About Last Night

Amy Taubin on Jonas Mekas’s Sleepless Nights Stories

Jonas Mekas, Sleepless Nights Stories, 2011, stills from a color video, 114 minutes. Left: Björk. Right: Jonas Mekas and Patti Smith.

JONAS MEKAS—filmmaker, poet, journalist, musician, godfather of American avant-garde film—turns eighty-nine this Christmas Eve and his recent digital diary movie, Sleepless Nights Stories (2011), has a shiver of mortality running through it. Perhaps it’s simply that Mekas’s inspiration is Scheherazade, the Persian queen whose serialized tales legendarily saved her life. In Sleepless Nights Stories, Mekas, suffering from chronic insomnia, keeps late-night company with old and new friends who have the gift of gab, their tongues lubricated by wine, their imaginations sometimes fired up by music. The movie is divided into brief episodes (the “stories” of the title) that more often than not comprise conversations among practitioners of various art disciplines. (The late architect Raimund Abraham opines at one point that the general designation of “artist” should be abolished.) Marina Abramović gives a performance that reminds us how interesting she was before she became an art diva. The conviviality of the participants is contagious; one is grateful that Mekas’s camera was a fly on the wall and that he himself was a gleeful, often wise participant.

Harmony Korine, the subject of one of the more intricately edited “stories”—three chapters that take place over four years condensed to about two minutes—laughingly describes Mekas’s shooting technique, how sometimes he just parks his camera on a stack of magazines or a sofa arm—always teetering on the edge—turns it on, and walks away. But not too far. Since the late 1980s, when he made the switch from 16-mm film to video, Mekas’s diaries have become increasingly “artless” in their imagery. In Sleepless Nights Stories, he casually employs the automatic focus and exposure settings on his point-and-shoot digital camera so that what we see is the camera seeking focus and light, as one might seek a thought or a memory. It’s not pretty to watch, but it can be extraordinarily moving. In one of several episodes that Mekas narrates in voice-over, he describes how, as a child in Lithuania, he would lie on his back in the woods and look up at the trees. On one occasion, he says he felt as if he himself were a tree, as if he were one with nature. It was, he says, the greatest moment of his life. As he recounts this experience, what we see is forest shot with a constantly moving handheld camera, the imagery like quick—and quickly discarded—sketches until, just once, a close-up of intensely green leaves comes into focus, filling the screen. As a depiction of a “peak experience,” this one is close to perfect and all the richer for its poverty of means.

Sleepless Nights Stories plays through Friday, December 23 at Anthology Film Archives in New York.