by Peter Keough
In a motel in Memphis, between rehearsing and shooting a scene for his
Elvis-flavored film Graceland, Harvey Keitel finds time to talk about a
very different film, city, and kind of music.
"Compared to a sound I'd say it was like being in the middle of a dirge," says
Keitel of his first impressions of Sarajevo, where much of Theo Angelopoulos's
Ulysses' Gaze was set. "I had been in Sarajevo about two years previous
[to shooting the film], on a visit with Vanessa Redgrave for Unesco. I spent
two or three days there then." For Ulysses' Gaze, he adds, "We had set
out to go to Sarajevo to shoot, but the airport had shut down. The plane just
before ours was fired upon, so they canceled our flight."
They shot, instead, in another battered Bosnian city, Vukovar. The smoking
ruins of the baroque, Balkan buildings that give the Sarajevo segment of
Ulysses' Gaze its apocalyptic unearthliness are not clever set designs
but the aftermath of generations of warfare.
"Vukovar is a town contested by the Croatians and Serbs," Keitel explains. "It
was leveled by the Serbs during the recent civil war, and many thousands of
Croatians were killed there. And it was leveled during World War II, when many
thousands of Serbs were killed there. There's scene in the film where two young
actors perform Romeo and Juliet during a lull in the fighting. That
actually took place in the city while we were shooting."
Keitel, of course, is no stranger to the most remote, desolate, disputed human
habitations -- both external and internal. From his incandescent performances
in such Martin Scorsese films as Mean Streets and Taxi Driver to
his literally naked displays in Abel Ferrara's Bad Lieutenant and Jane
Campion's The Piano, he has been driven to seek out and express the most
extreme experiences and circumstances. In Ulysses' Gaze he takes on one
of the most primal and universal roles: that of the wanderer trying to find his
way home in a world of prodigious evils.
In this case, Ulysses is a moviemaker, and he's searching for three cans of
undeveloped film shot in pre-World War I Greece. His hunt draws him deeper and
deeper into the Balkan inferno, forcing him to confront not only his past and
that of the region but the validity of his art in the face of political and
Keitel acknowledges that such realities are largely ignored by people in this
country, but he defends America's recent involvement in the area. "After
traveling around there, I want to say how ignorant the Croatian, Serbian, and
Muslim leaderships are -- not just the Americans. We are there trying to help.
Americans were there making the situation known and calling out to others to
come. And some did. Certainly not in the numbers we should have come. I mean,
children were dying."
Keitel is also intolerant of the kind of ignorance that causes a masterwork
like Ulysses' Gaze to be neglected by American audiences. Made in 1995,
it is just now being released. "They don't see it as a piece of entertainment
that will make money," he says of Hollywood film distributors. "It's a
difficult movie to sell. As opposed to a story that needs to be experienced.
That's the way to sell this movie: sell the experience."
This notion that film is not an art but a consumer product undermines not only
the industry, Keitel believes, but the culture as well. "There is no lack of
material. There's a lack of interest and support from the economic quarter.
Independent films now are really making a strong impact. But I am afraid it
might just be momentary. I am not so sure that the economic factor is either
that interested or educated well enough to place a value on these stories.
"I don't want to be presumptuous, but film certainly is or can be epic poetry
in the hands of the right filmmakers. But film is not given its storytelling
value. They say that what is missing mostly now for us to advance from our
culture is that the art of storytelling has left. So here is a way for us to
tell these epic stories of our citizens. This is important for our culture.
It's not purely for entertainment, but for the pleasure of evolving. And I'm
someone who loves the Three Stooges."
His new film, Graceland, is about a myth perhaps as great as Ulysses,
if not the Three Stooges -- Elvis.
"I don't want to talk too much about it," says Keitel. "Not because it's a big
secret, but because I want people to experience it first-hand. It's a film
about myth, about America, and its creation of myth. It has to do with
mythology and mythologizing."
Back to Ulysses' Gaze