Jonas Mekas

galerie du jour agnès b.

“You’ll never know what a Displaced Person thinks,” interjects Jonas Mekas in Lost, Lost, Lost, a patchwork of footage shot between 1949 (the year Mekas arrived in New York as a D.P.) and 1963, and edited years later into short, discontinuous sequences, like so many entries in a diary, so many bits and pieces of a life in exile. From this and other “diary films” that he has assembled in the same, painstaking way since the late ’60s, Mekas has now begun to extract selected images in the form of photograms. These “fragments of memory,” as he has called them, are enlarged from the films like prints from a contact sheet. But they are not photographs, because they have been shot in the continuous time of the movie camera—and yet they are not films because that time has been frozen into a vertical sequence on a page. They are, as it were, “displaced frames.”

This hybrid status is accentuated by the format Mekas has adopted: never a single frame, but two, three, four, even five of them, complete with sprocket holes, sound tracks and an occasional intertitle from the original reels of film. The alchemy of time, film stock, and over- or underexposure has yielded some spectacular results, such as the glowing red figures of Lou Reed and Edie Sedgwick at the Velvet Underground’s first performance (three frames from Walden, 1969), Elvis Presley as a kind of Spiderman in white satin cavorting in the black void of Madison Square Garden and suddenly bathed in a cone of red stagelight (four frames from a “work in progress”), or John Lennon and Yoko Ono gradually fading out of their Montreal Bed-In, 1969, (four frames from Walden).

Most of the situations are much more prosaic, even if the people who appear in them are not. Notwithstanding the public profiles of Mekas’ friends and acquaintances—from Andy Warhol, Elia Kazan, and Jackie Kennedy to Carl Theodor Dreyer, Roberto Rossellini, and Salvador Dalí—the photograms, like the films they come from, are closer to home movies than celebrity portraits. Indeed, the cast of characters in Mekas’ epic diary also includes his mother, his brother, his wife, and his children, not to mention himself (filmed in the “third person” by handing the camera over to someone else). Everyone and everything—for there is quite often a juxtaposition of person and place in successive frames—is treated to the same fixed, frontal compositions that privilege faces, gestures, and an unabashedly idyllic vision of nature. “I film out of self-defense . . . to protect myself from being crushed by the bleakness of the reality around me,” writes Mekas in a 1971 journal entry. “That’s why my stress on Celebration, celebrative details of life around me—because that’s what’s lacking here, today. I am making corrections.” These images serve only too well to bring the celebration to the fore, as what were in the original film no more than fleeting glimpses of flowers, beaches, or smiling friends become frozen icons of well-being. But the defensive stance is no less evident: removed from the continuity of film time, devoid not only of movement but also of sound (music and Mekas’ first-person-commentary), the “displaced frames” reinforce the willful distance between the filmmaker and his subject. The tension between celebration and defensive edge is essential: it is the distance that keeps the celebration from lapsing into sentimentality, and the celebration that transforms an exile’s-eye-view of the world into a vision. Such images, as Mekas is quick to point out, could never be extrapolated from the commercial cinema. They exist only because of his “single-frame” style of filming, and this style—yet another displacement—is both an esthetic and an ethic.

Miriam Rosen