Trembling with Memory: The True Diaries of Jonas Mekas (Web Exclusive)
by Darragh O'Donoghue
The Adolfas Diaries. Book 1
by Adolfas Mekas. Annandale: Hallelujah Editions, 2015. 138pp., illus. Paperback: $22.00, available at Hallelujah Editions.
Lost Lost Lost & Walden
Directed by Jonas Mekas. Blu-ray, B&W and color, 173 & 176 min, 1976 and 1969. Released by Kino Lorber.
Movie Journal: The Rise of the New American Cinema, 1959–1971. 2nd edition
by Jonas Mekas. New York: Columbia University Press, 2016. 453pp., illus. Hardcover: $85.00, Paperback, $28.00, and E-book: $27.99.
I Had Nowhere to Go
Directed by Douglas Gordon; featuring Jonas Mekas. Color, 100 min., 2016.
In most books, the I, or first person, is omitted; in this it will be retained; that, in respect to egotism, is the main difference. We commonly do not remember that it is, after all, always the first person that is speaking. I should not talk so much about myself if there were any body else whom I knew as well. Unfortunately, I am confined to this theme by the narrowness of my experience. Moreover, I, on my side, require of every writer, first or last, a simple and sincere account of his own life, and not merely what he has heard of other men’s lives; some such account as he would send to his kindred from a distant land; for it he has lived sincerely, it must have been in a distant land to me.—Henry David Thoreau, Walden (1854)
I am trying to put down as much of myself as I can. This diary, I hope, will contain something of me, a small part of my joys, sorrows and tears. I imagine that many many years from now, when I’ll be old—I’ll sit by an open fire and read these pages. Will they evoke the past, will they enrich my memories? Why does one write a diary? Why? It’s an obsession, a sickness?—Adolfas Mekas, diary entry, October 1, 1944
Ah, how different is this landscape from the landscape of my childhood!—Jonas Mekas, diary entry, August 11, 1945
Returning from the days gone by.—Jonas Mekas, “Ninth Idyll: Past Villages Over the Plains Flow the Rivers,” Idylls of Semeniskiai (1948)
(wait until I publish my diaries…)—Jonas Mekas, Movie Journal, The Village Voice, January 2, 1969
Jonas Mekas. Jonas Mekas. Jonas Mekas.
The life. The life. The life.
The I. The eye. The aye.
In his Movie Journal column for The Village Voice, December 7, 1967, the maddening and contradictory Jonas Mekas admits—proclaims—“Here is a different Jonas speaking…(there are several of me).” Among these different Mekases are: son, brother, Lithuanian, pantheist, farmer, diarist, partisan, slave, illustrator, displaced person, friend, student, poet, factory worker, publisher, filmmaker, film viewer, journalist, “Godfather of American avant-garde cinema,” publicist, administrator, controversialist, jailbird, Fluxus provocateur, schmoozer with the rich, famous, and powerful, co-founder of the Film-Makers’ Cooperative and Anthology Film Archives, preservationist, curator, photographer, lecturer, installation artist, author of children’s books, subject of others’ films, dreamer, raconteur, recipient of official awards, Venerable Old Man.
Appropriate to such a variety of roles or identities is the variety of media which Mekas has expressed those roles or identities. He is usually called a diarist, but these diaries, memoirs, self-portraits, autobiographies, or testimonies exist in many forms. None is definitive, neither do the parts add up to a complete whole, a Rosebud. Rather, each, separately, together and in contradiction, affirm the provisional status of identity in the long twentieth century.
In the introduction to the first edition of Movie Journal: The Rise of the New American Cinema, 1959–1971 (1972), Mekas referred to his “True Diaries,” as if there were hierarchical distinctions between the discrete elements of his output, as if these presumably private “True Diaries’ would reveal more of the man than the public-facing film journalist or diary filmmaker. Such a statement is the good publicist’s promise that there is more to come—better! more salacious!—but that he will control their public dissemination as vigilantly as any government department their records. But it is also a warning, or a guide, that any one iteration of his autobiographical project is just that, an iteration, partial, fragmentary, provisional, subject to ongoing revision. Mekas’s subversion of the diary form’s promise to reveal all about an individual culminates in his late masterpiece, As I Moved Ahead Occasionally I Saw Brief Glimpses of Beauty, a nearly five-hour account of his life with Hollis Melton, a record of the deepest love and contentment that neglects to mention that the marriage had ended by the time the film was put together.
