Attendees of the avant-garde have moments when they remember discovering the movement—in the classroom, perhaps, or at the Bleecker Street Cinema. That they remember discovering the avant-garde as a whole instead of particular avant-garde filmmakers is due largely to one man, the subject of Visionaries: Jonas Mekas and the (Mostly) American Avant-Garde. Mekas was a Lithuanian poet exiled to America after WWII, tongue-tied and so poor that he and his brother Adolfas sometimes only had enough money for one movie ticket between them. At first he loathed the work of filmmakers like Maya Deren, Stan Brakhage, and Kenneth Anger, who often cast themselves in the lead roles of life-and-death struggles toward self-actualization. Eventually he came to believe that they were the closest cinema had to poets, and championed them with force and vigor (in time becoming a filmmaker himself). He set up screenings, founded a film magazine, and became The Village Voice’s first film critic simply by walking into the office and asking why the paper didn’t already have one.
Mekas’s criticism was irascible, confrontational, and polemical. None of those adjectives should be used to describe Visionaries, a disgusting lovefest and a piece of amorphous fluff. In clip after clip, people sing Mekas’s praises; the deepest Mekas himself digs is “I am a raving maniac of the cinema,” uttered with a big goofy smile.
The man directing this stuff is Chuck Workman, probably most famous for Oscar clip shows (his 1994 short 100 Years at the Movies often shows on TCM). Accordingly, much of the film consists of clips from avant-garde films, ranging from Anger’s celebrated Fireworks to Shirley Clarke’s lesser-known Bridges-Go-Round. For people unfamiliar with the avant-garde (and even for those who are familiar), these snippets are valuable. The problem is that Workman has no clue how to make a narrative with them.
The story of interest is how the avant-garde got to be taken seriously, or better yet how the avant-garde got to be defined at all. I’m still struggling with the term myself, which seems increasingly to be a catch-all for work lacking professional actors and a discernible narrative. Visionaries doesn’t address these questions (instead, go read Peter Decherney’s Hollywood and the Culture Elite, Scott MacDonald’s Cinema 16, and P. Adams Sitney’s Visionary Film); the closest it gets to a definition is Mekas praising every film that breaks with tradition, which in some way refers to every movie ever made.
What we sometimes get in lieu of exploration are fuzzy profiles devoted to Anger and Brakhage, among others, with filmmakers laughing and smiling throughout. The movie’s quite right in showing the avant-garde as an enormously diverse movement; Anger’s saturated colors and rock-pop scores feel nothing like Brakhage’s silent millisecond-long family flashes. Goofily misleading as the frequent shots of a jam-packed Anthology Film Archives are, the movie’s also quite right in showing Mekas’s friends’ influence on current filmmakers from Su Friedrich to David Lynch. But there’s a deep, rich, unexplored history here of immigrant filmmakers, distributors, and programmers like Iris Barry, Maya Deren, and Amos Vogel fighting to preserve cinema by creating their own definition of it, a history of which Mekas is only one part. To omit that history while grinning at the results feels like an enormously shortsighted waste.
Visionaries played on April 22, 28, 29, and May 1 as part of this year’s Tribeca Film Festival. For more information click here.