Home movies become primal shimmers in Walden

Lost Lost Lost & Found: The Eye of Jonas Mekas

Jonas Mekas captures the musical and visual poetry of the city and mundane life.

“I live, therefore I make films. I make films, therefore I live.” So sings the ragged, unmusical, heavily Lithuanian accented Jonas Mekas — one of the prime movers of American avant-garde cinema in the second half of the 20th Century — as he accompanies himself with an accordion on the soundtrack of Walden (1969): his three-hour “diary film”. Later he says, “They tell me I should be searching, but I just celebrate what I see.” Still later: “The images go, no tragedy, no drama, no suspense, just images for myself and a few others”; and he adds that cinema is light, movement, the sun, the heart beating.

This monument to the world around him — mainly New York in the ’60s — is in one sense as accessible as any home movie: clips of weddings, the park, friends, children, street activities. True, his friends are luminaries of avant-garde film, such as Stan Brakhage and Shirley Clarke, and along the way we glimpse even more famous guests: Andy Warhol, Allen Ginsberg, John Lennon and Yoko Ono at their Bed-In.

What separates this film from most home movies shot with a handheld 16mm color Bolex is Mekas’ rhythmic style, which consists of eyeblink-flashes of quick images, rapid-motion, and in-camera superimpositions alternating with slower lyricism. Epileptics should avoid certain passages. Mekas believes the moving image is automatically beautiful and that we can process it faster than we think, or that our confusion is beautiful, too. He’s not wrong.

He also believes in juxtaposing the silently shot footage with a variety of musical cues, industrial city sound effects (sometimes very grinding), and rare narration. The optional subtitles are especially useful when Jean Cocteau recites a French passage. You may also listen to the nonagenarian Mekas’ engaging commentary, where he identifies every person, place and incident.

The overwhelming effects (besides being overwhelmed in itself) are of joie de vivre, the musical and visual poetry of the city and mundane life, and increasing nostalgia. If the length is daunting, it’s divided into six reels and can be further interrupted at your leisure, or perhaps it could be projected at a party as the cinematic equivalent of Erik Satie’s “furniture music”, to provide a background that can catch the eye as needed. Four bonus films contain footage shared with the longer work.

The second disc contains another three-hour diary epic: Lost Lost Lost (1976). Although finished later, it consists of even older footage, mostly black and white, dating from the arrival of Jonas and his brother Adolfus in the Lithuanian exile neighborhood of 1949 Brooklyn. It concludes in the ’60s when Jonas has evolved from straightforward home movies to his more mystical, jagged approach, which he says he owes partially to the free-wheeling Barbara Rubin, who introduced the Velvet Underground to Andy Warhol. Again, there’s also a commentary track.

An excellent bonus is his series of hallucinatory postcards known as Travel Songs, which is how the world might be glimpsed through the third (or “chakra”) eye, as well as a 1968 documentary about him that mostly consists of photographing Mekas photographing. Mesas declares that underground filmmakers are the only ones who don’t take themselves seriously and are just having fun; and he opines that wars would be faster and cheaper if soldiers were paid for how many enemy they killed.

These films have previously been available on French PAL DVDs. Now, Kino has it on Blu-ray for Region 1 viewers in Mekas’ adopted country and elsewhere. We can hope that his other works will follow, including his 1964 filming of a Living Theatre production called The Brig and his 285-minute As I Was Moving Ahead Occasionally I Saw Brief Glimpses of Beauty. It probably won’t happen if they don’t move enough units.

RATING 8 / 10