The Song of the Poet ; on Gregory J. Markopoulos (Eng)


in Gregory J. Markopoulos 1928-1992 Retrospective de 1940 à 1971, conceived by yann beauvais with the help  from Temenos Inc,  American Center Paris november 1995

The cinematographic work of Gregory J. Markopoulos is as singular as it is exemplary. Its specificity has marked cinema as a whole. In 1947, with Du sang de la volupté et de la mort, Markopoulos opened a new era in the cinematographic treatment of narrative forms. If he has remained little-known figure, it is because of the difficulty of seeing his work over the last twenty years. Gregory J. Markopoulos settled in Europe in the late sixties in order to devote himself entirely to his works. He only showed his films on rare occasions, always attempting to guarantee the quality of the projection and the attendant documents. His « œuvre » is that of a solitary precursor creating new cinematographic forms which have left a lasting imprint on the art of cinema.

Each film by Gregory J. Markopoulos transforms our gaze and our manner of apprehending the world. The plastic quality of his work is remarkable. It appears in the composition within the frame, the linkage of sequences, the rhythm of colors, the symbolism of objects, the interpretation of characters, and the consummate perfection of the editing, as well as the relations between image and sound. To see a Markopoulos film is to experience a confused feeling of admiration and fascination for his implacable skill and elegant mastery of the medium – confirming that cinema is a veritable art, capable of influencing all the others.

The door swing open, the threshold is crossed, and like the protagonist of Psyché we leave the everyday world behind, to step into one of the most brilliant manifestation of the song of art. The filmmaker is interested in wanderings and quests for the self, when they are accompanied by an affirmation of the beautiful and thus of the good (as in Platonic equation). This is the way we should approach the first masterpiece, the trilogy with Du sang de la volupté et de la mort, which proposes an errant path through the mental landscape of a few characters over the length of three films. The destiny of the individual is inscribed as a fulfillment taking place within similar worlds, despite the disparities between the characters. Access to this plenitude is easy; and sexuality changes nothing here, since these young people cannot fulfill themselves completely outside the discovery and acceptance of love. This delicate affirmation maintains that loves is a destiny, particularly when it is forbidden. In Psyché – the first film of the trilogy – one sees various viewpoints on an encounter in which the heroine experiences great difficulties in giving voice to her sensuality. The fear of such expressivity reappears in her fainting spell at the touch of the young man. The framing bear the mark of this same distancing, in the chromatic opposition between foreground and background.

The subtleties of the editing and the gradual weaving of the narrative through the use of short sequences always seems to anticipate or defer what we actually see, leading us into another temporality, closer to that of certain dreams in their capacity to suspend or collapse time. The admirable sequences of wandering journey through Los Angeles in pursuit of an ungraspable image offer an exemplary prefiguration of The Dead Ones. In this latter film, the various scenes of pursuit and escape confirm the artist’s desire for Paul. The quest for the other is simultaneously accompanied by an identification of the self, which is inseparable from the affirmation of homosexuality – even if the recognition of this reality provokes the errancy of a soul with respect to its place in the world, and therefore its place in society. The theme of homosexual love is a constant in the « œuvre » of Markopoulos. It is approached in different ways in the fictions and the portraits? Already in with Du sang de la volupté et de la mort a deep sensibility is unveiled, a love of beauty is affirmed: we see it in the shots of the young man turning into a three, in a seen near a lake in Lysis (at the center of the trilogy). In the last of the three films, Charmides, sequences of a bare-chested young man gazing intensely at a river, with adolescents throwing stones in the distance, evoke an aesthetic close to that of the photographer Herbert List; but here the work is in color. The encounter of the two adolescents is announced by a juxtaposition of shots showing us the bare chest of the one, followed by a detail if the other’s torso and breast, then by a shot of the river; before returning to the first boy moving off into a park. The protagonist of Charmides leaves a university campus, then walks across a park and finds himself in an industrial wasteland, caught in a tangle of metal bars and raw concrete: the embodiment of a desire whose reality is unveiled by means of superimposition of the young man wandering through the sunset at the close of the film.

The trilogy already displays a great mastery of unconventional narration, related more closely to myth; the narrative is stripped of all psychology, in favor of fragments of an initiatory tale bordering on ritual, death, and transfiguration1. The film inscribes the passage from an undifferentiated state toward the discovery of the self. Even the sleeping Eros – close to hypnosis – of Eros, O Basileus evokes initiatory rites celebrating the power of life and desire.

In Psyché, Markopoulos demonstrates an extraordinary virtuosity in recapitulation editing, selecting a few frames from each sequences that structure the work. In Swain we rediscover this same kind of recapitulation, preceding a series of superimposition which complete the film. This use of very short shots will be employed again later on, and becomes preponderant in The Illiac Passion and Gammelion, both of which exploit a similar distribution of single frames and shape the narrative on the basis of those clues alone. This filmic treatment gains its autonomy with respect to the mythological content of The Illiac Passion, while Gammelion more radically exploits the separation of individual frames, leading us the sublime view of a « château » and its surrounding park.

