New York

Focus: Gregory J. Markopoulos

Whitney Museum of American Art

For those familiar with the peculiar history of Gregory Markopoulos’ cinema, to view one of his shimmering, complex films, with their elusive themes of memory, desire, and creativity, is to grapple with the knowledge that the work itself may be on the verge of slipping from their grasp. Rarely seen and nearly forgotten, Markopoulos’ films were once compared to the works of Joyce, Proust, and Eisenstein. In certain circles they have assumed the weight of legend: Stan Brakhage, in a lecture held in conjunction with the Whitney’s recent retrospective, spoke for many in the audience when he remarked that “the fall of the Berlin Wall was no more surprising” than finding out that he would be able to see some of these films again.

Markopoulos himself is responsible for much of his critical obscurity: in 1967, he left the United States for Europe with his companion, the filmmaker Robert Beavers, and shortly thereafter withdrew his films from distribution. The reasons for his departure were said to include his distress over what he saw as a growing commercialism in the independent-film community, as well as a horror of the Vietnam War. He later tried to prevent his then-much-discussed work from being written about, most notoriously insisting that much of the commentary on his films be struck from the second edition of P. Adams Sitney’s definitive 1974 text on the American avant-garde, Visionary Film. Unfortunately, such actions effectively obliterated Markopoulos’ work from the history of a movement for which it had monumental importance. At the same time, his resistance to most critical analysis was a reminder of the extent to which his work—which shatters and reconfigures language as much as it does conventional cinematics—eludes description.

Born in 1928 in Toledo, Ohio, to Greek-immigrant parents, Markopoulos created his first film when he was only 12. At 18 he began shooting the trilogy Du sang, de la volupté, et de la mort (Of blood, pleasure, and death, 1947–48). One of cinema’s great colorists, early in his career Markopoulos achieved a palette worthy of Delacroix or Redon, and Psyche, the ravishing first film in the trilogy, already manifested his use of flash-cuts to disrupt narrative chronology and suggest emotions and memories triggered by sensual experience, a device that would dramatically increase in complexity as his career progressed. This film about a lesbian who is pursued by a male lover draws its “symbolic color” from an unfinished novella by Pierre Louÿs; the remaining two films in the sequence, Lysis and Charmides, were inspired by Platonic dialogues. The other, exquisite early psychodramas, reminiscent of the films of Maya Deren, include Swain, 1950, in which a young man flees from a woman who represents what is for him an oppressive sexual identity, only to be engulfed by madness, and the dreamlike Eldora, 1953, which describes love’s fragmenting effects on the consciousness of an adolescent girl.

Though before he left for Europe Markopoulos was deeply rooted in the American avant-garde movement, his work departed significantly from that of other visionaries of his generation. Unlike Kenneth Anger and Jack Smith, for example, Markopoulos did not invoke aspects of mass culture, and whereas Brakhage represents gender as relatively fixed, in Markopoulos’ rhythmic montage sexuality is a radiant manifold. In addition, he envisioned, and realized, a radical form of editing based on the single frame rather than the single shot. In his 1963 essay, “Towards a New Narrative Film Form,” he wrote: “I propose a new narrative form through the fusion of the classic montage system with a more abstract system . . . [involving] the use of short film phrases which evoke thought-images.” Far more than a mere system, Markopoulos intended this technique to reveal what he saw as cinema’s potential to transcend music, painting, and literature.

Based on a novel by the Greek writer Elias Venezis, Serenity, which at the time was compared to stream-of-consciousness narratives in literature, was realized between 1958 and 1961 despite heartbreaking setbacks caused by unsympathetic producers. By all accounts a masterpiece, the film has been sitting in a bank vault in Athens ever since its investors took it as a tax write-off. Matthew Yokobosky, a cocurator of Whitney’s Markopoulos program, managed to locate a videotape of a version of Serenity that had been recut by one of the producers in an effort to force the film to adhere to narrative conventions. Though in this version Markopoulos’ editing has been obliterated, and his soundtrack—featuring music as well as voices in four languages—has been replaced with a standard voice-over, title cards, and a crude symphonic pastiche, one can glimpse the film’s original conception. According to Brakhage, Markopolous’s film had “no discernible narrative in any conventional sense.” Ironically, what is most instructive about the ravaged Serenity is its failure to attain narrative coherence.

Markopoulos’ vision of narrative—which he called a “landscape of emotion”—was remarkably clear, as were his ideas about the relationship between sound and image. In Twice a Man, 1963 (a film inspired by the myth of Hippolytus and Phaedra), a staggeringly complex “musical-mathematical” structure, prefaced by two minutes of black leader and the sound of falling rain, is formed from frames and clusters of frames that not only introduce and establish characters, but also signal subtle shifts in weight between past, present, and future. Markopoulos later chose to shatter the film’s dialogue—which is spoken only by Phaedra and is juxtaposed with music, other sounds, and silence—into rhythmic syllabic fragments. Suggesting many layers of consciousness, Twice a Man reinvents cinematic and literary paradigms. When the protagonist, Paul, enters his mother’s house, blue-green and glittering with windows, he resembles one of Cocteau’s poets passing through a mirror to encounter a symbolic death—an image often reflected in what Sitney, expanding on the writings of Parker Tyler, labeled the American “trance film” tradition. Paul is also crossing into the deepest recesses of his memory—into labyrinthine spaces that echo with color and shards of language. Twice a Man’s indelible imagery includes Phaedra’s lips, a flickering red gash stretched across the frame, and Paul’s face at the film’s close, blurring into a rain-drenched window, then falling from the frame in pieces as the glass shatters to the sound of cracking ice.

