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 volupte, 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 Louys; 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 heart-breaking setbacks caused by unsympathetic producers. …