Registering the Registry 2020: The Ground (1993–2001)

Welcome back to Registering the Registry, where we consider and review the films inducted into the Library of Congress’ National Film Registry by merit of their cultural, historical, and aesthetic qualities! This week, Robert Beavers’ unique level of distributive control over his works makes The Ground somewhat difficult to come by, much less ethically discuss. How’d we handle the conundrum? Read on and find out!

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Howdy! There’s no review here. Lemme explain why!

The Ground comes to us from the American independent director Robert Beavers, a native to New York state whose early ambitions to start a film club at Deerfield Academy sputtered out in 1965 with his dropping out and moving to NYC to make 16mm projects. Beginning his career in film at all of sixteen years old, Beavers soon came into contact with the Greek-American director Gregory Markopoulos, some twenty years his senior, and within a year the two men entered in a mentor-student relationship that blossomed into lifelong romance. Frustrated by the limitations of both mainstream and experimental scenes in the American film environment, the two men relocated to a semi-nomadic lifestyle all across Europe in 1967, where they would both withdraw their films from American exhibition for the next thirty years. From this point until Markopoulos’ death in 1992, the pair would work extensively in 16mm shortform, their projects heavily informed by a cyclical understanding of previous films leading into the next, a preoccupation with the relation between a work of art and the tangible space which produced it, and attempts to push the visual language of their form through masking and crossfading and separately engineered sound. Late in their time together, Markopoulos began extensively reworking his earlier projects to match with the sensibilities he felt vital to his life’s endeavors yet lacking in those works produced during inexperienced youth, a retroactive practice Beavers would adopt himself during the 1990s.

Beavers as a young artist.

Importantly for our discussion today, Markopoulos’ understanding of his own work and the art of cinema in general came to include the notion of requiring some corner of the discipline attract the serious movie lover, groups of such great devotion to the form they would willingly take great pains to travel immense distances and dedicate weeks of time to fully absorbing and understanding an artist’s work at their own level under the exact right conditions. To this end, Markopoulos conceived the Temenos, a destination for the New Cinema Spectator in rural central Greece fully dedicated to the regular exhibition of his 80-hour multi-cycle reworking of his entire life’s work entitled Eniaios, alongside any such comprehensive project Beavers would eventually produce. Markopoulos left instructions for the film’s intended ordering and spliced a rough version prior to his death, but actual restoration of the 16mm prints and final edit remained incomplete. In the nearly thirty years since, Beavers has dedicated himself to both completing Markopoulos’ final statement, restoring and reworking his canon from 1967–2002 into his own comprehensive cycle, My Hand Outstretched to the Winged Distance and Sightless Measure, and pursuing further filmic projects — five shorts total since The Ground, the last film encompassed under the My Hand Outstretched umbrella. His works are not nearly so difficult to come by in the United States these days as they once were, for he does attend film festivals and university screenings to increase the availability of his work, although their intended final and purest exhibition site reportedly does not screen his films. To date, the Temenos only exhibits Markopoulos pictures, and not even in their final Eniaios form just yet.

Markopoulos as a young artist.

Now, I cannot claim I’m fully in agreement with the understanding Markopoulos and Beavers formed regarding the New Cinema Spectator. Under this conception, the serious film lover is either someone of sufficient financial means to simply sacrifice enormous lengths of time for the sake of a distantly located artist, or the ideal common person willing to suffer potentially devastating repercussions and give up vital lifelines or safety nets to experience a work of art. One understands talk about living for something other than wage slavery and making the Hail Mary plays for an experience worth more than they’ll ever make at an office job, but one also recognizes one’s place in a complicated network of interpersonal relationships and dependencies that aren’t so easily ignored for the sake of art. Quoth Billy Joel, “I’d love to stay, but there’s bills to pay, so I just don’t have the time.” Certainly I couldn’t conceive any means of traveling to Europe or even any of Beavers’ scheduled talks in other US cities without upsetting the balance I’ve managed beyond repair without the knowledge or connections necessary to guarantee restabilization afterwards. Roof over my head and food on the table are pretty important, y’know? The join between “I am fascinated by this conception you have developed across the span of your entire life” and “There’s a pandemic on and I rather like having a place to sleep besides” just wasn’t something I could fuse in a timely or affordable manner.

A still of Markopoulos in Beavers’ short Winged Dialogue (1968/2000).

