Avant-gardists have traditionally controlled all aspects of cinematic creation: shooting, sound, editing, even processing and projection, achieving an auteurist purity impossible to replicate on a Hollywood scale. But their films’ long-term survival generally remains left to institutions, if considered at all.
Not so with the exquisite work of Gregory Markopoulos and Robert Beavers. Their ambitious Temenos project extends visionary self-determination into the process of historical preservation. A contemporary of Maya Deren and Kenneth Anger, Markopoulos made his first movies in the 1940s; he later became a key member of New York’s Film Culture group in the 1960s. But Markopoulos’s ultra-refined cinema, which marries ancient myth to rhythmically complex editing and camerawork, grew out of sync with the rough-and-tumble countercultural underground. Deeply frustrated, he and his lover, Beavers, left the U.S. in 1967 for self-exile in Europe. Markopoulos eventually pulled his titles from distribution and asked P. Adams Sitney to excise a Markopoulos chapter from future editions of Sitney’s landmark study Visionary Film. (It has been restored in the 2002 edition).
In Europe, Markopoulos conceived of the Temenos, a permanent archive and presentation space in Greece for his and Beavers’s works. Its name refers to the primeval sacred grove, and Markopoulos foresaw the eventual space as a site of pilgrimage and contemplation. After Markopoulos’s death in 1992, Beavers continued the project. “The key point is, the projection space and the preservation of the work should have the same form as the film,” says Beavers. “It’s a matter of preserving this work because no one else will preserve it in the manner we have to.” The Temenos began as an annual series of open-air screenings in the 1980s, held near a small Peloponnesian village. Since then, Beavers has overseen the preservation of all of Markopoulos’s early filmmaking and has begun printing Markopoulos’s final project, the monumental Eniaios, an 80-hour representation of his entire oeuvre. Beavers plans to revive the rustic open-air screenings this summer, premiering each “cycle” of Eniaios as printed.
In preparation, the Walter Reade’s “Towards the Temenos” provides a two-day survey of the pair’s output, which includes some of the most stunning works of the avant-garde. Even in his earliest extant film, the experimental love story Psyche (1947), Markopoulos’s key elements are in place: a sensuous, ecstatic use of color; pulsating, strobing, near hypnotic rhythms; an investment in ritual and symbol. His powers become distilled and smoothly precise with later films like Ming Green (1966), an in-camera portrait of his apartment, and Galaxie (1966), a series of rigorously complex portraits of Susan Sontag, Paul Thek, Gregory Battcock, and other contemporaries. More self-reflexive, Beavers investigates historical architecture and the inner meanings of camerawork. For example, The Hedge Theater (2002) is a study of enclosed spaces: both the film’s own frame and the 17th-century Roman buildings of Francesco Borromini.
Though struggling to achieve its final form, the Temenos looks to become the 20th-century avant-garde’s ultimate articulation. And Markopoulos’s and Beavers’s filmmaking already constitutes a supreme achievement of Eros, in Plato’s sense: a desire that, through beauty, seeks transcendence.