Running from 2-10 July at Melbourne’s National Gallery of Victoria, The Language of the Image is a four-screening program bringing together the exceptionally rare 1960s and 70s works of three major experimental filmmakers: the Greek-American director Gregory J. Markopoulos (1928 – 1992) and the Australian pair of Arthur (1938 –) and Corinne Cantrill (1928 –). Though the importance of both Markopoulos and the Cantrills’ work to the history of experimental film is considerable, dedicated screenings of their films like this are few and far between. In the case of Markopoulos, his decision to remove his films from the loosely formed North American avant-garde film circuit in the early 1970s has limited screenings of his work to a once-in-a-decade (or thereabouts) phenomenon: this program joins seasons at the Austrian Film Museum and Tate Modern (2014), the Paris American Centre and New York Anthology Film Archives (1993-4) alongside a scattering of individual showings of Markopoulos’ films over the years. As for the Cantrills, the screenings are in line with other recent Victorian retrospectives (Castlemaine 2015, ACMI 2010) that were the first major programs dedicated to their work since a string of international exhibitions at MOMA, Berlin’s Kino Arsenal, and the Centre Pompidou in the mid-1980s.
The Language of the Image screenings are thus a significant event in Australian film culture, and offer an incredibly rare opportunity to view these films in their intended, material formats. Both Markopoulos and the Cantrills’ body of work attest to a desire to expand the possibilities of the medium – of “film as film”, as Markopoulos would put it – while also positing creative correspondences between film and the other arts, including Ancient Greek theatre, sculpture and modernist poetry. Aside from the rarity and inventiveness of the films, this double retrospective provides crucial insight into a heretofore-unexamined moment in the history of experimental cinema. In demonstrating the aesthetic and intellectual filiations that connect Markopoulos and the Cantrills in the 1970s, and, by extension, the New American Cinema of the 1960s and Australian experimental filmmaking in the following decade, it sheds new light on the transnational ties that connect individuals and alternative film institutions across continents in this period. It also gives us a chance to think about these bodies of work alongside a broader history of contemporary visual art: the screenings coincide with a major exhibit at the NGV of works on loan from New York’s Museum of Modern Art, which is part of the MEL&NYC art and culture festival organised by the Victorian Government
I spoke with the program’s curators, Audrey Lam and Keegan O’Connor, who are responsible for organising the screenings in collaboration with various Australian film archives and, in the case of the Cantrills, the filmmakers themselves. Due to the importance of the links between filmmakers, institutions and archives in the organisation of this program, our conversation aimed to account for this complex network of relations in order to better understand these films and their itinerary to our screens several decades down the track.
I wanted to start with the story behind these film screenings, which seems quite remarkable in and of itself. Could you tell me about how this all came together?
Audrey Lam (A): So I guess it started years ago. I was at [the International Short Film Festival] Oberhausen, where Mark Webber had released this book of the collected writings of Gregory Markopoulos.1 A friend of mine, George Clark, who had programmed Markopoulos’ films at the Tate in 2014, recommended the book to me, and also a film by [Markopoulos’ partner] Robert Beavers that was playing at the festival. I saw the Beavers film and loved it, which led me back to Markopoulos.
I’d been wanting to watch Markopoulos’ films for a while, and I’d heard from others how difficult this was. But I started looking through the National Film and Sound Archive (NFSA) database, and I found a whole lot of his films and was really amazed. Because I’m part of AFW [Artist Film Workshop],2 I wanted to screen some of those Markopoulos films for them. I got talking to George about it and he said “Oh, that’s pretty incredible that all of those films are available.” He knows how rare the prints are in the international archives because Markopoulos had withdrawn a lot of them from circulation.
Keegan O’Connor (K): So in 2016, we had been talking about Markopoulos. I had never thought that I would be able to find the films, and had no idea that they were in the NFSA either.
A: I had wanted to see these films, and there was an opportunity [with the AFW screenings] to do it. The screening were attended by… basically Keegan and two other people.
One thing I’m a little bit unclear on was how exactly these films had ended up in the NFSA.
K: We’re still speculating a little… We know when they ended up there…
In the mid-70s some time, right?
K: Right, a few of them – Twice a Man, Swain – were in the collection by the 1st of January, 1976. And they continued to be collected until 1982.
A: Which is really interesting, because Markopoulos had at that time announced his separation from Anthology Film Archives and was becoming more withdrawn from the American film community. At the same time, he was putting films into the NFSA! I don’t know how much of a role the Cantrills played, but we know that they did advise on the acquisition of titles for the NFSA’s collection in this period.