Still, despite these misgivings, I AM fascinated by Beavers’ understanding of the cinematic form, and think it a worthwhile, amazingly radical reinterpretation of the art. For a medium so proficient at manipulating time across editing and visual trickery, Beavers relates to the movies through their capacity to manipulate space, and not just in his demand people travel to view them on his terms. The Robert Beavers canon is reportedly devoted to capturing the immediate sensation of standing where he stood, where the great masters who inspired him stood, where his lover once stood, with all in-camera manipulations and editorial oversight dedicated to the sensations of Leonardo daVinci’s thoughts in From the Notebook of, to duplicating the world of John Ruskin’s writings in Ruskin, the architectural concerns of Francesco Borromini in The Hedge Theater. The Ground’s production dates span an ambiguous eight year period because Beavers views the process of working through his examination of the similarities between a stonemason and a filmmaker at a place sacred to himself and Markopoulos in the years following his partner’s death more important than a definitive “this is the point I finished” stamp, the same reason his earlier works now bear the years of his reworkings alongside their original completion dates — labor and its physical markings on a filmstrip are equally important to the contents captured within. Beavers himself admits he does not project his films during the editing process, instead memorizing each and every shot in their intended composition and carefully manipulating the raw film stock into the precise configuration he wishes, a testy and time-consuming process that nonetheless produces results he finds fully satisfactory. We have before us a man who loves film as something you can touch, something which can carry the whole spirit of the world before the camera’s eye, someone who co-developed such a radical view on how his work should be viewed because the act of traveling to watch a film in its original medium at a site spiritually linked to its creator — with said creator available for questions and discussion so long as Beavers lives — is utterly vital to his artistic intent, an underlying reason he makes movies in the first place.

Still from The Ground.

So. Back in January, prior to reading about Beavers and learning any of this, I was stuck for how to watch The Ground for Registering the Registry, given Beavers has not and never will approve a home release for his films, and I as mentioned cannot swing a trip abroad to watch his films. Faced with this, I asked a few people who’d recently reviewed the film on Letterboxd, and one user contacted me through Discord with a link to a website where I could watch The Ground, along with a few other Beavers works. Evidently, even the filmmaker notable for rare total control over his filmography can’t stop all leaks in the internet age. At the time, I thought little of this — sure, it’s technically piracy, and not from a major corporate entity as I feel all justified piracy should be, but Beavers’ website for the Temenos includes a donation page to help restore his and Markopoulos’ works, so I figured what the hell. I’ll drop as big a donation as I can manage, call us square, and review The Ground with an eye towards how I respect Beavers’ right to withhold his films from easy public access without agreeing about the practice. Simple, easy, what do I have to lose anyhow? Practically nobody reads this column, and if I DO eventually make it big, surely nobody’ll make a big deal out’ve my having done something slightly shady this one time, yeah?

Didn’t sit well with me, this reasoning, not at all. Sat poorly in my stomach when I came up with it, sat increasingly poorly as time went on and the day of watching The Ground approached, especially as I did proper research on Robert Beavers and learned more about just WHY I couldn’t simply cue his movies up on Criterion Channel or someplace. The trouble is, if I am to sit here and type, “I like what Beavers is trying to accomplish through restricting his films in order to better reflect his philosophy about cinema as a tangible art with deep roots in the places it is crafted, and respect his endeavor to expand the language of the medium regardless my concerns over the classist implications in practice,” there cannot come a “but” after all this. A corollary notating my disagreement, yes; a “but” justifying thievery, no. One outlines a difference in perspective between a long-established artist and the young ordinary part-time government worker aspiring to cover as much film as possible; the other openly defies the concept and makes a mockery of Beavers’ life work by going so sorry, chief, but you’ve inconvenienced me a mite too much here, I’ve no choice save to rend your philosophy to shreds so I can watch the movie on me computer. Not to mention, if I can smack together so large a donation as I’d conceived in my head (roundabout $400) and remain comfortable as I please for the upcoming months, surely I could ALSO inconvenience myself with an out’ve the way trip to do things proper, yeah? Engage with Beavers’ unique command over physical space through the filmic medium if it means so damned much to me? The difficulty involved in watching The Ground on Beavers’ terms isn’t entirely a Me Probem… but boy howdy is there SOME element of a Me Problem there!

An exhibition at the Temenos.