To give some idea of the scope of the problem, this article will look at some iterations of Mekas’s auto/biographical project. The urtext is the written diary. Although the entries cover the period July 1944 to 1955, they were published in 1991 as I Had Nowhere to Go. This is an English translation of the Lithuanian originals, further revised by Mekas’s introduction (written in 1985) and footnotes, and shaped—like Lost Lost Lost—to echo Homer’s Odyssey, the archetypal narrative of exile and pained nostalgia. Whether we are getting full, consecutive entries, or an edited, revised selection as with the Movie Journal compilation, is not stated. Neither do we know whether Mekas continued to keep these True Diaries after 1955, nor whether the newer entries will be ever published. What is certain is that the diary as published is only a fraction of Mekas’s original diary; his early writings, like those of his brother Adolfas, were destroyed during the Soviet and Nazi Occupations of Lithuania.
This published diary forms the basis of Douglas Gordon’s film of the same name. Works about Mekas by others form another complicating strand in the auto/biography project. My own favourite is contained in Takahiko Iimura’s affectionate but shrewd and satiric portraits of U.S. avant-garde Filmmakers (1969) as an alien and parochial species. He uses the recognizable mannerisms of Mekas’s cinema to portray him as a crazed, boyan-playing, talk-talk-talker. Three further examples in the works under review are a foreword by Peter Bogdanovich and an introduction by editor Gregory Smulewicz-Zucker to Movie Journal, and Ed Halter’s essay in the booklet for the Kino Lorber Blu-ray set. Gordon in his film adapts the manner of Derek Jarman’s equally and painfully autobiographical Blue (1993), and has Mekas read extracts from his diary over a largely empty screen, against a soundtrack comprising the noise of war, silence, and sounds more familiar from Mekas’s work, such as urban ambiance, a typewriter, or Mekas’s voice itself, sighing, pausing, a man in his mid-nineties revisiting the writings of his mid-twenties from an edition prepared in his sixties; his amused chuckles at the occasional bombast of his younger self adding yet another layer of self-revision. I say “self-revision” but Gordon subjects Mekas’s text and voice to his own series of mediations—re-ordering the entries out of chronological order, manipulating Mekas’s voice electronically, selecting from the diary so that the contradictory moods of the written entries are subjected in the film to a dominant (mono)tone. Taking as his starting point the fact that Mekas began his diary on his flight from Lithuania to Vienna, and so was born of his exile, Gordon uses Mekas as an exemplary figure of exile and displacement in the long twentieth century.
The early years of Jonas’s I Had Nowhere to Go is supplemented by The Adolfas Diaries, the first volume of which has been published by his family publishing house, Hallelujah Editions. The critical apparatus to this volume suggests that the problem of using the diary to fix a personal and historical record is a problem of the form itself, rather than particular to Jonas. Adolfas’s original text of September 1941 to December 1946 was translated by the author in early 1973, with the elder Adolfas making frequent editorial interjections mocking his younger self (“It is now”), struggling to remember the recorded experience, or baffled by what he was going on about at the time. Jonas, in his introduction to the volume—commissioned, no doubt, to attest to the veracity of the diary—complains of the inadequacy of the translation, while the editing by Adolfas’s widow Pola Chapelle, who adds her own memories of meeting and living with Adolfas years after the period recorded in his diary, and her often redundant annotation, all contribute to the mises-en-abymes proliferated by these diaries. Further, this is not a complete version of the originals: “Of course, I translate selectively, skipping as much as possible.”
Far from being dubious, these layers of intervention, elision and ambivalence, wherein the experience recorded slips further away from the form of its recording, is an exemplary analogue for the workings of memory itself. And Adolfas is such wonderful company. Jonas’s fun and playfulness, and his participation in the reality-subverting actions of the Neo-Dada Fluxus group are usually overlooked or denigrated in accounts of his work. But Adolfas was genuinely, deadpan funny (and rude) (P. Adams Sitney called him the funniest man he had ever met), as demonstrated by his own films, most notably the much-loved Hallelujah the Hills (1963), shot by Ed Emshwiller in the snows in Vermont; the recording of its production comprises Reel 5 of Lost Lost Lost. Adolfas's youthful (he was fifteen at the start of the diary), direct, no-bullshit style forms a welcome complement to the poetic solemnity that often characterises Jonas’s writing, a solemnity that Gordon overemphasizes in his film to the point of misrepresentation. And even more so than Jonas, Adolfas’s entries are vibrantly immediate, noting the exact circumstances of their composition, the reason for an ink smear on the page he is writing on, or the presence of others in the same room as he writes (“Hold it”).
