Films by Gregory J. Markopoulos

Gregory J. Markopoulos’s 46-minute Twice a Man (1963) is the film that got me interested in cinema. Discovering it at 15, I was amazed that he’d found a way to organize the world into intense, sensuous colors and shapes to produce a work as coherent and powerful as the classical music and poetry I was just then discovering. Relying on the unique qualities of cinema, he’d made a great work of visual art.

Markopoulos, who died in 1992, isn’t the only filmmaker to make art, of course, but his work remains almost unique in its precise editing and the architectural quality of its forms. (Films made by Markopoulos’s longtime companion and heir, Robert Beavers, are among the few that continue this tradition.) But Markopoulos’s films are seldom shown. Born in Toledo, Ohio, in 1928, he was living in New York City when he made Twice a Man. He also lived in Chicago briefly in 1966–he was the first filmmaking instructor at the School of the Art Institute. He relocated to Europe permanently around 1968, and soon afterward removed his films from U.S. distribution. Since his death, Beavers has made them available on occasion, but Twice a Man probably hasn’t been seen in Chicago in at least three decades–if ever.

The October 6 screening of this pioneering masterpiece at Doc Films, alongside Markopoulos’s Psyche (1947) and the magnificent Sorrows (1969), represents a rare opportunity to see the work of a real purist of cinema, a filmmaker who turned his back on much of our contemporary, pop-oriented culture to create works aspiring to classical perfection: meticulously ordered, balanced, timeless.

Twice a Man contains no synchronized dialogue–only fragments of speech along with music–and the film’s rapid editing conjoins different time periods. As scholar P. Adams Sitney wrote in 1970: “Past, present, and future, dream and waking, are so fused that they dissolve as distinct categories.” Early in the film Paul (Paul Kilb), a handsome young man clearly alienated from the heterosexuality represented by dancing couples, stands on the roof of a Manhattan building as if contemplating suicide, his foot a bit over the edge. A man identified in the titles as the artist physician (Albert Torgesen) appears and places a hand on Paul’s shoulder, summoning him back from the brink. Paul then visits his mother on Staten Island, where he encounters her both as a young woman (Olympia Dukakis, in her first film role) and an old one (Violet Roditi). Once Paul enters her house, she begins her fragmented talk with “Why do you keep seeing…?” In Markopoulos’s original plan, which included synchronized dialogue, this was to have been “Why do you keep seeing the physician?”

Paul and the artist physician are lovers, it seems, and the mother objects. As Kirk Winslow wrote in a 1998 article, on one level the film is “an encrypted ‘queer coming-out’ drama” in which “a ‘closet case’ is torn between the attentions of a more experienced male lover…and a sense of union with his mother.” But the film was made six years before Stonewall, and thus before the modern “gay liberation” movement. With its angst-ridden attitude toward homosexuality, Twice a Man will seem dated today judged solely as a coming-out film. But as a work about the profound effects people have on one another, it’s timeless, more deeply revealing than almost any conventional narrative film I know.

Just as the young and old mothers exist simultaneously, as the seductive parent of Paul’s childhood and the unattractive one of his present (or future), so Markopoulos’s editing creates a mosaiclike montage, suggesting that each character is constantly present for, and in, the others: the film’s drama comes in part from this sense of interpenetrating selves. The narrative begins with shots of the artist physician sitting on the Staten Island ferry (the boat Paul will take to visit his mother), intercut first with the cityscape, then with a brief flash of Paul’s face. It’s possible to see the whole film as the artist physician’s memories of his affair with Paul as he rides the ferry, though it’s also true that the focus shifts–to Paul and his mother and to empty landscape shots that undercut identification with any one character. Flash frames anticipate cuts to other images, heightening the sense that the characters–and scenes–are connected.

Paul’s scenes with his mother are more troubling than those with the artist physician: when the old mother moves to touch the shaving cream on Paul’s face, there’s a cut to the young mother with it on her fingers, suggesting a seductive interest; at another point both mothers are on a bed with Paul. But from the beginning, Paul’s fate is tied to that of the artist physician through intercutting of their faces and figures. Rapidly juxtaposing characters and cutting between different angles on the same character, mixing short flashes of faces with longer takes, and changing the size of characters in the image through a few zooms, Markopoulos creates a quartet of unstable identities, clashing yet also in danger of merging. Twice a Man offers an affecting model of the way important people in our lives are forever present somewhere in consciousness, and of the way our minds fuse past influences, present experiences, and future dreams. Characters collide, but they also flow through one another, as if each were a fragment of the same soul. It’s not a point made through the plot or through an academic use of form; instead color and very rapid intercutting cause the viewer to feel these interconnections.

