Image, Sound, and Silence: Temenos 2022
This article appeared in the July 28, 2022 edition of The Film Comment Letter, our free weekly newsletter featuring original film criticism and writing. Sign up for the Letter here.
Robert Beavers and Gregory Markopoulos at the Temenos site, 1980. Image courtesy of Temenos.
A temenos, as conceived by the ancient Greeks, was a sanctuary, a sacred grove demarcated from the rest of the forest as a place of asylum, protecting what is within it and excluding what is outside. As linked to Asclepius, god of medicine, the temenos also functioned as a place of healing and restoration, where the sick would consult with the oracles in whose dreams and trances they would find cures for their afflictions.
Filmmaker Gregory J. Markopoulos had something like this in mind when he conceived of an exhibition space and archive for his work and that of his partner, Robert Beavers, which he called the Temenos. By the early 1970s, Markopoulos had for more than a decade been a central figure in the American avant-garde, having helped to found the New American Cinema Group and Film-Makers’ Cooperative, both under the direction of Jonas Mekas. By then, Markopoulos had built an already substantial corpus of more than 20 films, which ranged in mode from intensely personal, mythopoetic psychodrama to intensely intimate, expressionist moving-image portraiture. (This early work includes 1963’s Twice a Man, which screens at Film at Lincoln Center this weekend and next week as part of the series “New York, 1962–1964: Underground and Experimental Cinema.”) His films had also inspired a steadily growing body of critical writing on independent experimental filmmaking, and were notably the subject of a chapter, “From Trance to Myth,” in P. Adams Sitney’s field-defining 1974 study of the American avant-garde, Visionary Film.
Increasingly dissatisfied with the conditions for making and exhibiting work in the U.S., Markopoulos left for Europe in 1967, eventually cutting ties with his birth country, renouncing his affiliation with Anthology Film Archives, halting the distribution of his new films, and even requesting that Sitney excise the chapter on him from future editions of his book. (The 2002 edition of Visionary Film reinstates the chapter, with permission from Beavers and the Markopoulos estate.) The precise reasons for this break are many and opaque, but they hinged on his struggles to make films independently, and to find a receptive audience for them. Then, as now, the work of an experimental filmmaker necessitated either personal wealth, institutional support, or an academic appointment. (Markopoulos lasted only two semesters teaching at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago.) Moreover, once finished, his films faced censorship for their depictions of male nudity and queer coupling, and worse: the usual chilly reception to an artist working entirely in his own lane.
The results of this break, however, were significant. First, Markopoulos’s body of work became very difficult to access—even (or especially) now, as it remains a celluloid-specific corpus that is wholly unassimilable to the new digital economy of the moving image and its illusions of 24/7 access. Second, this break drove Markopoulos’s vision for the Temenos, a space apart from the demands and strictures of not only the commercial cinema—what he called “a constant confusion of purposeless information”—but the emergent independent model as well.
Locating and clearing a remote woodland site outside of the mountain village of Lyssarea— Markopolous’s father’s hometown, 100 miles west of Athens in the middle of the Peloponnese—Markopoulos and Beavers began a series of outdoor screenings of their 16mm films in 1980. Markopoulos articulated a vision for the Temenos across copious essays, lectures, and poems (many of which are available in The Visible Press’s 2014 collection Film as Film) as a sanctuary for cinematic art which would also welcome “the film spectators of the future,” for whom the filmmakers would function as Asclepian oracle-healers. As Markopoulos wrote in a 1985 poem-manifesto:
To-Day, To-Tomorrow. We two Filmmaker Physicians
would like to find that single perfect spectator.
Our gift: Image, Sound, and Silence.
What began as a makeshift outdoor venue designed exclusively for screening the couple’s films has, since 2004, functioned as the principal site for the ongoing premiere of one film: Eniaios, an 80-hour silent opus that Markopoulos had completed but never screened at the time of his death in 1992. Comprising 22 film cycles or “orders”—sections of varying lengths and numbers of reels, each with an inscrutable title written in Greek in the program notes—this final epic work was born from the filmmaker’s decision in 1974 to create a single film that would span and incorporate portions of his entire oeuvre—but one that would remain, in its unwieldy length and the cryptic, incommensurable nature of its construction, fundamentally mysterious.
Every four years, a new chunk of Eniaios is premiered over three evenings to a group of spectators: scholars, curators, critics, cine-pilgrims, locals. The last event was held in 2016, and the planned 2020 edition was delayed until this past June. As in years past, 2022’s Temenos screened the most recently restored portion of the film—in this case, Orders XII through XIV—as part of an ongoing process of preservation spearheaded by Beavers and assisted by a cadre of dedicated supporters, many of whom are filmmakers themselves.
