Time Regained in an Underground Master’s Lyrical Diary Films


The third New York Film Festival is an organized and well-sponsored undertaking to prevent New Yorkers from seeing what’s really going on in cinema,” Jonas Mekas wrote here in 1965, when he doubled as Voice film critic and underground cinema programmer/promoter-at-large. “The avant-garde is being kept out. There is an open fear of poetry.”

Some of the cinematic poetry Mekas advocated did find its way uptown, however, when the fourth New York Film Festival included a “special events program” devoted to a new movement called independent cinema. And in the past seven years, the abstract works of Brakhage, Markopoulos, and numerous others have screened at the NYFF as part of its avant-garde sidebar, which mixes canonical figures from the experimental world with younger lesser-knowns who are frequently second- or third-generation protégés of the ’60s masters. Now Mekas’s own art is showcased as one of this year’s “Views” programs, which screens eight of his lyrical diary films. Mekas’s process is retrospective: Having shot footage compulsively and intuitively since his arrival in the U.S. from Lithuania in 1949, he revisits the images, sometimes decades later, to craft new, lightly edited works. Consequently, his films quiver with the complex temporal disjunctions reminiscent of the mind’s less material memories, enhanced by Mekas’s distinctive cinematographic style, which mimics the fluctuating kinetic pulses and extempore refocusings of everyday perception.

Though Mekas has made multi-hour recollective symphonies, these films are much briefer, some only three minutes long. Travel Songs 1967-1981 (2003) collects five silent documents of trips to Italy, Moscow, and Stockholm; they weave images of café conversations, hand-delivered film canisters, children under church steeples, and zipping European countrysides. Similarly merry is Williamsburg, Brooklyn (1949-2003), made from footage taken during the neighborhood’s immigrant “golden age.” A more tortured emotional landscape is evoked in Song of Avignon (1998), in which nighttime blackness plays over Angus MacLise reading from Mekas’s 1966 diaries; Mekas’s words mention “that terrible loneliness and happiness” that could overtake him. In his films, these emotions, weathered from terror to beauty through the seas of time, in turn envelop the viewer.