Gregory Markopoulos (1928-1992) was one of the true visionaries of the post-WWII American avant garde. Across his exquisitely stylized, oneiric early films and through his dazzling master works of the late Sixties and Seventies, Markopoulos defined a unique film language of incomparable formal rigor, visual beauty and haunting lyricism. A tireless perfectionist, Markopoulos crafted a unique mode of art cinema with an astonishingly minimum of funding and resources—often editing his negatives by hand with only razor blade and magnifying glass and perfecting in-camera editing techniques that brought a poetic density to his films. Evident throughout his first major films is a fascination with myth and ritual which would carry across Markopoulos’ later work and would, eventually, call him back to his ancestral Greece. The heady mythopoesis of key early films such as Swain and Twice a Man is also charged with a bold exploration of sexual and homosexual desire that was, in every way, far ahead of its time.
Although he was central to the rich exploration of the trance film by postwar American artists such as Maya Deren and Curtis Harrington, from the start of his career Markopoulos was driven by the ambition to define a mode of cinema uniquely in dialogue with the other arts—painting, sculpture, architecture, literature, poetry—an idea frequently explored in his prolific writings. After founding the ambitious New American Cinema movement—together with Shirley Clarke and Jonas Mekas—Markopoulos broke away from the factionalized American scene, departing in 1967 for Europe, together with his creative and life partner, filmmaker Robert Beavers, never to live again in the US. Disenchanted with the limited and contentious venues for experimental cinema, Markopolous withdrew his films from circulation, keeping them virtually unseen even as he continued to produce major new work. The last years of Markopoulos’ tragically foreshortened life were increasingly dedicated to his ambitious final work, Eniaios an epic reworking of his entire oeuvre into a sweeping and entirely silent eighty-hour cycle, designed to be screened in a specially consecrated plein-aire theater, named the Temenos, in rural Arcadia, Greece.
After Markopoulos’ death Robert Beavers began to realize the dream of Eniaios, founding the Temenos Association as a non-profit organization dedicated to the preservation and screening of Markopoulos’ epic cycle, and presenting screenings every four years at the Temenos site, beginning in 2004. The Temenos events have inspired a gradual rediscovery of Gregory Markopoulos’ cinema, with retrospectives and screenings of individual works taking place at select venues in the US and Europe. Later this fall, Mark Webber will publish the very first collection of Markopoulos writings which are certain to spark further interest and understanding of Markopoulos as an important thinker and theorist about the cinema. As a prelude to a major Markopoulos retrospective to be presented in conjunction with the book’s release in the fall of 2014, the Harvard Film Archive is pleased to present a showcase of Markopoulos’ early work, films all made before his departure for Europe and accompanied here by a selection of relevant and revelatory writings excerpted from the eagerly awaited volume, Film as Film: The Collected Writings of Gregory J. Markopoulos. For more information about Film as Film please visit www.thevisiblepress.com — Haden GuestSpecial thanks: Robert Beavers, Mark Webber
Directed by Gregory Markopoulos. With Gregory Markopoulos, Mary Zelles
US 1950, 16mm, color, 24 min
Writing on the cinema Virginia Woolf has said,
‘We should see violent changes of emotion produced by their collision. The most fantastic contrasts could be flashed before us with a speed which the writer can only toil after in vain …’ [from The Captain’s Death Bed And Other Essays]
It was after such a joyous collision between Robert C. Freeman, Jr., and myself in 1950 that the motion picture Swain took shape. In the beginning, as I will reveal to you presently, Swain was anything but Swain. It was only later that Swain became Swain. Only with the discovery of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s first work did the outline of Swain become apparent. And as always in the tradition of the filmmaker’s most important personal revelation, it gathered its content through the filmmaker’s very soul and visual powers after and beyond the tale by Hawthorne. […]
Fanshawe was published by Marsh and Capen, 362 Washington Street, at the press of Putnam and Hunt. The opening pages of the book reveal in great detail, ‘the present state of Harley College …’ However, as I recall, this is not what intrigued me, rather it was the following passage which is a description of one of the characters in the book referred to as the Stranger. The Stranger was like, ‘a ruler in a world of his own and independent of the beings that surrounded him.” It was thus this character of the Stranger blended in my own imagination with the figure of young Fanshawe that gave immediate birth among those mysteries which are creativity to Swain, the hero of the film. And as in Hawthorne’s quote from Southey at the beginning of the book, ‘Wilt thou go on with me?’ – I proceeded with fantastic speed.
