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The Old, the New, and the Postmodern: Nostalgia and/as Ideology in Papakaliatis’s An…/ What If… (2012)

Papakaliatis’s An…/ What If… (2012) belongs to a trend identified by Skopeteas (2005: 147) as ‘postmodernist mainstream Greek Cinema’, which involves the use of intertextual allusion (Skopeteas 2005: 129), while it is also characterized by nostalgia, identified by Tziovas (1993: 259) as one of the characteristics of Greek postmodernism. In What If… both these elements serve a conservative/reactionary ideological function, especially in the way gender relations, but also class and the Greek crisis are represented in Papakaliatis’s film.

What If… is a romantic melodrama about the love troubles of Dimitris (Christophoros Papakaliatis) and Christina (Marina Kalogirou) against a Greek-crisis backdrop. The film’s plot involves alter egos, parallel storylines, and alternative universes that eventually intertwine. Papakaliatis’s text refers to the 1965 film I De Gyni Na Fovitai ton Andra/ And the Wife Shall Revere Her Husband (Tzavellas). Tzavellas’s film is the story of Antonis Kokovikos (Giorgos Konstantinou), a divorced mid-rank administrative clerk who wanders around mid-1960s Athens. He ends up in the quiet neighborhood of Anafiotika in Plaka, and visits the house that he shared with his partner for many years. The house is now half-demolished, and about to be sold for scrap. Antonis is overwhelmed by nostalgia. Through flashbacks, we find out about his past life: Eleni, or ‘Elenitsa’ (Maro Kontou), a caring, submissive, uneducated housewife, slaves away to please Antonis, enduring his tyrannical, abusive behavior for years, hoping that someday he will ask her to marry him. When this finally happens, a dramatic reversal takes place: Eleni demands fairer treatment inside the house. Not being able to accept the questioning of his authority, Antonis immediately files for divorce. Back to present day, he reunites with his ex-wife, who also nostalgically visits the house ruins. They decide to get remarried, but are forced to leave the old neighborhood of Plaka, the picturesque ‘face’ of which is threatened by architectural change, modernism and modernization.

Tzavellas’s film is in many ways an ideologically conservative text; it is nostalgic for an idealized, romanticized, ahistorical and apolitical past, free of conflict, a utopia that never existed. Nostalgia is a key word recurring in most of the original reviews of Tzavellas’s film. However, 1960s Greece was far from utopian. On the contrary, it was a turbulent decade, full of changes brought about by a belated modernity and process of modernization. New, bolder gender norms and sexual mores were introduced into Greek society from abroad. More women entered the workforce, and gained access to university education. Patriarchy, the institutions of family and marriage were being questioned; divorce rates were on the rise. A wave of migration from the countryside to the cities, and also of emigration to Europe and the US had already begun a few years earlier. 1965 was also the year of consecutive changes in government, the assassination of liberal politician Grigoris Lamprakis by the right-wing State militia still fresh, and this is two years before the advent of a military junta. Meanwhile, Konstantinos Karamanlis’s government had already significantly changed the architectural face of Athens, ‘imposing’ modernism.

While initially he seems to criticize the modern way of living, the male protagonist of Tzavellas’s film quickly succumbs to an overwhelming nostalgia for his ‘sweet home… [in] [t]he narrow street in the old neighborhood’ of Plaka, contrasted to the ‘modern apartment buildings, cold and uniform, barbaric masses of concrete, with no imagination or personality, without faded roof tiles […]. No flowerpots with basil […] the barrel organ playing that sweet old waltz […]’, as he describes in his long introductory internal monologue. Modernity, modernization, and modernism threaten to change everything, including conservative patriarchal Greek-orthodox religious mores that coexist with bold, modern gender and sexual norms: for example, all the female characters in the film regularly attend church, but soon afterwards, the ones wearing modern dresses encounter foreign sailors making advances to them on the street.

Echoes of the historical, sociopolitical and cultural, gendered context of Tzavellas’s film can be found when putting What If… in context. Fifty years later, we are witnessing the fall of the Greek middle class and the waves of emigration from Greece to Europe and Australia can be compared to those during the 1950s. Immigration to Greece has turned Athens into a multicultural hub. Since 2009-2010, the official ‘Year Zero’ of the Greek crisis, there has been considerable political instability and social turmoil. The historical changes register in the representation of gender in the two films. Like Tzavellas’s text, What If… represents a masculinity-in-crisis. Both films open with a hysterical monologue of the male protagonist talking to himself about the virtues and downsides of bachelorhood. These representations of masculinity can be seen as reflecting, or mediating, the historical changes taking place in both periods. Silverman (1992: 55) has argued that historical trauma is always accompanied by a crisis in male identity. She adds that ‘at those historical moments […] our society suffers from a profound sense of ‘ideological fatigue”’ (Silverman 1992: 16); ‘ideological fatigue’ is a phrase that perfectly describes the postmodern condition.

