Tuesday, April 7, 2015

Gregory J. Markopoulos | Bliss and Gammelion

castle of hallucinations

by Douglas Messerli

Gregory J. Markopoulos, “The Films of Gregory J. Markopoulos: Bliss and Gammelion / Redcat (Roy and Edna Disney/CalArts Theater, at the Walt Disney Concert Hall, Los Angeles, Monday, April  6, 2015

The six-minute long Bliss by American-born filmmaker Gregory Markopoulos is what one might almost describe as a sped-up snapshot portrait of the interior of a Byzantine church on the Island of Hydra in Greece. The film, the first made after Markopoulos, with his lover, filmmaker Robert Beavers, had left the US behind for Greece, represented the new kind of film-making the director had developed in early 1966, wherein he constructed short films entirely in-camera, without subsequent editing.

     Kirk Alan Winslow has described the process: “A single roll of stock was run back and forth inside the camera apparatus, while carefully selected passages of frames were laid down (exposed), sometimes alone, sometimes upper-imposed or faded-in and out, at precise positions pre-determined by the filmmaker.” This new type filmmaking was described as a “portrait,” the sitters for which might be either individual persons or, as it is in Bliss, a place.  Indeed, the beautiful images of the church presented over the period of six minutes do truly result, to the attentive watcher, in a kind of “bliss” which reminding one, in part, of the last scenes of Andrei Tarkovsky’s great film of 1966, Andrei Rublev—although without the ravishing embracement by the camera that defines the great Russian director’s relationship with the art he depicts.
     Gammelion, of 1968, is ostensibly a “portrait” once more, this of the Italian castello Roccasinibalda near Rieti, owned by publisher and activist Caresse Crosby, whose husband, Harry, had previously died in a double-suicide pact with his lover. But what was presented in six minutes in Bliss is extended, through long passages of the black and white leaders of the film itself into almost an hour in length, the “images” or “snaps” of the castle appearing at irregular moments along with brief fragments of music and spoken poetry (Rilke, read by Markopoulos himself). This lengthened “sitting” shifts the image clusters to a seemingly more narrative sequence, as if the “empty” space and grainy texture that separates the images were marking time for the sequential pattern or even interrupting and dislocating the “story.”
   Given the twisted combination of love and death of Harry and Caresse’s own life, Markopoulos’ “narrative” might almost be suggestive of their relationships, but, in fact, the story the director implies in this work is based on French writer Julien Gracq’s beautiful, slightly surrealist love fable, The Castle of Argol, a work about which I wrote in My Year 2005. I’ll briefly repeat the plot:

Gracq’s work is, on level, a highly romantic homoerotic tale.
A young man of great wealth and intelligence, Albert, purchases
a castle and the surrounding landscape. He moves into Argol and
immediately perceives its mystery and magic-like surroundings,
particularly the nearby forest of Storrvan, which appears as a
threatening overgrowth of towering trees. Suddenly he receives
a message that his dear friend and soul-mate Herminien is
planning a visit—along with a stranger named Heide.
    Herminien and Albert, who have roomed together as students,
see themselves almost as twins, each able to intellectually stimulate
one another beyond the range of all others, and each able to read
one another’s deepest thoughts.
   As Albert prepares for their arrival, he visits the nearby desolate
seashore, discovering there a graveyard. On the surface of one
tombstone he inscribes the the name of the strange visitor, Heide.
Clearly, Heide is already an intruder, but upon her arrival he is
mesmerized by her beauty and intelligence. Over the next months,
a deep relationship develops between the two, galling and festering
hatred in Herminien, who simultaneously recognizes that he has
brought Heide to Albert for his friend’s tacit approval and for sharing
his love for Heide.
   But Albert also seems strangely aloof and cold with regard to Heide’s
sexuality. One afternoon Heide and Herminien sneak away into the
forest, failing to return by sunset. Intrigued and almost hypnotized by
their disappearance and forest itself, Albert follows them into the dark
woods, only to discover the body of Heide, brutally raped by his friend.
He takes her back to the castle and nurses her to health. A long time later,
they both follow a cleared path through the forest and discover the body
of Herminien, who has been thrown by his horse. He too is returned to the
castle and restored, but a new hatred develops in Albert regarding him.
Heide remains secluded in her room, obviously unable to face either of
them, while Herminien and Albert return to their intense conversations.
Heide commits suicide, and they bury her in the seaside graveyard.
Herminien determines to leave, but Albert follow him into the woods,
putting a dagger into his side.

This story, quite obviously, never appears in Markopoulos’ film. Earlier in the decade he had explored the site as a possible setting for what he hoped would be a feature-length adaptation of Gracq’s work.

    Gammelion, accordingly, is not truly a “narrative,” but an expanded treatment of the location. But since the deconstructed images are so briefly represented, while often blurred or presented as overlaying images, we cannot even quite get to see the clearly beautifully stark and haunting views of the castle and its environs. We are forced, rather, to edit our own version of what we imagine we are seeing (and at times hearing), and we are encouraged, accordingly, to take these seemingly unrelated and briefly glimpsed “snaps” into our own consciousness in order to create a possible meaning. As P. Adams Sitney, writing of Markopoulos, suggests: the new style that the director had developed, “creates the aura of fiction without elaborating any specific fiction.”
      Yet, anyone acquainted with the Gracq work cannot help but be reminded of the hallucinatory quality of the book itself, as each of the fiction’s figures attempt to make sense of and comprehend each other and their relationships within the confines of Albert’s castle. If Markopoulos’ work can at all be described as a narratively coherent work, it is in its procedures rather than in terms of characters or plot. Indeed there are no characters and there is no story to Gammelion except of the viewer’s own making. And yet, I came away having the feeling that I had experienced a near mystical tale, my eyes still blinking for the intrusions the screening purposely had put upon any of my own determined intentions to connect. The logic of the conscious mind, quite obviously, are suspect.

Los Angeles, April 7, 2015

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