Essay Film Filmmakers

Jonas Mekas

lostLost, Lost, Lost, 1976. In Reel 2 of Lost, Lost, Lost, the first volume of Jonas Mekas’s diary film, Diaries, Notes, and Sketches, Mekas’s commentary of his early life in Williamsburg, Brooklyn as an immigrant and refugee drifting from factory to factory, accepting a series of temporary jobs as an assembly worker is presented against a typewritten letter that poses the instability of his employment history within the broader question of his true character: “Is it in my nature, or did the war do that to me? [A]m I a born D.P. (Displaced Person) or did war make me into a D.P.?” For Mekas, the rootlessness and transience not only expresses an immigrant’s homesickness caused by his physical separation from his native country and family (for reasons that are broached in Reminiscences of a Journey to Lithuania), but also a melancholy in realizing the impossibility of returning home again. A collage film in six reels shot between 1949 and 1963, of which the earliest footage was taken from a Bolex camera that Jonas and his brother Adolfas had purchased on loan a week after arriving to the United States under the immigration status of “Displaced Person” from Lithuania, Mekas’s hesitant, measured commentary reveals a harbored sense of dislocation and estrangement that finds community in a shared, unarticulated longing and resignation to an innocence – and paradise – lost.

Not surprisingly, Mekas’s earliest sequences are located within the (hollow) semblances of home itself, from portraits of fellow displaced persons who gather in silence at neighborhood parks and summer retreats in Stonybrook, Long Island, their wounded gazes betraying a despair over a distant homeland, to participating in cultural festivals that only serve to emphasize their dislocation, insularity, and quaint incongruity from cosmopolitan, modern-day New York City, to religious rites of passage that celebrate the continuity of family and ethnic traditions. In Reels 3 and 4, the refuge of sameness, commiseration, and impotent nostalgia that pervades the first two reels gives way to inspiration, liberation, and activism, evolving from the interiorization of grief (a loneliness that is reflected in Mekas’s descriptions of his many long walks during his earliest days in New York) to the exteriorization of social commitment and action. Geographically, Mekas marks this transition through the brothers’ relocation from Brooklyn to Manhattan, auspiciously on 13th Street in Greenwich Village, which also serves as an introduction to the creative community of artists such as poet Allen Ginsberg and filmmaker Ken Jacobs, and involvement in the nuclear disarmament campaign and the peace movement. Chronologically, this synthesis of creativity and politicization is reflected in the production of Mekas’s experimental feature, Guns of the Trees (a time that also marks the filming of Adolfas’s own feature, Hallelujah the Hills), as well as his assumed role as social documentarian, chronicling the zeitgeist of protest and unrest. In Reels 5 and 6, the development of Mekas’s confidence as a filmmaker and integration into the New York art scene is reflected not only in his day-to-day experimentation (in particular, a playful, wandering camera self-portrait that suggests an embryonic version of Frans Zwartjes’s Living) but in his equally comical attempts to be admitted to (or more appropriately, crash) the Robert Flaherty Seminar. In essence, Mekas’s transformation becomes tied to his relationship with the creation (and resolution) of fixed images: first, in its frozen (and implicitly idealized) memories of a lost homeland, then subsequently, in the apparatus of capturing transience and passage within his own elusive (and often tangential) journey home. This idea of human experience coming, not to full circle, but to non-intersecting, collinear points within a spiral continuum is poetically encapsulated in the footage of Mekas filming his friends at a Long Island beach where, years earlier, he had visited with people from the Lithuanian expatriate community. Replacing black and white with color film, displaced persons with artists, Mekas captures the integral image of the artist as perpetual observer, outsider, and exile.

reminiscences_lithuaniaReminiscences of a Journey to Lithuania, 1972. Composed of three aesthetically distinct, self-encapsulated, geographically-based chapters – assembled footage from Jonas Mekas’ adoptive hometown of Brooklyn circa 1950 shortly after his arrival to America with his brother Adolfas, a series of short, herky-jerky vignettes recorded during the brothers’ return to their place of birth in the rural, agrarian village of Semeniskiai, Lithuania in August, 1971 (25 years after their reluctant flight from home, having run afoul with pro-German authorities for publishing articles deemed sympathetic to the resistance), and finally, a visit to personal friend, Austrian filmmaker Peter Kubelka’s hometown of Vienna – Reminiscences of a Journey to Lithuania traces a seemingly divergent, often contradictory, and inevitably irreconcilable personal odyssey that, nevertheless, instinctively converges towards the filmmaker’s acute and inescapable awareness of his own spiritual displacement, sense of otherness, and perpetual exile. The film opens to a black and white montage shot from a Bolex camera of friends and family taking a recreational stroll through the woods in the Catskill Mountains as the accented Mekas speaks in slow, measured tone after an extended pause – a memory perhaps triggered by the sight of the woods again – of an occasion in the late 1950s during a hike through the mountains when he first became aware that, in the course of being completely occupied with the invigoration of the activity and camaraderie of friends, he had momentarily forgotten his longing for home. The realization of his unconscious, gradual cultural assimilation is a bittersweet one, an adaptive process of transformation that is tempered by a profound consciousness of loss and passage.

