THE CELESTIAL CINEMA OF GREGORY MARKOPOULOS
Raymond Foye reports on the Temenos, the screening of Gregory Markopoulos’s film Eniaios in Lyssarea, Greece, in the summer of 2022. Addressing the mythological and mystical nature of Markopoulos’s singular cinematic production, Foye traces the developments in the filmmaker’s life that led to this influential work.
Temenos, Lyssarea, Greece, 2022. Photo: Linda Levinson
Raymond Foye is a contributing editor to the Brooklyn Rail. His most recent publication is Harry Smith: The Naropa Lectures 1989–1991 (2023). Photo: Amy Grantham
Time is the moving image of eternity.
—Plato, Timaeus, c. 360 BCE
In June 2022, approximately 150 people gathered in the heart of ancient Greece for one of the stranger rituals in the world of cinema: two weekends of screenings devoted to the epic work Eniaios, an eighty-hour 16mm film created by Gregory J. Markopoulos. This legendary independent filmmaker’s official filmography comprises more than forty films created between 1940 and 1976, followed by his final film, Eniaios, completed in 1991—the year before his death—which largely consists of a radical reedit of many of these earlier films, plus later footage that does not appear elsewhere. (Eniaios means “uniqueness” or “unity.”) The filmmaker himself never saw the finished work projected; short of funds and terminally ill, he only had time to edit the film and put it on the shelf, leaving an immense number of practical details to be realized by his life partner, the filmmaker Robert Beavers. The relationship of Markopoulos and Beavers is in itself one of the more affecting accounts of artistic collaboration in our time, making the screenings—an event called the Temenos—a true union of spirits.1
For Markopoulos, “filmmaker” meant many things: scientist, sorcerer, physician. At the Temenos, all these roles are in play. Joseph Campbell once said that myths are public dreams and dreams are private myths; Markopoulos’s films function like a communicating vessel between these two states. He saw life through the framework of the Greek myths, which to him were expressions of psychic states, the “universe of fluid force,” as Ezra Pound called it.2 Markopoulos created his own myth and then inhabited it.
Eniaios is a work of endurance on the part of both filmmaker and audience. Since 2004, reels of Eniaios have been premiered at long weekends of screenings that last three to five hours per night.3 To see the entire cycle as it is currently presented—only at four-year intervals—would take twenty-eight years.4 Since 2004, all of the reels screened have been premieres. This is not about the popular but, in Markopoulos’s words, about the search for the “single perfect Spectator.”5 Aside from the barest of overviews, I will not attempt to review these films in any conventional sense. Highly abstract in conception and execution, they exist well beyond words. I would rather inspire lovers of cinema to make this pilgrimage of discovery themselves.
Still from Psyche (1947), directed by Gregory Markopoulos, 16mm film, color, sound, 24 min. © The Estate of Gregory J. Markopoulos, courtesy Temenos Archive
“Temenos” in Greek means “holy grove,” a place apart. The location is a field in a natural amphitheater near Lyssarea, in the region of Arcadia, home of the great god Pan and a place rightly synonymous throughout centuries with idyllic natural beauty. The censorship of Markopoulos’s film The Illiac Passion (1964–67) in Athens in 1980, because of nudity, led him and Beavers to start searching for an appropriate site for his films. Staying with an uncle in Markopoulos’s ancestral village of Lyssarea, they began screening their films annually in this setting from 1980 to 1986. After a hiatus due to Markopoulos’s illness and death, the screenings resumed, in 2004, 2008, 2016, and 2022. The Temenos proper—which is to say, the screening of the late masterwork Eniaios—is usually held only once every four years.
The Temenos offers a refreshing lack of distractions: the guesthouse where I stayed had no Internet, but did have a balcony with a view of a beautiful fruit and vegetable garden tended daily by an elderly couple. Sheep roamed freely through the town and the local café was open until 3 a.m., or whenever the last patrons decided to go home. There is something in the DNA of Greeks to welcome travelers from afar, and the cordiality of the locals continues to this day.
In the early 1970s Markopoulos withdrew his work from circulation, one of many peremptory acts that defined his career. (He similarly demanded that P. Adams Sitney remove the chapter about him from the author’s classic study Visionary Film, of 1974; Sitney obliged.)6 Lyssarea is now the only place where one can see his epic, and for those who love independent film, attendance is as close as it comes to the Muslim hajj, a pilgrimage de rigeur at least once in one’s life. Markopoulos took the adage “If you build it, they will come” to the extreme. Carrying an idea to its farthest point, regardless of practicalities or cost, was what he excelled at. This is about as absolute as art gets.
