The Owl’s Legacy (1989, Chris Marker)

“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.