K: And we were interested in their role as well. Obviously that’s a major part of the program, the Cantrills and Markopoulos. A lot of it came through reading Mark Webber’s book, Film as Film, where a lot of the key pieces reproduced there were originally published in Cantrills Filmnotes.3Reading and talking about the Cantrills, and then reading the Filmnotes themselves, that connection with Markopoulos and the New American Cinema presented itself.
At the beginning of the 1970s, when New American Cinema was more or less ending, they started to advise the NFSA on prints to acquire for their collection. Throughout the 1970s, the NFSA was under instruction to become more of an official film archive rather than just falling under the umbrella of the National Library, so they were developing and it coincided with the start of that period. This was a really opportune moment, given that Markopoulos was completely cutting his ties with other institutions, especially those in North America.
And it seems like that decision was a really big deal, because these circuits of distribution of experimental and avant-garde cinema are often pretty insular. Taking them out of the North American experimental film distribution circuit significantly reduces the possibilities for your works to be seen.
A: Right. At the time, Markopoulos was increasingly interested in the idea of the Temenos being the sole viewing space for his films.4
K: Yes. Throughout the 70s, he started to develop his vision for his own projection space and archive that he and Beavers would run themselves. But it was just comprised of their films, really. And so it became very insular, and everything would be kind of controlled and managed by them.
A: Which they did from 1980-1986, when they started the Temenos archives.
K: That’s one of the funny things about it. It seems like he’s branching out to Australia in this story that we’re telling, because he’s writing in the Cantrills Filmnotes, for example. But at the same time, his writing there – “Element of the Void” and “The Intuition Space”5 – is exceptionally insular in its philosophy. It’s kind of all about Beavers and Markopoulos, and that eventually became an issue with the Cantrills Filmnotes, which were extremely open and receptive to contemporary cinema at that time, especially new video work and experimental cinema. So there’s this paradox of an immense branching out to the other side of the world, but at the same time an increasing insularity in his thinking about cinema.
A: I just want to clarify that when I said he was withdrawing a lot of his works from archives, I don’t think he was always able to take the films out of the collections. For example, Anthology Film Archives still has some Markopoulos prints, and it is kind of a fortunate thing for us, his audience, in that he ended up re-editing his earlier works and cutting them up to put them towards the Eniaios cycle. So if it weren’t for these prints that these different archives hold, there might not be a version of some of the films. This links to the fact that some of the prints that we have are working prints, later versions of a particular film.
And that’s one of the particularities of his work, in that he was constantly going back to his earlier works and re-editing them.
K: Yeah, in the later years of his life especially. Markopoulos really stopped making films to be released in the early 70s, in ’71 or so. At that point he’s still making films towards this major project, but his focus becomes increasingly on supporting himself and Beavers as a filmmaker, who was very young at that time, only in his early 20s, I think. His major project was not only this new material that he was filming, but also everything that he had filmed and released since 1948. As Audrey was saying, it’s kind of lucky that he gave some of these films to archives, in that it’s a way for them still to exist in their “kind of” original form. The NFSA experience proves though that there is no original form or exact final copy of a Markopoulos work.
It’s interesting to me that a lot of these filmmakers in the American avant-garde at that time were interested not just in new production methods, but also methods of distribution and archiving. To me, the Markopoulos example seems like the ultimate expression of this philosophy, in that you make your own body of work an archive that you govern very strictly.
A: And I think there was also a degree of disappointment with the Film-Makers’ Cooperative.6 The point of it was supposed to be the distribution of films-
K: – and he was increasingly critical of the takeover of the Coop and independent film production by government institutions and by archives, even though we’re talking about him giving his work to an archive. In his ideal world, it should be patrons, it should be art collectors [that collect works]. He wanted people to collect film in the same that they collect Picassos. That was where he started to feel a disjunction with the American Cinema, and that his films were becoming increasingly co-opted by that same movement.
A: And that represents a parallel with the Cantrills, who also felt disillusioned with Australian experimental film and how the experimental film movement was overrun by filmmakers aspiring to be feature filmmakers, and that funding bodies weren’t actually supporting experimental films. It was more for people using [experiment film] as a stepping-stone.
K: Right, and for us, one of the interesting things is that the Cantrills were only in Melbourne in the early 1970s, but their favourite period of Australian filmmaking is the 50s and 60s, when things were completely unregulated. Independent filmmakers had no public funds, and there were no collections of independent work. They have a very critical perspective on institutional funding, and Markopoulos shared that. There are obviously also many differences between [the Cantrills and Markopoulos]…
It’s intriguing what you were saying there about Markopoulos wanting people to collect his works like you collect Picassos, and in general for people to have a relationship to film that was a little more like, “there’s the thing, and I collect it…” Because it seems to me that that’s part of this idea of the Temenos, which is about establishing a different relationship to the work of film, one that’s closer to the relationship that we’ve traditionally had with painting, even though he talks more about theatre and sculpture in his writings. So I thought that it was quite fitting that the screenings would be taking place in a gallery!
