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The Owl's Legacy

A series by Chris Marker

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Directed by enigmatic and brilliant documentary essayist Chris Marker, THE OWL’S LEGACY is an intellectually agile, engaging, and sometimes biting look at ancient Greece, its influences on Western culture—and how many eras have reinterpreted the Greek legacy to reflect their own needs.

Each of the 13 episodes is centered on a potent Greek word: from “democracy” and “philosophy” to “mythology” and “misogyny”.  Marker convenes and films symposia—meals featuring wine and thoughtful conversation—in locales including Paris, Tokyo, Tbilisi, Berkeley and an olive grove on the outskirts of Athens. Footage from these banquets is interspersed with archival materials and interviews (often featuring a stylized or distorted owl image looming in the background). Marker’s diverse group of informants includes composers, politicians, classicists, historians, scientists, writers, filmmakers, and actors. Together their contributions form a compelling (and sometimes contradictory) cultural and historical exploration for each theme.

After screening on European television, THE OWL’S LEGACY was unavailable for decades—the result of objections from funders the Onassis Foundation, who took offense at comments made in the series about modern Greece. Now it has been restored and is finally being released. THE OWL’S LEGACY continues to serve as a powerful reminder of the ongoing impact of ancient Greek culture and the ways in which we continually recast it to suit our beliefs.

1. Symposium—or accepted ideas

“The wake of our dreams is Greek” --George Steiner

This episode sets the tone for the rest of the series, introducing the fundamental idea Marker and his participants explore: For centuries, we’ve used Greek civilization as a touchstone, but as John Winkler—classics scholar, queer historian, and one-time monk—says, looking at ancient Greece is like trying to determine what lies beneath a face covered in many layers of makeup.

The concept of the individual, calls to moderation, the value of knowing one’s self: classical Greek politics and culture have often been represented as models of rationality and order. But, as this episode makes clear, this is not because Greeks were particularly enlightened. On the contrary, order is the prize in a hard-fought battle against humanity’s dark, incestuous, and violent sides—as embodied in the story of Oedipus. Rather than embracing simple binaries, ancient Greece—like Oedipus standing at the spot where three roads meet, killing the man he will later learn is his father—embraced broader choices, including those that lead to the mysterious and unknown.

2. Olympics—or imaginary Greece

“Every European era has formed its own image of Greece made up from its own imagination. There is so much self-projection and misinterpretation.” -- Cornelius Castoriades

We begin with the personal. In interviews, classicists Manuela Smith and Oswyn Murray, singer Angélique Ionatos, and filmmaker Theo Angeolopoulos discuss the sometimes unconscious ways ancient Greek thought have permeated their lives and work. (And Ionatos notes that those who fetishize ancient Greece either idealize or ignore contemporary Greeks.)

From there, the episode looks at this phenomenon writ large—exploring the exploitation of ancient Greece to promote current ideology. As early as the 2ndcentury CE, the Church began recasting ancient Greeks as proto-Christians. But it was the German re-imagination that had the deepest—and most destructive—impact. The Nazis saw themselves as heirs to the Greeks. Against the backdrop of chilling footage from Leni Riefenstahl’s Olympia, this episode shows how philosophy, neo-Paganism and Greek aesthetic ideals were used to promote Nazi visions of purity, culminating in the displays of the 1936 Berlin Olympic Games.

3. Democracy—or the city of dreams

“Modern and ancient democracy have no genetic relationship” -- Mihalis Sakellariou

An in-depth—but not overly dense—exploration of how Athenian democracy worked, and the key ways it differs from modern states using the word. Ancient Greek democracy emphasized the polisnot as a city-state the way we understand it, but as a collection of individuals. Those able to participate (free men—a small minority of the total population) were passionate about politics and had access to numerous checks and balances. It was a world without parties, written policies, or an independent judiciary—one in which today’s decisions could constantly be revisited and refined tomorrow.

Book-ended by the 1968 pro-democracy protests in Athens against the ruling fascist junta, this episode paints a vivid picture of life in the first democracy. It also chronicles the unraveling of Athenian democracy during the three decades of the Peloponnesian War when, as Cornelius Castoriadis puts it, “The Athenian Demos degenerated. There was an oligarchic revolution... What the Demos lost was the art of making decisions. Even language was being corrupted.”

Athenian and contemporary Western democracies may be vastly different, but, as this episode clearly shows, they certainly do have parallels.

4. Nostalgia—or the impossible return

“It’s the most Greek word I know. In a sense, it defines Greece.” --Vassilis Vassilikos

Nostalgia is there right at the start of the Greek literary tradition. Odysseus, after a decade of fighting the Trojan War, must wander another decade before finally returning home to Ithaca. For millennia to follow, nostalgia—a word drawn from roots meaning “longing for home” and “pain”--continued to mark the Greek experience.