Crucial models for the Temenos were the sacred sites of ancient Greece described as healing centers in the travel writings of Pausanias, from the second century ce. Attendees stay in local guesthouses and in the early evening are bussed to the village of Lyssarea, from which they then hike by foot for thirty minutes as night falls. (Arrangements are made for the physically challenged.) The amphitheater commands a panorama 100 miles around, and every sound, no matter how small, seems to carry. The films are silent save for the insects, frogs, and owls who contribute an ambient soundtrack. The natural setting establishes a remarkable relationship between the screen and its environs: the boundary where the film ends and the cosmos begins is blurred. The silent attention among the audience is a meditation in itself, and the soul of the place soon becomes palpable. To call the experience immersive is an understatement. This was made clear on the third night this year, when heavy rains necessitated a move indoors into an old schoolhouse, and the spaciousness was lost.
Temenos, Lyssarea, Greece, c. 1980s. Photo: Giorgios Zikoyannis © The Estate of Gregory J. Markopoulos. Courtesy Temenos Archive
Through the combined forces of art and nature, Markopoulos created something akin to an environmental sculpture, highly conceptual. One thinks of The Lightning Field of Walter De Maria (1977), a place of latent power and potentiality, where meaning is revealed not only in the event but in the waiting. This quality of abiding constitutes an important part of the experience. Attendance means just that: readiness, anticipation, awareness. It is a formula that carries over into the films, which are largely composed of clusters of frames, often as few as three or four (so that they take up less than a second on-screen), separated by longer stretches of clear and black leader. To look away even for a second is to miss something important.
Addressing the small gathering in the village square one evening, Beavers described Markopoulos’s montage technique, involving elaborate numerical notations on pieces of paper that were discarded after the editing. In his writings Markopoulos describes this as a “musical-mathematical structure,” and it creates an overall abstract framework into which images are placed as minimal units. Spontaneity was also a factor: edits were improvised until the very last moment. In Markopoulos’s focus on single frames, one senses him working on a quantum level, and the absoluteness of his vision is both stunning and forbidding—it is as if one were inside a perplexing philosophical theorem. In his essay “Element of the Void” (1972), the filmmaker took this infinitesimal focus one step further, speculating about the uncaptured images that existed between the twenty-four frames per second that the camera caught, escaped images he calls “the winged conscience of total reality.”7
Many of the reels premiered at the Temenos in 2022 displayed Markopoulos the master of the film portrait, in which, he said, “the personalities photographed . . . released their true selves.”8 Subjects included Peggy Guggenheim, Jasper Johns, Shirley Clarke, Jonas Mekas, Marguerite Maeght, and David Hockney. Other sections of Eniaios focus on nature, architecture, and sacred spaces: the “Divinity of a Place,” in the filmmaker’s words.9 Like Pound (who also had to leave his homeland to realize his true self), Markopoulos composed a sprawling personal epic built from fragments of memory—a lost paradise where form and formlessness are locked in perpetual struggle.
Gregory Markopoulos filming Swain, 1950 © The Estate of Gregory J. Markopoulos. Courtesy Temenos Archive
I have brought the great ball of crystal;
who can lift it?
Can you enter the great acorn of light?
—Ezra Pound, Canto CXVI, 1969
The ancient Greek philosopher Markopoulos was most drawn to was Parmenides, a pre-Socratic who left his teachings in the form of poems, exploring the dialectics of light and darkness and the nature of being. For Parmenides, “Light/Fire” and “Night” were the opposite poles of the cosmos, and this duality seems to constitute the psychic energy of the Temenos. The writings from the last decade of Markopoulos’s life are poems and hymns that invoke the elements of his cinema: Light, Silence, Eros, Cosmos, Intuition, Image. These writings are distributed to attendees of the Temenos in beautifully printed oversized folios bearing the symbol of the event: a grasshopper, emblem of ancient Athens.
