Inspired by a master, I send a (video) postcard from a beach in County Mayo


Logbook 3, pages 219-220

Inspired by Jonas Mekas and the video postcards he occasionally posts on his website jonasmekas.com/diary, I recently found myself discarding the complexity of the Super 35mm digital cinema camera (+ peripherals) for the simplicity of the pocket-sized iPhone. How did this happen?

Flashback. Last weekend…On a beach in County Mayo… I raised my iPhone, framed up a simple landscape shot, press record, and let it run for 60 seconds – One frame. One size. One shot. One minute.

Part in homage to Jonas Mekas, part an act of personal ‘note-taking’, I recorded a moment in time. I was so transfixed by the sheer beauty of the place, that I loosely framed the view around the rule of thirds and let the smartphone do its job, capturing the light, the colour, the movement, the line, pattern, shape and texture of the view before me. Nothing more; nothing less. There is nothing creatively or technically extraordinary about the recording. Yet, when I look back at it, I realise that what I have captured is just as valid as any other type of filmmaking.

 

Reading: Selections from Film Culture magazine (1955-1996)

Following on from my first look into the work of Jonas Mekas, I went in search of further references to Film Culture, the New York based magazine founded in 1954 by Jonas and Adolfas Mekas. Film Culture magazine evolved into the primary voice of independent and avant-garde cinema, publishing a total of 79 issues between the years 1955 – 1996.

Most of the magazine’s writers shared a belief in the poetic and ‘painterly possibilities’ of the film medium, defining cinema in lyrical or abstract terms rather than in terms of the narrative form of mainstream cinema.

I discovered twenty three articles from Film Culture magazine available on UbuWeb, a non-profit online resource of all things avant-garde.

Selections from Film Culture magazine (1955-1996)

The selection includes articles on experimental film, interviews with avant-garde filmmakers, transcripts and reports on symposiums, personal reflections, and a statement by Luis Buñuel.


References

Selections from Film Culture magazine At: http://www.ubu.com/papers/film_culture.html (Accessed on 6 April 2017)

Jonas Mekas

Fig. 1.

“When one writes diaries, it’s a retrospective process: you sit down, you look back at your day, and you write it all down. To keep a film (camera) diary, is to react (with your camera) immediately, now, this instant: either you get it now, or you don’t get it at all.” Jonas Mekas

Born in Lithuania in 1922, Janos Mekas left home during the Soviet invasion in 1940. He and his brother were confined in a labour camp in Germany. They were brought to the United States in 1949 by the UN Refugee Organisation.

After arriving in New York, Janos became involved in the avant-garde art scene. He frequented Amos Vogel’s Cinema 16. Then arranged his own screenings and began making his own films. His early films include Guns of the Trees (1961) and The Brig (1963), which won Grand Prizes at the Parretta Therme and Venice Film Festivals respectively. It was during the 1960s and 70s that he developed his signature diary style in films such as Walden (1969), Reminiscences of a Journey to Lithuania (1972) and Lost Lost Lost (1976).

During the 1950s he founded the journal Film Culture, which became the voice for American avant-garde cinema. He also ran the influential ‘Movie Journal’ column for Village Voice and established institutions such as the Film-Makers Cooperative and Anthology Film Archives.

Diaristic Film

He began making videos in the late 1980s. His 365-Day Project, in which he recorded a video every single day of his life for a year, was made in 2007. Talking about his 365-Day Project in an interview with Natasha Kurchanova in Studio International, Mekas says ‘I have a need to film small, almost invisible daily moments.’ These films, each of between 4 and 10 minutes long, present small, personal moments about his life and the life of his friends.  As we watch these short diaristic films, we see what he sees while he is filming, we see the way his eye moves and the way his body moves with the camera, we see the details upon which he focuses.

Mekas used a small Sony video camera to make these films. Talking about his filming and editing processes, he says: ‘When I film, I never know how a particular situation will end. So, I just go along with it, follow it with my camera, and permit this flow. […] I do almost all of my editing during the filming. My filming is like when one paints: all decisions of hand or brush movements are decided during the process of painting. […] For me, if I failed to get the essence of the moment during the filming, no amount of editing is going to get it.’

Figs 2 to 4

With his films, Jonas has given us a direct personal response to the world, keeping the direct contact between his camera and the moment preserved.” Martin Scorsese

What makes Janos Mekas such a fascinating filmmaker for me is his search for the essence of a moment as it happens, and the approach to filming and editing he adopts in achieving this goal. What’s interesting in his approach is that there is no obvious planning or design within his diaristic films in a conventional sense. Rather than having an idea of where a film will go, he just starts and sees where it leads him. I looked at three of his films, I Leave Chelsea Hotel (2009), A Walk (1990) and As I Was Moving Ahead Occasionally I Saw Brief Glimpses of Beauty (2000). All the three were fascinating examples of his diaristic style. Together, they embody what Martin Scorsese calls ‘a direct personal response to the world’. Yet, individually, they are quite different from each other in their responses to the moments that are captured and ‘preserved’.

One film that stood out for me, in terms of Mekas just starting and seeing where it leads him, is A Walk (1990). A Walk is exactly that, a record of a walk Mekas made in Soho, New York. It is also his first attempt at creating a single-shot film. Completely unrehearsed and unedited, the film captures an hour long walk in the rain he made starting from Wooster Street, where he was living at the time. Accompanying the film is an equally unrehearsed and unedited monologue, in which he shares musings, recollections and poetry in response to the ambience of the streets through which he passes. Whatever comes to his mind as he walks. What fascinated me most about this film is the unrehearsed, unedited, meandering nature of the film in both picture and sound. The way in which he has captured a moment in time as it happened. A moment in time that was not predicted and that will never be seen in that way again.

