The following text originally appeared in the Whitney Museum of American Art book, Gregory J. Markopoulos: Mythic Themes, Portraiture, and Films of Place (1996), written and edited by John Hanhardt and Matthew Yokobosky. Text and frame enlargement from The Illiac Passion © The Estate of Gregory J. Markopoulos.
Although the book is long out of print, there are still a few copies available for sale, which can be purchased by writing to: email@example.com
This text is also available in Spanish via Lumière.
The first film we’ll see this evening is called Ming Green, and to answer an inevitable question immediately, the reason the film is called Ming Green is because it’s about a very beautiful apartment, a very simple apartment, that I had in New York for about six or seven years, where most of these films were edited. The apartment was painted Ming green, which is sort of a Chinese-y color, and that’s why the film is called Ming Green. Stan Brakhage gave me the idea. He said mine was the only apartment in New York City that he could stand to come and visit, because it was very, very quiet. The apartment itself is the subject of the film, which took about two days to do. And the important thing to understand about it is that it wasn’t preplanned in any way. Not even notes. It was simply that I wanted to make a document of this particular apartment, because I was giving it up to go and live in Europe.
The important thing about this film is that all the editing was done in the camera itself. As you already probably know, I have a system in which I edit using single frames and it gets very, very complicated, as in Twice a Man, or Himself As Herself. In Ming Green all these single frames, all these superimpositions were done in the camera itself. This was not only important because it meant that the filmmaker had to work in a very concentrated fashion to get whatever it was that he wanted onto film. It also meant, economically, that this film, which otherwise might have cost about $200, cost fifty dollars, because once all the footage was sent to the lab, you had a completed film. All you had to do was to add the soundtrack.
I think this is a wonderful way of making films and I think that someday I will make a whole feature-length film, a film over sixty minutes, using this particular method. It’s a very personal film, as you’ll see, and because you won’t have an opportunity to see it a second time or even a third time, which would be the proper way of seeing a film, I should tell you that there are some very personal things in it—some photographs of my family, for instance. The film oddly enough ends with a photograph of my mother, who after I made it died of cancer. It was an uncanny thing, because I had no prior idea about using the photograph, and at the end the image sort of blurs.
The second film deals with one of the Chicago Renaissance people, a man who was very close to Ruth Page, the famous dancer and now choreographer of the Chicago Opera. The man whose portrait I did was Mark Turbyfill. And the title of the film is Through a Lens Brightly: Mark Turbyfill. Prior to this film, I had done a series of thirty film portraits in New York City of famous people like Allen Ginsberg and Jonas Mekas and Ben Weber, an American composer, Erick Hawkins, and Susan Sontag.
Then I was working in Chicago at the School of The Art Institute, trying to start a film department, and I met Mr. Turbyfill. He’s a man of about seventy-five, seventy-eight years old, and we did this whole film in six hours with a break of about twenty minutes to have dinner. It’s a real tour-de-force, as you’ll see. And again, all the editing was done in the camera itself. In the case of the film portraits I mentioned, each is three minutes long. A roll of film, which you put in an ordinary Bolex camera, is exactly three minutes long. And so each one of the portraits is that length. In the Turbyfill film, not only did I start with his portrait, but I also used his house. I used photographs and paintings, and so forth. Because not only is he a famous dancer, but he is also one of the first American poets to receive the, I think it was the Poetry magazine award many, many years ago. And some of the people you will see in the form of portraits are people like Harriet Anderson. The whole Chicago group. I think that’s all I’ll say about those two films.
Now I have to tell you something about The Illiac Passion, and it’s a very long, long tale, and I could really become passionate about it because it’s had a lot of mad adventures. But I will limit what I say to telling you how the film was completed. I don’t want to tell you anything about it because it would actually spoil it for you.