“Color is eros,” Markopoulos wrote in a note on Psyche, and this is true of Twice a Man as well: the images are sensuous fields as charged with desire as a lover’s skin. New York has never seemed more lush; heightening the intensity is the way that compositions dominated by particular colors and textures–the overexposed surface of an office building, the rich lavender of a wall in the mother’s house–are intercut with images of contrasting hues. Anticipating his later work, Marko-poulos suggests that it’s not necessary to have a character on-screen in order to sense the human presence: these characters’ essences seem to spill over into the landscape shots they’re intercut with–and vice versa.

“The Markopoulos hero,” Sitney wrote in 1996, typically “enacts the crisis of an irresolvable conflict between a consciousness of aesthetic and moral perfection and the resistance of a flawed world.” In Twice a Man, it’s a measure of the aesthetic strivings of all four characters that New York is stripped down and sensuous, connecting purity of color with the characters’ quest for an idealized human connection.

Markopoulos would soon turn away from the explicit psychological dramas of his early films. Though Twice a Man retells the Greek myth of Hippolytus–pursued by an incestuous stepmother, he dies by the sea (a scene in the film) and is later reborn (Paul’s nude body swirls in space superimposed over cosmic imagery)–the story isn’t told in chronological order. The sad men Paul encounters when he first visits his mother, for example, are arguably his own mourners. Many of Markopoulos’s later films are devoted to places, a shift foreshadowed by the intercutting of characters and landscapes in Twice a Man.

The six-minute Sorrows is a portrait of the house that King Ludwig II of Bavaria built for Richard Wagner, first the exterior, then the interior. Like many of Markopoulos’s later films, it was edited entirely in camera, and it’s a tour de force: multiple superimpositions of the sun through trees, of the exterior, and of a decrepit wall fade in and out in a manner so balanced, so tranquil, that each element in this panoply of surfaces seems counterpoised with every other. The film itself is more profoundly architectural than most buildings: adding layers in space and time, it creates a kind of filmic monument in which the measured repetition of elements keeps every visual detail simultaneously present in the mind’s eye.

Key to understanding this effect, and Markopoulos’s work as a whole, is recognizing his gradual abandonment in the 60s of editing inspired by the on-screen drama, editing meant to anticipate events and create expectation in the viewer. While the 1947 Psyche, based on an unfinished novella by Pierre Louys, has some sense of narrative, of moving toward new incidents and new terrain, in Twice a Man that sense is limited to individual scenes–Paul’s entry into his mother’s house, for example, is preceded by a point-of-view shot of the house. What’s more important than drama in Twice a Man is the feeling that each of its images affects every other. At every moment the film is a matrix of connections between shots, connections sensed as simultaneous: Paul is at once trapped by his mother and saved by the artist physician, at once achingly alive and already dead. This impression of simultaneity is even stronger in Sorrows: we know that the architectural details we see will remain even when we’re shown something else, and the layers of superimpositions and fade-ins and fade-outs make each thing seem to linger. The characters and places in Markopoulos’s later films (some of which are portraits of people) are not becoming anything–they seem eternal almost from the outset.

The sound track of Sorrows is an excerpt from Beethoven’s overture to Fidelio, which Wagner admired. But the latter part of the film is silent, and among the images we see in the interior are musical scores, leaving the music to the viewer’s imagination. Markopoulos’s transition from music to silence suggests the aspiration of much of his later work–to find a way out of the noise of the self, of desire, fear, domination. Twice a Man depicts desire but also aims to overcome it: the meditative opening offers three minutes of black screen and the sound of rain (echoed, as Winslow notes, by solid white at the end). Desire is celebrated in Sorrows but isn’t explicitly sexual; rather the film’s perfectly measured form remakes a small but important part of the world into an eternal monument.