As an obstreperously gonzo study of our relationship with television news, Jonas Mekas’s new video installment Lithuania and the Collapse of the USSR presents an unsolved cipher of self-awareness, captured in the innocent salad days before RSS feeds piped us blow-by-blow updates of international upheaval. Like most of Mekas’s home-video experiments, it’s much easier to delineate what this project is not than what it is: It’s not a video essay (or it’s so furtively editorial that the author’s voice is an oblique whisper) and it’s not a polemic, despite concerning the Lithuanian struggle for independence that ushered in the final act of Soviet Communism (Mekas himself is Lithuanian).
Formally speaking, the video is a collage of news broadcasts, videotaped not via the RCA output of a VCR but through the lo-def lens of Mekas’s VHS camcorder. This allows the director to zoom in on particularly piquant facial expressions or blocks of text, as well as fill in chronological gaps with (in a few rare scenes) swift flips through his ephemera scrapbook. We also hear, like an unintentional commentary track, various bits of humorous and incidental household noise throughout—a child is told to hush, a teapot whistles, leaves of paper rustle. The sustained effect is complexly foreboding; by mundanely representing one man’s personal obsession with a multi-nation crisis, Mekas encapsulates both the necessity and the peril of television’s narrativizing eye. On the screen there are often glimpses of the raw life that enters the network Betacam, but by the time it reaches us through the coaxial cable it’s pocket literature.
This truism is by no means embedded. Mekas has described the proceedings as “Greek Drama,” and it’s a simple task to align the dramatis personae with various archetypal characters: Gorbachev is the well-meaning but status quo-shielding Creon, ordering tanks into Baltic borders; the newly-elected Lithuanian leader Vytautas Landsbergis is the noble, loyal Antigone with unflinching demands for liberation; our first president Bush seems more like a befuddled, exiled Oedipus than anything else, desperately attempting to acknowledge Lithuanian independence without compromising the global stalemate of Perestroika (in one scene we see him proffering a firm but fair retort to critics of Operation Desert Storm and realize once again how snarling and juvenile Bush Mark II was in contrast).
But it’s the Chorus—the journalists—that seems most crucial in this shadow play, handsomely parading before the pale studio lights (which, on a VHS camera, appear ebulliently blue). The highlights are a few moments of clear journalistic condescension—such as when Sam Donaldson prosaically asks a Lithuanian ambassador if he is prepared to die at the hands of Kremlin retaliation—that bittersweetly remind us of when American commentators could commit such cold effrontery from behind impenetrable walls. Indeed, the hindsight beast of 9-11 skulks through the high reeds of this study, particularly when one considers that the nascent blueprints of Al Qaeda were being distantly drawn off-camera in the early ‘90s.
Mekas has often said that he considers himself a “filmer” rather than a “filmmaker,” but what he’s actually saying is that he’s not an editor. In his video diaries (such as As I Was Moving Ahead, Occasionally I Saw Brief Glimpses of Beauty) his passive receptacle stance often allows scenes to lapse into tedium, but here the tendency to let events speak in their own timbre is rewarding. Many complete news programs are included intact—particularly vintage episodes of This Week and NBC Nightly News—and the transitions between them suggest that the entire project was edited in-camera while shooting, only to be digitally converted 17 years later and exported for mod-museum consumption.
So there’s a “found art” aspect to the installment as well, with the distinction that the meta-process of “finding” is included (we even occasionally see Mekas changing channels on the antiquarian TV set). And it’s not a bonus, it’s the crux of the affair; the dual interpretations of our reliance on the media have never been as nakedly addressed, and in the Internet era they itch all the more for consolidation. Is the news a comfortingly communal conduit of essential content or merely a manipulative opiate? Mekas wisely withholds judgment, but his fissured poem of warbled mono sound, CRT effulgence, and V-hold mobility frighteningly observes that mass-produced fiction may be the only way the first world can receive reports from the front lines.