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Homeward Bound: Notes and Musings on Jonas Mekas’s

 As I Was Moving Ahead Occasionally I Saw Brief Glimpses of Beauty

Paul Arthur

Printed in Millennium Film Journal No. 38 (Spring 2002): Winds From the East

I was away visiting my mother when Jonas showed his new film in New York. When I got back I had a long talk with a friend who gave me a general description of its content, tone, and how she thought it related to his other diary films. I found myself thinking about this film I had yet to see, and perhaps because I was preoccupied at the time by my own domestic situation, its difficulties more than its pleasures, and because we had talked about Jonas’s work on many occasions, I recklessly–indeed foolishly, arrogantly–wrote her a letter on the unseen film’s significance. Of course I was writing out of my own urgent state, projecting my own anxieties, while conjuring the new film from memories of all the previous films seen in many different settings at different junctures of my life. I remembered, in fact, that in the first avant-garde screening I ever attended–a high school student infatuated with the Beats who in 1965 wandered almost by accident into the Cinematheque on 41st St.–Jonas’s Award Presentation to Andy Warhol struck me as the “straightest” film on the program, hence also the least exciting. Sometime after I saw the new film for the first time in July of last year I reread my letter and was surprised at how the shape of my anticipation echoed through my later reactions. In the spirit of creative misinterpretation, I offer the following edited excerpts as prelude to some formal, if still very provisional, observations.

“Dear...Since I was going to riff on this in my journal anyway it seems somehow useful to address it to you, both because you told me about the film and because of our rather disparate orientations to ideas, if not perhaps the ideologies, of home and domesticity. I hardly need remind you that home, or rather its absence as inscribed in the master trope of “displaced person,” is the motive force in Jonas’s film career, in every aspect, exerting a global tug of instability that extends from the morphology and syntax and chronology of/in the work to J’s characteristic metaphor on vision, the “glimpse” or instantaneous seizing and letting go of objects of desire, an ambivalence around holding, keeping, ordering, maintaining, settling into; film as house of cards at the threshold of habitation by the eye and the body it inhabits (sensation/kinesthesia). A meta-physic that frames the world, every experience in it, as constantly on the verge of slippage, into new frame or focus or exposure then into cascades memory...held as very sign of, and magical talisman against, comforting acts of (psychic/aesthetic/biological) closure, the sense of an ending, as in the parable of the moving target trying to trick the arrival of Death–all movies in some sense originating from, as folks like Jacobs, Brakhage, Godard have labored to demonstrate–at once assertion and denial of the possibility of a stable self, at every moment prone to and immunizing against depredations of time, against time as linear progression and measure, the house with a roof and floorplan (as in say Ophuls or Mizoguchi, Warhol or Snow). Hence He Stands in the Desert (“fame is fleeting”), Oona (“childhood is fleeting”), Zefiro Torn (“friendship is fleeting”). Oversimplifying like hell, but more than everything “art is fleeting.” Rather the experience of it, not its place, its habitation in history, culture, what have you. Although on second thought, maybe that too. Home, place-meant then, in the context of his work, the flipside of an on-screen myth of self as transient: site of permanence, return (the place where they have to take you in), continuity–super-dangerous, unheimlich, fraught with the coils of desistence. To be sure, in the films (and elsewhere) J’s transient condition always and vociferously and beautifully explained as the product of dire circumstance rather than choice (the Nazis arrived, the Commies arrived, the cops arrived, the rent-collector arrived, the footage was fading) and who could possibly argue with, to say nothing of dismiss, the succession of biographical traumas but over the course of more than a half-century of filming, traveling, hustling, organizing, isn’t it also a means of making sense of, a “device?”...I was thinking then of the Lithuania film and how joyously he celebrates the image trappings of former childhood, family meals and hearth and landscape, warm interiors and Mother; but still a vacation, sentimental journey done in a hundred glimpses, or just in time. I am not the first to suggest [David James does it with characteristic elegance in Allegories of Cinema] that in the greatest film, Lost Lost Lost , the cathartic passage occurs as J abandons the “dead end” displaced community of refugees to hammer out for himself (and friends), declare at long last a home in cutting-edge, frontier-busting, change-for-change-sake art...The only resistant edifice being Anthology, the legacy as mausoleum built to mark the spot but fortunately, over the years, thrown back into typical flux. So we come to the unseen film, made from fragments of what was left over for twenty-five years, secreted, maybe what was always there thus couldn’t be touched (spliced) until it too had ceased its unstated stabilizing function (the couple sundered, kids off into adulthood). That old business about defining yourself against the Other, the films since the mid-seventies in some sense enabled, made possible by the withholding (is “repression” too loaded and ungenerous a term?) of the domestic scene, even the Oona film but especially Birth of a Nation (speaking of loaded terms). Clearly, for (hetero?) males, myself included, the secondary gain of displaced personhood allowing the mantle of adventurer, J’s heroic anti-heroic glaze of solitude amid the floating (i.e., public) community of artists, thinkers, cultural “angels” (e.g., all those meals consumed in “other-directed” elsewheres of home). Primary allegiance against which physical and human properties of actual home serve as shadow. Don’t fence me in (and don’t mix metaphors). To film, or rather make the film of, the enclosure, to fully acknowledge its place in the only arena that for J is truly and paradoxically out of time’s flow, cinema, must have been overdetermined at every possible level, including its incursion into the Brakhage territory (Stan-land) so exhaustively mined and reified it would be hard to imagine other statements able to elude his signature tropes and visual idioms. But for starters the repetition of the claim that home is a bit of paradise perhaps already open to its contrary signification, at least as comports with the function of repetition in the unconscious, as you are well aware. Not home as trap maybe but as still point, as nexus of (sustaining) certainty and therefore disavowal. But this is waxing strangely psychoanalytic, a dream of a dream (not really my thing), and I should wait for more until I awake into the film itself.”