Greeks feel nostalgia on many levels and in many capacities. They are immigrants who idealize their homeland. Citizens of the contemporary world who feel a longing for and connection with the glories of the past (naming their children Electra, Diogenes, or Archimedes, for instance). And a people occupied by invaders for centuries, left wondering what remains of their culture. Modern Greeks take pride in the enormous influence the ancients have had on the Western world. But are they really, as George Steiner would notoriously have it, “a parody” of the past?

5. AMNESIA—or history on the march

Western history is said to begin with the Greeks—more specifically, with Herodotus, credited as the first historian. But the ancient Greek conception of history, based on the idea of self-examination, is very different from current conceptions. History in some ways is the interplay between remembering and forgetting—and it always being reconsidered and reimagined.

Located at the intersection of Asia, Europe, and Africa, Greece has long been a pawn in the games played by the great powers of the day, be they French, Russian, British, German, or American. 

This episode, primarily featuring director Elia Kazan (with clips from his film America, America) and writer Vassilis Vassilikos, covers the “period of amnesia” in Greek history from the war of independence against the Ottomans to the overthrow of the junta and permanent exile of the king in the 1970s. It is a period filled with absurdities like a Bavarian child-king who spoke no Greek, alongside tragedies, including the Greek Civil War of 1947-1949, the massacre of the Greeks of Asia Minor, and the military coup of the Colonels.

6. MATHEMATICS—or The Empire Counts Back

“Historians say Utopia doesn’t exist. It does! It’s the geometric space where everything is proven.” --Michel Serres

There is a narrative about ancient Greece and math: That the Greeks invented mathematics as we know it, that men such as Pythagoras and Thales were its fathers, and that concepts including parallel lines and geometric shapes are universal and ahistorical.

After introducing us to this view, Marker sets about dismantling it—or at least questioning its universality and introducing much more uncertainty. Study of ancient Egyptian texts show mathematical concepts; algebra comes from the Arab world, and the nascent world of computing, artificial intelligence, and quantum mechanics are rooted in doubt and uncertainty.

Featuring fun math-themed animated segments, along with excerpts from a campy 1984 production in which a young woman in a dress that evokes ancient Greek style breathily explains mathematical concepts.

7. LOGOMACHY—or the dialect of the tribe

“The adventures of language may be the most meaningful thing in world history.” -- Nikos Svoronos

The word “logos” stands at the start of Greek philosophy. A word that defies simple translation, it lies at the root of terms including logic, dialogue, and dialectic. The Greek word for literature is “logotechnia” -- the technique of logos. 

LOGOMACHY explores logos in its many forms, from Socratic dialogue and its implications when it comes to both education and power, to the five different forms the Greek language, to language as a battle in search for truth. The episode includes a discussion of Plato's Cratylus dialogue on the relationship between words and objects, and points to the next installment in the series, on a space beyond language: the realm of music.

8. MUSIC—or inner space

“The word was music before all else” -- Angelique Ionatos

What defines music? Soldiers marching in tandem create rhythms; Orthodox priests don’t simply speak when performing the liturgy, they chant and sometimes sing; the hammer banging on a board is not that different from the tug of a rope ringing a church bell.

In Greek mythology, Athena (whose symbol is the owl) invents music. This episode focuses primarily on composer Iannis Xenakis and singer Angelique Ionatos, as they delve into the multi-faceted natures of music, its intimate connection with the rhythms of the natural and human worlds, and the interface between technology, natural sound, and musical composition.

9. COSMOGONY—or the ways of the world

“Harmony can only be divine and it is Man... who makes it go berserk.” -- Iannis Xenakis

This episode is classic Chris Marker, tying together an abandoned Athenian power plant turned cultural center, ancient Greek statuary, a department store in Japan, young men destroyed by armored warfare during WWI, and a comparison between Plato’s parable of the cave and contemporary cinema.

From the beautiful enigmatic statues of Cycladic art to classic Greek statuary and on to the big bang theory, COSMOGONY explores the mysteries of creation—on the human, divine, and physical levels. It is no accident that in ancient Greek, the words for “poet” and “creator” are the same.

10. MYTHOLOGY—or lies like truth

“Myths fuel history.” --Mario Ploratis

A small number of Greek myths—Oedipus, Antigone, the Gorgon who turns people who gaze on her to stone—have fed our understandings of ourselves and each other through literature, religion, philosophy, and psychoanalysis.

