by Allan Fish
(USA 2000 300m) DVD2 (France only)
A little fragment of paradise
p Jonas Mekas d/w Jonas Mekas ph/ed Jonas Mekas m Auguste Varkalis
narrated by Jonas Mekas
There’s a scene in Stephen Poliakoff’s masterful Shooting the Past when Emilia Fox’s Spig and Blake Ritson’s Nick arrive at Timothy Spall’s Oswald’s flat. Oswald is in a coma after a suicide attempt, but not before letting his old colleagues know that he’s made a discovery potentially vital to their staying in business. As Spig and Nick arrive, though, they realise they’re faced with a decision. There’s so much stuff in Oswald’s flat that they’ll never get through it all in the time left to them. So they have a toss of the coin decision to make; do they take the material from one side of the room or the other.
That was 1999, and around that time one can imagine Jonas Mekas making a similar sort of decision. He tells us about it in his opening narration. “I have never been able to figure out where my life begins and where it ends”, he begins. “I have never, never been able to figure it all out. What it’s all about. What it all means. So when I began now to put all these rolls of film together, to string them together, the first idea was to keep them chronological, but then I gave up and just began splicing them together by chance, the way that I found them on the shelf.”
What we’re left is five hours of home movies, the majority silent, of Mekas and his friends and family in New York since the early seventies. Mekas, one of the titans of the American experimental cinema, could count among his friends Ken Jacobs, Hollis Frampton, Robert Frank, Stan Brakhage and Jack Smith, key figures in the underground movement, and several can be seen or heard in Mekas’ film. But also numerous trips to Cape Cod, summers in Central Park, deep winter snows, weddings, births, christenings, parties, gatherings, Catholic saint day parades, holidays and an Eclipse seen from Central Park. It’s not all New York; he throws in clips from St Paul and even trips abroad, to Rome, Cremona, Provence and Paris. And enough footage of cats, both pets and those met on their journeys, to make Chris Marker smile.
One could call the length self-indulgent, but in the end the length seems rather irrelevant, for the same viewers would find it just as self-indulgent and pointless at ten minutes as they would at 300. Mekas even plays with this in having captions pop up as the rolls of film change and on a few occasions it just reads “nothing happens in this film.” As we don’t know the people in these films we don’t have a direct emotional connection, but by the end one recognises faces at different ages, at different points in their life. It’s both distancing and entrancing, and it was only by the last hour or so of the film that I thought of another TV drama, In a Land of Plenty. In the last episode of that most neglected of BBC masterworks, a little girl has gone mute after the tragic and horrifying death of her mother. To try and make sense of his own sense of loss and to make a breakthrough with the girl, her father explains to her all about his family’s past through dozens of photographs taken by himself during his life. Mekas tries something similar in his film, trying to see if, by randomly splicing these rolls of films together he could create a sense of meaning. It poses the question as to whether randomness is itself order, whether a sense of rhythm and meaning can be found in such a way. That has to be left to the individual viewer and many will be turned off by it and won’t make it to the end. But for those with patience, As I Was Moving is a deeply personal experience of the type too rare in film. As I ejected the DVD, I kept hearing Lennon & McCartney’s ‘In My Life’ in my head, and not without reason, for the song and film have the same heartbeat. And if you do make it to the later chapters, you’ll see a shot of lower Manhattan from across the Hudson on Liberty Island and the prominent then freshly constructed twin towers. When premiered at the London film festival, they were there, but by the time it premiered in New York they weren’t.