An initial account of As I Was Moving Ahead Occasionally I Saw Brief Glimpses of Beauty must begin by acknowledging how distinct it is, in several crucial but also less telling ways, from previous segments of Mekas’s remarkable diary project. This is so despite the fact that the earlier films already display a greater diversity in tone, shape, and temporal scale than is evident in the work of other prominent diary filmmakers. At 288 minutes, it is the longest installment–nearly an hour longer than Walden (1968-69) or Lost Lost Lost (1976)–and its duration suggests a grandeur of theme and design, an ostensible monumentality somewhat at odds with its prosaic, homespun subject. Neither a “portrait” diary, like Notes for Jerome (1978), nor a social panorama like In Between: 1964-8 (1978), I Was Moving covers twenty-five years of the “private” side of Mekas’s dauntingly peripatetic life: predominantly, the simple daily regime of family interaction that exfoliates from an urban loft into natural settings, foreign travel, and local visits to the abodes of friends (other image categories filter in but remain peripheral to the central core). To an even greater extent than in previous chapters, fixation on quotidian detail, the grain of the particular, is ballasted by, or addressed as an aperture to, clusters of universally-shared, often metaphysical, concerns.

Formally, the work contains several elements which are either unprecedented or achieve a kind of summary development. For example, an improvised piano score by Auguste Varkalis, prepared specifically for the film, is heard at intervals throughout. Subdued or totally absent in diaries of the past several decades, Mekas’s sumptuously poetic voice-over commentaries (“It’s not narration; it’s just talking”) return here with a vengeance; they are at once singularly prominent, diverse, and integral to the overall structure. In a similar vein, there is a surfeit of annotative title cards which play a stronger role in the rhythmic, as well as narrative, design. To put it bluntly, not only does language have a more intensive and layered structural standing, the rich weave of different modes of speech, or broadly “voice,” inscribes a version of the “Jonas” persona that is as multifaceted and paradoxical as it is spontaneous and self-abasing. Finally, the editing scheme of I Was Moving is suprisingly synthetic, a-chronological and temporally disjunct; footage from given scene may appear in different reels and the film’s trajectory constantly shuttles between earlier and later events (Mekas contends that the assemblage of rolls was largely random, reworked as they “came off the shelf”).

