Jonas Mekas, the godfather of American “underground” cinema, shot literally miles of impromptu film on a tiny, touch-and-go Bolex camera before assembling his first “diary film” and screening it before an audience of friends and fellow indie artists in 1969. At that point the home movie ethos was somewhat less than groundbreaking, but a glance at what Mekas’s contemporaries were working on or releasing at the time—Kenneth Anger was ensconced in off-and-on production for Lucifer Rising, Stan Brakhage was toiling on the 8mm Songs cycle, and Paul Morrissey had just morphed the Warhol aesthetic into the zeitgeist-preaching Flesh—suggests just how perpendicular his project stood in relation to the remainder of the bicoastal art-house scene. Mekas, as a distributor and critic in the ‘60s, had praised and promoted films both archetypically absurd (Anger’s Scorpio Rising) and angularly as well as legally shocking (Jack Smith’s Flaming Creatures); perhaps this is why the program notes prepared for the first showing of Diaries, Notes and Sketches, also known as Walden contained an uncharacteristically humble and ambivalent letter from the director of the evening’s presentation. “You are going to see maybe two, maybe three, maybe four reels, from the total of six,” it read. “It will depend on your patience, on your interest.”
The founder of Anthology Film Archives may or may not have had good reason to soft-peddle three hours of jerkily handheld, naturally-lit content set to occasional elliptical narration and folk music from an AM radio that just happened to be in the editing booth, but Walden is also notable for its anomalousness as an entry in Mekas’s micro-cinematic career. Anyone familiar with his later diary films—in particular the archival catharsis of Reminiscences of a Journey to Lithuania, which went on to become the artist’s most often-seen work after its completion in 1972—might note how flashily cross-woven this film appears in comparison. After the development of VHS camcorders, Mekas completed all of his cuts in-camera, eschewing the visual furbelows that other mainstream DIY filmmakers used to simulate professionalism. Walden, however, purposefully shuffles the chronological order of some events for dramatic effect, features multiple sped-up sequences, and leans rather heavily on primitive double-exposure techniques, which achieve a stunning crescendo in the segment entitled “Notes on the Circus”—an optically frenetic set piece that does for elephants, jugglers, and acrobats what Brakhage’s “Mothlight” did for dried, diaphanous wings, and leaf fragments.
So the birth of the Mekas film diary is not only the most pointedly “avant-garde” of the bunch but also the most aesthetically apprehensive, and the most vocal about its objectives (or lack thereof): One can feel churning hesitantly beneath the surface of the film’s images a fierce determination to not be misunderstood or misinterpreted, particularly given the political and artistic climate at the time—an intimate rendering of John and Yoko’s “bed-in” for peace is one of the final segments. This might be why halfway through the first reel, we hear the languid chords of a creaky accordion while Mekas semi-tonally croaks the lyric, “I am only celebrating what I see. I am searching for nothing—I am happy.” The repetition of this mantra throughout the soundtrack, which is ironically followed closely in reel one by a monologue about displacement and exile, makes one wonder who Mekas was attempting to convince. But the utterance comes from a source of creative, if not emotional, sincerity: As Brecht discovered, in socio-politically charged times, it becomes not only necessary but an act of bold artistic maturity to announce one’s lack of symbolic motive.