In Part One of the film, an observational survey of everyday life in the ethnically diverse, working class neighborhood of Williamsburg, Mekas juxtaposes dualistic images of lightheartedness and seeming leisure that also suggest an implicit sense of poverty: whether through the framing of neighborhood children playing against the cluttered array of assorted laundry hanging from clotheslines and people idly sitting on the sidewalks that reinforce the community’s economic struggle and the pervasiveness of unemployment, or through recorded chronicles of his attendance in assorted social gatherings for immigrant “Displaced Persons” (comprised mostly of Eastern Europeans uprooted by the war) featuring traditional music and dance performances that reveal an underlying spiritual impoverishment, a longing to immerse in the reassuring familiarity of his native culture – a dichotomy that is reflected in Mekas’ deliberative speech and incorporation of melancholic interludes monaurally recorded from scratchy, phonograph records that subvert the quick cut, animated imagery with a somber infusion of a distant, idealized, and dislocated nostalgia. As in the prefiguring, double entendred image of children playing with fallen autumn leaves in the Catskills that is presented against Mekas’ account of his realization that he has supplanted his own memories of home with the new life he has established in America, the first chapter presents the idea of home as an elusive physical location – an evocative landscape of imperceptibly fading memories and transitory bliss.

Punctuated by a transition to color film, Part Two is composed of a “100 glimpses” of Lithuania, a series of short take, often destabilized and variably illuminated quotidian images (caused by his defective camera’s inability to record at constant speed) of his small statured, but vital and indomitable mother (who was in her 80s at the time of the brothers’ return), his visits with his multi-generational, extended family and childhood friends (including the well-intentioned uncle, a Reformed Protestant pastor, who had advised the young men to go west to Vienna in order to avoid capture), the family farm that has since been modernized and assimilated into a socialist farm collective that encompasses several villages. Kinetic, modulating, and irregular in form, the collage of unstable, fleeting images curiously impart, not only a sense of childlike exhilaration over recapturing the familiar sights of youth, but also an impressionistic fragility in their seeming volatility – the ephemerality of a mythical, “recovered” gaze that, in turn, reflects the intrinsic elusiveness of returning despite the act of homecoming, an impossibility that is reinforced by Mekas’ own commentary of the transformed landscape and mode of life in the village after a 25 year absence (as reflected in the growth of planted trees and the obsolescence of manual farm tools that the brothers temporarily reclaim for visual demonstration).

The tongue in cheek reference to Kubelka as “Saint Peter” in the intertitles juxtaposed against images of the vivacious filmmaker feeding assorted animals in a public park (an allusion to St. Francis of Assisi, the patron saint of animals and nature) provides the oddly fitting context for Mekas’ trip to Vienna in Part Three that ironically represents the culmination of his earlier truncated journey to the indefinable “west”, a destination that had eluded the brothers after their capture and relocation to work camps by the Germans during the war. Playing the role of resident host to a remarkable assembly of avant-garde personalities such as filmmaker Ken Jacobs, artist Hermann Nitsch, and writer and film theorist Annette Michelson (as well as Mekas himself), Kubelka also embodies an idealized representation – a concreteness of cultural and existential identity. In this respect, the gathering of avant-garde artists also becomes a manifestation of home – a sense of place borne, not of physical space (Brooklyn) or familial roots (Semeniskiai), but of the (geographically independent) communality of intellectual and ideological kinship. But in the end, even the surrogate idea of a spiritual home proves elusive for the pensive filmmaker. Concluding with the chaotic sight of Kubelka’s favorite, open air, farmer’s market burning in the distance, the turbulent image symbolizes the fleeting nature of their creative symbiosis that, in turn, serves as a broader reflection of the trajectory of all human relationships that define the ephemeral location of home as the metaphysical intersection of union, separation, longing, and transformation.

Acquarello 2004-2006 [reprinted]

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