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Archive for June, 2011

Theo Angelopoulos’ The Traveling Players (1975) is the sort of movie that separates the boys from the men—that is, viewers who need to have everything explained to them from those who don’t. For most of the movie’s 220 minutes, I couldn’t keep track of which character was which, and could only follow the action in the most general way. But if this is a flaw, it’s a flaw that makes the film more interesting, not less. Most narrative films, which are designed to be understood and consumed in a single viewing, reiterate the same information through different channels. By eliminating such redundancies, and by leaving some points totally obscure, Angelopoulos gives the viewer space to come up with their own answers.

The film begins with an itinerant theatre troupe arriving in a small village in the Greek countryside. On the soundtrack, the troupe’s aged accordion player tells us, “In the fall of 1952, we returned to Aegion. A few veterans, but mostly younger actors.” Then, in a lengthy tracking shot, we see the troupe (filmed in extreme long shot) walking down a street towards the camera. It’s election day, and above the street there’s a banner reading, “Long Live Marshal Papagos, the Savior of the Nation!” As the troupe disappears behind a corner, we hear a voice over a loudspeaker telling the people they must vote for Papagos if they want to avoid another Red December. (This is a rare instance in the film where Angelopoulos does employ redundancies to confirm a piece of information.) After a moment, the troupe reappears in the same spot and continues walking towards the camera. Angelopoulos cuts to a closer view of the same troupe, now with their backs to the camera, as they enter the town square. As they move away from the camera, a man walks by calling out that tomorrow Joseph Goebbels will pass through town on his way to Olympia.

For nearly the entire first hour of the film, I wasn’t totally sure if the story was taking place in the ’30s or the ’50s. I had a strong hunch of course, but I couldn’t be certain. Instinctively, I wanted confirmation from the film of what I already suspected, and I didn’t get it until fifty minutes later when the troupe leader informs an audience that Greece has just been invaded by Italy. Another director might’ve signaled the film’s flashback structure more explicitly at the beginning by having the troupe reappear from behind the corner looking noticeably younger (which would mean placing the camera a great deal closer to them), or by printing the date at the bottom of the screen. Angelopoulous, however, displays a faith in the viewer’s intelligence bordering on Quixotic.

Even though we spend nearly four hours with the characters, we learn next to nothing about them. None of the troupe members are given names, and it’s often difficult to tell them apart. In particular, I kept confusing the actress who plays the title role in “Golfo, the Shepherdess” with another woman in the troupe who has a young son. (It’s not until the movie’s final half-hour, when the latter gets married to an American serviceman, that we learn that she’s Golfo’s sister.) In an early sequence, the son is referred to as a “bastard,” but apart from this, we never learn anything about the boy’s father (can we even be sure that he’s a bastard?), nor does the film explain the reasons for the boy’s animosity towards his mother’s new husband (though we can guess). Similarly, when two police officers turn up to arrest the actor playing Tassos in the middle of a performance, it’s never explained why, though it presumably has something to do with his communist sympathies. Few films have shown more while telling less, though I can’t say that I ever felt deprived by the movie’s spartan exposition.

There are, I suppose, some viewers who will find the movie maddeningly opaque. The question we have to ask ourselves is: Why has Angelopoulos made the film in this way? The answer, I think, is twofold. First, he reverses the priorities of most historical films by making the human story secondary to politics. As noted above, while Angelopoulos doesn’t take particular care to differentiate the members of the troupe, he makes damn sure we know who Marshal Papagos is. Second, and just as importantly, I think Angelopoulos wants to encourage a more active form of spectatorship. As with the ruins of ancient Greece, the viewer completes the film by using their imagination to fill in the missing pieces.

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