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The Feminine Gaze in Antoinetta Angelidi’s Cinema of Imaginative Cathedrals

του  Vrasidas Karalis

Πρώτη δημοσίεσυη:  Realism in Greek Cinema: From the Post-War Period to the Present, I.B. Tauris, London 2017, p.p. 191-214

The cinema is an idealistic phenomenon

André Bazin

I          Invitation to a Beheading

Antoineta Angelidi’s cinematic language belongs to the hidden and unknown tradition of experimental, or, more precisely, poetic or constructivist, cinema in Greece. Her films are few, besides her shorts, which probably deserve closer study as art-happenings, together with her installations in various art galleries in Athens and Paris. The average length of her four longest films is 75 minutes. They are structured around strong images, vibrant colours and geometric structures. Although there is no obvious story, the filmic time unfolds in separate sections, like acts in a drama, which means the lack of storyline is replaced by a coherent underlining plot. Despite their painterly character, her cinematic frames must be seen as totalities, not as isolated fragments of a fresco or a succession of still photographs.

 Her work and thought alone raise the curtain on the ignored contribution of women film-makers in Greece. They have been totally forgotten or looked upon with derision or—and this is sometimes even worse—with sympathy and understanding. In one of his least discerning reviews, Vassilis Rafailidis aptly contextualised her work:

Angelidi’s commitment to her distinct perception of cinematic aesthetics is rather admirable; it is however an aesthetic which belongs less to cinema and more to fine arts. With an almost pretentious contempt towards all forms of commercial success, Angelidi and Costas Sfikas are the only Greek filmmakers who stubbornly avoid any acceptance of both the classical Aristotelian rules of narration … and the distantiation rules of the Brechtian narrative, which has defined narrative modernism …[1]

Rafailidis rightly points out her affinity to fine arts and the unique idiom she devised in order not to succumb to fashion: her distinct scenes could have been large panels or murals on the walls of cathedrals and caves. On one hand they replace Brechtian technique with a very strong theatricality: her actors are aware of the presence of the camera; they actually talk to the viewer through the camera. This is the way that Angelidi uses the formalist device of ostranenie, defamiliarisation or estrangement. Usually avant-garde films, such as those by Gregory Markopoulos, for example, or even those by Stan Brakhage, do not focus on the performative function of the story. Angelidi over-theatricalises performance in order to stress a different order of experience and to ‘deautomatise consciousness and counteract alienation’.[2]

It is the breadth of her vision and the amplitude of her expressiveness that make her films transcend photographic stillness, pictorial immobility and extreme artificiality. Angelidi animates her tableaux vivants through stylised movement, laconic soliloquies and poetic dialogues, in ways that not only bring them to life but make them cinematic material par excellence. The central theme of her work is the process of constructing images—her cinema is the ultimate model of ‘structural film-making’, which maintains absolute minimalism in terms of what is necessary for a scene to be self-sufficient. She works like a mosaic-maker piecing together forms, colours, and frames—it is the cumulative power of them all that creates an indelible impression of awe and wonder. She can do this because she is in control of the material and is not overpowered by the complexity of the materials’ history. Indeed history exists in her films as a verbal construction: through the words of poets, Dante, Sophocles and the poets of the Bible and of Byzantine hymnography—her The Hours(1995) and Thief or the Reality (2001) are replete with such texts, but they are always used in other ways. A man is Antigone, without losing his masculinity, a paedophile recites Leonardo without ever losing his dignity, a young girl is violated without ever losing her innocence. Images are used in a subversive manner: her first film, Idees Fixes/Dies Irae(1977), ends with a homage to Jacques-Louis David’s painting The Death of Marat (1793), the first depiction of modernist politics in Europe, but her Marat is a woman, trying to escape or confront the coming assassins—to no avail. The film ends and we must imagine what happened to her.

Angelidi writes her own scripts, which are based on strict formalist structures and expectations: a student of Christian Metz’s semiotics, she knows how to weave psychoanalytic discourses with semiotic sequentiality, avoiding the dominant mimetic perception of narrative and representation. Following Metz, she knows that ‘the secret of film is that it is able to leave a high degree of reality in its images, which are nevertheless still perceived as images’.[3] The filmic text is constructed by self-conscious images because it is an intentional artefact: the specific configuration of signs questions the essential meaning of those signs. As Peter Wollen observed:

a text is a material object whose significance is determined not by a code external to it, mechanically, nor organically as a symbolic whole, but through its own interrogation of its code. It is only though such an interrogation, through such an interior dialogue between signal and code, that a text can produce spaces within meaning, within the otherwise rigid straitjacket of the message, to produce a meaning of a new kind, generated within the text itself.[4]

The filmic Topos is precisely the space from which such semantic disruption emerges: new meaning is a disruption of old codes—most specifically the fall of old codifications. Angelidi knows how to destroy the codes that made her own work possible; in her ‘Self-Presentation’ she stated:

from my dark body, as I stand framing or being diffused in the dark theatre, I see codified images in all the ways that I can see, together with a piece of nature, if I succeed in escaping the codification that has happened within that nature and which now resides in my head. With violence and the fear of aestheticism. Puncture. Architecture as mise-en-scène. I was pregnant when I saw La Region Centrale by Michael Show. What Pleasure. All artistic problems together with temporality. Alterations and not relocation.[5]

The brief text articulates her project:

female orgasm is enigmatic and has been dealt [with] through unsurpassable symmetries and dichotomies. So feminine script analogically to the other orgasm, which is plural and not symmetrical, does not aspire in replacing one domination with another … The corporealisation of meanings is violent, it is feminine if you want. And then. Alien myths about our own body, colonies in our collective unconscious. The task to rework everything, to alter the myths.[6]

Her project is like Michael Snow’s attempt to establish cosmic relations between space and time: she wants to dive into the collective unconscious and reconfigure the patterns of expression that have represented the actual reality of being a woman.

