One gloomy night in my hometown about 10 years ago, I was hanging out with a bunch of friends and watching a Jonas Mekas short that one film buff among us had brought. The film basically consisted of boats zipping in and out of a harbor in some kind of fast-forward motion. Maybe we had one drink too many back then but I remember feeling pretty bored (do you guys remember?) and wondering if I would ever connect with so-called experimental “underground” cinema, an art form I was largely ignorant about.
Last night I went to see Mekas’ film diary, Walden (Diaries, Notes and Sketches) projected on a cinema screen at the Centre Pompidou (excerpt here) And I was blown away. I guess you could call it one of those epiphanic moments when you first go “ok, how am I going to get through this 3-hour experimental downer WITHOUT grabbing my neighbor or tearing up my seat” and find yourself drawn into its magnetic beauty, surprised that it’s already finished three hours later.
In a fascinating echo to writer Henry D. Thoreau’s classic, Mekas’ Walden is a poetic celebration of detail, an impressionistic ode to the most commonplace and yet extraordinary manifestations of life. Admittedly, the Lithuaninan-born filmmaker documents an era and a place, mainly New York City in the 60s, whose aura has reached mythic proportions in our collective psyche. But somehow Mekas’ photographic eye captures a vibrant cultural environment that feels timeless and refreshingly alluring. The most striking thing about this film, I thought, was how naturally these fleeting impressions fit together despite Mekas characteristically jumpy editing. We just zap through snow-capped NY, sunrises that “you usually don’t see over New York”, leaves falling through Central Park, circus performers going about their acts in repeat mode, portraits of experimental filmmaker’s Stan Brakhage’s family in their countryside lodge, among myriad vignettes of indoor and outdoor scenes. The filmmaker’s voice steps in occasionally to briefly contextualize an event or relate funny anecdotes (for example, when he, Brakhage and other avant-garde filmmakers get talked into a trip to New Jersey for German TV and try to act “underground” by climbing trees and eating plain bagels!).
The film also documents the major art movements burgeoning in the 60s and one is stunned by how much Mekas witnessed and captured of this momentous era. It’s like a time capsule of the NY underground/pop art scene seen through the eyes of a Lithuanian exile who carves out his own path alongside living icons, including Allen Ginsberg, John Lennon and Yoko Ono, Andy Warhol, The Velvet Underground, among others. Mekas juxtaposes this plethoric footage with deeply personal craftsmanship, creating kaleidoscopic vistas that are truly beguiling.
I’m no expert on the art of filmmaking but this is a compelling case for a no-frills attitude to creativity. What Mekas does with a 16mm Bolex camera proves that what is essentially a neatly assembled collection of home movies can make for lasting art. Whether he zooms in on Danish film director Carl Dreyer’s hands, anonymous kids roller-skating down the street, women handing out pamphlets for peace in freezing weather, flowers in bloom or dinner scenes of himself and relatives, the images take a life of their own. As Mekas comments at some point in the film, “cinema is light, movement…it is the sun…cinema is between the frames”.
I’m glad I got a chance to change my mind about Mekas’ luminous cinema.
And happy new year to all