I just got done teaching my course on “Short Cinema Studies,” wherein I attempt to help student filmmakers analyze films similar to those which they have the budget to make, not massive features such as Citizen Kane and Vertigo, those darlings of the academic world. I begin the course with a 55 second film, about which I’d like to speak to you today. It is an adaptation of Homer’s epic poem, The Odyssey, and can be found on a wonderful collection of short films entitled Lumiere and Company. In 1995, in celebration of the centennial anniversary of the cinema’s invention, so demarcated because of the screenings of the first projected motion pictures in a Paris café in 1895, dozens of the world’s greatest filmmakers were given restored cinematographe cameras, those technical wonders of Auguste and Louis Lumiere which shot, developed and projected film in one elegant little wooden box. The only rule for the filmmakers was that they had to make a film using the cinematographe under the conditions the Lumieres worked (no editing, no lighting, no camera movement, and only one continuous reel of film). The maximum running time is 55 seconds because that is the most film stock the camera body can house.
The last film included in Lumiere and Company is its masterpiece, and among the greatest films ever made. It was made by Greek auteur Theo Angelopoulos, and stands as a sterling example of how and why short format narrative works differently than features. In the same year, 1995 as if to prove his point about these differences, Angelopoulos released his most famous film, Ulysses’ Gaze, an epic reworking of The Odyssey starring Harvey Keitel. Similar to other international art films about filmmaking, such as Federico Fellini’s 8 1/2, Ulysses’ Gaze concerns a filmmaker searching for the truth that only cinema can reveal. For Keitel’s character, this involves searching for lost footage shot at the beginning of the century by early Balkan cinema pioneers, the Manakis Brothers. The bleak film ends in Sarajevo, that epitome of the failure of European civilization, having been destroyed in warfare after holding a successful modern Olympic games. The love of the filmmaker’s life—his Penelope—is killed by a sniper.
Whereas Ulysses’ Gaze reconstructs The Odyssey in its full epic splendor—the film is interested in the big questions of whether the community of the Balkans can be saved from anarchy by cinephilia—Angelopoulos’ one-minute version of The Odyssey eschews such questions for a single shot of the shipwrecked Odysseus finally washing up on the shores of Greece after years of struggle to arrive home. The film is one of the greatest literary adaptations ever made because it is able to find the one spot in the narrative that glues the rest of the absent story together. The Odyssey is a poem of two modern genres. On the one hand, it is an action-adventure yarn about the sailors’ island hopping, struggling to overcome all manner of monsters, sirens and the Cyclops, and the like. And yet, The Odyssey is also a melodrama about Odysseus’ return to his wife Penelope, who is being courted by suitors whom Odysseus must dispatch to reclaim his home life.
While Ulysses’ Gaze replicates the full scope of The Odyssey, both interested in the search for a unified Balkans and the possibility of love with Penelope, Angelopoulos’ one-minute film finds the sweet spot between these two generic expressions. We see Odysseus washing up on the shore, looking around, only to discover the camera that awaits him. As he gazes into the lens in wonder, the 55 seconds of Lumiere magic abruptly ends. That is to say, what Odysseus discovers in this short film is the cinema itself.
This, of course, is an intriguing temporal allegory. The Odyssey is the foundation of Western literature because it demarcates the shift from the oral culture from which Homer extracts his poetic myths, and the written culture that his poem inaugurates. This easy binary opposition between oral and written culture is problematized in the 19th century with the advent of photography and then cinema: are these images writing, which the name photography suggests? The 20th century thus becomes the domain of images, moving in many senses of that word. Angelopoulos’ film allegorizes that century through the image of his explorer discovering the Lumiere camera. Is he discovering the birth of cinema, in 1895, as the century of images is about to unfold, or its death at the precipice of the 21st, as digital imaging threatens to reduce the cinematographe to a footnote in history?
Of course, Angelopoulos’ Odyssey is doing both. By refusing long format narrative, he is distilling cinema into its basic functions, looking and being looked at. On that beach, Odysseus is poised between action and love, masculinity and femininity, the past and the future. It is one of the most sublime images in the history of cinema. And it takes less than a minute to experience, demonstrating to us that if we believe cinema only to be those bloated features marketed to us in movie theatres, we have missed a very great deal of our heritage indeed.
– Walter Metz