Frame of Mind

Rebekah Rutkoff on Gregory J. Markopoulos’s early films at Anthology

Gregory J. Markopoulos, Sorrows, 1969, 16 mm, color, 6 minutes.

“LITTLE DID I KNOW when I made my first film at the age of twelve, [A] Christmas Carol, three minutes long…that the language of film was in constant birth within me, myself as a filmmaker.” Thus wrote the American filmmaker Gregory J. Markopoulos (1928–1992) in his 1971 essay “A Supreme Art in a Dark Age.” From September 8 through 13, on the occasion of the publication of Film as Film: The Collected Writings of Gregory J. Markopoulos (The Visible Press, 2014), Anthology Film Archives will present ten of the filmmaker’s rarely seen works. It’s an extraordinary opportunity to witness the unfurling of this singular language and a chance to respond to the rhetorical query Markopoulos posed in his 1973 essay “The Intuition Space”: “Who can dare to imagine what a single frame might contain? What future process could activate a single frame?”

Markopoulos’s preoccupation with the single frame reached its apotheosis in his final film Eniaios (1947–91): Most of its images are between just one and a few frames long. He created the silent, eighty-hour magnum opus for exclusive viewing at the Temenos, the remote site in the Peloponnese that he selected as the ideal home for his work. Composed of re-edited footage from twenty of his earlier films, as well as unprinted work, it was meant to supersede them all.

Even without the enveloping presence of the Arcadian sky, however, Anthology viewers will be ushered into a unique spectatorial position in the face of Genius (1970/1990), the breathtaking, eighty-six-minute triple portrait of artists David Hockney and Leonor Fini and art dealer Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler that anchors the third of Eniaios’s twenty-two cycles. Image legibility is at once stymied by short duration and position (film frames are reversed and flipped upside down) and clarified via repetition. The separations between the portrait-fragments (no two images in Eniaios touch; each is separated from the next by lengths of black and clear leader) dilate perception itself: Afterimages and halos of light follow the rhythmically disappearing pictures of the three art-world figures. Markopoulos is an exquisite colorist and a master of composition, and the experience of acclimating to the details of his vision in such small doses can be alternately thrilling and quieting.

The filmmaker’s exploitation of the single frame preceded his turn toward a universal separation of images and the removal of all sound, dissolves, and superimpositions in Eniaios. He had a remarkable talent for combining precision with spontaneity, enabling him to produce deeply layered in-camera portrait films (where film is advanced and rewound on the spot with no subsequent editing) like Bliss (1967) and Sorrows (1969). A study of the frescoed and windowed interior of a Byzantine church on the Greek island of Hydra, Bliss is a stunning ode to the transfiguring powers of Aegean light. Made a year after Markopoulos permanently left the US for Europe with his partner, the filmmaker Robert Beavers, Sorrows is shot at the villa King Ludwig of Bavaria built for Wagner and his family in Lucerne and features a motif from Beethoven’s Eroica. Markopoulos was fascinated by the fact that Wagner’s house received natural light on all four sides and on every floor; overlapping dissolves build in clusters with increasing layers and blinking force around the lengths of vertical windows. “Each [film] phrase is composed of certain frames that are similar to the harmonic units found in musical composition,” Markopoulos wrote. One might also read a projection of Markopoulos’s desire for a new chapter of his life and work with Beavers in Europe in his choice of Wagner's villa as subject. Here is a domestic space provided by generous patronage, one that nurtured a period of Wagner’s most productive and visionary creation and bears marks of the sustaining force of love: Interior shots feature the signed music sheets of Siegfried Idyll, written for Wagner’s wife Cosima and first performed in that very house, as well as a painted portrait of her.

In The Mysteries (1968), Markopoulos employs the single frame in a narrative context—albeit a fragmented one; long shots of slow locomotion are interrupted by sections of extremely rapid montage. Shot in Munich, the mesmerizing film follows a young male protagonist on a homoerotic psychic-mythical quest, moving through a repeating pattern of distinct contexts: woods, Art Nouveau interior, city street, museum. The much earlier Pysche (1947) (made only seven years after Markopoulos’s 8-mm, black-and-white A Christmas Carol) was inspired by Pierre Louÿs’s unfinished novella. His first 16-mm film, it likewise tracks the searching journeys of a lost soul and forms one part of the trilogy Du Sang, de la volupté et de la mort (1947–48) along with Lysis and Charmides (named for Platonic dialogues). Together they reveal the filmmaker already in full command of his evolving “language of film.”

“Gregory J. Markopoulos: Film as Film” runs Monday, September 8–Saturday, September 13 at Anthology Film Archives in New York.

Film as Film: The Collected Writings of Gregory J. Markopoulos is now available from The Visible Press. To celebrate its publication, Light Industry will present a screening of Markopoulos’s Galaxie (1966) on Tuesday, September 16, and the Kitchen in New York will host a discussion with filmmaker Robert Beavers, scholar Daniel Heller-Roazen, the volume’s editor Mark Webber, Matthew Lyons, Rutkoff, and more on Monday, September 29.