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Ming Green: The Color of Memory

Kristin Jones

Printed in Millennium Film Journal No. 32/33 (Fall 1998) Beavers/Markopoulos

In his memoir, Speak Memory, Vladimir Nabokov recollects his mother's need to cherish things she loved in her past and in her daily surroundings. "In a way I inherited an exquisite simulacrum," he writes, "the beauty of intangible property, unreal estate -- and this proved a splendid training for the endurance of later losses." 1 Gregory Markopoulos' cinema is fueled by a similar urge. In early spring of 1966, in anticipation of his eventual departure from the Greenwich Village apartment in which he had been living for a number of years, he filmed the revelatory seven-minute interior portrait Ming Green , titled for the deep spruce color of the apartment's walls. Ming Green was edited entirely in-camera, and its precise rhythmic blossoming is based on overlapping dissolves and longer flashes, rather than single-frame clusters. The film's complex harmonic structure, however -- as well as its incorporation of often static, "single" images that may be comprised of more than one frame -- echoes the montage techniques developed in Twice a Man (1963). 2   Interweaving mementos with foliage, color, and light, Ming Green suggests the inextricability of past and present: despite its exquisite lightness, it could represent the passage of hours and days rather than minutes. It also contains slender strands of themes woven through Markopoulos' other, larger projects.

The film's movement, through rhythmic flashes, overlapping fades, and superimpositions, is from exterior to interior, both literally and figuratively. The first shot consists simply of a grisaille of sun-drenched trees, glimpsed through a window framed by orange drapes like shadowy flames. When I first saw Ming Green, this frontal composition reminded me ofDay , a lithograph of the Symbolist painter Odilon Redon, created in 1890 as part of his "Dreams" portfolio, and an image in which a sunlit tree replaces the oversized heads and stained glass contained by windows in some of his other graphic works. Markopoulos' attitude toward nature, like Redon's, was intensely subjective, and his modernist aesthetic did not preclude a belief in its restorative power. In both Day and in the opening shot of Ming Green, the natural world, in the form of a few branch<>es, is framed like a mysterious vision.

Ming Green's later sequences are accompanied by the song Träumen (Dreams) from Richard Wagner's Five Songs for Mathilde
, interpreted by Kirsten Flagstad. Its opening shots, window slowly blinking -- separated each time by a length of black leader -- before being replaced by a shot of foliage in the garden. Ming Green then begins to interweave greenery with the green room. A view of the interior with a brilliant red lacquered chair is followed by overlapping shots of a spring bud. In a single magical image, a slowly flickering shot of rustling masses of leaves in the garden is superimposed on one of the red chair; in another, an open book on a shelf appears to float against trees and foliage. These complex superimpositions culminate in a dazzling cluster of shots showing the window and patterns of sunlight on various surfaces in the room -- a quasi-cubistic blossoming of light that is echoed in two subsequent "films of place," Bliss (1967) and Sorrows (1969).

After the garden sequence, Ming Green unfurls a succession of objects with personal significance. One is a photographic nude hanging between the windows -- which are now shown with the curtains drawn -- by Edmund Teske, an acquaintance of the filmmaker. A large, pink, artificial rose seen standing by a fireplace in another composition was a gift from three students who had attended a lecture by Markopoulos at their college. Three record albums are also seen propped up on a table like works of art. Ming Green is dedicated to Stan Brakhage, whom Markopoulos credited with suggesting the idea for the film, and the luminous vertical streak to the right of the frame in another shot of the green interior is a strip of film from Brakhage's Mothlight .

The real trees and foliage in the garden may have triggered this flickering reverie, but Ming Green's exquisite climax involves the artificial rose. As the music gains intensity, this oversized blossom fills the frame, pulling in and out of focus as it is superimposed with a flickering close-up of a leaf filigreed by light. These pulsing, almost fluttering images are interwoven with longer shots of the flower standing in the green room, which has come to resemble a lush garden at dusk. We then see a row of books -- including volumes by Djuna Barnes, Thomas Mann, and Nikos Kazantzakis -- followed by a slowly blinking close-up of a drum-shaped, scarlet-and-gold Christmas ornament hanging above. This trinket echoes a drumming wind-up toy soldier in Christmas U.S.A. (1949), one of Markopoulos' early black-and-white psychodramas; here, however, it is the image itself that beats, in a beautiful visual pun that underlines the musicality of Markopoulos' editing technique. An array of framed photographs on the walls of the apartment glimpsed in the remaining minutes of the film includes an image of Paul Kilb, the protagonist of Twice a Man; a snapshot of Markopoulos as a child held by his father; and a portrait of Clara Hoover, who represented Io in The Illiac Passion (1964-67), and who was also a valuable patron, providing Markopoulos with the funds to complete Twice a Man.

As it draws to a close, Ming Green becomes a pulsing sensual entity formed of densely interlaced images that include the fabric of the orange drapes and the houndstooth pattern of a Greek blanket. Among these flickering frames, a drawing by Markopoulos can barely be glimpsed, its baroque lines blending into the texture of the plaster in a superimposed image of the green wall. We also see a casually arranged dress shirt, shot from a distance and in close-up, at one point appearing to float like the book seen at the beginning of the film. A touching trace of the filmmaker's physical presence, the shirt was part of his elegant daily attire -- which was compared by Brakhage in a lecture at the Whitney Museum in 1996 to the armor worn by a knight of the Round Table "just living for an occasional glimpse of the grail."

Ming Green's final image, a framed photograph of the filmmaker's mother, is held before blurring to the final notes of the sound track. When one knows that Maria Markopoulos died of cancer in January of 1966, shortly beforeMing Green was filmed, it is difficult not to see the erotic bliss signaled by the throbbing rose as a prelude to oblivion and death. Despite the grief delicately expressed in its final image, however, Ming Green is not a mournful film, but rather an ardent paean to emotion and memory.

It is also a chromatic chamber piece. Color was essential to Markopoulos' oeuvre from 1947 onward, but Ming Green's radiant palette is synonymous with memory, as the cool dark shade of the apartment's walls becomes a green field against which objects -- many in a fiery spectrum of pink, red, gold, or orange -- are brilliantly arrayed. Like Markopoulos' other color films, Ming Green is a unified whole made up of multicolored fragments that are dispersed over time, resonating against one another in the spectator's memory, as if past, present, and future were inseparable. The film's rhythmic temporal blossoming is joined to the equivalent of simultaneous contrast in painting, or what Redon once called the "mutual exaltation of colors." 3

In addition to reflecting the jewel-like palette of both apartment and film, Ming Green's title points to the preciousness of emotion in Markopoulos' oeuvre. Above all, it conjures the memories that unfold within the film like an inexhaustible text. It was in this apartment, after all, that Markopoulos edited Twice a Man and The Illiac Passion, works of shimmering complexity that reflect his most profound ideas about cinema as an all-encompassing medium. Through the filmmaker's fervent vision, this modest apartment becomes an "exquisite simulacrum," or the very distillation of the art of remembrance.

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this was printed in Millennium Film Journal No. 32/33 (Fall 1998) Beavers/Markopoulos