Silent Nights

Left: Robert Beavers (at far left) and guests at Temenos. Right: The guests walking to the site of the screening. (Photos: Michael Wang)

IT IS DIFFICULT to separate the form of Gregory Markopoulos’s Eniaios, his eighty-hour magnum opus, from his idiosyncratic biography. At the vanguard of the American experimental film scene in the 1950s and ’60s, Markopoulos emigrated to Europe in 1967 and withdrew his films from circulation. Two weekends ago, and sixteen years after Markopoulos’s death in 1992, the second installment of the film, cycles three through five of the twenty-two-cycle work, was projected, for the first time, at the site outside his ancestral village of Lyssaraia in the Peloponnese specified by him as the only suitable location for the viewing of the work—what he called the Temenos, after the classical term for a sacred space delimited from the everyday.

Nearly two hundred film pilgrims (filmmakers, film buffs, curators, critics, and scholars) arrived on three consecutive evenings from the nearby village of Loutra, following a curving dirt donkey path to the site as the sun set behind the mountains of Arcadia. There they discovered Markopoulos’s cinematic vision radically altered from that of his early years. Eniaios, whose title indicates both the “singularity” and the “uniqueness” of the film, reedits many of Markopoulos’s early films around his conception of the single frame as the basic filmic unit. While many of the original films included a sound track, the whir of the projector and the occasional insect provided the only accompaniment here. Reduced to lengths of a few seconds or even a single frame, cinematic fragments extracted from complete films—some of which, never having been printed, were literally respliced, their previous incarnations discarded—present the filmmaker’s oeuvre as a ruin or as an incomplete archive.

The Temenos site, an expanse of trimmed grass mowed, gratis, by a local resident, mysteriously sustains a cooler microclimate than its surroundings, and many viewers came equipped with blankets and even sleeping bags. While Markopoulos’s classical themes always looked toward his Hellenic roots (we still catch a glimpse of Taylor Mead, as Prometheus’s avian tormenter, scaling the rocks of a Long Island beach), his later imagery, of ancient, Roman, and Byzantine monuments, aligns—as does the screening site—with his “homecoming.” (Markopoulos was born to immigrant parents in Toledo, Ohio.) Honoring Markopoulos as a local son, Lyssaraia donated the buses that shuttled the visitors to the outskirts of the town and back each night, and hosted an outdoor dinner on the evening before the screenings began.

Introducing the event after dinner, the filmmaker Robert Beavers, Markopoulos’s lifelong companion, assured us that the Temenos was “a gift.” In the months preceding the screenings, Beavers, with the help of a tiny cadre of organizers, had sought out economical accommodations and complimentary transportation for the assembled visitors—anyone who had joined the “Temenos 2008” Google group—and refused any notion of an entry fee or ticket. The restoration of the films and the organization of the event itself relies on donors and the occasional outside grant. The erratic time frame of the screenings (the last was in 2004) is determined, mostly, by the arrival of funds (it will cost around one million dollars to print and restore the film in its entirety). The one hundred titles—which Markopoulos did not live to see projected—have come unglued, requiring arduous reconstruction, a task accomplished by Beavers and a few dedicated filmmakers. Citing the difficulty in attracting interest from large archives, Beavers explained the necessity of “fanatical efforts.”

The initial reel of night one, a “dedication” to Herakles, makes the boldest use of entirely white or black frames, whose modulated rhythms point to the lyric and gestural potentials of the medium. The lengths of clear and black leader do not obey a strict structural program, but rather prepare the viewer for the epic scale of Eniaios and set up the dream space of the afterimage. Projected against the night sky, the black screen matched the dim blue glow of the Milky Way overhead, while the piercingly bright white frames extinguished the surrounding landscape and, when they preceded a fragmentary image (of the tumbled stones of the Pyre of Herakles), threatened to blot out their content entirely.

But Eniaios is not purely an experiment in erasure. After the minimal flashes of the dedication, we were presented with the cropped compositions of Gilbert and George, whose matching tweeds and stiff postures elicited giggles from the local children who had gathered at the edge of the field. I recall, especially, George Passmore raising a cigarette to his lips, a gesture shattered into several staccato sections through the introduction of black tape between fragmentary flashes of motion. The gesture is dissected, frozen, and repeatedly delayed. If, as Giorgio Agamben tells us, “in the cinema, a society that has lost its gestures seeks to reappropriate what it has lost while simultaneously recording that loss,” we might think of Markopoulos’s insistence on “film as film” as preoccupied with nothing other than this dual etiology/eulogy of the gesture.