dry petals of dead
flowers have secret
cures in them –
anything under the
sun, once touched
by life /sun/ is imbued
with power over death.
Jonas Mekas was born in Semeniškiuose, Lithuania, in 1922. His film ‘As I Was Moving Forward Occasionally I Saw Glimpses of Beauty’ (2000) rolls for four hours and forty-eight minutes. Serving as a diary film, this is a montage of over thirty years of personal home movie footage. Entrenched in his work is a dense, textured presentation of daily happenings: gatherings of people in his easeful home in New York, sunlit botanical elements in rural landscapes and his daughter, Oona, playing joyously outside; all that is captured is invariably imbued with a fecundity of memory, a memory which hovers on nostalgia’s surface. Family members gaze intensely at growing green buds extending outwards, expelling new life. There is a sense of an artistic hypersensitivity to the objects that surround him — promoting a visual experience of whole, natural forms which stretch the boundaries of the imagination into a sublime state of contemplation, thereby prompting a recognition of the absolute or infinite within the finite. Clips depicting no recognisable object or event are placed in between known objects, thereby heightening the power of the latter. Further purchase can be gained upon the footholds of this point of view by looking toward the writings of Greil Marcus. For Marcus (1), “at the highest point of his music each note that is played implies another that isn’t, each emotion expressed hints at what can’t be said.” Significant here is the blank space in between images wherein thought lingers, oscillates, hallucinates and then resurfaces. Applied to As I Was Moving Ahead…, the empty, vacant scenes give rise to a deeper wholeness, due to the strong duality between decipherable and indecipherable forms. For instance, the unstable, bleached out, overexposed clips make the succeeding stable images appear richer in colour and stronger in focus.
At the beginning, Mekas utters:
I have never, never been able to figure it all out. 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 I just began splicing them together by chance, the way I found them on the shelf.
Hence, from uncategorised film reels emerges a numinous order unknown to us. Camera movements are hesitant yet curious, skirting around space in a sporadic fashion, exploring the scene like wild, overgrown ivy explores a tree trunk. The hand-held camera, liberated from the tripod, enables the viewer to see the setting as he himself was looking at it. As such, this closes the distance between Mekas and his audience. As strange as it may be, by sharing an identical vision of sight with Mekas, I felt interwoven into his past memories, stitched into a timeless space of murky vividness, despite my awareness that this was merely an illusion generated by an aesthetic experience. It led me to think- could cinema be thought of as a container of infectious atmospheres? Nevertheless, as the film continued, the oscillation between close-up and faraway perspectives eventually watered down the nearness, giving a sense of an all-seeing eye, an omnipresent observer.
Mekas’s method of editing: inconsecutive images overlaid with abstract thought and experimental piano sonatas — results in a doubling of meanings, heightening the impression of asymmetry. The film form is arranged in this manner, I contend, in order that the stream of object-images is dislocated from the idea of a uniform, linear narrative. As a result, this allows for the encircling of feelings and affective processes around isolated actions, objects and relationships, understood as autonomous truths in themselves, as opposed to an all-encompassing actuality pointing to something other, such as an entirely new symbol. As Tarkovsky (2) points out, a true cinematic image is a poetic image that is self-sustaining, self-illuminating and usually liberated from its contiguous images.
‘In Soho’, these words we see, pressed onto paper by old typewriter keys. In Soho, it is summer, and friends lay on the grass, with hands stretched out, fingers fiddling with points of grass. Jonas (2000) asks, “what happens during the silences?” A few frames later, it is winter. Snow has an oneiric nature, appearing as verdigris. Realism is hammered into his work, yet, figures flow through space with great agility due to the speeding up of frames. One may ask, “what is happening?” “Where are these images taking me?” A vast virtual reservoir of images appears, casting a mantle of materiality over the viewer. The streaming fountain water sounds are familiar echoes. A path is printed in snow and a glimpse of the coldness of the air is sensed through a close-up scene of woollen hats and half-frozen rivers that stretch onto infinite land. The apricity of day is strong. Four pomegranate halves sit in a black bowl, accompanied by the voiceover “forget eternity, enjoy, enjoy those moments [of paradise]”. These home movies are secret witnesses of the past, carrying a weight of warm, red-toned nostalgia. An important term coined by Miguel de Unamuno (3) was 'intra-historia', the concept that history could best be apprehended by focusing on the small histories of everyday people, real individuals who think and will, who are seen and heard, consisting of carried-on customs rather than fixating on major events such as warfare or political pacts.
Boym (4) constructs different types of nostalgic narrative, comparing restorative nostalgia with reflective nostalgia. Interestingly, reflective nostalgia is a yearning for broken, fragments of memory, whereas restorative nostalgia wishes for a reconstruction of rituals and emblems of one’s former homeland, with a focus on mastering and logically framing space and time. Prior to arriving in New York City in 1949 as a refugee, Mekas spent years in slave labour camps in Nazi Germany and afterwards, displacement camps in West Germany. Bound up in his film are topics of nostalgia, infused with both memory and loss. Yet, in As I Was Moving Ahead…, nostalgia for home is not tightly connected to the rebuilding of a specific place or a national, collective past, but rather clasps onto a settled existence brought by the togetherness of close people in his life; the disorderliness of Mekas’s work points to a reflective type of nostalgia, meditating on a unity in chaos, an unexplainable togetherness. The etymology of the word nostalgia can be traced back to the ancient Greek term nostos, meaning return home, and algia meaning longing. Consequently, nostalgia has long been construed as the psychological anguish caused by unremitting longing to return to one’s homeland. But what is striking about the nostalgia depicted in his home movies is its optimistic quality, part tainted with loss, certainly, but overwhelmed with a humanistic orientation towards contemplation, presence and spirituality.
(1) Marcus, G. (2005) Like a Rolling Stone: Bob Dylan at the Crossroads, London: Faber and Faber.
(2) Tarkovsky, A. (1988) Sculpting in Time. Translated by Kitty Hunter-Blair, University of Texas Press.
(3) Unamuno, M. (2005) En Torno al Casticismo. Madrid: Cátedra.
(4) Boym, S. (2001) The Future of Nostalgia. New York: Basic Books.