by Gordon Taylor | 4/23/2008 12:00:00 AM
[cross-posted at The Pasha and the Gypsy]
My death came in a blaze of gunfire, as bullets splintered the rocks, my Schmeisser machine pistol burped its last, and I fell twisting and screaming into the dirt. It was, in other words, a happy ending: we got it in one take, using only a few feet of 16mm Ektachrome, a minimum expenditure of 9mm blanks, and one string of powder caps lain across the ground to simulate the ricochets. Yes, I hammed it up shamelessly during my death scene, which resulted in a nasty gash on my right index finger when I pitched onto the karstic limestone of Greece. But the hero was saved from my Nazi villainy, and the good guys prevailed. As for my accomplice, a red-haired traitor named Maria, she was taken out and shot. All the while, behind the rocks some 300 yards away, the tourist buses enroute to the Temple of Poseidon at Sounion, where Byron's famous graffito stands chiseled into the marble, rolled past undisturbed.
This was kinematographia, as perpetrated under the Colonels' junta. Political subservience garnered the money; speed, economy, and convenience ruled the show; hard-core nationalism sold the tickets; and I was making twelve dollars a day.
It had begun before dawn on a Monday, when we gathered outside the offices of Pallis Athena Art Films*. The building, a four-story lump of brown stucco and concrete, lay in a seedy district near the Bouboulina Street Police Headquarters, a place of notorious grimness in the heart of Athens.
My friend Michael, who got me the job, was waiting out front when I arrived. Michael came from Munich, but with his fine features and brown hair he might have looked at home anywhere from the Urals to Big Sur. I met him and his French girlfriend Sylvie at a Lenten festival in Thebes, only a week after my arrival from England. Michael was tall, and he looked good in uniform, especially a Wehrmacht uniform, so the Greeks made use of this talent. He had done two other movies for Pallis Athena, and in both he played Nazis. In the film immediately preceding "Crete Aflame," the movie we were now shooting, he had commanded a firing squad; before that he tortured prisoners.
Michael, clad in jeans, a leather jacket, and a filter-tipped cigarette, was pacing back and forth on the sidewalk as I approached. When he saw me, he stopped and smiled. "Good," he said. "You came." The cigarette glowed red as he sucked hard, then blew smoke into the dark.
"What's happening?" I asked.
I looked around. Lights were on in a second-story office above us. On a wall I could see what looked like a movie poster with Greek characters splashed across it in red. This was the nerve center of Johnny Pallis's film-making operations. Pallis, Michael told me, was in tight with the junta; this allowed him to find production money that eluded others.
"Stavros says, we wait."
Stavros, Michael explained, was the assistant director. He ran the show for Eliadis, the famous director whom Johnny Pallis had hired to make the film.
It was cold that morning: I had walked over from my room on Tsakalof Street, near Kolonaki Square. In the markets of Athens, trucks were arriving heaped with citrus from Crete and the Peloponnese, but this tropical abundance could not hide the fact that we were getting uncomfortably close to frost. As a babble of Greek filled the air about us, Michael and I paced and shivered. Men arrived, talked, went inside, then came out again. Some of them got into cars and drove off. None brought enlightenment.
"What scenes are we doing today?" I asked.
"Ve don't know."
I considered this.
"Well, do you know where we're going?"
"Somevhere." Michael pointed his cigarette in a vague southern direction. "Sometime, they just go anywhere and shoot."
"Ja, ja. They get in ze truck, they look around and find a place. Then they shoot."
"I hope they have a script."
"Don' vorry, Gordon." Michael waved his cigarette and took another drag. "They vill tell everything."
The pacing continued as cold seeped into our feet. More men came; more left. After fifteen minutes a Ford van pulled up. When new it had been white. A man got out, flung open the side door, and in a rough Hellenic voice issued what seemed to be a command.
"Let's go," Michael said.
With difficulty, we slid onto bench seats that were surrounded by piles of electrical cable and equipment. Two other men occupied the front seats, chain-smoking crew members who either spoke no English or, at five in the morning, had no desire to do so. Michael knew only a little more Greek than I, so with that and the cold any conversation was stillborn.
