Saturday, February 13, 2010

Stella: Athenian Agora

Last year, I learned that one could watch Greek movies and old televion shows online. And I poured over Το μινόρε της αυγής (The minor key of dawn), the 1983 TV series whose soundtrack I had loved for many years. Then, I moved on to classic b/w movies and came across Stella (1955), directed by Michalis Kakoyannis and staring Melina Merkouri. Filmed in Athens, the urban scenes include powerful references to historical topography and archaeology. I have watched the film a couple of times and made a mental note to do some research on the monuments and urban vistas. I thought I might be the only one paying attention to those subtle details until my copy of the last Journal of Modern Greek Studies arrived in my mail. The October 2009 issue is devoted to the Marshall Plan, but it includes Artemis Leontis's review of Yannis Hamilakis' celebrated Nation and Its Ruins and Argyro Loulaki's Living Ruins, Living Conflicts. Leontis' essay is titled "Archaeology in the Neighborhood: Views of the Ancient Agora and Other Ruins from Outside the Gate" (JMGA 27, 2009, 417-432) and it includes the first scholarly citation of this blog (THANK YOU!!!)

I was thrilled to discover in "Archaeology in the Neighborhood" that I wasn't the only person to have noted Stella's importance as a mid-century text. Leontis points out the contextual role that archaeology plays in the movie. This is simply a brilliant set of observations. For better or for worse, Melina Merkouri was made famous through Never on Sunday (1960). Jules Dassin, director and Merkouri's husband, plays a naive American philhelene "Homer Thrace from Middletown, Connecticut" (where Dassin was born) who tries to reform a prostitute from Piraeus. For the longest time, I have wondered whether Dassin or Merkourci knew of Homer Thompson, who was excavating the Athenian Agora through the 50s and 60s. Dassin's Homer, I suspect, might not only refer to the ancient bard, but also to Homer Thompson. Two years later, Dassin directed another movie with Merkouri, Phaedra (1962), which strikes a clear archaeological chord. Merkouri plays the wife of an Onassis-character who falls in love with her son-in-law (played by Anthony Perkins). Perkins and Mercouris first meet at the British Museum in front of the Elgin marbles. It's a beautiful movie (soundtrack by Mikis Theodorakis) that never reached the popularity of Never on Sunday. But Stella is truly the intellectual forefather of all these films, and it introduces the archaeological motif. As Leontis shows, the American excavations of the Athenian Agora bear witness to the films' plot. For those readers that are either archaeologists or modern Greek specialists, I urge you to see Stella immediately and look out for the ancient monuments (the Theseion), the Byzantine churches (Saint George; Holy Apostles) and the excavations (Agora). You can see the movie here (with subtitles). But before seeing the movie, you must read Leontis' observations:

"Evidence of the Agora excavations' uninviting feeling for Greeks who witnessed them appears unexpectedly in another Greek source: Michael Cacoyannis's classic film Stella, released in 1955. In it, the Agora is the backdrop, and Stella's apartment, the scene of extramarital drama, sits alongside the excavation site on the Plaka's western edge. At the time of the filming, the American School's 'big dig' was at the point of completion, having removed, along with all the extant homes, 250,000 tons of dirt and debris from post-classical remains. The reconstruction of the Stoa of Attalos was in progress, but barely visible, as it had just reached ground level. A vast expanse of mounds and trenches loomed darkly behind Stella's apartment. The site makes several cameo appearances from different angles, the most important of which comes at the film's turning point, about 52 minutes from the opening credits, when Stella's abandoned boyfriend Alekos retraces his steps from his asphyxiating upper-class home home in Kolonaki (Lykavitos's Church of St. George can be discerned behind him as he descends) to the Roman Agora. Passing the Gate of Athena Archegetes, he follows a narrow street, opposite the Church of the Holy Apostles, then turns into Stella's alley and heads up her steps. When Stella does not answer the door, he walks to the other side of the building and calls up to her windows. Stella pushes her lover Miltos away and peeks through the blinds, watching as Alekos steps back blindly into the road, with the excavation site spread out behind him like a vast grave. Both Stella and the excavations become mute witnesses to Aleko's accidental death by a passing car." (p. 420)

Thinking about the Athenian Agora, Nikki Sakka's, "The Excavation of the Ancient Agora of Athens: The Politics of Commissioning and Managing the Project" (in Singular Antiquity) and Craig Mauzy's, Agora Excavations, 1931-2006: A Pictorial History (2003) are great essential prerequisites.

Movies like Stella invite revisiting. On the one hand, they offer fantastic historical evidence of an older more beautiful Athens before its unchecked concrete expansion. On the other hand, they reveal central motifs of self-presentation and domestic anxieties. Overshadowed by Italian neorealism, the golden age of Greek cinema is both lightweight and provocative. In addition to the archaeological subtexts, Stella has an extraordinary sophistication in its set design, directed by painter Yannis Tsarouchis. One day, I would love to read/write a comparative study of the exterior urban scenography and the interior rooms. Tsarouchis uses a technique that is evident in his paintings, aligning the characters with objects of great poetic depth. Watching Stella, note for example the role that interior lights play, how they align with characters. Note the role of doors opening and closing, especially doors that also carry mirrors. One could write an essay about electrification, light projection, Greek domestic space, and the technicalities of film. The film would have originally been projected by a bright light source from the back of a movie theater. Keep that in mind as bare light bulbs illuminate the interior spaces of the nocturnal scenes. This reminds us of the bare lightbulbs of Tsarouchis' interiors. From a psychoanalytical perspective, the Tsarouchis' bare lightbulbs are the technical shame-inducing machines of homosexual desire. With Manos Hadjidakis' soundtrack, and Iakovos Kambanelli's original screen-play, we are in the company of high aesthetics. I would love to know how Tsarouchis, Kakoyannis and Hadjidakis may have interacted with the Agora excavations. Unfortunately, Melina Merkouri, in all her admirable Elgin-marble activist, has left us with a very superficial scenario over the conflicts of foreign archaeology.

My mother, my uncle and aunts grew up in Plaka, all born around the time that the Americans began the Agora excavations. I once asked them how the excavations affected the life of the neighborhood. My uncle pointed out how grateful the neighborhood was for the employment that the excavations offered, especially after World War II when much of Athens starved. My mother, who was a little younger, remembers using the excavations as a playground, literally climbing in and out of pythoi. Having just seen Anne McCabe's paper "A Middle Byzantine Neighborhood in Athens: Recent Excavations in the Agora" (see 2010 AIA annual conference), I suddenly visualized the 1930s excavations as a playground of subterranean wells and storage jars. And suddenly remembered Luigi Pirandello story "The Jar," beautifully dramatized in the Tavianni brothers' Kaos (1984).

All these thoughts and allusions bring us back to Yannis Hamilakis and his discussion of pre-modern archaeology (in Nation and Its Ruins, and in Singular Antiquity), to Gregory Jusdanis' "Farewell to the Classical: Excavations in Modernism," Modernism/Modernity 11:1 (2004), pp. 37-53 and to Hamilakis' response. William Caraher is working on an essay on dream archaeology, namely the use of dreams in predicting site locations (see here). Dimitris Plantzos is also working on non-archaeologists' archaeology (see "Displaying Modernity," and other postings in (pre)texts). Between Hamilakis, Leontis, Jusdanis, Caraher and Plantzos, I sense a thrilling new vibe. I'm staying tuned for the fruits of these insightful observations that are derailing archaeology into meta-positivist directions.

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Kostis Kourelis

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