The Aesthetics of the Long Take in Theo Angelopoulos’s The Travelling Players

by Elie Castiel Volume 20, Issue 2 / February 2016 29 minutes (7098 words)


Translated from the original French by Olga Montes

In 1970, Theo Angelopoulos directed Reconstruction (Anaparastassi), his first feature film, which already introduced a distinct aesthetic that he would develop throughout his career. Of all the contemporary Greek directors, Angelopoulos is the one who has most powerfully formulated a cinematic syntax, most notably marked by a bias toward shooting in long takes as a metaphor for History’s perpetual movement and Man’s existential journey.

From this engaged intellectual intention grows a view of the world and cinema as a tool for awareness that is at once social, political and personal. But what is most clear from this hypothesis is that, on the whole, the work of Angelopoulos blends the circularity of the fundamental concepts of a shot with the sociopolitical and existential concerns that stem from the director’s idiosyncratic morality.

From a purely functional aspect, the long take suggests a notion of continuity, thus attributing certain duration to the concept of time. André Bazin’s thoughts in this domain are of particular importance. In his chapter “The Evolution of the Language of Cinema,” taken from What is Cinema?, Bazin grants the long take an active power, citing an example from Orson Welles’s The Magnificent Ambersons (1942):

To anybody with eyes in his head, it is quite evident that the one-shot sequences used by Welles in The Magnificent Ambersons are in no sense the purely passive recording of an action shot within the same framing. On the contrary, his refusal to break up the action, to analyze the dramatic field in time, is a positive action the results of which are far superior to anything that could be achieved by the classical “cut.” 1

While directors like Alfred Hitchcock use this technique, in Rope (1948) for example, to give the impression of being filmed in a single take, Angelopoulos gives this method of filming a dimension and temporal intensity that affirms its sustainability, flexibility and multiple interpretations.

In this regard, the long take as envisioned by Angelopoulos refers to a cinematic aesthetic proposed by filmmakers and film theorists during the first decades of the Seventh Art. We can conclude, then, that the Greek filmmaker is not the originator of this method of filming, but that he was able to impose a distinct style on the long take, giving it a healthy balance and a solemn rhythm. The essayist and theoretician David Bordwell is specific when he recalls the concerns of those who preceded Angelopoulos:

Other Hollywood offerings confirmed the importance of Welles’s and Wyler’s innovation. 2 Deep focus and the long take seemed to define the future of cinema. Hitchcock’s Rope (1948), consisting of a mere eight shots, suggested that far from being the essence of cinema, editing could be almost completely suppressed. Now a film could be rendered suspenseful and expressive solely through a choreography of characters and camera. 3

The discursive and aesthetic course of Angelopoulos’s cinema transforms from film to film, even when at each time it forces the spectator to guess the references to his previous works. Angelopoulos remakes his own cinema each and every time; past and present are interchanged, contrasted, tangled and mixed to recount History and Cinema.

With Angelopoulos, the long take, a discursive catalyst of the film, is the result of an intentional aesthetic and unconditionally assumed choice. It is not simply a technical instrument, it is there to help situate the narrative, transform it and transcend it. In that regard, Christopher Williams identifies the realistic nature of this type of shot:

Another of the technical services which have been seen as either inherently more realistic or else as “promoting more realism” is the sequence shot, derived from the French plan-séquence, and meaning the use of a single shot, whether still or moving, without cutting, for the entire duration of a section, or scene of the film . . . Its very “artificiality” (in comparison with more traditional methods of editing) can allow the director to entertain by playing openly with the communicative structure of the film-making process (ie. to acknowledge that the film is part of the language-system), while still retaining the “earlier”, more documentary style connotations of the long-lasting take. 4

It is undoubtedly, though, André Bazin who best defines the both intellectual and practical long take. Assuming that this type of shot predisposes, as the case may be, an outright refusal to edit, the Bazinian theory is admittedly highly relevant, even today. In the essay “The Virtues and Limitations of Montage” from What is Cinema? Volume 1, as an argument for the absence of montage in the construction of a film, Bazin gives the children’s film The Red Balloon (1956, Albert Lamorisse) as an example. He states:

Le montage, dont on nous répète si souvent qu’il est l’essence du cinéma, est dans cette conjoncture le procédé littéraire et anti-cinématographique par excellence.

