“It all began on a summer night in 1987. The idea for a television series based on Greek culture had just crystalized and we were facing a spectre which haunts the realm of the cultural documentary and that Chekhov defined for eternity: to say things that clever people already know and that morons will never know.”

Marker hosts banquets across the world and interviews subjects one-on-one (in front of giant pictures of owls), discussing Greece. Mostly it’s school, like a PBS doc without the music or the constant zooming around ancient photographs. Hard to stay interested, since I had no real curiosity about Greek culture, only a curiosity about Chris Marker’s movies (in the credits he’s listed as “skipper” and producer Jean-Pierre Ramsay is listed as “long-distance calls”).

Each episode is preceded by a disclaimer from the billionaire Greek funding agency distancing themselves from its content… way to go there, Chris. Something must have upset the rich people who thought ancient Greece would be a harmless, noble topic. Maybe it’s when Richard Bennett in episode six says: “Pythagoras was a great man. He was in the same league – I may shock some people here – as Moses, Buddha and Jesus Christ.”


1. Symposium, or Accepted Ideas

Droney keyboard sounds behind scenes from Olympia mixed with war films. One minute later we are looking at a storehouse of sculptures, supposedly underneath the roundtable discussion, and I’m already put in mind of Statues Also Die.

“This was an extreme example, but the fact remains that Greece, or at least the idea of Greece, has been used to fuel the spirit of totalitarianism, and it still does now and then. All the more need, then, to look for that Greek word which is theoretically the safest antidote to totalitarianism… the word “democracy.”

“We have this horrid image of Greece as a land of light and harmony. Abysmal nonsense. Greece is a land of incest, murder, where Oedipus blinded himself … In Greece, moderation and order are won against reality and not as their birthright, hence their obsession with aphorisms. ‘Be moderate.’ ‘Do not exaggerate.’ I can’t imagine a Swiss or a Dutch with such obsession for moderation. The Greeks are obsessed with it, obsessed with going too far, because it’s their natural tendency.” – Cornelius Castoriadis


2. Olympics, or imaginary Greece

It’s not in fact about the olympics, but about modern Germany’s relationship to and interpretation of Greek culture. The series can’t go on like this for eleven more episodes, can it? Interviews of people speaking in general terms about Greece and its perceived contributions to the current world? I will get bored.

Film clip of naked rituals from Paris 1900, a documentary which young Alain Resnais and Yannick Bellon both worked on, produced by Pierre Braunberger

Renate Schleisser:

Manuela Smith:


3. Democracy, or the city of dreams

Democracy vs. oligarchy, and the terrible truth behind greek democracy. Nice cut to a clip of George Bush Sr. right as a guy says “the large amount of hypocrisy.” Nostalgia for when people were passionate about participation in the system.

Clips from the Greek episode of Marker’s 1969-71 On vous parle series – I didn’t know there was a Greek episode. It’s not on IMDB.

John Winkler and Elia Kazan at a dinner party:

philosopher/economist Cornelius Castoriadis:


4. Nostalgia, or the impossible return

Much talk about Greek identity, nostalgia and homeland. I think I dozed off. Clips from a 1911 film and from Kazan’s America, America.

George Steiner: “The Greeks are nostalgic. Nostalgic for what? For everything and nothing. They have nothing left – it’s all in their heads.”

musician Angelique Ionatos:


5. Amnesia, or history on the march

About Greece’s sense of history vs. our own. A segment on the person (and the film) Z. Jean-Pierre Vernant mentions that the word autopsy means “the act of seeing with one’s own eyes”. Vassilis Vassilikos says the country has always been a battleground because it links Africa, Asia and Europe. And I got hooked on the story of the first king of independent Greece after 1820, a Bavarian who didn’t speak any Greek.

author of Greek and Roman histories Oswyn Murray:

director Elia Kazan:


6. Mathematics, or the empire counts back

All about logic and mathematics, with graphic examples in hyperstudio. Scenes from a Norman McLaren film and from something called Avant-Poste, featuring a totally-80’s feathered-hair blonde (it’s Arielle Dombasle, who I’ve seen in La Belle Captive) in closeup with tubular music playing telling us about Greek mathematics.

Daniel Andler gets brownie points for using owls in his example about uncertainty. I haven’t seen the dinner party for a few episodes now.

Michael Serres: “I wish the scientific heritage could recover its humanistic trail. I wish the humanistic heritage, also a bit lost at the moment, could recover its scientific trail. It’s one and the same heritage, but we are mediocre inheritors.”

The controversial Richard Bennett:


There’s more (I only watched half of the series) but I’m stopping here for now. I tried to struggle through for the sake of Marker completism but I’m not terribly interested in Greek culture at the moment and can’t imagine that three more hours of this will help. Maybe I’ll pick it up again sometime.