At that hour the streets were deserted, so we moved fast. Athens in 1970 had few electric signals; they relied upon roundabouts and policemen to control traffic at major intersections. At 5:15 A.M. the place was a Greek motorist's dream. I had no idea where we were going, and neither did Michael, but we were obviously headed away from the harbor of Piraeus toward the east side of the Attic peninsula. After passing through Philothei and the far suburbs of Athens we slowed at a junction in the road. The van's headlights flashed upon an arrow pointing right, and in that arrow appeared the word "SOUNION". We turned south and followed.
By the time our van hit the Sounion road we had left the lights and traffic of the city behind, and hints of daylight emerged from the jagged hills and scrubland to the east. A light drizzle had fallen, and broken clouds dominated a gray sky. I was cold, cramped, and hungry. From my seat on the floor I couldn't see much, but what I did see was Mediterranean landscape, the same thing I had known from years in Turkey: limestone rock, scrubby sage and thyme on the hills, vineyards and olive trees, and an occasional village with whitewashed houses. This part of Attica is called the Mesogeion--literally, the land in the middle (of the peninsula). Every taverna in Athens featured huge barrels of retsina, the wine that is to Greece what JP-4 is to the United States Air Force. The best retsina came from the Mesogeion, and no meal was complete without it.
Fifteen minutes later we turned off the asphalted Sounion highway and headed west up a dirt road. A mountain lay ahead, now visible in the dawn light, and the track began to climb.
This was not a road in the sense used by engineers. Men had not designed or built it; they had quarried it and left it to decay. Steadily but in pain, the van ground upward. An amazing dawn now erupted in the east, a dawn that grew bigger, colder, and more vehement at every turn of the path. The van switched back, spun its wheels in the scree, bounced and grabbed for traction as we ascended to the sky. The golden moat of the Aegean opened beneath, and beyond that the black serrations of Euboea glowered in the light. Inky clouds hung over the summit, while about us the dew-slicked rocks had begun to glow.
After several more miles of abuse, our van came to a dieseling halt on the mountainside. All we could see was wet rock. The clouds over the summit had pulled a curtain across the liberating sunrise. The result was a darkness so extreme it might have been created on a soundstage. As gloom and damp reclaimed the earth, we pushed open the side door and began our day's employment.
I stomped my feet and looked about. Half a dozen cars had parked on the mountainside; nearby a small generator was thrumming, and we could see its cables snaking through the rocks into a bank of fog. Stavros appeared, a cleanshaven, portly young man with shoulder-length hair. He carried a notebook and raised his right hand in greeting.
"You wait," he told us. "Eliadis will come later. I will bring the uniforms."
Besides "Crete Aflame," the current opus, Eliadis had also directed Michael in his previous two films. Stavros supplied further details. The film immediately preceding this had won the Greek equivalent of an Academy Award. Called "To Die in Patras", it dealt with the Resistance in the Peloponnese. Before that he made "The Martyrs of Navplion", which portrayed the Resistance in another part of the Peloponnese. After "Crete Aflame" Eliadis was set to make a film about a German atrocity in the Peloponnesian town of Kalavrita in 1943. Its title: "Weep for Adonis".
"He is very famous," Michael said.
For all of two seconds I was impressed, and then a shiver coursed through me. I looked about for a souvlaki stand, a coffee vendor--anything. All we had was the generator and a bunch of rocks. It was a little after dawn on what looked to be a long day.
"Who's the star?" I asked.
"Fernando Sancho," said Stavros. "He's a big star in spaghetti westerns in Spain." The name, like "Yvonne DeCarlo" or "Lola Montez," sounded too good to be true. Any rational person had to suspect a pedestrian origin lurking behind this romantic moniker: some truant youth, perhaps, from Basking Shark, New Jersey, who had grown a mustache, doused his hair with oil, and run off to the Mediterranean to begin a new life. Fernando Sancho indeed.** After some more small talk, during which Stavros revealed that he would soon be at UCLA Film School, the assistant and his notebook disappeared up the mountain.
