NEW BOOKS: World Film Locations: Athens edited by Anna Poupou, Afroditi Nikolaidou and Eirini Sifaki
Reading the book World Film Locations: Athens – part of Intellect Books’ World Film Locations series that includes, among others, New York, Paris, and London – feels like riding a hop-on hop-off bus through time and, of course, space. The editors write: “A kind of urban nostalgia, a constant comparison between the present and the past of the city can be traced in many of the texts that comment on the films and in the photos of the locations in their contemporary state, attesting to an aesthetic and political re-evaluation of cinematic urban forms of the past and present”.
This constant comparison is evident in everyday life, still and always: A friend walking his dog in front of the Acropolis museum was approached by a family of Russian tourists. He was asked for directions towards the “Old Athens”. He tried to define what type of “old” they were looking for. Ancient old – meaning ruins and marbles and the Parthenon – or the Old City like Plaka and Monastiraki? Alas, as much as my friend tried, the Russians’ command of the English language was quite poor so that the communication ended up fruitless. Yet the city of Athens is truly old. It can afford to be divided into periods of ancient, post-revolutionary, pre-modern, quasi-modern, and what-have-you. Cinema on the other hand is – in comparison and as the cliché has it – pretty much like a baby. That does not mean, however, that it does not have a past of its own, not that it is any less intriguing. Together, they make for an exhilarating combination.
Similarly World Film Locations: Athens is divided into periods, not necessarily in terms of groups with a common formal, aesthetic or thematic agenda, but in a linear chronological order that allows for something astonishing: before one’s eyes unfolds a ‘film’ in its own right; a ‘film’ that narrates the transmutations of the city and its representation, the social, economic and political highlights of its history, the cultural tendencies, ideological battlefields, and even the permeating fashion preferences. From Villar’s Adventures (1924) to Alexis Alexiou’s Wednesday O4:45 (in post production) the films’ analyses link cinema, architecture, folk stories, politics and inside information, creating a cinematic tapestry that renews the touristic experience and – to the editors’ credit – does not constrain it to “the city’s central historical districts”.
Indeed, “the story that unfolds through this filmic journey is that of a city full of contrasts”, as the editors note, “very often caught between modernity and stagnation, reconstruction and demolition, an idyllic touristic location versus a ‘dirtopia’ as we call it; an eternal ancient topos surrounded by deteriorating city relics”. The essays that intercut the films’ analyses take on the role of the voice-over: they guide the narrative and allow for breaks with their explorations of the more important themes that the different aspects of the Athenian cinematic representations bring about. And they run the gamut.
In Athens City of the Imagination Anna Poupou and Eirini Sifaki recount the transformation of the Athenian cityscape as it was captured in film from the 1920s onwards, commenting upon the differences between the international representations of the city – the tourist voyeur encountering the exotic Athenian folklore – and the Greek ones, which were “all about change and transformation”, while Open Air Cinemas in Post-War Athens by Dimitris Eleftheriotis is a necessary travelogue through the history of the much-loved open-air cinemas.
In a book about Athens, it is impossible not to mention the crisis – a word that today effortlessly glides into texts and conversations as if it has always been there. The connotations are ample and the imagery clear: turmoil, demonstrations, fire, war. In Athens is Burning Dimitris Papanikolaou beautifully relates the filmic representation of the burning city to that of the Acropolis: whether omnipresent or absent, it is always tangible and impossible to ignore.
Many directors have loved Athens and reserved a place for her in their films, but none have done so with the passion film director Nikos Panayotopoulos has. In Nikos Panayotopoulos’s Athens: From Relic of Antiquity to Hipster Urban Refuge Athena Kartalou lovingly and perceptively explores the ways the director has not only incorporated the city in his films but also allowed her to become a leading protagonist. He thus was able to create a map of “the male social stratification”, as Kartalou calls it, which ultimately becomes a comment on cinema itself.
In Controversies of Space in Popular Greek Cinema (1950-1970): From the Courtyard to the Living Room Angeliki Milonaki follows the trajectory of the city’s depictions, focusing on its public and private quality; i.e. how Greek films moved from representations of exterior settings, whether ancient or urban, to constructed studio environments that were drawing the attention to “the enclosed space of the living room”, to the modern, isolated experience.
Afroditi Nikolaidou’s and Anna Poupou’s essay Dirtopia and its Urban Subcultures: Cinematic Athens in the Post-Dictatorship Era is a delightful chart chronicling the variations in the ways cinematic space has reflected the permutations of everyday Athenian experience after the fall of the military junta, either celebrating the chaos and darkness or expressing disillusionment and concern for the future. And, last but not least, Lydia Papadimitriou provides with her essay Athens in the 1960s, Greek Musical an overview of the rise and demise of the – once extremely loved – Greek musical, highlighting the ways the appropriation of locations changed throughout the decades.
It should be noted at this point that the book’s format is of strategic importance: On the right page, the film stills of a particular scene from each film offer glimpses into the film itself and the relationship between narrative and environment. On the left page, film analysis is accompanied with a picture on top: it is how the filmic location looks like today. In itself, this image does not carry much weight. However, it is its juxtaposition with its cinematic counterpart – a simple but truly effective idea – that creates mental friction, constructs context and ultimately allows for feeling.
It is a journey of discovery all along. With the older films you gasp with surprise: most places – apart from those untouched by time (usually, and ironically) the most ancient ones - are unrecognizable. There are the steps in Kolonaki where Dimitris Horn misses his chance to see Elli Lambeti in Kyriakatiko Xypnima/Windfall in Athens (1954) – I know them! Wow, look at what the view from the exit of the Piraeus train station was like in O Drakos/The Ogre of Athens (1956). And, who could possibly know? The street where Stella (1955) meets her destiny in the hands of her lover is where one of the most popular Athenian street markets takes place on Saturdays.
With the more recent films, the more familiar ones, you appreciate how your point of view shifts. If Athens is your city, you look at her anew. If it is not, the encounter seems enchanting. In any case, the result is the same: you instantly desire to stroll like a tourist amidst her wonders. Old cinema, new cinema, old Athens, new Athens – the rides are endless, by bus or not.