The very makeshift nature of the diary form contrasts with the attempt by Jonas to create fixed aesthetic statements in his poetry. The most famous of his literary works is Idylls of Semeniskiai (1948), a poem-sequence translated into English by Adolfas, and reissued in 2007 by Hallelujah in another revised edition—minus the original illustrations by Leonas Letas (“Leo” is a key figure in Jonas’s written diary), but with the addition of three poems not in the original. Idylls is reportedly a classic of Lithuanian modernist literature, with Mekas breaking and expanding the boundaries of his language’s expressiveness, as Adolfas explains in his introduction, by combining standard Lithuanian with regional dialect, words peculiar to Mekas’s village, and words peculiar to the Mekas family alone. It is, as so often, precisely this idiosyncratic use of language that is lost in translation, and which could probably never be replicated, or at best approximated by a writer as inventive as Jonas himself. Adolfas, for all his virtues, is not that writer, so a first reading of Idylls reveals a monotonous, pantheistic litany of fields, flowers, forests, farms, rain, heat, snow, seasons, smells, colors, songs, and children, evoked with a deliberately restricted vocabulary and imagery in order to intensify feeling. What is important to remember is the context of its composition—Idylls was written in Displaced Persons (DP) camps in Germany, the country where Jonas and Mekas did over a year’s slave labor in a factory outside Hamburg after a failed attempt to escape the Nazis. They were written in the years immediately following the war, after the Soviet Union had invaded Lithuania, and it was impossible for anti-Stalinists to return home (the Cold War context of Mekas’s career, both the occupation of his homeland and the international fame he generated from the USA, is one that merits further study). Alienated from his country, his times, and his immediate surroundings, uncertain whether his family were even still alive (he had seen his father interrogated by the Nazis, while his elder brother was a prominent communist in prewar Lithuania), Idylls was an intense act of cultural nationalism or restitution, a summoning through sensual memory of an irretrievably lost past; an adult evocation of an observant childhood that ranks with The Prelude by Wordsworth, In Search of Lost Time by Proust, and Speak, Memory by Vladimir Nabokov, an earlier exile from the Soviet Union in America.
Employing a jingoistic approach that mars the otherwise essential Eyes Upside Down (2008), Sitney, Mekas’s friend, collaborator and greatest exegete, subscribes to a teleological narrative whereby everything Mekas did in his life was working up to his American films. As Smulewicz-Zucker notes in his introduction to Movie Journal, the store of motifs, the stylistic approaches, the interaction of sight and sound, the playful elision of grammatical tenses, and the privileging of the spoken voice that characterize the American films are all to be found in Mekas’s earliest writings, while cooperative cultural activities and cottage publishing all began in Lithuania and Germany, long before Film Culture and the Filmmakers’ Cooperative.
It is interesting to compare the achieved serenity of this poetry with the diary entries written during their composition. During the war, Jonas evinced comparatively little nostalgia for his homeland; Adolfas was blunter, constantly seeking an escape route from his parochial farm life. But soon after the war, as he is thinking of his poem-sequence, as he is officially “displaced” with no hope of returning home, Jonas engages in extraordinary, intense, furious remembering, the deprivation in his current circumstances serving as a pretext for the plenitude of his remembered past. If the diary entries share the concerns of the poetry, they do not share its composure. These are jagged texts, hacked from anger, anxiety, alienation, and depression. Occasionally the writing gets ugly, and cultural nationalism shades into nationalism pure and simple, with one vicious entry separating “true” Lithuanians from the “false” who abandon the land to emigrate to cities in foreign countries. Of course, as so often in his life and career, Mekas would reject such categorical statements, and later embraced urban life in New York, just as he would devote his energies to the avant-garde filmmaking he at first deplored, and befriend many of the artists he notoriously accused in Film Culture of “a conspiracy of homosexuality.” It is worth remembering this occasional ugliness when faced with the mounting veneration of Jonas Mekas.
