My Own Odyssey
“I used to dream that this would be the end. Isn’t it strange. Isn’t it always the way -that my end is always the beginning?”-A (Ulysses’ Gaze)
[Trailer of Movie that I will be discussing: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DaUEulIEBV8]
Upon first encountering the movie, Ulysses’ Gaze, I found myself confused, yet appreciative of the visual aspect of the piece. The piece took on a poetic form for me-the connected scenes as the stanzas strung together by a very fitting and compelling soundtrack. I was content with taking a “Sontagian” approach to my interpretation of Angelopolous’ work and enjoying the piece as a work of art, rather than a story that required interpretation. In so doing, Sontag’s approach allowed me to accept the meaning or perhaps, lack thereof behind Angelopoulos’ work. However, upon encountering Dennett, Whitman and Hustvedt, the story of Ulysses’ Gaze took on a new meaning for me. I began to realize that perhaps the piece did not require an interpretation, but rather demanded one. Watching the piece once again, I found myself painting meaning behind what I had previously considered a poem, attributing aspects of Daniel Dennet’s reasoning, Walt Whitman’s persona and Siri Hustvedt’s plot to my own search for personal meaning.
Although the eventual attribution of meaning to the piece may at first appear to stand in stark contrast to Sontag’s approach to evaluating a piece of art, Sontag herself makes an exception to the act of interpreting film. She states, “the cinema, unlike the novel, possesses a vocabulary of forms -the explicit, complex, discussable technology.” She continues by stating that “the aim of all commentary on art now should be to make works of art and, by analogy, our own experiences-more, rather than less-real to us.” The eventual attribution of personal meaning to Ulysses’ Gaze is an attempt to understand this “explicit and complex technology” and in so doing, creating a personal experience regardless of what the artists initial intention may have, or may have not been. My journey through Evolution of Stories has provided me with the tools to create such an experience when faced with any work of art I enjoy. Thus, the film, Ulysses’ Gaze effectively strings together numerous aspects of the course and in so doing, illustrates my own evolution on this journey.
Ulysses’ Gaze was released in 1995 and directed by Theo Angelopoulos. The film is set in the 1990’s in the midst of the most recent war in the Balkans. The plot follows the main character, a director who remains unnamed, on his journey through seven countries, from Athens to Sarajevo. This director, played by Harvey Keitel is in search of three lost film reels captured during the First Balkan War by the two famous directors known as the Manakis brothers. The final goal of the journey, however, is not only these three reels, but rather an understanding of the main character’s own history and his evolution while tracing the history of this region from the early 1900’s to the present.
The film opens on a quay in Salonika, Greece in the present day (1996, at the time) with a man reciting the story of the Manakis brothers to Keitel. What is most striking about this initial scene is the interplay between past and present and the way in which the director presents this interaction. He places the characters in the present day in the same exact location in which the story takes place and has the story itself play out in the background. This interweaving between past and present is a technique that Angelopoulos finds very useful in creating meaning throughout the film. The past and present constantly converge and diverge throughout the film, making it difficult for the viewer to distinguish between what is happening in the present and what is a memory, a dream, a story recited, or simply a fleeting thought. Angelopoulos’ intertwining of stories of the past within the present is reminiscent of Siri Hustvedt’s use of her father’s diary entries within the continuous plot that she had created. Similar to Hustvedt, Angelopoulos creates multiple levels within his story. This convergence and divergence of past and present within Hustvedt’s plot however is easier to distinguish as the diary entries are set off from the rest of the plot in separate paragraphs indicating to the reader that the setting has changed. Whether the change in setting be required by a diary entry, a memory, or a dream, Hustvedt always indicates to her readers that this change is occurring. Conversely, Angelopoulos allows these convergences and divergences with the past to flow with the main plot placing the past in the backdrop of the present and blurring this boundary between the present and the past to an even greater extent than does Hustvedt.
