miércoles, 22 de junio de 2011

Gregory Markopoulos Seconds in Eternity

Gregory Markopoulos
Seconds in Eternity
Cinema's long-lost "supreme erotic poet" has come back to the fold — briefly
Gregory Markopoulos
How does it happen that a filmmaker once lauded as "the Americanavant-garde cinema's supreme erotic poet" vanishes entirely from the cultural landscape? Gregory Markopoulos was complicit in his own disappearance from the histories of modern art and cinema, where by any reasonable standard he belongs in the very forefront.
In 1967, after nearly two decades of brilliant, innovative filmmaking, Markopoulos and his lover, Robert Beavers, abandoned the U.S. for Greece. They not only left physically; they also prohibited the distribution of the films in America, refused interviews, and demanded the excision of a chapter on the director in P. Adams Sitney's seminal Visionary Film: The American Avant-Garde from later editions. It was only after his death (from lymphoma in 1992), and in fact only in the last year or so that Beavers, a vigilant guardian of Markopoulos's work, has allowed it to be shown in the U.S.
Seeing these films after 30 years of unavailability gives us a welcome chance to reevaluate this uniquely gifted artist. Born in 1928 in Toledo, Ohio, Markopoulos starting making movies at age 12. His subjects were classical and romantic: novels by Dickens, Bronte, and Hemingway. By the age of 18 he was well versed in cinema aesthetics and those whose work made the greatest case for cinema as art: Josef von Sternberg, Jean CocteauBuñuel. If we say he was influenced by these auteurs, it isn't to imply that he was derivative. His 1947-1948 trilogy Du sang, de la volupte, et la mort (Of Blood, of Pleasure, and of Death) already shows formal innovations that set his work apart and would continue to do so — specifically, the flash-cut, where the screen goes dark briefly between shots, creating a kind of trance state in the viewer. Later, he would expand this device to stunning effect with in-camera superimpositions, double-exposures, and the breathtaking "strobe-edit" where images flash on and off sometimes apart from, sometimes within other images. These strategies are part of Markopoulos's elliptical, imagistic approach to the narrative, where the viewer is seduced into participating in what's occurring onscreen in a way that's impossible in linear narrative.
Homosexual and lesbian themes appear in Du sang and other early films. Swain (1950), inspired by Nathaniel Hawthorne's Fanshawe, features a dreamlike narrative of a young man's ritualized rejection of heterosexuality, as a mysterious woman in white gossamer pursues him through a ruined landscape. The handsome Markopoulos appears in several of his own films, and stars in this one. By the early '60s, with works like Twice a Man (1963) and later, The Illiac Passion (1967), his celebration of the male body and an incorporation of homosexual imagery into a wider aesthetic fabric reaches its peak. Both films draw again on classical sources — the former the myth of Hippolytus and Phaedra, the latter Aeschylus's Prometheus Bound. The imagery inThe Illiac Passion is striking in its hypnotic repetitions, particularly in a sequence where a man repeatedly attempts to walk, but finds himself unable to move, perhaps trapped in the director's powerful mise-en-scene. The filmmaker isolates portions of the nude male body to fragment the viewer's perception, then flashes images of the whole man in naked splendor. Warhol regular Taylor Mead adds some amusing moments as a kind of demented bird-figure in a pink tattered dress, but most mesmerizing is the recurring motif of the romanticized male in a posture of longing. In one highly charged sequence, a beautiful man lies in a bathtub holding a scarab, which he slowly kisses.
Gregory Markopoulos
Markopoulos's power as cinematic inventor extends to his soundtracks. In The Illiac Passion, he reads from Thoreau's translation of Prometheus Bound but he "edits" the words just as he does the images, repeating phrases as if they were chants, with the repetitions alternating with silences.
By the time of the short Ming Green (1966), Markopoulos had brought his formal innovations to an extraordinary level of clarity and simplicity. This brief film, a paean by the filmmaker to his New York apartment (the title refers to the color of the walls), dazzles the viewer with its use of the strobe-edit and the superimposition, bringing an empty, quiet space to gorgeous, glittering life.
A year after Ming Green, Markopoulos moved to Europe, where he continued to make films, some of which have yet to be developed. Like the classical sources that inspired his work, Greece held the promise of something he couldn't find in America, a kind of artistic purity without the demands of commerce or the more subtle pressures from a fickle avant-garde. He and Robert Beavers developed the idea of a pure exhibition space — an open-air field in the Greek countryside — in which to show his films. This concept, despite its practical difficulty, is in keeping with the poignant perfection of Markopoulos's artistry, and represents the same uncompromising ideal that drove his work.
November 1997  
Gary Morris

Gregory J. Markopoulos

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.
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.
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 Seraphita, 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.