I Leave Chelsea Hotel (2009) is a wonderfully poetic piece of filmmaking. Filmed in 1967, in black & white, it shows Jonas Mekas leaving Chelsea Hotel and walking towards 7th Avenue. While watching the opening shot, we are led to believe that this is a simple record of him stepping out of the hotel with a stack of journals under one arm and a duffel back slung over the opposite shoulder and walking along the street. In actual fact, it is a sequence of shots repeating the same event; Mekas leaving Chelsea Hotel. Mekas manipulates time, presenting us with the same ‘event’ several times, with minor variations between. Yet, as the picture builds, it still feels fresh and unrehearsed. It’s like a memory recurring in thought, over and over. Which maybe, in a way, it is, as it was edited 40 years after being filmed.

Jonas Mekas is a fascinating and very endearing filmmaker, whose work I have quickly grown to admire. Having never heard of him or his work before, I am keen discover more about the way in which he and his films work.


References

Bogdanovich, P. (2015) ‘Jonas Mekas’ In: Interview Magazine [online] At: http://www.interviewmagazine.com/film/jonas-mekas [Accessed on 1 April 2017]

Kurchanova, N. (2015) ‘Jonas Mekas: I have a need to film small, almost invisible daily moments’ In: Studio International [online] At:  http://www.studiointernational.com/index.php/jonas-mekas-interview-365-day-project-microscope-gallery-brooklyn [Accessed on 1 April 2017]

A Walk (1990) Jonas Mekas https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_qj-LMIsM8c&t=6s (Accessed on 1 April 2017)

As I Was Moving Ahead Occasionally I Saw Brief Glimpses of Beauty – Paradise (2000) Jonas Mekas www.youtube.com/watch?v=NOwescpyMqQ (Accessed on 1 April 2017)

I Leave Chelsea Hotel (2009) Jonas Mekas http://jonasmekas.com/online_materials/#I_leave_chelsea_hotel (Accessed on 1 April 2017)

 

List of Illustrations

Figure 1. Jonas Mekas in New York (2015) Craig McDean, Interview Magazine, October 27, 2015

Figure 2. As I Was Moving Ahead Occasionally I Saw Brief Glimpses of Beauty (2000)

Figure 3. I Leave Chelsea Hotel,(2009)

Figure 4. A Walk (1990)

 

Exercise 7: Visual research and visual phenomena

Brief: Carry out some visual research by developing the ideas gathered in previous exercises, using either a stills or video camera to make images of a significant place, person or activity.

In preparation for this exercise, I looked at Paul Graham’s Television Portraits, Jonas Mekas’ As I Was Moving Ahead Occasionally I Saw Brief Glimpses of Beauty – Paradise and extracts from films by Nina Menkes. They offer three very different approaches to using still and moving images to visualise a person, place, situation or journey within their work.

 

Television Portraits (1986-90)

The images in Paul Graham’s Television Portraits (1986-90) depict children and young people watching TV. Photographed over a five year period, each image focuses on a single person, either sitting or lying down. In each portrait, the subject is in profile looking from left to right within the frame. As a whole, the short series of seven photographs can be seen as a subtle study in behaviour.

Paul Graham’s approach, within the context of visual research, shows how artists gather material on a theme over a period of time, before assembling it into a final piece of work. In this case a series of photographic portraits that visualise a group of individual people taking part in the daily activity of watching television.

Fig. 1 Paul Graham (1986)

 

As I Was Moving Ahead Occasionally I Saw Brief Glimpses of Beauty (2000)

Jonas Mekas’ film As I Was Moving Ahead Occasionally I Saw Brief Glimpses of Beauty (2000) offers a very different approach to the use of source material within an art work. In this case, the moving images themselves were the starting point for a five hour experimental documentary film in which the filmmaker re-constructs the previous 30 years of his life from home movie footage. Mekas’ voice-over in the film provides a commentary on and insights into what the viewer is seeing.

Fig. 2 Jonas Mekas (2000)

 

Nine images

Using photography as a way of visualising a significant place, I gathered a series of images showing the human and the natural along the bank of a nearby river. Having attempted this exercise, I can see the value in gathering visual data in the early stages of working on an idea.

         

See Fig. 3

However, although the images could be used as the starting point for an idea, I’m not entirely satisfied with the results. While the images record some of the things I saw while walking along the river, I don’t feel they engage sufficiently with the idea of the everyday having a natural narrative; with the ‘poetry of the everyday’ I found in Jonas Mekas’ film  As I Was Moving Ahead Occasionally I Saw Brief Glimpses of Beauty (2000)The next step might be to use the still images as the starting point in generating story ideas relating to character and place. Alternatively, the next step might be to return to the river with a video camera to gather some footage that could be used in a moving image.

 


References

Television Portaits (1986-90) Graham, Paul. At: http://www.paulgrahamarchive.com/television.html (Accessed on: 1 April 2017)

As I was Moving Ahead Occasionally I Saw Brief Glimpses of Beauty – Paradise (2000) Menkas, Jonas. At:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NOwescpyMqQ (Accessed on: 1 April 2017)

 

List of Illustrations

Figure 1. Graham, Paul (1986) Television Portraits At: http://www.paulgrahamarchive.com/television.html (Accessed on: 1 April 2017)

Figure 2. Mekas, Jonas (2000) As I was Moving Ahead Occasionally I Saw Brief Glimpses of Beauty – Paradise At:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NOwescpyMqQ (Accessed on: 1 April 2017)

Figure 3. Salisbury, P (2017) Nine images of the Owendoher river [Photographs] In possession of: The author: Dublin