To be sure, if certain strategies in the new film mark a divergence from, or significant extension of, Mekas’s longstanding approach, they are clearly placed at the service of a recognizable sensibility and they imbue many of the same themes, settings, people, and ethico-aesthetic relationships found in other films: Central Park, seasonal fluctuations, animals, celebratory occasions, breaking bread with friends, and so on. Like Walden and Lost Lost Lost, I Was Moving is divided into discrete sections, in this case twelve “chapters,” the majority of which run about a half-hour (the shortest is fouteen minutes). Ambient sounds of rain, wind, ocean, Bolex camera whir, subway noise–recorded during the same approximate period as the images–are sifted into a larger fabric of voice-overs, jazz and classical music fragments (Wagner, Tchaikovsky), folk melodies, Jonas playing the boyan and, in one instance, whistling. Friends’ voices drift through several sequences; noteworthy is a philosophical argument over Nietzsche between Mekas and architect Raimund Abraham. One interlude has poet Angus McLise reading a meditative 1966 text written by Mekas. At another point there is an odd bit of virtual sync sound as a merry-go-round tune is played over footage of young Oona on a Central Park amusement ride. Deferring for the moment discussion of the film’s most striking, and rewarding, feature–an astonishingly complex staging of temporal distance and mode of address–suffice it to say that I Was Moving traverses filmic territory simultaneously familiar to devoted viewers and somehow strange, mazelike, and almost eerie in spots.

It should be clear that dissecting Mekas’s film in my plodding fashion–describing its internal architecture, attempting to chart discursive patterns within a calculus of meta-thematic meaning–is almost completely antipathetic to the filmmaker’s public statements and writings about his method, especially his longstanding rejection of the classical means and objectives of aesthetic unity and complexity. In program notes written for Walden, Mekas declared his basic philosophy toward the making of diary films: has to register the reality to which I react and also it has to register my state of feeling (and all the memories) as I react. Which also means, that I had to do all the structuring (editing) right there, during the shooting, in the camera. All footage that you’ll see in the Diaries is exactly as it came out from the camera: there was no way of achieving it in the editing rooms without destroying its form and content. 1
With slight variations, this stance has been reiterated over the years, even as the diary form itself–including supplemental elements of sound and intertitles–has undergone significant revision. In I Was Moving , Mekas frequently uses spoken narration or titles to address aspects of technique and meaning. He insists, “I do not make films. I just film.” The method of assembly is “all chance” and there is “No judgment here–positive, negative; good, bad–just images, sounds, very very innocent in and by themselves, as they pass through...” He cites Coleridge on “the pleasurable activity of the journey itself,” disdains the creation of “suspense” and reminds us many times that “nothing much is happening” in this “masterpiece of nothing.” There are, however, other statements offering a different perspectus: “I am in every image of this film, I am in every frame. The only thing is: you have to know how to read these images.” He is likely referring here to visually expressive qualities of the image but the notion of “reading” is surely appropriate to the myriad types of sound/image or language/image collision in which our sense of the directness or simplicity of recording is deflected and complicated by what has been added to it.
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P. Adams Sitney observed in 1974, appropos of Walden, that “the film-maker is forgetting or underestimating the importance of editing and even more of sound”2 and David James has subsequently refined the terms in which assertions of spontaneous composition might be considered “misleading.” James points to a “dispersion of authorship” subtending the presence of disparate textual systems–for example, titles or the inclusion of footage taken by other filmmakers–and concludes that the layered presentation of Mekas’s diaries allows not only direct statement of feelings “but also reflection on and interpretation of the recorded events, easily turning histoire into discours...” 3 The effects of such discursivity, in which “multiple estrangements are sedimented in a dialogic interplay of irreconcilable subjectivities,” 4 is especially cogent in the new film.

First, the footage itself, compared to other diaries, is decidedly homogeneous in subject, setting, and style of shooting; it is gathered primarily around Mekas’s wife Hollis Melton and children Oona and Sebastian. In addition, unlike previous installments, there are no surrogate filmmakers or male alter egos with whom Mekas identifies or onto whom he projects ideals of his own artistic practice or cultural position (Adolfas Mekas, Ken Jacobs, Jerome Hill, George Maciunas, even Andy Warhol, have figured as implicit doppelgangers). That is, the autobiographical “I” that emerges here has a more integral command of the discursive stage while, paradoxically, facets of his divided subjectivity, devoid of accomplices within the image, register more explicitly as the excess of a (dis)continuous authorial voice.

