theme and form.
Hence on, the surname Lanthimos would be associated with a more modern, playful and intriguing form of high art coming from a small country that was in the throes of an escalating financial and sociopolitical crisis. Dogtooth became the penultimate film for the Greek crisis and Lanthimos its poster boy. Greece’s cinema since 2009 has inevitably become associated with the country’s escalating crisis. Dogtooth ushered in a cinema that meshes dead-pan style with performance art and shock tactics in order to allegorize what everyone seemed to know but no one dared to articulate – that Greece is killing its own children. Dogtooth and its offspring are thus meant to serve as a punch to the system and a numb audience.
Plot and meaning
Dogtooth does not so much tell a linear story but more so exposes its audience to a series of painful and tragically funny (it is no coincidence that critics refer to the film as a bleak dark comedy) rituals from the life of a dysfunctional upper-class Greek family. Almost all the action takes place in the isolated, fortress-like house of the paterfamilias who keeps his children locked up, for no obvious reason. He has entirely twisted language in order to distort meaning and to establish the outside world as a threatening out-of-bounds place. In this way, he manages to keep the kids blind to the truth, voluntarily locked up and to maintain his clutch over them. Unsurprisingly, the “kids” are dysfunctional grownups with no sign of maturity or social skills. The mother at the same time seems entirely complicit in what is overall an inexplicable and very bizarre state of affairs. Within this phobic environment, we follow a series of humiliations, performances and encounters that are meant to make you feel uncomfortable and to convey in the most shocking and simultaneously awkward manner the idea that the father has brainwashed his children and that the (Greek) family is where the totalitarian state begins.
For example, in order to appease the son’s growing sexual urges, the father brings in a woman, Christina, whom he pays to have sex with his son. In a rather uncomfortable sequence, the woman and young man have sexual intercourse which is painful to watch – like all the “kids”, the son seems lobotomized and acts solely on some kind of instinct, without any emotion. When the kids wonder what the creature roaming the yard is, the father claims that it is a ‘cat’, the most dangerous creature of nature. In a notably funny scene, the father enters the house covered in blood, standing still and with an, of course, dead-pan expression. He claims to have found their brother killed by the ‘cat’. The son then is urged to kill the beast yet another scene where laughter comes out in a forceful manner. During a birthday party, the son plays a repetitive and nerve wracking classical composition while the two daughters perform an awkward and convulsive dance which again hints to the fact they are terribly dysfunctional and devoid of emotion – as is the film itself. All scenes are filmed in the trademark Lanthimos style: narrow, claustrophobic framing that conveys the feeling of asphyxiation while the actors do not ‘act’ in the traditional sense but more so perform in a way that is akin to performance art that one would see at an art gallery: dead-pan faces, sparse dialogue, robotic and spastic articulation and gesticulation are meant to make you feel increasingly uncomfortable.
It is clear that what happens in the film does not matter per se as much as what it allegorizes – what lies beneath its artifice or behind the curtain if you like. The lack of an obvious motive behind the children’s incarceration and the parents’ overall brutality, the absence of names and of any obvious reference to Greece (apart from the Greek language) is telling of a film that leaves it to its audience to allocate meaning in the same way that the ‘kids’ have to decode the world (material and non) around them. Indeed, every figure and every scene is meant to symbolize and allegorize something: the father is a symbol of the patriarchal establishment, of the totalitarian state, the Freudian super ego and the Marxian superstructure or, very likely, a symbol of the Greek state. The children are the absolute victims of a twisted rhetoric but, to follow on what seems to be the allegory, the youth of Greece during (or just before) the crisis. The house is Greece, and not merely some obscure location, a claustrophobic space where every individual seems trapped and almost asphyxiating – an allusion to contemporary Greece and even more to its powerful elite (possibly to the corrupt and power hungry dynasties that have been governing Greece since the mid 1970s). Nevertheless, many seemed to believe that Dogtooth is in particular an accurate depiction of the Greek family and of Greece and its domestic state of affairs (although depiction is not the appropriate term for a film that continuously asks us to decipher rather than look at). Put the pieces of the puzzle together and you get what seems to be a straightforward and rather didactic message.