What If… also presents a version of the consequences of the slow process of female emancipation in Greece, the introduction of women into the workforce, and of feminist values, the appeals for gender equality that continued throughout the 1960s. In 2012, What If… shows Greek women in their thirties still trying to figure out their place in a changing world: Christina struggles with unemployment, but also with the wife and mother roles. At some point she becomes the provider, while her husband becomes a stay-at-home dad. Evidently, a lot has changed since 1965, but further change scares both protagonists, who are represented as insecure about their financial and sexual future as a married couple. Soon enough, though, director and screenwriter Papakaliatis gives a conservative answer to such troubles, in the form of a postmodernist nostalgic fantasy.

For instance, the neighborhood of Plaka in Tzavellas’s film is a space that is being demolished, so that modernity and modernism can rise from its ruins. And even though Plaka is romanticized in the 1965 film, there is still room for authentic ideological conflict. By contrast, in What If… Plaka is the space of pure fantasy, as it appears fully restored and reconstructed, a perfect simulacrum causing an implosion of historical meaning.

The ruins of Plaka (above) and the restored and modernised Plaka (below).

Whenever the protagonist couple moves away from Plaka, the (historical) Real[1] traumatically invades the fantasy space, in the form of various objects: the dog, Christina’s antique car, the truck, the burglars. The film points to the artificiality, the precariousness and, eventually, the impossibility of the melodramatic, romantic, and nostalgic fantasy it constructs while trying to escape the historical, economic, and sociopolitical reality, as well as the traumatic reality of gender identities and sexual relations. For instance, while showing Dimitris and Christina running around an impossibly empty centre of Athens, the film self-consciously recognizes, via voice-over, that this fantasy is constantly threatened by historical reality and truth: ‘Reality is the enemy of love. The Truth is chasing you. And you are running to get away’.

Meanwhile, the complex allusionism of What If… reconstructs a scene, shot in the same way, from Tzavellas’s film, while the original one is playing on a TV screen in the background: an insecure housewife Christina/Eleni asks reassurance for their relationship from an indifferent Dimitris/Antonis, who is absorbed in his newspaper/laptop screen. At the same time, in What If… the fantasy space is dominated by a postmodernist nostalgia that takes many forms, such as the fetishistic close-ups of ‘retro’ objects constituting the mise-en-scène, including antique radios, clocks, and vinyl records, on which the camera lingers, as well as the soundtrack — see the re-use of Danai’s song from Tzavellas’s film, the barrel organ, etc.

Antonis (left) and Dimitris (right) absorbed in their newspaper/laptop screen
Close-ups of retro objects

Following Jameson’s (1991: 18-19) account of postmodernist nostalgia in Hollywood films, I suggest that in What If… the repressed historical past and present return as nostalgia for a vague ‘pastness’ (Jameson 1991: 19), for old styles from various eras, all coexisting in a time-loop. Mix-and-match aesthetics, signifiers emptied from their historical content, are extracted from their original context, and are appropriated for formalist purposes. By contrast, the alternative storyline, the world of historical reality in What If… is represented as cold, gray, devoid of human intimacy, full of alienated people engaged in anonymous one-night stands in cars, failed marriages, repressed desires, and gazes that never meet. It is a dingy, graffiti-covered place, where poverty, but also racial diversity are hinted — we get a brief glimpse of an immigrant, apparently looking for scrap material.

A world of historical reality represented as cold, gray, devoid of human intimacy
An immigrant against a graffiti-covered building

Althusser (2005 [1965]: 233-4) defines ideology as a ‘system of representations’ through which we relate to History, and live our ‘real conditions of existence’. For him, ideology ‘masks our true relations to one another in society by constructing imaginary relations between people, and between them and the social formation’ (Jørgensen and Phillips 2002: 15). Crucially, however, Žižek notes (2008: 30) that there is no ‘real’ reality behind the ideological fantasy, because reality itself is always already ideological (Žižek cited in Rushton 2011: 149); reality as fantasy, reality codified as fiction. What If... is the cultural product of an era where it is especially difficult for people to grasp historical reality in its entirety and complexity — even though such a thing is de facto already impossible. In What If... fragments of that reality are mediated, as the protagonists watch them on screens.

