NEW YORK — It's unfortunate but true that foreign-language films have fallen out of favor with American moviegoers, even though many people agree that cinema is a valuable tool for broadening awareness of our increasingly complex world.
If this cultural cloud has a silver lining, it's that nontheatrical media are bringing at least some aspects of international film to a growing audience. Movies from around the globe appear on the shelves of well-stocked video stores, and audio recordings bring soundtrack compositions to music-lovers everywhere.
Few recording labels have a more international spirit than ECM, and its adventurous New Series has recently released a number of CDs devoted to music by Eleni Karaindrou, a respected Greek composer who's best known for her contributions to Theo Angelopoulos's ambitious films.
Angelopoulos is not exactly famous in the United States, but if his name rings a bell, it's probably because his epic "Ulysses' Gaze" took second prize at last year's Cannes filmfest. This accomplishment would delight most directors, but it prompted Angelopoulos to mutter a sour-grapes complaint about not receiving first prize, and his crabby "victory speech" promptly received more publicity than the movie behind it.
Since then, "Ulysses' Gaze" has played special engagements in several American cities, earning considerable respect for its superbly photographed story of a filmmaker (Harvey Keitel) who takes a peripatetic journey in search of a missing film strip that his imagination has endowed with almost mythical properties.
Like other Angelopoulos movies - including "The Suspended Step of the Stork," a political drama that enlivened the New York film festival a few years ago - it's long, slow, and expansive, less a conventionally told story than an invitation to inhabit a time and place that are at once vividly real and quintessentially cinematic.
Karaindrou's music plays a crucial part in creating the leisurely, all-consuming atmosphere that Angelopoulos strives for in his major works. As commentator Wolfram Schtte points out in an essay accompanying one of the new ECM releases, sounds of different sorts have an "imaginative, meditative, evocative" function in his movies that is "almost as important as the visual component."
It can be said with the same validity that Karaindrou's compositins have a timeless, unhurried quality that seeks to engulf and absorb rather than excite or provoke its audience.
"I'm looking for the rhythm inside," the composer is quoted as saying in another essay, adding that "the grain and luminosity of the [film] confirm what I need for colour and orchestration."
Added to these aesthetic concerns is a specific connection with Greece and its heritage that energizes the work of Karaindrou and Angelopoulos alike. This doesn't mean her scores have much to do with indigenous folk traditions, though. While she holds advanced degrees in history and archaeology, she "has enough respect for Greek folk music to leave it alone" in her own composing, as ECM annotator Steve Lake notes. When traditional instruments do make an appearance, they are usually put to nontraditional uses.
The results are fully in tune with Angelopoulos's filmmaking, which treats ancient landscapes, character types, and story ideas - such as the voyage of Odysseus in his latest film - through the very contemporary lens of modern cinema.
As represented on the ECM discs, what does Karaindrou's music actually sound like? The compositions presented here emphasize its nostalgic, elegiac, even mournful moods while conveying a resonant variety of melodies, textures, and rhythmic ideas. ECM was sensible to release the discs separately, rather than as a multidisc package, since the consistency of these selections might seem a bit monotonous if too much were encountered too soon. A good CD for newcomers to start with would be "Music for Films," incorporating music from three major movies - "Landscape in the Mist," "The Beekeeper," and "Voyage to Cythera" - as well as program essays and gorgeous stills from the films themselves.
The suites from "Ulysses' Gaze" and "The Suspended Step of the Stork" would then make excellent follow-ups for listeners newly attuned to a composer with an uncommonly solid grasp of the link between musical and cinematic sensibilities.
* Eleni Karaindrou's CDs in ECM's New Series are 'Music for Films' (ECM 1429), featuring Karaindrou on piano and vocal, Jan Garbarek on tenor saxophone, and others; 'The Suspended Step of the Stork' (ECM 1456); and 'Ulysses' Gaze' (ECM 1570), featuring renowned violist Kim Kashkashian.