Montage, which we are constantly being told is the essence of cinema, is, in this situation, the literary and anticinematic process par excellence. 5

If we base ourselves on this perspective, the categorical refusal of montage permits, without doubt, the shot is to be found in “straightforward photographic respect for the unit of space.” 3 However, does this really mean that montage does not exist? According to Bazin, montage can only be used and achieved adhering to strict boundaries, otherwise the audience cannot use their imagination. As he puts it, “what is imaginary on the screen must have the spatial density of something real” 7

However, this theory, as adequate as it may be, can only be applied when it is vital that there be two or more elements to an action. Once the sense of an action no longer depends on the physical proximity of these factors, montage regains its true purpose. The refusal of montage, essential to the elaboration of the long take, can hence be a question of directorial choice. Some films could have benefited from conventional montage. Bazin cites Hitchcock and Welles as examples:

Quand Orson Welles traitait certaines scènes des Ambersons en plan unique et quand il morcelle au contraire à l’extrême le montage de Mr. Arkadin, il ne s’agit que d’un changement de style qui ne modifie pas essentiellement le sujet. Je dirai même que [Rope] de Hitchcock pourrait indifféremment être découpé de façon classique, quelle que soit l’importance artistique que l’on peut légitimement attacher au parti adopté.

When Orson WeIIes deals with certain scenes in The Magnificent Ambersons in a single shot whereas in Mr. Arkadin he uses a finely broken-down montage, it is only a change of style and in no essential way alters the subject matter. I would even say that Hitchcock’s Rope could just as well have been cut in the classic way whatever artistic importance may be correctly attached to the way he actually handled it. 8

In what way does this hypothesis on montage relate to the long take in Theo Angelopoulos’ films, and more precisely in The Travelling Players? In an interview granted to Michel Ciment for the monthly magazine Positif, Angelopoulos justifies his refusal to use shot counter-shot (hence the cut) as well as the close up, and his use of the fixed shot in a temporal-spatial perspective:

Je fais soit des grands mouvements d’une caméra qui embrasse beaucoup d’éléments et qui crée à l’intérieur même du plan une dialectique entre les différents éléments, ou alors j’utilise le principe du plan fixe et l’espace off, c’est-à-dire que plusieurs actions entrent dans le champ ou en sortent.

I either make grand movements with the camera that embrace many elements and that create dialectic between the different elements within the frame or I use the fixed shot and off screen principle, meaning many actions enter or exit the frame. 9

The Angelopoulosian long take, then, encompasses the idea of integration, logical assembly of many visual and narrative elements in a single shot; a unity of thought. Is this choice not ideological?

1. Theo Angelopoulos, filmmaker

Whatever I have done, whatever has managed to come out into the light, is me. This is what counts, independently of recognition, awards, honours . . . I don’t make films to please anyone . . . For people like me, films are simply a way of life. When I talk about my life, I have to talk about my life ‘in film.’ That is, filmmaking is my second life, a parallel life. I like Faulkner’s words that the world was created to become a novel. So in my case, I like to believe the world was created to become a film. 10

With this epigram, Theodoros Angelopoulos, aka Theo Angelopoulos, defines his cinema. Nothing seemed to suggest, though, that this son of rural Peloponnese parents was predisposed to a life in cinema. According to Angelopoulos experts, the Greek filmmaker belongs to the first generation of Greek intellectuals with rural roots. Born in 1936, and contrary to many of his generation, Angelopoulos defended his roots, exploring their humanist and pacifist aspects from film to film.

Following studies in Law, Angelopoulos enrolled in classes at the Institute for Advanced Cinematographic Studies (IDHEC) in Paris. From 1964 to 1967 he worked as a film critic for the Greek newspaper Allagi. Meanwhile, in 1965, he began directing his first feature length documentary, Forminx Story, which he never completed. He subsequently quit working at the paper and directed his first short film, Broadcast (I Ekpombi, 1968). Two years later, in 1970, he managed to convince a young producer by the name of George Papalios to finance his first feature length film. It was a shock when Reconstitution received the Grand Prix at the Thessaloniki Film Festival that year. With this film, we are already witness to the filmmaker’s distinct ideological approach; one which fiercely goes against the conformist contemporary Greek cinema of the time. It was unique even at a time when several of the filmmaker’s colleagues, such as Nikos Koundouros and newcomers Dimitris Kollatos and Pandelis Voulgaris, were also trying to reinvent the prevailing cinematic codes.

Between 1972 and 1977, Angelopoulos directed Days of ’36 (Meres tou 36, 1972), The Travelling Players (O Thiasos, 1975) and The Hunters (I Kinighi, 1977). This trilogy has a common theme, as each gives a glimpse of the history of Twentieth Century Greece, a glimpse made more lucid by its dialectic and didactic approach, much like the allegorical statements in the films of Miklós Jancsó or Brechtian theatre. Here the long-take is not simply incidental, it is used as a way to give space and time subtle variations.