 In a sense, her cinema is also materialist cinema because it is created on the emotional tension that develops between what is represented, its indexical meanings, and the various forms of its representation—here the film-maker stresses their arbitrary, fluid and culturally determined meaning. It is the material fields of each scene that frame an objective reference and an almost haptic reality for the image: the vibrant colours invite the viewer to enter the visual field and be absorbed by the ecstatic sublimation of radiating forms. As Rafailidis said, she does belong to the fine arts—but more precisely, I must add, she is coming out of the fine arts. Her scenes recreate the birth of cinema from the early explorations of perspective by the Renaissance masters to the contemporary destruction of perspective by Jean-Luc Godard. Furthermore, she is in a constant dialogue with Andrey Tarkovksy’s metaphysical realism and its Byzantine two-dimensionality as well as with Peter Greenaway’s chromatocentric reality and its Baroque origins. In between them she meets Sergei Parajanov and the dazzling luminosity of his earthy colours.

A simple exploration of her films shows that they are anti-illusionistic, anti-mimetic and anti-realistic visual structures. Angelidi is aware of the Gestalt formations that make her images meaningful if they generate unities of semantic references to other codes and forms. With her, the naive perception of realism as reference to something out there is ruthlessly discarded:

I claim that, in contrast to the illusion created about it by Griffith, cinema’s original is the dream and not reality. We never perceive reality as if it was cinema. The world is not pre-codified. The world is not staged. This illusion was created by mentally unwell people, and that’s what I explored in my latest film Thief or Reality, from the point of view of an actor.[7]

Because of the unnatural codes of so-called realistic cinema, the film-maker can only give her dreams, nightmares and visions. She is not going to deceive anyone: but she wants to make a point, and a political statement. In an interview she said:

There is a moment in my film with the representation of David’s Death of Marat, in which I myself impersonate the Marat on the painting, in the bath. The painting itself expresses an impasse of the revolutionary individual: that impasse is the painting itself by David, the fact that David made this painting and not the fact that it shows the death of Marat. Myself, by representing a representation of a certain revolution, I believe that I subvert the logic from within which this presentation was made. By placing myself within all these, I become one of the constituent elements of the film. I suffer, like them, reversals and self-criticisms. When the person who writes occupies a place in the film, at a certain moment, this person is turned upside down and becomes self-ironic. And this is a political act.[8]

Towards this end, her images are not imitating reality, history or everyday life. She knows that imitation, the Aristotelian mimesis, means distortion and that the real can only be semiotically captured: by juxtaposing codes of representation, reality emerges in a process of intuitive reconstruction in various experiences, moments of being and split seconds of authentic human connection. Each separate code has its own truth, but it is partial and in fragments. If the film-maker succeeds in ‘fulfilling her desire to express her own dream’, then:

the spectator can recognise her own dream or her own nightmare in the work itself. When the creation of an alien soul can disturb your own soul then it causes the methectic function of the work of art. It is the rarest miracle to accept from the external world your own inner images. The experience is unique. The momentary rupture of solitude.[9]

The problem of codes is crucial for the appreciation of her work. Angelidi desires to make films that come out of her life as a woman. She doesn’t have a code of reference or of meaning which can guide her to make films expressing the feminine experience other than the revered and sacred codes concocted by men. She desires to construct codes for gyno-poeticswhich won’t resemble the fetishised rules of traditional Aristotelian poetics focused around the passions of ‘great men’. In an interview about her most recent installation artwork, which incorporates cinematic images, she stated:

The projected work constantly differentiates itself. The dialogue between films—between space and spectator—constantly mutates. There is no Ariadne’s thread, a singular narrative line, but constantly mutating narrative lines, which are produced in a process of randomness. One could say that the form of the work reflects the complicated and constantly mutating dialogue embodied by the work itself.[10]

She desires therefore a new meta-language for the cinematic language itself—a language that won’t pretend to be eternal and objective, but, as she stresses in the same interview, will be based on the very synthesis that every human encapsulates—‘a personal, peculiar and specific synthesis: a combination of gender, age, religion and social class’. Her latest work is called ‘Sowing without Thread’, a metaphor which in the lexicon of the writer Mary Daly, a lexicon based on what women do and how women are, means ‘spinning, world-making, Gyn/Ecological creation; Dis-covering the lost thread of connectedness within the cosmos’.[11]

By desiring such rich, complex and experiential language, Angelidi also attempts the Herculean task of beheading the idols of the tribe. Mimesis, as mentioned, according to her, is associated with androcentrism, with the centuries-long centrality of masculine signifiers in the creative reproduction of form, feminine or masculine. As Savvas Michail, a ‘visionary’ interpreter of her work, observed, her films are focused around the ‘criticism and the struggle to transcend the deception of mimetic representation’ as ‘the functions of mimesis are confirming androcentric domination which Angelidi’s cinema rejects without any compromise through the poetic power of her cinematic iconography’.[12] Michail points out that in order to refute the established codes of thinking both verbally and cinematically from within the paradigm of androcentric mimetic codes of representation, Angelidi’s films have as their central architectural principle the Freudian concept of the uncanny; he concludes his extraordinary essay of her work by stating:

The Unheimlich from the return of the repressed desire and the Unheimlich with the return from the archaic to the modern constitute the Grundproblem in the daring cinematic modernism of Angelidi.[13]

 Beyond anything else, her films, despite the lack of narrative development, characters and storyline, maintain a thread of thematic unity and plot continuity which give them emotional intensity and structural circularity precisely because of the presence of the uncanny in their images. The viewers feel and understand that something is happening—the happeningitself, the event of visual epiphany, becomes itself the epicentre of her films. As long as the framework of reference is established the signifiers return: language guides the mind to attune itself to the post-linguistic situations their eyes witness. Her pictorialist cinema is a confronting experience for viewers who have been habituated to some form of explicit or implicit storyline: her visual idiolect combines pictoriality with the free play of interchangeable signifiers. There is no linear unfolding, or even circular unfolding, but something is moving—and the phenomenological impact of the cinematic event itself is enough to seduce the eye and bring the viewer deeper into the movie. The cinema thus maintains its mystique, while only the cinematographer knows its secret language.

