DVD Review: The Owl’s Legacy

STUDIO: Icarus | DIRECTOR: Chris Marker | CAST:  Theo Angelopoulos, Richard Bennett, Vasilis Vasilikos, Angélique Ionatos, George Steiner, Elia Kazan, Arielle Dombasle, Bob Peck (narrator)
RELEASE DATE: 11/13/18 | PRICE: DVD $22.87
BONUSES: Booklet with episode guide, bios of participants and an essay by Jean-Michel Frodon
SPECS: NR | 338 min. | Foreign television documentary | 1.33:1 fullscreen | stereo |English subtitles

RATINGS (out of 5 dishes): Movie  | Audio  | Video  | Overall

A 13-part series about the influence of the ancient Greeks on the modern world sounds like the driest of educational TV. The Owl’s Legacy was made by master film “essayist” Chris Marker (La Jetée)  though, and while it is indeed an egghead’s delight, it is also a vibrant illustration of the 13 concepts it explores in depth. Look at it this way: How many miniseries contain an entertaining, even humorous episode about mathematical principles?

Granted, the series is more conventionally structured than other major works by Marker. The reliance on talking heads is quite un-Marker-like, but major funding for the series came from the Onassis Foundation, so he had to deliver something in a recognizable package. The joys of the series come when Marker — an absolute master of playful tangents — breaks free from linearity and includes a stray shot, a surprising comparison, or a beautifully crafted visualization of an idea that was just outlined verbally by one of the commentators.

Each of the 13 episodes focuses on a specific idea that the ancient Greeks originated or refined. These include the building blocks of civilization — religion, politics, philosophy, culture, language, mathematics, sports — and important concepts like nostalgia and tragedy. The episodes each have a subtitle in the classic Marker style, so the show titles include “Mathematics, or the Empire Counts Back,” “Mythology, or Lies Like Truth” and “Tragedy, or the Illusion of Death.”

The individuals who serve as talking heads range from historians, critics and philosophers to singer Angelique Ionatos, novelist Vassilis Vassilikos (Z), and filmmakers Elia Kazan (On the Waterfront) and Theo Angelopoulos.

The series has been absent from American retrospectives of Marker’s work and was in fact broadcast only once in France on the La Sept network (now ARTE). Subtitled copies showed up on the Internet several years ago, and Marker, who died in 2012, saw fit to put the whole thing up on his superb Net-archive Gorgomancy (https://gorgomancy.net/).

The 2018 restoration has been touring the repertory circuit and represents the first time the series has been seen on these shores in pristine condition. The two-disc Icarus release should appeal to fans of Marker’s best work (La Jetée, Le Joli Mai, Grin Without a Cat) and French New Wave cultists, as well as teachers and students of philosophy, politics and (obviously) ancient Greek culture.

Each viewer will have his or her own favorite episode in the series, but three particular shows surpass the others. The first is the one on history, in which the commentators offer a pocket history of modern Greece. Novelist Vassilikos discusses the “experiments” that the U.S. conducted in Greece — most notably the first use of napalm when the U.S. intervened in the Greek civil war in 1947-’49.

The mathematics episode is upbeat and entertaining, with Marker interpolating scenes from a cartoon done in the style of Canadian animator Norman McLaren, computer animation (state of the art in the late Eighties) and bits from the unusual video “Avant-Poste” by David Niles, in which actress Arielle Dombasle explain mathematical principles in sexy outfits and with a surprisingly come-hither demeanor. Commentator Richard Bennett also discusses how the language of mathematics will last longer than any currently being used, since it is based on extremely simple concepts.

The single best sequence in Owl’s Legacy occurs in episode nine. Marker explains the concept of “Plato’s cave,” a place where people learn about the outside world through shadows on a wall, with a movie theater. The scene is a little master class in the ways that Marker explained academic phenomena in a thoroughly simple to understand and entertaining way.

There are no onscreen supplements in the package, but the booklet contains short descriptions of each episode, capsule biographies of the talking heads and an enlightening essay by former Cahiers du Cinema editor Jean-Michel Frodon.

Frodon praises the playful tangents that Marker inserted into the series, in particular his inclusion of segments about how traces of ancient Greek culture can be found in Japan and the African country Guinea Bissau. The Onassis Foundation disliked these sequences and saw no reason for them to be in the series. Marker’s terse letter in response to their complaints explained the connection between these segments and the main theme of the show, and additionally charged the Foundation representatives with racism. (One can imagine this might well have been one of the reasons the series sank from sight for so long.)

Writing about the disagreement, Frodon notes that the segments seems out of place at first, but the “horizontality” of Marker’s essayist logic makes these sidebar “trips” seem “somewhat unjustifiable” at first, but ends up feeling “necessary, moving and profoundly fair as the most erudite of university lectures.”

While admitting that Marker obscured the identities of some of the actresses seen in the series, Frodon praises the choice of locations chosen for the “banquets” seen in the film, in which intellectuals reflect on the ancient Greeks. Marker shot these scenes in Athens, Paris, Berkeley and the country of Georgia. By including the last-mentioned Marker is evoking ancient Greece in a place that is “simultaneously the Soviet authoritarian world and the point in time that is it crumbling…. it is the territory that, due to its culture, traditions, gastronomy and meteorology most resembles Greece in this Russian-Soviet world.”

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About Ed

Ed Grant has written about film for a wide range of periodicals, books and websites. He edited the reference book The Motion Picture Guide Annual and, since 1993, has produced and hosted the weekly cable program Media Funhouse, which Time magazine called “the most eclectic and useful movie show on TV.”