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Walden (1969)
"Diaries Notes and Sketches" (original title)

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December 1969 (France)  »

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Mathematization
29 July 2013 | by (Greece) – See all my reviews

Aptly titled, this is a series of visual sketches by Jonas Mekas, trips he had, parties he went to, friends he had over for coffee, a circus he visited, a wedding he attended, strolls around 42nd Street, anti-war demonstrations, breakfasts he shared with a cat. The point? Celebrating all the things that pass from the eyes, the fleeting rush of remembered life.

You should know that he was from that time and scene that allowed him to know Warhol, Ginsberg, Brakhage and the Velvet Underground, all of whom appear in the film. So the exercise probably had its own cultural gravity at a time when all sorts of solid beliefs were challenged, down to how we perceive reality and what constitutes art and meaning

Cool aside. The same year Mekas began filming this, the physicist Bell released his famous refutation of Einstein's 'hidden variables' theory which, Einstein had proposed, should when revealed concretely determine all the perceived craziness that happens in the quantum world. No such thing, Bell showed. The world in the microscopic level is wonderfully bizarre, entangled in spatial simultaneity, realized in observation.

The philosophical framework goes back to the 20s and before, and so it is with the cinematic framework: silent city symphonies, Dziga Vertov and others were doing this. The eye creates the world. Like then, there's only a succession of lived events here, inseparable from consciousness. Like Vertov and others, flows are captured so the eye can have something to slice; the whole thing is burrowed with rapidfire editing, jerky camera, jumps, whirls and eddies in cinematic space.

Well okay, that may be the framework. Did I like it though? Even finding here some of the most marvelous editing ever in a film, even thinking there are a myriad striking images, even admiring the working ethos, dissonant eye and diaristic format, the answer is still no. Whereas Vertov was building on rhythm, Mekas is completely atonal and jerky, a natural progression one could argue. Vertov had a symphonic purpose, a building to. Even so, he could be tiresome. Mekas has no such thing in mind.

I'll have you imagine the film as someone turning on the faucet of a gardening hose and moving the hose around, the gushing stream is clear images, there is no noticeable dramatic touch-up anywhere, but the very motion is turbulent, a fluid and not concrete event. So far, I'm firmly behind the exercise.

Simply on a moment-by-moment basis it is marvelous, the film is a vast reservoir of layered image. Whole segments were at the same time unwatchable for me, strictly physically speaking. But my big complaint is that in the long run, it achieves no deep value. It is the materialistic opposite extreme of idealized classic Hollywood, nothing but form and the objects. Warhol, a superficial dandy, would take this to extremes in his Empire, set-up for him by Mekas himself.

Oh we catch glimpses of human connection, they're unavoidably embedded in the images. There is a rich tapestry of glimpses and spaces. But life, the pulsing life of being made conscious of others and things, ultimately is about how the objects being 'in' awareness color the eye, how a loved one can relax your time or lighten up a room, this having its quantic sense.

Here, we have constant transformations in the eye but none of it springs from being-made-conscious of valued facts, it's all been applied mechanically after the fact (quite literally) in pretty much the same way. It happens not to any (hypothetical) self in the film, but around a camera. We can metaphorically speak of quantum images, but there is complete disorganization here, none of the mysterious connections.

Weird complaint for Mekas maybe. But I can see why Tarkovsky famously objected to films of this sort, I think Brakhage in particular. Tarkovsky did not use to film ordinary life, but patiently sculpted a rich consciousness. Cassavetes was even more gruesome in his materialism than Mekas, but the larger point was creating a flow of consciousness, transcendent in mind. That is always the great gamble.

On the other hand, this strikes me, let's say, as a mathematization of cinematic nature, an abstract tool awaiting application in lived situations. Budding filmmakers need to have this in their creative life, even if it's for the most part empty technique.


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