TABLE OF CONTENTS

books

the writings of Gregory J. Markopoulos

Robert Beavers and Gregory J. Markopoulos prepare for a screening at the Temenos, Lyssaraia, Greece, 1980. Photo: Tassos Dambergis.

Film as Film: The Collected Writings of Gregory J. Markopoulos; edited by Mark Webber. London: The Visible Press, 2014. 560 pages.

IT IS AN OLD COMMONPLACE of advanced art that the deserving audience will emerge only in a time to come. This emphasis on futurity is built into the very term avant-garde, with its invocation of a movement forward by a select group to which the rest will catch up only later, if ever. American experimental filmmaker Gregory Markopoulos (1928–1992) presents a particularly extreme and fascinating case of this anticipatory wager. After earning recognition as a major figure of the New American Cinema for his mythic psychodramas (Twice a Man [1963], The Illiac Passion [1964–67]), film portraits (Galaxie [1966]), and unparalleled mastery of in-camera editing (Ming Green [1966]), Markopoulos left New York, first for Chicago and then for Europe, in 1967. Within a few years, he had pulled his films from circulation and ceased almost all public screenings, citing insult and exploitation. This was, however, no Duchampian declaration of withdrawal from artistic activity. In a self-imposed state of near invisibility and financial precarity, Markopoulos continued to make films until his death from lymphoma in 1992, leaving them unprinted. He remained a prolific writer, often issuing his texts in private editions, and fastidiously contacted publications around the world in an effort to track any mention of himself. In other words, Markopoulos was assiduously preparing the conditions of a future reception over which he would exert control. For this utopia he had a name: the Temenos, a Greek word describing a sacred grove marked off from quotidian uses. It was imagined as a situation of ideal reception outside all established infrastructures, which were seen as contaminating and false. The closest Markopoulos came to realizing this dream during his lifetime were the annual screenings he and his partner, the filmmaker Robert Beavers, held between 1980 and 1986 at Rayi Spartias, a field some 150 miles from Athens along winding roads. Though Markopoulos referred to this site as the Temenos, the two designations were not precisely synonymous; even at the end of his life, the Temenos—theorized as a condition of “Understanding” and immortality—persisted in a state of unfulfilled futurity.

Across many texts in Film as Film: The Collected Writings of Gregory J. Markopoulos, the filmmaker writes of his disgust with the critics and institutions around him but repeats that the Temenos will be achieved in the “Twenty-First Century.” In a way, his prediction has been ratified. The appearance of this book—edited by British film programmer Mark Webber and published by his imprint, the Visible Press—is a milestone in the current surge of interest in the filmmaker. Beginning in the mid-1990s, after its long absence from the screen, Beavers carefully began to reintroduce Markopoulos’s work to the public, a process culminating in the initiation of screenings of the artist’s magnum opus, Eniaios (1947–91), at Rayi Spartias in 2004. Left finished but unprinted at the time of Markopoulos’s death, Eniaios is a 16-mm film roughly eighty hours long, consisting of twenty-two “orders” that refashion, among rhythmic patterns of black and clear leader, all but the entirety of Markopoulos’s previous body of work. As a site-specific film intended to be shown exclusively at the remote Temenos site, Eniaios is both the apotheosis of Markopoulos’s rejection of circulation and a monumental undertaking commanding special appeal in a digital age of unprecedented accessibility. It has received a gradual premiere since 2004, with roughly ten additional hours shown every four years to an assembly of pilgrim-spectators from near and far. Film as Film, which includes essential introductions by Webber and cinema scholar P. Adams Sitney, provides invaluable contextualization for this resurfacing and confirms Markopoulos’s position as one the great filmmaker-theorists of the avant-garde.

Over some five hundred pages divided into five sections, the book moves from the beginnings of Markopoulos’s career (represented by a lecture on the responsibility of cinema, delivered in 1955) to the cryptopoetics of “Acropolis Gis” (1992), immersing the reader deep into the workings of this uncompromising filmmaker’s mind. Markopoulos’s early writings share much with what film scholar D. N. Rodowick has termed the “aesthetic discourse” of classical film theory, evinced by the writer’s desire to claim for cinema the status of art, to articulate the specific means by which this might be achieved, and to map film’s relationships to other art forms. Like much classical film theory, these early texts are enthusiastic, unsystematic, and in close dialogue with practice. The essays gathered in the section titled “Avant-Garde Chronicle: On Films and Filmmakers,” authored between 1961 and 1968, reveal a profound investment in thinking through the essence of the medium and in supporting the work of the author’s peers. Though Markopoulos displays a clear belief in his own uniqueness, he tends to speak as part of a collective movement of emerging filmmakers. In “What Are You Ready For?” (1965), for instance, he posits the goal of “film as film”—the pursuit of a creative cinema of personal expression to be distinguished from all other arts—as the common task of the New American Cinema.

