Dear Diary


Left: Jonas Mekas, Lost Lost Lost, 1976, 16 mm, color and black-and-white, sound, 178 minutes. Right: Jonas Mekas, My Paris Movie, 2011, video, color, 159 minutes.

JONAS MEKAS turns ninety this Christmas Eve, and a dozen-odd gallery, museum, and cinematheque shows have been organized worldwide in his honor, including a complete film and video retrospective in Paris at the Beaubourg (through January 7) and an exhibition in London at the Serpentine (through January 27). One of the more modest celebrations, a selection of well-known masterworks, curiosities, and a few New York premieres, begins tonight, December 17, and continues for a week at Mekas’s home base, Anthology Film Archives, which he cofounded in 1970.

Beginning with Diaries, Notes & Sketches (Walden) (1969), which showed at Anthology earlier this month, Mekas edited the raw, silent, diary footage that he had been shooting since his arrival in the US in 1949. Together, these moving-image works form a multilayered autobiography of a filmmaker and poet in exile from the Lithuania of his childhood, searching for glimpses of a remembered Paradise in the place that he shaped with nonstop labor and the force of his imagination into a new home.

Mekas’s first-person films are meditations on memory and history that contain some of the most expressive combinations of image and sound in the history of cinema. If you can see only one movie in this series, make it Lost Lost Lost (1976), which comprise footage Mekas shot between 1949 and 1963. The film bears witness to the transformation of American culture from the repression of the Eisenhower years to the euphoria of the early 1960s. You also see the parallel development in Mekas’s visual language from straightforward documentary realism to the fragmented, handheld poetic imagery that characterized his work until he exchanged his 16-mm Bolex for a consumer- grade video camera. The other major work in the series is As I Was Moving Ahead Occasionally I Saw Brief Glimpses of Beauty (2000), which is devoted almost entirely to the filmmaker’s domestic life—a long marriage during which two children are born and grow into adulthood. Less abstract than Stan Brakhage’s home movies, the film finds other ways of avoiding sentimentality, and despite its 288-minute length, it is Mekas’s most successful audience pleaser.

From the end of the 1990s to now, Mekas has recorded his diaries almost exclusively in video. The new technology brought about radical aesthetic changes in his work—primarily the substitution of sync sound for the elaborate soundtracks that he had built for the films. In his editing room, Mekas used to record his own associative commentary on the images he had filmed, some of them shot only yesterday, some decades before. The images were ghosts of the past; the words revived them, transformed them, and would give them a vibrant presence on the screen. The texts of the films were largely first-person improvised monologues. The videos are constructed largely as conversations among the people we see on the screen. The layering of time (the time of shooting and the time of editing) is less important, as is Mekas’s guiding presence.

Some of the videos in this series were made to be seen on the web, and their intimacy is lost when they are projected. Throughout 2007, I got in the habit of looking at Mekas’s 365 Day Project on my computer first thing every morning. The videos themselves varied in interest, but the direct daily connection between me (the viewer) and Mekas (the artist) was transformative. Mekas’s most powerful use of video—the five-hour collage of television footage that comprises Lithuania and the Collapse of the USSR (2008)—is not included this series, nor is the beautifully ragged Sleepless Nights Stories (2011). There is however one New York premiere, My Paris Movie (2011), which begins brilliantly and I fear outstays its welcome.

Commissioned by the Musée de Jeu de Paume to contribute to a celebration of cinema, My Paris Movie is a three-hour-long edit of film and video shot during Mekas’s many trips to a city whose culture values him as an artist—and movies as an art form—far more than does New York. Early in My Paris Movie, Mekas recounts how in 1963 he smuggled Jean Genet’s Un chant d’amour through customs with the help of Harold Pinter, whom he met on the plane to New York. It’s a hilarious piece of personal and cultural history, and the difference between this subversive period of underground filmmaking and today’s acceptance of the artist’s home movies into the museum and gallery system is made more poignant through cutaways from the casual video diary shot largely in 2009 to film sequences from the ’60s and ’70s. Mekas’s Paris movie is a celebration of much wine, raucous song, and a few women (there’s a lovely portrait of agnès b. working in her atelier). But there are so many close-ups of wine in glasses and wine in bottles and so much drinking in bars, hotel rooms, and at dinner parties that the movie seems to be courting a stern rebuke from someone concerned about Mekas’s health and the potential loss of his fine-tuned aesthetic sensibility. Or perhaps it has functioned as a kind of exorcism, which, without getting too personal, reportedly has been successful. My Paris Movie definitely has its positive aspects but aesthetic satisfaction is not among them.

Amy Taubin

Jonas Mekas Turns 90!” runs December 17–23 at Anthology Film Archives in New York.