Perhaps the best way to begin to assess the film’s complex subjectivity, the sheer quantity of postures assumed by its enunciative voice, is to briefly examine the structure and function of voice-over narration. The spoken text is anchored by Mekas’s typical first-person singular, present tense reflections: “I make home movies–therefore I live. I live–therefore I make home movies” (from Walden). As always, present and past tenses may be stacked or flipped around within a single memory: “I am still in Provence, this evening, here, in my editing room, this late night. I am still in Provence.” Near the beginning of almost every chapter, Mekas addresses the film viewer directly in a lengthy monologue, foregrounding the current juncture in the film’s development (“So, my dear viewers, we have arrived at Chapter Four. Sorry that nothing much, nothing extraordinary has so far happened in this movie...”) and commenting on aesthetic strategies. Additional forms of “You” are directed at specific friends, living or deceased (“I miss your jokes, Harry [Smith]”) and, in several moving passages, Mekas’s children or Hollis (“I admired you that moment [the birth of Oona] and I knew that you were completely somewhere else, somewhere else I could never be, something I could never totally understand.”). The narration frequently enlists third-person singular to refer to figures within the image or to intellectual influences such as Blake or W.C. Williams but it is also aimed at himself (“He sits under a tree in the park, listening to the leaves in the wind”; “There is the man of the moment”).

The sinuous “who” and “how” of voice-over address is matched by a wide range of topics, tones, and materials. It can annotate the time and setting of a particular sequence (“Ah, the summers of New York...downtown rooms are hot and the mysterious wind comes through the windows...”) or gesture at the moment of its own recording (“It’s midnight now”). Among less prosaic functions, Mekas quotes from admired poets or thinkers, reads from his written diaries, relates dreams, and, of course, articulates the absence of his Lithuanian childhood. On a formal level, the flowing legato of the spoken voice creates a cadence that alternatively intersects or clashes with the staccato rhythms of the image track; for instance, a hesitation between words might heighten the impact of a quick cut, just as continuous speech tends to soften certain image transitions with which it is paired. Similarly, clusters of repeated words or phases within a monologue can set up dense contrapuntal ties to rapid-fire repetitions in the image. At times the sound/image bond is semantic–as when a verbal reference to “tree” anticipates or lags just behind a shot of the same object–but is more frequently a matter of rhythm, spoken pleonasm (“many many many”) echoing against glimpses of a single scene made from slightly different angles or exposures.

Intertitles constitute a third arm of discursivity, working in close cooperation with image and spoken narration yet retaining an independence rooted in its own peculiar rhythms and internal linkages. Printed like typewritten notes on a white background, these short messages take on descriptive, affective, epigrammatic, and formal tasks. Predominantly, they offer an alternative but hardly redundant means of denoting time and place, naming names and dates, seasons, holidays, geographic locations (“OONA’S BAPTISM, JUNE 26 1975”; “LAZY AFTERNOONS”; “WINTER IN SOHO”; “TEN YEARS BEFORE”). Not surprisingly, their relation to time and to the images they supplement is quite elastic, stretching from generic designations to solitary occurrences. Not every scene or sequence is “captioned” and it is not always clear how much of the subsequent footage a title is meant to encompass. Occasionally, a title announces an event that appears only after a succeeding group of unrelated shots. Titles designate chapter headings and endings. Fragments from Mekas’s written diaries and from literary works are duly inscribed as texts (“A POET NEEDS TO DISCIPLINE HIMSELF EVERY DAY – BASHO”). Some titles render a haiku-like poetry (“THE VENETIAN BLINDS CLANK IN THE WIND/I CAN NOT SLEEP/I WATCH THE WINDOW/ITS BLACKNESS”). Others express moral dilemmas (“SO THIS IS YOUR CHOICE: SALVATION BY YOURSELF OR SALVATION WITH OTHERS”). A group of titles appears again and again, adding yet another filip to the global patterning of repetition (“HOME SCENES”; “LIFE GOES ON”).

