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January 17, 2007

The Suspended Step of the Stork, 1991

suspendedstep.gifThe first film of what would be loosely considered Theo Angelopoulos' Trilogy of Borders, The Suspended Step of the Stork opens to the tumultuous and disconnected stationary long shot of a helicopter hovering over an indistinguishable, formless, dark mass floating lifelessly in an undulating open sea that has been encircled by a small fleet of recovery boats. The voice of a journalist, Alexandre (Gregory Karr) provides a grim context to the disorienting sight, as a group of Asian stowaway asylum seekers, having been refused entry into the country by the government, chose instead to end their lives by jumping into the hostile, open waters rather than be returned to their native land. The provocative image of adriftness, alienation, and disposability, a recurring theme within Angelopoulos' cinema that is visually anticipated in two iconic sequences in his earlier films - the disembodied sculptural hand towed by helicopter from the sea in Landscape in the Mist, and the aging couple cast out into the sea on a raft in Voyage to Cythera - in turn, serves as a prefiguration of the statelessness, refugeeism, and dispossession created by the institution (and institutionalization) of man-made borders in the film.

On assignment at a military outpost near the Greek-Turkish border (perhaps a documentary on the growing refugee problem, or the inhuman economic and moral conditions of the marginal communities that have developed near the border as a result of the refugees' status in bureaucratic limbo as unwanted, non-legal residents in the country who, for humanitarian reasons, cannot be compelled to return home), Alexander's attention is soon diverted from the project after a chance encounter with an Albanian refugee selling potatoes from a produce market on the riverbank, a handsome and distinguished-looking man (Marcello Mastroianni) who bears a striking resemblance to a well-respected statesman, social philosopher, and author who, at the height of his political and creative popularity, abandoned his beautiful, devoted French wife (Jeanne Moreau), walked away from his cabinet position, and disappeared into complete obscurity. Convinced that the refugee is, indeed, the missing statesman, Alexandre seizes an opportunity to embark on what on the surface appears to be a sensational exposé of the man's strange plight and inscrutable transformation from national leader to marginalized figure, enlisting the aid of his abandoned wife who, despite having moved on with her life, still continues to harbor the wounds of his silence and self-imposed isolation during the final days of their marriage (a profound estrangement that loosely echoes their previous relationship in Michelangelo Antonioni's La Notte). However, as Alexandre continues to search for clues to the refugee's real identity, he becomes increasingly haunted with the underlying reasons that led to the statesman's disappearance itself, a personal quest that would be further intensified by his attraction to an enigmatic young woman (Dora Chrysikou) whose childhood sweetheart remains stranded on the other side of the border, separated by the Evros River.

In examining the psychology of fugue, rootlessness, and self-erasure, Angelopoulos transforms the themes of identity and collective memory into a broader exposition on the absurdity of factionalism, sectarianism, and ethnic cleansing that have not only enabled wide-scale depopulation, migration, and displacement, but more importantly, contributed to an accelerated, selective cultural extinction and disposability (most directly, in Angelopoulos' (then) observation of the protracted Balkan Wars following the break-up of the former Yugoslavia in the wake of the collapse of the Soviet Union). Juxtaposed against the recurring image of yellow-jacketed telephone technicians installing new service lines along the desolate frontier (figuratively bringing civilization closer, even in the most remote populations), the stranded refugees' plight presciently underscores the unwitting upshot of technology and globalism at the end of the twentieth century. It is this paradox of the information age that inevitably defines Alexandre's unreconciled search for identity and connection in a community of faceless, invisible witnesses of a silent (and silenced) history - a perversion of social ideals that has cultivated, not the intimacy of an egalitarian, interconnected global village, but rather, a culture of exclusion enabled by the creation of artificially constructed borders (a theme of interpenetrating real and metaphysical borders that is similarly woven through Claire Denis' film, L'Intrus), and that, in defining arbitrary bounds of privilege and entitlement, foments its own cultural genocide through systematic isolation, social stratification, marginalization, and xenophobia.

This entry is part of the month-long Contemplative Cinema blog-a-thon, hosted by Harry Tuttle at Unspoken Cinema. Please visit the site for a list of all participants and entries.

Posted by acquarello on Jan 17, 2007 | | Filed under 2007


Thank you for contributing to the blogathon, acquarello! The comparison to L'Intrus is thought-provoking indeed.
I have a memory of this film as a very slow and strange subjective journey, like if the camera was the narrator. Maybe the recurrant voiceover explains this feeling. Is it that the camera is always in slight motion like the a human eye? A stationary shot gives abstraction to the camera and we don't wonder who is behind the camera. I don't know maybe I don't recall the stationary shots. Angelopoulos has a very bleak style, and not the same kind as Tarr's sophisticated photography, although we could find similarities in their respective visions of the world.

Posted by: HarryTuttle on Jan 19, 2007 7:16 AM | Permalink

Thanks, Harry. There's a few stationary shots in the film, but I believe you're correct about the landscape shots being more travelling/rolling...almost like Jancsó except that the focal point doesn't change. Rather, Angelopoulos' subject is still in frame, just always in the periphery or "decentralized" in the gaze. Tarr's cinema is molded from Jancsó's school with respect this changing/shifting POV, and I agree, Angelopoulos really doesn't do that. He's more from the Rossellini and Antonioni mold of framing people in the context of environment.

Posted by: acquarello on Jan 19, 2007 8:15 PM | Permalink

Thanks for the review. Theo is perhaps my personal fave. Of all times! His profound journey through *trilogies* is unique and am eagerly waiting for the last two films of the current trilogy (the third wing and the eternal return). Is *eternity* also part of any untold trilogy? I feel it’s an amazing amalgam of the concepts of past, present and future (or tomorrow, or eternity).
Looking forward for your insightful comments.

Posted by: debanjan on Feb 03, 2007 4:45 PM | Permalink

Thanks, debanjan. Eternity and a Day is generally considered as the concluding film of this "trilogy of borders", along with Ulysses' Gaze and The Suspended Step of the Stork, which makes sense because all three are about the repercussions of the Balkan Wars. You're right though, Eternity and a Day is the most "abstract" representation of the idea of borders because it's not just about borders between countries (when Alexandre tries to bring the Albanian boy home) or between people (his relationship with his family), but it's also about the "ultimate" borders between life and death and how he has managed to live his life almost on the periphery of it until he engages/embraces life by helping the boy.

Posted by: acquarello on Feb 03, 2007 8:00 PM | Permalink

Thanks for a great site & your ongoing tribute to a great, demanding director.

Could you please tell me what has happened re. The Dust of Time? Was it screened at Cannes ?
Was it completed on time?

thank you

Posted by: randy on May 28, 2008 9:49 AM | Permalink

Thanks, Randy. Dust of Time was a no-show at Cannes, although I believe Angelopoulos completed shooting. I guess we'll see if he unveils it at another big festival or wait until Cannes rolls around again.

Posted by: acquarello [TypeKey Profile Page] on May 28, 2008 2:11 PM | Permalink

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