Εssay by Evita Tsokanta about the work of Christos Massalas
Christos Massalas is a pleasure to talk to about all matters but most of all cinema. The force of joy that emanates when he describes his projects carries with it a life-affirming vivacity for the art of filmmaking and creativity in general. He is an endless resource of cinematic references that are not limited to the typical obscure mid-century cinematographers a director usually name-drops, but includes mainstream cinema made for popular consumption that you’ve actually seen. A rare treat if you are embarrassingly unsophisticated in art house cinema. The same quality is transported in his body of work. Such a sense of exoneration for wide appeal leaves no space for pretentiousness. His filmography holds the uncommon quality of art film accessibility. A touch of pop culture, a polaroid aesthetic, recognizable 90s references that make you sit up in your seat, are all light-heartedly sprinkled in his work, making the viewer feel at home. At the same time, his filmography deals with sex with a subdued tone which only thinly guises a deadpan humor undertone that feels absolutely in tune with today. A type of bright-colored film noir, if that is even a thing.
Christos Massalas studied filmmaking and film theory at the London Films School and Kingston University where he spent the following years building his creative toolbox. He moved back home to Athens when the Greek debt crisis was starting to hit hard. Some might think of it as an unwise life-choice but he seems entirely unphased by budgeting issues as he manages to make ends meet one way or another. Mostly another. A savvy fundraiser and a convincing ambassador for his practice, Massalas seems like a unicorn in a sector that has been plagued by the misery of ill-equipped infrastructure for film production. He however sounds characteristically optimistic about Greek cinema, as he believes that a glass ceiling that until recently would allow only one native filmmaker to make it big, has been shattered, allowing the diversity of the extremely dynamic Greek cinema of our time to shine. He even goes as far as considering his films unattached to a specific geography, which might be a given for a filmmaker of any other nationality, but not as much for a Greek one. And all that, despite the fact that his first feature film which after years of preparation was set to start filming during what turned out to be the coronavirus induced lockdown in Europe. In fact, he adds with his contagiously good-natured outlook, that covid-19 actually accelerated his production as he managed to make the best of what was given to him, something he has made a habit of.
His directorial approach is as meticulous as to be expected by an artist who is in love with his medium. He makes precise and explicit storyboards for each scene of the film. He oversees every aspect of production, pre and post, to the point of knowing how many Swarovski crystals have been glued onto each costume. Massalas, like the majority of Greek cinema directors, writes his own scripts. He was selected to be part of the Sundance Screenwriters Lab in 2018, for his treatment of his upcoming first feature film, Broadway. The intention behind his scripts is that the themes emerge out of the storytelling, thus activating the viewer to be part of putting the pieces of the puzzle together and deconstructing the topics. He spends a good year and a half rehearsing with his cast. A cast that he is quick to point out, does not consist of established actors, but of fresh, new faces that haven’t had the chance to be typecast. During the long stage of rehearsals, he writes short scripts that allude to character’s traits instead of the final film narrative. He is interested in building relationships with and between cast members in order to actually embody rather than enact. It sounds like he is mostly focused on creating working atmospheres in which narratives will most naturally occur. Why rush when the alternative is to relish in the process?
In his earlier work, Massalas, utilized the medium of short films and music videos to explore his aesthetic with the poetic visuals that were afforded to him thanks to the specific format. In his 2011 Make-up, one sees the first instances of his preoccupation with what he calls the erotic thriller genre. It is a depiction of a casual sexual relation between strangers, a social anthropologist and a make-up artist, that occurs in the span of one night and leaves part of the storytelling hidden in the dark allowing elements of mystery to jumpstart dialogue. Throughout his practice the director is particularly interested in investigating and depicting various notions of masculinity and their fluidity. The differences in sexual behavior in public versus private space offer a fertile ground for that. Massalas proposes that what happens behind closed doors, what in fact remains unseen, is what causes social differences to collapse and reveals one’s authentic nature.