The Illiac Passion, 1967, which features chiaroscuro passages reminiscent of Anger’s Inauguration of the Pleasure Dome of 1954, and incorporates 25 characters, is loosely based on Aeschylus’ Prometheus Bound. For a viewer seeing this extravagant ode to creation some thirty years after its making, the film’s most plangent moments involve Markopoulos’ affectionate casting of friends as mythical figures—Andy Warhol’s Poseidon pumping on an Exercycle above a sea of plastic, Taylor Mead’s Demon leaping, grimacing, and streaming vermilion fringes, and Smith’s bohemian Orpheus, spending a quiet afternoon at home with Eurydice.

“Mythic themes” like these constitute the first of three categories into which Markopoulos divided his work. Of the second, “portraits,” Galaxie, 1966, is perhaps the most ambitious, involving elaborate superimpositions, dissolves, single frames, and clusters of frames, as well as innovative use of sound. The film’s 30 densely multilayered portraits of figures from the artistic community begin with Tyler and end with art collector Robert Scull. The third category, “films of place,” includes the sensuous Ming Green, 1966, a loving souvenir of an apartment in which Markopoulos was living, and a tour de force of in-camera editing that fuses jeweled color to music through a complex, flickering rhythm, reaching a climax with the image of a pink rose that pulses by pulling in and out of focus. A rose also forms the glowing heart of the far more austere, almost structuralist Gammelion, 1968, which intersperses brief flashes of imagery—it is set in and around the castle of Roccasinibalda, outside Rome—with “phrases” of opaque leader.

Though Tyler sometimes championed Markopoulos’ films, he was rather myopic about the filmmaker’s most innovative work, complaining, for example, that Himself as Herself, 1967, comprised “an aesthetic variety of drag, numerous decorative posturings [and] the relentless presentation of a young man fixated on his own image.” Inspired by Balzac’s Séraphita, a novel about a hermaphrodite who metamorphoses into an angel, the film—which opens with an electron microscope and closes with an ascension set in Boston’s Trinity Church—transforms narrative into an “emotional landscape” to a nearly vertiginous extent. There is little plot to speak of, only evocative gestures and hauntingly strange, indefinitely signifying images suggestive of a fluctuation in gender. So intricately interwoven that they appear to shimmer, these images include a gilded foot, ornate fans fluttering to the sound of birds chirping, a piece of fur, a wedding dress in a glass-faced cabinet, and the film’s sole actor, alternately clothed in a tuxedo and a sari.

The Mysteries, 1968, is a mournful work in which, as in many of the earlier films, the rhythmic repetition of imagery evokes poetic speech, and changes in costume emphasize shifts in time, space, and emotion. Here, a young man’s struggles with memories of love and intimations of death are set alternately to deafening silence and the music of Wagner. For him, as for the other beautiful protagonists in Markopoulos’ work, love involves as much anguish as pleasure, inducing a fracturing of identity signaled by flashes of imagery that seem to transport the character to other places and times. Significantly, Josef von Sternberg, with whom Markopoulos studied, was among the few Hollywood filmmakers who he felt matched his filmic ideal, and in his work there are echoes of Sternberg’s depiction of erotic passion as at once excruciatingly painful and yet the only persistent truth. In Markopoulos’ singularly pure vision, desire and art are inseparable—the filmmaker, he wrote, should “ravish the screen with his own vision.”

Markopolous died in 1992, and Beavers, his survivor, in allowing his long-inaccessible work to be shown in selected programs, hopes to gain support for the completion of the Temenos, an archive, library, and theater in Lyssaraia, Greece, dedicated to the preservation and presentation of his and Markopoulos’ work. Most of Markopoulos’ films from the ’70s on—including Eniaios (Unity, 1948–ca. 1990), over one-hundred works reedited to form a unit in 22 cycles—have never been printed due to lack of funds. The most urgent need to which Beavers directs his energies, then, is preservation. Film being the fragile medium that it is, if internegatives are not made, these works could vanish unseen.

Markopoulos yearned for his work to be viewed in an ideal context, by an ideal spectator. In the remote and idyllic spot that Beavers describes as the Temenos site, Markopoulos’ work may or may not have a more powerful effect than it does when one has wandered in off a chaotic urban street, but it is perhaps appropriate that it should find its haven there. In the end, Markopoulos ensured his work’s obscurity not so much through his attempts to control the way it was received, as through his fierce resistance to the perils of commercialism in the arts. At a time when the films of his peers are also neglected, however, the Temenos may be a haven from a different set of problems facing avant-garde cinema. One hopes that it will at least preserve these complex and exquisite films that they may receive the recognition they deserve.

Kristin M. Jones is an assistant editor at Artforum.