Credits: Co-writer Jean-Claude Carrière was Buñuel’s co-writer for some of his best work, then worked on The Tin Drum and Godard films, and recently on Birth. Some of the cinematographers would work with Angelopoulos, Youssef Chahine, Jean-Jacques Beineix. Other interview participants included Catherine Belkhodja (star of Level Five), director Theo Angelopoulos, artist Matta, Arielle Dombasle (star of movies by Terayama Shuji, Eric Rohmer, Raoul Ruiz and Alain Robbe-Grillet), Yukio Ninagawa (Funeral Parade of Roses), Alex Minotis (Howard Hawks’ Land of the Pharaohs), Melina Mercouri (Jules Dassin’s wife/lead actress), computer-music pioneer Iannis Xenakis and Vasilis Vasilikos (writer of Z). André Dussollier (Love on the Ground, Wild Grass) apparently narrated the French version, but not the version that I’ve got.

Visions of Europe is a 2004 anthology film with shorts by various directors about the current state of the continent, which I’ve already started to watch earlier and still may never finish. Pretty hit or miss.

The Miracle (Martin Sulik)
An immaculate conception story, the girl’s parents and priest trying to get answers. God’s message, via the girl, “We mustn’t build tower blocks. The big ones must heed the small. We need to travel more to resist the false messiah.” Weird, kinda spooky. Not sure if the floating coffee cup at the end helped or not.
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Anna Lives In Marghera (Francesca Comencini)
Briskly edited montage of an Italian student who participates in Rage Against The Machine-soundtracked political protests and prays when she’s not working on her thesis about industrial pollution.
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Children Lose Nothing (Sharunas Bartas)
A girl collects frogs. Two boys fight over a girl. A paper boat! Finely photographed brownish little art short. Symbolic of something!
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Room For All (Constantine Giannaris)
Talking heads tell us about the immigrant experience in Greece. Giannaris just made a movie called Gender Pop – the title alone is more interesting than this.

Prologue (Béla Tarr)
Loooong black-and-white dolly shot (imagine that) with pretty music by Mihaly Vig showing hundreds of people waiting in line to get food. Tibor Takacs was one name in the credits – could it be the director of The Gate?
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Invisible State (Aisling Walsh)
A serious man in a suit tells us angrily about human trafficking. “They will tell of Irish eyes not smiling.” Walsh made a teary Aidan Quinn drama the previous year.
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Crossroad (Malgorzata Szumowska)
The adventures of a catholic cross outdoors at a crossroad. Eventually some coroners take down the classic Jesus and replace it with a blobby new plastic Jesus. Was it supposed to be funny? I found it kinda funny.
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Paris By Night (Tony Gatlif)
Immigrants on the run, one of them injured, run through the Paris streets to some good music. Jarmuschy. Same year as Gatlif’s acclaimed Exiles.
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Oops, I watched this for SHOCKtober, but forgot to find out if it’s actually a horror movie. I sure wouldn’t call it horror, but IMDB does, so I was fooled.

Great rainy-night high-contrast b/w photography, two girls digging a hole, loser guy comes along with a film-noir voiceover and passes out in their car. A girl turns to camera and says: “Night in the garden… the burial of our chauffeur.” Nice opening.

The dying hand of Mr. Sling:
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Plot is simple – Singapore Sling is searching for Laura, arrives at the house of a mother/daughter where he is captured and killed (his presence causes the destruction of the two women as well). Three-time Greek Film Festival winner (including for this film) Nikolaidis throws us the most twisted stuff he can come up with: rape and incenst, vomit and piss, drowning and electrocution. Is the daughter really Laura, or is Laura dead? Who is Singapore Sling? These are questions that don’t get answered (nor asked).

Daughter with Father (uncredited):
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Movie takes its sweet time getting nothing done, immersed in its own silver-noir atmosphere and perverted logic. The light, dreamy music sings a song about Laura once, but usually we just hear the sound of wind blowing. Most dialogue is in english, but the mother will sometimes look into camera and speak french, and S.S. will do the same and speak greek. I liked the movie when it wasn’t trying to gross me out… worth watching for the gonzo nympho acting of the daughter alone. Would like to check out more of the director’s work – it seems he died a year ago with eleven completed features.

Mother (left, dying) with Daughter:
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So I’ve shown Katy two post-9/11 movies with downer endings in a row, and now I realize that I was about to show her a third. Unintentional, but can’t be a coincidence. Current theory is that 9/11 hit in the middle of my exploding cinephilia and I was angry that nobody wanted to talk about it in film, so the few films that dared to discuss it stuck in my mind… and it’s been about five years since I’ve seen ’em, the perfect amount of time to watch them again? Does that make sense?

Malkovich is still deliciously distracting as the captain. I’d forgotten how BUNUELIAN the whole thing seems. From one ancient landmark to another, having slightly unreal meetings and conversations with people along the way, then a huge narrative jump and we’re at dinner with the captain and his famous friends, then another dinner conversation, this time with the mother and child, Malkovich standing the whole time, a song in Greek, then terrorist attack!