Until about seven months ago, I had been unable to complete the film. And I knew there was going to be a film festival in Brussels at Knokke-le-Zoute. Every three or four years they have an international experimental film festival, and I wanted the film to be shown there. Since none of the foundations or other sources I might have attempted to utilize here in the United States were willing to help me complete the film, which was expensive for me, I decided to try my luck in Brussels. I resigned from The Art Institute of Chicago because I was angry with them, and I told my students to go to New York and make films on their own. Some of them did exactly that and they fared very, very well. I flew to Brussels and within two days I had the backing for my film. The reason was that there are groups of businessmen in Brussels who are vitally interested in promoting the film in Belgium, and they thought that helping The Illiac Passion was a way of showing what could be done by the business community—the sort of thing such people more or less refused to do here in the United States.
So I was given the money to complete the film. Now I had an arrangement with my laboratory, which is in Denver, Colorado, whereby they kept all the film footage. They were sent the check for the work, and I simply went to the Greek islands for the summer and waited for my film to be completed. Nothing had ever gone wrong with any of the films that this laboratory had put together for me. We corresponded, and I called them from Crete and from Hydra once every two or three weeks to find out if everything was all right, and the man in charge there said, “Yes, everything is coming along fine.”
The plan was for the laboratory to send the film no later than the 15th of November. About the tenth of November, back in Brussels, I received a telephone call and it was the two owners of the laboratory, and they said, “You know, Gregory, your film is not ready, and the gentleman that was in charge has just resigned.” I said, “What do you mean it’s not ready? You’ve just been paid x thousands of dollars in advance, and I’ve had your word.” They said, “Well, it simply is not ready. We will try and…”—this was a Friday—“we will try and send you thirty minutes so that you can enter it into the film festival by the fifteenth.” I said, “All right, and when will the rest of it be ready? It has to be ready by the first of December”—that was the final deadline for the film entry. And they said, “Well, we’ll try.” Unfortunately laboratories are that way. Once they have your money they just don’t care.
I waited until the 15th, the film arrived, I took it immediately and looked at it, and it didn’t look like one of my films. The color was very, very bad. What they had done was they had made a copy; they had taken the original, put it together, and they had copied that. They had made what is known as an internegative, and from that they had made a print, which meant that if I had the color pink, it was orange in the copy that I got. Well, there wasn’t anything that I could do. I gave it to the committee and I was assured by the director—this story, by the way, has never been told before—I was assured by the director of the cinématheque that because I was supposed to be famous in the experimental film world, it would be accepted on the basis of the thirty minutes.
Everyone was very happy that the film was there, including the group known as the Belgian Center for New Cinema, which couldn’t imagine that the film would ever be rejected. Two days later I found out that the film had been rejected. And everyone was upset, including the prime sponsor of the project. I had dinner with the group, and they said, “Well, now what will we do?” I said, “Well, it’s been rejected. I think the only thing for me to do would be to go to Denver and to see to the completion of the film.” When something happens like that the only thing you can do is just to see to things yourself. After a three-hour discussion, it was decided that I would fly to Denver and bring back a ninety-minute film. The length of the film at that time was four hours. So I flew—it was the middle of winter, and you get a lot of fog in Brussels—and it took me two days to get out of the city. I finally ended up by flying from Brussels to Frankfurt and then from Frankfurt to London, changing planes in London again for the second time, flying from London to New York, and then from New York to Denver.
I appeared at the lab, and they were hysterical because they hadn’t kept their word, and they could have been sued. I mean, their whole business could have been ruined. I stayed there for a week, and they assured me that the work would be done. And so a week later—I had another deadline to meet—the film was presented to me in three or four film cans, but it hadn’t been developed. They couldn’t develop it—they had some trouble with their developing system. And so they paid my way to fly from Denver to Palo Alto, California. I flew from Denver to San Francisco, got on a helicopter to Palo Alto, checked into a motel near the Eastman-Kodak plant, and rushed in. I had been warned not to see the manager in charge of developing because he was down on any nudity. Even though Eastman-Kodak wouldn’t say anything about it, this man still had the power to create a great amount of trouble. So I went to one of his assistants, a very nice young woman, and she took the film, and I said, “What time will it be ready?” And she said, “Come back in six hours, and it will be ready.” I went back to the motel, showered, and had lunch, and six hours later I went back to Eastman-Kodak—it must have been about nine o’clock in the evening—and the film was developed. And I didn’t dare look at it, because someone would have had to see it with me, and I couldn’t take the chance. So I rushed to San Francisco in a taxi cab, and I took the next plane to New York and then from New York immediately back to Brussels.
