“I Had Nowhere to Go” Strands Viewers in the Dark With Jonas Mekas


Why was I Had Nowhere to Go (2016) made? Jonas Mekas, the 95-year-old icon of American avant-garde cinema, has made many movies — a few of them masterpieces — about his own life. He has published poems, film criticism, and diaries. Douglas Gordon’s atmospheric sound-art adaptation adds little to what we know of Mekas, who has shared portions of his life with the public for six decades.

Based on Mekas’s diaries published in 1991 (Spector Books published a new edition last year) under the same name, Nowhere to Go surveys 1944 to 1954. The film’s subtitle is A Portrait of a Displaced Person, but it’s more of a mosaic, one that evokes the color of memories long past. Moreover, the film has some merit as a kind of documentation, for on the soundtrack, Mekas reads passages from his diary, his voice soft, lilting, accented. The entries cover his leaving his small Lithuanian village, his capture and placement first in a Nazi labor camp in Elmshorn, Germany, and then in displaced persons camps in Wiesbaden and Kassel/Mattenberg, and finally his move to Williamsburg in Brooklyn. Nowhere to Go is nonlinear; without clear organizing logic, the film alternates between his time in the camps and his early experiences in New York. As the film progresses, the stories Mekas tells blend together. A few dramatic or comic ones fully resonate: the Nazi who stomped on the first photo Mekas took; the trunks full of books Mekas brought to the displaced persons camp; the fuck-you’s that Mekas describes striking, as his co-workers uttered them, a kind of musical note.

Save for a few shots of Mekas, primates, potatoes and beets, and bare feet walking in the snow, Nowhere to Go is virtually imageless. By forcing the viewer to stare at a black screen (which transitions to first red, then white, and finally blue at select moments), Gordon draws attention to sound: the grain of Mekas’s voice; the notes from a violin and accordion; the ambient city noise of engines, sirens, and faint honking; typewriters typing and machine guns unloading a stream of bullets. Gordon creates immersive soundscapes that rely on the viewer’s imagination to associate the content of Mekas’s words with a time, place, and feeling: walking on Broadway in the 1950s or hearing bombs exploding near the Elmshorn camp.

Although it reveals little new about Mekas, Nowhere to Go is a characteristic Gordon work. The Glasgow, Scotland–born, Berlin-based, Turner Prize–winning artist is preoccupied with culture, cultural icons, and memory, all of which shape two of his most famous works: 24 Hour Psycho (1993), which slows down the Hitchcock film so that it lasts a day; and Zidane: A 21st Century Portrait (2006), in which Gordon employed seventeen cameras to capture the soccer player during a match from what seemed like every possible angle.

Mekas, who has built his career on recording his memories, seems like the ideal subject for Gordon. It’s just that Nowhere to Go is unilluminating; it doesn’t have the theoretical puckishness of 24 Hour Psycho or Zidane. I Had Nowhere to Go might prove more effective as an installation piece, where people can drift in and out at intervals, but as a 100-minute film, it’s just tedious.

I Had Nowhere to Go
Directed by Douglas Gordon
Opens May 11, Anthology Archives


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