Golden age of Greek cinema
The history of Greek cinema is explored through this comprehensive new book
The book A History of Greek Cinema by Dr Vrasidas Karalis was launched by Australian film critic David Stratton on Wednesday 18 April in conjunction with the 30th Greek Festival of Sydney.
Many members of the Greek community and Australian cinema goers attended the event. This first full-length book focuses on the attempts to establish a 'national' cinema furthering social cohesion and national identity, from the first Greek film in 1912 until the social crisis of 2011. It analyses the problems and dilemmas that many Greek directors faced in establishing a distinct Greek cinematic language, and presents the development of Greek cinema against the background of Greece's turbulent political history. The book combines historical analysis with discussion of cinematic form in order to construct a narrative history of Greek cinematic successes and failures.
Dr Vrasidas Karalis gives Neos Kosmos his account of the book and the launch:
The book is a tribute to the great, and to a degree, unrecognised achievements of many Greek film-makers who taught five generations of Greeks the power of myth making and the liberating strength of seeing. By writing its story, I also narrated the personal histories of many people who struggled to explore the fascinating mystery of constructing images within an unstable social and political reality which suffocated their creative abilities.
Within my examination of four hundred and twenty films of the many more made in Greece during the period, I talked both about well-known names as much as those less known. I also talked about the first and greatest Greek cinematographers.
I discussed the presence of actors, good and bad, or actors who were good and bad at the same time; I talked about popular directors who sold their soul to the devil in order to make money, and about some heroic loners who preferred to die forgotten, ignored and penniless.
I found strange the fact that nobody tried to do it in the past. Greeks are good in producing culture but very bad in explaining what they have achieved. In most occasions they firmly believe that what looks good to them must be good for the rest of the world; as a consequence they don't understand why many domestically successful Greek films cannot transcend cultural barriers.
I always thought that it should be the duty and the privilege of the Greek diaspora to look critically and emphatically at the metropolitan culture. Not to flatter an established taste but to explain its limits, not to beautify the banal, the insipid and the reassuring but to explain its encoded conflicts, anxieties and phobias. Many artistic failures are more fertile and useful than many artistic successes. I would even claim that "bad" Greek films are the films that created the distinct atmosphere of Greek cinematic production and for this reason they must be studied closely and with more curiosity.
Greek cinema represents the triumph of creativity over the stifling domination of institutional structures.
My main conclusion that its permeating element was and still is what might be called "oppositional aesthetics" because even in its most conservative expression the depiction of reality was in itself an act of resistance and an reaffirmation of the humanity of the common people.
What I have tried to do in this book is a synthesis of film studies, sociology, history, politics and cultural studies.
It is also a personal story almost with an autobiographical subtext: In the middle of political instability of the sixties in Greece, only one place retained its undisputed centrality: the cinema. Growing up in the small village of Krestena close to Olympia in the Peloponnese, I remember the only cinema theatre located at a huge warehouse.
It changed films every two days; Monday-Tuesday, European movies. Wednesday and Thursday, American. Friday to Sunday, Greek.
For the children it was paradise on earth-the peak moment of each day after six hours of boring learning by sadistic and indifferent teachers. We didn't escape in the movies: we were revived, silently discovering our humanity, baptising ourselves in the feeling of awe and wonderment that energised all our senses and shaped our personal identity.
We didn't even care about the language and many a time we didn't manage to read the subtitles. All movies were enchantingly appealing and each unknown language was music to our ears. Everything American was particularly good. It was the accent, the clothes, the beautiful stars, the landscape that made them so hypnotic. The cityscape of New York, the magnificent externalities of the great city, made us for the first time experience the power of cinema, the power of seeing. When later I visited the city, it seemed that I had been there before.
Cinema had created a deja vu of psychological order which navigated me through reality: I had never been before in the city and yet I knew it all too well; it belonged to my growing up, my childhood, my own exploration of the world.
Together with the music of language we were captivated by the primordial ritual of colours, their spell-binding anthropology. Cinemascope, Cinerama and Panavision were our hallucinogenics. We were all transfixed by the Cinemascope colours, the sound of foreign languages and the self confidence that these movies exuded.
How one can describe the emotions generated by Ben Hur and The Ten Commandments with their solar colours, prehistoric costumes and the incredibly beautiful skies? Artificial, dazzling and hypnotic, "much better than the real colours" as my grandmother used to say.
What was that breathtaking amazement we all felt when we heard Rita Hayworth singing in Gilda?
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