We had been told to wait, but standing around on spiny rocks at six in the morning is nobody's idea of fun. Anything seemed better than freezing in place, so with that in mind Michael and I decided to follow the electrical cables up the mountain. The summit (and the formerly glorious dawn) were totally lost in the fog by this time, so it came as a surprise when we came upon the mouth of a cave and a group of crewmen standing in front. Before we could enter, Stavros appeared with a pile of black leather belts and gray German army uniforms draped over his arm. This was a happy sight.
The uniforms were standard-issue Nazi memorabilia, probably purchased at close-out somewhere in Hollywood and used endlessly to revisit the Second World War. The stuff I got was much too big for me, but that was fine because I didn't want to take off my other clothes anyway. I removed my windbreaker parka, pulled on a pair of pants that were big enough for Sergeant Schultz in "Hogan's Heroes," donned a tunic and a jacket over that, then put my parka back on for good measure. Then came the crowning touch: a black steel helmet with an iron cross. I felt a little bit warmer and probably would have been fine, except that my feet were blocks of ice.
"Boots?" asked Michael. "Do you have boots?" Michael wore tennis shoes; I had on a pair of tan work boots.
"No boots," said Stavros. "Not necessary. We shoot--" He groped for the word, couldn't find it, then pointed to his knees and jerked his hand upward. Torso shots only. We could have been in satin toe shoes for all they cared.
At this point a well-fed man of middle-age emerged from the cave. He stopped and talked briefly with one of the grips, who was down on the ground working with the electrical cables, then came over to us. The man wore jodhpurs with short riding boots, and a brown leather jacket over a safari shirt. His thinning hair was combed straight back, and a few curls of it survived above the collar of his coat. He walked over and held out his hand.
"I am Eliadis," he announced.
We were pleased to meet him. Michael he greeted first, and when I took the hand of Eliadis I got the squishy warmth that passes for a handshake in this part of the world. This experience is disconcerting to the average American, who has been taught to squeeze the bejeezus out of anything at the end of a man's wrist. I'd encountered it before with Turkish peasants, but I never got used to it.
Eliadis inspected the two Nazis. Michael repeated the "boots?" question, but Eliadis said he didn't care. He declared us adequately dressed, and began giving us the situation.
"This is story. Boy and girl are inside. They are running from the Germans. The boy loves girl, but girl is a spy. She tells you where they are comings. You come here to kill the boy. En doxi?"
"En doxi." We nodded our heads obediently.
"Do we have lines to speak?" asked Michael.
"Yes, yes, you tell him to put hands up--it's O.K."
"Is there a script we can study?" I asked.
"No script--don' worry 'bout that. You write the words. It's O.K. En doxi?"
"En doxi." We said this without assurance.
"Don' worry. I come back later and we will talk about it. It's O.K." And with that Eliadis strode back into the cave.
A gray-haired, rather handsome man was kneeling by the mouth of the cavern. He had a black cloth bag on the ground before him and was doing something in the bag with a reel of new Ektachrome. He looked up at us.
"This isn't Hollywood," he said in American English.
"What do we do?" I asked.
"Nothing. You do what he said: you wait."
And that's what we did. According to available testimony from the film industry worldwide, this is the chief activity of 90% of the people at any given time on a movie set. Other companies, however, have been known to provide folding chairs, heated trailers, and catered food: what might be called Waiting Lite. Pallis Athena Films had nothing in the budget for that. This was Serious Waiting; not, perhaps, the Heavy Industrial Waiting imposed upon political prisoners, those chained in dungeons, and Aztec human-sacrifice anointees, but waiting of a very high level indeed. In the absence of useful activity we brutalized our feet in an attempt to restore circulation: back and forth, stomp, stomp, to and fro, jump, jump, while Michael sucked on hot cigarette smoke and I did an occasional burst of sprinting in place. Despite the effort my toes stayed pretty much where they were, in that painful state between normality and frostbite.
