THE IMPORTANCE OF BEING WEIRD: on language games in contemporary Greek films
According to a popular dictionary, the word “weird,” an adjective equivalent in connotation to the “strange” or “unusual,” is akin to the “old English term for fate, or else for what was ‘worthy’ to come into existence” (Merriam-Webster 2011). As fate would have it, the very same word was brought to the fore and has been highly associated with contemporary Greek film production, from the moment a Guardian journalist introduced this tag. In this unusual founding document, Steve Rose relates the aesthetic values of this art-house films that were channeled in the international festival circuit, to the status quo of Greek politics and finance in the beginning of the second decade of the new Millennium: “The world's most messed-up country is making the world's most messed-up cinema” (Rose 2011). The world film industry and criticism has already assimilated the notion of “weird” as a generic term for an innovative artistic current. At the same time, the regulating tag of the “messing up” is still applied in favor of the standardization of a national identity, in a “common process where the structural and morphological traits of a national cinema conclude to the formation of a particular genre” (Poupou 2014: 47). However, we still find ourselves puzzled by the most striking trademark of this cinematic expression; the appearance of a new, hybrid spoken language in the diegetic world, which consists in word plays, metaphorical schemas, elliptical sentences, loanwords and made-up words etc., while the concept of role-playing is central in the narrative and the character development. Approaching this recent artistic practice through the scope of the notion of language games in the context of Ludwig Wittgenstein’s philosophy, we will try to speculate on how this playful approach to language criticizes its power as an established social practice and domineering structure, and how these films disband a master narrative that would be articulated as a totalizing cultural narrative schema by a national cinematic apparatus. Eventually, the cultural idiom that is formulated by this roster of young directors is neither national nor transnational (Papadimitriou 2011: 493), but it is rather self-reflective, as it speculates on the place of a piece of art in a globalized context, at this time juncture.
Language game theory appears at a later stage in Ludwig Wittgenstein's oeuvre. In direct opposition to his own argument of the “denotative” quality of language, according to which the correct usage of the word is dependent on the nature of the denoted object, so, in extension, on a set of rules that pre-exist and arbitrarily link signs to objects, he exploits the notion of the game as a metaphor, to prove emphatically that human language has no uniform status and has no single essence; on the contrary, it is a phenomenon multifaceted when performed, a host of different activities, a field where multiple tools are set into action, a structure that reveals the relations between the persons who partake in its creation. Consciously or unwillingly, when ignoring grammar rules, when applying different prosodic systems, playing with the tone, the pitch-range, the intonation or the tempo, when repeating words in a language you do not understand or when disassembling the words in their basic components (syllables or letters), you do break regulatory schemas that derive from logic but exceed beyond it, hiding small daily rituals and speech acts of repetitive performance. If language games are integral elements of the films allegedly belonging to the “weird” wave, it is necessary to specify what are the dominant power relationships in the society of reference that are challenged in the context of contemporary Greek cinema. The following set of examples drawn from the recent production, establish three pylons sustaining major narratives, all of which are bound to get deconstructed.
In the Name of a Nation
The case of Philippos Tsitos holds a special position in contemporary Greek film cinema. Sharing his time between Germany and Greece since 1991 and working for the German television, he is a living example of a migrating artist oscillating between two identities and performing languages (in plural). In Akadimia Platonos/Plato's Academy (2009) the title itself is based on a wordplay: for the international audiences, this name refers to the philosophical institution founded by Plato where the philosopher gave his lectures – a hub of skepticism and expertise. For the citizens of the Greek capital city, however, this name alludes to an urban area populated by middle and lower class people and many immigrants; a typical example of the practice of gentrification. This is the setting for the story of Stavros, a xenophobic middle-aged man, who describes his liaisons to his surroundings through a series of language games: he calls a neighbor's dog with the name Patriot, which is also the (euphemistic) name of a missile, as well as a qualitative feature of the creature that is trained at barking at people of Albanian origin; “What is wrong with you people,” he exclaims, when meeting an Albanian who changed his original name to a Greek one; he inclines to speaking with slogans (“you 'll never become Greek/you, Albanian”), in the mode of a refrain (a “territorial assemblage” [Deleuze and Guattari 1987: 311]).
