‘Flowers in dying / return to earth’: Observational Poetics in the ‘film-poems’ of Jonas Mekas

‘Hey! I escaped the ropes of time, once more’

– Jonas Mekas, Reminiscences of a Journey to Lithuania, 1972

In Jonas Mekas’s avant-garde film Reminiscences of a Journey to Lithuania(1972), the filmmaker and poet records his trip from New York back to his homeland of Lithuania, from which he fled during wartime in 1944.  As he recalls walking the streets of Brooklyn, his voiceover mentions that ‘the memories, the smells, the sounds’ were not those of Brooklyn. The shot cuts to clothes, hung up to dry, blowing in the wind. A title card named ‘A Gathering of DP’s in Stony Brook (1951)’ reveals an unusually slow shot down a sunny road surrounded by trees, focusing on a sign. Soon the camera is surrounded by nameless people, assumedly displaced persons, smiling, talking, holding flowers. The next few shots focus on the flowers in isolation, then superimposes one layer over the other as the image flickers with light, before cutting to black. The moment is incidental, fleeting, yet wordlessly poignant, as if indicating a time that once wasbut is now unreachable. My interest is in these peaceful – and weighted – moments of observation, and how they interact with the spectator as an extension of the artist. As Mekas posed the question in Movie Journal in 1964: ‘Is our eye dying? Or do we just not know how to look and see any longer?’[1]’ Here he identifies his desire to ‘free the eye’ by removing the ‘psychological blocks’ of everyday cultural perception, to ‘look directly at the screen’ even when nothing particularly obvious is happening.[2]Drawing the screen’s focus inwards to the minutiae of his vision, Mekas begins to rebuild thereal– not that of Lacan but the authenticity of experience and memory – in the specificity of his own ‘eye’.

COMPLICATING THE EYE

This exploration of Mekas’s own experience, however, complicates his original desire to separate the eye from ‘the misty ocean of our inhibitions’[3], for it is in the emotional restraint of the screen – the slight holding back of feeling – where the poetics of observation unearths itself. While Mekas does attempt to follow Stan Brakhage’s philosophy of an eye ‘unprejudiced by compositional logic’,[4]which Mekas quotes in Movie Journal,[5]I argue that he adheres more to what his contemporary Gregory Markopoulos categorised as ‘the poet’s experience’. That is, to use the eyeto explore the I, investigating one’s ‘own human experience relative to all human experience’.[6]I propose that the camera’s gaze can already expand one’s ‘eye’, and perception beyond the eye/I, by transforming mundane, ordinary, quotidian happenings into mediums for the esoteric natures of the individual past. In other words, the poetic use of the camera has the ability to engage with details often ignored by the human eye, not in the sense of Brakhage’s vivid explorations of colour and light as one may see in Mothlight(1963) or Dog Star Man(1964), but in the everyday: the sky through the trees, the face of a loved one, the stillness of a lonely night of thinking. These moments replace narrativity with the personally-informed fragmentary, the mechanical suspension in time of the film-image as a critical object for reliving past experiences. In acknowledging the importance of reliable and unreliable past ‘knowledge’ on observation, we make the transition from a literal to an ontological expansion of experimental cinema. It is possible for the spectator to ‘look at the screen directly’, then, as Mekas desires, by using the screen to reflect on past experience, from the pleasant to the traumatic.

This essay makes two interconnected arguments. First, I engage with the concept of the contemplative, supposedly inconsequential image as an object of critical analysis. I challenge the pressure from experimental and avant-garde filmmakers, including Mekas, to literally expand sight and the capabilities of the eye, and instead propose an ontological expansion by paying more attention to what is seen, what exists onscreen rather than off-screen. In order to support this proposition, I focus on the temporal and material attributes of the film-image, and suggest that the observational poetics of the screen have always been present in cinema yet remain largely unexplored and unnoticed outside film scholarship. Second, I put forth the argument for a reconsideration of the role of personal spectatorship, and a recalibration of subjectivity in film studies which tends to be shunned in favour of strictly theoretical, detached analyses. Specifically, I suggest that a different, more individual mode of critical analysis is required when studying avant-garde film, because the conventional narrativity of film, which initially allows this detachment, gives way to poetry, and ultimately the spectator’s experience of the film. As Mekas states in Movie Journal, cinema is like ‘a stone in the river, a road, a tree, like the birds and like the lilies.’[7]In his eye, the film-image is there, present like nature, available to be illuminated through poetic observation from the individual, but just as likely to be ignored.