Most of the activity was taking place inside the cave, where we couldn't see it. Electrical problems--lights, test, connections--were holding things up. The generator rumbled on; the sun remained behind its frigid shroud. An hour and a half after our arrival word drifted out that they were starting. With what? I wondered. We had seen no other actors around, nobody in costume. Michael and I followed the cables into the hole in the mountainside.
Great cave, I remember thinking: Really great cave. And it was: a fabulous place to wear animal skins and hang out with someone prehistoric while cooking up a mastodon; or, on a more contemporary level, an excellent rendezvous for a band of Partisans on the lam from the Germans. A narrow passage that sloped first up, then down, led through jagged rocks into the heart of the mountain. Twenty yards in we came to a great room in the rock, with stalactites hanging from a high ceiling. The walls glowed like a shopping mall in December. People were waiting. The battered camera, set up on a wooden tripod, looked like one that D.W. Griffith could have used.
As cinematic verisimilitude, the glowing walls of the cavern resembled the orchestra that swells whenever a Hollywood couple go out on a sailboat and start singing to each other. Blues, oranges, yellows: every gel in the rack had been pulled out. The boy and girl fleeing the Nazis had just happened to pick a grotto with the best lighting east of Lourdes. The sheer gaudy glory of it all made me forget the dankness and hearken back to my youth. In summer the Ames High School Band would give concerts at the shell in the park (amazing, I know, but true), and our family would always go to sit on the grass, eat popcorn, scratch mosquito bites, and listen to the music. Besides the popcorn and the mosquitoes I especially remember the banks of concealed lights in the band shell, and the way they would be altered to suit the musical mood. A Souza March? Flip on the white bulbs all the way. Something romantic by Rodgers and Hammerstein? Use the warmer tones. Something sombre? The blues. Thanks to the the grips of Pallis Athena Films, who had bathed the cave walls in enough wattage to accompany the "Liebestod" from Tristan und Isolde, the band shell of my youth was reborn.
Stavros was leaned over conferring with the cameraman when we walked in, while in the middle of the chamber Eliadis stood talking to two young people, a man and a woman. The young man was very pretty, in the standard Mediterranean mode: dark hair and eyes, medium height. He wore the uniform of the Greek Army, with a Sam Browne belt and a holstered pistol on his hip.
"Is that Fernando Sancho?" I whispered to Michael.
"Him? No, that is Christos. Christos Erosoglou."
"Where is Fernando Sancho?"
"He is in his bed, I think."
"Do you know this--Christos Whatzisname?"
"Ja ja, he is a big star. Ze last film ve shot him. Ze film before than one I broke his arm." Michael smiled slyly.
Stavros sidled over, still carrying his notebook. Once again he assessed our costumes and corrected a couple of my more egregious rumples. Michael leaned toward him.
"Who is the girl?"
"Italian. Gina Malaconti." Michael shrugged his shoulders, to which Stavros added, "She is new."
We assessed Gina with masculine curiosity: red hair, slender body--attractive enough, certainly, but not the Italian earth-mother one might have hoped for, and not really as pretty as her male co-star. She was, however, laboring under the handicap of bobbed 1940s hair and a not-very-attractive cotton print dress. Gina looked blank, uncomfortable. Perhaps it was the presence of all the masculine curiosity that we exemplified. Perhaps she was a blank in real life.
Eliadis barked orders and the shooting began, a series of short scenes with minimal dialogue. The Greek soldier and the girl had sought shelter in the cave, and would ostensibly rendezvous there with Cretan guerillas. Christos spoke Greek, and after considerable coaching Gina responded, haltingly, in the same language. They went through a tedious series of set-ups and scenes. After every one Eliadis would say "En doxi," and they would move on. They never did more than one take per scene. Especially interesting was the acting technique used by our Greek star. "Quaint" charitably described it. On his last night out at the theater, Abraham Lincoln probably saw acting of exactly this sort: raised eyebrows, heavy mugging, the gestures of a semaphorist.