Spyros soon discovers that his own mother speaks Albanian, and he has a lost brother whom the mother left behind when she fled from the neighboring country decades ago. He can no longer claim he has a mother tongue. Hence, the potentiality of the performance of a different language is the mechanism that triggers the narrative development. Reversing one of the most often-quoted points in Wittgenstein's Philosophical Investigations, the idea of the family resemblance (meaning that the language games are not linked by a common possession of a set of defining characteristics, but by a general condition of similarity, exactly in a way relatives are not identical, but resemble one another), the acknowledgement and habituation of a series of language games leads the plot to the episodes where an actual, yet unconventional family is formulated, which is not based on blood bonds (“ Aren't we brothers, to hell with my fucking language!”).
In a similar vein, Chora proelefsis/Homeland (Syllas Tzoumerkas, 2010) also narrates the secret life of a family saga and its evolution through the history of the last decades of the 20th century in Greece: having the post-junta period as a reference point, we follow the reaction of the members of three different generations in the light of the revelation of a terrible incident –that of an illegal adoption. The narrative is subdivided in small chapters, and the introduction to each of this chapter is a stanza of the national anthem, handwritten on a piece of paper and then stitched on the diegesis. The leitmotif that joins the different fractals of this complex narrative, repeated in jump cuts, is a scene set in a classroom of a primary school. The teacher, who is a member of the family, teaches her young students the story of the Hymnos eis tin eleftheria/ Hymn to Liberty (i.e. the national anthem, the example par excellence of what Judith Butler describes as an oscillation between speech acts and rituals (Butler 1997): this close reading of the poem of Dionyssios Solomos is performed in an unconventional way, by a woman who cuts the stanzas in short pieces, reads them loud and, by adding her analysis in an almost theatrical manner, composes an entirely different piece of poetic literary language, which is very close to improvisation.
The second short film by Ektoras Lygizos, Agna niata/Pure Youth (2004) also brings the audiences closer to the environment of the classroom. Five different teachers describe the phenomenon of earthquake to pupils of a primary school, presenting in diagrams and speaking in numbers, while at the same time give safety instructions in imperative mood. In parallel editing, the camera follows the school ceremony (another institutional ritual that leads to the construction of social subjectivity) for the celebration of a national holiday. A children's choir sings a common, easily recognizable tune, while, in a highly symbolic gesture, the school's best student, who is a physically disabled little girl, is called to recite by heart a memoir from World War II. She cannot remember it, so a teacher has to dictate it in a low voice, so that she can repeat it as a refrain that has definitely lost its aura and meaning. Despite their assemblage as ritualized institutional practices, norms of discipline and power conform subjects by ‘subjecting’ them, exposing them to the potentiality of the signification of the body through speech acts. A body which is incapable of functioning as ‘expected,’ in terms of biology, and reluctant to perform genuine utterances (and is limited to the repetition of certain speech acts which are dictated to it), is a ‘black box’ of hermeneutics. It is the only source of resistance to the biopolitical apparatus in early childhood education, in “this attempt, starting from the eighteenth century, to rationalize the problems posed to governmental practice by phenomena characteristic of a set of living beings forming a population: health, hygiene, birthrate, life expectancy, race...” (Foucault 2004: 317). Leaving the door open for the emergence of cinema as a source of resistance, language games in contemporary Greek films will emerge as enemies of the 'state' – their own state of the art, rejecting the concept of national purity, thus challenging the configurations of the national as a dominant narrative.
Many film scholars have already highlighted the prevalence of family as a subject matter in contemporary Greek cinema (Poupou 2014; Papanikolaou 2010). Family has been examined as an institution, as an elemental society, as a space of inflicting discipline and punishment, a structure which enables the rise of the subject through the patriarchal symbolic order. Greece, might not have the exclusive entitlement in presenting the norms of an oppressive family, but family in the Greek context is an all-encompassing term and can serve as a metaphor for the imposition of the symbols of power and hegemonic reasoning. Returning to Wittgenstein, the reader deduces that family is also used as a metaphor in his definition of the language games (as seen earlier): “We see that what we call ‘sentence’ and ‘language’ has not the formal unity that I imagined, but is the family of structures, more or less related to one another” (Wittgenstein 1962: 46). He adds another parameter to the discourse on “family,” by “investigating” the notions of thinking and understanding, arguing that the attribution of meaning to signs is equivalent to creating life, to procreating new conditions of existence. The attribution of meaning is performative, but the original connection to a sign by its signifier is initiated in an arbitrary manner, dependent on the community where this process appears.