It is necessary to point out the clear danger in arguing for subjectivity in the observation of ‘poetic cinema’ because there is a risk of sounding vague and causing confusion, and personal experience does not, of course, count for evidence for any points made. Mekas’s approach to filmmaking, however, with no planned mise-en-scène (with a few exceptions), somewhat lends itself towards this subjectivity. This has not prevented the theoretical isolation of his films, resistant as they may be to analysis, and I argue that there is a shared space between these different approaches, establishing a marriage between both close reading and personal interpretation.

NATURE AND THE FILM-POEM

Before we progress, then, I wish to pause and reflect more on what Mekas’s comparison between cinema and nature and how it relates to the definition of the ‘film-poem’. Indeed, his connection is present throughout his early written poetry, from ‘old is rain gushing down shrubstems’[8]in Semeniškiųidilės (The Idylls of Semeniškiai, 1955) to the cyclic mortality of ‘flowers in dying / return to earth’[9]in Gėlių kalbėjimas (Flower Talk, 1961). Mekas’s brother Adolfas noted that these poems experimented with Lithuanian grammar, ‘combined regional dialects’ and ‘created neologisms’, pointing to his later filmmaking style.[10]  Not only is there a crucial link between his comparison and the definition of ‘film-poem’, as I will explain, but his words speak to the wider circles of what ‘poetry’ is overall.

This connection between nature and poetry, bridged by the solitary, reflective, individual speaker, is by no means unique to Mekas or experimental film. It is important to point out the origins of Mekas’s philosophy in Wordsworth’s Romanticism, the observer in ‘Tintern Abbey’ who, after five years of absence, revisits the scene he observes with a renewed sense of unity with the woodland and the river (‘again I hear / These waters’).[11]In the ending of Lost, Lost, Lost (1975) for example, Mekas revisits the beach in Stony Brook after ten years and recalls seeing ‘this water before’, the pebbles, the feeling of walking. The concept of observing nature to reflect on the self and personal past, however, has evolved and developed through Romanticism to the Transcendentalism of Thoreau and Whitman, and the Beat Generation poetry of Allen Ginsberg. To fully explore these strands of thought would require a library of critical engagement and would fill a number of books, so I wish to retain my focus on Mekas while acknowledging his influences.

With this established, I pose the question of the ‘film-poem’, which some filmmakers and writers have come into contestation about. P. Adams Sitney, a colleague of Mekas and arguably the leading historian of avant-garde cinema in the United States, points out that in 1960 the term ‘film-poem’ was used interchangably with ‘experimental’ or ‘avant-garde’ film.[12]Within Mekas’s contemporary context, Maya Deren, Stan Brakhage and Gregory Markopoulos have all argued for poetry as the expression of experience rather than a construction of poetic forms. At the same time, Brakhage wrote to Mekas of his astonishment that he shared with Deren ‘a specific filmic ideology directly related to Haiku poetry’, but fails to elaborate.[13]Pier Paolo Pasolini’s 1967 essay ‘Il cinema di poesia’ has also fuelled academic debate between Sitney and John David Rhodes, where Sitney refutes Rhode’s proposition of poetry as ‘a placeholder for a narrative genre’.[14]  It seems, at least in the context of the New York avant-garde, that filmmakers agreed on the ‘film-poem’ signifying difference from the narrative film, in favour of visual poetry, and as Pasolini stated, ‘a dictionary of images does not exist’[15]from which we can understand the term as a specific, visible language. Yet the discussion is still contested among scholarship, and I aim to bring my own developments to the term throughout this essay.