As time passes, Markopoulos’s understanding of his medium remains strikingly consistent. A notable shift occurs, however, in his relationship to the broader contexts of experimental film. “Sto Palikari” (1968), originally published in the short-lived Swiss journal Supervisuell and reprinted here in the section titled “Cinema the Ideal: An Exposition,” offers a concise and forceful articulation of Markopoulos’s turn away from the group identity of the New American Cinema and from institutions more generally. The text is composed as a series of questions that express exasperation with contemporary conditions. Markopoulos asks, “Why has the worst that is commercial infiltrated, on even a lesser level, into the New Cinema?” and “Who is responsible for the continued devaluation of the supreme art which is film?” The piece captures a filmmaker in the midst of severing ties with the community from which he had emerged. After his departure from America, Markopoulos writes with admiration about the work of no filmmakers other than Beavers and himself; the third and fourth sections of Film as Film offer a healthy sampling of these texts.

In “Sto Palikari,” he calls for collectors to purchase films from commercial galleries through a “limited print sales plan.” At the time, Markopoulos was involved in a partnership with Gimpel Fils gallery in London to offer for sale limited editions of his films—a very early instance of this now-common practice—but no buyers were forthcoming. This initiative is notable not only for its prescience, but also because it underlines the extent to which Markopoulos’s vision of the Temenos developed out of an active and sometimes pioneering engagement with virtually all distribution models available to him. He pursued television commissions, the sale of 8-mm prints to home viewers, film rentals, and gallery sales. It was only after he had exhausted these possibilities that he settled on the Wagnerian dream of a cinematic Bayreuth. The fifth and longest section of Film as Film, “Towards a Temenos,” documents Markopoulos’s shifting elaboration of this project.

Supported by private patrons—like the composer he so idolized—he made plans for a purpose-built structure in a remote location—perhaps Greece, perhaps Switzerland—that would be devoted to the monographic preservation and exhibition of his and Beavers’s work. It was with the stated intention of pursuing this initiative that the Temenos screenings were brought to a conclusion in the ’80s, but the project never came to fruition. Instead, Markopoulos concentrated on the production of Eniaios, taking his withdrawal one step further, at least symbolically. Now that all of his existing films would be incorporated into what he called the “complete order,” “the copies in the museums, in the sad film archives, turn out to be work prints,” he wrote in 1990, “the best repayment to those directors and institutions who grant usury.” The late texts become increasingly mystical and solipsistic, often employing an incantatory repetition that attempts to call the Temenos into being.

There is, perhaps, no other figure in the history of film who so ardently worked against the medium’s possibilities of circulation as Markopoulos. While many artists have seen the reproducibility of the moving image as one of its greatest attributes, for Markopoulos it was a mighty threat. Film distribution was “sheer gangsterism,” a realm of insulting compromise that led him to hold out for a utopian future of total integrity and autonomy. He envisioned the Temenos as hosting only a select group of viewers (at times specifying this collective as exclusively male), and perhaps only a “single perfect spectator,” who would leave behind the contamination of mass culture for a pure and purifying experience. Markopoulos’s understanding of the therapeutic power of filmic spectatorship sounds salubrious, but it was balanced by a strong conviction that all those worthy would resign themselves to an asymmetrical power relation in which any possibility of criticism—understood both as interpretation and negative judgment—would be foreclosed. As early as 1972 he wrote, in “The Filmmaker’s Perception in Contemplation,” “The film spectator recognizes that the Unchangeable which is the filmmaker’s work is greater than the Changeable which is the function of the film spectator. [. . .] He must accept the fact that he must serve and know that his function as film spectator is to consume the work with a burning enthusiasm.”

The cultic aura that surrounds Markopoulos is intense, and Film as Film does little to diffuse it. Sometimes it can feel as if Markopoulos’s edict regarding the behavior of the ideal spectator remains in force today. In making available texts that had been exceedingly difficult to access, this collection represents a tremendous primary resource that at last illuminates a central personality of experimental cinema. But this is not a book that seeks to challenge the narrative that this sometimes self-mythologizing filmmaker crafted about himself. Markopoulos believed that unquestioning devotion was the best way to honor the creator, but critical perspectives are important as well. In addition to facilitating access to this material, one of the great contributions of Film as Film is its implicit demonstration of the need for further scholarship that will place Markopoulos’s films and writings in conversation with historical realities and differing points of view.

Selections of Markopoulos’s films will be presented next month at the University of California, Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive (April 1 and 2) and at REDCAT (April 6), the J. Paul Getty Museum (April 7), and Filmforum (March 22 and April 12) in Los Angeles. A film series and conference on Markopoulos’s work will take place at Stadtkino Basel on April 23 and 24. Film as Film is available at www.thevisiblepress.com.

Erika Balsom, a lecturer in film studies and liberal arts at King’s College London, is the author of Exhibiting Cinema in Contemporary Art (Amsterdam University Press, 2013).