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terça-feira, 17 de novembro de 2015

Jonas Mekas’s ‘Walden’ and ‘Lost Lost Lost’: Avant-garde Autobiography

Among his many accomplishments, the avant-garde film champion Jonas Mekas, now 92, pioneered the so-called diary film, based on the idea of documenting one’s life as it unfolds.
Almost from the moment that he arrived in New York in 1949, along with as younger brother, Adolfas (who died in 2011), Mr. Mekas (pronounced MEEK-us) — a 27-year-old Lithuanian displaced person and former student of philosophy — set about recording his new environment in 16 millimeter. In the late 1960s, he began exhibiting chunks of this continuing chronicle in installments called “Diaries, Notes and Sketches.” Two of these, “Walden” (1969) and “Lost Lost Lost” (1976), each running nearly three hours, are now available in fine Blu-ray transfers, along with a number of Mr. Mekas’s shorter films, from Kino Lorber.
Dedicated to the motion picture pioneer Lumière, “Walden” established Mr. Mekas’s reputation as a personal filmmaker nonpareil. Then best known as a columnist for The Village Voice and as its film-department editor (who published my first piece for the paper), Mr. Mekas had made several striking short movies and two stridently anti-militarist features: the poetic drama “Guns of the Trees” (1961) and “The Brig” (1964), a filmed record of the Living Theater’s production of Kenneth H. Brown’s play of the same name. “Walden,” shot with a hand-held camera and characterized by wildly kinetic bursts of imagery, broke new ground; with it, Mr. Mekas freed himself from both conventional film technique and narrative restraint.


Photo
Jonas Mekas in “Lost Lost Lost” (1976). CreditKino Lorber
Although “Walden” takes its title from Thoreau, its spirit may be closer to that of Whitman. Mr. Mekas not only sings the song of himself but also of cinema, annotating his footage with interpolated titles and his heavily accented voice-over: “I make home movies, therefore I live.” His fellow avant-garde filmmakers are also prominent, most notably Stan Brakhage. (Much of the fourth reel documents a trip to the Rocky Mountain cabin that was home to Mr. Brakhage and his young family. Perhaps ironically, the sequence is accompanied by music that sounds lifted from a Hollywood biblical spectacular.)
Although the focus is largely on people, “Walden” has passages of pure cinema that feel like spontaneous jazz riffs. Shooting a day breaking over the Bronx through the window of a moving train, Mr. Mekas orchestrates a percussive jumble, with a great orange sun bouncing over a jittery skyline. At times, he seems like the last Impressionist, in his mix of bucolic and urban subject matter as well as his crazy energy. “Walden” is essentially a welter of fragmentary sensations.
It’s also an offhanded social history. Filming his friends and colleagues, Mr. Mekas documents be-ins and peace marches as well as the first performances of the Velvet Underground and a society wedding in Newport, R.I.; the movie ends with a “bed-in” staged by John Lennon and Yoko Ono in the spring of 1969, only months before the film’s premiere.
“Walden” is a diary; “Lost Lost Lost,” shot mainly in somber black and white, is more a memoir. The first two reels mainly concern the Lithuanian neighborhood in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, where Mr. Mekas and his brother settled. The middle two reels, frequently accompanied by elegiac musical passages from Wagner, show the brothers relocated to the East Village in Manhattan, participating in a new community of Beat poets and political protest. The last two reels, largely set in rural Vermont, where Adolfas shot his 1963 feature “Hallelujah the Hills,” presage “Walden”: Mr. Mekas is now a leading figure in the underground film movement, making short, antic films he calls haikus.
“Lost Lost Lost” is my favorite of Mr. Mekas’s films, in part because of the powerfully ambivalent way it tells an archetypal American story, namely that of an immigrant’s rebirth in the New World. It’s striking how analogous Mr. Mekas’s footage of the Lithuanian exile community is to that found in “Walden” — a mix of weddings, children at play, political demonstrations, snowy streets, afternoons in the park and trips to Times Square.
“I am filming my childhood, not New York,” Mr. Mekas once said. For him, filmmaking is an attempt, failed and yet triumphant, to regain a paradise lost.
A 13-minute excerpt from “Walden” is one of the 37 films included in “Masterworks of American Avant-Garde Experimental Film 1920-1970,” a dual Blu-ray/DVD multi-disc set out from Flicker Alley.
Curated by Bruce Posner, the set remasters many of the American movies from the 1920s and 1930s found on Kino’s three-volume 2005-9 double-DVD series “Avant-Garde,” as well as others included in Mr. Posner’s seven-DVD “Unseen Cinema: Early American Avant-Garde Film 1894-1941,” from 2005. Two crucial films not present on either earlier set but included in Flicker Alley’s box are the original, silent version of “Meshes of the Afternoon” (1943), by Maya Deren and Alexander Hackenschmied (later known as Alexander Hammid), and “In the Street” (1948), by Helen Levitt, Janice Loeb and James Agee. If I had to choose the two great avant-garde movies of the 1940s, it would be these.
As different as the tricksy psychodrama “Meshes of the Afternoon” is from the deceptively artless observation of “In the Street,” “Masterworks” would be well worth having for these marvelous works alone — not to mention such sensational near-abstractions as “An Optical Poem” (1937), made by Oskar Fischinger for MGM, and Kenneth Anger’s “Eaux d’Artifice” (1953), set among the fountains of Villa d’Este in Tivoli, Italy. A particular standout among the set’s newly restored films is Bruce Baillie’s 10-minute “Castro Street” (1966), transferred with rich, subtle colors and evident film grain intact.
A tour de force of predigital special effects, “Castro Street” transforms an industrial stretch of Richmond, Calif., into the visual equivalent of musique concrète and, like several other items in the set, is, minute for minute, one of the most inventive motion pictures ever made.
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