No figure appears more firmly rooted in both the American avant-garde and downtown New York than Jonas Mekas: original film critic of The Village Voice; founder of the Film-Makers’ Cooperative, Anthology Film Archives, and Film Culture; mentor to generations of experimental artists. Yet
Lost Lost Lost, his newly restored three-hour diary collage, tells a very different story, one of exile, displacement, and longing. It was completed in 1976 out of footage shot during an almost 15-year span, from his arrival in New York in 1949 (as a postwar Lithuanian refugee) to his engagement with the budding independent film scene of the early ’60s. Assembled in a rough chronology, the cinematography evolves along with Mekas’s
artistic community: The earliest scenes, taken in an immigrant enclave Williamsburg of cobbled streets, trolley tracks, and hand-lettered storefronts, echo the European art film of montage, while later moments shot in Manhattan and upstate sing with the expressive handheld camerawork of the New American Cinema. Frames flutter through anti–Vietnam War protests and cinematheque screenings, woodland romps and seaside pleasures.
The effects of Mekas’s autobiographical 16mm reminiscences are quite distinct from the real-time immediacy of video diarists like Michel Auder, Sadie Benning, or Robert Frank (who appears briefly, shooting his own 1961 short The Sin of Jesus, in a chicken coop): The thingness of celluloid provides a more tactile index of loss, underscored by intertitles that speak from decades later (“I am trying to remember,” reads one). These are gnomic records of self-discovery, sealed in celluloid amber by their very act of creation. But this potently intimate epic transcends mere personal record to tap a universal sentiment. A photographic Homer of his own odyssey, Mekas journeys—like us all—in irrevocable exile from his own past, attempting to reconstruct that invisible nation of youth to which he can never return.