In 1981, Angelopoulos directed Alexander the Great (Meghalexandros, 1980), a serene and at times modest fable about an outlaw/vigilante who is loved by the people, an almost legendary figure who, through his abuse of power, becomes a megalomaniac. Once again Angelopoulos uses history to go against the grain. He followed this film with Voyage to Cythera (Taxidhi sta Kythira, 1984), a film about an old communist civil war veteran who had been exiled to the Soviet Union. Upon his return to Greece, the veteran realizes that there is no longer a place for him or his political ideology. Here, Angelopoulos examines the relationships between time, history and memory.

A more intimate film, The Beekeeper (O Melissokomos, 1986) focuses on Man’s search for the memories of an idealized past. In 1988, the filmmaker adopted a more poetic style to show the journey of two children on a quest to find their father in Landscape in the Mist (Topio stin omihli). Next came The Suspended Step of the Stork (To Meteoro vima tou pelargou) in 1991, a reflection of the human consciousness where, contrary to his previous films, Angelopoulos abandons Greek history to broaden his scope. His examination is now set in the present and in new geographical locations, lands beyond Greece’s borders that up until now had never been crossed. This step into the beyond is followed by Ulysses’ Gaze (To Vlemma tou Odyssea) in 1995. Shot in the Balkans, the filmmaker looks to relive the experience of the pioneering filmmakers, the Manakias brothers, at the dawn of the Twentieth Century, when they shot the first tale of this mythological hero. Here, myth and reality intertwine to explore the strains and effects of exile. In 1998, Eternity and a Day (Mia Eoniotitta kai mia mera) received the Palme D’Or at the Cannes Film Festival. Even though the film continues to explore lone journeys, deserted roads, dead ends and people in transit as if death were creeping ever closer, Eternity and a Day is not a film about inevitability. On the contrary, it is a film about freedom, about the absolute need for dialogue (carrying Angelopoulos’ trademark love for his country), and about exile, in the sense of feeling that you’re a stranger everywhere. And perhaps because the only bright light used is that of the sun, as opposed to artificial lighting, this movie marks the beginning of a new era of Angelopoulos cinema. As soon as scripts were completed, filming began on a new trilogy on the history of the greater part of the previous century. It commenced with The Weeping Field (To Livadi pou dakrizi), a film that recounts the history of the Greek people from 1919 to 1949. The following film proceeds up to the present.

But it is The Travelling Players that is of particular interest. It is an epic film, in a Brechtian sort of way, and the one that most clearly reveals the physical and moral anatomy of the long take. This film structure shapes the story. The Brechtian approach, smoothly related by way of the long take, is more apparent here than in other Angelopoulos films. The viewer progresses along the different political decades whether via theatrical interludes (performances of Golfo the shepherdess) and through testimonials or episodes that are dialectically well orchestrated. The reference to Brecht is explained, for example, parallel to, even juxtaposed with, the historical events and the performances played out on the screen throughout the film. It is a “mise en abyme” of sorts.

Martin Esslin explains the concept of this Brechtian epic with a clarity that is found in The Travelling Players. He points out that the direction progresses in a way that is usually reserved for the stage:

After all, the whole theory of the epic theatre is based on the rejection of empathy and the emotional involvement of the audience in the character on stage. 11

In the movie, emotions are not found at the forefront but underneath. The moviegoer is left to harness his own feelings, emotions that will be purely intellectual and not visceral.

To understand the integrity of the long take, however, it is absolutely necessary to look at its evolution (and understand the concept of all types of shots) 12 , particularly during the emergence of the French New Wave. The following section will look at precisely that.

2. Auteur Theory and the Moral of the Shot

It is practically impossible to disassociate “auteur theory” from the French New Wave, 13 for it must be well understood that other countries experienced their own new waves. As a matter of fact, at the end of the 1950s and beginning of the 60s, several central European countries, as well as Italy, Brazil, the United Kingdom and Canada transformed their country’s cinemas by using new approaches in processing moving pictures that had previously been used by French and Soviet filmmakers in the early days of cinema. Most notably, ever since D.W. Griffith and, later, the Soviets V.I. Pudovkin and Sergei M. Eisenstein, the ethics of the shot (its content and construction) has been one of the key elements of cinema.

Predominantly in France, several contributors to the French film journal Cahiers du cinéma, among them, François Truffaut, Jean-Luc Godard, Jacques Rivette, Claude Chabrol and Alexandre Astruc, propose the “auteur theory,” a theory born from a clear and precise cinematic vision, based on studied and analysed theoretical texts, social evolution, post-war influences and, essentially, a new way of looking at the world.

In one of his essays on “auteur theory,” André Bazin, a guarded proponent of this critical movement, explains this new concept by pointing out its most neutral aspects:

Ce qui me plaît ans la politique des auteurs, c’est qu’elle réagit contre l’impressionnisme, tout en lui prenant le meilleur. En effet, le système de valeurs qu’elle propose n’est pas idéologique.