Markopoulos was an expert cinematographer, and he seems to have absorbed most of the history of cinema. As a student at the University of Southern California, Los Angeles, he attended lectures by Josef von Sternberg, and his first film, Psyche (1947), was made concurrently with Kenneth Anger’s Fireworks (1947) and Curtis Harrington’s Fragment of Seeking (1946)—three cornerstones of American homoerotic cinema made by acquaintances in close proximity. Shortly after, a disastrous experience attempting to make a movie within the Hollywood industry set Markopoulos on a path of total independence. His encounters in the 1950s with Jean Cocteau in Paris and with Maya Deren in New York encouraged further explorations into the heart of dream, myth, and trance—Markopoulos’s personal intensity is such that his images seem to always exist in the dead center of the psyche. Throughout the 1950s and ’60s, Markopoulos explored homosexuality to a far deeper and more serious degree than any other filmmaker I can think of, in a way quite devoid of the often self-deprecating camp of Andy Warhol or Jack Smith.
From the start, Markopoulos eschewed cinematic conventions such as fades and dissolves in favor of single frames, rapid cuts, and in-camera superimpositions. The plastic nature of film, its physical fact, supplanted illusion. Many of the innovations credited to the French New Wave may rightly have originated with Markopoulos, who had spent time in Paris in the 1950s. (Jean-Luc Godard asked Markopoulos to sponsor his visa for his first lecture tour of America.)
Still from Genius (1970), directed by Gregory Markopoulos, pictured: David Hockney, 16mm film, color, silent, 60 min. © The Estate of Gregory J. Markopoulos, courtesy Temenos Archive
Still from Galaxie (1966), directed by Gregory Markopoulos, pictured: Jasper Johns, 16mm film, color, sound, 92 min. © The Estate of Gregory J. Markopoulos, courtesy Temenos Archive
In the early 1960s, Markopoulos worked a dreary day job at a bookstore in Greenwich Village, sacrificing every comfort for the films he was making. One day the filmmaker Jack Smith offered advice: “Looking very much like a character from a James Ensor painting he suggested to me quite seriously that I should give up my job at Marboro Books and simply make films. When I protested as to how I would live, he gave me the clue: simply do.”10 A vow of poverty has always been a very real option for the brave and committed artist, and I have seen this up close with figures such as Harry Smith and Jordan Belson. To be clear, this is not about glorifying poverty: to be hungry or unable to afford medicine is never a good thing. A vow of poverty as Markopoulos lived it involved a rejection of all material frivolities and an effort to live as much as possible within a mutually supportive community, so that his sacrifice benefited others. This austerity became part of the aesthetic of his films, a way of defeating the ease with which things are offered in the consumer society. Without a penny to his name, Markopoulos took on the commercial-entertainment film, and through relentless individualism and purity of intention, gave us an enduring alternative.
Photographs of Markopoulos always show him impeccably dressed in white shirt and tie, unusual attire in the underground scene of the ’60s. According to his assistant Jerome Hiler, he only owned two shirts, and washed one every evening. This innate elegance is also reflected in his films, which, despite their radicality, are often formal and poised. Markopoulos did not use drugs and told Hiler that true artists should reach states of intoxication only through their art.
Markopoulos imagined reality through the framework of Greek myths, which are often points of departure for his films. As Pound once noted, these myths embody extreme psychic states, and this is how Markopoulos used them. Like Cy Twombly in painting or Gregory Corso in poetry, he was not seeking a historical or nostalgic re-creation but a contemporary realization of enduring truths. Twice a Man (1963) is based on the story of Hippolytus and its theme of homosexuality, and takes its title from Robert Graves’s retelling of the myth. It was shot in New York City, on the Staten Island Ferry, and in Bear Mountain State Park. The characters wear contemporary dress.
The cover of Film as Film: The Collected Writings of Gregory J. Markopoulos, ed. Mark Webber (London: The Visible Press, 2014). Photo: Jerome Hiler
Aeschylus’s play Prometheus Bound, written in the fifth century BCE, was the basis for Markopoulos’s film The Illiac Passion (ninety-one minutes, with color and sound), made between 1964 and 1967. This was a moment when the spirit of collaboration was still common in the underground film scene, and Markopoulos responded to Mekas’s call for film artists to pull together. Warhol was cast as Poseidon; when putting him in a bathtub in the ocean proved impractical, he was instead placed on an exercise bicycle. Jack Smith (Orpheus), Taylor Mead (both Demon and Sprite), Beverly Grant (Persephone), and Tally Brown (Venus) are all in the cast. Garden scenes were shot in the New York Botanical Garden in the Bronx (until everyone was chased out). Persephone makes her descent into the underworld via the New York City sewer system (from which they were also chased out). Although this description suggests a camp film, that term in no way applies to Markopoulos. His aim was always to reach the viewer’s psyche.
