Jonas and Adolfas Mekas arrived in America in 1949, they were former prisoners of German labor camps, exiled from their Lithuanian village. Wanted by the Soviet police, they left, not to return for 27 years. This film is the compelling document of a divided family and their long-delayed reunion. A film diary divided into three episodes. In the first part Jonas Mekas tells about his time as emigrant in New York in 1950s, after leaving the home country of Lithuania. The second part depicts his first trip back there, while the last is filmed during a stay in Vienna shortly afterwards. Together, it becomes a lyrical odyssey on love, loss, and memory.
“In the spoken narration at the start of Reminiscences of a Journey to Lithuania, over footage of a stroll through the woods in 1959, Mekas recalls with pleasure not having to think about the previous decade, the war and its aftermath. It was, he says, a new beginning, the dawning of a process of assimilation: "There was a moment when I forgot my home." And then: "Hey, I escaped the ropes of time once more" (accompanied by a shot of a nooselike strand of rope dangling from a tree). An entry in his 1961 diary about a group of recent films strikes a note that reverberates constantly in his public pronouncements: "New is moral, it liberates, it frees. Today all old is corrupt, it drags man down, and I am putting my bets on the young and the new" (Diaries, 12 July 1961). Don't look back. Democracy is in the streets. Admittedly, this was a standard line in sixties radicalism of every stripe, yet it suggests one route by which Mekas found his biographical and aesthetic particularities reflected in the emerging counterculture.”
still clings to
Jonas Mekas, Daybooks 1970-19722
“In the fifty-five years that I’ve known Jonas Mekas, I have never seen him without a camera, ready to use. First it was a 16 mm Bolex, then a series of video and digital recording devices. Today, most often, it’s a mobile phone. Mekas refers to himself simply as a “filmer” these days, rather than as a filmmaker. He never conceived of himself as a ‘film director.’ Looking back at his enormous body of work in literature – poetry, essays, journals – and in film and photography, Mekas concludes that the form binding all of it together is the diary.”
“In Reminiscences of a Journey to Lithuania, he again confronts footage from the early fifties, but juxtaposes it to material collected on his return to Lithuania. Though he is there restored to his mother, neither his childhood nor the prewar rural society may be regained; nor can he stay there, for that would now entail the loss of the postwar years spent in New York – a double bind in whose terrors all exiles live.”
David E. James4
“Unlike the literary diary, the film diary does not follow a day-by-day chronology. Structurally, it corresponds more to a notebook, but in its drive towards a schematic or fragmented expression of the totality of the film-maker’s life, it is more like a diary, perhaps one in which the entry dates have been lost and the pages scrambled. Mekas and younger diarists such as Andrew Noren and Warren Sonbert devote their creative energy to shooting, constructing, and revising their filmed lives.
Mekas’s Diaries, Notes and Sketches (1964–1969) and Reminiscences of a Journey to Lithuania (1971) are exercises in Romantic autobiography. Mekas constantly weaves together celebrations of the present moment, immediately and unironically present on the screen, with elegiac and ironic allusions to a presence that is forever absent to the camera lens: the vision of nature and of his childhood. Like all of the films brought together in this chapter, Mekas’s two diaries are versions of the myth of lost innocence and the failed quest for its recovery. The credo of his commitment to the Romantic dialectic is an article from 1964, ‘Notes on Some New Movies and Happiness,’ in which he combines observations on the films of Ken Jacobs, Ron Rice, Joseph Cornell, and others with thoughts on happiness and sadness from his childhood memories.
He writes: ‘It is neither a coincidence nor anything strange that exactly the same men who have tasted a fool’s happiness, give us also the deepest intuitions of the tragic sense of life. Imitation of the true emotion. Sentimentality. No oneness. No true peace. (Who knows what true peace is?) Nostalgia of things of nature. Or are we going into neo-Romanticism? And what does it mean? Or am I going into neo-Romanticism? And this essay is nothing but pieces of my own new film? Perhaps’.”
P. Adams Sitney5
“In his discussion of documentary film, Cavell claims that the foregrounding of the filmmaker’s presence is ‘a guilty impulse’ that stems from ‘the denial of the only thing that really matters: that the subject be allowed to reveal itself’. The outcome of this denial is a foreclosure of the possibility of revelation. In Mekas’ films the acknowledgement of the filmmaker’s presence results in something far more ambiguous: a rendition of our place in the world in which the experiences of home and homelessness are inextricably intertwined. In Reminiscences of a Journey to Lithuania evidence of this can be found in the filmmaker’s rendition of his experiences in Semeniškiai. Yet even before we arrive in the village, the film preempts the experience of displacement. In Part 1 Mekas employs many of the images that will reappear five years later in Lost Lost Lost: street footage of the neighborhood of Williamsburg in Brooklyn shot a year or two after the filmmaker’s arrival; displaced persons disembarking at Pier 21 in New York; the émigré poets, artists, and writers gathering at Lape’s house in Stony Brook. He also uses the images of the happy picnickers gathered at the St Andrews Annual Lithuanian Picnic. But in Reminiscences of a Journey to Lithuania the voice-over narration creates a very different impression of their lives:
Somewhere at the end of Atlantic Avenue, somewhere there they used to have their picnics. I used to watch them, the old immigrants and the new ones, and they looked to me like some sad dying animals in a place they didn’t exactly belong to, in a place they didn’t recognize. They were there on the Atlantic Avenue, but they were completely somewhere else.”
- 1Paul Arthur, "Routines of Emancipation: Alternative Cinema in the Ideology and Politics of the Sixties", in To Free the Cinema. Jonas Mekas & The New York Underground, edited by David E. James, 22-23. Princeton University Press, 1992.
- 2Jonas Mekas, Daybooks 1970-1972 (New York: Portable Press at Yo-Yo Labs, 2003), 5.
- 3Amy Taubin on Jonas Mekas, Documenta 14.
- 4David E. James, "Film Diary/Diary Film: Practice and Product in Walden", in To Free the Cinema. Jonas Mekas & The New York Underground, edited by David E. James, 167. Princeton University Press, 1992.
- 5P. Adams Sitney, Visionary Film. The American Avant-Garde 1943-2000 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002), 393.
- 6George Kouvaros, "Ithaka, or the Open Voyage: Jonas Mekas' Lost Lost Lost and Reminiscences of a Journey to Lithuania," Screening the Past.
“Zijn herinneringen kijken terug en in het voorbijgaan kan hij ze nog net een kleine vorm geven: iets als een beletselteken (‘En ook wij’). Poëzie ontstaat pas nabij die van anderen. Wanneer ze langs de beeldrand zijn zelfportret binnenstappen, is Mekas tegelijk gast en gastheer. Hij kan alleen thuiskomen in het filmen. Een gebaar als een ingesleten maaibeweging om iets mee te nemen, vorm te geven en vergeefs te behoeden voor een onherroepelijk verdwijnen.”