To defer in this manner is, of course, to once again question the suitability of the Registry to cover matters like this, just as we did when discussing With Car and Camera Around the World. Here, however, the Library of Congress has no real ability to control the chosen film’s availability, even if it waited for a complete restoration; Robert Beavers exercises total oversight on his and Markopoulos’s archive in Switzerland, and nothing an arm of the US government has to say will make him distribute it to a larger audience. Most they can do is send someone to check in on The Ground now ‘n then and make sure there’s due diligence towards its preservation, same as they do for countless pictures in the National Film Registry. This said, my MAIN concern rests on whether the Registry can adequately include a director like Beavers at all. As mentioned, his preferred presentation for these films involves their exhibition as part of the My Hands Outstretched cycle, with each batch broken into a smaller cycle covering a particular period in his life. The Ground especially seems difficult to simply extract from the whole and contemplate on its own, given its origins as a work exploring the absent space left by Markopoulos’ death, its position as the closing installment of the final chapter he thinks worth inclusion in his cycles, and the artistic implications of treating their craft as a stonemason treats his rocks, something heavy and sturdy that nonetheless requires a careful hand and steeled dedication to make just so. One can argue there’s a level of personal investment and necessary context to this short lost when extracted from its full or partial presentation within My Hands Outstretched well beyond anything else inducted into the Registry, and readily question how it can possibly claim to do right by the man when only one parenthetical portion of his life’s work stands amongst the ranks.

Beavers and Markopoulos scouting the eventual site of the Temenos.

Then again, one could also question why Beavers should deserve special treatment when no other director has or likely will see their entire filmography inducted in one sweep to ensure future viewers get the whole picture. He does things his way, sure, but his way is unorthodox to a degree which excludes 99.99-repeating% of filmgoers… yet who’s to say the unorthodox doesn’t deserve equal or even greater respect than the conventional in a body celebrating the notable artistic achievements of the American cinematic form? Hell, I made the same argument when I submitted my nominees to the 2021 Registry class this last week. If Robert Beavers’ work truly requires the full scope of Robert Beavers’ work for one to understand its totality, why not keep an eye on the entire Swiss archive and raise awareness for his one-of-a-kind self-preservation program? Except, if we DO take this approach, who’s to say the Library has gotten its process for any other non-mainstream filmmaker whose lone works are inducted absent their full filmographies. You can play devil’s advocate stupid easy and come to ludicrous conclusions like, “Including What’s Opera Doc? doesn’t work until you include ALL the Looney Tunes!” Which IS purposefully ludicrous and misses the point of potentially including Beavers’ whole archive, but it does illustrate how the onus of maintaining and contemplating the whole Registry grows out of control under this scheme with publicly available films, much less difficult-to-access works like these. And furthermore….!

We could burrow down this rabbit hole for hours, swapping out perspectives and trying to determine exactly how Beavers’ inclusion reflects on the LoC’s history of including traditionally defined “experimental” films amongst their ranks, especially if we want to adopt Gunvor Nelson’s perspective and classify them as “personal” films instead. Once you look at them as separate from the collective studio efforts, are we edifying them as something special or relegating them to a posh ghetto? To cut through the speculative guff and make the important point: while refusing to watch and review the film for these reasons raises plentiful questions about the validity of my project and the Registry alike, I am simply not comfortable pirating Robert Beavers’ work when I admire and agree with his cinematic philosophy so much as I do. The stonemason deserves to exercise his talents and ship his work however he pleases, as does the filmmaker who manipulates space in addition to time. I did make that $400 donation all the same, and I heavily suggest you contribute much as you’re able too if any of what I’ve written compels you. Way I see it, such a gesture of support and good will means nothing if I then trample all over the views I’m financing with my next breath, so the only ethical thing to do is defer. Hopefully someday I can see a Beavers work under the correct circumstances, hopefully it’ll happen while Beavers is still alive and meetable, and hopefully the lot of you can find it in your hearts to forgive me this excessively-verbose IOU One (1) Movie Review. I wrote damn near as much as I would for a normal Registering the Registry entry explaining why I DIDN’T write one, so that’s gotta count for something, ja?

Beavers, modern day.

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I know full well there probably ain’t anyone who’s seen The Ground out there, but I’m into a pattern so I’d best ask anyhow: what’d y’all think? Am I on-base to make a big deal about the easy act of not committing piracy, and does anyone properly familiar with Beavers’ work have much to say? Duke it out in the comments, and look forward to next week’s far more mainstream flick. After my complaints last year regarding the Registry’s lack of non-Disney feature-length animation, we’ve got the very first such film inducted, and it’s one whose arrival signaled a major departure from their unchallenged dominance over the animation market. Not to mention one whose cultural afterlife has granted it a memetic presence far truer to its own message than any official sequel or spin-off by virtue of sheer, unrelenting ugliness as the loveliest thing imaginable. We’re talking 2001’s Shrek, which you can stream through Hulu, rent/buy from the usual suspects, or see remixed through 2018’s Shrek Retold, which will also pull an appearance in the review. See y’all then!

Gargus also writes plenty more reviews over on Letterboxd, rambles about this and that from time to time over on twitter, and accepts donations on ko-fi.

I write on the National Film Registry.