To everyone’s surprise, the seeds of personal cinema that were planted in the 1940s and ’50s bore fruit in the 1960s, to the degree that many of these filmmakers were able to earn a modest living from their work, especially if they took to the lecture circuit. (According to Anger, his Scorpio Risingplayed in a Los Angeles theater for three months upon its release, in 1963.) In the 1960s, Markopoulos was a generous and tireless promoter of experimental film, championing in print and lectures the works of Stan Brakhage, George Landow, Marie Menken, Andrew Meyer, Ron Rice, Barbara Rubin, Harry Smith, and dozens of others. His reviews and appreciations appeared in Film Culture, filmwise, Scenario, The Evergreen Review, and Art and Literature. By the early 1970s the novelty, fashion, and commitment around this type of film had subsided, and Markopoulos slipped into a new and final phase of his career—which would prove as reclusive as the previous chapter was genial.
When Markopoulos abruptly withdrew his films from circulation in the early 1970s, many filmgoers felt this was a form of punishment of the public for its inadequate recognition of his genius. But once those special years of subversion and solidarity in the New American Cinema movement had passed, it seemed to Markopoulos that the options were to be consumed or to be ignored, so he saw little choice but to leave on his own terms. He denounced New York as “provincial” and “insulated” and he and Beavers left America for good. Conspicuous by his absence, Markopoulos managed to preserve the seriousness of his art precisely by shielding it from the public for so many years, until the sacred space he yearned for could be settled on. In 1961, under the heading “dreams,” he had written in his diary, “To build a modest home for the Cinema. To build a home step-by-step just as our films were made. To find the property. To find the funds for its construction. And if need be devote time and energy to the very building of it.”12
Still from Genius (1970), directed by Gregory Markopoulos, pictured: Leonor Fini, 16mm film, color, silent, 60 min. © The Estate of Gregory J. Markopoulos, courtesy Temenos Archive
Still from The Illiac Passion (1964–67), directed by Gregory Markopoulos, 16mm film, color, sound, 91 min. © The Estate of Gregory J. Markopoulos, courtesy Temenos Archive
In Eniaios, Markopoulos achieved his cherished ideal of “film as film.” Narrative is dispensed with, the trance form is abandoned, the film is neither conscious nor subconscious. Markopoulos’s “shooting scripts” were enumerations of frames, not scenes. Images are sparing and speak for themselves; often a few isolated frames appear between longer lengths of black and clear leader—an encoded semaphore of numbers and ratios. The conventional distinction between still and moving images is erased. Because many images appear for less than a second between long stretches of light and darkness, one is forced to watch the film attentively, and the cumulative effect is both exhausting and exhilarating. Pound’s definition of the poetic image as “an intellectual and emotional complex in an instant of time” comes to mind.13 Yet when all the accoutrements of story and narrative are eliminated, the drama still remains. I would say one of the principal subjects of the film is memory, but with no sense of nostalgia.
Markopoulos was a published poet and a highly readable and provocative film theorist, a true philosopher of the image. Film as Film: The Collected Writings of Gregory J. Markopoulos belongs in every library of art and ideas. Meticulously edited and published by Mark Webber (the guitarist in the rock band Pulp) and his Visible Press, London, it includes introductory essays by Webber and Sitney that are fundamental to understanding Markopoulos’s oeuvre. For over 500 pages the filmmaker praises, cajoles, and condemns. The keenness of his writings may be succinctly conveyed through a brief list of their titles: “Projection of Thoughts” (1964), “A Supreme Art in a Dark Age” (1971), “The Filmmaker as Physician of the Future” (1967), “The Complex Illusion” (1972), “The Threshold of the Frame” (1974), “The Ancient Future” (1983), “The Pyramid of Sight” (1986). To many people I know, this book is a bible. Film scholars read about, think about, debate Markopoulos’s ideas, and then for a few days every four years one gets to see the work, if one is lucky. At which stage one is back to point zero, reevaluating everything one thinks one knows about Markopoulos’s cinema.