Angelidi created a cinematic style which since its inception wanted to assassinate the androcentric aesthetics of presentation, storytelling and mise-en-scène. In a way, Angelidi is the Artemisia Gentileschi of modern cinema. Like Artemisia’s paintings, her films pulsate with the density of basic colours, and construct an architectural space of structural and chromatic dynamism. Like her, Angelidi must work hard to prove the innocence of women: in an androcentric universe, all women, especially artists, are guilty for undermining the symbolic foundations of male domination, and chargeable for self-victimisation. In either case they are always on the wrong side of things. Like Artemisia’s raped and tortured body, the great code of meaning is female corporeality from birth to death. The female body is the ultimate god of history: it gives life, it is the urgrundof fecundity and deathlessness. Male artists brutally sexualise the female body—naked or clothed. Angelidi simply brings out the fragility and vulnerability of its presence; she also adds, like Artemisia:

[a] disturbing psychological content, [which] uses representation to confirm an ideology of dominance over powerlessness, in which woman’s voluptuous body is affirmed as an object of exchange between men.[14]

However, the creative process itself, the act of reinventing the codes, is an act of empowerment: the artist is not the transcendental A. in Angelopoulos’ Ulysses’ Gaze, or the archetypal male trickster Zorba, or the symbolic traumatised everyday male in Koundouros’ oblique films, but a specific woman, a given subjectivity who is the synthesis of gender, class, culture and religion, and who suggests as the ultimate lexicon of meaning her corporeal presence, the body which gives birth.

But it is a tortured body, mutilated and misperceived, distorted under so many centuries of inauthentic perceptions and representations. In a strange way, Angelidi’s visual incursions violate the sanctity of masculine historical primacy, and undermine the dominant perception of the male as the sole protagonist of history. However, they also rewrite memory, through images which emanate from a different centre of power: they replace the phallus with the vagina, reconciling history with the beginnings of life, the physical principle of natality. If male thinkers such as Martin Heidegger are talking about mortality and finitude, female thinkers, such as Hannah Arendt, think of life as a creatio continua, as the ongoing expansion of space and existence. Angelidi’s films are about the infinity of space, the endless corridors which receive the ever-perpetuating rays of light. What we see in the light is equally important: in Angelopoulos’ Reconstruction a woman kills her husband, as also occurs in Cacoyannis’ Electra, but Angelidi’s films are about ‘gynocidal re-enactments’. By using a woman to usurp Marat’s position, Angelidi recognises:

[the] multiple manifestations of the lethal intent of patriarchy … This knowing requires acknowledging the interconnectedness of the ritual atrocities, refusing the compartmentalising of facts into stale and irrelevant ‘bodies of knowledge’ and thereby finding the focus of her anger, so that it fuels it and no longer blocks her passion and her creativity.[15]

In a sense, with the exception of her first film, her other three films are like medieval illustrated manuscripts: rewritten and repainted, they frame a space of hyper-visuality, punctured by voices, sounds and apparitions. They frame ‘l’ hazard’ as the first condition for the freeing of feminine imagination from her own inferiorisation—objects, words and (predominantly) colours celebrate their own contingency, the randomness of their presence. Unlike the male need for deterministic explanations and causal serialisations of action and thought, Angelidi foregrounds the unpredictability of new forms, which also means the emergence of new mental atmospheres. In exactly the way that a mother gives birth to an unconditionality of a new being, so also does artistic freedom, which discards storyline, continuity and seriality.

As Maya Deren, the pioneer visual poet, admonished the film-maker:

artistic freedom means that the amateur filmmaker is never forced to sacrifice visual drama and beauty to a stream of words … to the relentless activity and explanations of a plot … nor is the amateur production expected to return profit on a huge investment by holding the attention of a massive and motley audience for 90 minutes … Instead of trying to invent a plot that moves, use the movement of wind, or water, children, people, elevators, balls, etc. as a poem might celebrate these. And use your freedom to experiment with visual ideas; your mistakes will not get you fired.[16]

Angelidi’s frames jump from a music pattern to a non-visual rhythmic emptiness, from stylised movement to verses from tragedy, from a monochrome blue to stark juxtapositions of ecstatic polychromy. In one of her most significant aesthetic statements, after having explored the feeling of cinematic time, she concluded:

There are films  which through complex tropes of temporality, create a fertile uncertainty, an oscillation between identification and defamiliarisation, between the known and the unknowable. Films which ask for an emancipated spectator, predisposed to think and feel, working through his/her own self—a spectator who can be either critical or enchanted. These are films of formal autonomy, since the potentialities of cinematic heterogeneity have been only partially explored. Because the complex contemporary psychical world deserves to be the model for all cinematic compositions. Because cinema can open a break so that the unsayable can be articulated.[17]

She made only four main films: Parallages sto Idio Thema/Idées Fixes/Dies Irae (1977), Topos (1985) Oi Ores—Mia Tetragoni Tainia/The Hours—A Rectangular Film (1995) Kleftis i Pragmatikotita/Thief or the Reality (2001). Her other short films, exhibitions and multimedia work represent a running commentary on and expansion of the field of her artistic involvement. Together with many other experimental directors she associates cinema with other arts, incorporating elements from painting and dance into her non-linear, anti-aristotelian and non-mythological narratives. She calls her language ‘poetic cinema’, which she defines as the very essence of the cinematic:

