In Paul Auster's novel, the Book of Illusions, a silent movie star pulls a disappearing act after a terrible personal tragedy, and ends up at a secret location making genre-bending, rule-breaking films (which he would subsequently order burned Kafkaesquely). Later, a grief-struck scholar gets pulled into an obsessive quest to unearth the truth of the actor's life.
Subtract some of the truly soap-operatic drama and the silent bit, and Auster's narrative has definite parallels to the strange tale of Gregory Markopoulos, one of the most prolific and celebrated avant-garde filmmakers of the 20th Century.
As related by Princeton Visual Arts scholar P. Adams Sitney at the American Academy in Berlin last Thursday, Markopolous's career was marked by the paradox of feverish invention and production on the one hand, and radically stingy distribution on the other. The bulk of Markopoulos's tremendous output of films is not widely available. This paradoxical situation was brought about, intentionally, by Markopoulos himself, and his partner Robert Beaver.
After they moved back to Greece, leaving the U.S., the country that had most eagerly embraced Markopolous's intricate poetics and innovative, erotic visual language (and offered one of the first art-film faculty posts at the Art Institute of Chicago), the duo refused to allow distribution of Makropoulos's films in North America and went to court to prevent Professor Sitney from including an essay on Markopoulos in reprintings of his anthology of film scholarship. This is despite the fact that Markopoulos had himself published widely on cinematic theory in top International journals. Thus, Markopoulos has, to say the least, faded from the annals of household culture that retain the names Bergman, Goddard and Tarkovsky, despite the Greek auteur's vast contributions to his field.
Sitney related a few anecdotes from Markopoulos's bio that might help account for the cineaste's wary, hermetic behavior: one of his early directing projects, Serenity, for instance, was very nearly sabotaged by an Italian producer running a genuine The Producers-style accounting scheme. The producer would send him a camera with the sound not working, or actors that never showed up; for each attempted sabotage Sitney said, Markopolous would innovate a workaround that contributed to his groundbreaking style: labyrinthine superimposed/nested shots, shots separated by anticipatory darkness, uncanny unpeopled spaces and flickering landscapes. Later, the film reel was stolen, and Markopoulos's avant-garde debut showed up as a bastardized, watered down product at an Italian festival, forever instilling him with a cynicism about mass modes of distribution. HIs stint teaching at the Art Institute of Chicago, where his classes were packed with poor Markopoulos imitators, instilled him with cynicism about academia, and perhaps art institutions in general.
After retiring to Greece, Markopoulos came up with an idea to circumvent mass modes of distribution entirely, laying the groundwork a near-sacramental viewing event more akin to Wagner's Bayreuth, or seeing Aeschylus at the festival of Dionysus (of course, Markopolous was influenced considerably by Classical poetics, along the writings of Schopenhauer, who argued that music was a direct expression of the noumenal realm).
Markopoulos spent the last years of his life producing and editing the Enaios cycles, 80-some hour immersive filmic occasions to be displayed at a Tenemos: a Greek-temple like site dug into the ground in the Peloponnese countryside. He died in 1992, before he could see the completion of the project, but his partner Robert Beaver carried out his vision: Tenemos screenings have already occurred in 2008 and 2004. The next, and I believe final, cycle is to be displayed at the Tenemos site outside the village of Lyssaraia, in the South of Greece, in June 2012. We'll keep you updated with the latest info on that as it comes in.
Just as Dada was famously anti-Art (and anti-Dada), as a friend of mine pointed out, Markopoulos is really anti-film; his Tenemos concept is opposed to the very mode of production and distribution that made film the great mass art form of the 20th Century. Indeed, it is likely that the only thing that keeping Markopoulos's films from being outright theater is the fact that they are so resolutely filmic, in the sense that they depend on the materiality of film itself for their revolutionary effects. All and all, this is exactly the sort of provocative semi-paradox that the best of the Avant-Garde is known for.