The Camera Was Always Running
Jonas Mekas’s influence is endemic to experimental cinema. A practical and industrious supporter of what he termed the New American Cinema, Mekas cofounded the artist-run film distributor The Film-Makers’ Cooperative and the ever-influential Anthology Film Archives. As a writer and critic, he launched the erstwhile Film Culture magazine and wrote the weekly column “Movie Journal” for the Village Voice as the publication’s first film critic, where he championed avant-garde films and the artists who made them. All the while, Mekas was never without his camera, and his films act as animated diaries of a man who saw everything. These films are the subject of the Jewish Museum’s current retrospective, “Jonas Mekas: The Camera Was Always Running,” which aims to celebrate the multihyphenate’s devotion to moving images, as seen through 70 years of ardent filmmaking.
“I don’t really know where any piece of my life really belongs,” Mekas narrates in his diary film As I Was Moving Ahead Occasionally I Saw Brief Glimpses of Beauty (2000). “There is some kind of order in it, order of its own that I do not really understand.” This perception of the past and present intertwined—of the inexplicable reordering of life’s disparate moments through recollection in search of some greater meaning—is a persistent theme in Mekas’s films and serves as a structuring principle for curator Kelly Taxter’s presentation of his works. The exhibition opens with a wall of ephemera illustrating the Lithuanian émigré’s early interest in poetry and experience living in a Nazi forced-labor camp and various displaced-persons camps before his arrival in New York in 1949. Just beyond this display, a selection of 11 films—from Mekas’s first feature, the narrative Guns of the Trees (1962) to his hypnotic last, Requiem (2019)—cycle through a chronological loop on 12 screens in a black-walled space. Each film is cut into excerpts, which are displayed concurrently across the individual screens—an economical decision that allows a visitor to experience the program’s entirety in just over three hours.
How each film uses the screens is loosely determined by its individual structure. In the case of Walden (1969), Mekas’s first diary film and perhaps his most renowned, the film’s six reels are projected onto as many screens. The likenesses of John Lennon, Yoko Ono, Allen Ginsberg and countless other notable personalities are seen alongside more quotidian images of a friend’s garden, a barren Central Park in the wintertime and Mekas himself playing his accordion. In other films, the filmmaker’s use of intertitles is adopted as a sorting principle. At best, this spectacle produces a bizarre simultaneity that allows a viewer to interpret Mekas’s images through her own perceived juxtapositions, and find her own order among the “glimpses” that comprise his life.
I was fortunate to enter the gallery at the start of As I Was Moving Ahead where each screen was illuminated with intimate scenes of Mekas’s daily life—at-home haircuts, weddings in spring, mischievous house cats and tender moments of childhood—images of nondescript situations rendered exceptional in the artist’s care. To make the film, Mekas arranged 30 years of domestic memories according to the same chance operations that John Cage used to determine his musical compositions. A distinctly personal film for Mekas, it was also the last he shot entirely on 16mm. Film critic Ed Halter wrote in the Village Voice that the pace of the film creates “an environment rather than the story,” and indeed Mekas’s images, accompanied by his occasional narration and joyous accordion music, flood the gallery with a sweet vibrancy that imitates life’s erratic memories. An affecting and meditative environment is left in its wake.
Not every film benefits from the exhibition’s apportioned structure, which overall tends to distract from the mnemonic interplay that enlivens Mekas’s work. A Letter from Greenpoint (2004), which was shot on video and features long takes of boisterous conversation, becomes nearly incomprehensible in this setting. Made after he was vacated from the SoHo loft where he lived with his family for 40 years, the film shows a convivial Mekas convening with friends in his new Brooklyn home with an energy at once celebratory and nostalgic—the same energy that swells within each of his films. Here, the excerpted scenes are presented at odds, and I found myself longing to experience the film’s intended pace on a single screen.
Mekas once wrote that home movies and other such amateur footage have the potential to “sing with an unexpected rapture,” a phrase I kept returning to while reliving his images in my own memory. The composition of “The Camera Was Always Running” seeks to amplify this sentiment, but in the end Mekas’s films don’t need it. Still, the exhibition serves as a touching introduction to a roving and rapturous life. —Kaitlyn A. Kramer
Correction: This review was updated on May 11, 2022, to include Mekas’s time in various displaced-persons camps.
Jonas Mekas, Still from Walden (Diaries, Notes, and Sketches), 1969. 16mm film, color, sound, 180 minutes. Estate of Jonas Mekas.