Brief Glimpses of Mekas

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11/24/2002

2nd St. and 2nd Avenue. Ny

Neighborhood: Lower East Side

Late last year the 78-year-old filmmaker and archivist Jonas Mekas debuted his new diary film. The title, awkward but precise, is, “As I Was Moving Ahead Occasionally I Saw Brief Glimpses of Beauty.” Its running time is around five hours, so it can only play once in an evening. On the first night of its run, Mekas held a little reception in the Maya Deren Theater at Anthology Film Archives.

Anthology Film Archivesis Mekas’ invention. It houses over 1200 avant-garde movies in a big renovated courthouse on Second Avenue and East Second Street. (Its previous homes were at 80 Wooster Street and, for a short time, Joe Papp’s Public Theater). Tonight attendees gulp cheap wine and chomp on crackers and sausage while Mekas tries to avoid conversation with people he doesn’t already know. A tipsy woman approaches him. “I’m here all the time,” she says. “I just think you’re great. ŒWhere’s Jonas?’ I ask people whenever I’m here. They never tell me.” Mekas tips his fedora and walks slowly to the wine table. “I’ll tell you, he’s a legend,” the woman says to her friend.

After a half-hour or so, the food is cleared and the film begins. Like Mekas’ other diary work, it’s a collage of images with diverse musical accompaniment and Mekas’ own voice-over narration. This particular film covers the last thirty years, focusing on the birth of Mekas’ children and his general domestic life: no John Lennon, no Warhol, no Edie Sedgewick dancing onstage with the Velvet Underground. Instead, we see his little girl running around the Mekas’ Soho apartment; we watch the family fool around during a visit to the ocean; the children, graceless and beautiful, ice-skate in snowy Central Park. The images are grainy, handheld, and infused with that weird home-movie pathos that can elicit tears even during the happiest moments. The critic Andre Bazin wrote that movies are “change mummified,” and the ragged amateurishness of the images fix them all the more indelibly in memory – just like the ugliest, oldest monster-movie mummy is always hardest for the hero to destroy. Since all Mekas’ diaries are a sort of love poem to New York, the movie is especially poignant in light of the recent citywide trauma. He sounds tired on the voice-over until the end of the movie, when his voice builds and becomes louder and he begins to play the accordion like a madman as the final scenes flash across the screen. Even after a typewritten card has announced “the end” and the screen’s gone black, we still hear him playing and singing hoarsely away as though he’s fighting the fact that the film has to end at all, ever.

When the lights come up, it becomes clear that the audience has thinned considerably. Mekas comes to the front of the theater and puts his arms out like he wants to hug everyone. “If you want to stay, I’ll get some wine out,” he says. He’s already had quite a bit. A few people gather around him in a circle as he opens the last bottle. He pours for everyone and raises his glass. “Thank you, my friends,” he says, and drinks. Nobody speaks. The little group stands in silence for a few minutes, shuffling its feet. Occasionally Mekas says a word or two to the guy next to him, who composed original music for the film. Mekas takes a last sip of wine and suddenly, grumpily, says “Let’s be done with this nonsense. Let’s clean up. Time to go home.” As the little group files out into the cold, Mekas shuffles slowly across the lobby of the Archive. He finally escapes from everyone somewhere in the depths of the unassuming brick building, which holds his life’s work and which functions to protect and preserve.

An old picture of Mekas.

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