I believe that cinema in opposition to the illusion that Griffith created about it has as its model not reality but dream. We never perceive reality in cinema. The world is not pre-codified; there is no mise-en-scène in reality … the oneiric and the cinematic are extremely akin. It’s about images moving, the one after the other, in time. They use the same codes for the production of meaning: the two-dimensional images, their succession, movement, natural language, sounds. That’s why the new art of cinema is so familiar to us. Not because it resembles reality, but because it is like dreaming. In a sense, it is the oldest art, since we have been always dreaming.[18]

Angelidi was not alone: she belonged to a generation of film-makers from the 1970s who experienced the aftermath of May ’68 in France: having the imagination in power, even for few days, was enough to reinvent the meaning of cinema as an event of political commitment. In Greece some of the principles of May became obvious in the New Cinema of the early 1970s. Angelopoulos’ first films, for example, have strong echoes from the radical reorientation of cinematic form as expressed by Jean-Luc Godard and the film-makers after him. Guy Debord’s early works—On the Passage of a Few Persons Through a Rather Brief Moment in Time (1959) and Critique of Separation (1961), and certainly Society of the Spectacle(1973)—were on the horizon of all anti-film makers during this period of political rebellion. For the avant-garde, the American underground movement of Andy Warhol and Jonas Mekas, together with the great early experimentalists like Maya Derren, Stan Brakhage, Michael Snow and Gregory Markopoulos, were the background for a movement that could not yet emerge in a Greek context—not simply because of the military dictatorship, but primarily because there were no structures to support such a movement and indeed no structures to rebel against.

However, the restoration of the Republic in July 1974 created the conditions for the radical explosion of the creative imaginary: the state seemed power-less and the institutions were shaken to their very foundations, having lost all their legitimacy. This creative destruction lasted around five years, as the political elites regrouped around a new system of sharing power while maintaining the opacity and the inviolability of the executive and of legislative authority. Soon the parties of the Left became involved in the process, and in 1981 the Socialist Party was elected to power, under the banner of change. The change was, of course, only in who controls the state. It was not about a change in the state. It was also about new ideologies being imposed as official narratives. It was the end of a creative era, another ‘Lost Spring’ in which the creative imaginary of the country and the physiognomy of Greek cinema could have been renewed and reinvented, but were not.

During this period, however, there were a number of radical experiments with cinematic language. This experiment had started in the early 1970s, when Angelopoulos, Costas Ferris, Pandelis Voulagris and Tonia Marketaki, amongst others, recalibrated the narrative rhythms and visual poetics of cinematic storytelling. It was called ‘formalist moment’[19] in Greek cinema, because representation became the object of a reconfiguring and restructuring of the visual language which the previous generation had struggled so hard to compose. It also meant a prolonged and systematic questioning of the limits of representation, together with a questioning of what is or could be represented. It was the moment of the auteurs, who relocated the centre of gravity from empathy with was happening on the screen to an abstracted intellectualisation of patterns of representation. The formalist moment had its own special codes for telling stories. They were mostly in the geometry and construction of each scene, not in the fast movement of the camera through successive scenes. Most of them rewrote the rules in certain genres. For example, Tonia Marketaki’s unique film noir John the Violent/Ioannis o Viaios(1973) is a complete restructuring of the genre, infusing it with unexpected temporalities and provocative movements (reminiscent of Bela Tarr’s The Man from London (2005), which shows us a bleak world, full of rhythmic self-destruction and disorienting pace).

Even Costa Ferris’ more traditional film The Murderess/I Fonissa (1975), with its psychologised camera work, as the camera eye dived into the mind of a deranged old woman, pushed the limits of representation in a direction even Ferris himself was never able to follow again. Finally, Angelopoulos’ Days of 36 (1972), The Travelling Players (1975) and The Hunters (1977) reconfigured storytelling on the cinematic screen by abolishing causal connections between actions. He maintained the dramatic story but restructured the plot: in Days of 36 the camera circles its way around a closed room, where all the action takes place; in The Travelling Players many moments of action converge on specific topoi of memory; and in The Hunters the camera stays still in front of the event of death: the hallucinations are but shadows of real events which we never see.

The film-makers of that generation confronted the forms of bourgeois representationalism but not the codes that established representations themselves. Angelidi’s first film, Parallages sto Idio Thema/Idées Fixes/Dies Irae (1977), represented the moment when the accepted and consecrated ways of looking at the individual experience were slaughtered ruthlessly, in exactly the way that Judith beheads Olofernes in the painting by Artemisia Gentileschi. This film was an attack on codes of representation, not on forms of storytelling: it rearranged the semiotics of codes, by removing signifiers and reversing their expected performative meaning. The most important aspect of this film is that it frames a way of un-telling a story, of unravelling the seductive allure of its images and of un-creating the causality of its scenes. Of course it all happens only because each scene, with its static camera, slow movement and self-conscious construction, functions at many levels of meaning—each is full of references to Godard, Sfikas and, in strange way, the other master of the Protestant Gothic, Carl Dreyer.