Abstract though it is, it is tempting to cite the music in I Was Moving as a separate branch of discursivity. Without question, musical fragments contribute to the indexing of historical periods and national cultures (Wagner and Tchaikovsky; modern American jazz; Varkalis’s piano improvisation), setting up implicit collisions of time, place, and cultural status at least indirectly pertinent to Mekas’s biography (Russian versus German) and his cinematic vocation (classical masterpieces versus timeless folk melodies). In his insistence on the spontaneity and “innocence” of his method, Mekas forgets or underestimates the annealing power of intertextual reference. It is, for instance, hard to use Wagner’s Parsifal without summoning the ghosts of numerous other cultural productions, including films. Leaving aside the associative sparks ignited by music, I Was Moving contains statements and images redolent of filmmakers’ other work, iconography that recalls the everyday textures in Brakhage’s massive output of “home movies,” as well as specific scenes that pay tribute to admired directors from the past (a kids’ snowball fight in Wisconsin that deliciously invokes Cocteau).

Before attempting to glean further meaning from the knotty innards of this film, its trappings of time need to be considered from another angle. As already noted, individual chapters scramble chronology, and adjacent chapters often rehearse the same time periods, if not the exact same events. Although not technically or conventionally a case of intra-scenic editing, of flashbacks or flashforwards emanating from a stable niche in the present, the impression created is nonetheless one of circularity or randomly-ordered memory couched in a single consciousness. Limiting the frame of reference to consecutive citations of years via titles or narration, Chapter Ten provides a telling example of Mekas’s temporal scaffolding: 1975, 1974, 1979, 1982, 1981 (Sebastian’s birth), 2000 (the cusp of the Millennium), 1979/1949 (an image elicits the following title, probably taken from a diary entry: “30 YRS AGO TO THIS DAY I CAME TO THE U. STATES”), 1973, 1972. Indeed, several chapters move from earlier to later events before looping back to roughly where they started. At the level of sound/image conjunction, Mekas’s habitual superimposition of temporalities–past and present–can be extenuated by an additional spatial reference, as when shots of Oona as a child elicit the comment: “This very minute she is with Sebastian.” Speaking, as he often does, directly to images as they appear on his editing machine, Mekas can bring about a sort of mise-en-abime of memory, the present tense of the film viewer receding by stages into a distant past: “These are my memories. I guess I was filming my own childhood.” The moment of spectatorship opens onto the moment of voice-over recording which brackets the moment of filming which recalls the filmmaker’s childhood, and so on.

An alternative title for I Was Moving could be “Jonas Stands in His Editing Room Counting the Seconds of His Life.” Our lives too. Near the beginning of Chapter Four we hear the sound of a ticking clock as Mekas announces, “I’ll record exactly one minute beginning now.” A minute later he concludes, “One minute. One minute is longer than one thinks.” In a film obsessed with time, steeped in time’s elusive tidal flux, the self-consciously futile effort to isolate a single originary moment emerges as the central discursive act, that which is simultaneously longed for and disavowed within an elaborate mechanics of temporal measurement. In the arena of the projected film image, there is really no other possibility except to keep moving ahead, piling one moment upon the next. Nonetheless, Mekas’s construction through language of a deceptively humble “trap” sends the time of any given perception richocheting back on itself, splitting off into promiscuous couplings, thickening as the film runs its protracted course. Operating against a quotidian backdrop of repetitive scenes and activities, time is partially stripped of its forward propulsion in the interest of fostering not an illusion of permanence but a site of permanent loss.

In Chapter Three, Mekas says he has the “feeling of going nowhere, of being stuck”; he admits that “I do not know where I am” and worries that memories get lost with time, but then offers the reassurance that “...some of the memories, no, they never really go away, nothing really goes away.” Thus a principal function of repetition in the film is to toll the “progress” of events like an (irregular) ticking of a clock, words and phrases and images and sounds always bearing the same meaning yet always different depending on context and prior iteration. In this sense the time of memory demands recognition as the subject’s only true home, a contradictory private realm imbued with comfort and absolute instability, eternal return and loss loss loss.

