Nikos Panayotopoulos (1941–2016): La Mort de l'auteur
On January 11, 2016, while the planet flooded social media with expressions of grief following the death of David Bowie, Greek audiences were struck by the loss of one of their own, native “starmen.” Nikos Panayotopoulos, one of the most original filmmakers who radically transformed the history of Greek cinema after the regime change in the 1970s, did die in Athens, ironically self-fulfilling the chronicle of the death foretold that is condensed in the title of one of his films; but then, of course, subtle irony, playful melancholy, and this glorious sense of unbearable lightness was the most distinctive feature of his cinematic gaze. In lieu of a conventional obituary, Athena Kartalou’s article “Nikos Panayotopoulos’s Athens: From Relic of Antiquity to Hipster Urban Refuge” (first appeared in World Film Locations: Athens, published in 2014 by Intellect Books, edited by Anna Poupou, Afroditi Nikolaidou, and Eirini Sifaki) attempts to shed new light on the director's legacy.
Nikos Panayotopoulos [was] one of the most prolific directors in Greek cinema: he has produced fifteen films in 39 years, starting in 1974, an emblematic year both for the state affairs in Greece – the fall of the dictatorship – and for Greek cinema itself – the end of the studio era. Over these years, Panayotopoulos has created his own, unique cinematic universe, which carries the seal of an auteur veritable: somehow and obliquely a step away from the others, nevertheless ironic, and, almost always, unconventional and unpredictable.
His strongest and most recognizable auteur characteristic, however, is the creation of a self-reflective cinema under the influence – but not a strictly imitative one – of the French nouvelle vague. Even when, in the late 90s, he began observing a “normalized,” non-arbitrary narrative flow, that was only the pretext for developing further a personal cinematic apparatus consisting of genre exploitation and pastiche, ironic glances both at his surrounding reality and cinema itself, and a dominative set of high production values with an emphasis on the visual through art direction and cinematography.
In this universe, the heroes are just navigating through, deceptively appearing at the centre of the cinematic narration. Therefore, they seem often to be coming from nowhere and to be going nowhere. Why is this? The aim of their existence, i.e. the reason for the narrative itself, is to become the vehicle by which to reveal the auteur’s cinematic vision. Nevertheless and historically “inevitably” in the context of a self-reflective cinema, these heroes circulate in a pragmatically recognizable setting which they are so strongly connected to – it is in fact the only case in which they stop belonging to “nowhere” – that the setting itself is elevated to the level of a cinematic protagonist: the setting fulfils the heroes; the setting fulfils the story.
The most beloved and often used scenery in Panayotopoulos’s films is the city of Athens, gradually gaining ground in his work not as a background tapestry or as an imitation of the Godard-loved-Paris scheme, but in a proper leading role. Obvious proof of his devotion to his city is the so-called “Athens trilogy,” consisting of the films Pethenontas stin Athina/Dying in Athens (2006), Athina-Constantinoupoli/ Athens-Istanbul (2008) and Ta oporofora tis Athinas/The Fruit Trees of Athens (2010) – all films with the name of the city in their titles.
Still, the introduction of the Athens leitmotiv goes further: In his first work, Ta hromata tis iridos/The Colours of Iris (1974), the upper-class centre of the city (Kolonaki) and the relic of antiquity (the Temple of Olympian Zeus) both appear, constituting one of the most ‘constant’ representations of the city in the early post-junta era. Later on in his career, Panayotopoulos seemed to rediscover Athens: from 1997 onwards, he reinforced his relationship with Athens, making the city the unifying element in his effort to establish a classical-type narration. This is a time when the city of Athens started playing a more important role in a number of Greek films, not to mention the fact that, within the next five years, this aspect of Greek cinema established itself as a distinct area in Greek film studies. Over the past fifteen years, each one of Panayotopoulos’s movies taking place in Athens explored a different part of the city, a different “Athens.” His heroes, who are always male, might still come from nowhere before the film and might still end up nowhere after the film, but during the film they ‘belong’ to the city, though they never cross paths with each other. Every character belongs to a different social class; thus, since these heroes do not share the same class, they cannot share the same part of the city – this seems to be Panayotopoulos’s view.
The protagonist of O ergenis/The Bachelor (1997), a 30-year-old, middle-class, non-motivated bank employee, is trying to find his wife, who has left him to become a prostitute, and circulates between his home in “Apollon”, one of the few skyscrapers in Athens; his neighbourhood of Ambelokipi, close to the city centre; the swank bars (‘Rock’n’Roll’) in upscale Kolonaki; and the unidentifiable roofs of the city: this is an Athens of ambition and greed, trying to achieve easy money and success, according to the dictates of the lifestyle magazines of the era.
In Afti i nyhta meni/Edge of Night (1999), the protagonist is a lower-middle-class owner of a kiosk, in his late twenties, jealously in love with an ambitious, aspiring singer. He circulates in the southern part of the city (the port city of Piraeus), along the paraliaki (the coast road), near the train tracks and the airport, until he leaves Athens to follow his girlfriend on her journey from one seedy provincial nightclub (the so called skyladiko) to the next, all over Greece. This is another Athens, striving to lift off from mediocrity to stardom, but the joy of song in the city turns into the lumpen hell of consommation (semi-prostitution) in rural Greece.
Upon his arrival in the city, the protagonist of Delivery (2004), an almost mute young man apparently from rural Greece and with no credentials, tries with the help of a map to find his way in downtown Athens (the National Road entering the city, Tris Gefyres, Kolokotroni Street, Patission Avenue, Omonia Square, Athinas Street), circulating among the drug addicts, the immigrants, the homeless: this is a hidden, uncomfortable Athens, the backstage of the 2004 Olympic Games euphoria.
The protagonist of Dying in Athens, a middle-aged, successful art history professor with a wife and two lovers, who is suffering from an aggressive form of cancer, circulates in the upper-class centre of the city (Panepistimiou Street, Kolonaki, Valaoritou Street, Klafthmonos Square): This is an Athens of wealthy culture and unfulfilled Epicureanism, covered by snow, and as such perhaps the most obviously removed from a realistic representation of the city; perhaps the one that best expresses the inner conflicts of the entire country just before its descent into the financial crisis.
Finally, the main protagonist of The Fruit Trees of Athens, a writer, sends his fictional creation, a naïve young man in his early thirties, constantly out in the streets of the city and its extensions (Neapoli, Lycabettus Hill, Vassilissis Sofias Avenue, Paleo Faliro, Syngrou Avenue), in order to savour the taste of its fruits: this is a nostalgic, back to basics, ‘grounded’ Athens, a hipster urban refuge in a time of crisis.
If one brings together these heroes and the parts of the city they walk through over time, one gets an idea of the male social stratification of Athens and can put into place the main pieces of the uncompleted puzzle/map of the city over the past fifteen years. But this is not the “real” city; it is not even a documentary representation of the city – although in some cases it might seem so (Delivery). By unfolding a multilayer representation of Athens in consecutive films, Panayotopoulos, loyal to his love of self-reflective cinema, expresses a clear vision not of the city itself, as it might seem initially, but of the arbitrary city of cinema itself. Thus, the city cannot but emerge as a distinct pole in the interpretation of this phase of Greek film production, dominated up until now by readings of politics and society; a persistent characteristic of one of the strongest and most constant voices of Greek cinema of the post-studio era.