 The process of de-structuring the codes had started in 1974 with Modelo, the stunning achievement by Costas Sfikas. With the limited technical abilities and equipment of the period Sfikas visualised the old dream of Sergei Eisenstein: he translated into images the abstract economics of Karl Marx’s Das Kapital. This seminal film, the foundational text of cinematic experimental modernism, remains to this day the mother of all the anti-languages employed ever since to confront the prevailing form of realism. A-causal, non-linear, spasmodic and unnatural in its unfolding, it frames a universe of strange iconicities—they do not correspond to real events although they are about the everyday reality of work and the political system around it. The frame is divided into two parts concurrently depicting disconnected happenings without following any accepted patterns of perspective and logic. The camera itself becomes the eye through which we look back at the presence of homo laborans. The work, the artefact, does not simply reflect the capitalist system that produces it; the actual object of work becomes an entrance to the inner space of being, into the creative ability of the mind, or negatively into the dormant potential of the alienated worker. Commodities form and determine the subject, so in capitalism the subject becomes itself a commodity—the process of such commodfication without the anecdotes of traditional narrative is the central story of Modelo. Sfikas became the grand formalist master of experimental films and still remains, as Savvas Michail observed, ‘the perennial revolution against all figurative illusions, against all affirmations of a condemned order of things’.[20]

Sfikas continued his anti-cinematic films, with Metropoles/Metropoleis (1974), Allegory/Allegoria (1985), The Prophetic Bird of Paul Klee’s Melancholias/To Profitiko Pouli ton Thlipseon tou Paul Klee (1995) amongst others, until his death (in 2009). He paved the way for other important experimental films-makers, such as Thanasis Rentzis, Maria Gavala, Stella Theodoraki, Demos Theos and, more recently, Vassilis Mazomenos—all these warrant discussion in their own right. From 1974 to this day, the tradition of experimental film-makers renews cinematic language by revising the ability of images to signify reality, reassembling the codes of visual perception and rethinking the role of the cinematic experience; we cannot understand contemporary Greek cinema without the silent influence of such underground movements which fight constantly, and without any compromise, against what Vassilis Mazomenos has called ‘the dictatorship of realism’.[21]

This is the context for the works of Angelidi: beyond her studies with Christian Metz in post-1968 Paris, her work bears a very strong connection to cinematic life in Greece, and is in a constant dialogue with global traditions and experiences. Her work is the embodiment of the openness of Greek cinema, of its polymorphous character, absorbing elements from different genres, artistic regions and visual languages. It is an optical palimpsest made up of various studies on similarities in visual architectonics, inter-filmic transcriptions and colourful explosions. Her films are about the transition from the baroque to expressionism: they bridge centuries of sensibilities and styles and establish connections with a belligerent modernism that transforms realism into a heresy of imagination.

All her films are intense visual experiences, in stylised geometric frames, full of energy (especially when they depict stillness) and of sculptural immobility (particularly when they record dynamic movement). Her films are pictorial psychodramas, in which roles are reversed, expectations are frustrated and colours radiate with psychological associations, open to many interpretations and projections. They are all works of reversal and confrontation, made through a relocation of perspective, to the reverse gaze of feminine presence as it looks back and reclaims the space and time that has been taken over and obscured.

II         Films as Eschatological Monuments: The Omega Point of Being

For me, large dimensions signify a return to childhood. I wanted to create a space so that adults can find themselves again in the time and space of their childhood.

Antoinetta Angelidi

Angelidi’s first film completed a process of osmosis between images and spatiality: it explored the fused world of the feminine body, or the feminised male, presenting a gendered view of experience and politics. Idees Fixes/Dies Irae framed the unpredictable simultaneity of memory: everything co-exists in the unconscious because everything has a second life. As we saw, she calls her cinema poetic, in the sense that it is a self-reflective cinematic act, because it thinks through its own construction, language and semiotics. In reality, it is a cinema which reflects on the end, the telos, of cinematic activity. Therefore, it could be more aptly called eschatological cinema, as it envisages the endpoint of experienced realities, and visualises a space for the omega point of being.

Especially in the trilogy that followed her first film, Angelidi falls into the baroque world of bright basic colours, depthless spaces and the spiral temporalities that dominate the subconscious matrix of memories. The memories themselves spring up like religious epiphanies which disrupt the numinous blackness at the urgrund of being: instead of experiencing an artificial certainty about existence, which the Aristotelian unities have imposed upon the creative imaginary of the western world at least, Angelidi explores a more Platonic understanding of the origins of the creative impulse. As I have also noted in relation to Koundouros’ later films, Angelidi’s depiction of memory is analogous to Plato’s wax tablet from Theaetetus (191a–196c). But here the confused and superimposed imprints are not examined for their referential accuracy or political value; they become ur-bilden, primary images, which reveal and unveil the significance of the feminine as the demiurgic principle.

After her first film, which is in reality a political manifesto, her trilogy seems to work though the originary experience which, since Otto Rank, we call ‘the trauma of birth’: this is another kind of traumatic experience, beyond the cultural and historical traumas of the past which had seized the creative imaginary of the previous generation. The trauma now is ontological and refers to the fallen state of having being expelled from the only paradise humans will ever know, the paradise of the maternal womb. The state of being born, the fundamental event of natality, makes history possible: we simple replicate the exit from the womb by experiencing the existential essence of colours. Angelidi’s trilogy is about the spectacle of life as seen by a newly born infant. There is an interesting testimony about this by Salvador Dali, the other surrealist of colour and form. Describing his own antenatal experience, he wrote in his autobiography:

The colours of my intra-uterine paradise were hellish—red, orange, yellow, and bluish, the colours of flames of fire; above all it was warm, motionless, soft, symmetrical, padded and sticky. I already felt that all pleasure and all enchantment lay there before my eyes …[22]

This is what we experience as we enter Angelidi’s visual universe: from the very beginning she offers a chromatic immersion which as a profound religious epiphany forces the viewer to start rethinking the significance of each shot—if there is a latent plot in her films, it has to be that of the Byzantine liturgy. Furthermore, if in Angelopoulos and Koundouros we find the gradual emergence into the world of colours, followed by a period of impressionistic surprise (for the former) and expressionistic frenzy (for the latter), Angelidi’s images are from the very beginning steeped in their natural habitat of colours. They are conceived first as chromatic entities. Colour is not an external element on their surface—it radiates from within, it is the expression of their essential being-ness. The first shot in Topos is about birth and the theme of birth is expressed through the colours blue, red, green and brown, which are the colours of the earth, indicating perpetual fecundity and vital energy. Eisenstein, in his Ivan Terrible Part II (1958) talks about the connection between the scenes in the film and ‘the polyphonic montage in colour’.[23] Angelidi uses colour antiphonally, to frame states of mind and bring the audience within the scene itself: the viewer must respond, as the film targets their own personal space. She makes use of the Byzantine inverse perspective as seen from within a Renaissance and Baroque visual expressionism, rather like Tarkovsky and Angelopoulos. Yet warm colours alternate with each other, forming the architectural and the perspectival depth in each image.