What I like about “auteur theory” is that it is contrary to impressionism, while at the same time taking the best of it. Indeed, the value system it proposes is not ideological. 14

The story is no longer important. The form dominates. Its main denominator is the freedom to shoot according to a completely personal vision. From there rises the French New Wave and, by extension, other new waves. But this newly acquired autonomy, brought forth through perseverance, does it not assume an ethic, perhaps even a moral? Bazin further expands on this famed theory:

“Auteur theory” is, in other words, the choice to use the personal creative artistic vision as the benchmark, and to postulate its permanence, even its progress, from one film to the next. 15

Emmanuel Siety argues that the camera is no longer a simple recording device, but also an “instrument for one’s relationship to the world.” Henceforth, one must think of the shot, place it in relation to a setting, as well as the characters and their interpretation, gestures, and expressions. The framing is no longer an artificial representation, but, on the contrary, will sculpt bodies and objects, geographic and temporal spaces. Space-time relationships take on a new meaning. Film syntax becomes part of the thought process. A shot’s ethics or “morals” are subtly imposed. Better yet, it is the cornerstone of activism whose main objective is to reconcile form and content.

Strangely, it is during a commentary by essayist Alain Jaubert on a pictorial art series (Palettes) [see:], published in a book of the same title by Editions Gallimard, that he presents a clear and precise understanding of the moral of the shot. Photo and film cameras become one; both recording devices create one area of thought that is at once ethical and aesthetic:

Lire un tableau avec l’appareil photographique et avec la caméra n’est pas un exercice innocent. On a évoqué pour le cinéma la morale du plan, du cadre, du travelling, du maudit zoom. Éclairer ce qui est déjà éclairé, cadrer ce qui est déjà cadré, raconter ce qui, déjà raconte, voilà une démarche des plus troublantes. Et découper un autre cadre dans un tableau peut passer pour un geste d’agression, sorte de retour vengeur du médium pauvre sur l’image originelle. Raconter une histoire, c’est aussi courir le risque de figer les latences d’une image, la couper de ses infinies potentialités narratives. Et puis, ces trois paramètres communs au peintre et au cinéaste – cadre, lumière, scénario – ne se recouvrent jamais tout à fait. Ce que le cinéaste jouera dans le déroulement temporel de la séquence, le peintre doit le jouer dans l’instant du regard. À supposer qu’un tableau [un film aussi ?] n’exige pas lui aussi son temps de lecture…

Reading a painting with a photo and a film camera is no easy feat. For cinema, we have evoked the moral of the shot, the framing, the travelling, the damn zoom. Lighting that which is already lit, framing that which is already framed, telling what has already been told, now that’s one of the most troubling ones. Cutting back from another painting can be seen as an act of aggression, sort of like returning with a vengeance to the poor original painting. Telling a story also means running the risk of capturing an image’s unfulfilled potential, severing it from its infinite narrative potential. Moreover, the three parameters common to artists and filmmakers – frame, light, script — never really overlap one another. What the filmmaker directs in the temporal unfolding of the sequence, the painter must capture upon first glace. Assuming that a painting (a movie too?) does not require time to be digested . . . 16

An historic fact to keep in mind isthat the French, and particularly the Soviets, had these stylistic concerns in the 1920s. But, in reality, this moral of the shot, is it not after all associated with an idea, a new cinema concept? A new cinema juxtaposed with the idea of the contemporary as sought for by proponents of the French New Wave, of which Bazin is one of the most prominent representatives. On this point, David Bordwell writes:

In the face of American domination, several governments protected domestic film industries in the name of national culture, including indigenous modernist trends. The world’s conception of cinematic modernism was largely founded upon that body of work running from late Neorealism and early Bergman through the films of Antonioni, Bresson, Fellini, and Buñuel, to all the “Young Cinemas” of the 1960s, most notably France’s nouvelle vague. Bazin’s ideal of objectivity and the Cahiers’ elevation of sober, elegant mise-en-scène were confronted by a cinema of fragmentation, ambiguity, distantiation, and flagrant aesthetic effects. 17

The moral of the shot has to do with each auteur’s idea of cinema and particularly, the shot. That something is purely aesthetic and is part of the thinking of the era. Here, it is part of the concept of modernity and what modernity means at the moment. Therefore, this “moral” in question, is it not essentially a matter of perception?