The Temenos of the 21st century remains a space apart—literally, too, given the long journey involved in getting there. For some attendees it’s akin to a pilgrimage: after the three-hour bus ride from Athens to the small villages near the hilltop town of Lyssarea, one must take, each evening over a three-day period, another 30-minute bus trip up winding roads through wooded, mountainous terrain, followed by a 30-minute walk down trails to a large clearing. There, one finds a simple outdoor cinema: an Eiki EX-4000P 16mm projector, a generator, a screen, and 200 bright red beanbags to sit on. When the sun sets, the screening begins. No official runtime is announced, but for three or so hours each night, silent reels of film unspool by moonlight, with only the sounds of the generator, the projector, and the local fauna (mainly crickets, with the occasional owl) to accompany them. Image, Sound, and Silence.
Watching this fragment of Eniaios, I was reminded of two words that recur again and again in Markopoulos’s writings: luxury and economy. On the one hand, the film exhibits an austere approach to the cinema through its extremely sparing use of imagery. Vast stretches are composed entirely of black leader (causing the screen to blend seamlessly into the starlit hills behind and above it), which is punctuated by arrhythmic flashes of clear leader and fleeting excerpts from Markopoulous’s filmography, sometimes just an individual frame or two. In this way, Eniaios more closely resembles the style of the minimalist, materialist film practice that Sitney called “structural film” than the epic/romantic style of Markopoulous’s more widely known work such as his oneiric Hawthorne adaptation, Swain (1950), or The Illiac Passion (1964-1967), Markopoulos’s feature-length rendition of Aeschylus’s Prometheus Bound. In his writings, though, the filmmaker describes his editing in pharmacological terms, as meting out “doses,” or clusters of single frames. Working under trying financial conditions, Markopoulos had, since the 1960s, developed an increasingly economical method, making films on single rolls of 16mm stock, exposed multiple times and edited in-camera. Eniaios radically reduces the number of frames of imagery to an impecunious minimum, almost to the point of erasure.
Conversely, there emerges from the experience of watching Eniaios a sense of the immense, even luxurious possibilities of a single frame or a small cluster of images. As early as 1963, in his essay “Towards a New Narrative Film Form,” Markopoulous was proposing a “fusion of the classic montage technique with a more abstract system [that] involves the use of short film phrases which evoke thought-images.” Across the three nights at the Temenos, the total running time of all the filmed images I saw could hardly have surpassed a minute, and yet those images are seared into my retinas: a pair of cavorting crocodiles from Swain; a brief glimpse of a young Beavers’s hand trailing over a motorcycle from Eros, O Basileus (1967); or a full, sensual second of two men kissing from The Illiac Passion. Just as indelible are the flashes of micro-portraits of friends, associates, and benefactors—often posed in gardens or period-specific architecture—who include Shirley Clarke, Peggy Guggenheim, and Jonas Mekas (seen clutching a copy of Film Culture).
“A film frame is a word,” Markopoulos wrote in 1970; “it is also, a displaced particle, an atom, which when enriched by the editing of a filmmaker, before the camera, behind the camera, in the camera, & more likely on the table becomes the delightful, if not exquisite remedy for man’s solace; in time his understanding.” For Markopoulos, even a frame could contain multitudes. During the hours spent in this small clearing in Lyssarea, I steadily grew accustomed to the arcane rhythms of both the staccato flashes of clear leader and the fleeting images that punctuate the long stretches of blackness. Over time, my eyes started anticipating abrupt pupillary reflexes and sensing minute differences in the duration of positive afterimages, as Markopoulos plays with the lengths and sequences of leader and exposed film frames.
Still, as one gleans from the filmmaker’s writings, Markopoulos’s interest lies not just in the images themselves but in what he imagined lay “between” them—what Markopoulos obliquely calls “the hidden image.” The experience of the Temenos is not about waiting through eons of metrically arrayed clear and black leader for the arrival of a frame or two of exposed film to grab onto. Rather, Eniaios engages an entirely different economy of looking: one that encompasses both the image and the afterimage, as the frames linger on the retina as well as in the mind’s eye. As Markopoulos’s ideal, receptive viewer, one not only watches the film as a succession of frames, but also experiences it as a kind of internal visual encounter. In our image-saturated time, this sense of the individual frame’s intrinsic power, even its value, is perhaps the insight that is most instructive, and that continues to set the Temenos apart. As Markopoulos put it in a 1967 lecture: “It is the Invisible that the film spectator must seek. This Invisible will lead him forwards and backwards and ultimately towards the Future.”