Diaries, Notes, and Sketches ★★★★½

"I live… therefore I make films. I make films… therefore I live."

Continuing to dig into my out-of-region DVD set of a few Jonas Mekas films, and after the incredible shoot of the stage production of The Brig that is woefully underseen, it's time to move on to the avant-garde filmmaker's slightly more renowned projects. This afternoon takes me to the first of his "film diaries," that of Walden. Its original title was Diaries, Notes and Sketches (also known as Walden) -- like, the whole thing there was the title. Anyway.

Having been filming parts of his life for many years, and garnering glowing reviews for his short works and experimental pieces -- some made for personal use, some for exhibition, some with the idea of a longer project perhaps -- the Albright–Knox Art Gallery commissioned Mekas to take those sketches of New York life and the art world, and edit them into a cohesive film. The product was this three-hour free-flowing epic documentary that is incredible in scope and distinctive in style.

First, the content and production: Mekas of course had a vast wealth of footage, one of those artists who literally carried a camera around wherever he went. The focus of this particular film, as wide as it may be, was described thusly by the artist:

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 shoot ten frames, on others ten seconds, still on others ten minutes. Or I shoot nothing.... Walden contains material from the years 1964-1968 strung together in chronological order.

So, essentially what we have is a snapshot of the New York art scene -- the counterculture, avant-garde pioneers, Mekas' friends and peers (just a few: Stan Brakhage and his wife Jane, Carl Theodor Dreyer, Allen Ginsberg, Timothy Leary, John Lennon, Yoko Ono, Lou Reed, P. Adams Sitney, and Andy Warhol) -- presented in reel after reel. They are literally labeled "Reel One" and so on, and along with other text and intertitles there's a connection to what on the surface may seem like random events and moments.

Though at times termed "home movies" by even Mekas himself, the scenes and shots in Walden are radically different from your mom's 1980s camcorder videos of your older brother making you cry on Christmas morning. (Oh, that's just me? Hm, moving on.) The pace shifts from warm and innocent to breakneck and frenetic. Some of that is what's being filmed, with kinetic events and free-wheeling people always on the move, but a majority of the look and feel is from the editing and purposeful kaleidoscopic montage.

Sound rarely matches up with the clips in Walden. Much of that was surely by necessity, with Mekas working with his Bolex 16 mm camera and all types of film stock -- switching from color to black-and-white depending on what was available, and with varying degrees of quality and acoustics with his Nagra and a Sony audio recorders -- but it's also by choice and design. As Chantal Akerman showed in her own 70s New York montage of News From Home, a film with a markedly different pace and structure, sound could be edited and laid on the picture with care in post-production.

Sometimes we get a soundtrack, sometimes narration or poetic ruminations by Mekas, and sometimes it's ambient or environmental sounds tuned up or tuned down for distorting effect. Since we're in New York here, sounds of the subway are ubiquitous, and Mekas has long stretches of the film with rumbling and screeching and air movement providing the score of sorts. But a few trips to the wintry woods and countryside with Stan Brakhage -- along with the beloved fluffy donkey, Roscoe -- make for sharp breaks in the urban scenes that precede and follow them, and nature instead dominates what we see and hear.

Above all else, the renegade editing and sped-up reels are the defining characteristics of Walden, making a three-hour film feel half its length because of the speed and non-stop movement of every scene. But most importantly, it's a document of an era by an auteur who makes it all feel new again. Vincent Canby of The New York Times wrote briefly, in a more profound way: "Mekas has a remarkable gift for making us see, as if for the first time, what we've been looking at all our lives." Another mark of a true genius, this is an underground sensation.

Andrew liked this review