Jonas Mekas, awake in the wee hours in the midst of an apartment move, frets in the opening scene of Sleepless Nights Stories that "all my life is boxed." The weariness is atypical, but the reflective mood sustained in this playful video journal that spins a freeform, New York-based variation on the Arabian Nights tales ("Praise be to Allah!" the typewritten intertitles regularly proclaim). Late in his ninth decade on Earth, and a significant artist-curator of handmade American cinema for about six of them, Mekas has assembled a casual gabfest of his own yarns (breathlessly describing at Ken and Flo Jacobs's kitchen table his escape from a lead-poisoned Brooklyn domicile), but more frequently those of friends, most of them downtown Manhattanites and a few stars in one cultural firmament or another. Much wine is drunk, adventures from tree inspection to gallery-hopping are shared, and the host can be charmingly garrulous (even when harrumphing to a restive pal, "Crisis is terrific. Balance is boring!") or attentive to his companions, either with a silent, minute-long close-up of the late artist Louise Bourgeois or letting writer Lee Stringer make an unbroken 15-minute confessional of how shame and an elderly alcoholic enabler finally compelled him to seek treatment for his crack addiction.
A home movie encompassing barroom shoulder-crying, as in performance artist Marina Abramović's sigh of "Real life: I can't do it" and a three-scene digest of filmmaker Harmony Korine finding love and fatherhood, Sleepless Nights Stories wrestles often with the intersections of the artistic and the personal: a reminiscence of a chance encounter with a haggard Antonin Artaud; a spontaneous recitation of Kerouac; Mekas's prescient oration, while listening to an Amy Winehouse album, that "to allow the Muses to do their work is more important than our bodies." The camera, often sitting on a tabletop or held low to survey a small lizard or some humble country shrubbery, is a tool of hardy utility in Mekas's hand, and the looseness and fluidity of this pan-narrative feels more like that of a jottings-filled notebook than a fully crafted work, but whether he's complaining about a booze-free Sunday on an upstate visit or providing the voice of a front-porch possum, Mekas emerges as a character of sweet and vibrant curiosity, asking with transcendentalist conviction when a walk in the woods reminds him of his rural boyhood, "I was part of nature. How can I return?" His gentle self-inquiry is as disarming as the sight of him shimmying on the dance floor with Yoko Ono, or of his spirited bellowing of a Lithuanian folk song in tribute to a long-absent friend.