In addition to placing past stories in the backdrop of the ongoing present-day story, Angelopoulos also incorporates a number of other techniques in blurring the boundary between past and present and illustrating the convergence and divergence between the two. In particular, the most striking technique used is to incorporate memories from the past into the continuous plot and placing Keitel into these scenes while allowing for him to interact with the characters within the memory, whether the memory belongs to him or to another minor character. One of the most powerful scenes in the film in which Angelopoulous employs this technique is a scene in which Keitel reaches Bucharest in the present and suddenly is immersed in a memory of his family during New Year’s eve of 1948 The same memory continues through the New Year’s eve of 1950. He partakes in the festivities with his family and interacts with all the characters as he is himself-an older Harvey Keitiel. The only distinguishing feature of this scene as a memory is the fact that at the end of the scene, Harvey Keitel becomes a young boy again. (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kE5B7WSEOao).
Although Angelopoulos’ immersion of his characters into their past is much more extensive than is that of Siri Hustvedt’s characters, the purpose behind this convergence and divergence is very similar. By the end of Hustvedt’s novel, it becomes apparent to the reader that Hustvedt has allowed for us to follow the main character’s evolution back to the point of divergence from his father and grandfather. Towards the end of the novel, Erik feels himself quake in a dream in which he, his father and his grandfather are in the same house he had inherited during an earthquake. After he awakes, Erik describes his dream by stating: “Three men of three generations together in a house that was going to pieces…inner cataclysms I associated with two men who were no longer alive. My grandfather shouts in his sleep. My father shoves his fist through a ceiling. I quake.” (Hustvedt, 232). It is at this point in the novel that the reader realizes that we have been tracing Erik’s own evolution back in time to the final point in which he, his father and his grandfather converge, or perhaps to the starting point in which these three men diverged. Hustvedt’s use of the convergence and divergence of the past and present in her novel has allowed the main character and her readers to reach this ultimate conclusion. Similarly, Angelopoulous use of various techniques to portray the convergence and divergence of the past and present allows for the same tracking of Harvey Keitel’s rearward evolution back towards the beginning, towards the very “first gaze”.
Furthermore, it is important to note one other significant difference in the way in which Angelopoulous presents time within the plot in comparison to Hustvedt. Whereas Hustvedt incorporates both Erik’s past and his family‘s past, in particular that of his father, allowing Erik to trace his evolution back; Angelopoulous incorporates the individual character’s history, family’s history and the country’s history into this convergence and divergence. Thus, against the backdrop of the main character tracing his evolution back in time, Keitel along with the viewer are also tracing the evolution of this region of the world as well.
In addition to this interplay between past and present that serves as an indication of the continuous backward tracing of the evolution of Keitel, his family, his friends and his country; the continuation of the opening scene described above also alludes to the tracing of history rearward towards a particular starting point. In this opening scene, Keitel has returned to his hometown in Greece for a screening of his most recent film, following thirty years of life in America. Perhaps not surprisingly, Keitel is met with much aversion and hostility by the majority of the villagers as his recent film has had a profound effect around the country, resulting in a civil dispute in his small village. In response, Keitell is startlingly complacent as he states, “I used to dream this would be the end of the journey. Isn’t it strange, isn’t it always the way-that my end is always the beginning?”. This statement effectively alludes to the journey that Keitel will shortly embark on and adequately summarizes the aforementioned tracing of one’s evolution towards a starting point.
Similar to the main character in Hustvedt’s novel, Erik; Keitel, too is moving forward in an attempt to move back. In the opening scene, Keitiel describes the three film reels he is journeying to find as the very “first gaze”. In addition to tracing his own history back in time, as well as that of the countries in that particular region, he is also moving forward in order to move back towards this “first gaze”. This first gaze, however, does not only refer to the first gaze of the film industry in Greece, but the very first gaze of the first Balkan war-the beginning of the history of this region. Furthermore, in an attempt to find the starting point , or perhaps, the point of divergence of the stories of seven different countries, Angelopoulos also manages to create a boundlessness between them and consequently, tying the histories of seven different countries into one common story.