They are all framing the verticality of the human figure, as they reconfigure the horizontality of the human gaze. Angelidi’s frames utilise the fullness of human form to create awe of the human presence. In an extremely prescient analysis, Eleni Mahaira stressed the fact that Angelidi, in a break with a traditional sense of perspective, ‘causes a confusion of perspectival axes to the point that depth becomes height, the depth of perspective becomes … the upper part of the cinematic image’.[24] Such paradoxical fusion privileges the image itself as the topos where the dialectical antinomies are reconciled: the code is identical with the coded and their union establishes the strength of the visual impression. Jean-Luc Godard stated the analogous mode of presenting colour in his Pierrot Le Fou (1965), the paradigmatic example of a pictorial, almost pop-art employment of colours:

when you drive in Paris at night, what do you see? Red, green, yellow lights. I wanted to show these elements but without the necessity of placing them as they are in reality. Rather as they remain in memory—splashes of red and green, flashes of yellow passing by. I wanted to recreate a sensation through the elements that constitute it.[25]

Martin Scorsese, in Taxi Driver (1976), also depicts the urban experience of New York through the melting colours of the city on the glass of the taxi.

Angelidi’s chromo-poetics are based precisely on such recreation and re-enactment of the sensations experienced through direct exposure to the fluid luminosity of colours. In Greek cinema, her work bears a resemblance to Nikos Nikolaidis’ The Wretches Are Still Singing/Ta Kourelia Tragoudane Akoma (1978) and Sweet Bunch/Ylikia Simoria (1983), in both of which ‘the storyline is driven by their own vibrant and basic colours’.[26] The strong basic colours, emblematically expressed through the scarlet curtain of divine epiphany, show that Angelidi’s artistic project uses the representational codes of form, composition and mise-en-scène formed gradually through the centuries, at the same time rewriting the language of representation itself. In dialogue, also with the experiments of the period, her Topos is a strong response to Angelopoulos’ impressionism, as seen in Landscape in the Mist (1988). On the other hand, the baroque sensitivity towards bright and vibrant colours seems to animate her first film: like Artemisia, ‘her mastery and originality is best seen in her application of colour itself, the enormous range of saturation and intensity that she was able to manipulate’.[27]

With her next film, The Hours/I Ores (1995), the infant girl of the first film has grown up, or lives suspended between adulthood and childhood memories. The movie has the subtitle ‘A Square Film’—action is framed through multiple narrative lines, all converging or diverging within each frame. This film does not have the architectural solidity of the previous one. However, it incorporates images of fluidity, constant movement, and fast pacing so that the unity of Topos is here expressed through the heterogeneity of the actual material on each frame. The stillness and stylisation of Topos have been replaced by emotional reactions, empathic mechanisms of identification, even little stories of shared affect. Maria Katsounaki sensitively reviewed the film:

The primary material of The Hours is the dreams. The secondary is silence, the ‘lush, secret silence’. The third is time: in the beginning it is associative, then fluid, and finally redeeming. The film dares the descent, the ‘rhythmical’ immersion in places of secret desires and tormenting guilt, successfully. The development of Spendo (the name of the central female character refers to offering, the offering of her life) moves from violent dependence, during her childhood, from the traumatic memories, to the light, and in the end to the final acceptance of her own personal gaze.[28]

Each scene is also immersed in the colours of the Flemish school of painting: there are strong visual contrasts, magnified objects, empty spaces filled with elliptical forms. The film unfolds the traumatic childhood, the confused adolescence and the enraged youth of a woman, but in a way that constructs a metaphor about a feminine revisualisation of the development of history. This prismatic narrative opens up the form to multiple readings as Angelidi struggles to liberate the screen from the ideological inscriptions of the film industry. Instead of creating a melodramatic saga of individual self-assertion and emancipation, she explores the deepest ontological conditions which lead to a life of trauma and self-alienation—that is to say, the mysterious drama that we all find in the colour black. Blackness is the ultimate protagonist in this film.

The heterogeneous narrative creates a dual effect: there are both the Aristotelian empathic identification with the characters and the defamiliarising effect of the Russian formalists. The film itself becomes a contested frame of colliding signifiers. It frames an experience of the deepest possible realism, as it is now focused on objects, clothes, intimate spaces, the world of objecthood that circumscribes the individual and at the same time infuses the personal space of each life with meaning.

