May 10, 2022

Interview with Akis Kapranos from Midnight Express: Redefining the light in our lives

Looking back on the main event of TEDxAUTH for 2022, those of us who were lucky enough to participate in it in some way, have a bittersweet feeling, on one side the feeling of bliss, on the other nostalgia. Iris left and took the rainbow with her, leaving the hazy sky in shades of gray. So looking for some rays of light, and since the outdoor cinemas have opened, I turned to Akis Kapranos, film critic, founder and coordinator of Midnight Express and Midnight Express records, radio producer, and so much more that he can better tell you himself. So, I found a handful of hope that I was searching for in vain, and I am writing this during an evening, when the sun sometimes shines weakly, or other times is hidden like it’s reflecting our emotions in the strange times we live in, hoping that I will transmit this hope to you as well.

We talked for a while with Akis and I learned a lot from him. I warmly thank him for the time he gave me and the wonderful discussion.

-First of all, I would like you to introduce yourself to our TEDxAUTH readers.

-My name is Akis Kapranos, Ι am a film critic and musician, and Ι have been through various posts all these years, too many actually to mention them all. I am currently writing for LiFo, Ι am the film critic of the newspaper Naftemporiki, Ι have been doing a show about cinema (“Radio Screen”) for the past 29 years on Channel 1, the Municipal Radio of Piraeus – is the longest running show for cinema in the even "narrow" chronicles of Greek radio - and from time to time I teach at New York College. I'm also a musician and I was a drummer in the '90s for "hard" extreme sound bands, like Septic Flesh. I have also composed music for short and feature films, and I continue to write music for films to this day. I am also the person behind the Midnight Express circuit in Athens and Thessaloniki. In fact, we will expand further soon. Finally, I also run the Midnight Express Records label, which specializes in reprints of classic vinyl soundtracks.

-What’s the Midnight Express and how was it born?

-Midnight Express is a projection circuit that operates somewhat underground. It was an idea that I had in me for many years, which started from the memory of the older midnight screenings in Athens and Thessaloniki. They started in Athens immediately after the change of government, the first ones were organized by Ninos Fenek Mikelidis and Nikos Zervos, later by Vangelis Kotronis who left behind a very important work, Vassos Georgas who consolidated them in the 80s. They were started in Thessaloniki by the Deliolani brothers (Periklis & Giannis), great critics of the city. John was also a close friend of mine. So I grew up in these screenings, I went from 13-14 years old, because it was the only way to watch movies like Dario Argento or Lucio Fulci in their true dimensions. These movies were only available on VHS, where you had them in square form. In the cinemascope frame you "lost" because they actually zoomed in on the image and you saw two noses talking. It was annoying. So you would go to the cinema out of necessity. Of course you had other problems there. These film copies had been in storage since the early 1970s, which means they were censored by the junta, so many scenes were cut, but at least you could see the whole composition. Traveling abroad later, however, I realized that the midnight slot is not only for fun or horror, but can easily accept the imprint left by pop culture all these years - which in Greece we have not listened to. It is a place, let's say, for a movie that meant nothing to the critics and is not a cult movie. I also have endless favorite movies that I have never seen in the cinema. So the Midnight Express starts as a combination of these ideas. But the most important reason that led to its creation, was that I was in a personal moment that was a bit strange and on the borderline and I really needed to do something and feel good about myself for doing it, without caring if it would resonate.

-How was the Midnight Express finally implemented?

-No cinema owner believed in this project. I got rejected, everyone was telling me that kids no longer go to the movies. The cinema owners and distributors are a conservative caste of professionals, few think long term. One of them is Peggy Riga, who owns Aavora, Riviera and Vox. It all started with the death of David Bowie. Three days later, we screened three films in Aavora, The Hunger and The Man Who Fell to Earth with Bowie and played the last live of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars. Aavora was so full that a taxi rank was created outside, where it did not exist before. There I said to her, “Peggy, I've been trying to do this for 4 years” and she tells me "come to Aavora and do whatever you want". That's how it started, I had no idea how to do this, how to find movies, how to pay royalties, how to subtitle, etc., I learned along the way. Everything you see on the screenings is my work, from the first to the last minute.

-How was the public’s reaction to the Midnight Express?

