Metro Retro Movie Love In Conversation


February 24 2018

I have written the following notes concerning my motion picture Galaxie in an overheated slumber coach of the Silver Leaf, en route from Chicago to Denver. My arrival has been of a two-fold purpose. To speak to you this evening of Galaxie, and also to pay my respects to the film laboratory, Western Cine Service, which has been instrumental in the printing of my film works. Indeed, the visit to the laboratory becomes a kind of pilgrimage to see what may be done for the printing of three films. The three films, to which I refer, being: the much-awaited and overdue The Illiac Passion; the feature work produced in Boston this past summer during a shooting schedule which lasted two weeks, Himself as Herself; and, the latest work, Eros, O Basileus, filmed in New York and the editing completed in Chicago a few weeks ago.1

This escape in the night through Aurora, Princeton, Burlington and other points on the Burlington Route was as unknown to me as was the birth of the thirty film portraits now known as the motion picture Galaxie. I had no idea that the film would grow to forty portraits, of which thirty would be retained. As a filmmaker I happened to be a resident of New York City. Like all true filmmakers I practice my filmmaking wherever I happen to be. The locale may be different but the problems remain the same. This is evidenced in my early work in California and Ohio, and today with my proposed projects in Chicago.2 To digress a moment, I am presently on appointment with the School of the Art Institute of Chicago in order to establish a Cinematography Department. And, in truth, I am staying on with the grimmest of determination.

But to return to the subject of the evening, Galaxie was originally intended to be no more than a few portraits of close friends. Each portrait was to be one hundred feet or approximately three minutes in length. The editing, which includes superimpositions, single frames, or groups of frames at key points, was to be accomplished in the camera during the actual shooting of the portraits. Thus, there was no editing once the film was developed, save to join the portraits together. The Bolex Reflex Camera was, of course, used exclusively as it had been used in most of my other films. This because the Bolex Camera is lightweight, and meets every technical demand the filmmaker imposes upon it. The final result in favour of this splendid camera is that when images taken by it are projected professionally, that is 16mm arc projection (as I have often been able through the courtesy of the management of the Bleecker Street Cinema in Greenwich Village), one can hardly tell the difference between 16mm and 35mm.

For my first portrait sitting I chose the poet, writer and critic of the motion picture medium, Parker Tyler. I arrived at Mr. Tyler’s apartment with two 3,200 degree (Kelvin) lights, an exposure meter, a roll of Ektachrome Commercial (100 feet), a Bolex Reflex Camera, and a tripod.3 Accompanying me was the young filmmaker Robert Beavers. Later Robert Beavers also accompanied me during the filming of W. H. Auden’s film portrait. Many months later he was chosen to portray the protagonist in Eros, O Basileus.

In selecting a background for Mr. Tyler’s portrait I decided upon the lamp and desk where he is most constantly at work. I began by explaining that only one roll of film would be utilized. With Parker Tyler’s suggestions in mind, I decided on the movement of the first composition and began filming immediately. The first take lasted fifteen feet. The subject did not move, he had been forewarned of the problem of winding the camera.4 I wound the camera. Parker Tyler again began the limited action. This continued from the first take to the last take, up to ninety-five feet. Often I would fade-out, and then fade-in. Later I was to use my hand in front of the camera blocking out the light source; sometimes, even hitting the lens gently, causing the vibration of the images as in the portraits of Jasper Johns and Susan Sontag.

Through this whole procedure I wondered who was the more entranced, the portrait sitter or the filmmaker. Perhaps the filmmaker works on such occasions, “sight independent of the seer,” as Lincoln Kirstein has written of the work of Tchelitchew.5 And so, once having reached ninety-five feet, nearly the tail end of the one hundred foot film roll, I covered the lens and rewound towards the beginning of the film roll. Once again with a second composition, the same process was repeated. Then a third, fourth, fifth and sixth time. With each compositional layer the film portrait grew, the kernel of a biography, as Oswald Spengler might have put it, became apparent. With the seventh compositional layer the subject was asked for suggestions (since each portrait was homage to the portrait sitter) as to some personal object that might be included. With Parker Tyler it was a drawing by Tchelitchew. With Storm De Hirsch it was her desk upon which she had been working on her Butterfly Letters. With Jasper Johns, a painting. With Gian Carlo Menotti, his profile, by special request. With the Kuchar Brothers, props from their films. With Shirley Clarke a toy, Felix the Cat. With Francis Steloff, a photograph of James Joyce. With Robert Ossorio, a handsome crucifix. With Dr. Hendrik Ruitenbeek, an original letter of Freud’s. With Jan Cremer, rings. With Susan Sontag, her apartment, stills of Garbo and Dietrich. With Gregory Battcock, his famous Christmas card sent in 1965, and the zebra rug sent by his mother travelling through Africa. With Robert C. Scull, a pop-portrait of his wife. With Charles Boultenhouse, the Greek mask he has used in his motion picture Dionysius.6 With Jerome Hill, painting on 35mm color film. With W. H. Auden, the barometer. With Kenneth Kelman, a blue marble. With Paul Thek, glazed insects, which he uses for his remarkable sculptures. With Jonas Mekas, an issue of Film Culture. With Maurice Sendak, a toy of the Wolf and Little Red Riding Hood.

