Jonas Mekas has played many roles in his life—poet, student, political prisoner, Lithuanian exile, film critic (the Voice‘s first), publisher, canon-builder, polemicist, Romantic, friend, husband, father. For over half a century he has recorded himself performing these parts surrounded by loved ones, a drive to document that has yielded intimate epics as well as quick sketches. His film and video works—many of which were presented at Anthology Film Archives, the theater he founded, on the occasion of his 90th birthday in December, and many more of which are available for viewing at jonasmekasfilms.com—have often been willfully minor, but they’ve never been disposable. These provisional glimpses of daily life are also its lasting registers. “Memories are gone,” he says in voiceover during his new feature, Out-Takes From the Life of a Happy Man, which presents much previously private footage over the course of its 68 minutes. “But the images are real, and they are here.”
Out-Takes begins with Mekas near his editing viewfinder. It’s late at night, and our insomniac has turned to his archives. “Only the filmmakers are awake,” he says in a halting voice, as images play of a puffy-haired woman curled up on the grass and smiling shyly. Her name is Hollis Melton, and she and Mekas were married for more than 20 years before separating. She often appears playing with or holding Oona and Sebastian, the couple’s two infant children, both now long since grown up.
Images race by of snowy city walks, sunlit relaxing in parks, and late-night drinks at home. Mekas himself sometimes shows up as a willowy, angular man who seems to have rounded and mellowed with age. Throughout, Out-Takes contrasts his different selves. The older Mekas periodically appears whistling and listening to rock music in his studio as he edits and projects his life, drinking in his present moment. The younger Mekas flashes in and out along with friends and family members, all of whom appear in shots that are just long enough to be absorbed, after the manner of the filmmaker’s previous Bolex-recorded treasures. This silent 16mm footage, often scored here with choral chanting, has been glowingly transferred to video. Though they capture the past, these preserved images exist to please whoever receives them in the present.
Yet while our hero is happy to share his outtakes with new companions (Mekas’s title, like his persona, is sincere), a sense emerges that he will stay lonely. “Is there anyone who doesn’t sleep nights thinking about the meaning of the city, the night, the sadness, and oneself?” he asks. The source of this sadness is the happy man’s secret, hinted at up through the very last shot.