They were shooting in 16mm for blow-up to 35. The camera didn't seem to have much in the way of various focal lengths, nor was there a boom to move it about. The cave floor was highly uneven, and there weren't a lot of places where the tripod would work. Neither actor spoke loudly, nor did anyone call for silence on the set, and it soon became apparent why. There was no sound equipment whatsoever in the cave. They were shooting a silent film.
"This is a Spanish-Italian-Greek production," Stavros explained, as they started a new set-up with the ancient camera. "Later we do dubbing."
I thought for a moment, then looked at him. "Why do we need to learn dialogue?"
Stavros looked at me as if I were brain-damaged. "Eliadis is one good director. He wants it perfect."
No answer was possible. At this point Eliadis turned to Stavros and rattled off a long paragraph of instructions in Greek. He looked at us as he did so.
"Come," said Stavros, starting for the outdoors. "We get ready."
Dawn had passed into mid-morning. At the mouth of the cave, dark gray had given way to a lighter shade of the same color. The sharpness and cold of the rocks, however, had not changed. There, standing in for the ever-scrupulous Eliadis, Stavros directed us for our big scene.
Together we hashed it out. Michael stood the taller of the two of us, and Eliadis had indicated that he should be in charge of our team of assassins. They also only had one submachine gun, so that had to go to Michael. Evidently I would assassinate Christos by eviscerating him with my bare hands.
"O.K.," said Stavros, turning to me. "You speak German?"
"You can learn German if he writes it?"
"Sure." The closest I had come to German was a recording of Tannhäuser highlights. "O du mein holder abendstern" I knew virtually by heart; otherwise, nothing.
Stavros was talking to me. "O.K. You come in this side of the camera, Michael comes in over there." He arranged us accordingly. "You say, 'Put your hands in the air. Stay, don't move around.' Then you say, 'Take his gun.' Michael will go to take the gun from Christos. He says, 'You don't look so good now,' something like that. Then he talks to Gina. He says, uh, 'Is anybody waiting?' Something like that. Gina says No, nobody comes. Then Christos says to her, 'You know these man?' She doesn't say nothing. Michael says, 'Go outside now', something like that. Scene is finish. En doxi?"
No problem. I had played this scene at least two hundred times during childhood using cap-guns. Stavros gave Michael a couple of scraps of paper, and for the next five minutes they stood and finalized the dialogue, while Michael made a German translation.
There was one minor problem. I was reluctant, however, to point it out. After all, Pallis Athena Films was paying me 350 drachmas for this day's work, which came to just under $12 American. This wasn't as paltry as it seemed: the average restaurant meal was about sixty cents; a litre of retsina set you back 33 cents. I was not exactly in a position to start telling people their jobs; still, it seemed obvious that Stavros had switched roles for Michael and me. Michael stood three inches taller; Eliadis had clearly indicated that he would be superior to me. So why was Stavros giving me lines telling Michael what to do?
The clouds seemed tantalizingly close to parting as we set to work. When learning nonsense syllables it is hard not to let the mind wander, and I was already rehearsing the hilarious and witty report that I would deliver to my girlfriend over that night's retsina.
For twenty minutes we marched up and down, each on his patch of rock, packing in the lines. Like Bela Lugosi, who learned his lines phonetically when he played Dracula, I kept on talking. A couple of times Michael and I would stop and throw lines at each other; but then we would always go back to our pacing.
"This is stupid," Michael said at one point. We had just run through our dialogue again; we felt ready.
"How are your feet?" I asked.
"They are like--eiss! Same word in English, ja?"
"Same. What's stupid?"
"If you have a glass--a mirror--you will see yourself. We look like--idiots."
"In acting you always look stupid. It's part of the deal."
"The bargain. The arrangement. The ménage. They give you something; you agree to look stupid."
"Like with women!"