Mekas has said, one hopes inaccurately, that this could be his last film, the seemingly endless backlog of acquired footage nearly tapped out. To date, it is surely his summa on the potentialities of film narration. As such, I Was Moving deserves the kind of narratological inquiry applied by theorist Gerard Genette to the work of Marcel Proust–an analysis, unfortunately, beyond the purview of this essay. In any case, Mekas’s achievement must be situated alongside those of the greatest cinematic exponents of narrational density: Orson Welles, Humphrey Jennings, Chris Marker, Alain Resnais.

In focusing such concerted attention on the mechanics of narration, something important is overlooked: the relationship between meta-thematic significance and the film’s ostensible content, twenty-five years of family life. Unlike Brakhage, in whose work domesticity is constantly recruited as a master trope for, and in seamless interdependency with, individual and collective acts of artistic creation, the “home scenes” captured by Mekas retain an aura of separation from the processsual nexus of, if not the inspiration for, creativity. The subjectivities of Hollis, Oona, and Sebastian stand apart, un-implicated in the shaping process and the “voice” through which material fragments attain an overriding structure. If nearly every chapter begins with the filmmaker addressing his viewers in the present from the sanctum sanctorum of his editing room, nearly every chapter ends with an image of Jonas alone–in a room, in nature, playing the boyan. He is, as he says, “the protagonist of this film,” present in every frame, and the filming and re-presentation of his family supplies a scrim–relatively uninflected by the dynamics of interpersonal ego identification, cultural documentation, social isolation, or cinematic “nation building”–onto which the private labyrinth of his manifold subjectivity is most lucidly and powerfully projected. It isn’t that what is added to the footage through a discursive armature of narration, titles, and so on entirely swamps the spontaneity or “innocence” of diary recording but that what contains it becomes, in the experience of the film, its salient truth. And the source, the primal scene, as it were, of that truth is Mekas’s editing room.

David James has characterized earlier diaries as negative home movies, “movies that begin from the fact of the absence of home.” 5 I Was Moving succeeds in redressing at least part of that absence, yet the effort mandates in turn an ancillary loss. Confecting a childhood home in an agrarian, traditional society as a slice of Paradise is quite different from using an analogous template to frame a quarter century of marriage and parenting. A title towards the end of the final chapter declares: “A FILM ABOUT PEOPLE WHO HAVE NEVER ANY ARGUMENTS AND NO FIGHTS AND WHO LOVE EACH OTHER.” Practically every shred of visual evidence in the film supports this encomium, keeping faith with Mekas’s oft-stated desire to film only what he wishes to celebrate. The conjugal figures we see betray no signs of discontent, illness, petulance, anger, sadness, irritation. Their emotional expressivity mirrors the range of generally cheerful activities with which they are engaged. This reification of family life as the font of “ecstasy,” “beauty,” and plenitude does, however, raise a dilemma concerning the global discontinuity and self-questioning that ripples through the narrational structure. Is the latter merely the product of trying to make an experience of the past legible in the cinematic present? Or is it a rupture that speaks to the failure to recuperate what is in effect an impossible vision of unity and harmony?

In one of the two shortest chapters of Moby-Dick, “The Lee Shore,” the narrator is surprised to find a sailor on board the Pequod whom he had previously encountered at an inn in New Bedford, a popular fellow who had just then landed from a dangerous four-year journey. Searching for an explanation to this behavior, the narrator ventures: fared with him as with the storm-tossed ship, that miserably drives to the leeward shore. The port would fain give succor; the port is pitiful; in the port is safety, comfort, hearthstone, supper, warm blankets, friends, all that’s kind to our mortalities. But in that gale, the port, the land, is that ship’s direst jeopardy...Know ye, now, Bulkington? Glimpses do ye seem to see of that mortally intolerable truth; that all deep, earnest thinking is but the intrepid effort of the soul to keep the open independence of her sea...

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this was printed in Millennium Film Journal No. 38 (Spring 2002): Winds From the East