Visual Perception is Reality: From Cacoyannis and into the 21st Century
When Anthony Quinn passed away, the New York Daily News declared "Zorba is dead." I'm pleased that they knew "the Greek" part of Zorba didn't leave us for the hereafter. It was simply the brilliant performer who captured the complexity of a Greek soul.
How do you explain the Greek soul? We're constantly searching for the answer, in both our ancient and modern pasts. For most of us it remains elusive. That doesn't seem to be the case with tonight's honoree, Michael Cacoyannis.
His vision is shaped by a multifaceted life. He's been an actor… playwright… screenwriter… both a film and theatre director… produced operas… translated Shakespeare's plays into Greek… and most importantly, as a true Gemini, he's a man of extremes. Out of chaos, he has the vision to deliver a crystal clear image of what it means to be Greek. Using the simple tools of the written word, Greek music and stark cinematography, he translates feelings into a visual format that helps us understand ourselves.
Think about that for a moment. The ability to take a feeling and make it dazzling to the eye… ring true to the ear… touch your heart… mind… and soul. It's a remarkable gift. And from my own experience as a television producer and director, I know how painful and excruciating the creative process can be - bringing together words… picture… and sound…. to compose a masterpiece with the ability to reach deep into the souls of people that makeup a tapestry of cultures.
"Zorba the Greek" has achieved such recognition. I remember watching Zorba as a 15-year-old. I'll never forget the impression it made on me. Sitting in a packed five-hundred seat movie house - in the days before cineplex, I was mesmerized by Cacoyannis' portrayal of Zorba. For the first time, someone untangled my complex emotions, and gave me the wings to understand my heritage. On a larger scale, the film was unparalleled in giving the world a glimpse of the Greek spirit. It may not be since Lord Byron's Greek freedom campaign, or Baron de Coubertain initiating the modern Olympics in 1896, has any event impacted public opinion about Greeks.
Mr. Cacayannis' construal of Kazantzakis' novel was a classic Greek irony. He presented Zorba's life as full-life failures. Or were they? Wouldn't you like to be free and unencumbered by the daily minutia that bombards our lives? Let your heart love when the calling comes? Dance on the open beach? Socrates said life was full of contradiction - to know joy you must know pain, to taste what is sweet you must know what is bitter. Zorba demonstrated this to a wide audience by virtue of Mr. Cacayannis' film.
How and why Michael Cacoyannis came to realize all of this in his films, plays and translations of many Greek works is a work of art in and of itself. And maybe someday, Cacoyannis will let us delve into his thoughts and record them in a novel, television documentary or movie.
As a principled individual, he pushed away the commercial side of Hollywood to maintain his artistic freedom throughout his life. He chose to live in Paris when the Greek military banned his art from being shown in his homeland, a dark time in his life. Yet, he prevailed to produce his dream of Euripides' "The Trojan Women" with an all-star cast that included Katherine Hepburn, Vannessa Redgrave, Irene Pappas and Jean-Vieu Bujo. He didn't stop there. Next came a full-length documentary on the invasion of Cyprus. This important historical document ignited an international furor, casting a cloud of condemnation over this Turkish act of aggression that extends to this day.
Maybe we could convince our honoree to revisit Cyprus and produce an updated documentary that could break the underlying tension between Greece and Turkey.
Since his work, there has been a void on the media front defining modern day Greece and who we are as Greek-Americans. We need to find the next generation of film makers, television producers and content providers. We must support their efforts to get the word out, deliver the message that even though we are small in size, we are powerful people, fiercely independent, but dedicated to our culture while respecting other people who do the same.
Obviously, the most powerful and influential vehicle shaping the media perception of Greece and Greeks is the Athens 2004 Games. Starting next summer, we will be the center of attention on the world stage. Not since the classics were written, will more stories published and broadcast about our people and homeland. It's our obligation to prepare for this intense spotlight. We must be proactive and provocative in educating the media about the new Greece, ready to introduce fascinating dimensions of our culture that might otherwise be ignored, and dispel unfounded myths and misinformation. If we fail to prepare ourselves, we'll suffer the consequences. As we speak, 60 Minutes is preparing a story on terrorism for the fall. For another example, their correspondent, Andy Rooney, took liberty with Greek culture by misinterpreting who was responsible for the imagery of Jesus by mistakenly giving credit to the Turks instead of us. It set off a maelstrom of Greek fury not seen since Hercules hurled thunderbolts to push the Titans back into Hades. Instead of lightening, our community hurled thousands of e-mails to CBS and Mr. Rooney, resulting in an on-air apology.
To our credit, we're beginning to raise our voices. The Internet has served to mobilize us and deliver our message internationally in a way that's similar to our sailing the oceans to reach out to the world thousands of years ago. As the church was the protector of Greek culture during our enslavement today, it's the media that we must utilize to keep our culture and spirit alive. We must ask our visual leaders, starting with Michael Cacoyannis, to delve into their wealth of talent and give us the benefit of their experience.
So, Michael Cacoyannis, we give you no rest. But, for the driven artist there is always another production. You have climbed mountains when most of us walked over hills. But, through your brilliant productions and admirable beliefs, as Greeks, we're allowed to stand next to you.
You've said, "I'm interested in finding a moral to help people look at themselves", and "Art becomes universal only when it speaks the fundamental language of truth." He has accomplished all this and more.
Truth… introspection… the search for the meaning of life. Michael Cacoyannis crystallized our vision of who we are. That has brought us all together, here, tonight.
Please join me in thanking the holder of the order of the Golden Phoenix, Michael Cacoyannis, for inspiring us and providing the opportunity to see what it truly means to be Greek.