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Lost Lost Lost & Walden: Two Diary Films By Jonas Mekas
Jonas Mekas came to New York from Lithuania in 1949, eventually making a name for himself on the city's active post-War cultural scene as a poet, writer, bon vivant and co-founder of the Film-Makers' Cooperative, Film Maker magazine, and the Anthology Film Archives. Amid all that, he also found time to make his own films - impressionistic, observational works filled with equal levels of beauty and banality. The folks at Kino Lorber have collected a good chunk of Mekas' film work with the participation of the man himself. Lost Lost Lost & Walden: Two Diary Films from Jonas Mekas is an annotated, Criterion-style package that's sure to intrigue fans of '60s experimental film.
Two of Mekas' "diary films," made up of strung-together shorter pieces, comprise the main portion of this release. Shot with immediacy using a handheld 16mm film camera, Walden (1969) and Lost Lost Lost (1976) almost defy criticism, since they don't really fit the parameters of standard narrative film. Starting with the vintage '60s views of New York City on Walden, continuing with the patched-together ruminations on identity in Lost Lost Lost, they represent Mekas documenting his own surroundings while playing around with a medium he clearly adores. Mekas doesn't passively point the camera and shoot - he speeds up the shutter rate, lets too much light in, jiggles the camera around, then edits the resulting footage into fragmentary glimpses of the place and time he's shooting. In Mekas' eyes, street scenes, anti-war rallies, weddings, and dinner parties become kinetic visual collages. Mekas favors the mistakes that most filmmakers of the time avoided - overexposure flashes, unsteady camera movement, holes at the end of the film reel. He practiced a found-footage aesthetic long since co-opted by mainstream culture, yet in this context it looks startling and fresh.
With Walden (originally released as Diaries: Notes and Sketches), Mekas assembled prior shorts and footage into an elephantine chronicle of '60s New York. Glimpses of events and places are presented through Mekas' fragmentary, hyper-edited filter, arranged with brief descriptive title cards and presented with seemingly random bits of recorded music, found sounds and ambient noise. The barrage of imagery (more than three hours worth) can get fatiguing, although there is some interest in some of the famous events recorded and the notables Mekas hobnobbed with at the time. Among the things he filmed were the first public performance from The Velvet Underground, a small party with Andy Warhol, Edie Sedgwick and other Factory hangers-on, an anti-war rally with Allen Ginsberg and Norman Mailer, and the sit-in for peace staged by John Lennon and Yoko Ono in 1969. Some of the others glimpsed here and there include Mekas' avant-garde contemporary Stanley Brakhage and the great Danish director Carl Theodore Dreyer. Kino's packaging seems to emphasize Mekas' accomplishments in New York's cineaste crowd (he was the first film critic at the Village Voice, for example) over his own filmmaking. Going on the evidence of these films - basically glorified home movies - I'd concur that Mekas' greatest legacy was his work off the screen, championing other experimental filmmakers. Despite that, Walden is an interesting experiment.
Seen in small chunks (thank goodness for Blu-ray chapter stops!), Mekas' films throb with energy. The subjects he chooses to film might be mundane, but perhaps he's trying to tell us to cherish the mundane and the profound. The only part I strenuously objected to were his random choice of music. His editing is brilliant, yet the beautiful, kinetic imagery is often undone with Mekas' playing a random recording over the visuals, or reciting his own poetry with awful accordion accompaniment. Compared with the films of Brakhage or Warhol, Mekas' work seems sloppy in that respect.
Mekas set up a more cohesive statement with Lost Lost Lost. Done in a similar, impressionistic style (though not as tightly edited), this 1976 thought-piece deals with Mekas' memories of emigrating from Lithuania to the U.S. with his family in the '40s, and his subsequent try at assimilating while still honoring his European heritage. The film has a twinge of melancholy with Mekas relating his experience of being a displaced person in this strange, new land. There's a lot of joy as well, however, with Mekas finding redemption in poetry and, eventually, film. Like Walden, it's something of a sprawling, fatigue-inducing self-portrait of a complex person that one is ultimately glad to have met.
Both Walden and Lost Lost Lost were mastered off 16mm prints preserved by the Anthology Film Archives. Presented in 1:33:1 pillarboxed format, the films retain a nice texture and detail considering their age. The color footage in Walden is faded yet satisfactory. Since Lost Lost Lost is derived from earlier black and white footage, the quality isn't as sharp. It, too, sports a decent amount of detail and light/dark levels.
The audio on both films and the bonus shorts is mixed in standard 2.0 Mono. Distortion and age issues are a little more prevalent here than in mainstream films of the period, although the mixing is decently done. Optional subtitles are provided in English and French.
Both Walden and Lost Lost Lost have Audio Commentaries with Mekas, still lucid in his 90s, moderated by film scholar Pip Chodorov. Mekas remains pretty quiet throughout, however, only making offhand references to what's seen onscreen from time to time. More worthwhile are the bonus Short Films included on both discs. Walden includes Cassis (1966; 5:50), Notes on the Circus (1966; 12:46), and Hare Krishna (1966; 4:49) - three standalone shorts already included in the feature film. A fourth short, Report from Millbrook (1965-66; 12:00) consists of the audio from a Timothy Leary interview on the subject of LSD playing over bucolic imagery of children playing (some of the footage can be seen in a different context in Walden). The shorts included on the Lost Lost Lost disc are Travel Songs (1967-1981; 23:19), a standard European travelogue done in Mekas' fragmentary style, and Williamsburg (1949-2002; 12:00), which contrasts the city Mekas called his home from the early '50s through the '70s. The disc also includes Jonas (1967-1968), a documentary short from Gideon Bachmann showing the filmmaker at work, photographing children in a park, pontificating, and typing his Village Voice film column with one finger. A 16-page Booklet containing film stills and an incisive essay on Mekas' work by film critic Ed Halter rounds out the extras.
"Film is my language," Jonas Mekas matter-of-factly states on an extra short included in the avant-garde double feature Walden (1969) and Lost Lost Lost (1974). Taken together, these experimental film diaries make up six-plus hours of personal impressions, memories, poetry, repetition and banality captured on grainy 16mm. Not to everyone's tastes, but I admire Kino Lorber for putting together a comprehensive tribute to this one facet of a fascinating man's life. Recommended.
Matt Hinrichs is a designer, artist, film critic and jack-of-all-trades in Phoenix, Arizona. Since 2000, he has been blogging at Scrubbles.net. 4 Color Cowboy is his repository of Western-kitsch imagery, while other films he's experienced are logged at Letterboxd. He also welcomes friends on Twitter @4colorcowboy.