This is not to say, however, that just because Mekas isn’t shooting fodder for the Woodstock nation that the cultural strides of the ‘60s have not influenced him. On the contrary, there seems to have been something strenuously inspiring about the temporal and geographic sphere he was observing throughout the timeframe of Walden; it’s composed of footage captured circa 1964-69, whereas Lost, Lost, Lost would reveal that Mekas had been wandering the streets of New York with his 16mm alter ego since the late ‘40s, when he arrived in Brooklyn as a Lithuanian refugee. But the significance of this era’s motifs within Walden is entirely unrelated to the pop music or protests, or the various big names encountered throughout the three hours traffic—Allen Ginsberg, the Velvet Underground, and Carl Dreyer, for example. Far more crucial is the manner in which Mekas’s camera watches skaters in Manhattan, or climbs up the scrawny legs of a preadolescent girl innocently grasping a dandelion, or manages full-tilt 360-degree pans across a posh wedding party reveling in their Newport reception. Just as the final example not-so-subtly mimics the joyous loss of equilibrium after a glass of champagne, so Mekas seems to be on a contact high from the inebriatingly protean renaissance blooming around him; with Walden, he adapts the philosophy, if not the décor, of the time to invent a cinema from the pulp of individual consciousness, authoring a film quite literally about perspective without any of what the flower children might have referred to as “hangups” (i.e. ego). If the work of other underground New York filmmakers urged audiences toward visceral or intellectual reactions, Mekas is after a more primal, observational response; looking through his camera lens is an ends rather than a means.
In this sense, Walden more closely resembles the written diaries of poets like Ginsberg and Kerouac than the canonized publication whose title Mekas cribbed. The film’s narration often matches Thoreau’s unabashed self-congratulatory voice and love/hate relationship with urbanity, but Walden the diary film succeeds as a personal record where the novel-length essay failed due to self-contradictory soap-boxing; where Thoreau argues for seeking transcendence in life rather than art while penning consciously didactic and numinous prose, Mekas is able to make the same assertion by arhetorically celebrating what he sees. There are longueurs in the film, to be sure, but that’s also part of the point: In one sense (in the best sense), Walden is a depository of longueurs assembled for future generations. Unlike documentaries from the same period, there are few anachronisms that distract our attention with thoughts of how different attire or appliances or mannerisms were 50 years ago; Mekas skillfully omits these superficial details to instead capture domestic still-life scenarios, ocean-side landscapes darkening at sundown, perfunctory professional interactions, pea-coated masses braving snow and sleet, and, through it all, the immutable playfulness of children in nearby pastoral settings. It’s not only a living document of what quotidian existence was like in the ‘60s for a Lithuanian refugee residing in Manhattan, it’s an earnest homage to the elusive state of being—warts and all.
Celebratorily remastered from the original 16mm reels, Microcinema's digital transfer of Walden consistently surprises with its glabrous clarity; whether upconverting for an HD television or ripping for iPod viewing, the only visible imperfection is film grain. It's proof of the image quality a DVD can achieve even when digitizing materials that were never pristine to begin with, and shouldn't ever be; restoring Walden too fastidiously would annul its spontaneous poetry. If only Reminiscences of a Journey to Lithuania had undergone the same process for its theatrical run earlier this year; that gem was pulled from scratchy, second generation VHS tapes. The soundtrack to Walden, all of which was added in post-production, has managed to retain a good deal of its analog warmth through the crystalline mono.
The DVDs themselves are bare bones, aside from a handful of subtitle options-though, irritatingly, there's no English captioning track. But the set's real boon is the booklet-a dual-language (English and French, bien sûr) 150-page tome of critical analyses and scene-by-scene annotations on the film from Mekas himself and a star-studded collection of culture writers. For a work as rich as Walden, this turns out to be a far more effective form of commentary than an audio track; the written word allows for biographical asides on contributors and institutions referenced in the movie while keeping the conversation ever-centered on the visual content. It's a collage of notations, interviews, and appreciations nearly as rewarding as the film itself. The accompanying essays are hit or miss, many of them rife with easy-to-mock pseudo-intellectualism (is it fair to compare Mekas's camerawork to cubism and pointillism when he's just aiming and shooting?), but the interpretations are so voluminous in number and diverse in tone that one can pick and choose as they please while passing through the analytical smorgasbord. The only shame is that due to the comprehensiveness of the booklet, the set's SRP is a bit steep for the workaday film student (or critic). I suggest lobbying your local library.
Before there was YouTube, there was Jonas Mekas, and Walden not only invented the lo-fi autobiography-it set a precedent of postmodern fecundity in the form that has yet to be matched.