Monday, May 3, 2021

Gregory J. Markopoulos | Twice a Man

sound without sight

by Douglas Messerli

Gregory J. Markopoulos (director) Twice a Man / 1963

I’d guess that most ordinary filmgoers would be utterly confused and bored if they might stumble across the difficult-to-find film by US gay experimental filmmaker Gregory J. Markopoulos’ Twice a Man from 1963. Any film that begins with a 4.44-minute leader in black accompanied only by the sound of a heavy rain pelting the concrete streets of Manhattan to be followed with images sometimes held in suspension for long moments and at other times inter-sliced with quick blimps and glimpses of hands, heads, and profiles, along with numerous unidentifiable objects, and quick cuts of four unnamed individuals, two men and two women represented as variations of the same being in different modalities of time, the whole accompanied by silence interspersed with an overlaying babble of various languages, notably French, and occasional English-language words and names such as “Paul,” and—cut between periods of static—parts of sentences such as “earth...lies...in...darkness” and “ "Why do you keep seeing . . . ?"—doesn’t exactly encourage the average movie lover.

      Add to this the problem the fact that when I had when I finally, after years of searching, stumbled across the title in the UBU Web archive, it was obviously pirated from a German TV broadcast captured by a VHS video recording before being transferred to the DVD in which the images are often unintentionally wobbly and most of Markopoulos’ heralded color images are faded, a final assault against the film appearing near it’s end on a horizontal trailer announcing “‘Warhol privat’ beginnt um 0.25 uhr.”

       You can be assured that if spirits truly exist, the director has turned many times over in his grave—if in he fact he was buried not cremated by his lover Robert Beavers in Freiburg, Germany where in 1992 he died. Yet, in part, Markopoulos himself has to be blamed for this situation.

        After attending the University of Southern California, Markopoulos went on to establish with remarkable film makers and theorists Jonas Mekas, Shirley Clarke, and Stan Brakhage what came to be called the New American Cinema movement. Markopoulos was soon contributing to major film journals, Film Culture, Film Comment, Filmcritica and The Village Voice, becoming well known in US experimental cinema circles.

     After a year in Greece, Markopoulos taught at the Art Institute of Chicago having begun making some of his most notable early films, including the trilogy Du sang de la volupte et de la morte (Psyche, Lysis, and Charmides) (1947-1948), The Dead Ones (1948), Christmas, U.S.A. (1949),  Swain (1950), Flowers of Asphalt (1951), Eldora (1953), Serenity (1961), Twice a Man (1963), Galaxie (1966), Ming Green (1966), Bliss (1967), Eros, O Basileus (1967), Himself As Herself (1967), and The Illiac Passion (1964–67). By the late 1960s Markopoulos’ films were attracting wide attention among film critics open to the experimental, and by 1974 the noted commentator of the American avant-garde cinema, P. Adams Sitney devoted an entire chapter to his work in Visionary Film (1974).

       The difference between Markopoulos’ work from someone like Brakhage’s films, however, was not only in how Markopoulos used radical disjuncture along with formal patterns to create mythic narratives, but in the fact that the former was committed to employing homoerotic images and portraying gay and lesbian figures through classical mythology.

        I have long argued that the early 1960s, the very years when I was coming of age, were far more nervous about issues of homosexuality or even more outrightly homophobic that were the late 1940s and 1950s. If throughout the late 40s and 1950s gay cineastes felt that they had to deeply encode their messages about their sexuality and portrayed the “coming out: experience as something close to a spiritual suicide, were often faced with the possibility as was Kenneth Anger and John Schmitz, that the theater showing their films might be raided and the work confiscated, or even as in the infamous case of Allen Ginsberg’s 1956 publication of Howl might have been force to challenge the book’s censorship by going to court, nonetheless there was a growing outspokenness throughout the decade that may not have altered life in Moline, Illinois, but certainly had begun to change views in major US urban centers.

      Indeed, the relative success of artists whose careers were forged in the late 1940s and 1950s meant that in the early 1960s homosexual figures such as Virgil Thompson, Aaron Copland, Leonard Bernstein, Samuel Barber, Gian-Carlo Menotti, John Cage, and others in music and Paul Bowles, Tennessee Williams, William Inge, Truman Capote, Arthur Laurents, Carson McCullers, James Baldwin, Gore Vidal, Jane Bowles, John Cheever, Frank O’Hara, James Schyler, Allen Ginsberg, and numerous such literary figures, so say nothing of hundreds of visual artists and dancers lived relatively openly as gays and lesbians,* paved the way for younger figures such as Edward Albee, Stephen Sondheim, John Ashbery, Susan Sontag, Irene Maria Fornes, and even Andy Warhol, to name but a few.