In a very strange way, in Angelidi’s totally surreal, indeed metaphysical, art we find the question of realism solved. If naive realism was predicated on clear and total knowledge of what stands in front of the viewer, the presence of the object itself transforms it through the contact with our eyes into an unstable and unredeemed relationship. This is the abolition of solitude that Angelidi spoke about—but it can be also seen from another angle. Painter Lucien Freud observed that ‘nothing ever stands in for anythin … Nobody is representing anything. Everything is autobiographical, and everything is a portrait, even if it’s a chair.’[29] The heterogeneity of spatial forms frames the psychic origins of what we see on the screen: these are not the ‘found moments’ or the ‘observed facts’ we saw in Cacoyannis. On the contrary, each shot pulsates with the psychological energy of unresolved, indeed irredeemable, tension. The film ends with the naked couple at the dark night of the soul, not at the paradise of Judeo-Christian bliss. Sex is violence and aggression, the ultimate proof of the post-lapsarian reality in which women were the first victims and presumed guilty partners. The representation of sexuality in this film is indicative of what is called ‘second-wave feminism’, in which the act of penetration is itself a violation of the corporeal space of the woman. The self-sufficient visual language of The Hours overthrows the phallocentric nature of language itself: it castrates the signifying practices of the phallocracy and destroys the mental structures of a sexist universe.

The third film of the trilogy, Thief or The Reality (2001), brings Angelidi’s aesthetic and existential project to a completely new level of articulation. Now the narrative has multiplied and become more complex in its ability to reinterpret the feminine world. Angelidi indicates that the narrative has a ‘fractal structure’ and is a ‘meta-linguistic game of self-awareness’. Stories emerge from within stories, as the film starts with a game of gambling and ends with the ritual procession of tragedy. A voice repeats in crucial moments the strange ungrammatical sentence: ‘Everything I spent, I had. Everything I kept, I lost. Everything I gave, I still have.’ The film rewrites western civilisation not by being a revisionist reinterpretation of historical events, but by rewriting everything through alternative scripts: Antigone is a man, the Matthew Gospel is about a woman, the men who were the protagonists in the contests of politics and culture are replaced by women, women offer new beginnings, new openings to the closed horizons of masculine narcissistic indulgence.

Angelidi’s images cannibalise the visual testimonies of male violence: from Alessandro Mantegna’s frantic angular forms and Goya’s horrifying Capricios (1979/8) to Dreyer’s Vampyr (1932) and Bergman’s The Seventh Seal (1957). The feminine reasserts its primacy—it shows up the parasitic and necrophilic characters of patriarchy as the constant usurper of the genuine timelessness of femininity and its ability to give birth. The film rewrites the history of cinema, from the silent period to the contemporary rhetoric of emotional complexities. As Vassilis Mazomenos wrote:

In essence the film completes the triptych of life. But you have to read it in the reverse. The ‘It is Accomplished’ of the beginning raises the dramatic curtain. The desire for life sets the curtain on fire and the whole game is completed. It is related to Bergman’s Persona, in which we can see condensed the philosophical and artistic perception of the director … A polyphonic art-work from the future of the seventh art.[30]

The film consummates Angelidi’s eschatological vision, reconfiguring patterns of representation that have shaped worldviews and images about world-building. It constructs a language that translates lived experience into musical patterns expressed through the synaesthesia of colours. Every shot is for her the omega point of creation: the continuing creation of humans works not on a pre-ordained divine plan but through self-reflexivity and self-invention, constant self-fashioning. The most interesting element of her great trilogy is what also differentiates her from Angelopoulos: in her universe there are no artificial borders which divide us from them, and indicate friendly from enemy territory. Borders, which so fascinated Angelopoulos and Koundouros, evoke war, violence and death. Angelidi’s visual universe is made of basic colours and primary elements. As Mary Daly said, borders ‘celebrate the pseudo-creative power of boundary violation’ which is ‘clearly an invasion of women’s bodies/spirits and of all our kind: earth, air, fire, water’.[31] The borderless territories of her images illustrate the different anthropogeography of her visual space. It is not that of nihilism and death but of a beginning which is not:

the beginning of something but of somebody, who is a beginner himself. With the creation of man, the principle of beginning came into the world itself, which, of course, is only another way of saying that the principle of freedom was created when man was created and not before.[32]

The actualised ontology of natality makes Angelidi’s films central to understanding the eschatology of being: her end becomes a beginning, and the eschaton is transformed into an arche. The omega point is an arche—the cinema of Angelidi constructs the visual space of an arche-logia, as the constant birth of unpredictable and unconditioned ontological promise.

III       The Final Lexicon

Traumas are not the only sources.

Antoinetta Angelidi

Angelidi’s films are about the glorification of the senses—both of the body and of the cinema. They celebrate what the senses can do and what the cinema can produce. Like most avant-garde films, they explore the limits of representation and the limitations of what can be represented. They struggle to liberate films from the many ideological scripts that transform them into escapist exercises, and at the same time aim to de-habituate the viewer from the usual patterns of mythopoeic imagination. Her task is what Scott McDonald has indicated is that of all global avant-garde film-makers:

to focus attention—an almost meditative level of attention—on subject matter normally ignored or marginalised by mass-entertainment film, and, by doing so, to reinvigorate our reverence for the visual world around us, and develop our patience for experiencing it fully.[33]

There are two distinct periods in her development. The first film is something of its own, a unique experiment with space and time, that rearranged the signs used to construct a film and the meaning which we attributed to the specific configuration of these signs. In the second period we see her major trilogy, in which the film itself becomes the integrated symbol of the new for a new language of visual representation, which is gendered, politically conscious and culturally transparent. Her installation works incorporate excerpts from her films and thus introduce another factor in the production of cinematic experience: space becomes an actual part of the filmic experience itself. Cinematic space, however, is always about rhythmic patterns in the movement of images, sounds, words and cuts. Angelidi works with the interplay of such cinematic ‘imagemes’. The result is that:

the space out of the screen becomes space within the screen. Absence becomes presence. The film artifice can be continued. The narrative is secure and the spectator is comfortably re-inscribed within the filmic discourse.[34]

Such Gesumtkunstwerk is made up of contrasting features harmonised through the semiotic references to their own construction.