-I never sent any press releases, people learned it by word of mouth, they started coming and they liked the vibe, which is that we exist collectively, we communicate with the film, we see and we react as we want to it - from the moment we love it. I always have this example in mind, I was in a “fancy” cinema, exclusively for cinephiles to see again the Dogtooth, that I had already watched in Cannes, where we had died out of laughter because of the film’s humor, and there as soon as I went to laugh they gestured me to be silent. This conservative audience exists, but I believe you are not a cinephile if you react that way. I believe that our love for cinema is like water, it reaches all levels of your life and affects how you eat, what perfume you wear, certainly your relationships, everything. That's why we don't have a talk with the audience as soon as the movie ends, like "the movie is over, let me tell you what you saw". I hate this, I will say a couple of words at the beginning and then you will find it yourself.

-There is a duality both in the cinema and Midnight Express in particular, in the sense that through it we celebrate happy moments, but we also face sadness or loss. How do you experience this, what emotions does it give you?

-Look, I did not expect all this to go well. But when people started coming, I thought that I was communicating with this world. So we are united by other commonalities. For example, when the issue of financial support for the trial of the murderers of Zak Costopoulos was raised online, I noticed that there were many “commemmorations”, but no "big" organization gave money. So I did a screening of The Rocky Horror Picture Show, where the net proceeds went there. We did the same for the fire victims of Evia last summer - a very significant amount was raised. The Midnight Express is an open space. Since I do not make money from Midnight Express and as long as there are people who support it, because the world is its power, I feel that in addition to cinematic empathy, we also have social and human empathy. Everything I get out of this goes to the movies, because movies cost money. You know, the first time this happened with Bowie, we were all like a memorial, but we also felt a warmth in it all. It was the first time I said "I did something good". You can not feel that as a critic - not like that. Cinema you said is twofold, I have the word joyful sorrow. You may be happy and sad that the movie is over. The problem with cinema is that it ends.

-You have stated, on a Midnight Express screening night, that you would get the same joy seeing people go to any other cinema. Where does your treatment come from?

-I want people to go to the cinema. I grew up in the cinema. I was a somewhat introverted child and through movies I first learned what friendship, love, romance, the weight or lightness of a touch (can) mean. We can not get used to the closure - we did not come to this world to be closed inside our homes. This is the issue, we are all institutionalized. The platforms tell you: Here you will find all the movies you want, here you will find whatever food you want, do not go out, do not see people, you do not need to. This existed before, it is not a trend brought by covid, but it made it bigger. I want the testimony of experience to be saved. Only in the cinema, you understand what movie you watched, when you let the energy of others pass through you. Movies that I have watched over and over again on VHS and then on Blu-ray, only when I watched them in the cinema with an audience, did I realize what I had been seeing in them for so many years. To me, human life is associated with empathy. Cinema is empathy. In Greece, especially the cinema is facing a very dirty war. Okay, so now, I can only say "go to the movies"!

-One thing that stood out from Midnight Express, apart from the fantastic movies you choose, is that at the end of each screening, at the exit you say goodnight and thank each person individually. Do you feel this is your obligation or need, and why?

-Not a need. Every time I preface a movie on Midnight Express, I always close with the same sentence: "This is a movie you could watch at home but you came here to experience it all together." Which means you could have stayed at home but you decided to go out, for the movie, for the experience. You know, Midnight Express has a face and I'm going to consciously hit your convenience, that's my enemy, so I tremendously appreciate that you extended your shot and came this far, and I thank you for that. Like I said at the beginning, I never sent a press release in print. This project exists only because its people support it. So it's not a necessity, but yes, I feel obligated. And it seems right to me that I feel it. I also feel better when I do it and people like to be greeted. It is definitely the opposite of movie screenings that with the credits coming out, the lights come on and "goodbye", this phase is a bit coitus interruptus...

-Where do you think the feeling of purification that cinema makes us feel comes from, especially watching a movie with a physical presence in a cinema?

-[...] In other words, the question is what cinema fulfills within us. Because I think mainly through cinema, there is a movie that I love very much and it is called Holy Motors, in which the protagonist is constantly changing roles. I think through cinema we can live other lives, "mock" the universe and live on a side, the so-called multiverse that has existed since cinema was created, from Τhe Arrival of the Train at the Station in Lyon, which is the first film ever shot. So the cleansing comes through it, by arranging your lives. Outside the cinema you have a life to arrange, it is this one, the ungraceful, the determinist. Inside the cinema you have to arrange everything else: the trip you have not made yet, the action you have not yet taken, the kiss you have not yet received or you may meet them in the cinema for the second time, after you have met them in real life. Only this thing, when it is repeated in the cinema, is more real and even though you have experienced it, because it is more real for everyone in there. You know I started with your question, in which you said cleansing, I thought straight of ancient tragedy, what makes us cry in tragedy… I once talked to Lars von Trier, he used to tell me that Dancing in the Dark is a tragedy and I said no it is not. When the tragedy ends, the cleansing comes and you feel better, when Dancing in the Dark ends you feel awful… and he admitted it! But again, I saw it in a packed room and we ALL felt bad. This brings purification in the cinema, collectivity, the fact that for two hours you are not alone, you live something together. These touch me.