      In the early 1960s, however, as Michael J. Sherry has argued in his 2007 publication Gay Artists in Modern America: An Imagined Conspiracy there was a radical shift. As I wrote of that book in an essay in My Year 2008: In the Gap, Sherry, “while determining that American culture was perhaps consistently homophobic,” posited 

                       there were significant changes from the early post-war era—a

                       period in which, while there were occasional police raids and

                       other publicized “outings” of gay figures, there was no “outright”

                       denial of gay talent nor an outright assault—to the mid-1960s

                       when he [Sherry] argues, there was a near-unified belief that

                       homosexuality was not only a corruption of American values

                       but a real threat to American power.

     Citing significant examples such as Stanley Kauffman’s 1961 piece for Time “Homosexual Drama and Its Disguises,” feminist Betty Freidan’s homophobic comments about “man-hating lesbians” in her The Feminine Mystique, the publication in 1964 in the Life magazine essay on the rising dangers of homosexual culture (which I have cited several times in these pages and in volumes of My Year since it had a major impact on my own life  at the time**), and the 1966 disastrous premiere of Barber’s Anthony and Cleopatra at the Metropolitan Opera for which the gay figures involved, Barber, Thomas Schippers, Franco Zeffirelli, and Alvin Ailey were accused of various homosexual excesses, Sherry convinces, despite obvious flaws in his work, that there was a growing sense of a gay conspiracy that the general public felt had to be curtailed.

      Sherry might also have cited the difficulties that Markopoulos suddenly found himself encountering during those very same years. From the beginning several critics thought that even the rather tame images that the director presented in his films of eroticized males and females were far too profusive and suggestive. He was highly criticized for showing in his Du sang de la volupte et de la morte what consisted of “closeups, in color and often protracted, of such things as a male nipple, a painted and coiffured male head, a buttock, and two-shorts of a facially inert girl and boy.”

     During the early 1960s the noted critic Andrew Sarris observed: “Markopoulos...is a really nasty, unpleasant person, who really plays hardball, really gets angry, vicious about things, because of this homosexual thing.” And others had begun regularly attacking Markopoulos’ use of the nude male image. By the 1965 New York Film Festival, Markopoulos stood up to a panel of critics who had off-handedly dismissed the “New American Cinema” filmmakers, the director calling the panelists “soulless morons.” As the director summarized what he saw as the American failure: "The average man is destroying beauty. The average man no longer looks into another man's eyes. Everyone is afraid . . . sometimes I think the only way to save the United States is by going somewhere else—just as the ancient Greek philosophers fled to Asia Minor and Italy." And by 1967 he and his lover Beavers did precisely that, emigrating to Greece for good, cutting off all distribution of his films in the US, and even demanding that Sitney remove the chapter on Markopoulos from any further editions of his book.


     In Greece, Markopoulos continued to make films without any international distribution, working primarily on his grand twenty-two eighty-hour cycle work which incorporated most of the films that embraced ancient myth, Eniaios. He refused to show that work and others outside of his version of Richard Wagner’s Bayreuth, Temenos near his birth site of Lysserea, Greece.

     In Greece, Markopoulos continued to make films without any international distribution, working primarily on his grand twenty-two eighty-hour cycle work which incorporated most of the films that embraced ancient myth, Eniaios. He refused to show that work and others outside of his version of Richard Wagner’s Bayreuth, Temenos near his birth site of Lysserea, Greece.

       This explains why yesterday I found myself watching the atrocious version of one of his most important films, Twice a Man. very much representative of his theoretical positions outlined in the same year, 1963, in his Towards a New Narrative Film Form:

                       I propose a new narrative through the fusion of the class montage

                       system with a more abstract system...[involving] the use of short

                       film phrases which evoke thought-images.

     In short, the barrage of quickly shifting repeated, suspended, and interrupted images of Twice a Man, juxtaposed against the occasional fragments of recognizable words, the babble of linguistic talk, and the various classical and jazz-infused musical passages all separated by moments of silence, stillness, and even blackness to help the viewer suddenly regain his composure, ultimately permitting the observer to link, recombine, layer, and even dissociate the images to create a narrative that can never be quite the same for any two viewers. Along with the rich density of the colors, which Markopoulos describes as being related to Eros, and the personal emotional associations one has with music this director’s work allows us a narrative that combines present, past, and future with every myth written or imagined about family, love, and belief and the transitions between them.

      Based very loosely on the myth of Hippolytus, Twice a Man places his hero in contemporary Manhattan and Staten Island, retelling the original in fragments that also include another figure, the young man’s physician, in Markopoulos’ telling, also his lover who works to save him.

       In Euripides’ retelling of the myth the handsome young Hippolytus was the son of the Athenian King Theseus and his first wife, Hippolyte. The King’s second wife, Phaedra fell in love with her stepson, revealing her love to him. When he heard of her love the boy reacted with such a revulsion that Phaedra killed herself, leaving a note that Hippolytus had attempted to rape her. Upon discovering the note Theseus, despite his son’s protestations of innocence, banished him and called down upon him one of the three curses the sea god Poseidon had permitted promised. Poseidon called upon a sea monster to so frighten the horses carrying Hippolytus’s chariot that he could no longer control them, dragging him down to a watery death.

