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Tuesday
Jun032014

Hit Me With Your Best Shot: Zorba the Greek (1964)

This week's 'Best Shot' film Zorba the Greek (1964) was a first-time watch for yours truly.  Oscar chose it for us since it won Walter Lassally's the Best Cinematography (Black and White) statue in the year we happen to be celebrating this month. At one point in the picture Zorba (Anthony Quinn and Anthony Quinn's giant expressive face), catches his employer Basil (Alan Bates, in young, stuffy, super pretty mode) sipping at alcohol. Zorba, a man of big appetites, forcefully tilts the bottle higher to get more booze down his boss's throat.

Don't be delicate..."

He tells his boss. That's good advice if you're watching Zorba the Greek which is, and I cannot understand why no actressexuals warned me of this, a fairly reprehensible motion picture. If this series were called Hit Me With The Shot That Shows Your Feelings About This Movie, my choice would be a tie between this suspicious side eye from Irene Papas as 'the widow...' and the moment a few beats later when she spits at the men and exits the scene.

[SPOILER] The film has two major female characters. One is referred to as a "silly old bitch" and the other has no name or voice. This film's treatment of the latter, "a wild widow" is disgusting. It views her only as a sexual conquest and then as a corpse that's not even worth remembering (she's never mentioned again). The heroes can't save her but, as it turns out, they don't care anyway. Back to our jaunty score and the story of laughing dancing men bonding and building things. She is robbed of identity. Her murder is reduced to local texture, nothing more than a setpiece. [/ SPOILER]

Zorba was a massive hit in 1964 and probably helped popularize the very familiar trope of the Life Force who shakes up the Staid Hesistant Protagonist and convinces him to Engage With Life. You know how that goes. The picture is fuzzy about the why, and what good it does anyone, but it's all about the journey anyway. The film peaks right in the middle with strong playful scenes about a mine, a monastery and Zorba's famous dancing. The first dance is the film's most beautifully lit scene, all shadowy impishness and physically stout feeling.

The next day Zorba confesses to deeper truths about his life and tells Basil he doesn't understand -  men, women, war... the whole lot. Basil objects that he does understand but Zorba retorts:

With your head, yes. You say this is right. This is wrong. When you talk, I watch your arms, your legs, your chest. They are dumb. They say nothing. So how can you understand?

Which is why it's so smart narratively, and also visually, that when Basil tries (awkwardly) to recreate Zorba's uninhibited passionate dancing later in the picture the shadows render him headless.

In these admittedly frequent moments when the film is all gesture and the body takes center stage, Zorba the Greek has a certain potency. It even has masculine charm. But some of the ideas jostling about in its brain aren't worth the widow's spit. Better it loses its head. 

OTHER BEST SHOTS FROM THIS FILM
click on the photo to read the corresponding article!

Monks refer to him as "the devil." When Zorba dances, he moves like a man possessed...
- The Entertainment Junkie 

The dark silhouettes made the women look like vultures scavenging for food... 
-Film Actually 

 

For dance is an important narrative motif here; it is the metaphor for how much vivacity and vitality one possesses, and how much one is willing to pull the utterly English stick out of one's utterly English ass...
-Antagony & Ecstasy 

all the people on this island are always in packs...
-The Film's The Thing 

 

NEXT TUESDAY NIGHT: A special one-off TV episode of our series. Since everyone will be binge-watching Orange is the New Black Season 2, you can choose the best shot of whichever episode (or episodes) you most want to talk about. Why fight it? It's all the internet will be talking about that week.

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Reader Comments (12)

I don't much care for the film, either, though I agree certain sequences are dazzling, and visually it's striking. Glad to know others feel the same!

The musical's beautiful, though -- I believe it's the same team from NINE.

June 3, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterWalter L Hollmann

Like you Nathaniel I only recently caught this and found it quite risible. I'd put it off because I have never and probably will never understand the allure of Anthony Quinn. Even in supporting roles I find him grating. My impression was not in the least changed by the obnoxious blowhard he plays here.