When it comes to films by Angelopoulos, that observation can become an ideological, moral and political force. Those who have seen Ulysses’ Gaze will remember the sequence shot that reveals part of the central character’s youth in Romania. Almost completely in still shot, the camera captures different moments in the life of a family trapped in the torments of History: harmony and joy at first, rumors of upcoming political chaos, intentions of returning to the motherland (Greece), confiscation of goods by the ruling powers. The transitions between moments happen in the same moment of time (each on New Year’s Eve), group singing, loud voices, dancing couples and, finally, the disintegration of the family. Note that that sequence shot is the only one in the film with bright lighting, suggesting the continuity of the family despite the hardships of time and History, in contrast to all the other sequence shots, which are dark or hazy.

Hence, the viewer experiences what Seity calls “time span,” in this way contributing to the film by applying his or her own perception. That connection to the world, and, by deduction, to cinema, is also an implementation of a thought connection between the director and the characters with which he has chosen to be measured against. In the same way, the challenge of the shot lies in its tendency to make a complex contribution to realism via its treatment of the many technical variations and parameters. As Pier Paolo Pasolini states:

… nous sentons la caméra ou, plus abstraitement, une instance qui organise le visible, se confronte à lui, l’interprète…, se manifeste en lui et entièrement par lui. Ce qui nous atteint dans un plan, ce que nous devons chercher à décrire, ce à quoi nous devons nous rendre sensible, ce n’est pas seulement ce qu’il nous donne à voir directement, ce qui est mis en scène, mais la manifestation d’une tension entre le visible et l’instance qui règle cette visibilité.

. . . we feel the camera or, more abstractly, something that organizes, conforms to, interprets . . . manifests itself and is there because of the visible. What we must attain from a shot, what we must look to describe, what should grab us, is not only what we are given to directly see, what has been directed, but a tangible tension between the visible and the instance that dictates that visible. 18

Consequently, one has complete and utter freedom on the day of the shoot, and must welcome the new aesthetic foundations of moving pictures, which include the shot. The shot becomes a herald. Let us momentarily disregard The Travelling Players and look at two other Angelopoulos films where the concept of the shot does exactly that. In Ulysses’ Gaze, for example, likely as a way to make the moment stand out, the filmmaker places a quote from Plato on the bottom right-hand side of the screen: “If the soul, too, is to know herself, she must surely look at a soul.” Theo Angelopoulos thus states, from the beginning, his true intentions. From this excerpt from a classic work, the filmmaker becomes aware of his limitations, using the soul in question as a catalyst for the search for innocence and purity. The rest is merely the result of the course of history. If Ulysses’ Gaze quietly heralds a hint of hope hidden under the bomb debris, Eternity and a Day, the other example, confirms this conviction. But it is by a very clearly thought out strategy that Theo Angelopoulos succeeds in assuming what seems to manifest as a new philosophy of life. The shot thus partakes in the characters’ inner evolution. After all, could it not be the fruit of the extraordinary maturity of the character concerned? It still holds true that Angelopoulos’s last opus is in general about a person’s quest and in particular an experiment in shot composition. For Eternity and a Day is a film about the art of seeing in order to better grasp the importance of captured moments and their meaning in the story. It is a veritable itinerary of a person heading toward his end. For example, a group of foreigners enter an abandoned factory where businessmen try to sell them street kids they have kidnapped. Alexander, the film’s main character, who is very attached to one of these children, has followed them. Then one of the kidnapped victims breaks a window and flees. Everything is there. The quiet immorality of the business taking place shown in the preceding shots leaves room for a violent cut. The perspective is no longer the same. It inhabits the intellect. As much for the viewer who must analyze each shot according to his or her understanding and ability to register, but also for the camera who serves as a guide for all the actions.

Admire, that is the key word that should be linked to this film (and to Angelopoulos’s other films, including, of course, and above all, The Travelling Players). If we say “admire,” we must also say “contemplate,” as if referring to a painting . . . and in the case of cinema, the sequence shot.

3. The Sequence Shot

During an interview that Angelopoulos granted me in November, 2000, during the Thessaloniki International Film Festival, I asked the filmmaker his definition of the sequence shot. This is what he told me:

… la coupe, le cut, en anglais, est une rupture. Cela donne à mon avis, quelque chose de faux. L’intervention technique à l’intérieur d’un plan est quelque chose que je considère comme étant de l’ordre du vivant, qui a sa propre respiration, sa propre signification, sa propre morale. En même temps, dans le plan, il y a quelque chose de sacré, de cérémonial, de théâtral. Cela donne aux acteurs le temps de développer un geste ou un sentiment, ou de vivre des moments de silence, de pauses et d’actions. Il y a aussi dans ma démarche du plan-séquence quelques références littéraires. En partant d’Homère, par exemple, la description des armées d’Achille prend cinq pages. Dans l’Ulysse de James Joyce, le monologue de Molly est un plan-séquence littéraire. J’ajouterai que dans mon cas, il ne s’agit pas d’un choix intellectuel. C’est un moyen de procéder qui vient tout naturellement, comme une respiration.