In Eniaios, Markopoulos reduced film to its barest minimum: “film as film,” as he often said. But that does not mean things are simple. For the uninitiated, the original experience of Eniaios can be confounding: is one viewing profound depths or the emperor’s new clothes? In “The Complex Illusion” Markopoulos wrote that what he was seeking was “a return to the experiential not the intellectual where one already knows everything about what one is looking at.” Mystery itself is a part of the experience. After midnight one inevitably sometimes drifts in and out of brief periods of sleep. Waking up to the film, I found this momentary disorientation only added to the experience. With typical sarcasm, Harry Smith once said that the best compliment the viewer could pay his films would be to fall asleep. (For Aristotle, sleep was another form of sense-perception, a sense-faculty like hearing or seeing.)14 Darkness has always been the fundamental ground of Markopoulos’s cinema, and throughout these screenings one is reminded of the importance that night had in ancient times, its materiality now banished by electric lights. In the natural amphitheater at the Temenos, not a single man-made light or structure is visible.
Gregory Markopoulos splicing Eniaios, Gstaad, Switzerland, February 1989. Photo: Robert Beavers © The Estate of Gregory J. Markopoulos. Courtesy Temenos Archive
Markopoulos was driven by a utopian vision of art. In scale and location, an obvious comparison would be Wagner’s Ring cycle at Bayreuth. In the twentieth century I think the epic impulse best manifests in long poems such as Louis Zukofsky’s “A” (1928–74), Charles Olson’s Maximus Poems(1950–70), and Pound’s Cantos (1915–62), works whose elements still include endurance, heroic ambition, cosmological time, a world system, et cetera, but these elements now take place within the poet’s consciousness. Markopoulos’s film can be thought of in this context. He put before the serious viewer one of the greatest challenges of cinema as an art form. Markopoulos’s question is, Can one person radically redefine a medium as colossal as film? The answer, on his own terms, is yes.
One night this summer, as the final shot faded from the screen at 2 a.m., a shooting star streaked across the sky in a seamless bit of editing worthy of Markopoulos himself. The audience gasped. It felt like a vote of confidence from the universe.
1“Temenos” is also the name of the monographic archive that Markopoulos conceived and began to establish in the early 1970s.
2Ezra Pound, The Spirit of Romance, 1910 (reprint ed. New York: New Directions, 2005), p. 92.
3Temenos 2022 was unique, so far, in taking place over two weekends. Following the first weekend’s premiere of cycles XII–XIV, the opening cycles of Eniaios, which were originally projected in 2004, were shown again on the second weekend. Because of the pandemic, this summer it had been six years since the last gathering.
4In relation to the Eniaios cycle, most numbers are approximations. All that is fixed is that Gregory Markopoulos made twenty-two cycles of various lengths. The present arrangement has largely been determined by practical considerations. The fact that the Temenos only takes place once every four years, for example, is largely determined by the fact that it takes that long to raise the money to restore and print the film. All of the original splices must be redone, a considerable undertaking for a film whose edits often fall not between individual shots but between individual frames. Quality lab work for 16mm film is increasingly hard to come by, and the lab that printed the 2022 reels has since gone out of business, creating yet another crisis. This is a race against obsolescence, and Robert Beavers and his team of volunteers must constantly raise money to fund their endeavor, just as Markopoulos did all his life.
5Markopoulos, “Points I,” 1985, in Film as Film: The Collected Writings of Gregory J. Markopoulos, ed. Mark Webber (London: The Visible Press, 2014), p. 455.
6With Beavers’s permission, P. Adams Sitney’s chapter on Markopoulos was restored in the third edition of Visionary Film, published in 2002.
7Markopoulos, “Element of the Void,” 1972, in Film as Film, p. 363.
8Markopoulos, “The Siege of Bruxelles,” 1969, in ibid. p. 289.
9Ibid., p. 288.
10Markopoulos, “The Adamantine Bridge. For Paul Kilb,” 1968, in ibid., pp. 262–63.
11Ibid., p. 268.
12Markopoulos, “A Part of the Alphabet,” 1961, in ibid., p. 96.
13Pound, “A Few Don’ts by an Imagiste,” Poetry, March 1913, p. 200.
14Aristotle, “On Sleep and Waking, II,” Parva Naturalia, 350 bce.
The Temenos relies entirely on donations and volunteers to restore the films and archives of Gregory J. Markopoulos. Please consider making a donation at the website thetemenos.org.