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Recognizing the Poetic Value of Film

Two unconventional filmmakers weave together 'visual poems,' relying on spontaneous methods to explore moods and textures

'The mason is one of the few free souls. He persists in his work and has a cheerful conscience, a faith in his work.... In times which become uncivil he knows how to cheer, how to speak, how to endure. His every movement is Happiness."

Those words were published in 1980 not by a mason but by a filmmaker, who wanted his work to reflect the same spirit of "orderly belief" found by honest laborers in other fields. His name was Gregory J. Markopoulos, and although his career ended with his death in 1992, his name has been increasingly heard in recent months.

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Most prominently, the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York devoted a wide-ranging retrospective to his films last spring, including such highly regarded works as "Twice a Man," starring Academy Award-winning actress Olympia Dukakis, and "Swain," featuring his longtime associate Robert Beavers.

Since then, Beavers has launched a campaign to shore up the Temenos Foundation, an archive devoted to preserving and sharing the many hours of film produced by both Markopoulos and Beavers since their careers began in the early 1940s and middle 1960s, respectively.

Markopoulos never told conventional stories in his films. He was less a spinner of tales than a weaver of visual poems, taking pleasure in light, form, color, and movement for their own sakes.

Mr. Beavers takes the same approach. The spectator must play an "active" role when watching these films, he told me in a recent interview. "The intention is to touch a vital, living quality within the very elements of film," he continued, "and to animate these elements in such a way that the images and sounds vibrate with life. That can only be done if [the filmmaker feels] an intense emotion toward what he is reaching out for," be it a person, a landscape, or a color scheme.

This description suggests a similarity between making films and composing or playing music. In keeping with that idea, Beavers and Markopoulos have often relied on spontaneous, almost improvisatory methods as a way of exploring moods, textures, locations, editing rhythms, and visual "melodies" without attaching these to a plot or story.

"The structures are very precise but are not based on narrative or photoplay," Beavers explains. "The spectator has to learn the cadence, the balance between the various elements."

Is this a chore for the viewer? "I don't think it's very difficult," Beavers says, "because the images are very clear and the value of color is very developed. Color can even take on a narrative meaning, and the spectator experiences this, as well as the vitality of the editing."

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This belief in the poetic value of film is connected with the strong interest both Beavers and Markopoulos have always taken in poetic literature.

"When one writes a lyric poem," Beavers says, "he is animating language on the most basic level. It demands enormous, living strength to be able to write in this way.... That's why there are so few truly mature lyric poets.

"But it's from this use of language that a great deal of poetry draws its strength. With film it's the very same. If the filmmaker is allowed to develop and find resources to continue his work, then [the films] mature and have a consistency, and there is form to the entire body of work."

The purpose of the Temenos Foundation is to preserve the body of films by Markopoulos and Beavers and to present them for public viewing in surroundings the filmmakers have found appropriate. The ideal place for this, Markopoulos found years ago, is an open-air location in the rural area of Lissara, Greece, near the birthplace of his father.

Begun in the '70s and still incomplete, the Temenos is planned as a cinematic library holding many films as well as more than 250 volumes of printed materials including letters, notebooks, articles, and plans for film projects.

When finished, the Temenos might be for cinema what Beyreuth is for the music of Richard Wagner, who designed that German theater as an ideal showcase for operas as ambitious (and lengthy) as Markopoulos's film cycles. Markopoulos was American, but moved to Greece in 1967 after becoming disillusioned with the poor climate for serious film in the United States.

During the 1980s, his films were shown many times in the outdoor Greek setting that he saw as the ideal context for his work. "There's no distraction there," says Beavers, describing the experience had by moviegoers who made the journey to these events, pitching tents in the countryside or renting rooms from the 100 or so villagers who live in the area.

"The purpose was to allow people to see something that would remain with them. This is unfortunately the very opposite of what happens with most film, which is not retained. In fact, the [Hollywood] industry is built upon the spectator not retaining it!"

Beavers realizes there is no mass audience for the works of a film poet described by Whitney curator John G. Hanhardt as "a romantic whose vision conveys a belief in the truths of tradition and the possibility of myth in modernity." But he remains faithful to the idea of poetic film as an important art form, and as a needed antidote to the superficiality of most commercial movies.

The completion of the Temenos is important, he insists, "because film is usually not recognized or even considered on this [artistic] level. This is a great opportunity, with repercussions that can help the future of the medium."

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