I hesitated. I had never felt quite comfortable with the sort of bonhommie that involved standing around and trading generalizations, most of them cynical, about women. But Michael was different. Sylvie, I had learned, was his obsession. Small, dark-eyed, and voluptuous, she had taken over his life the previous summer. Michael, penniless, had been forced to return to Bavaria, but after a few months he found that he could not stay away. And so, with the determination of the hopelessly besotted, he had gathered together the few Deutschmarks he possessed and set out after Sylvie on a Velo-Solex, a one-cylinder moped so puny that it had to be pedaled over hills. On this pitiful vehicle Michael had crossed the Alps and ridden the length of the Balkan peninsula. All for Sylvie, the beautiful Francaise with the amazing body.
I had hesitated when Michael brought women into our discourse, but my discomfort did not last long. As a shaft of sunlight pierced the clouds, Stavros emerged from the cave's mouth and shouted to us to come up. With a last look at my scrawled list of gibberish, I followed Michael back into the cavern.
Inside, the golden-orange stalactites awaited, and we marched before the lights.
"Yanni!" Stavros summoned.
A handsome and attentive young man approached me carrying a tiny bottle of white liquid. He smiled coyly as he showed me the bottle.
"Latex," he murmured.
I gave myself over to him. With a small brush he painted a swab of the stuff two inches down my right cheek, then pinched the flesh together until it stuck.
"Now I make you ugly," Yanni said.
He almost sighed as he said it. He seemed to take my looks so very seriously. After the white gum had set, Yanni took another reddish-brown bottle and proceeded to daub on the darker color. In the end I owned a sabre-scar worthy of a Prussian aristocrat.
Soon Eliadis set to work pushing us around. I would enter on the left; Michael on the right. We had secured our German Army helmets with chin straps.
"Where is the gun?" Eliadis barked at me.
"I don't have a gun," I said.
Eliadis turned to Stavros. He was so annoyed that he forgot to speak Greek. "No gun! Give him gun!" he yelled.
Stavros yelled back, as did the head cameraman, the same gray-haired guy who told me that I was not in Hollywood. Eliadis returned the compliment. Three or four crew members replied at the same time. The message, even in Greek, was clear: there was no gun for me; one submachine gun was all they had. Recriminations ensued. Eliadis turned to Christos, who was standing beside us, with Gina, in the middle of the scene. No one had bothered to introduce us to our colleagues, but then, this was not a company that put a lot of effort into etiquette. Eliadis pointed to the holstered pistol at Christos's side and asked him to turn it over. Christos, quite understandably, objected. How were the German soldiers going to come in and disarm him if he was already disarmed? When they reached for the pistol in his holster it would be gone! No problem, said Eliadis, pointing to Michael: when he takes away the gun the other one (he pointed to me) won't be on camera and you can use the pistol then.
This seemed to clear things up for the moment. Christos unholstered his service revolver and turned it over to me, and one of the grips came up to assure me that it was empty.
"En doxi," said Eliadis. It was time for a brief run-through. At our director's command Michael and I came on barking our lines in the best Prussian manner. Eliadis gave the cue, and action:
"Hold it!" I think I said in German. "Put your hands up and don't move!" I looked at Michael. "Take his gun; be careful."
"No! No!" said Eliadis, "No!" We stopped; Eliadis continued. He pointed to Michael. "You talk first. You are the leader. You give orders to him."
"I wrote this with Stavros," Michael protested. "This is what he told me."
"Stavros is not director: Eliadis is director. It's O.K. You change parts."
"I don't know his words," I said.
"It's O.K., it's O.K.; you learn it. En doxi?"
My suspicions were right: Stavros had assigned our roles incorrectly. Michael and I exchanged slips of paper, and Eliadis gave us a couple of minutes to look them over. This meant that after forty-five minutes of learning one load of phonetic units I now had a totally new cargo to cram aboard. Immediately I forgot about my cold feet and started to pace nervously about the chamber, mumbling in what was presumably German. A bizarre thought occurred to me. Was this really the language of Goethe, I wondered, or had Michael played some cruel joke upon us? I remembered my friend Bobby, a nuclear physicist and professed Marxist from Turin, whom I had met the previous summer in Turkey. He claimed that while staying with a family in Toronto he had, in the guise of language instruction, drilled their children in Italian vulgarities, including the notion that "Va fangulo" meant "Have a nice day" if they ever got an audience with the Pope. What if--? I looked at Michael: he did seem quite obscenely casual about the situation. It was very hard to concentrate on my lines.