Gordon’s film begins with Mekas’s recounting his first experience of image making. As a seventeen-year-old, he photographed the first Soviet invasion of Lithuania in 1940, only to be accosted by a soldier who confiscated and destroyed his film and forced him to run for his life. The implication is clear—image making is as much an act of political as personal freedom. The fact that Jonas and Adolfas acquired their first film camera (a Bolex) soon after arriving in McCarthyite America in 1949, adds to a possible Cold War allegory, although he would later write a Movie Journal column on the New York police seizing his diary films on the trumped-up grounds of obscenity, and frequently challenge the authorities. Much of the early footage shot by Jonas—the brothers’ early tests to see what the camera could do; long sequences at Lithuanian-American gatherings—comprise the opening reels of Lost Lost Lost. They overlap with, confirm and provide a continuity with the later sections of the published diary.
But it is a misleading continuity. Lost Lost Lost was released in 1976, and is the third of the Diaries, Notes and Sketches series that is Mekas’s most important contribution to filmmaking (as opposed to film activism or administration). His first major diary work was Walden (1969), an account of the New York avant-garde of the 1960s, a time, place, and subject also covered by Movie Journal, a selection of related columns that were given a retrospective, developmental coherence by the subtitle. In both we encounter Stan Brakhage, Shirley Clarke, Tony Conrad, Storm de Hirsch, Carl Theodor Dreyer, Ed Emshwiller, Jerome Hill, Ken Jacobs, Peter Kubelka, Timothy Leary, John Lennon and Yoko Ono, Naomi Levine, Gerard Malanga, Gregory Markopoulos, fellow Lithuanian Marie Menken, Barbara Rubin, Sitney, Barbara and David Stone, Andy Warhol, the Velvet Underground and the Plastic Inevitables, and Herman G. Weinberg. In other words, a Who’s Who of the post-war American avant-garde, flanked by spiritual father figures and fellow travelers, though it is assumed that the viewer knows who these people are, which, far from alienating the “ignorant” viewer, increases the sense of intimacy—we are treated and addressed as familiar friends.
The volume follows with equal enthusiasm the many forms of that avant-garde from poetic realism and personal poetry, pop and camp, happenings and expanded cinema, agitprop and Structuralist film. Mekas was particularly fervent in his criticism about the breakdown of disciplinary boundaries, reporting on mash-ups of cinema, dance, theater, music, and/or the light show; Mekas, in his writing and film, was constantly straining at the limit of what was considered “cinema.” Is it overstating the case to claim that Movie Journal traces a paradigm shift, a fundamental change in American values—the somewhat weary, sated America we meet at the end of the volume is a very different place from the repressive conformism of the late 1950s? And is it overstating the case to claim that Mekas played no small part in this change?
Walden betrays the limits of a diary form that, by its very nature, can show only the surface of things. We can see the offices of The Village Voice, where Mekas’s column brought the avant-garde to the attention of the cultural mainstream; we can see the offices of the Film-Makers’ Cooperative, the revolutionary organization that bypassed restrictive Hollywood systems to put distribution, exhibition, and ownership of films back into the hands of the filmmakers, a nonhierarchical organization that inspired similar ventures all over the world; and we can see members of the more controversial Anthology Film Archives, a theater that in many ways contradicted the ethos of the Cooperative by establishing a canon of “essential cinema” that became established through distribution and exhibition as the representative achievement of the American avant-garde, a canon chosen by white middle-aged American men (with one honorary American, the Austrian Kubelka) and so prone to blind spots and exclusions. In other words, we see much of this activity, but we don’t understand the processes and polemics behind them.
This evasion may explain the resentment against Mekas often expressed in Europe, where national cooperatives had to resist being coopted as subsidiaries of the American avant-garde (there’s that Cold War again). A standout set piece in Movie Journal is Mekas’s account of his misadventures at the 1963 experimental film festival in Knokke, Belgium. A scheduled screening of Flaming Creatures was banned, leading Mekas to resign from the jury and the withdrawal by American filmmakers of their work in support of Smith. Mekas organized an illegal screening in his hotel room, attended by Agnès Varda and Jean-Luc Godard (disgusted and fascinated, respectively) among others. The following day, Mekas interrupted the noisy self-justifications of the Minister of Justice by projecting Flaming Creatures on his pompous person.
This is very funny material—and Mekas is a very funny writer—and an indication of the libertarian ideals that the U.S. underground represented for so many in Europe. But the anecdote is unfortunately emblematic of that underground forcing, like so many of their compatriots, their ideals and product onto Europeans and elsewhere. Mekas’s ignorance of European and other work throughout his columns played its part in this cultural colonialism. It is one reason the student protests at the next Knokke festival in Christmas 1967–1968 aligned the U.S. underground with the imperialism of American military activity in Vietnam. Mekas rehearses his anecdotes in Brecht Debackere’s new film about Knokke, EXPRMNTL, which like Gordon’s film recently screened at the London Film Festival.