A: Yeah that was something we really wanted to do.
K: It was especially interesting for us that it’s part of this Melbourne-NYC program, which coincides with the MOMA exhibit at the NGV. So it was especially interesting for us to have that in the same space, and to think about the huge significance of Markopoulos to avant-garde cinema and in the context of that period of art. The same with the Cantrills, with the NGV and their own connection to MOMA.
A: Which is where they had their Cineprobe screenings.7
I mean I think in general it’s a major coup that you have organised these films to be screened at the NGV because the museum doesn’t have a focus on screen culture. To me, one of the really admirable things about this program is it’s not just thinking about film in terms of its contemporary art forms, but it’s giving another place for film to be screened. How do you guys feel about the art gallery as a place for screening films? It seems to be something that’s regularly happening here in Sydney as well.
K: Well, we’re both from Brisbane, Audrey worked at GOMA [Gallery of Modern Art] for many years there at the Cinematheque as a projectionist, and I used it to attend it very regularly.
A: And the programming was always really interesting. They would have these really rich surveys and thematic programs, which were pretty unique.
K: And some of the things that are happening in Sydney look great as well, like the retrospective series at the AGNSW and the MCA and its focus on contemporary filmmakers.
Our idea with this wasn’t to make a big protest about the lack of film in the NGV, but we thought it was such a nice opportunity that presented itself with this exhibition. And also just the nature of these works, their own connection to MOMA and the exhibit at the NGV, in that there are so many portraits of artists that are relevant to the program, including Hans Richter, Jasper Johns…
A: Andy Warhol.
K: Yeah, that whole New York scene that is surveyed in the exhibition as well.
I wanted to go back to our discussion about distribution and this sense of propriety over their works that both the Cantrills and Markopoulos have shown over the years. You might disagree with this, but I suppose I see in that desire to have a greater control over the way one’s films are seen a concomitant desire for the films to be better understood; that they be seen only on the filmmaker’s terms. Did you find that with this retrospective you were primarily trying to put these films in the context that the filmmakers had sought to establish, or that it was about trying to establish a new understanding of what these works are?
K: Well, something that is so admirable about that protectionism over those prints – and this relates to what we were saying before about treating film as you would a priceless painting – is that it was partly in response to what they saw as a lack of the necessary expertise in preservation practices of the time. There was no care for the prints, because it seemed as though they were just a piece of scrappy material containing a core of content. They were both critical of this archival attitude in their writings of the period.
A: And with our screenings, because of issues to do with various print stock from that time, there have been colour shifts and colour fading. So we’re just trying to make sure that these copies are the best ones that we can get.
K: Right, for the Cantrills, we have the copies from the filmmakers themselves and from ACMI.
But on the other side of the coin, part of the program coming together and the story of the program is the role the NFSA. That is: getting those prints and watching them in whatever guise we found them. Some of them are working prints, some of them are silent when a later version has sound, etc. That to us is also part of the story. I mean it would also be nice to fly in prints from the Temenos! But we might save it for when we’re in Greece.
Just on this idea of the Temenos, which is of course this ultimate setting designed by Markopoulos and Beavers for their work to be exhibited… You guys have put together a wonderful set of program notes for this retrospective, in which you’ve reprinted some of Markopoulos’ writing on cinema. One of the through lines of his writing is this idea of the ideal spectator, which almost by design doesn’t yet exist but may one day in the future. These were things that others in the New American Cinema were thinking about as well.8 Do you see these texts as responding to the ideas of a particular time and place, or is this notion of the ideal spectator still important to understanding these films today?
K: I think they were more or less a product of that time. When you read the texts where Markopoulos is coming up with this idea for the Temenos, it really starts in the 50s when he’s travelling –
-and he goes to Delphi.
K: Yes. And during that time, he’s meeting a lot of significant figures, including Jean Cocteau who I think is a huge influence. You can’t say that too often about Markopoulos, because the influences aren’t so obvious, but Cocteau was definitely a very important person. Then these ideas develop when he moves to New York City [in 1960]. Soon after he arrives, he helps to found the New American Cinema Group and attends the Film-Makers’ Cinematheque, and at this moment he’s extremely enthusiastic that the New American spectator or the new cinema spectator has found a place there, and has also found appropriate material to be a new cinema spectator. And of course, I think Markopoulos was expressing himself differently to Mekas and Brakhage, but their ideas about that weren’t hugely different. Mekas has definitely said similar things about the 50s and 60s in NY.
