Love letters: Greek New Wave & Revenge Tragedy
published at Film Parlato by Lorenzo Esposito, issue 04
My dear friend Lorenzo,
the deadline for this text for the magazine is approaching and the more it does, the more anxious I become, since I seem to have distanced myself further and further away from its subject. And I realize that the only way for me to write it, is to hint to this fact too: my very distance from it all. A letter form of course seemed more appropriate for this, than an actual proper text.
So, to take it from the start, what we were talking about in the Dodecanese when the idea for this text first came up, was the Greek New Wave, aka the inconsistent corpus of films made in Greece and released in the last six-seven years. Films shot by different first or second film directors, written by different writers, with repeating motifs and patterns in some cases, rather different in form, ranging from abstract to realist, even naturalist. To name a few (there are more): Strella, Dogtooth, Attenberg, Homeland, Wasted Youth, Alps, Boy Eats the Bird’s Food, L, Unfair World, Luton, The Eternal Return of Antonis Paraskevas. In the last couple of years, Miss Violence, Xenia, A Blast, Chevalier, Interruption.
What I was telling you was that the only thing I could find connecting a big number of these films was not a content element or a view of politics or a certain style, since the range in all these aspects is pretty ample. Nor of course, the so-called ‘weirdness’. What does this mean anyway other than that some of these films feature behaviors thought to be uncommon by some people. (An obvious question that appears is who and what are these ‘people’? Well, not me to begin with.)
In my view, the one thing that connects most of these films is an undercurrent of revenge tragedy. And by this, I don’t mean ‘revenge tragedy’ in the filmic sense, the straight form of revenge dramas going from westerns to Get Carter or Kill Bill, but ‘revenge tragedy’ in a more Shakespearean sense. And not just any Shakespearean sense, but the Hamletian Shakespearean sense in particular, Shakespeare’s revenge on the revenge tragedy itself (1) via the creation of an unlimited poetic space that sets itself in a place as rotten as Denmark and as rotten as the afterworld of Denmark, where even the very idea or the very action of revenge itself sinks in the Swamp, succumbed to the vanity and the complexity of people’s venomous or loving interractions, spectacularly overcome by the overlay of levels of new consciousness and new despair. Scarcely, and in some certain falls of the sparrow, new hope; or a Providence. Maybe.
But what and who is avenged here? What did everyone in these films (characters presented, writers and directors, producers and actors and everyone else involved) think so worth avenging as to make whole movies about it, under in most cases terrible financing circumstances in the midst of a collapsing and empoverished country, surrounded by freaking-out people forming a ridiculous state?
I guess my first answer to this would be ‘life in this very place’. By place, read the Earth.
Or more specifically, the life and mentality in Greece of the 80s and 90s, when PASOK party mainly ruled and Greece had embarked into its perilous journey of creating more and more debt and nouveaux-riche hollow development. It’s the people who guided our childhood that are avenged, parents, uncles, artists, politicians: all these people, weak and most certainly dead and powerless as the Hamlet’s father’s Ghost. Restless and wicked and greedy like Claudius. Hypocritical and pathetic and breathless (lifeless) like Gertrude. Word-twisting and cunny and forever-ass-licking like Polonius. These are the parents. And they consist the volume of victims #1.
Who else dies in these films apart from these goodfellas? Like in Hamlet, pretty much, everyone else: all the sons and the daughters: the responsible and the irresponsible, the obedient and the disobedient, the lively and the suicidal, the funny and the depressive, the lonely or the paired. It’s this very conscious, pretty nihilistic, effortlessly relentless drive of true Hamletian (and thus, unfruitful) revenge that is the driving Force behind these films. This is what produces these unforgiving, sexually charged, all-mocking, ironic and/or ultra-dramatic, witty films that are so full of incests, matrocides and patrocides, so full of cousins, brothers and sisters, or restless, lonely guys and girls that stand hungry, dump and regretfully illiterate in the middle of urban or rural nowhere.
To cut it short, if someone is about to watch this bunch of films, he must be ready to be acquainted with all these little Hamletian bastards discovering for the first time how dreadful their parents’ world is and how confused they are themselves, before they force every one (spectator included) to one-way-or-another fucking deal with it. And all this is actually great if it’s done nicely and here’s where one choses like ‘I like this film, don’t like the other’.
By the way, it has long been here, this underflow-of-a-genre the Hamletian revenge-tragedy film is: dozens of films have bursted out from the Hamletian pit we’re talking about, from Winterberg’s Festen (to name the most obvious example first) to Verhoeven’s 70s masterpiece Turkish Delight; and from Bergman’s filmography to Dreyer’s. Strangely enough, not a single film that is actually titled Hamlet has managed to belong to the Hamletian category, as none of these films (Olivier, Kozintsev, Brannagh, Franco what’s-his-name, etc.) was born from a true Hamletian drive.
The ‘tradition’ was merely present in Greek cinema of the 60s and early 70s. And for the two and a half decades that followed, films like that did not seem to flourish or burst-out in Greece at all, and this fact, together with certain political events of the last decade, have a lot to do with a certain ferocity in the overall movement. What was going on in the Greek production, was either films mainly dedicated to the celebration of the Balkan joie-de-vivre and self-destruction, or to the investigation of the misty post-civil-war malaise confronted with such interesting and mindblowing subjects as the notion of borders, or the supposed death of spirituality (seriously?). In the first case (the joie-de-vivre ones), to connect back with Hamlet, these films looked like an endless wedding banquet of Claudius and Gertrude. In the second case, they looked and sounded like dirty-old-fart-Polonius when he shares his spectacular opinions about art and poetry. So, to stop dragging on in this ironic and patricidal tone (which is, of course, unfair from my part – but maybe it’s not), the Hamlet shit came as pretty refreshing when it popped up in Greek cinema.
My dear Lorenzo, even though I know I can always plausibly return to the mentality, be full-of-myself with my ironies and bitter bites, with the strange ideas and funnyish examples, the truth is I don’t want to any more.
And that’s why I delayed so much this text for you.
You see, the thing is that this world has fallen. Politically and socially, Gertrude and Claudius reproduce themselves merely in the form of young Fortinbrasses appearing and re-appearing only when no one cares any more to fight against them. People have died or dried out. Youngsters grew older and ideas errupted on themselves drowning in their own blood. If I stand there I’ll be like Orestes running around my mom’s corpse while my friends are trying to keep the gathering flies away. If I stay very close to this corpse much longer, I’m going to rot with it. So, I leave it be. I don’t care so much about all this any more. It’s done already by me and others. I have new guns now and new fields and new sets of characters fascinate me and keep me alive.
And this is the biggest revenge of ‘em all.
You’ll have to wait a tiny bit more for this new stuff. We’re getting there.
See you soon,
(1) Harold Bloom, Hamlet: Poem Unlimited, 2003
Syllas Tzoumerkas, Film Parlato, issue 04, February 2016