Film Retrospective Screens Nine Works in Markopoulos Tribute
NEW YORK — TWICE in the past couple of years, the sad event of a filmmaker's death has brought renewed visibility for his life's work.
The first of these occasions was in 1991, when the New York Film Festival paid tribute to the late Jack Smith with a rare above-ground screening of "Flaming Creatures," his flamboyant classic of underground cinema.
More recently, New York's enterprising Anthology Film Archives honored the memory of Gregory J. Markopoulos with a retrospective of nine major works, from the 1947-48 trilogy "Du Sang de la Volupte et de la Mort" to the 1970 "Hagiographia."
These tributes had a distinctly ironic aspect, since both Mr. Markopoulos and Mr. Smith withdrew their works from American distribution during their lifetimes and tried to establish a new film aesthetic outside the usual circuits of both mainstream and avant-garde cinema.
Smith expressed his disgust with the commercialism of American film and started exhibiting his works during personal appearances that became notorious for the lateness of their hour, the eccentricity of their content, and the uncertainty as to whether a movie would be screened before the show ended.
Since his death, however, "Flaming Creatures" has been shown frequently in experimental-film circles, prompting new debates over the value of its campy performances, lowdown humor, and blitzed-out cinematography.
As for Markopoulos, the filmmaker left the United States for Europe years ago and dreamed of establishing a sort of cinematic shrine in Greece that would be the only authorized showplace for his work.
His reasons for moving remain unclear; some admirers say Markopoulos was displeased with the lack of appreciation for avant-garde film in the United States, while others say the filmmaker didn't want his works to be confused with those of artists he considered inferior.
In any case, his plan for a special Greek theater is still unrealized, and his estate keeps a tight rein on showings of his films.
Anthology Film Archives was able to present its retrospective by restricting admission to its own members. Fortunately, membership in Anthology is not difficult or expensive to acquire, so the screenings were well attended and enthusiastically received, giving the films a new and deserved burst of attention.
Markopoulos worked in a number of styles and mastered most of them. His rather precious and self-conscious early works - such as "Swain" from 1950 and the trilogy of "Psyche," "Lysis," and "Charmides" from the late '40s - combine a love for ancient Greek mythology with the kind of heady psychodrama that was then in fashion with American experimental filmmakers.
By contrast, the exquisite "Ming Green" makes a filmed portrait of his apartment into a lyrical tone poem with marvelously rhythmic editing.
His greatest film may well be "Twice a Man," starring Olympia Dukakis and Paul Kilb in a mysterious love story that uses quick-flashing montage to evoke the power of memory in everyday life. Also unusual is the film's approach to sound, which is used only when absolutely necessary - a technique that transforms the frequent hush of the sound track from arbitrary silence to expressive stillness.
Similar techniques are used (somewhat less effectively) in such mid-'60s films as "The Illiac Passion," featuring Andy Warhol; the respected "Himself as Herself," a discreet study of homosexual anxieties filmed in the Boston area; and "The Divine Damnation," a portrait film inspired by Greek sculpture and Renaissance painting.
"Gammelion" and "Hagiographia," made between 1968 and 1970, are landscape and architectural studies of extraordinary beauty and vitality.
Markopoulos's longtime associate Robert Beavers has informed Anthology's chief, Jonas Mekas, that some 130 films by Markopoulos exist in Europe; most of them have never been publicly screened.
One hopes Anthology's retrospective will invigorate the effort to organize and distribute this body of work so that cinephiles everywhere - perhaps even in a specially designed Greek theater someday - can savor the beauties and complexities the films surely contain.