On this journey, Keitel is also searching for his own gaze, something he feels he has lost along the way, perhaps having immigrated from Greece to the United States and trusts that this personal journey in search of the very first “gaze” can help him in his search for his own gaze as well. When speaking to the very first woman we are introduced to as his lover in the beginning of the film, he recites a story to her in which he attempts to take a picture of an olive tree, but finds instead that each instant photograph he takes is an “empty black hole” with “no gaze”. It is not yet clear what Keitel is searching for when he refers to his “gaze”, but as the story begins to unfold, it becomes apparent that the search for his gaze is the search for his own history- a portion of him that may have been left behind upon immigrating to the United States. This missing “gaze” leaves Keitel with a void evident by his characteristic lack of emotion and human contact exhibited throughout the film. It is at this point in his journey that Keitel decides to continue on towards Sarajevo and it is only at the very end of the film, after reaching his destination and finally gaining access to these three film reels that Keitel is able to exhibit any real emotion. This allows for an extremely powerful scene towards the end of the film filled with grief and affection when his friends and the woman he loves are killed in Sarajevo. (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bQxKu4lctqo) This final scene leaves the viewer overwhelmed with emotion relative to the rest of the film and sympathizing with Keitel. This emotional final scene is almost cathartic in nature as it stands in stark contrast to Keitel’s bland character lacking any emotion in the rest of the film. Such a contrast indicates to the viewer that reaching the very end of his journey has allowed for this transformation within Keitiel, filling this void and returning his lost “gaze”.
Angelopoulos interestingly also incorporates Daniel Denett’s notion of the crane and skyhook into this prevalent theme of the convergence and divergence of the past and present. In an extremely powerful scene that always resonates with viewers and is often used to represent the entire film, the statue of Lenin is dismantled against the historical backdrop of the dismantling of communist Europe. Specifically, a crane is used to pull the head of the statue as it is slowly positioned onto a barge with the remaining statue and is carried down the river with the statue of Lenin pointing in the particular direction the barge is traveling. (http://www.youtube.com /watch?v=shf5o6G6Vdk not with original music from film). This particular use of the crane is analogous to Denett’s use of the crane compared to the skyhook in terms of biological evolution. In this case, the crane is evocative of the journey of cultural evolution that the director is presenting to his viewers. The image of the crane positioning the head of the statue is placed along the backdrop of hundreds of people running to view this symbolic and significant moment in their country’s history, making it a part of their own history as well. This crane does not only represent the dismantling of a particular type of government but also the peoples’ attempt to shape their own country’s history and in so doing, altering their own history as well.
Expanding the theme of time and rearward evolution, the themes of disconnect, disjunction and boundaries, all recurrent themes within the course, were also regular subjects incorporated by Angelopoulos into his story (Rutherford). Fluids are the medium that allows for the movement of characters throughout the film. The journalist who advises Keitel on how to reach Sarajevo tells him “Yugoslavia is full of rivers”. Rivers and flowing water are prevailing images throughout the film that embody the theme of connection in a world that would otherwise seem disconnected and filled with boundaries-both natural and manmade, particularly during this time of war. The myriad of other fluid movements including fluidity of the camera movement, continuous fluid background music and the extensive use of mist and fog , incorporated in the more “frozen” scenes, in which there is less movement and human interference, accentuates this feeling of slow and continuous movement throughout the film.
Although this theme of time is extremely significant throughout the film, similar to Hustvedt’s novel, initially the story line of the main character seems incredibly static. This initial static appearance of the plot line and the characters is very similar to the initial static appearance of the main character, Erik’s, story line in Sorrows of An American and is only exacerbated by the film’s long three hour run time and the aforementioned slow, fluid movement. However, similar to Hustvedt’s character, Keitel’s character and his journey is far from static. Rather, his movement is continuous as he traces his, his family’s and his country’s evolution back in time as mentioned previously.