A ‘weird’ and provocative cinema of (the) crisis
Greek cinema would no longer be associated with Zorba the Greek, which emblematized the exotic and touristic appeal of the Greek islands and lifestyle. At the same time, Greece and Greeks would not be conceived as a fun-loving people as My Big Fat Greek wedding suggested with its depiction of cultural clichés. I believe that for many this moralistic message was very attractive – ‘gone are the painless and beautiful images of a sun-bathed Greece and of loud ouzo-drinking Greeks, now it is time for shock and to wake up people!’ Dogtooth is a punch to the gut of the system, an unforgiving indictment of that very precious unit and concept - the Greek family. This approach of the film is one major feature that places it beside films of other enfant terribles like Haneke, Lars Von Trier, Gaspar Noé – all directors who often aim to make their audiences think and question through shock.
What however was even more so attractive was the notion of a cinema of crisis, especially from a small country that until recently was not known for its cinematic production and (otherwise very rich) film culture. The allegorical and arguably playful hints of Dogtooth, Miss Violence and other films to the crisis is what gave this emerging trend a national appeal since it was imagined that the vehicle of allegory became a means to address and convey a nation in crisis. What would this small and ailing country produce and how would its filmmakers continue to articulate the country’s crisis and transformation? There is a great deal of curiosity and hype to respond to and maintain. To this, one should also add the contribution of the Guardian critic Steve Rose who, in his attempt to decipher and classify this emerging cinema that seemed so obscure and characteristic of a country in crisis, described the growing movement from Dogtooth and on as “the Greek weird wave.”
Apart from being a ‘weird’ term/description in itself, a very slippery one indeed, it adds to the pre existing exotic allure of Greece which is now conjured in cinema as an obscure allegorical location shrouded in ‘crisis’ (rather than the mystique of antiquity and allure of the sun-bathed shores). Its cinema moreover is so indecipherable (it all sounds Greek to me) that we are unable to provide a critically, historically and aesthetically informed term to describe what is actually far from being new in cinema. Naturally, it has been left to the academic community to unpack and criticize the term and to offer a more sound definition.
I mentioned that there is nothing new to this. Actually, resemblances with this deadpan style and narrow, geometric framing have been drawn to the films of Stanley Kubrick (Clockwork Orange for the performative allegory of a dystopian society and The Shining for deadpan, narrow framed horror), Michael Haneke (Funny Games and Amour for the clinical shock), Aki Kaurismaki and Wes Anderson (dead-pan and tragically funny, quirky characters). This style however was something new for Greek cinema and Dogtooth was fertilizer for fertile ground. The allegory and the ‘recipe’ of Lanthimos became ideal means to an end which, in this case, was a reversal of the traditional, patriarchal order through film: the Greek family and the house are no longer the core of Greek identity. They are the source of all our troubles. The family and its codes are twisted while the house is a stage of horror (see for example in Miss Violence the father who rapes his daughters on their 13th birthday). Through deadpan performance, tight geometric framing and clinical representation, the house and its inhabitants can be conveyed respectively as a nightmarish enclosure and emotionless and lobotomized children.
Is this all there is to Greek cinema?
Although the dominance of the ‘Weird Wave’ seems to be gradually fading, leaving some room to popular cinema (last year’s major export was the more ‘conventional’ Suntan by Argyris Papadimitropoulos which has some similar themes). However, a visit to popular DVD shops and chains (especially in the UK) is very interesting in this respect.
In particular, when one looks carefully at the art-house section, where DVDs are classified according to nationality, we get French, German Cinema, Italian, Spanish and so forth. There is however that one erroneous section called ‘world cinema’ which essentially means films from other minor countries which do not have a well-established production and artistic movement that is comparable to those of Hollywood or central Europe. Something, that is, like a parking space beside the more central cinemas of continental Europe and the US. There, one will find the films of Lanthimos and Tsangari (published by art-house giant Artificial Eye) as opposed to ‘Greek cinema’. While this is telling of the overall image of Greek national cinema today and of its diversity (and of the way the chain of demand and supply works) it is also telling of the country’s ongoing problems with distribution, subtitling and international outreach outside of festivals. The latter in particular depends all too much if filmmakers will cut their films on time to make it to the next festival (this has cost Greek filmmaker Constantinos Giannaris whose over budgeted Man at Sea was a colossal flop because of last minute quick and sloppy editing). Ultimately, only a fraction of Greece’s cinematic output becomes accessible to popular audiences in cinemas abroad. Even more so problematic is distribution on DVD abroad but also at home. This means that very often audiences are left exclusively with the ‘Weird Wave’ and Greeks at home sporadically get to see a film on public broadcaster ERT, probably after midnight.
