Aren’t They Ever Going to Finish Greece?
by Dimitris Politakis
An out of context sunstroke-style “mash up” of the movie Summer Lovers (1982) and Don DeLillo’s novel The Names (1982), both set on Greek islands, real or imaginary
Sea, Sun, Sand, Stars, Sex
Set on the island of Santorini, Summer Lovers is an upbeat romantic/erotic drama. Resisting soft-core tendencies of the ‘hot fun in the summertime’ subgenre, the movie, although depicting an erotic triangle, appears remarkably sleaze-free, “deploying its themes in an apparently sincere paean to polyamory” (as the movie site 1000misspenthours.com quite accurately puts it). Though in essence an ‘exploitation’ film, it does manage to overcome both the usual fatalistic repercussions of the ménage a trois plot as well as the relentless folklore of other more respectable movies shot in Greek.
Set mainly in Athens, Mani and Kouros (“an obscure island in the Cycladic group”) The Names is a thriller about a mysterious cult that performs ritualistic murders as well as a moving examination of love, loss and the amorphous and magical potential of language itself. Its milieu is the twilight world of the international ‘risk community’, a subculture of ‘business people in transit’, where the degree of collusion between the executives of multinational corporations and the intelligence services is assumed. It is possibly the most esoteric, eerily exotic, often obscure and strikingly original novel ever set in Greece.
(text in ITALICS from The Names)
Americans in search of deeper textures
Young American couple Michael Pappas (played by Peter Gallagher who went on to star in Sex, Lies and Videotapes) and Cathy Featherstone (played by Darryl Hannah, who had just been in Blade Runner), take an eight week vacation to Santorini, “to be free” and re-evaluate the prospects of their relationship, after college graduation.
Cathy: What are you thinking about?
Cathy: It’s 2.30.
Michael: No, I meant time.
Shadows of empty chairs in the main square. A motorcycle droning in the hills. The light was surgical, it was binding. It fixed the scene before me as a moment in a dream. All is foreground, wordless and bright… Subsistence. A deep silence. There’s nothing here to soothe or refresh the landscape, no forests or rivers or lakes. But there’s light and sea and seabirds, there’s heat that rots ambition and stuns the intellect and will.
The place (the beautiful nudist beaches, the volcanic landscape, the catacomb-like discos) seems to burst with uninhibited energy, testing the couple’s already shaky bond. Preppy, conservative Cathy seems particularly overwhelmed by the whole atmosphere of erotic permissiveness, indulging however in playful sexual experimentations that fail comically, like dripping wax on Michael’s chest during erotic play. Michael, on the other hand, is more ‘game’ when it comes to new experiences (he’s of Greek descent after all).
I began to think of myself as a perennial tourist. To be a tourist is to escape accountability. Errors and failings don’t cling to you the way they do back home. Tourism is the march of stupidity. The entire mechanism of the host country is geared to travellers acting stupidly. You are an army of fools, wearing bright polyester, taking pictures of each other, haggard, dysenteric, thirsty. There is nothing to think about but the next shapeless event… Greeks from the audience were on the stage now, dancing, and soon tourists began approaching the edges of the platform, carrying purses with them and shoulder bags and wearing sea captain’s hats, looking back at friends – looks that begged encouragement for some stupidity they thought they were about to invent.
Visiting alone a nudist beach (with a prominent “nudism is forbidden” sign), Michael meets Lina (played by French actress Valerie Quennessen, who died in 1989 aged 31 in a car accident, a few years after retiring from acting) a young French archaeologist working on the Akrotiri excavation, who also happens to live in a summer house in Oia just across the hill from Michael and Cathy’s place. One of the mysteries of the Aegean is that things seem more significant than they do elsewhere, deeper, more complete in themselves. Those of us pressed together around the joint tables were raised in each other’s estimation to a higher light perhaps, an amplitude that may or may not have been our natural due.
Sparks fly between Lina and Michael, and he decides to confess his “summer crush” to Cathy.
Michael: It’s the first time in my life that I can do what I want. I met this girl… I’m going through something I don’t understand. Maybe it was a mistake coming here
Cathy: You are the mistake, Michael!
Everyday made her more certain of my various failings… What a funhouse mirror is love.