A very unusual movie. I kinda love it, but never quite knew what to make of it. I remember this M. Dargis piece:

As the two stop at ports from France to Turkey, the film takes the shape of a genial history lesson, one that grows progressively darker when you realize the message Mr. Oliveira has been delivering alongside all the seemingly benign tourist shots. The film begins, rather prophetically, with the image of people waving goodbye. … As they stand in the shadow of the Acropolis, Maria Joana wonders, “What did people do here?” Her mother replies, “They worshipped their gods.” In a sense, who those gods were and what they meant is at the center of “A Talking Picture,” which takes the measure of Western civilization for good and for ill. Although the mother-and-daughter exchanges purposely recall the discourses that once echoed throughout the Acropolis, their sightseeing also has the flavor of everyday life. … The metaphor of privileged tourists blithely afloat on a luxury ship – and embarked on a circle tour of that crime scene known as Europe and its colonial-era environs, no less – is at once blunt and brilliant. In both its intellectual reach and the elegant simplicity of its form, “A Talking Picture” bears resemblance to Andrei Sokurov’s “Russian Ark.” … this is the only film I can think of that, in the aftermath of Sept. 11, has so directly addressed the war on liberal democracies. Maybe it takes an angry old man who can cede the sins of the West without also sacrificing its ideals.

N. Vera:

On one hand it’s a young girl’s education on the world and its ways; on the other it’s a meditation by three godlike women (godlike for their high status in the film and higher status in world cinema), representing at least two of the most prominent cultures in Europe, holding forth on their views of love, life, and human history.

France and Italy are, if not the most prominent, easily the most graceful of European powers (odd–or maybe not–that Germany, Britain, and Spain are not mentioned); both countries owe much of what they are to Greece, a fact Helena points out, lamenting at the same time the subsequent loss of status of her country (French, Italian and especially English are spoken everywhere; Greek is spoken mostly in Greece, and at most as borrowed words in other languages). America, the single biggest Western power in the 20th and 21st centuries, is represented by a fawning buffoon of a captain (played with selfless enthusiasm by Malkovich)–who is, it must be noted, Polish (all Americans except the natives are, of course, immigrants). Portugal as represented by mother and child is invited to the table, but the invitation is politely refused (the mother capitulates on the second offer, which included a gift of a lovely little Muslim doll to the child). France, Italy, Greece together at a table with the party hosted by America, and Portugal a reluctant but desired guest.

What’s missing from the table and from much of the picture, of course, is the true (truer, anyway) cradle of humanity, basis of much of even Greek civilization, the Middle East. Iraq, Iran, Syria, Egypt among others are not represented, and while Egypt’s monuments are shown and discussed, they’re discussed not by an Egyptian but by a Portugese. The silence is overwhelming; we hear secondhand about Muslim civilizations, usually as it relates to and clashes with Western civilizations (the Hagia Sophia, Napoleon visiting the pyramids, the Arabs burning the library at Alexandria (a historically disputed event)). Suddenly the Middle East speaks out (or at least we assume it’s from the Mid-East–Oliveira leaves even this ambiguous), in the form of a ship’s officer with an urgent message, and the entire ship is forced to react to a neglected culture’s startling response.

In an article by Z. Campbell, he says the film “is often if not exclusively interpreted as a conservative lament,” but he praises Oliveira’s other works and says “This is an artist concerned with, among other things, the representation of unrepresentable experiences the source of which exists in some unspoken spaces of social structure (hospitality, companionship, family ties, tradition).”

The mother, Leonor Silveira, has appeared in just about every Oliveira film I’ve heard of. Captain Malkovich will be in the next movies by the Coens and Clint Eastwood and also a thriller about vampire mutants. French entrepreneur Catherine Deneuve was in a few Raoul Ruiz movies I’ve gotta see. Greek singer/actress Irene Papas starred in Costa-Gavras’ Z and previously The Guns of Navarone. Italian model Stefania Sandrelli was in a bunch of Bertolucci movies including a starring role in The Conformist.

The box art takes the one looking-into-camera close-up of Leonor Silveira and nests it inside the one shot where she is dwarfed by the monuments she visits. A nice idea, but then of course it’s cluttered up with titles and floating heads of the other stars.

An utterly boring and mediocre movie made by a Canadian TV director. Based on a novel, and I can tell. Seems like an adaptation, not as something conceived as a film. As a film it has no spark, life, reason to exist. Every scene is meticulously edited, ends exactly when you think it will end. All the actors seem capable (except maybe for the girl who played our hero’s first wife). Our hero looks a touch like Gabriel Byrne. Plot doesn’t matter, doesn’t matter, doesn’t matter. Memory and mementos, moving on with our lives after tragedy. Tragedy comes in the form of nazis. I hate nazis as much as the next guy but that doesn’t mean the movie gets off the hook for being so dull. I just wish I had watched Black Book for the third time instead.