To mark the retrospectives of the Lithuanian film maker and poet Jonas Mekas in London and Paris, we are reviewing one of the screenings of his masterpiece As I Was Moving Ahead Occasionally I Saw Brief Glimpses of Beauty.
Mekas is one of the leading figures of the avant garde film movement, his documentary films spanning over 50 years. Emigrating from his native Lithuania after the war, he found himself milling around the New York art scene in the 50’s and 60’s, encountering cultural icons such as Andy Warhol and John Lennon, as well as a who’s who of the independent film movement. His work consists of deeply personal fragments of his life, shot on a simple Bolex camera, much like a set of home movies.
As I Was Moving… is considered one of his most iconic works and has often been cited as one of the most influential films in cinema history. At 288 minutes long, it is an epic documentation of his time in New York with his friends and family. Collected together from approximately two decades worth of footage, it is Mekas’ celebration of a life full of highs. There are no lows to be found here. The ‘stars’ of the film are Mekas himself, his wife Hollis and young child Oona, as well as an endless array of friends, artists and co-conspirators. As it is shot on a functional Bolex, there is no sound except from the occasional narration from Mekas and a flurry of piano pieces on the soundtrack. We observe these people for nearly five hours, immerse ourselves in their lives and take delight in their joys, yet remarkably never hear a word uttered from their lips.
Mekas is a warm, croaky narrator, overlaying the poetic imagery with sage, repetitive ruminations on both the film and life in general. His broken English is oddly endearing, and he frequently harks back to the joys of ‘summer’s in Central Park’ and friends coming over for dinner. He describes his New York life as a ‘paradise’ full of simple pleasures. There is nothing spectacular in the film, just banal moments, which Mekas drily admits himself when he says, ‘nothing happens in this film’. In one sense ‘nothing’ is happening, but really everything is happening. Life is unfolding before our eyes. Mekas edits together the footage in a poetic and elliptical manner, cutting between images quickly and constructing them in a cyclical, hypnotic fashion. It actually recalls the recent work of Terrence Malick, the sense of flow that he was trying to achieve with The New World and The Tree of Life.
The film’s momentous length is both a strength and a flaw; only through this length of time can the audience fully immerse ourselves in their lives, and in turn contemplate our own lives, and yet, you wonder if Mekas could have gone on forever in the cutting room, forever adding to his work. In the film he actually admits that the film, like life, is forever moving on. At the four hour stage, it’s possible the audience was hoping this was just a mischievous bluff. But we can forgive Mekas for his eagerness to show off and celebrate his life. Although the film makes almost no mention of his past experiences, the film gains new poignancy when you are reminded that Mekas spent part of his youth in Nazi enforced labour camps. As I Was Moving… is a moving and joyful celebration of life, a rebuttal of past traumas and a statement of hope and optimism.