Both Walden and Lost Lost Lost could be called “diary films,” but the term unsatisfactorily encompasses Jonas Mekas’s significance as an artist by reducing the films to a smaller status, as if they’re meant solely for the curious viewer who wishes to have insights into the personal musings of another mind. Though Mekas himself subtitles Walden as “diaries, notes, and sketches,” the label, taken in relation to other forms of visual expression, suggests not only a kind of inherent solipsism to the artworks, but also entails their ghettoization by suggesting Mekas, a Lithuanian immigrant, can only speak about himself and, thus, relegating his experience to an exclusively underground or boutique status.
Forgoing the terminology, one finds in both films—largely composed of footage Mekas shot on his own 16mm Bolex—a portraiture of personal experience as it pertains to an entire strata of sociocultural formations over a three-decade span. In a segment in Lost Lost Lost entitled “Committee for an Independent Lithuania Meets in N.Y.,” Mekas speaks in voiceover, discussing his recollections of “remnants of the old government from the independent days” over images of men gathered in a boardroom. The scene proceeds from Mekas’s “I remember…” declaration, as does much of the film, but the scene’s aesthetic effect widens rather than narrows Mekas’s search for a “found” affirmation of himself as a Lithuanian immigrant living in New York. The men glimpsed aren’t named, nor are they heard speaking, but their faces, adrift and clouded by cigar smoke, are irrefutable evidence of their presence—a quality Mekas values ahead of their individuation.
Walden, by contrast, omits Mekas’s voice entirely, focusing instead on faces of friends and acquaintances as seen throughout the 1960s. For example, an early moment pops into the home of Tony Conrad and Beverly Grant as they stand in their doorway. Mekas didn’t record live sound, so it’s unsurprising that subjects never speak to either one another or the camera at any point, redirecting focus away from conventional modes of information exchange (it’s as if the exposition, as a concept, doesn’t exist in Mekas’s realm) and toward the creation of art itself. One can think of Mekas’s art in the same manner that Harold Rosenberg termed the “action painting” in response to the work of Jackson Pollock, given its interest in “liberation from value.”
In other words, Mekas deletes psychology and historical characterization from his films by reforming the very idea of what comprises meaningful expression, specifically through the form of moving images. Not only without sound, but undercranked, as the 16mm footage sometimes speeds through its events without characterizing them whatsoever. Mekas highlights speed and urban life as percolating forms of contemporary expression. Walden, in particular, retroactively intimates toward the moment of personal camcorders and VCRs, where one could literally speed through recorded memories of the past, either in the form of home videos or feature films.
Fast-forwarding as a concept defines Mekas’s aesthetic interests in both films. Each zips around from topic to topic, most notably in Walden, and various locations throughout New York City, even stopping in at a local circus to watch lions and tigers and trapeze artists try to wow a group of spectators. Yet Mekas characterizes nothing by way of context, so that the focus remains solely on the visual. However, since the images don’t unfold at 24 frames per second, what emerges can, in no way, be stated as a presentation of the real. This seems Mekas’s precise point, suggesting all art resides within the apparatus and its focus on either an event or, as it were, a fraction of said event.
These ideas accumulate to extraordinary ends in Lost Lost Lost, so that a brief segment entitled “Rabbit Shit Haikus” has Mekas repeating “the road the road the road” and “the childhood the childhood the childhood.” During this, images of a camera being set up and focused are intercut with the building of a snowman and a driveway being shoveled. What Mekas constructs cannot be called memories in any conventional sense, but nor are they particularly novel juxtapositions of disparate, unrelated elements. Instead, they’re remediations of the authorial self, where a place, especially for the immigrant, can change in any given context. Thus, “the road” becomes both a path to another place and a place itself. That recognition, among many others, lends Mekas’s filmmaking a fundamental urgency in its search for home, or something like it, within nearly every nook and cranny of its filmic space.
Considering nearly all of Jonas Mekas’s films have only been available on DVD exclusively through his official site for a number of years, this Blu-ray set from Kino Lorber is something of a miracle. Even better, the transfers are immaculate, with each film boasting outstanding audio and video. For video, depth of field, clarity, and color timing have been acutely preserved and calibrated. In instances where blemishes and specks occur within the frame (and they’re fairly few), it appears endemic to the original 16mm negative. The sound boasts an impressive, albeit monaural, DTS-HD mix, which features music, voiceover, and ADR sound at an equal pitch, without the tinny quality or faintness one might expect in the case of a shoddily preserved 16mm print.
The supplements here are strong, if in part underwhelming. Two commentaries with Mekas, each at almost three hours a piece, are informative, if horrendously bloated in that there are significant periods of dead air, with moderator Pip Chodorov barely audible as he feeds questions to a game but seemingly distracted Mekas, who offers answers in short form and often in a low voice. Unfortunately, Kino hasn’t provided subtitles for the exchange, meaning your thumb will get a nice exercise from mashing the volume button. Mekas discusses the usual suspects (origins, relationships with key figures in each film, his personal experience versus what appears on screen), and does so in amiable fashion. Also included are six shorts by Mekas, some of which, in the case of Notes on the Circus, were repurposed for segments in these two films. A short film, entitled Jonas, follows the director around New York and glimpses his insights on filmmaking. Unfortuantely, it appears the film hasn’t received a restoration and may have been simply transferred from VHS to this Blu-ray. Finally, an essay by Ed Halter contextualizes some of Mekas’s life in relation to the films.
Jonas Mekas has remained truly underground in the home-video world—until now. Kino Lorber’s new Blu-ray set is a must-own for devotees of avant-garde cinema.