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November 13, 2018

The Owl's Legacy


L'heritage de la chouette
Chris Marker - 1989
Icarus Films All Regions DVD two-disc set

Jean-Michel Frodon's booklet notes begin with a quote from the French poet, Henri Michaux: "The Sorbonne should be razed and Chris Marker put in its place." This is the collection of a thirteen episode series made for French television. The overall effect for me is akin to taking a mandatory college course, feeling a bit intimidated by the anticipated intellectual discourse, with the relief that even though moments are dry, Marker brings back the student with often unexpected humor. The one bit of information that is missing in Frodon's notes is in how the episodes were broadcast, whether it was one episode each week, or some other formal arrangement. I bring this point up because due to the release date of this collection, I watched the entire series within two days, one disc each day, with breaks about halfway per disc. There is just so much information to absorb here that watching all the episodes, about half hour each, can be overwhelming.

For someone educated in the U.S. public school system, I was somewhat prepared. My parents encouraged me to read about Greco-Roman mythology when I was younger. In my senior year of high school, my English teacher decided his students needed to know something about Greek theater. This was a very general overview that lasted maybe four weeks, with the class reading Aristophanes' Lysistrata.

Each episode is loosely centered on a Greek word or concept - "Mathematics or The Empire Counts Back" or "Amnesia or History on the March", among the titles. Each episode goes off on its own tangents. Marker cuts between various, informally held symposiums, individual interviews, and excerpts from documentaries and narrative films to make various points. At one point in discussion of Greek theater, Marker cuts to a montage of marquees in London's West End advertising various musical productions. There are also the bitingly humorous comments, written by Marker, read by Bob Peck in the English language version that I viewed. The most familiar names here are Greek filmmaker Theo Angelopooulos and director Elia Kazan. My own favorite of the various philosophers and artists was Cornelius Castoriadis for making the most convincing arguments about how ancient Greek culture should be understood in its original context and within a contemporary framework.

Unexpected was the look, in a couple of episodes, of the connection of Greek and Japanese culture. This is explored both in a discussion of shared mythologies, and also excerpts of a Japanese production of Medea staged in an ancient amphitheater for a Greek audience that included actress Melina Mercouri. Examining the roots of the word "democracy" includes an explanation of what that meant in the city-state at that time, as well as its relationship to contemporary ideas of democracy. That Castoriadis cites democracy as constantly in conflict with oligarchy provides a very timely spin. Angelopoulos talks about how Greeks give their children names associated with classical Greece as a way of connecting to the past. Too bad that Chris Marker, who both likes to have some fun at his own expense, but is also evasive about his own identity, doesn't share that part of his true given name is Hippolyte.

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at November 13, 2018 08:02 AM