still clings to
– Jonas Mekas, Daybooks 1970-19721
As we were approaching, closer and closer to the places we knew so well, suddenly in front of us we saw a forest. I did not recognize the places. There were no trees when we left. We planted small seedlings all around and now the little seedlings had grown up into big large trees.
– Jonas Mekas in Reminiscences of a Journey to Lithuania
“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.”
“This film consists of three parts. The first part is made up of footage I shot with my first Bolex during my first years in America, mostly from 1950-1953. It shows me and my brother Adolfas, how we looked in those days; miscellaneous footage of immigrants in Brooklyn, picnicking, dancing, singing; the streets of Williamsburg.
The second part was shot in August 1971, in Lithuania. Almost all of the footage come from Semeniskiai, the village I was born in. You see the old house, my mother (born 1887), all the brothers, goofing, celebrating our home-coming; you see it only through the memories of a Displaced Person back home for the first time in twenty five years. The third part begins with a parenthesis in Elmshorn, a suburb of Hambourg, where we spent a year in forced labor camp during the war. After the parenthesis closes, we are in Vienna where we see some of my best friends - Peter Kubelka, Hermann Nitsch, Annette Michelson, Ken Jacobs. You also see the Monastery of Kremsmuenster, the Stammdorff castel of Nitsch, the hous of Wittgenstein, etc. The film ends with the burning of the Vienna fruit market, August 1971.
The sound: I talk during much of the film, reminiscing about this and that. Mostly it’s about myself, as a Displaced Person, my relation to home, Memory, Culture, Up-rootedness, Childhood. There are a few Lithuanian song sung by all of the Mekas brothers (my brother Adolfas and his wife, Pola, was with me on the same trip, and eventually you’ll see Adolfas’ view of the same journey, shot with his 16mm Bolex, and Polas’ view shot with her 8mm Minolta). [...]”
Jonas Mekas – July 28, 19723
“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 Sitney4
“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.”
“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.”
- 1. Jonas Mekas, Daybooks 1970-1972 (New York: Portable Press at Yo-Yo Labs, 2003), 5.
- 2. Amy Taubin on Jonas Mekas, Documenta 14.
- 3. “Reminiscences of a Journey to Lithuania by Jonas Mekas,” Lightcone.org
- 4. P. Adams Sitney, Visionary Film. The American Avant-Garde 1943-2000 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002), 393.
- 5. Hannes Verhoustraete, “Prisma #27,’ Sabzian, 13 February 2019.