With The Illiac Passion there is no longer any need to fall back on a psychological alibi in order to establish character; the symbolism of an object or a color suffices. The character’s mark or psychological inscription can be glimpsed by these signs, which make the film into a creation of intuitive thinking. Its deployment is visually organized according to a particular rhythm: either by the rate of the single (varying from one to twenty four), by the layering of superimposition (from one to four), or by the use of dissolves. Effected inside the camera, the superimposition work on the vision of the characters, manifesting an interiority that is suddenly rendered public. We dream with Twice a Man,2 in which the narrative of forbidden love is elaborated by the serialization of distinct times. Time is underlined disjunctively by the soundtrack, which breaks the fluidity of memory by syncopation. Delays of meaning manifest the unconscious of all the characters at once, as though the production of myth took place outside the characters who embody it. This same split returns with the representation of maternal figure: at once and for the son and always young for herself, she is a timeless image. The confrontation of these two « image-temps » is linked in the unfolding of the film, but not in the chronology of the story. The times meet, denouncing the accuracy of representation. This is how Markopoulos envisages the reactualization of myth. Myth eludes a condensation which is not that of the dream, since it is intertwined with an aesthetic aim as precise as it is redefined.

It would take pages to described the extraordinary acuity with which Gregory J. Markopoulos works on memory, knowledge, and the anticipation of events which have already happened. In his « portrait films » (Galaxie, The Olympian) he composes times as others do motifs, by means of superimposition, just as he composes space in his « landscape films » (Ming Green, Bliss and Sorrows). In Twice a Man and The Illiac Passion he mingles sequences encouraging a diffuse perception of events, freed of any discursive logic. He accomplishes this through abrupt transitions and explosions of single frames (a veritable pyrotechnics) – sudden eruptions of sequences that upset the linear development to the benefit of a suspended time. One can also consider the use of the color. The use of colored filters and the play of exposures swinging from saturated to faded hues (Swain), are essential. In Psyché, we pass from a « normal exposure » to shot that has been shifted to blue, punctuated by a few red frames. The rhythmic use of color reinforces the meaning; the myth is tinted, literally and metaphorically, with the addition of a unique symbolic that is neither secondary nor anecdotal. One recalls the opening of Gammelion, where the use of the flicker lends pulsation to matter, light, and color; propelling us into another world. This same wealth of invention is also found in the interruption of detail shots which breaks the continuity of an action, cutting into a character’s course or a camera movement, as in Twice a Man. This form points to signification which we must activate. It is as though we were placed before hieroglyphics, or a musical score, and had to propose a reading without any key to the code except that of the aesthetics and plastic substance. It is in this sense that the photographic quality of Markopoulos’ films should be understood. The composition within the frame is of first importance. It responds to precise criteria, whereby the lighting facilitates a blurring of details or a sudden appearance of traits, an emergence of shadow zones. All this favors the production of an aesthetic ensemble that puts the very constituents of cinema at risk. In the same way the use of the dissolve in the trilogy announces the fade-overs between superimposed sequences in Galaxie, then the kaleidoscopically interlocking superimposition of the later films, The Olympian (superimposition made within the camera), Index Hans Richter (overlap made while shooting as well as in the printing , mixing the fading), and Saint Acteon (no superimposition. It is the rhythm of the very short shots that create the illusion); it also strangely prefigures the landscape films such as Gammelion, Bliss, and Sorrows. The precision of the superimposition in Eros, O Basileus and The Illiac Passion or Bliss refers us to the idea of annunciation and thus reveals the sacred nature of Markopoulos’ art, while the delicate superimposition in Sorrows inflect the tonality of the motif (Wagner’s home and garden in Triebschen).

The sound of the films partakes in these same strategies. It is not muted, obscured; quite the contrary, it encourages confrontations. The outbursting sound of the rain and the storm in Twice a Man, the birdsong in The Illiac Passion and Himself as Herself, the song of the crickets in Eros, O Basileus, the sound of horse’s hooves in Gammelion, all reinscribe myth into natural dimension. Human adventures cannot be torn away from the cycles of nature, its fatum. The force of the overture in Twice a Man, which lets the sound of the rain be heard from the dark screen for almost two minutes, is unforgettable. Elsewhere, when off-screen voices proffer texts they decompose the sentences into disjointed sequence of accentuated words, some of which are run together with the preceding or following ones, upsetting the linearity of demonstrative prose. Here we are in the field of poetry and of the rhythmic apprehension of the word. Like images, words become material to be shaped artistically: for example, the handful of sentences in Gammelion. The voices in Twice a Man and The Illiac Passion do not explain what is happening, but produce effects of meaning which are supplementary to the images and sequences. The return of the same word against different shots induces an indetermination of references. But one cannot speak of discrepant sound montage. Because relations exist between the images and the sounds, we must activate the potentials they enclose: it is a matter of an idea shared out between sound and sight. The use of music follows criteria no less precise than those for the composition within the frame. The music is not there to signify the image. By its articulation with the image it allows a better communion of the shared and divided idea.

Gregory J. Markopoulos works on images and sounds in such a way as to transport us beyond, in a state near hypnosis, where we reach the domain of « film as film ». Here lies the meaning of the resonating gong that punctuates all the portraits of Galaxie, marking a tension that grows more intense as the film unfolds.

Markopoulos « œuvre » inscribes and promotes the idea of an art that elevates, that takes off from its ground. Thus it rejoins the idea that defended Nietzsche:  » He who takes away is an artist, he who adds is a slandered. »3 Like any major body of work, these films speak another world that only a select few can share. Let us wager that this first retrospective can open a space communion between a unique œuvre and its viewers.

yann beauvais, October 1995

1 This is why one can never speak of the adaptation of a book in the films of Markopoulos, where the literary basis is a source of inspiration. There is a nofaithfulness in the adaptation, even less the outline of a story, although Serenity may be an exception

2 Could the title of this film be a reference to the expression « double mâle » which pops from Mignon’s mouth in Jean Genêt ‘s Notre Dame des Fleurs?

3 Friedrich Nietzsche, Human, All Too Human, (posthumous fragments) 16 22. Complete philosophical works, Tome III, Volume 1, Paris 1968