It is no coincidence therefore that when I am told by foreign colleagues and friends that they have seen some Greek films, they usually mean Dogtooth, Attenberg and Miss Violence, but not the latest release by Constantina Voulgari, Christos Voupouras, Penny Panayotopoulou and others. This is slowly changing of course (see for example Panos H. Koutras’s Xenia), but there is still a lot of lost time to cover. My problem with this is that the ‘Weird Wave’ is representative of a small fraction of Greece’s cinema while mainstream debates around the ‘Weird Wave’ are misleading audiences to see its films merely as a product and expression of the Greek crisis.
A schematic approach
Let us discuss the film more closely. My biggest concern regarding Dogtooth and other ‘weird wave’ films is that the overreliance on the features and codes of allegory means that the film becomes overtly schematic. While this may not be a major concern for many, I do fear that the more filmmakers deter themselves from the codes of social realism, which allows us to see the world around us with all its intricacies (see for example the cinema of Yorgos Korras and Christos Voupouras, Ken Loach, Mike Leigh and Abbas Kiarostami) the more films will become overtly intellectual, a game of ciphers and symbols for academics and philosophers and not a source of popular accessible entertainment.
Most importantly, schematic intellectual films like those of Lanthimos, Avranas, Haneke, Von Trier are not an honest depiction of the world we reside in, but a constant allusion to it. In other words, we are constantly asked to think of what the poet is trying to convey through this playful yet annoyingly didactic game of ciphers and symbols. Ultimately, this makes for a very preachy cinema which many have dismissed as being, simply put, ‘artsy-fartsy’. And what the poet is trying to convey is not inspired and taken by reality and by lived experience (because I do believe that a filmmaker should convey lived experience and not merely an ‘idea’) but from the sphere of intellectual ideas and thinking. In this respect, Dogtooth is a poor imitation of life and not an evocation of its complex patterns. In other words, instead of conveying what Lanthimos thinks of these sacred cows of the Greek ethos – the family, the household and its patriarchal structure – by depicting life in an unadorned fashion, he transforms the film, his actors and settings into complicated intellectual codes. This means that, in his attempt to depict the absurdity of life and the chokehold of the Greek family, he makes his films look and feel absurd, his actors perform in an absurd way and the entire mise-en-scene is clinically structured to feel asphyxiating and, in some way, absurd. Of course, this is cinema and it has its own unique means of conveying and (re)creating meaning, but I do find this not only exaggerated but also very far from life in general. It is the same complaint I had after seeing Haneke’s Amour: how can love, at any stage of life, be so terribly clinical?
Lanthimos’s overreliance on the means of cinema, rather than plot and character formation, make his film, put very simply, gimmicky. He (ab)uses the expressive means of cinema in order to convey a message in a manner that is intrusive and hostile. This was actually one major feature of the film that critics appreciated as though assaulting our senses and conscience comprises a great artistic achievement. In the case of Lanthimos, I feel that the ends justify the means since the film takes no prisoners in smacking you in the face with its message. Moreover, Dogtooth does not make you wonder or question, it leaves little room for such a contemplative moment. After all, it does not raise a question as much as provide a schematic response in the form of an obscure mind game. This sounds very didactic, provocative and arrogant as though one needs Lanthimos to wake us up to the truth that only he owns.
And what exactly does schematic further imply? In this case, it means that every element and character in the film is a boxed allusion to a single concept/figure: the father is the oppressor, the children the victims, the house the symbol of Greece or the space of oppression and so on. So, characters have no dimensions and actors are expected to perform a concept and figure – lack of emotion, absurdity, father, wife, child; The worst thing about this strategy is that Lanthimos divides the world very squarely into ‘good’ and ‘bad’. In this respect, as mentioned earlier, Dogtooth is entirely devoid of emotion. This is of course clearly intended by Lanthimos who is a master of the deadpan performance and tightly knit frame. Yet I do not feel that families, nations, love, oppression, husbands, wives and children are concepts that can be so clinically built and represented on screen. To do so, one needs to first evoke the logic of life and not merely imitate it. No single figure is purely ‘good’ ‘bad’ a ‘victim’… but this is the problem with the format of the deadpan allegory: it allows for no emotion, humanity, realism and identification. Only cold and clinical intellectualism. And at the end of the day, a provocative film should not be misconstrued as a thought provoking film.