The mise-en-scène of the colourful, postmodernist fantasy in What If… is nostalgic. This, however, does not mean that there is no room for historicity. The lack of historicity is usually considered one of the trademarks of postmodernism. It is not entirely true that historical reality is absent from What If…. Nevertheless, it is highly diluted, and sterilized: for example, in the ‘colourful fantasy’ storyline there is a brief shot of Dimitris encountering Greek riot police running in the foreground. In another scene, married Dimitris is watching the news, commenting on some vague social unrest, while Christina is in complete denial, worrying only about her guests not showing up for dinner. The fleetingness of the reference to the event does not allow the viewer to contemplate on the real cause of what is briefly glimpsed on the TV screen.

Dimitris encountering Greek riot police running in the foreground
Real events briefly glimpsed on the TV screen

In a way, it is a fitting representation of what could be described as postmodern(ist) revolt, in the sense that it was a fragmented one, not unified under a common signifier. However, the events that led to the revolt were unmistakably political in character. In December 2008, an underlying financial and social crisis under the right-wing government of Kostas Karamanlis erupted into extensive social unrest in the Greek capital that lasted for days, triggered by the murder of 15-year-old student, Alexandros Grigoropoulos, by a police officer. Papakaliatis quickly turns this riot scene into one about gender conflict and the banalities of married life. The evocation of the historical/real event could turn the latter into a signifier of historicity that makes the text relevant. However, mediated, and emptied from its historical and socio-political content, it merely becomes a simulacrum of the ‘real’ Greece in its contemporary context. [2] Part of what remains from this process of repression is an ‘excess’ of the historical Real that is manifested in Papakaliatis’s film as nostalgia.

However, it is in the representation of gender and sexuality in What If… where we can find ideology at its purest. On the one hand, the text explicitly identifies the financial crisis with a crisis in gender roles and sexual identities. Christina says: ‘This financial crisis is like relationships. It’s like when you suddenly discover that the other person has been cheating on you’. Later on, the film reductively attributes the problems couples face in times of financial crisis to an unsatisfactory sex life. Finally, when director Dimitris tries to pitch an idea to his producer, the latter replies:

Producer. A documentary about [romantic] relationships? What’s the interest in that?

Dimitris. It concerns everyone.

Producer. The crisis concerns everyone.

Dimitris. Yes, but do you know how close those two are?

The solution, therefore, that the film offers to all kinds of conflicts and issues (class divisions, social inequalities, unemployment, immigration) related to the ongoing Greek financial crisis is romantic love: love as a transcendental signifier, timeless, essential, and not as the empty signifier to which ideology gives content, a content that changes in different historical and cultural contexts. Love as an ideological solution is used in hegemonic narratives and dominant fictions, such as melodramas, in order to mask what Žižek (2008: 45) — also via Laclau and Mouffe (1985: 170-171) — has identified as the structural impossibility and radical lack at the centre of society, but also of the subject.

However, this process of anchoring of the signifier’s meaning does not happen without some struggle within Papakaliatis’s text. The ideological process is briefly exposed in the ‘grim reality’ storyline, when a cheating wife (Maria Solomou) ironically admits that what she and her husband (Fanis Mouratidis) conventionally ‘call love’, is nothing more than boring dinners with elderly relatives. At the same time, though, by ontologically inscribing in the text the protagonist couple of Tzavellas’s film, playing the same characters in 2012, Papakaliatis’s film encourages us to draw parallels with the 1965 text, and its socio-historical and cultural context, including gender and sexual, but also class relations.

Tzavellas’s protagonists playing the same characters in 2012

Antonakis and Elenitsa, as if traveling through a wormhole from 1965 to 2012, have some advice for the postmodern viewer: ‘When it comes to love, things haven’t changed that much since then [1965]. The story of romantic relationships is diachronic’. The signifier of love is presented here as ideologically neutral. Later on, Papakaliatis has Antonis and Eleni practically advocating the crudest form of social Darwinism:

Sudden poverty always affects a relationship […]. Back in the day, we took poverty for granted in Greece […]. It is this sudden change that breaks you. You need time and patience to adapt […]. We humans are like cockroaches; we always survive. What is needed is training, knowledge and self-knowledge.

Papakaliatis here insidiously performs an ideological move, with the elderly couple’s ‘wise’ interventions, featuring commonsensical, banal platitudes as pieces of advice for the crisis generation(s), and drawing ahistorical parallels with the hardships that people have faced in previous decades in Greece. This conservative stance that the text takes is in perfect accordance with the contemporary neoliberal and neoconservative discourse in Greece, employed by status-quo journalists and commentators, politicians, but also artists, academics and public intellectuals who speak against radical solutions, and instead recommend patience, social conformity, national unity, class reconciliation, peace and quietness, while appealing to culturalist, transcendentalist, idealist solutions to Greece’s materialist financial and social problems, because supposedly all this has happened before, and people have survived worse.