In the music video for Σtella’s, Picking Words song Massalas explores the film noir genre further through the play of shadow and light and the poetic depiction of artificial body parts. Although such imagery could only make sense in the abstraction that is permitted in short films, in Flower and Bottoms (2016) he begins to delve deeper in eroticism and its relation to today’s fragmented self through the storyline. It is indicative of the way he classifies his filmmaking as post-queer. He is interested in the depth that is usually silenced in the film representation of queer characters rather than a single-layered depiction that is limited to a gender label. Visually reminiscent of The Garden of Earthly Delights by Hieronymus Bosch, Flowers and Bottoms, has the literal connotation that its’ title points to. A presentation of two individuals, one speechless seen only from the back while watching in the dark a film called Flowers and Bottoms and the other only heard through a series of voice mails addressed to his, presumably estranged, lover. Alluding to the transformation of sexual relations caused by the immediacy and casualty of the popular tinder and grindr dating applications, Massalas furthers his depictions of erotic desire to include the failure of realized intimacy and a haste to move on to the next. It is a visualization of the de-identification of face and body, similar to the faceless characters in the film who ultimately never meet.
Copa-Loca (2017), which was selected in the Cannes Film Festival Directors Fortnight, is a coming of age memoir. The main character is an abandoned, deteriorating water park in the outskirts of Athens. The park is populated by an angsty teenage girl who is seen in a series of emotionless sex scenes with various men while surrounded by lots of bananas. It all feels primal and archetypical. The film is narrated by a character who only enters the screen in the last shot and is barely recognized to be an aged Jenny Hiloudaki, an author and model that became well known in Greece in the 90s for being the first trans gender supermodel. Vilified from the Greek media due to her extramarital affair with a district attorney, she has long disappeared from the public eye. In the film, Hiloudaki portrays the young girl’s mother who attempts to distance her daughter from the waterpark and end her careless sexual escapades. There is a poetic implication which allows the aesthetic distance between reality and fiction to collapse and heighten the sense of the inevitable corporeal scattering in one’s youth. The layered connotations are only multiplied through the soundtrack of samba, electropop and Greek 60s musical scores, adding an ironic yet warm nostalgia into the mix making the theme appear wholesome and universal.
Throughout Massalas’ filmography there is a recurrent motif of playfully representing promiscuity. A sense of reckless abandon that is stereotypically associated with the sexual awakening of young teenagers or the LGBTQ+ community. However, this motif is dealt with in a pragmatic, matter-of-fact tone, stripped from its shock value and not positioned within the spectrum of moralistic judgement. What distinguishes it from a pornographic approach to sex is in fact the subtle humor with which it is filmed along with the fact that it feels all too familiar. Somewhere amongst the rusty colorful waterslides of Copa Loca, one recognizes the circulating decay of what was once highlighted as fun and exciting but now has lost its promised appeal. It is a perfectly balanced illustration of what in Greek is called charmolypi. A co-existence of the sorrow that comes with recognizing fallacies of the past, the redemption of allowing forgiveness and accepting life’s paradoxes and ultimately the joy of maintaining optimism for the future with all its inherent ups and downs, tops and bottoms.
Filmmaker Christos Massalas is a 2019 SNF ARTWORKS Fellow. ARTWORKS is a nonprofit organization exclusively supported by its founding donor, the Stavros Niarchos Foundation. Our aim is to create a fertile and nurturing environment for Greek artists through funding and public engagement opportunities. You can always learn more about our Fellows at www.art-works.gr
Evita Tsokanta is an art historian based in Athens who works as a writer, educator and an independent exhibition-maker. She lectures on curatorial practices and contemporary Greek art for the Columbia University Athens Curatorial Summer Program and Arcadia University College of Global Studies. She has contributed to several exhibition catalogues and journals and completed a Goethe Institute writing residency in Leipzig, Halle 14.
*A line from the film Flowers and Bottoms, written and directed by Christos Massalas