I make home movies—therefore I live.
I live—therefore I make home movies. (Jonas Mekas)
Jonas Mekas (b. Born in Semeniskiai, Lithuania 1922; d. New York City 2019) was without a doubt the world’s foremost advocate for personal/poetic/underground/avant-garde cinema. In his weekly Village Voice column “Movie Journal” (1959–1971), he chronicled the rise of the New American Cinema. As a courageous exhibitor he championed the (at the time) controversial works of Maya Deren, Gregory Markopoulos, Barbara Rubin, Jack Smith and Andy Warhol. To this day, New York’s Anthology Film Archives (founded by Mekas in 1970) continues his vision with an astounding 900+ screenings annually in its Lower East Side edifice.
Widely recognized for this advocacy and infrastructural vision, Mekas was also a prolific filmmaker whose personal, diary-style films are noted for their in-the-moment spontaneity and their joyous (if world-weary) introspection and attention to small moments of life. As a year-end echo to Cinematheque’s February 13 screening of Mekas’ Birth of a Nation (presented three weeks after his death)—which focused on relationships within the international filmmaking community—Cinematheque closes its 2019 exhibition year with a rare screening of Mekas’ legendary Walden (1964–69). Ever the drifting romantic (even if living as a self-proclaimed “raving maniac of the cinema”), Mekas’ 180-minute Walden is an epic tour-de-force of diaristic filmmaking, intimately embodying cinematic reaction to events of daily life—“situations, friends, seasons of the year”—in mid-to-late ‘60s New York City. Screening in 16mm, tonight’s program represents the first Bay Area screening of this major film in over twenty-five years.
Since 1950 I have been keeping a film diary. I have been walking around with my Bolex and reacting to the immediate reality: situations, friends, New York, seasons of the year. On some days I shot ten frames, on others ten seconds, still on others ten minutes. Or I shot nothing. When one writes diaries, it’s a 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. To go back and shoot it later, it would mean restaging, be it events or feelings. To get it now, as it happens, demands the total mastery of one’s tools (in this case, Bolex): it has to register the reality to which I react and also it has to register my state of feeling (and all the memories) as I react. Which also means, that I had to do all the structuring (editing) right there, during the shooting, in the camera. All footage that you’ll see […] is exactly as it came out from the camera: there was no way of achieving it in the editing room without destroying its form and content. Walden contains materials from the years 1965-69, strung together in chronological order. For the soundtrack I used some of the sounds that I collected during the same period: voices, subways, much street noise, bits of Chopin (I am a romantic), and other significant and insignificant sounds. “They tell me, I should be always searching; but I’m only celebrating what I see.”
— Jonas Mekas