In What If… Papakaliatis employs a mock-modernist, pseudo-Brechtian or pseudo-Godardian self-reflexive distancing device, by revealing, at some point towards the end, the cameras to which old Anthonis and Eleni have been talking all along, as part of a documentary the protagonist was shooting (another movie within the movie but, importantly, not a fiction film). At the same time, however, the sugary nostalgia that suffuses What If.., combined with the fact that the text often involves a predominantly unironic double representation — a representation of a representation, thus ideology ‘squared’—, make the truisms about (heterosexual) gender and class relations, uttered in the new film by the old protagonists, a perfect example of ideology.

With regards to whether a wave of nostalgia is indeed part of postmodernist culture, Jameson (1991) and Hutcheon (1988: 26; 1998: 1-2; Hutcheon and Valdés 1998) both recognize two coexisting strands dominating contemporary (popular) art: on the one hand, a type of irony and a form of parody (that Jameson [1991: 16-17] calls pastiche), and, on the other hand, nostalgia. But for Hutcheon (1988: 39; Hutcheon and Valdés 1998: 18), it is rather irony that can mostly be read as a postmodernist trait, while postmodern nostalgia, whenever it does exist, is typically ironized (Hutcheon and Valdés 1998: 23). The representation of gender and sexuality in Tzavellas’s film is, to a large extent, ironic and parodic. For example, Antonakis’s (a Greek diminutive, meaning ‘small Antonis’) fedora hat, with which he constantly threatens Eleni by saying that he is going to take it and leave her, a phallic symbol of a macho masculinity, is turned into an object of ridicule when Eleni grabs it and puts it on his head, overstretching it below his ears, in a funny manner. Antonakis’s strict male friends are also all ironically proved to behave like obedient boy scouts in front of their wives. However, the general melodramatic nostalgia of the film ultimately does not really allow one to positively identify these representations as politically subversive.

What If… is a film about gender nostalgia. Like the 1965 text it references, What If… is nostalgic about an idealized, mythical time, where all things, including gender and sexuality, felt simpler, more predictable and safer — for patriarchy (see also: Creed 1987: 54). Tzavellas’s film is nostalgic for a pre-modern(ist) past, an organic wholeness. This would be the type of nostalgia Boym (qtd. in Mazierska 2011: 189) calls ‘restorative’. Boym distinguishes it from the reflective kind of nostalgia, related to deconstructionist approaches to History, which can be found in postmodernist texts — even though the two types usually coexist. Reflective nostalgia is ‘imbued with irony’, and ‘expresses the longing simultaneously with a realization of the impossible redemption of the longing’ (ibid.).

Lowenthal (1985: 6) has claimed that, while ‘[f]ormerly confined in time and place, nostalgia today engulfs the whole past’. Papakaliatis’s film is therefore both postmodern in the literal sense, meaning coming after modernity, as it is postmodernist, nostalgic both about the period during which Tzavellas’s film takes place, and about the era, the culture, gender norms and mores, etc. before that, i.e., those of the generation that preceded the protagonist couple of Tzavellas’s film. This nostalgia involves the naturalization (i.e., presenting something as a fact of Nature) of aspects of Greece’s social history, especially gender and class relations, in a particularly devious process of mystification.

At the same time, while postmodernist art has typically been linked to irony and parody, What If… can be seen as belonging to a group of films like O Ilias tou 16ou/The Policeman of the 16th Precinct (Zapatinas) — a 2008 remake of the 1959 film of the same title — that are openly nostalgic about the ‘Golden Age’ of Greek cinema (1955-1967), therefore nostalgic about a mediated past. In fact, as a postmodernist text, What If... is nostalgic about nostalgia itself. However, even though the whole postmodernist ‘trademark’ ‘parallel-stories-that-intertwine’ form is retained in Papakaliatis’s 2015 film Enas Allos Kosmos/Worlds Apart, is it a coincidence that History there, like the repressed, returns with a vengeance? [3] Could this be a sign that we are moving beyond a belated Greek postmodernism, to a Greek version of New Sincerity?

Note : All translations are the author’s.


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[1] The ‘Real’ has been defined by the French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan (1988: 66) as ‘that which resists symbolization’. Jameson (2008: 107) has claimed that the Real is ‘History itself’.

[2] Gourgouris (2010: 371) has noted that ‘the deeper historical and political significance of the Greek December insurrection may still elude us’, and that the hermeneutical work may involve dismantling ‘our ways of interpreting and representing the world’.

[3] It was perhaps the first mainstream Greek film that boldly and directly dealt with the rise of the neo-Nazi party of Golden Dawn in Greece.

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