Writing in this publication in 1963, Jonas Mekas broke from his usual poetic polemics for the New American Cinema to praise the rough loveliness of everyday home movies, mooning momentarily over these flickery bits of folk art composed of “awkward footage that will suddenly sing with an unexpected rapture.” This desegregation of the artistic and the amateur wasn’t mere theory to Mekas. As the father of American avant-garde cinema (in addition to installing himself as the Voice‘s first film columnist, he founded the journal Film Culture, the distributors the Filmmakers’ Co-op, and Anthology Film Archives), proud papa Mekas retooled the home-movie form to record the happenings of his cinematic pseudo-family, assembling his footage into an epic multihour diary cycle that includes Walden (1969) and Lost, Lost, Lost (1975). These constitute a film archive of a different sort, anthologizing personal moments with colleagues Stan Brakhage, Ken Jacobs, Andy Warhol, and others.
His latest installment, the ultra-long-form As I Was Moving Ahead Occasionally I Saw Brief Glimpses of Beauty, likewise celebrates life’s “unexpected raptures.” As I Was Moving Ahead focuses on the domestic world of the Mekas family proper, shot on jittery, mellow 16mm color-reversal stock during the last three decades of the 20th century. Mekas maintains his signature cinematographic style, a homespun handheld vision that moves and breathes like life, in spurts, with speed-ups, stops, and starts. Golden-haired wife Hollis and smiling, angelic daughter Oona are the clear stars of this production, living in front of Mekas’s camera with a joyous ease that any actor would envy.
While this is an unabashedly happy film, composed of thousands of shots of what Mekas calls “little fragments of paradise,” it’s by no means a straightforward kids-on-Kodak affair. The nearly five-hour run is broken into 12 chapters with an intermission. Composed neither chronologically nor thematically but rather lyrically, the film is cut to the logic of poetic associations of emotion and image. Within each chapter, segments are introduced by title cards typewritten with simple setups like “home scenes” or “Oona performs,” as well as more enigmatic asides like “this is a political film” or “I am trying to remember.”
The silent footage is complemented by fuzzy-miked commentary by Mekas (recorded years later, in his editing suite) and a melancholy original score, plaintively improvised on piano by fellow Lithuanian artist Auguste Varkalis. Bits of audio collage come and go: tape recordings of friends discussing Nietzsche over drinks, the kids singing “Happy Birthday” to daddy. In one sequence, a trip to the seashore with Hollis runs to nothing but the soft sputtering sounds of wind in a microphone, providing a sublime musique brut score.
Things happen—picnics in Central Park, romps on Cape Cod, snowball fights in Madison, Wisconsin—but there’s no plot here. The pace remains constant throughout, creating an environment rather than a story. Mekas plays this up with several wry comments, once calling his work “a film about people who never argue or have fights and love each other.”
As I Was Moving Ahead serves not just as a meditation on the nature of cinema, beauty, and time, but also as a monument to the bonds of family and friends. Mekas’s diaries have always quivered with the tensions between past and present. This one, created by an artist soon to enter his eighth decade, finds a secret paradise in the rich harvests of a lifetime’s memories.