If the diary films of Jonas Mekas adumbrate an argument of any kind, and their director has vehemently repudiated the suggestion that they do, it’s that observation is participation. Fragments of visions of fragments caught on positive film (or, in later years, on video) to be unspooled at will with minimal or no post-production, movies like 1969’s Walden and 1976’s Lost Lost Lost crystallize droplets from life’s ever-passing rush, and in doing so negotiate between epistolary and epic modes. (The camera is handheld and subjective while narrative threads emerge from choppy, modular streams; the running times are grandiose and stuffed with milieu-specific details that suggest definitiveness.) Sometimes Mekas’s gaze is historically minded, whether he intends it to be or not; sometimes it’s even rhetorical in political ways as well. (His recent compendium of camcorder’d news broadcasts, Lithuania and the Collapse of the USSR, uses the act of spontaneous archiving as a tool of resistance and revision.) But Mekas’s camera is never passive. It often seems rather to be feeding on sensation that energizes it to the point of jittery transcendence.
Mekas’s latest diary film, Out-Takes from the Life of a Happy Man, somewhat blunts his typical aesthetic of immediacy with a meditative framing device, one that feels (depressingly) valedictory. Footage of Mekas fiddling with 16mm strips on splicers and projectors in a small workshop infrequently appears, and the director occasionally provides voiceover narration in his cracking, taffy-stretched vowel voice. The remaining content, compiled as the title suggests from various vintage sources, constitutes more an impressionistic and purposefully aimless scrapbook of Mekas’s life with Hollis Melton in the ’60s and ’70s than a “diary” per se. Among the swatches of this era with which Mekas fusses are chic-ly color-blistered close-ups of blond children beaming in the sun; bagel storefronts and African-American buskers; New York City buildings darkened with blue and blanketed with snow (a Mekas motif); a shaggy Mekas sucking the raw center out of a cracked eggshell; and vacations and work days (after a while we can’t distinguish the two) spent with Ken Jacobs, Allen Ginsberg, and other luminaries. Title cards along the way suggest vague themes rather than mark time.
A litany of editorial choices have clearly taken place to arrive at this finished project, and not in Mekas’s customary in-camera fashion. (His previous “Notes on the Circus,” for example, abstracts acrobats and lion tamers into exhilaratingly distorted geometric shapes using double-exposure techniques.) Because of this, we sense the presence of a rigid narrative voice where Mekas’s work previously only expressed shamanic, amorphous silence. This expository rigidity may exist only to deny its own significance; Mekas even tells us that we’re merely watching “images with no purpose. [They’re] just for myself…and a few friends.” This assertion immediately provokes us to prove him incorrect—to start seeking out patterns or inventing them apophenically. But eventually we succumb to what the director’s transparency has revealed. The images in the film have been juxtaposed, but they don’t feel coherently collated.
Still, the film is hardly devoid of patterns, or of significance. Mekas’s own children are so compulsorily displayed that one could psychoanalyze the movie’s structure. And individual scenes, as clipped and brusquely smushed alongside one another as they are, eventually cycle through all of the classic tensions for which Mekas’s work is known: between the natural world and the urban world; between the static and the kinetic; and between invention and collection. One inspired splice seems to possess all of these binaries at once—at the moment a cat catches a mouse in a kitchen corner, a blurred burst of golden fireworks appears in the night sky. Within the overly sensate terms that inform the film’s logic, the relationship between these events might as well be causal. “This is reality,” Mekas says. What he doesn’t say is that Out-Takes represents one of the rare, splendiferous instances where Mekas proves himself as adept an architect of reality as he is a receptacle for its bounty of sensation.