After five decades of filming himself, his family, and assorted luminaries of pop and underground culture, the original home-movie mix master (and this paper’s first film critic), Jonas Mekas, ventures no further than his living room for his latest time-memory opus. At 286 minutes, Lithuania and the Collapse of the USSR is a vacuum-tube epic composed almost entirely of TV news footage videotaped by Mekas right off the screen as he was watching it, from the moment his Baltic homeland declared its independence in March of 1990 to its induction into the United Nations in September of 1991.
No mere idiot box this: For Mekas, who emigrated to America in 1949, the filmed image has always been a way of commuting with the past and with his own sense of cultural displacement, and the roughly 18-inch, over-the-air TV signal (complete with periodic interference) that dominates Lithuania is no exception. It allows Mekas return passage to a country that has in many ways remained frozen in time since he left, while giving him a front-row seat as the tiny nation of 3.4 million becomes the first wobbling domino in the toppling of mighty Mother Russia. That the images are re-photographed rather than merely re-purposed is essential, for with every bob and weave of his camcorder, each abrupt changing of the channel, Mekas manages to do something remarkable—he personalizes the evening news.
As much a diary film as Walden, Lost, Lost, Lost, or As I Was Moving Ahead . . . , albeit with a more fixed chronology, Lithuania differs from the Mekas norm primarily in its cast of characters. Instead of such frequent subjects as John Lennon, Andy Warhol, Jack Smith, and brother Adolphas Mekas, the no less star-studded Lithuania features major roles by George H.W. Bush, Mikhail Gorbachev, and the Lithuanian president, Vytautas Landsbergis, as well as a who’s-who of ’90’s network news titans, including David Brinkley, Tom Brokaw, Sam Donaldson, and Jim Lehrer. Divided into four chapters, the movie follows blow-by-blow as the humbling will of the people chips away at the might of hammer and sickle, throughout which the background noises and sideshow actions of Mekas’s apartment happily intrude upon the course of world events. A child cries; a telephone rings; Mekas asks for a replacement battery pack; and, in a juxtaposition so dada it almost seems planned, Gorbachev’s chief power rival, newly elected Russian president Boris Yeltsin, speaks of his non-interference accord with the breakaway Balkan republics while the theme song from the 1984–1992 sitcom Who’s the Boss? drifts in from an adjacent room.
Making for an echo chamber of a different sort, Bush channels Yogi Berra by telling reporters that he “doesn’t want to make the wrong mistake” with regard to possible U.S. action in Lithuania (at that point being squeezed by Moscow-imposed economic sanctions). By the time the film—and the blockade—enters its final act, the events are losing airtime to reports of another incipient foreign conflict, this one in Iraq.
A record of change not just in the Baltics, but in the landscape of televised news and, to an extent, television itself, Lithuania unfolds during the last gasp of the Big Three networks as masters of their domain—before CNN’s night-vision cameras turned Operation Desert Storm into a ratings bonanza and ushered in the age of the 24-hour news cycle. There is a strong nostalgia in Mekas’s homemade recordings: for the primacy of television as a broadcast medium, for the revolutionary wonder of live images beamed via satellite, and for an intelligence in broadcast journalism all but obliterated by the he-said/she-said, cable-news turf wars. Yet as we watch Mekas watch, it’s impossible not to consider that a 21st-century Lithuania would be filmed less from television screens than from laptops and BlackBerrys. Moreover, the images coming across would be as likely to hail from professional cameramen as from armchair videographers like Mekas himself. From the streets of Lower Manhattan to the skies over Baghdad, today, all one needs is a cell phone to catch history in the making.