Meanwhile Stavros walked over, pulled another piece of Michael's "script" from his notebook and gave it to Gina. This was to be her reply, in German, when one of us asked her if anyone else from the Partisans was waiting outside. Gina's dark eyes narrowed as she beheld Michael's Teutonic scrawl. She cast about her for guidance, but Eliadis had walked away to talk to the cameraman. The scene had dissolved into a collection of shadows: grips, directors, cameramen and actors, all conversing in the dark corners of the cave. For me at least, the morning's employment seemed to be lurching toward a climax. I continued pacing as I tried to stuff my head with German dialogue for a silent film to be dubbed in later by someone else speaking Greek, Italian or Spanish. Only Michael, sole Deutschophone in the cave, leaned back against an outcrop and relaxed: a soldier of the Reich shod in white sneakers, confident in his ability to reel off something harsh and Teutonic when the time came.
For her part, Gina seemed as flummoxed as I. She stood smoking a cigarette, a wool coat draped around her shoulders, and looked again at Michael's handwriting. Gina read the German words, sucked hard on her filter tip, and blew a jet of smoke into the light. She looked up, and across ten feet of gloomy cavern our eyes met. The moment of recognition passed in an instant, but it was no less real for that. She had seen enough.
The gaze of l'Italiana, though filled with anger, was not directed at me. If there was a moment, I think, when Gina foresaw the sundering of this Gordian knot of incompetence, that was it. Gina must have known what would happen. She could see the lot of us gathering two minutes later, our lines unlearned, slouching toward Fubaristan. She knew we would run through the lines to no avail, and that when asked to speak her own brief response she would hesitate, sputter and begin shouting at Eliadis, at Christos Erosoglou and anyone else who would listen.
"Why should I do this?" she would demand, her Italian dander rising to the stalactites, "There is no sound! Who cares?"
And with that the whole thing would stop. I think she knew that she could bring down all the jury-rigged direction of Eliadis with a stomp of her foot, that in the end, as the cameras rolled for their first and only take, Michael would enter shouting in German, that I would disarm Christos with an American-accented sneer, that I would accost Gina in English, receive a reply in Italian and provoke a wounded response from Christos in Demotic Greek. All this I am sure she could foresee, and that is exactly the way it happened.
With a look of disgust, Gina Malaconti took the note containing her German lines, mashed it into a ball, and sent it flying into a crevice behind a stalagmite.
Eight months after my death on the Sounion road, the movie appeared. A Friday night in October witnessed the gala premiere, complete with cast, crew, and visiting dignitaries. To this I was not invited. The following night, however, I was.
This second night was a kind of poor man's premiere, an event for the plebs but by invitation only. Christos Erosoglou, to his credit, showed up and was rewarded with a chorus of squeals from girls in the audience. He was, however, the only cast member I could see. The producer wasn't there, the director didn't show, and neither did Stavros, who, no doubt, had gone off to UCLA film school as planned. I had seen the producer, Johnny Pallis, only once, when he showed up for a shoot at the Army radio station wearing light blue slacks, tan loafers, and an aloha shirt whose breast pocket strained to hold a 2-inch brick of new 1000-drachma ($33) notes. Why he carried these no one could explain. (Eliadis and the crew simply laughed about it when Pallis had gone.) Maybe they were for bribes; perhaps the large Cadillac he drove didn't suffice for self-advertisement; perhaps, like a Bedouin woman, he had taken to wearing his wealth for adornment. Or maybe he thought that movie moguls dressed that way.