Kynodontas/Dogtooth (Yorgos Lanthimos, 2009) is the obvious example of these twists and subversions of signing and reveals the random quality and contingency in creating meaning. However, the films of Athena Rachel Tsangari playfully comment on the frequently arbitrary agreement between two subjects to simultaneously and identically recognize an object. In her first film, a short black and white film named Fit (1994), a narrator describes in voice over what we see on screen and what the protagonist fantasizes, implying the way subjects and objects are “fit” into words and how actions of the external, physical world are subject to speech acts. The opening scene, in direct correlation to her film Attenberg (2010), presents an awkward kiss. For pure cinephiles, a movie kiss could be the raison d'être of all films since the dawn of cinema. [i] Whereas other filmmakers would save the kiss for the last shot and its aftertaste, the director reveals her film’s distinguishing mark from the very first shot, by deconstructing that most typical motif of classical narrative cinema through the reversal of the direction of classical narration, as points of climax. Attenberg is already by title a language game, a paraphrase of the name of Sir David Attenborough, the legendary naturalist, whose documentary work changed our perception of the animal kingdom. A close reading of the film reveals that each and every line and shot poses questions on the materialization and performativity of bodies through human discourse.
The narrative revolves around a woman who is expecting the death of her father, living in an assembled environment (the prototype village of Aspra Spitia). The first family we meet in the film is mediated by a television set, which is showing one of Sir Richard Attenborough’s nature documentaries, from where we hear the following phrase: “There is an observer who has already seen me.” referring not to a psycho-analytical “gaze of the Other,” but to a humble family of gorillas. “If there was a single possibility for us to escape from our human status and live with our imagination in the world of another creature, that would be the world of the gorilla” the documentarian is talking about escaping from the human condition; about the realm of the intellect prevailing over the causality of biology; and about the expression of desire as dynamics and not as teleology. The language, which the main characters utter, performs many musical aspects. During night-time, the female protagonists are in a room singing [ii] (one of them is trying to memorize the lyrics to a song in French, a language which is not her mother tongue [iii]), or dance to popular French songs, miming what the lyrics are describing. During daytime, they play tennis. The leading character, furthermore, in one of her favorite games that she plays with her father, they associate words by sound, proving how they lose their ability to signify, and gradually they transform them into animal sounds – a polemical scene, expressing the filmmaker’s grasp on the originating principle of human language (and, in a second level, of social life), which exemplifies a homo ludens that extends his activity beyond the world of humans.
Games and Genres
Greek popular cinema in its ‘Golden age’ at the rise of the local studio system in the fifties and sixties, was genre-oriented: comedies, musicals and melodramas were produced in large numbers. Respectively, the first new wave of “New Greek Cinema”, widely known as NEK (the acronym which stands for Neos Ellinikos Kinimatografos), more or less simultaneous to other new waves in world cinema (the nouvelle vague in France, the Czech New Wave, the cinema novo in Brazil etc.) which followed, grows as a counterbalance to this force. Younger filmmakers, following the model of auteurism, dealt with politically sensitive subject matters and neglected any possible commercial potential of the medium. Therefore, the conventions of each genre were regarded as restriction, and films referring to certain genres were usually acceptable only by the form of a pastiche –an approach which echoed the French tradition of auteurism. Correlations between NEK film and genre films were subtle and indirect and they were perceived as indicators of cinephilia. On the contrary, contemporary Greek art house films, are emphatically full of references, not only to other, internationally acclaimed art house films (for instance, the kinship of the later Filippos Tsitos to Aki Kaurismaki), but also to blockbusters, famous genre films (like martial art films – e.g. Alpeis/Alps [Yorgos Lanthimos, 2011]) or even zombie films (To kako/Evil [Yorgos Noussias, 2005]) and other emblematic mass culture stereotypes. This strategy not only implies the incredible power of popular culture, but it is decisive in breaking one of the fundamental binary schemas that defined the Modern, that of high and low culture – from its early roots in the Frankfurt School (Adorno 2001) to Greenberg’s aphorisms (Greenberg 1989) and its deconstruction in the postmodern paradigm (Foster 1996). Eventually, the scope of common references to a certain aspect of culture reveals per se the existence of a common “generation” that was nourished with the concession of the rhetorics of the end – the end of century, the end of history, the end of representation, the end of the grand narratives, the end of Greece, even the end of cinema.
