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Diaries, Notes & Sketches
"Since 1950 I have been keeping a film diary. I have been walking around with my Bolex and reacting to the immediate reality: situations, friends, New York, seasons of the year. On some days I shoot ten frames, on others ten seconds, still on others ten minutes. Or I shoot nothing. . . 'Walden' contains material from the years 1964-1968 strung together in chronological order." --Jonas Mekas
"The amateur is--he will be perhaps--the counter-bourgeois artist." --Roland Barthes
"Let us set up our Camera also, and let the sun paint the people." --Ralph Waldo Emerson
Those three epigraphs culled from this mammoth new release of Jonas Mekas' Diaries, Notes and Sketches, Also Known as Walden may provide at least a starting point in evaluating one of the most unusual, yet epochal, film offerings of the 1960s. This most certainly isn't Hollywood, then just starting its rather precipitous decline as "youth fare" like Easy Rider started taking over at the box office. But similarly it isn't even the nascent Independent movement, at least as characterized by films like Easy Rider itself. This is personal cinema, a man with, as he states, his Bolex, walking around his environment and shooting what are, more or less, home movies. However, the fact that Mekas was part of the underground film movement, and, in a larger sense, the whole avant-garde intelligentsia of mid to late 60s New York means that his home movies are populated with the likes of Allen Ginsburg, Timothy Leary, Richard Alpert, Lou Reed, Andy Warhol, and countless others whose names might not be quite so instantly recognizable, if indeed they contributed no less to the cultural zeitgeist of that halcyon era.
Mekas' own name in fact may be not very recognizable even to those who pride themselves on their own counter-culture knowledge or, indeed, personal heritage. Born in Lithuania in 1922, Mekas sought to attend the University of Vienna, but had the misfortune to be sent to a labor camp toward the waning days of World War II. Along with his brother, he ultimately escaped, studied philosophy after the war, and then made his way to the United States. Within two weeks of his arrival in New York City, he had purchased his first Bolex, and had begun what he ultimately called his "film diary," a sporadically filmed "journal" of sorts of his comings and goings. Mekas was soon part of the New York avant-garde community and gained wider renown with his editorship of Film Culture, and, in the late 1950s, his film column for The Village Voice.
As early as 1962, Mekas realized that the only way anyone was going to get their "underground" films distributed was by doing it themselves, and he helped found the Film-Maker's Cooperative, a non profit dedicated to doing just that. He made headlines in 1964 when he, along with several others, was arrested on obscenity charges for showing two sexually charged "art films," including Jean Genet's only directorial effort, Un Chant d'Amour. (Aspects of this arrest are included tangentially in some of the film included in this set).
By the mid to late 60s, the time period the six reels of Diaries covers, Mekas was obviously taking his "journal" filming more seriously, and thinking more in terms of how to package the raw content for public consumption (the first public exposition of Diaries was in 1969). The subtitle Walden is no mere accident here. While one obviously thinks of Henry David Thoreau tucked away on a sylvan farm, something about as alien to the urban jungle of New York City as you can get, the fact is Mekas sensed an artistic comrade-in-arms not only in Thoreau's vision of an artist detailing his inner and outer life, but also, frankly, in environmental terms, which may seem stranger, at least on its surface. Mekas, rightly or wrongly, came to view New York City as his own personal kind of Walden, an artists' community obviously more citified, but no less redolent of the creative spirit. In fact, in just one of many allusions to the Transcendentalists, Mekas obviously believed that Spirit (with a capital S) was available to every man wherever he was, making anyone's personal journey (and its resulting "diary," filmed or otherwise) as meaningful as anyone else's.
On first (and even second or third) viewing, Diaries will probably seem like a haphazard collection of images and sounds (these were not filmed with synchronized sound, so the soundtrack often has nothing to do with the images). It's no accident that Mekas starts out with a winter scene of Central Park, at least giving us some filmic vestiges of the country ambience that Thoreau enjoyed when he wrote his own famous journal. But we're then inundated with a variety of frankly weird and often disjointed images, everything from Mekas playing accordion, to fleeting images of Ginsburg and Leary, to shots of a baby sleeping and the Velvet Underground performing. These disparate images are set to an at times pretty annoying soundtrack filled with sounds of subways (which get to be quite wearing after a while), to Mekas quoting from St. John of the Cross, to completely trivial discussions about eggs and the like.
What elevates this set above mere curiosity is the astounding compendium of annotated supplementary material. We're given Mekas' own initial "graph" detailing what is on each of the six reels, who we're seeing, and what exactly we're listening to. Even more comprehensive is the exhaustive paperback book included (containing text in both English and French--as is Mekas' guide), containing some really thought provoking essays by David E. James and Jean-Jacques Lebel, and then featuring a virtually minute-by-minute recounting of what exactly is in the six reels, augmented by personal reminiscences by Mekas and others included in the film. What slowly emerges in this supplemental material, if not (at least initially) the films themselves, is a Portrait of an Artist as Diarist who just happens to be walking through some of the most important history of the late 1960s, a history shaped by such "prophets" of a New Age like Timothy Leary and Richard Alpert (later Baba Ram Dass, but, under his original name, obviously the inspiration for the eponymous mysterious character on television's Lost. (For you silent film buffs, there's also a segment featuring Mekas with none other than an aged Carl Theodore Dreyer, and for you more recent film aficianados, Barbet Schroeder also pops up).
This is a boxed set that virtually screams "niche market," but for a discerning few, those who revel in Warhol's artistic antics or Lou Reed's pulsating music, these are home movies like you've never experienced. It's the avant-garde up close and personal, revealing the humanity behind the artifice, and, perhaps more importantly, a certain kind of intellectual rigor behind what many saw as mere pretentiousness.
The source elements for these "home movies" are obviously culled from either 8mm or 16mm masters, and frequently show the ravages of time. Grain and softness are the norm here, as is poor contrast due to natural lighting. Color is acceptable, nothing more, but the historical value of these full frame images far outweighs any technical limitations of their source material.
Similarly, the mono soundtrack, tacked on seemingly willy-nilly to the images, is boxy, overly compressed sounding and at times frankly annoying (especially in the repetitive use of subway noise). Subtitles are available in English, French, Spanish, German, Italian and Japanese.
As described above, an "outline" of sorts by Mekas himself is included in an insert (in French and English), as well as the exhaustively researched and reported bonus paperback book. The book is absolutely essential reading to fully appreciate what you're witnessing in these films.
Not instantly accessible, and often seeming too haphazard for their own good, these Diaries nonetheless are one of the most groundbreaking uses of "personal" cinema in the history of film. This elegant packaging filled with a bonus book that may outshine the films themselves, at least for some, will be a collector's title for anyone with an interest in the 1960's counter-culture movement, or avant-garde film in general. But for anyone seeking to broaden their own notions of what film can be, this set is Recommended.
"G-d made stars galore" & "Hey, what kind of a crappy fortune is this?" ZMK, modern prophet