The films of Theo Angelopoulos: A Cinema of Contemplation – Andrew Horton (1997)

When I was still in primary school, at the sweet age of nine, and had no idea that I would become a slow fanatic one day, someone wrote a book on contemplative cinema. That someone was Andrew Horton, and it appears rather strange to put the concept of contemplative cinema into the pre-2000 era. After all, the concept has largely been accredited to Harry Tuttle, and I wonder whether it’s again just one of those knee-jerk things, or whether someone has actually done a bit of work to see that Tuttle was not the person to come up with it. Even though this is by no means a competitive race about who’s first (it’s useless in a slow world anyway), it is important to put things straight before a proper debate on Slow Cinema can take place.

Horton’s book on the films of Greek filmmaker Theo Angelopoulos is one of those rare specimens on the market. I’m surprised to see so little work on Angelopoulos, and nothing substantial has come out of (especially!) academic film studies since Horton’s book in 1997. This is on the one hand surprising because Horton’s book is in no way complete. It is, rather, a nice introduction to the films of the Greek director, who, as I have figured while reading the book, shares quite a few similarities with Lav Diaz.

On the other hand, contemplative cinema – in whatever way, from whatever director – is not exactly a subject film scholars are fighting over. There is a comparatively big hype around Slow Cinema at the moment – since 2010, in fact, when Romney used the term ‘Slow Cinema’, which in fact he did as far back as 2004 but this is generally ignored – but I do not see this as a pointer to a persistent academic interest. It’ll be put aside pretty quickly again, and scholars will move on to something else.

As I said before, Horton’s book serves as an interesting medium to discover the films of Angelopoulos. It’s one of my big faults that I have so far only seen one film by him, but this shall change in future. I’m a bit behind with the ‘classics’. The first part of the book is almost excellent, I would say. Horton puts Angelopoulos’s films into the wider context of world cinema, starting with Greek cinema, then expanding to the French New Wave, Italian Neorealism, cinema in the Balkans and East Europe, and he even points to similarities Angelopoulos’s aesthetics share with Japanese films of the early days. While this part is an interesting read, the in-depth analysis of similarities the Greek director shares with other filmmakers discredits his own achievements. It reads as though Angelopoulos’s films are an amalgamation of everything that has been before, which, in some ways, they are. But there is little emphasis on the director’s own approach to cinema.

This reminds me of what Lav Diaz told me when I asked him about influences. His work, as so many other slow films, are linked to Italian Neorealism, for instance. Diaz said he watched a lot of those films, but he would not consciously quote them. He’s not consciously influenced by, say, Rossellini. That means, to me, that I should focus on his films as what they are – his films. This is a major issue in the studies of Slow Cinema. One argument you will find pretty much everywhere is the influence of Italian Neorealism. I’m always surprised to read this. The use of long-takes, non-professional actors etc goes back to the very beginning of film history. Therefore, Slow Cinema is not similar to Italian Neorealism. It is simply cinema, a cinema that has always been there, long before neorealism.

What I particularly liked about Horton’s book is the dive into the similarities of Angelopoulos’s aesthetics and Byzantine art. It’s exactly what resonates with my own thoughts and experiences, namely that Slow Cinema is generally indebted to static art, mainly painting. Not so much the aesthetics, but the way the viewer has to approach the films or static art respectively. This becomes clear in Horton’s analysis. In this context, Horton also speaks about a “cinema of meditation”, which is a fitting description not only of Angelopoulos’s films. It could be applied to all slow films.

When I read through the book, I felt as if little new material has been generated in regards to Slow Cinema. The vast majority of arguments have been there before. It’s been 17 years since Horton’s book was published. Slow Cinema is “back in fashion”, but most of the things that are out there are recycled material. It is for this reason that I try to find niches, as I did in my paper on the concentrationary universe, in which I argued that there are similarities between the slowness in Lav Diaz’s films and the slowness as created through terror in concentration camps. Slow Cinema really needs some original research, and I’m hoping to contribute to this in one way or another.

Back to the book, though. The second part of the book is a rather boring piece, and a waste of paper in large parts. Horton discusses five films, but he spends so much time and space on elaborate in-depth synopses that there’s little space left for a decent argument about the actual film form, or whatever it was he wanted to focus on. It is not difficult to write a ten page synopses for a two or three hour film. Everyone can do it, so while I admired Horton’s work in the first half of the book, I felt that he lost the plot in the second half. He lost his decisiveness, his sharp eye. I don’t think that an almost shot by shot description of the film is necessary for the reader’s understanding of the films. A concise synopsis would do, with an in-depth analysis of the most important sequences. Endless synopses make the reading just so boring that the reader will most likely lose interest in the films, which shouldn’t be the result of a book on Slow Cinema. It’s pretty easy to put off your audience as it is, so you have to be clever. Long synopses are not a good strategy.

Overall, though, Horton’s book is decent, and a nice start on Slow Cinema. If you want an easy start into the matter, try this book. It’s cheap, too, compared to the book on Slow Cinema, which will be published next year (and which is, I think, a rip-off, as all academic books these days).

Theo Angelopoulos: A Cinema of Contemplation (1997) – Andrew Horton, available on Amazon.