. . . the cut is a break. It is my opinion that it gives something false. Technical intervention within a shot is something that I consider as being part of the living, it has its own breath, its own meaning, its own moral. At the same time, within the shot, there is something sacred, ceremonial, theatrical. It gives the actors time to develop a gesture or a feeling, or to live moments of silence, pauses and actions. My approach of the sequence shot also includes some literary references. Homer, for example, uses five pages to describe Achilles’s armies. In James Joyce’s Ulysses, Molly’s monologue is a literary sequence shot. I will add that in my case, it is not an intellectual choice. It is a way of doing things that comes very naturally to me, like breathing. 19

The sequence shot happens when filming a sequence in one take or, in other words, it is a shot that equals a sequence. The characters, filmed continuously like in a shot without a cut, evolve within the frame (sometimes even outside the frame) until their actions express a meaning, until the direction produces catharsis.

Once the intention is reached, the sequence shot is no longer merely a means to capture an action, but a sub-set of uncut shots that occurs within the frame and reveals very precise definitions: space, duration, temporality, point of view.

While filming the sequence shot, the concept of space is established. How should the scene be framed? What should it contain? What viewpoint should it adopt? First of all, the director determines the distance between each character, between each object. In a way, he determines the limits of the frame by organizing the field of vision.

Distance is found in the shot on several levels. Within the frame, the shot is often plural for it must comprise not only one or more characters, but also include all the accessories (decoration, props, lights, lighting . . . ).

What does this distance mean? In a sense, it is the invisible milestone that a character must cross in respect to what surrounds him.

Thus, the frame is often used as a tool to solicit the actors’ submission. The actors, conscious that they are being recorded by a camera, come up with their gestures and movements, surrendering to an almost theatrical ritual as if by a manipulation of sorts, within the frame’s boundaries that have suddenly become physical boundaries. Siety confirms this idea:

… le plan [et par extention, le cadre] peut donc être élaboré pour jouer avec… cette mémoire, cette attente : pour compléter notre savoir ou le rectifier, pour ranimer notre mémoire ou semer un doute dans notre esprit, pour satisfaire une attente ou la prolonger.

. . . the shot (and by extension, the frame) can therefore be elaborated to play with . . . memory, expectation: to complete our knowledge or to rectify it, to revive our memory or to plant a seed of doubt, to satisfy an expectation or to prolong it. 20

At the same time, we realize that this distance is physical and lasting. Having become a part of the shot, it must conform itself to the concept of temporality. But for the viewer, this concept, this vague idea, cannot be asserted until the sequence (and often the film) ends.

Unless using a static shot where the character being filmed speaks directly into the camera, thus, to the viewers, actors do not often look into the camera that is filming them.

The space being manipulated, the cinematic focal point where the bodies being filmed conform to the layout of artistic events and the layout of duration, can also be found in Mexican filmmaker Arturo Ripstein’s works which, like those of Angelopoulos, also use the sequence shot to immobilize time. According to critic Monica Haïm, Ripstein sees cinematic time as “cyclical” because he does not cease to reinvent it despite its recurrence. But Ripstein insists on saying that in his case it is also a question of a “cultural” movement:

Je pense que le sentiment d’un temps éternel et cyclique que nous avons en Amérique latine nous vient de la sensation d’habiter un très vaste espace.

I think that the feeling we have towards an eternal and cyclical time in Latin America comes from the feeling of living in an extremely vast space. 21

But Ripstein’s cinema stems from a tradition towards melodrama and Angelopoulos’s from memories. How does this affect the treatment? Like Angelopoulos, Ripstein limits his cuts because “the unequivocal point of view of the camera is the point of view of time.” 3 Therein lies, it seems, an outstanding awareness of organizing the sequence shot in order not to break the eye’s complex processes.

On that point, it is essential to point out David Bordwell and Kristin Thompson’s analogy of the sequence shot:

If the long take often replaces editing, it should surprise no one that the long take is frequently allied to the mobile frame. The long take may use panning, tracking, craning, or zooming to present continually changing vantage points that are comparable in some ways to the shifts of view supplied by editing. 23

Elsewhere, Bordwell writes:

Wyler (William) did not regard a cut as violating the purity of the long take in depth; his 1940’s work displays the advantages of integrating robust depth staging with orthodox analytic editing. 24

In the case of Angelopoulos, the frame encompasses the sequence shot according to a unique point of view. This standpoint, this moral act, undeniably ethical, involves a relationship with a certain type of theatricality to the detriment of a purely cinematic configuration. The choice consequently determines the acting, and in a way the movements of the bodies being filmed. They will have to surrender to a demanding gestural ritual. A travelling shot, a panoramic shot, a sound or a technical effect will animate these bodies and will give them a specific psychology.