      In Markopoulos’ version we see the son Paul (Paul Kilb) traveling from and returning to his boyhood home via the Staten Island Ferry. Even before he returns home we see the boy as troubled, walking out into the rain and peering down from a height to a crowd of heterosexual dancers below, unable to take part in their activities and possibly, given his positioning of himself at the very precipice, contemplating suicide. A man, his physician friend (Albert Torgesen), however, soon walks over to him and places his hand reassuringly on his shoulder, keeping it there for a long while until Paul has summoned up his strength evidently to return to his Staten Island home.

      Once he returns to the house, images past, present, and future converge upon him in the form of the staircase entry and its chandelier, his pet cat, pieces of furniture and, most notably, his mother (Olympia Dukakis, in her first film role) and an older/future version of her (Violet Roditi). As critic Fred Camper reveals in his illustrative Chicago Reader review, her calls to her son, “Paul” and her repeatedly unfinished sentence “Why do you keep seeing....?” which in Markopoulos’ original script, which evidently used synchronized dialogue, was to have been “Why do you keep seeing the physician?”—indicates, even if we don’t hear that entire sentence, that the physician is his lover, and that his mother is not at happy with the other man’s presence in their home.

       As critic Kirk Winslow observed in 1998 the tale also represents a kind of (C-1) version of a coming-out story, in which the young man obviously must cut away the ties he still has to his possessive mother in order consummate his relationship with the doctor. But fortunately, Markopoulos’s complex images create other narratives that take us in other directions. 

     For example, just as there are two mothers here, the physician can easily be recognized to be another version of Paul himself, an older, more mature self within the younger being that helps him to escape his mother’s possessive desires.

       At the same time we become engaged with Paul himself, not only with the beauty of his face but through the director’s sensuous use of color we are drawn to the fleshy bronzed tones of his body just as are the two mother’s present and future.

      Markopoulos’ obsession with certain aspects of the body, moreover, hands, nose, the face in profile, hips, and feet each suggest the various actions we associate with them. As in the films of Robert Bresson (another gay filmmaker whose major works appeared in this very same period), the hands, for instance—one of the post important images in Bresson’s oeuvre (think of Pickpocket, Au Husard Balthazar, and Mouchette)—can be used as verbal accessories, as tools to beckon or pull the lover toward one, as expressions of comfort and support, or as accessories to grab and hold onto anyone who might to escape. The nose is obviously central to breathing, but also inhales the smells of bodily fear, love, and even hate. The naked foot may signify the resting or sleeping lover but is also necessary for his escape.   

       Despite his isolation from the dancers earlier in the work, at one moment in the film we see the handsomely besuited Paul dancing in a manner that calls up, at least for me, frames from the works of Truffaut and Goddard. In fact, other than his rich color palette, Markopoulos often seems to me to be the only US director who approximates the same films of that period of the French and Italians. And this film, overall, is closely related to Resnais’ Last Year at Marienbad  of two years earlier, particularly if you think of the two Phaedra’s as variations of a woman the hero has known before but may or may not want to forget or encounter again in the future yet, nonetheless, will probably be doomed to meet as in the loop tape that the director uses to call up several of his images before eyes again and again. Like Resnais’ film, Twice a Man is very much about repetition.

       It is up to us to interpret finally whether or not Paul succeeds in releasing himself from his step-mother’s clutches. At one point he is seen in bed with his mother and, at another time, with both his mother of his youth and future. Nearer the end of the film Paul seems to be undressing to tease his physician friend. At one point it appears that he has been destroyed by the sea, represented by the portrait of a sailor that hangs in the hallway; but yet he also is enveloped in an inferno that lifts his body into the cosmos, restoring the young man to life and, hence, becoming “twice a man” just as are he and his savior/lover.

        Finally, we recognize this home as a kind of haunted house. And along with Paul’s calling upon the help of his physician in order to resolve the difficulties he is having with a “double” cannot but help remind us of another myth, this one an American tale cooked up in the mind of one of our greatest mythmakers, Edgar Allan Poe’s The Fall of the House of Usher. The end of the film, in fact, seems to represent the entire house crashing into the rain-sodden streets, all of the film’s provocative images reduced to the sound of the film’s creaking sprockets. And so we are returned to where we have begun, sound without sight.

*One generally described such partially closeted experiences as living in a condition that was an "open secret." People in certain communities were well aware of what the general public wasn’t.  It is also important to note that some of these figures such as Cheever remained deeply closeted and others, Baldwin and both Paul and Jane Bowles chose expatriation over the limitations put upon them by US culture.

**See my essay in this volume on Pat Rocco’s Sign of Protest (1970).           

Los Angeles, May 3, 2021

Reprinted from World Cinema Review (May 2021).

 

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