Later that evening, Cathy half-heartedly attempts to get back at him, following a local young man (Giorgos) to his room, the walls of which are covered in 70s movie posters (Farah Fawcett and Bruce Lee among the most prominent), surrounding an old picture of a patriarchal figure, possibly Giorgos’s grandfather. Cathy does not have it in her to actually cheat on Michael, and soon flees, prompting Giorgos to say to himself with a sigh: “Americans!”
– What about the Americans?
– Eerie people. Genetically engineered to play squash and work weekends
Cathy decides to confront Lina, but they end up liking each other, setting the foundations of a love triangle that culminates in the three of them sleeping together.
Lina: Jealousy doesn’t show that you love someone. It only shows how insecure you are (actually a quote of famous anthropologist Margaret Mead).
Meanwhile, Michael seems to get more ‘native’, casually exchanging greetings with locals and even cursing in Greek a fellow American who asks about the whereabouts of Cathy: «φύγε ρε μαλάκα» (get out of here malaka!).
It means masturbator. It’s standard. A Greek will never say anything he hasn’t already said a thousand times. Here, conversation is life, language is the deepest being. We see the patterns repeat, the gestures drive the words. It is talk as a definition of itself…This is a way of speaking that takes such pure joy in its own openness and ardour that we begin to feel these people are discussing language itself. What pleasure in the simplest greeting. It’s as though one friend says to another: “How good it is to say: “How are you?” The other replies: “When I answer ‘I am well and how are you?’ what I really mean is that I’m delighted to have a chance to say these familiar things – they bridge the lonely distances.
From then on, the three “lovers and friends” are happy and inseparable until domestic complications creepily catch up with them, creating tensions, especially for Lina, who, though more confident and ‘European’ than the other two, is also prone to confusion and bursts of fatalism and existential anguish.
Lina: The most important thing you need to know about me is that I hate questions.
[We have our self-importance. We also have our inadequacy. The former is a desperate invention of the latter.] Lina: People are like gas. When there is not enough space, there is pressure.
Lina: When I was 16 my parents fired me.
Lina to Michael: Have you ever been with a man?
Michael: I’ve been close to men.
Cathy: Don’t pursue it Michael. Life is too complicated as it is.
– When are you two going to have children?
– We are our own children.
Although the Americans seem totally at ease with the ‘threesome’ arrangement, suddenly all the “transcendental fun and games” seem to be too much for Lina, who, during a surprise party they throw for her, breaks down and cries, afraid she will get seriously hurt when it is all over.
Lina: I don’t want it to end…
I hoped this wasn’t the moment when we become ourselves again. The island’s small favours and immunities could not have run out so soon. After the bright shock fades, after the separation, there’s the deeper age, the gradual language of love and acceptance, at least in theory, in folklore. The Greek rite.
Things get even more awkward when Cathy’s uptight W.A.S.P.ish mother unexpectedly arrives with a friend of hers. As they climb the hill from the small port to the village of Oia on the backs of donkeys, she exclaims, commenting on the lack of a proper road: Aren’t they ever gonna finish Greece?
Americans used to come to places like this to write and paint and study, to find deeper textures. Now we do business.
Already experiencing a deep sense of loss, Lina disappears, hooking up with a Billy Idol lookalike who is in love with her. Michael and Lina desperately search for her everywhere on the island, but to no avail. Defeated, they decide to return to America, but at the last moment, just before they get on the plane, Lina appears at the airport for a tearful yet joyous reunion. The film ends with the three of them jumping naked from a cliff into the Aegean Sea, the shot freezing midair. What is going to happen to them? Are they going to indulge in their “permanent vacation” fantasy until the summer’s over and then everybody will return to his/her own self-absorbed routine? They are in their early twenties after all, about half the age of The Names’ protagonist and narrator, James Acton. Like him though, they seem to prefer living in loops and endless yearning, rather than urging forward towards the next ‘appropriate’ level.
Forty was always my father’s age. All fathers were forty. I keep fighting the idea I’m fast approaching his age. As an adult I’ve been only two ages. Twenty-two and forty. I was twenty-two well into my thirties. Now I’ve begun to be forty, two years shy of the actual fact. In ten years I’ll still be forty.