Held in the frame, Angelopoulos’s characters are reminiscent of Robert Bresson’s during moments where it is difficult to define Man as a whole. In a powerful essay, Christopher Havot writes:

L’absence de parole confère un poids supplémentaire aux images… le cinéma de Bresson, où la caméra garde ses distances et ne s’approche pas des corps qui entre eux se maintiennent aussi à distance, est de l’ordre de la joute…

The absence of words offers an added weight to the images . . . Bresson’s cinema — where the camera keeps its distance and does not approach bodies that keep a distance among themselves — is like a sparring match. 25

Angelopoulos and Bresson share a common denominator: a refusal to stalk the body, to in some way immortalize it in the frame, in History, to thus give it a pluralistic significance. This is contrary to Ripstein, who looks to make his bodies exquisite so that they are almost mystically and even religiously majestic. Most of Ripstein’s films reflect this tendency. Bodies are incarnate, become flesh, soul, conscious. But at the same time they are embedded in an abstract reality that likely has to do with what we conceive as being unrealistic. Politically speaking, it is a utopia . . . On that, Ripstein and Angelopoulos are congruous, even if their goal is not necessarily the same.

The sequence shot thus defined is consistent with the Theo Angelopoulos film universe. If the filmmaker combines space and time, multiplies the sequence shots and often reveals an event with a single travelling shot, it is to make a connection between similar events, give them their true meaning in the perpetual movement of History.


Bazin, André. “The Evolution of the Language of Cinema”, in What is Cinema? Paris: Éditions du cerf, 1987: 23-40.

—-. “The Virtues and Limitations of Montage”, in What is Cinema? Paris: Éditions du cerf, 1987 : 41-52.

—-. “De la politique des auteurs”, in La Politique des auteurs. preface and texts collected by Antoine de Baecque, with the collaboration of Gabrille Lucantonio. Collection “Petite anthologie des Cahiers du cinéma.” Paris: Cahiers du cinéma, 2001.

Bordwell, David. On the History of Film Style. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1997

—- and Kristin Thompson. Film Art: An Introduction. New York: Knopf, 2nd edition, 1986.

Castiel, Élie. “Theo Angelopoulos: l’ambiguïté de la représentation,” Séquences, nº 212, March/April 2001: 30-31.

Ciment, Michel (and Tierchant, Hélène). “Entretiens avec Theo Angelopoulos”, in Theo Angelopoulos. Paris: Edilig, 1989: 55.

Esslin, Martin. Brecht: A Choice of Evils. London: Eyre & Spottiswoode, 1963, reprint of 1959.

Haïm, Monica. “Le temps et l’espoir: un entretien avec Arturo Ripstein,”_Séquences_, nº 198, September/October 1998: 25-30.

Havot, Christophe. “Robert Bresson: le corps par défaut,” Entrelac, n 2, October 1994: 47-53.

Pasolini, Pier Paolo. L’Expérience hérétique, langue et cinéma. Paris: Payot, 1976.

Rivette, Jacques. “De l’abjection,” in Cahiers du cinéma, nº 120, June 1961: 54-55.

Siety, Emmanuel. Le Plan: au commencement du cinéma. Paris: Les Cahiers du cinéma, 2001.

Theo Angelopoulos: A Retrospective. May 27 – June 21, 1998, Riverside Studios, London, United Kingdom. Athens, Greece: Greek Film Center, 1998.

Wiliams, Christopher. “Forms and ideologies”, in Realism and the Cinema; ed. Christopher Williams. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1980: 220.