If written texts make definitive diary records difficult, film—its nature and the uses to which it can be put—only exacerbate the problems. Both Walden and Lost Lost Lost are compiled from footage shot many years previously (in the case of Lost Lost Lost, over a quarter of a century previously). They are shot using a variety of black-and- white and color film stocks, using a variety of techniques (the most prominent of which is Mekas’s characteristic single-frame style, in which the flow of images stutters like the strobes that light a long wedding sequence in Walden). They are edited together, often out of chronological sequence (dates are rarely mentioned), interspersed with titles that can be explanatory, interpretative, suggestive, disingenuous, or simply perplexing. The same footage can appear in radically different contexts. Both films comprise six reels of about half an hour’s length that were initially screened separately as the works progressed. Long sequences were often exhibited as short films, sometimes with different soundtracks, several of these being included as valuable extras in the Kino Lorber set.
The most radical of these is Report from Millbrook, a visit to the estate of LSD guru Timothy Leary. In Walden, pastoral home-movie footage of animals, children, and games in the wintry, sunlit grounds is accompanied by a complex soundtrack. It begins with Mekas singing a Lithuanian song with his boyan (a kind of accordion). He then narrates from a text by the sixteenth-century Spanish mystic St. John of the Cross. Silence is followed by Bach organ music. In other words, American subject matter is filtered through centuries of popular and high European culture, Mekas’s New York seen through Mekas’s unavoidable European heritage. In the short film, the images are supplemented by a recorded interview with a local police chief who raided the estate for drugs. Using the same footage, Mekas contrives to create two very different effects: one contemplative, spiritual and eternal, the other sinister, political and immediate.
All of Mekas’s soundtracks add further layers to the already complex imagery. Mekas comments on the images years after their filming, frequently accompanying them with his boyan. Sheets of atonal noise can rattle through long passages of film—my wife recently staggered out of a 16mm screening of Walden with a migraine caused by the flickering images and aggressive sounds. Tinnily recorded ambient sound from the city alternate with abruptly curtailed passages of classical music. Snatches of barely audible conversation are followed by stretches of unnerving silence. Such is the late consensus around Mekas’s poetic persona and so affecting are the lyrical images of parks and beaches, sunlight streaming through dirty New York windows, and the simple pleasures of food, drink, and talk, that it is salutary to go back to the films and remember just how much of an assault on the viewer they can be. These manipulations of image and sound are attempts to counter the inherent superficiality of the image discussed above, and to create a fuller mode of expression, a mode that is closer to the bodily experience of the person filming and the person watching. For Mekas, the act of memory is not some detached mental exercise, a recollection in tranquillity; it is a physical act that affects the body as much as the mind.
Walden is named for Henry David Thoreau’s famous “back to nature” classic, pages from which punctuate Mekas’s film. In 1845, Thoreau rejected capitalist society to live a self-sufficient lifestyle by Walden Pond outside Concord, Massachusetts. Mekas first read the book in German translation in 1947 when he was at the DP camp in Wiesbaden, at a time when he was composing his Idylls. Although Thoreau’s Walden and the Idylls are intense engagements with the natural world, and define themselves against the urban either by opposition or omission, the spirit of both is fundamentally antithetical. Thoreau’s Walden is a classic work of individualism—his experiment was designed (and ultimately failed) to prove his immunity from outside help. Ironically, his self-sufficiency seemed to alienate him from the very land he had abandoned himself to, and forced him back into society.
Mekas in Idylls, by contrast, and throughout his work from the written diaries to Gordon’s film, subsumes his egocentric “I” into a communal “we,” imagines his self as inseparable from his family, his fellow villagers in Semeniskiai, his fellow Lithuanians in the DP camps, or his fellow artists in New York. The most heartbreaking moment in all of Mekas’s work, and one expressed with a grace, simplicity, modesty, and artistry beyond the heavyhanded “Mekas-as-twentieth-century-survivor” Gordon postulates in his film, is in the first reel of Walden. After what is simply announced as a wedding—which turns out to be that of Adolfas and Pola—filmed in all its happy conviviality, Mekas quickly inserts photographs of his aging parents before lingering on Adolfas’s now empty room, the remains of an intense, symbiotic relationship with his brother since the latter’s birth in 1925, but especially since their flight from Lithuania for “anti-Nazi, anti-Soviet underground activities,” their internment by the Nazis, their displaced encampment in postwar Germany, and their early years in the United States.