Michael, likewise, absented himself. He and Sylvie, rumor had it, had broken up for the final time during the summer, and he had disappeared soon after. The breakup's climax, we heard, came at midnight outside Sylvie's apartment, when he appeared, Kowalski-like, shouting her name into the void. We found it hard to believe that he had returned to Munich on the Velo-Solex, but anything was possible. His father, a wealthy Bavarian businessman, had previously (another rumor) disowned him. Like so many in the expat community, he had drifted out of our consciousness, never to be seen again.
The theater was on Patission, several blocks past the National Museum. My girlfriend Carol and I arrived to find a sparse crowd and little in the way of hoopla. The seats were threadbare, and they sagged in the middle; but unlike American theaters this one did not have a floor that was coated in congealed soda pop. All in all I found it shabby but genteel, a fitting place to show a cheap melodrama about the War.
After the arrival of Christos, and with no introduction, the film began. In brightest red, over black-and-white newsreel footage of diving airplanes, belching naval guns, and marching troops, the credits rolled. Since they were in Greek, they looked like a vast assemblage of collegiate fraternities and sororities splashed across the screen. But one line in particular caught my attention, and when we saw it Carol and I dissolved in laughter.
The moment, however, passed quickly, and within minutes we were hacking our way through this salt mine of a film. Bad movies can be fun, but "Crete Aflame" was work. First of all, it was in Greek, a language Carol spoke fairly well but of which I remained ignorant. This made it necessary to look at the actors' faces for artistic rewards, and that produced only embarrassment. Fernando Sancho spoke well and wore his Cretan guerrilla costume with great panache, but he was the only person I could see with even the slightest hint of screen presence.
At last came my scenes. My character awoke at night in a straw-filled stable, as a burst of Morse Code cut the silence. I was a German agent, and the traitor Maria was making contact. Carol elbowed me: "You look smashing!" she whispered. Onscreen I donned a set of headphones over my blonde locks, and within seconds I had returned a coded message using a field wireless set. Soon the four of us gathered in the cave, and I was in a shapeless uniform and steel helmet speaking Greek with a disembodied growl.
"Which one is you?" Carol asked.
Cut to the Sounion road, where in quick succession I marched Christos out into the rocks, cocked the slide on my Schmeisser, and was riddled by bullets from a posse of partisans.
"Are you sure that was you?" Carol asked, as we left the theater minutes later, explosions rattling the speakers.
Well might she ask, for my death scene, that climactic moment with which I began this account, had been shot with such an ancient, inadequate lens that I appeared to be some fifty yards away, a tiny figure rolling around in the bottom of a gravel pit.
"At least the credits were good," I replied.
She agreed. They were, in fact, sublime. For there is something magical about the Greek alphabet, with its angular forms and antique associations: a movie screen filled with its characters gives a classical dignity even to lowest forms of art. So it was when those names started appearing in the opening credits of "Crete Aflame." Page after page, screen after screen they rolled, as the newsreel guns roared, the airplanes went down in flames, and the Panzers rolled. And to see, resplendent in the midst of all that Greek, one's own name in plain Latin characters: well, no wonder we laughed. The next time, I might even work for noth--no, scratch that: next time, my fee goes through the roof.
* With the exception below, I have cleverly disguised the name of the production company and its personnel.
** Fernando Sancho was, in fact, a veteran Spanish actor who enjoyed a long career in Euroschlock. IMDB.com lists an astounding 237 movie credits for him, beginning in 1944 and ending in 1990. The titles alone make his entry worth a visit, as they include such classics as "Requiem for a Gringo", "Too Much Gold for One Gringo", "Watch Out, Gringo! Sabata Will Return!"[also 1972], "If One is Born a Swine", and, "And the Crows Will Dig Your Grave"[1972 again]. If you are so inclined, feel free to insert the word "gringo" in the final two entries. In "Django Shoots First", Sancho even played a character named "Gordon"--or perhaps "Gordo", as he was noticeably stocky. Sancho, born in 1916, died in Madrid in 1990.
Labels: Gordon Taylor