  1. André Bazin. “The Evolution of the Language of Cinema”, in What is Cinema?. Paris : Éditions du cerf, 1987 : 74.
  2. Bordwell refers to The Little Foxes (1941) and The Best Years of Our Lives (1946), both directed by William Wyler, and also to Orson Welles’s Citizen Kane (1941). Three films that, because their structure focuses on the depth of field and limited editing, force the audience to take on their intended role of observer and participant: David Bordwell. On the History of Film Style. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1997: 59.
  3. Ibid.
  4. Christopher Williams. “Forms and ideologies”, in Realism and the Cinema; edited by Christopher Williams. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1980: 220.
  5. André Bazin. “The Virtues and Limitations of Montage”, in What is Cinema?. Paris: Éditions du cerf, 1987: 123.
  6. Ibid.
  7. Ibid. 124
  8. Ibid. 127
  9. Michel Ciment (and Hélène Tierchant). “Entretiens avec Theo Angelopoulos”, in Theo Angelopoulos. Paris: Edilig, 1989: 55.
  10. Theo Angelopoulos : A Retrospective. May 27 – June 21, 1998, Riverside Studios, London, United Kingdom. Athens, Greece: Greek Film Center, 1998: 7.
  11. Martin Esslin. Brecht: A Choice of Evils. London: Eyre & Spottiswoode, 1963, reprint of 1959: 19.
  12. It is impossible to broach a serious reflection on cinema without tackling the concept of the shot and, by deduction, to question its true role. Between the beginning and the end of a film, shots are put together (through the bias of editing) to make a whole. Fundamental questions regarding the film process remain, questions about numerous choices, meanings, temporality, ethics or morals. In his book, Le plan: au commencement du cinema, Emmanuel Siety speaks of the shot like a “moment” in the film, an instant so privileged that it has its own special place throughout. Siety states, “Within the film narrative, the shots must do two things that affect the film as a whole: present the narrative and build a working universe. Each shot contributes to this process by associating itself to other shots to relay an ensemble of events whose structure not only forms a story but completes our mental representation of the space and time where the story unfolds.” He adds that when it comes to shots, the story can be divided into a series of large narrative units made up of many shots, thus confirming its great flexibility. What is the shot? By its most basic definition, it is a minimal unit of the film, the minimal unit being, of course, the frame. Many shots, sometimes too numerous, form a scene, others form a sequence. That piece of cinema, that recorded bit, developed from the moment the camera is turned on, meaning from the very beginning, will cease to be a shot when the film objective stops rolling. The shooting camera’s position characterizes the shot. In the fixed shot, during the whole take, the camera will not move. If it moves, forwards, backwards or alongside, the shot respectively becomes a zoom in, zoom out, travelling or panoramic. The duration of the shot determines its name: long take, short take or sequence shot. Emmanuel Siety. Le Plan: au commencement du cinéma. Paris: Les Cahiers du cinéma, 2001: 42.
  13. There is a wide selection of books on the New Wave. Regardless, the following are recommended: James Monaco. The New Wave (Oxford University Press, 1976); Antoine de Baecque. La Nouvelle Vague : portrait d’une jeunesse (Paris: Flammarion, 1998); Guy Hennebelle. Quinze ans de cinéma mondial, 1960-1975, (Éditions du cerf, 1975); Gilles Marsolais. L’Aventure du cinéma direct revisité, (Laval: Éditions 400 coups, 1997).
  14. André Bazin. “De la politique des auteurs”, in La Politique des auteurs. preface and texts collected by Antoine de Baecque, with the collaboration of Gabrille Lucantonio. Collection “Petite anthologie des Cahiers du cinéma”. Paris: Cahiers du cinéma, 2001: 113.
  15. Ibid. 112
  16. We must add that that Jacques Rivette, one of the pioneers of the New Wave, takes a stand in terms we can no longer herald, even if his thinking wasn’t directly associated with the said moral of the shot. He states, “They have been driving us crazy the last few months with false problems regarding form and background, realism, spectacle, script, the directing, unrestricting or controlling the actor and other shifts; let’s say that it would be possible for all things to be born free and with equal rights; what counts is the tone, or the accent, the nuance, you could say—the point of view of a man, the auteur . . . his standpoint in relation to what he’s shooting, and hence in relation to the world and all things . . . Making a movie is consequently showing certain things, at the same time, via the same way, with a certain bias: two actions that are strictly inseparable.” Jacques Rivette. “De l’abjection,” in Cahiers du cinema, nº 120, June 1961 (p.54).
  17. David Bordwell. “The Return of Modernism: Noël Burch and the Oppositional Program”, in On the History of Film Style. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1997: 87.
  18. Pier Paolo Pasolini. “Le Cinéma de poésie”, in L’Expérience hérétique, langue et cinéma. Paris: Payot, 1976: 154.
  19. Élie Castiel. “Theo Angelopoulos: l’ambiguïté de la représentation.” Séquences, nº 212, March/April 2001: 31.
  20. Siety, Le Plan, 43.
  21. Monica Haïm. “Le temps et l’espoir: un entretien avec Arturo Ripstein,” Séquences, nº 198, September/October 1998: 25.
  22. Ibid.
  23. David Bordwell, Kristin Thompson. Film Art: An Introduction. New York: Knopf, 2nd edition, 1986: 189.
  24. David Bordwell. On the History of Film Style, 227.
  25. Christophe Havot. “Robert Bresson: le corps par défaut.” _Entrela_c, n 2, October 1994: 53.

Volume 20, Issue 2 / February 2016 Essays   art cinema   film & history   greek cinema   theo angelopoulos