If there is a leitmotif that runs throughout Mekas’s work, it is not the land and nature he sings in Idylls, the nature he describes with comparable intensity in his diary, the nature which offers a spiritual contrast to the crowded bricks and mortar of New York, the nature he reveres with pantheistic vigour but from which he frequently finds himself alienated or incomplete without human companionship. No, the dominant leitmotif is the room. The rooms he shares with others, the rooms in which he regroups after battling the day and the outside world, the rooms in which he types his poems and edits his films, the rooms in which he sups and plays with family and friends, the rooms in which he stores his books. The one chapter of Thoreau’s Walden that truly chimes with Mekas is the chapter on “Reading,” on the companionship of classic authors.
Mekas returned to Thoreau during the filming of Hallelujah the Hills, when handed a copy by that film’s star, Peter Beard, a photographer of African wildlife, whose preposterous high-society wedding, complete with helicopter and muzak blasts of Strauss waltzes, forms the kitschy climax of Walden’s Reel 5. Sitney has tried to situate his canon of the U.S. avant-garde (Robert Beavers, Brakhage, Abigail Child, Hollis Frampton, Su Friedrich, Ernie Gehr, Ian Hugo, Andrew Noren, Warren Sonbert, and above all Mekas) in the visionary, Transcendent tradition of U.S. culture. This is despite JM insisting, when he submitted Walden to the 1970 International Underground Film Festival in London, that it be categorized as belonging to the Lithuanian underground, not the American.
The first section of Walden actually called “Walden” is in the first reel, and begins and ends with images of Mekas, first in close-up and closing with his reflection in the act of filming, from a direct self-portrait to a shadow. In between are shots of boaters on the lake in sunny Central Park, superimposed footage of future Village Voice critic Amy Taubin, a close-up of Thoreau’s text that makes it impossible to read as continuous text. The music changes abruptly from lyrical piano music to ambient urban noise and the clatter of footsteps. This “Walden” is set firmly and unavoidably in a technologically mediated urban space, one that does not preclude an appreciation of fleeting beauty.
Mekas was not always a diary filmmaker. Both Walden and Lost Lost Lost carry traces of earlier, more conventional projects. Walden began as a study of teenage girls’ diaries, hence the strange, unexplained scenes of moony young women in Central Park. Similarly, the earlier footage of Lithuanian gatherings in Lost Lost Lost was intended to be part of a documentary about this community in the U.S. Lost Lost Lost also contains outtakes from Mekas’s first film, Guns in the Trees (1962). Just as Mekas’s diary aesthetic did not arrive fully formed, so Mekas’s early articles in Movie Journal calling for a new American cinema, before it became circumscribed as the New American Cinema, sought aesthetic renewal in poetic realism rather than the avant-garde. Early articles celebrate dramas and documentaries by the likes of Edward Bland, John Cassavetes, Morris Engel, Robert Frank, and Lionel Rogosin, films that retained recognizable elements of narrative and characterization. In straining for this vein, and compared to the fleet mastery of the diary films, Guns now seems oppressively turgid, a wordy, humorless, existential, state-of-the-nation address about modern alienation fuelled by squalling jazz, Allen Ginsberg’s readings of his own poems, and portentous wide-angle setups.
The anguished mood echoes those diary entries in I Had Nowhere to Go that whine an almost adolescent angst, while the arty style strains for the kind of unearned “significance’ Mekas mocks in others in Movie Journal. The inclusion of outtakes from Guns in Lost Lost Lost results in a jarring but interesting stylistic collision. The key scene in Guns in terms of his subsequent aesthetic is the prologue where a spiritually harassed Mekas sits in his study surrounded by books. Though this scene is a signal of authorial control, even when he protests having no control, this film’s use of content to express subjective feeling will be replaced in the diary films by a seemingly objective, outward-looking, “impressionistic’ content shaped by idiosyncratic, “subjective” editing and postproduction.