-I have to say that as a girl I have not felt safer so late at night in the city anywhere but at the Midnight Express screenings. How important is it for you to create safe spaces for all people so that we all feel comfortable as we share and enjoy our interests?

-You do not know how important what you say is to me. I wish I could say "one brings the other, it's impossible the Midnight Express wouldn’t be a safe space, only cool guys come out of their houses at twelve o'clock at night to see John Carpenter'' but some things may seem obvious in my head while they are no longer in our time. At the screenings in Aavora, I used to say, the movie ends at 03:00, whoever has a car and lives towards there, let's say who it is, because here these kids want to go home - if they want to help. So, groups have been formed through this. Well, of course I have my mind on it. I have not had to reprimand a person, but if I have to, I have no problem doing so. However, there are no “hipsters” on Midnight Express - fortunately not yet.

-To conclude, I would like you to tell us some movies that stand out and that you would always recommend.

-My favorite movies are Mario Monicelli's My Friends and Andrei Konchalovsky's Runaway Train. In my opinion, the best movie ever made is Victor Erice's Spirit of the Beehive. Now favorite movies are definitely Bob Fosse's All That Jazz, Michael Powell's Peeping Tom, Suspiria, Inferno, Dario Argento's Tenebrae, John Duigan's Lawn Dogs, a relatively unknown 90s movie, does not even exist in blu-ray, definitely J Todrg Buttgereit's Der Todesking, a movie that I really want to have in Midnight, are definitely Nikos Grammatikos' Apontes, Giorgos Panousopoulos' Apenantoi, Ken Russell's The Devils and definitely all Italian Neorealism.

I could have written endless pages with everything we discussed. But I would like to say goodbye to my readers with a part of the interview that surprised me:

"Italian Neorealism is an example of life for me; when World War II ends, the Italians are the Nazis' collaborators, right? Nobody thinks of Italians like that today! And why; Because the Italians felt the need to "speak" to the world immediately after their defeat - and so they created Italian Neorealism. Through this cinema they changed the view of the whole of humanity towards them. No other art has ever achieved such a thing in the entire history of the Arts. This is the power of cinema. It can change a planet's view of a nation - even if it collaborated with the Nazis. Germany did not do it, it was too late, so much so that it was no longer clear in the minds of the people whether they were ashamed of the War or of its defeat - and I put it this way as this is essentially the question that preoccupied them back then at the '70s, Margarethe von Trotta and Rainer Werner Fassbinder. Only then, there was something like the aftermath of the trauma of World War II heard. "Why are we so late?" these movies seem to say! It would be different for humanity to look at Germany if it had also spoken to its cinema at the time. The cinema talks about them on time…''

The cinema cleanses our souls and dresses our nights with colors… To support the cinemas, to watch good, bad, sad, happy or funny movies, to let them touch you, to make you cry and laugh, to make you share them. Iris may have left and left us in the dark for a while. So let's find the lost light in front of a big screen.

Thanks to Akis Kapranos for providing the interview. The photos are by Gianna Fotou, official photographer of Midnight Express.

Vicky Georgiadou (she/her)

Zoned out and overthinking since ’01. Currently studying at the Rural and Surveying Engineering Department of the Engineering School of the Aristotle University of Thessaloniki. Occasional writer, regular reader. Addicted to b-movies and cult classics, poetry, classic literature, architecture, and satellites, maybe gin and tonic as well. You can find her in Engineering School during winter, usually looking for the cat that lives there, and at some open-air cinema during summer. Knows how to read a Turkish coffee cup and that’s pretty much the most interesting thing about her.

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Angie Stathaki

From the triptych "ballet, French and piano", she has conquered only the second, but that doesn’t stop her from trying to learn the other two! A lover of the Sun, of the Italian cuisine, and Van Gogh. You will often find her with headphones on, listening to her favorite list over and over again. Favorite moments? Good company, wine, laughter and board games!

Panagiota Katsaveli (she/her)

Born and raised in Kilkis, but her imagination has convinced her that she has lived in many countries around the world. Spends most of her free time watching TV shows, while adopting the personality and behavior of her favorite characters. The combination of perfectionism and laziness that characterize her will eventually be her destruction. Chocolate, wine, coffee and pizza is what she is made of.

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