History, Memory, Cinema: Angelopolous's Ulysses' Gaze

Curator's Note

This scene from Angelopolous’ Ulysses’ Gaze (1995) is a powerful example of historical memory showing how time can be incorporated into the image. It is framed by a silent film, made in the Balkans in 1905 by the brothers Manakis, the ‘first gaze’ capturing an everyday coexistence now vanished from post-communist Europe. A narrator, named ‘A.’ [Harvey Keitel], a Greek-American filmmaker searching for the Manakis brothers’ lost films, describes it as a symbol of hope, of cinema’s power to capture historical experience and renew our sense of the world. This gives way to a shot set in the present (in 1994), narrated by the Manakis brothers’ Assistant, recollecting an anecdote from 1954: Manakis photographing a beautiful blue ship followed by his sudden death. Set in the same place, the port of Thessaloniki, the sequence shows how this past experience coexists with the present moment in which A. listens to the Assistant’s tale; his narration condenses past and present, recollecting an event from the past that is depicted as happening in the present. As the camera pans from left to right, revealing A. listening to the Assistant's tale, and then from right to left, as A. walks slowly back to where Manakis was shown dying, we are moving back and forth in time, spanning decades of memory. The blue ship continues to sail serenely by, inhabiting both temporal frames—A’s present (in 1994) and the Assistant’s past (in 1954)—as A.’s quest to find the Manakis Brothers’ ‘three reels’ is revealed in voiceover. These parallel time frames—a silent film made in 1905, a filmmaker’s death in 1954, and a kindred filmmaker’s vision in 1994—all coexist within the one sequence-shot. It combines these temporal perspectives to capture the mood of melancholy nostalgia that defines A.’s cinematic-historical quest. This is a remarkable example of temporal montage within the image: an historical memorial-image that presents the coexistence of the present, the recollected past, and presence of the past, all framed by the cinema itself. This is the ‘first gaze’ that A. desires to recover, and in so doing recover his own gaze as a filmmaker chronicling the past in the present (the century's beginning and its war-torn end). Angelopolous captures here the traumatic echoes of past events that still inhabit places and spaces, revealing cinema as a ‘memory machine’ that can reanimate historical, social, and personal events through time.



Wonderfully sad scene, Robert. I can't help but see it now with Angelopoulos' recent death in mind. Here we have a film-maker's death from heart attack in 1954 being filmed by a film-maker who would die from injuries and a heart attack following a road accident while shooting The Other Sea in 2012. It's the same sadness, I think, of passing that Stiegler refers to in Technics and Time (v.2, p.21) when talking about Fellini’s Intervista (1987 - his penultimate film). In a key scene Marcello Mastroianni and Anita Ekberg watch their younger, beautiful selves in La Dolce Vita (1960) – ‘Anita sees herself, finally—one should say en fin, in the end—in a tragic mirror-play; she sees her future ad infinitum as reflected in her past and reversed there as her end—the undetermined, written in huge letters across all films, as a fabulous and interminable symmetry. Anita, seeing herself, does not say (as Barthes does looking at the photograph of Lewis Payne): “he is dead,” “he is going to die” (a telescoping whose stakes he manifests magisterially—and what happens to Anita is also a tele-scoping and a tele-scopics). Anita does not merely say “she” but, inverting the propositional order: “I,” “I am going to die,” and: “I am dead”—I am dying, already dead’. For me, the viewer, the cinematic reflexivity of this scene from Ulysses’ Gaze now rebounds again via the passing of Angelopoulos.

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