Though identified with the form, Mekas was by no means the only avant-garde director engaged with diaries and home movies. His great friend Brakhage—a visit to whose family in Boulder is central to Walden—incorporated these forms into his own work, such as Songs (advertised as “home movies” in a Film-Makers’ Cinematheque flyer reproduced in Movie Journal; or Scenes from Under Childhood, also written about in Mekas’s column), which were often first screened in his home in the manner of home movies; the Coop screenings were an extension of this domestic context, with films shown primarily to friends and colleagues. In fact, the prominence of diaries, home movies, film portraiture, and related forms in international avant-garde filmmaking by 1975, the year before Lost Lost Lost, led Stephen Dwoskin in Film is…, his survey of the “international free cinema,” to coin the term “soft filmmaking” to describe a genre whose two main strands are Mekas (roughly, impressionist) and Brakhage (expressionist), and whose main practitioners included Massimo Bacigalupo, Pierfrancesco Bargellini, Antonio de Bernardi, Pia Epremian, Alfredo Leonardi, Barbara Meter, Dore O, Etienne O’Leary, and Harry Smith. Before that, and two years before Mekas completed Walden, Jim McBride (himself a “straight” film diarist) spoofed the form in David Holzman’s Diary (1967).
The diary and home-movie forms were privileged by the avant-garde as the ultimate in individually scaled, artisanal, personal cinema: as Mekas famously declares in Walden: “I make home movies therefore I live; I live therefore I make home movies” (this echoes a 1947 diary entry: “My only life connection is in these scribbles”). Family and friends, of course, were also inexpensive subjects. Such personal films became synonymous with the underground cinema until the late 1960s when Walden was released in a period of severe Structuralism, a movement that suppressed the Romantic and personal in favour of an intellectual engagement with the processes and materials of film. The diary form would revive from the late 1970s with the emergence of feminist and queer filmmaking, where the documenting and projecting of the self became key strategies of identity politics.
This mode of personal and local expression was often tiresomely defined by practitioners and critics against the industrial and stereotyped impersonality of Hollywood production and forms. Mekas was one of the few to see the value of Hollywood alongside the avant-garde: Movie Journal contains impassioned appreciations of Marlon Brando, Howard Hawks, John Ford, Marilyn Monroe, Max Ophüls, and Orson Welles, conceiving of the possibility of personal expression within the system in a complementary way to the contemporary auteur critic–filmmakers of the French New Wave. A worry that his growing enthusiasm for the avant-garde was resulting in a neglect of narrative cinema in his Movie Journal column led him to bring his colleague on Film Culture, Andrew Sarris, into The Village Voice to supplement his own column.
As he was making Guns and The Brig, Mekas continued to shoot his diary footage with great stylistic freedom. The typical diary contains two types of entry—the recording of the everyday (the word “diary” ultimately derives from the Latin for “day”) and the description of ritual events, such as births, deaths, weddings, and funerals. Walden and Lost Lost Lost are rich in both. There is an intense focus on the transient—fruit, weather, people’s faces—which, taken out of chronological or other contexts take on the luminous quality of a still life, a landscape or a portrait. Communal, ritual events go by in an excitable blur.
Dedicated diarists, however, have always used their diaries as more than records of a lived life—they can be a vade mecum, a compendium of assorted items of personal significance. The two published diaries of Jonas and Adolfas include maps, photographs, film stills, both brothers’ drawings, ephemera, quotations in different languages, copies of letters, official documents, transcriptions of dreams, an anachronistic 1958 Adolfas short story, as well as images from the original diary manuscript; Jonas intersperses his entries with poems, “Memories,” “Short stories,” and “Tales.” These memories become particularly powerful during the writing of Idylls, the stories and tales are parable-like texts (including the “Rabbit shit” fable that will recur in Walden and Lost Lost Lost) that will contribute to the particular flavor of the Movie Journal column, a mixture of wise sermonizing and exuberant fanboy hectoring. Both of Jonas’s films contain footage shot by others, such as Adolfas, Charles Levine and, most spectacularly, Ken Jacobs, whose footage of two trips at the end of Lost Lost Lost are fruitfully alternated with Mekas’s in the editing.
It is this aggressiveness that characterizes many of Mekas’s Movie Journal columns. Besides the dogmatic assertion of aesthetic and moral beliefs, there are several calls to or threats of actual violence in Movie Journal, usually on corrupt and repressive public officials or mediocre but powerful film critics, but occasionally on the hapless likes of the MoMA projectionist who talked loudly through a silent film, and is issued with a Mafia-style “Warning note.”