Erwin Panofsky wrote the following memorable passage about cinema:

It might be said that a film, called into being by a cooperative effort in which all contributions have the same degree of permanence, is the nearest modern equivalent of a medieval cathedral; the role of the producer corresponding, more or less, to that of the bishop or the archbishop; that of the director to that of the architect in chief; that of the scenario writers to that of the scholastic advisers establishing the iconographic program and that of the actors, cameramen, cutters, sound men, makeup men and the divers technicians to those whose work provided the physical entity of the finished product …[35]

There is no other accurate description of Angelidi’s work but that of medieval cathedral—the fact that it is made of renaissance materials and uses post-modern design expresses the paradox of all avant-garde directors.

Εικόνα εξψφύλλου: Τόπος, Αντουανέττα Αγγελίδη, 1985


[1] Vassilis Rafailidis, ‘Antoinetta Angelidi, Hours—a Square Film’, Film Lexicon, vol. 3, Athens: Aiyokeros, 2003, p. 241

[2] Silvija Jestrovic, ‘Theatricality as Estrangement of Art and Life in the Russian Avant-garde’, Journal SubStance, vol. 31, issues 2&3, 2002, p. 55

[3] Christian Metz, Film Language, A Semiotics of the Cinema (trans. Michael Taylor), Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1974,  p. 14

[4] Peter Wollen, Signs and Meaning in the Cinema, Bloomington IN: Indiana University Press, 1972, p. 162

[5] Antoineta Angelidi, ‘Self-Presentation’, in Stella Theodoraki (ed.), A. Angelidi, Athens: Aiyokeros, 2005, pp. 34–35

[6] Ibid.

[7] Antoinetta Angelidi, Poetic Cinema and the Mechanisms of Dreaming, in http://www.cinemainfo.gr/cinema/theory/articles/poiitikoskinimatografos/index.html

[8] Angelidi, in Theodoraki (ed.), A. Angelidi, p. 43

[9] Ibid.

[10] Antoinetta Angelidi, ‘Sowing Dreams on a Ribbon, a discussion with Yannis Frangoulis’, Greek News Blog, 12 May 2012, at http://greeceactuality.wordpress.com/2012/12/05/%CF%83%CF%85%CE%BD%CE%B5%CE%BD%CF%84%CE%B5%CF%85%CE%BE%CE%B7-%CE%B1%CE%BD%CF%84%CE%BF%CF%85%CE%B1%CE%BD%CE%B5%CF%84%CF%84%CE%B1%CF%83-%CE%B1%CE%B3%CE%B3%CE%B5%CE%BB%CE%B9%CE%B4%CE%B7/ (accessed 20 September 2013)

[11] Mary Daly, Gyn/Ecology: The Metaethics of Radical Feminism, Boston: Beacon Press, 1978, p. 96

[12] Savvas Michail, Musica ex Nihilo: Essays on Poetry, Life, Death and Justice, Athens: Agra Publications, 2013, p. 122

[13] Ibid., p. 128

[14] Whitney Chadwick, Woman, Art and Society, London: Thames & Hudson, 1994, p. 97

[15] Daly, Gyn/Ecology, p. 111

[16] Maya Deren, ‘Amateur versus professional’, Film Culture, vol. 39, 1965, pp. 45–46

[17] Antoinetta Angelidi, ‘About cinematic time: Similarities between filmic script and the mechanisms of dreaming’, Vema, 5 December 2008

[18] Antoinetta Angelidi, ‘Poetic cinema and the mechanism of dream’, athttp://www.cinemainfo.gr/cinema/theory/articles/poiitikoskinimatografos/index.html (accessed 10 October 2013)

[19] Vrasidas Karalis, A History of Greek Cinema, London: Bloomsbury, 2012, p. 143

[20] Savvas Mihail, A Trilogy: Notes on the Cinema of Costas Sfikas, CameraStylo OnLine, at http://camerastyloonline.wordpress.com/2011/05/13/keimena-savva-michail-gia-ton-kinimatografo-toukosta-sfika/ (accessed 10 October 2013)

[21] Vassilis Mazomenos, ‘Review of Angelos Frantzis’ film In the Woods: assault against the dictatorship of realism’, Eleftherotypia, 28 September 2010

[22] Salvador Dali, The Secret Life of Salvador Dali, New York: Dial Press, 1942, p. 42

[23] The Eisenstein Reader (ed. Richard Taylor, trans R. Taylor and William Powell), London: British Film institute Publications, 1998, p. 193

[24] Eleni Mahaira, ‘A. Angelidi: Painting, the Matrix’, in A. Angelidi, E. Mahaira and K. Kyriacos (eds), Writings On Cinema, A. Angelidi, Athens: Nefeli Publications, 2005, p. 177

[25] In John Cage, Colour in Art, London: Thames & Hudson, 2006, p. 195

[26] Karalis, A History of Greek Cinema, p. 188

[27] Germaine Greer, The Obstacle Race: The Fortunes of women painters and their work, London: Secker & Warburg, 1979, p. 207

[28] Maria Katsounaki, ‘Review of The Hours’, I Kathimerini, Athens, 19 January 1996

[29] Sebastian Smee, Lucian Freud, 1922–2011: Beholding the Animal, Köln: Taschen, 2012, p. 34

[30] Vassilis Mazomenos, ‘Review of Angelidi’s Thief’, Anti Magazine, Athens, 16 November 2001

[31] Daly, Gyn/Ecology, p. 71

[32] Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition, Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 1958, p. 177

[33] Scott MacDonald, Avant-Garde Film: Motion Studies, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993, pp. 11–12

[34] A. Angelidi, ‘The Game with the Uncanny: Poetics for the Cinema’, Angeleidi, Mahaira and Kyriacos (eds), Writings on Cinema, p. 31

[35] Erwin Panofsky, Three Essays On Style (ed. Irving Lavin), Cambridge MA: MIT Press, 1997, p. 119


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