In this episode, George Steiner discusses the origins of myth in the psyche, and speculates on the directions European history could have taken if a more Hellenic view of the world had dominated over the more Judaic approach of the apostle Paul. Meanwhile, in Japan, Atsushiko Yoshida points to strong affinities between Japanese religion and ancient Greek myths, and draws parallels between Shinto sites and Delphi.

11. MISOGYNY—or the snares of desire

“Greek love, Greek eroticism, is a paradigm for us. But it’s something about which we are very hypocritical.” --John Winkler

Classicist Giulia Sissa takes center stage in this episode, which explores desire in ancient Greece (primarily Athens), the social status of women, and the erasure of women by classics scholars. 

Homosexual and heterosexual relationships co-existed, each within their own spheres. Any notions of romantic love resided with same-sex relationships, which were also seen as rites of passage for boys initiated into the ways of philosophy. Marriage was a different story—with the father as head of the household, and the mother akin to a child or subject. (Angelique Ionatos says she takes little comfort in the notion that a woman was queen within the household.) While the Greeks celebrated some forms of desire, they also recognized it as an omni-present and potentially powerful source of destruction.

12. TRAGEDY—or the illusion of death

“The institution of tragedy plays a fundamental role in a democracy.” --Cornelius Castoriadis

Greek tragedies were originally like TV shows before the age of streaming. They were performed once, and only once says scholar Oswyn Murray. But despite their transitory nature, they embraced themes that have spoken to humanity for centuries—and across cultures.

This episode looks at the particular cross-cultural pollination between Greek and Japanese theater. A Japanese woman remembers first engaging with Greece through Theo Angelopoulos’s film The Traveling Players, based on the myth of the House of Atreus. Angelopoulos and writer Vassilis Vassilikos find affinities between the rhythms of Noh, Kabuki, and classical Greek drama. Meanwhile, actor and theater director Alexis Minotis argues that in the modern world, only Greeks can truly understand the Greek tragedies—a position belied by the clips seen throughout the episode from a Japanese production of Medeaperformed in the ancient theater of Epidaurus, and lauded by Greek actor and Minister of Culture Melina Mercouri.

13. PHILOSOPHY—or the triumph of the owl

“The owl? What about it?” --Theo Angelopoulos

After a dozen episodes that begin and end with the image of an owl, PHILOSOPHY begins with the owl and its symbolism, and shows us how many of the participants in the series react to the birds or images of them. 

What is philosophy? Does all philosophy draw on the Greeks? And are there any philosophers left? Kostas Axelos argues there have been no philosophers since Hegel; all we are left with now are thinkers. (Mind you, Axelos is considered by many to be a philosopher.) Cornelius Castoriades emphasizes that the Greeks had no fundamental sacred texts, while Guivi Margvelachvili emphatically argues precisely the opposite. And lest we find all this philosophical talk too abstract, much of this episode is filmed at a banquet in the Republic of Georgia, when that state was on the verge of declaring its independence from the Soviet Union—a time and place in which thought and action were closely linked.

“We should raze the Sorbonne and put Chris Marker in its place.” —Henri Michaux

“Glorius! Something for the ages; at once illuminating and confounding, heady but playful.” —J. Hoberman, The New York Times

“It is talky, pedantic and adorable. I love it.” —ArtForum 

“A testament to the extraordinary omnivorous mind of this defining film essayist.” —Nicholas Elliott, Film Comment

The primary pleasure of the series, which is incredibly inspiring, is linked to this great banquet of participants, the sum of knowledge they invoke, but above all to the playful flows the editing establishes between their ideas, constructing a formidable network of meanings, historical and cultural perspectives -  a veritable encyclopedia of development." —Le Monde

“Why did we have to wait so long for this electrifyingly intelligent film?” —Le Point

“Thirteen words to uncover an entire civilization and reestablish its considerable influence on our modern societies.” —Les Inrockuptibles

“With erudition, Chris Marker questions in each episode what remains Greek within us.” —Philosophie Magazine

“Ambitious in its scope... THE OWL'S LEGACY is one of the missing pieces in a varied and unpredictable career.” —Hyperallergic

“As absorbing as it gets.” —Time Out New York 

“A maieutic journey!” —Screen Slate

“Anyone fascinated by the machinations of world history will welcome the opportunity to finally see [THE OWL'S LEGACY].” —Movie City News 

340 minutes / Color
French; German; English / English subtitles
Release: 2018
Copyright: 1989

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Subject areas:
Historical Anthropology, Ancient Greece, Chris Marker, Philosophy, France, French Culture, French History, Cultural Studies, Film History

Related Links:
The Films of Chris Marker


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