Movie Journal is as problematic as any other component of the Mekas auto/biographical project. It is a selection that begins three months after Mekas published his first column, and comprises a third of the columns published between 1959 and 1971; in the first edition they were revised in order to “polish [Mekas’s] English” and edited in content—the second edition under review claims to restore the columns in full, but does not mention whether the original language and syntax has also been restored. Intriguingly, reference is made to Mekas’s “tape recorded diaries”; the columns also extract from other archival sources, letters, notes, and excerpts from Mekas’s written diaries.
Mekas has frequently been criticized for evading the tough but unglamorous work of film criticism in favour of attention-grabbing polemics. But it is misconceived to judge Mekas against the likes of Sarris or Pauline Kael (Smulewicz-Zucker brilliantly skewers the reputation of the latter, and identifies her pernicious and continuing influence on American film culture).
There are two frameworks in which it is more fruitful to place these writings. The first is in art-historical terms. As mentioned above, Mekas was a member of Fluxus; many of the filmmakers he wrote about were fine artists for whom cinema was just one part of their practice. Many of the events he describes were part of happenings generated by artists (and which today survive in the art-historical memory because Mekas wrote about them). In one column Mekas even calls himself an art critic. These writings should be seen as manifestos in the same manner as manifestos by the first avant-garde, the Dadaists, Futurists, Vorticists, or Constructivists, manifestos “heralding the new.” And like these troublemaking predecessors—and Thoreau, for that matter—Mekas had one simple, overriding aim—to make people see, to invite them to experience the avant-garde cinema as a means of scrubbing personal vision from the encrustations of externally derived prejudices. Mekas saw the avant-garde as purveyors of spiritual defibrillation in an age of mechanical and increasingly virtual daily experience. For detractors like Kael, this affiliation with the art world was a proof of elitism, an abandonment of cinema’s populist origins, and it is true that the subsequent hijacking of avant-garde image making by the art world, art schools, and the academy has been baleful. But Mekas was vehemently democratic—his activism and his work were an exhortation to others to pick up cameras to record their own lives; he praised “8 mm. cinema as folk art.” Mekas was constantly seeking new participants, new media, new forums, new venues, new occasions for the personal cinema, a cinema that would more readily represent the varieties of life experience than those shoehorned into restrictive Hollywood templates.
Just as importantly, the Movie Journal is just that, a journal. When you read Mekas on a film or event, you live that experience as he did, just as you share the fear, the desperation, the anger or the exuberance of the written diary. But Movie Journal is more than a record of one man’s sensibility. Many of the column entries are unadorned diary entries. The experiences described can be spectacular—being accosted by the FBI for his apparent leftist affiliations; visiting Ron Rice in a psychiatric institution; or being arrested, jailed, and tried for exhibiting the “obscene” Flaming Creatures, Jean Genet’s Un Chant d’Amour, and Dwoskin’s A Newsreel of Two Underground Film Stars Having Breakfast in Bed. But there are more modest notes on “Searching for movies in Vermont,” or simply walking to the post office. In Movie Journal, Mekas frequently harangues the “pretentious” and “socially engaged” in favor of that art that concentrates on the insignificant, the fleeting, “the spontaneous, the passing that reveals life and has all the excitement and beauty.” Nevertheless, as the columns continue, the writing takes on an expansive, dreamlike, visionary quality to match the times, such as the description of a visit to a church, where he finds the spiritual passion he no longer finds in the cinema, or the account of a hypnotic theatre piece/installation/ceremony enacted in Jack Smith’s flat one late night in July.
There is one other reason for reading Movie Journal. These columns were written by a poet, and have an articulate intensity and, quite simply, the kind of good, clear writing you rarely get in film criticism. His syntax unfolds with the rhythms of his spoken voice, now leisurely and amused, now heated and hectoring. It is quite easy to write negative reviews, and Mekas’s are as funny and vicious as anyone’s, but rare to praise with such ardor that it invigorates the reader and arouses her fevered curiosity. With undue, un-Mekasian caution, Sitney called the Diaries, Notes and Sketches “one of the greatest achievements of the American avant-garde cinema.” Taking the various iterations together—the diaries, the poems, the films, the columns, the life—it is more accurate to make the huge, preposterous, sincere, Mekasian claim that this autobiographical project is one of the central cultural achievements of the long twentieth century tout court.
Darragh O’Donoghue works as an archivist at Tate Britain in London.
Copyright © 2016 by Cineaste Magazine
Cineaste, Vol. XLII, No. 1