This fluid movement contributes to the theme of continuity and boundlessness that is prevalent throughout the film. The fluidity and continuity blurs the boundaries between countries, individuals, memories, thoughts, dreams and reality. As mentioned previously, Angelopoulos often blurs the boundary between dreams and reality throughout the film. The blurring of physical boundaries between countries throughout the film however is particularly striking. The destruction and devastation left behind by the war that has ransacked these countries leaves Keitel and the viewer unable to distinguish if they have crossed over into another region. This inability to distinguish is especially significant in the very end of the film when Keitel eventually reaches his final destination, Sarajevo, and amidst the destruction and bombing, he continuously screams “Is this Sarajevo?” This scene seems almost comical to a viewer because not only does the continuous bombing in the background indicate that this is very clearly Sarajevo, but Keitel seems to be asking a trivial question amidst chaos. However, this question is significant because it underscores this prominent idea of boundlessness and continuity. This purpose of this boundlessness is to tie together the individual history of these countries as Keitel is continuously tracing the evolution of this region rearward. Although each individual country that Keitel visits has its unique history and its own identity, apparent even amongst the destruction, all these countries all shared a common history. As they diverged from this common point in an attempt to create their own identities and their respective stories, they are once again converging to one common history as they engage in a common war that leaves the region in destruction and its people devastated. Thus, this boundlessness not only results in the converging and diverging in the evolution of the stories of these individual countries, but also allows for the loss of boundaries between individuals. This idea is evocative of Hustvedt’s theme of boundlessness between individuals and consequently, the final scene in Sarajevo was reminiscent of Hustved’t final scene in her novel in which it is snowing and Erik realizes this as a moment in which “the boundary between the inside and the outside loosens, and there is no loneliness because there is no one to be lonely: (Hustvedt, 301).
This theme of boundlessness between individuals and between individuals and the external world extends to Walt Whitman’s multitudes and subsequently, Hustvedt’s containment of multiple identities within one individual. Angelopoulos presents this idea of multitudes within individuals by allowing for one actress to play the role of four different characters-each character playing a significant role in Keitel’s history or along his journey. Specifically, the actress, Maia Morgenstern, assumes the role of four different women-Keitel’s four different lovers and his mother. Walt Whitman’s theme of multitudes found within individuals and Hustved’ts theme of containment of multiple identities are both manifested in the assignment of four different characters to one actress. What is different, however, about this particular display of multitudes compared to Hustvedt’s and Whitman’s displays is that Angelopoulos is employing the theme of multitudes to highlight the connectedness of all individuals, again relating to the idea of a shared common history and consequently, a divergence from a common point. Conversely, Whitman’s and Hustvedt’s use of multitudes highlights the diversity and variability and particularly, the convergence of multiple identities within one individual. For example, the convergence of the identities of Erik’s father, grandfather and himself made him who he was. Similarly, the convergence of multiple identities allowed the interesting character of Burton to eventually discover the self he was most comfortable with.
In closing, Keitel reenters the studio in which the three reels that he was in search for were recovered and he recites the final few stanzas from the Odyssey to the viewers and in so doing, concludes his journey. The portion of this scene that resonated with me was Keitel’s statement regarding life as “the whole human adventure-the story that never ends.” I think that this powerful statement effectively summarizes the journey we have followed throughout the film, but also the journey we have followed throughout this course. The increasing levels of complexity in the evolution of stories and in the relationships between them, as illustrated by both this film and our course, results in stories lacking boundaries and consequently, “the story that never ends-the human adventure”.
1) Dennett, Daniel C. Darwin's Dangerous Idea Evolution and the Meanings of Life. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1996.
2) "Precarious Boundaries: Affect, Mise en sc." Issue 50, 2009 - Senses of Cinema. 15 May 2009 <http://archive.sensesofcinema.com/contents/04/31/angelopoulos_balkan_epic.html>.
3) Siri, Hustvedt. The Sorrows of An American. New York: Picador, 2008.
4) Ulysses' Gaze. Dir. Theo Angelopoulos. Perf. Harvey Kaitel and Maia Morgenstern. VHS. 1996.
5) Whitman, Walt. Leaves of Grass The Original 1855 Edition (Thrift Edition). Minneapolis: Dover Publications, 2007.