The films written by Efthimis Filippou, a screenwriter who is keen in allocating and reproducing generic forms of cinematic representation, run the gamut of commercial and popular art-house films. The first collaboration of his with Yorgos Lanthimos, Kinetta (2005), is an extensive study on the dialogue conventions of film noir, while in Dogtooth, the creators managed to incorporate motifs and themes from the video-clips and advertising spots shot by the director (e.g. the blindfold game, the pool games, the ball and the grass in the video clip of the popular song “ Theleis I den theleis” by Sakis Rouvas). The guidance given to actors is re-enactment – and not ‘playing’ a part. The actors are conscious of the narrative convention and they reproduce as in an automatic manner, emphasizing the mechanisms apparent in the cinematic art that help us ‘make meaning,’ and eventually promoting a unique “performative specificity” (Nikolaidou 2014: 20). As for the Alps, the practice of re-enactment is central in the narrative itself, as the audiences follow a company of entrepreneurs who work as 'stunts' for deceased people, getting paid by the families that need the presence of rituals in their everyday life. In L (Babis Makridis, 2012), the main characters often address to the camera, in medium shots where they stare straight in the lens, singing, reading or simply standing. In that way, the discourse on the connection of cinema to “actuality” is torn apart. Hence, the spectator is closer to a different type of emancipation – “from deep-rooted conventions in the domestic film culture and from international stereotypes of Greek film” (Chalkou 2012: 259). As a consequence, cinema in Greece can be regarded as a closed circuit, a separate entity, an art that is in constant dialogue with other fields of the real; by no means it is a mere “reflection” or a “window” to another realm, but it is rather a game that has its own rules.
In Lieu of a Conclusion
Jean-Francois Lyotard's take on Wittgenstein's language games evolves in his conceptualization of what he calls differend, as an alternative for what is called “conflict” which has many negative colorations: “To enforce a rule in a differend is to enforce the rule of one discourse or the other, resulting in a wrong suffered by the party whose rule of discourse is ignored” (Burbules 2000: 38). Decontextualizing this part from the rest of his reading on the Austrian philosopher (where he also debatably discusses the untranslatable nature of the language games), but not only for the sake of the argument, we will eventually propose this term as the ideal definition for the long-discussed wave of contemporary film productions. Whereas contradictory aesthetic tendencies seem to collide, the differend (and not weird) films enter the picture, inviting us to a new field of discourse, beyond language, nationality, tradition, modernism, postmodernism. And for once, both viewers and filmmakers will set the rules of the game.
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[i] Let us recall Cinema Paradiso (Giuseppe Tornatore, 1988), one of the most emphatically self-referential examples of this film culture, and the scene in which the film’s leading character watches as an adult all the scenes that were cut out of the films which marked his childhood.
[ii] Literary theorist Gina Politi mentions Abbé du Bos, who had claimed that the sounds of music are the signs of the passions enacted by Nature, from which they draw their energy, while articulated words are nothing more than the arbitrary, conventional signs of these passions. One could infer that the joining of music and words in the song are a metaphor for linking materiality to speech, which, at the same time, was considered the ideal means for the expression of the human soul – at least from the 18th century onwards (Politi 2006: 172).
[iii] Interestingly, the film’s protagonist Ariane Labed did not speak Greek when the film was shot, and had to memorize her role by a phonetic transcription. Thus, while performing her part, she did not link the words to their meaning.