Slowly the film portraits grew. Within two and a half months I had completed forty portraits. Of these forty film portraits, the first thirty were used in the order in which they were taken; creating this study of film portraiture, which lasts one hour and thirty minutes. Because the film portraits are shown in the order in which they were taken there is an interesting and perceptible increase of complexity from portrait one to portrait thirty. Nevertheless, as in the setting, as in the compositions I have selected for the film portrait subject, each one has been given only what was necessary or required, what each film portrait could withstand. For instance, the furs in the lovely portrait of Louise Grady were inevitable. Incidentally, this is one of four portraits purchased by the Museum of Modern Art for their permanent collection. The other three being: Jasper Johns, Ben Weber, and Erick Hawkins. These portraits are also being shown in Japan during a retrospective of New American Cinema, again sponsored by the Museum of Modern Art.

Though Galaxie is very new, I would like to complete my statements of the evening by giving you a goodly glimpse of its reception thus far. This past week Galaxie was shown at the Second Chicago International Film Festival, which is a rather futile attempt to create a film festival in the Midwest. Pretentiously organized, not supported by the local newspapers, mocked by the general public, showing second rate commercial films that would never be shown anywhere else, and purporting to support the avant-garde motion picture, the festival can hardly be considered a success.7 Too, the mishandling of the films (the new six hundred dollar print of Galaxie was scratched), film cans piled on the floor, has led me to personally vow never to give the Chicago Festival another Markopoulos film.

The first showing of Galaxie took place at the Bleecker Street Cinema. This would not have been possible without the enthusiasms of Shirley Clarke, Jonas Mekas, Louis Brigante and I am certain a few others. The showing was excellent and the reception gratifying. Little did I know that the next day I was to suffer an attack of appendicitis at Jones Beach which nearly cost me my life. The second showing of the film was in three of my classes at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, six weeks later. This showing of Galaxie to my students was only one of many of the avant-garde cinema in order to immerse them with film. Filmmaking is a matter of seeing as many films as possible, and also being able to immediately handle a camera freely; this, without the interference or criticism of the film teacher. Studying the history of films, of techniques, becomes to my way of teaching a secondary and often unnecessary task.8

The third showing of Galaxie, as I have already mentioned, took place during the Second Chicago International Film Festival. During the first reel the reception was rude and quite violent. After the intermission (to change reels —projection excellent) those who disliked or were enraged by Galaxie had left, permitting the connoisseur spectators of New American Film to enjoy the film.9 The completion of the film found it with warm applause. The next day and the days after, the reviews read as follows:

“The Second Chicago International Film Festival got off to a meteoric start Saturday night with an anthology of catapulting scenes from Harold Lloyd’s silent pictures. Last night’s experimental art films could have brought the festival to a disenchanted halt if people were less tolerant than the audience in the Playboy Theater.
“They did treat with derisive laughter Gregory Markopoulos’ Galaxie, 90 minutes (was it only 90 minutes?) of unmitigated boredom. It is a collection of still pictures of anonymous men and women. Their names were given, but the pictures told nothing about them. The same pictures repeated, repeated—to the accompaniment of monotonous beating on an anvil.
“There was muttering about the $2.50 admission charge for this and a feeling that the judges were putting us on.
“It is shocking how poorly these avant-garde boys handle the medium. A purposely-mishandled camera – unsteady, too fast panning, etc. – doesn’t make the result art.
“Sheer nonsense can be forgiven, even enjoyed, but the colossal dullness of Markopoulos’ Galaxie is an imposition. Whatever were the judges thinking of to allow it? And were those long stretches of nothingness due to a lens cap accidentally left on, or is it part of that current philosophy of non-hero—in this case—non picture motion pictures? The non-motion was already noted.”10