When I got back to Brussels I looked at the film. I have a way of marking my film, and those of you who are filmmakers probably do the same thing—I mark the beginning and the end of the shot or of a frame with a yellow grease pencil mark that has to be erased before cutting and splicing. I always leave two marks on either end of a shot or a single frame. But because the lab had had four people working day and night on this project, they hadn’t given correct instructions. And so in each shot or single frame that appeared on the screen, there were two yellow grease pencil marks on either end. I couldn’t believe it. I gave that film to the festival committee, and they passed it; they liked it. They thought it was fantastic. I had had dinner again with the sponsors the day I returned with the poor print. And I told them about the film, and as I described the first part they got sort of hysterical. “Would you consider flying back to Denver tomorrow morning?,” they asked. I had just arrived, and I was going back. I said, “You’re joking.” They said, “No, we’re quite serious. We’ll give you a check for $6,000 and you can fly back.” The film should have only cost about $3,000, and it ended up costing about three times as much because of this stupid business. I agreed to go to Denver, and the next morning, with a bottle of tranquilizer pills, I flew back, using the same system again.
In Denver, I made a decision: if they were going to spend $6,000, and they wanted me to finish the film as such, $6,000 wouldn’t be enough for a four-hour film. I went literally through the whole film, sitting at a table for about a day and a half, and reediting the whole film. Then I gave it to four people, who again worked day and night on it. This time I erased and cut out all the yellow grease pencil marks myself, and then I had the film developed. After twenty-one days I flew back to Brussels, and the film was officially entered.
Around the first of January, the film was premiered, and I don’t mind saying that it was the event of the film festival—something which The New York Times and anyone writing about the festival films in Knokke said nothing about. As a matter of fact, The Illiac Passion wasn’t even mentioned. I won’t go into those details, because it’s a different story and very long and complicated. The film was the event of the film festival. Then something very strange happened. Everyone thought I was going to get the first prize, which would have been very nice because it was $5,000. The evening my film was premiered I went into the auditorium. I was very excited because it was jam-packed. But about ten minutes into the film I got sick, so I never saw the premiere. I was there on the day of the awards, waiting to find out who won the prize. I wasn’t really expecting to get the award—the vibrations seemed all wrong. Then it was announced—the only time such an announcement has ever been made at any film festival—that the film had been taken out of competition. Now when a film is entered in a film festival, the judges do not have the right to take it out of competition. When the name The Illiac Passion was announced, one of my friends from Germany, the filmmaker Birgit Hein, got very excited, thinking that I had won the first prize; she let out a great big yelp and “Bravo!” But the announcement said, “Although The Illiac Passion is considered the most accomplished film of the festival, the judges have decided to take it out of the festival because it is so accomplished.” The audience laughed.
About two months later I was in Germany, giving a lecture outside Munich, when I finally learned what had happened. I had been invited to Munich by one of the judges from the Knokke Festival. In Munich, I asked him point blank, “Can you tell me what happened with The Illiac Passion, because all this business of the film being accomplished is a bit, I mean, it may be true but it was rather farfetched. Why was it taken out of competition?” He told me there were four judges, one of them an American, a very famous filmmaker, and she had a thing about so-called “art films.” I’ve never called my films “art films.” And when it came time to take a vote, she was asked by Vera Chytilova, a filmmaker who was one of the other judges, and by a third judge, to explain The Illiac Passion, and she refused to do it. This is how she kept the film from getting an award. And of course I’ll never forgive her, because I always considered her a close film friend.
And that’s the story of how the film was finished. How it was made is a completely different story. The only thing I’ll say further is that The Illiac Passion last week was voted one of the ten best films of 1967 in Europe. Here in the United States, although the audiences have been very interested in the film in New York, it was completely rejected by the great New York Times. A very curious review was written by a young woman, I guess she’s new with The New York Times now, called Renate Adler. And it was the zaniest thing I’ve ever seen in my life. It didn’t make any sense. I would’ve sworn she had been on LSD or something when she wrote it. I think that’s all I will say. I think you should see the film. Thank you.