And so his ideas finally developed again after he leaves America and he pulls his films from distribution. He starts to have a negative opinion of a lot of the American filmmakers in the early 70s, and this is when he really develops the idea for the Temenos and they find the space in Greece. Texts like “The Intuition Space” are quite particular about this Temenos that he and Beavers were founding.
I can see that he’s part of a history and community, and that there are so many crossovers. But also the other thing that strikes me when you read “The Intuition Space” is how hugely insular it is compared to the earlier texts where he is a huge champion of everything. He was really vocal about championing a lot of filmmakers like Ron Rice and Shirley Clarke, and Brahkage and Mekas. So many. Then this has all changed by the early 1970s.
But I think it’s a really giving essay as well. He genuinely was working towards something for posterity, and I think it necessarily involved posterity. And so when he talks about that future spectator, he’s of course taking the language that he’s using from Ancient Greece, but I think there’s a genuine desire to create something outside of just a place for Markopoulos and Beavers to enshrine their work. The language is quite giving, and it’s quite hopeful despite Markopoulos’s cynicism about a lot of things in the 70s. I think there are definitely crossovers, but I think reading Markopoulos is a really singular thing. He writes like no other, especially other filmmakers of his time.
On that note, there was one final thing that I wanted to talk about, which is actually the other essay that is published as part of the program notes: “The Element of the Void,” which really took me by surprise. It ties in to one of the great strengths of this program, which is the transnational element of it and the fact that you are suggesting these correspondences between filmmakers working in different countries. And there’s definitely an element of transnationalism and even ties across generations throughout the work of both Markopoulos and the Cantrills: with Markopoulos, there’s United States and Europe, the ancient world and the modern world, Balzac and Warhol. And with the Cantrills, Australia and the US, and that generation of experimental cinema that comes a little before its great flourishing here in Australia.
But there’s a really interesting moment [in “The Element of the Void”] in which Markopoulos talks about this idea of a national heritage that can be established through the language of the image. So the question that I wanted to ask is to what extent do you see Markopoulos and the Cantrills as national filmmakers, as filmmakers responding to their own national contexts? Or do you seem them more as isolated figures that did their best where they were?
K: That is a very surprising piece given the time it was written and how open Markopoulos is to what cinema can become and it can achieve. In the early 1970s, after he had become so disillusioned after working as a filmmaker for more than 20 years, he wrote “Element of the Void” which is open to this development of a national cinema based on image. I think he’s also continuing his idea that’s taken from the Greek tradition where it would be a communal act to be enriched by images from your nation; the dedication of the essay is to “the Mediterranean countries who ignore their homosexual heritage”… He’s tying it to this tradition in Greece of the beauty of an image being an essential and always present part of a nation’s heritage.
A: It’s interesting how both the Cantrills and Markopoulos have an idea about this. The Cantrills talked about coming home from overseas and how they responded to filming the Australian landscape, because they found Europe so staid and boring…
K: In terms of landscape
A: In terms of landscape. But they were also sceptical about European avant-garde filmmaking at the time. They much preferred the American filmmakers. But it did seem very much like they had a specific idea about Australia, and what was unique about what they could see in Australia.
K: And it is built on certain traditions as well. Markopoulos was so interested in new developments, and the Cantrills were especially interested in new developments in cinema if you read the Filmnotes. The Cantrills also had a strong feeling, in their filmmaking at least, for the Australian landscape and the earth.
A: Maybe it’s more a feeling than a structure imposed from the outside.
K: Yeah. We can’t speak for them, but just by watching their films about Australian landscapes and nature, there is this really strong sense of connection. At the same time, other pieces are extremely critical of Australia and the Australian film scene in particular. And they were so open to Australian as well as international input to the Filmnotes. It’s a real mix of both. So I think what you’re saying is right, part of our interest in this program is the internationality of it, and how far it reached across Europe and America and Australia.
A: I mean it’s definitely nice thinking about what Markopoulos wrote and how he applies that thought to his filmmaking. Often it’s not by direct correlation, but in watching Bliss for example, and how he took on the whole history of that Byzantine Church…
K: In terms of that, Bliss is a film set in Greece and it’s so inspired by the country. The light of Greece, that peculiar sunlight. It’s all naturally lit. It kind of works with and bleeds into the landscape that it’s filmmaking in a way, and I think that’s part of the interest of the Cantrills’ films that it’s paired with in the last strand of the program. With the Cantrills’ films, they feel especially energetic because they’ve just returned to Australia, to the Australian landscape, and they are so energised by what they’re filming that they energetically respond to it as well. There’s this return to the environment, and as Audrey was saying, you get that from Markopoulos’s films about place as well, especially just after moving to Europe.
Can’t wait to see them. Let’s finish it there. Thank you guys.
K + A: Thank you!