Followed by:
“‘Baby, we’re supposed to talk during this film,’ said one loud critic during Gregory Markopoulos’ 90 minute long Galaxie. ‘It has no soundtrack.’ (Well, it did have metallic sounds beating in the background.)
“But that didn’t stop Baby, a long-haired blonde wearing long black leotard stockings:
“‘Don’t you know this picture is about PEOPLE? Don’t you like people?’ (At this point, she chased the critic out into the lobby.) ‘Don’t you care about people? Then, SHUT UP.’
“Markopoulos, who teaches cinematography at the Art Institute this year, was amused.
“‘My picture is a collection of 30 portraits of people I know and like... Jonas Mekas, Parker Tyler, Storm De Hirsch, some New Yorkers, some Chicagoans... artists, writers, filmmakers,’ he said.
“‘But it doesn’t MOVE,’ complained the critic. ‘They just stare at the camera.’
“‘Can’t you see he does it with the editing?’ said the blonde defender. ‘Man, you don’t know anything about art. Why don’t you leave?’
“‘But I paid my $2.50.’ “‘Go get your money back.’ “‘I think I will. Okay.’ “‘O.K.’”11

“Of all the festival categories – features, short subjects, documentaries, educational, and industrial—the most poverty stricken was ‘art in film’— sometimes known as experimental films. Except for a nice little bit called Black, the entries were of the chaos-makes-art school, or, if you can’t beat ’em, bore ’em. Worst offender was an hour and a half number entitled Galaxie, which interminably dragged out thru artsy portraits of 33 people12 – each sequence separated by the clanking of an anvil, which might have served better coming down on the filmmaker’s head.” 13

This evening Galaxie will be shown for the fourth time. There is little else to relate concerning the portraits save that the sound complementing the visual is of a Hindu bell, which bell increases with the number or order of the portrait.14 For portrait fifteen, fifteen bells, for portrait twenty-five, twenty-five bells, for portrait thirty, thirty bells. Finally, Galaxie is dedicated to my father, John Markopoulos, who has never once stood in the way of my filmmaking.

This lecture was delivered at the Greg Sharits and John Hicks Experimental Cinema Forum, University of Boulder, 25th of April, 1966.

1 It is now expected that Himself as Herself will be ready for distribution in January 1967 at the latest. The Illiac Passion might well be ready in May 1967. Eros, O Basileus in February 1967.

2 The Damnation of Damon, Ascension, and two biographical films.

3 It is interesting that after my appointment with the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, I insisted that my students film with these same limitations. And using only colour film!

4 The importance of such limitations as needing to wind the camera or preparing dissolves, etc., in the camera during the filming are not to be underestimated.

5 “In the most princely drawings, line is rendered impersonally, without manner, directly, as if we, spectator or critic, viewing sight independent of the seer, yet through his eyes and by his hand, fixed on visions inside his private crystal ball, full of shifting mirage, which an artist arrests at any crucial stage, where imagination fed on its constant diet of natural discovery and strict observation, fairly bursts into poetic motion.” Pavel Tchelitchew Drawings, Edited by Lincoln Kirstein.

6 Mr. Boultenhouse is also the filmmaker of the fine film entitled Handwritten.

7 It is my observation, having been able on occasion to visit the festival offices, that many deserving experimental films are not shown. The reasons for this seem to be that: (a) the festival management knows what their festival audience wants to view; (b) the festival management dislikes extending the experimental program beyond a few hours. They fail to consider the needs of that segment of their audience which does remain faithful; (c) the desire to show only good or controversial or safe films.

8 At the School of the Art Institute of Chicago I purchased a thousand dollars worth of books on film, establishing a library for the students which was at their finger tips. This in the small room which is the Cinematography Department.

9 “Whenever people see a film for the first time, they complain about some passages being too long or too slow. But quite apart from the fact that this is often due to the weakness of their own perception and to their missing the deep underlying design of the work, they forget that the classics, too, are full of passages that are long-winded and slow, but are accepted because they are classics. The classics must have faced the same reproaches in their life time.” André Fraigneau, Cocteau on Film.

10 Ann Barzel, “Festival Buildup for a Flop”, Chicago’s American, November 7, 1966.

11 Erwin Bach, “Motionless Picture Splits Film Lovers—Artist Just Smiles”, Chicago Tribune, November 17 1966.

12 Only thirty film portraits. As usual the critics who did not stay to see the entire motion picture gathered their information from the incorrect blurbs of the festival program.

13 Clifford Terry, “2nd Chicago Film Festival Better Than Last Year, But Still No Great Success”, Chicago Tribune, November 27 1966.

14 Though the Hindu bell is used subtly, often the tone is jarring because of faulty sound equipment. Projectionists, amateur and professional, should treat the projection of films, image and sound included, as if they were conducting an orchestra.

The book Film as Film: The Collected Writings of Gregory J. Markopoulos gathers together almost 100 texts written by the filmmaker, and is now available in a paperback edition from