– Gregory J. Markopoulos, From Fanshawe to Swain
Excerpt of a lecture delivered at the Tom Chomont Film Society, Odd Fellows Hall, Boston, 25th of March, 1966
Directed by Gregory Markopoulos. With Paul Kilb, Olympia Dukakis,
US 1963, 16mm, color, 49 min
The motion picture Twice a Man adapts the Hippolytus legend to modern experience, and is designed to enhance the survival of classical patterns and classical learning as a vital factor of our present-day culture. I am deeply convinced that film as a creative product is as essential as the documentation and scientific investigation carried on through filmic means. Moreover, I believe that the United States is obliged, especially in this era of cultural exchange, to make an extra effort to maintain the prestige of its filmmaking in the face of the great prestige recently won in this country by creative films from abroad. [….]
I wish to demonstrate […] a new narrative form which is based on very brief film-phrases used in clusters to evoke thought through imagery. What I call the 'thought image' thus holds both psychological and aesthetic charges. It intensifies and builds up the visual theme while dialogue and music are worked in as heightening elements. Since ultimately the vigour of the content depends, I believe, on the adequacy and unity of the form, I have striven toward a synthesis having great economy.
This attempt to summarize turning points and climaxes with decisive effect is evident in my previous works: In Psyche, at the end, brief 'clips' from previous scenes reintegrate the whole; Swain was marked by the same device. In my most recently completed work, Serenity, the urgent climax provided in this way is parallel with the stream-of-consciousness in literature. My current project being more elaborate, the same device is used in saturation and modulates the whole narrative.
– Gregory J. Markopoulos, Statement on Twice a Man
Written for a screening at the Astor Place Playhouse, New York City, July 1965
Directed by Gregory Markopoulos
US 1966, 16mm, color, 7 min
I sincerely believe that the filmmaker must become enamoured of the odour of celluloid, splicing cement, projection exhalations; he must feel the exhilaration through the pores of his skin. With each 100' reel that he projects he must learn to discard all excess footage. Later he will realize that what he has been discarding is the clue to his particular film form. He must continue filming; he must continue working. He must never be obsessed with any formula save that always tentative formula which in time will become his style. He must seek neither Fantasy nor Reality. Such a filmmaker must miraculously approach himself, and recognize the single world myth within him: the eternal fire that in destroying unites man. He must abhor Psychological and Sociological implications. What he contains of the passions of humankind will become apparent soon enough as he maintains the normal pace of his native creative needs. The blossom that he imparts from himself to his spectators will be his work and will embrace, naturally, the deepest relation to those few of his spectators who will grasp the total work. Those few will understand, they will recognise the very terrible, daily encounter of the filmmaker’s Sight and Sound. Others will barely perceive the intent of a particular work. Still others will vault a beautiful work, jealous and fearful of its beauty.
– Gregory J. Markopoulos, Inherent Limitations
Excerpt of a lecture delivered at the New York University Christian Foundation Film Society, 29th of October 1965
Directed by Gregory Markopoulos. With Richard Beauvais, David Beauvais, Robert Alvarez
US 1964-67, 16mm, color, 92 min
Metamorphosis of the filmmaker. Passions of the filmmaker. Out of his breast the free flowing blood of the creation of a motion picture which depicts the passions of mankind and of everyman in general. The filmmaker selecting and offering to his actors the inheritance of themselves, transforming them through themselves, their own life’s scenario, onto the motion picture screen. A screen in which everything is both transfixed and changed. Not only the filmmaker undergoes changes, i.e. the creative endeavour, but his actors or non-actors, and everyone who associates himself with the very moments during which the filmmaker is working. In this case the greatest alteration taking place towards the film spectator. The new film spectator of the new cinema. […]
Set afire, the soul of the film spectator and the mythic characters or real personalities of The Illiac Passion commence to alternate, sometimes obliterate and then return to a moment passed or forgotten. That moment taking on greater meaning (upon its return, second return or reference in the film – via single frames, clusters of frames, and the classic principles of film editing), the symbols, the individual psychology united in a single structure, i.e. The Illiac Passion. All revealing the same story, but in variation, all united, all invoking the passions, and all seen through the vibrant passion of the hero, Mr Richard Beauvais as the apotheosis of a Prometheus who is not to bound to a rock, but bound to his own passions; i.e. his own life’s scenario. And, all the various myths which the filmmaker uses in this development in The Illiac Passion become involved in that time development known as eternity.
– Gregory J. Markopoulos, The Illiac Passion
Excerpt of an essay published in Koan Vol. 1 No. 2 (Spring 1967)