That said and even with the bonus of a young and totally scumptious Alan Bates in the film I didn't have the wherewithal to sit through it again. As far as a best shot I think of the iconic shot of Quinn and Bates dancing on the beach. But my choice would be the parting of Alan Bates and Irene Pappas as they part on the road and she looks back as he walks away, it says so much about their relationship. The film was beautifully shot but as I watched I wished it had been in color since the sun bleached Crete looked so amazing I wanted to see it as it really appeared.

June 3, 2014 | Unregistered Commenterjoel6

joel 6 -- i dont often watch black and white movies and think "i wish this were in color" (since i love black and white) but i'll admit i did that a couple of times here.

and that scene where they pass on the road is my favorite in the film. but yikes overall

June 3, 2014 | Registered CommenterNATHANIEL R

Nathaniel-I also love black and white films and infrequently wish they were in color (or worst of all colorized!!!). Off the top of my head I can only think of two: this and Ziegfeld Girl, those amazing costumes in color would have been eye popping. Otherwise black and white cinematography in the hands of someone who knew how to work with it adds so much to a film.

June 3, 2014 | Unregistered Commenterjoel6

I have never been interested in this film (I appreciate Anthony Quinn, but have never been what you'd call a fan) and still have yet to see it. The images are certainly striking.

June 3, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterPaul Outlaw

Didn't you love Lila Kedrova? She is heart-breaking.

June 4, 2014 | Unregistered Commentercal roth

I'm so happy to read your feelings about that film, because it mirrors so much mine. When I watched it I could not believed that I only read praise about it without any mentioning about how repulsive it is. I was so full of rage, when they continued to build their waterthing as if nothing happened. I wished it would break down and the whole island population would die of thirst.
But the cinematography is really beautiful, and I actually think that the black and white increased the sensation of a blazing sun. I remember the images of the widow in black against walking through the white town.

June 4, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterIvonne

I watched the movie several years ago right after reading the book. The book is also unkind to women, who, as you point out, only serve as instruments for and reflections of the male characters' ascendance. Still, I liked that the book criticized so many institutions we take for granted, for example politics, religion, and heteronormative marriage. (The latter might explain, if not excuse, the objectionable depiction of women.)

The movie, however, I found intolerable, including Zorba's dancing. I think the book kind of worked for me because it is more about philosophy than plot--in this sense it's a forerunner to The Alchemist or possibly The Life of Pi--but the movie made it too literal, shifting the emphasis from the book's strongest elements (ideas) to its worst (characters and plot). I keep thinking I should jump into the "Hit Me" series because I find it so fascinating, but there was absolutely no way I was going to watch Zorba again.

June 4, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterDusty

I tried watching this several years ago and found it to be very offputting. I couldn't engage with it at all, even though I'm a big Alan Bates fan. I agree with joel about Quinn--don't find him appealing in the least, though he was pretty good in Viva Zapata. I gave up on this movie early on. But Irene Papas was lovely.

June 4, 2014 | Unregistered Commenterbrookesboy

just watch the film yesterday, too late to contribute my pick, a very difficult movie indeed, here is my shot: http://lasttimeisawdotcom.files.wordpress.com/2014/06/zorba-the-greek-22.jpg?w=700&h=388
Papas is a gorgeous beauty!

June 5, 2014 | Unregistered Commenterlasttimeisaw

lasttime -- she sure is!

June 5, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterNATHANIEL R

Dear Nathaniel R.

I find your description/summary of the women's roles in Zorba the Greek absolutely astonishing and unjustified.
In my opinion both the widow and Mme. Hortense are portrayed both realistically and sympathetically, particularly in respect of the period depicted.

Furthermore I believe that the film is a very fair version of the book and any criticism of the characters in it should probably be directed at Katzanzakis rather that at Cacoyannis.

Of course the Cretans have always objected to the way they were depicted in the book, demonstrating their anger by depositing excrement on Katzanzakis' grave.

Of course, as D.o.P. of this film I am probably a bit prejudiced, but I do think you are being a bit unfair, to say the least.

This year being the 50th anniversary of the shooting of the movie we are planning a little celebration at a taverns here in Stavros, to which you are all cordially invited.

With best regards,

Walter Lassally

July 1, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterWalter Lassally

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