Given Mekas’s status as both a literary poet and an observer of nature, it is surprising that the connection between his films and the poetic image has not been made more explicit in contemporary scholarship. Indeed, Daniel Kane’s collection of essays in We Saw The Light: Conversations Between the New American Cinema and Poetry– while a comprehensive study of its topic – only acknowledges Mekas as a creator of poetic cinema in his own right in the book’s notes. Kane refers readers to David E. James’s edited collection To Free the Cinemato understand how Mekas created ‘poetic film culture in New York’.[16]Kane’s reference to Guns of the Treesis overshadowed by its narrativity and its debt to Ginsberg’s poetry.[17]Other instances include Mekas as film promoter and screener(‘the most influential promoter of the New American Cinema’)[18]or as a complement to other experimental filmmakers of the time such as Brakhage, Kenneth Anger, Jack Smith, Andy Warhol and Ken Jacobs. While these leads are crucial for scholars to conduct their own research into Mekas, and it is undoubted that Mekas was a leading force, if not theleading force, in promoting these filmmakers, it is puzzling why he lacks a case study alongside them. Likewise, Sitney reiterates Mekas’s contribution as promoter, referring to him as the ’shepherd’ guiding the ‘flock’ of experimental filmmakers in 1960s New York.[19]He also mentions some of Mekas’s films, namely Travel Songs(2003), Diaries, Notes and Sketchesa.k.a Walden(1969), and Outtakes From the Life of a Happy Man (2012). But the emphasis remains on his screenings and writings rather than a cohesive exploration of his filmmaking. With the exception of James’s collected essays, there lacks a serious discussion of Mekas’s observational poetics. I have elaborated on my intentions for this discussion and mapped out the scholarly conversation I am entering; now I turn my attention to Mekas’s films.

CONTEMPLATIVE IMAGES

It is worth thinking about and complicating the conceptual, contemplative image in Reminiscences(I refer to Mekas’s film, not his book of poetry) in light of Maya Deren’s axes of temporality. Deren’s theory, outlined during a symposium in 1953 held by Cinema 16 and featuring herself, Arthur Miller, Dylan Thomas, Parker Tyler and Willard Maas, explains ‘poetry’ in film as a verticalconstruction, that ‘probes the ramifications of the moment’.[20]In this way, the poetic structure concerns the invisible ‘depth’ of the image, creating the invisible – the feeling, or sensation – from the visible. On the other hand, she argued that narrativity is horizontal, that one circumstance leads to another, and is concerned with the movement between developments of feeling.[21]While this theory was rather unfairly slated by Miller and Thomas, there are complications in categorising ‘an approach to experience’, as she defines ‘poetry’, as a broad, generalised notion, at least to stand on its own as a separate theory. Having said this, I believe that Deren’s theory can illuminate ways of seeing Mekas’s films, acting as a gateway into the less accessible instances of his film-image. It is also likely that Mekas was aware of Deren’s philosophies, after they sparked a close friendship following his request to borrow a copy of An Anagram of Ideas on Art, Form and Filmfrom her, in his words one of the ‘most important pieces of writing on cinema ever published’.[22]Although their approaches to filmmaking were vastly different, with Deren prioritising the meticulous planning of every shot, it is possible, and indeed likely, that some of Deren’s ideas filtered through into Mekas’s filmmaking.

Figure 1. The rope

The question I want to reflect on here is how we, as spectators, arrive at the ‘invisible sensation’ Deren speaks of from a visible image. One could go further, and ask how time is suspended on a vertical axis by scenes that are so seemingly spontaneous that they appear to have required little to no planning, as with the traditional, dated home movie. Maureen Turim points out that the opening sequence of Reminiscences, apparently taking place in the Catskills, may not be as spontaneous as originally suggested.[23]In this sequence, Mekas speaks of walking in the woods in autumn and the first time he realises he has forgotten his original home. His voice is paired with 16mm footage of figures walking through the woods, flickering, flashing, and his voiceover reacts as if this was all one connected memory. Instead, Turim notes, the sequence is an amalgamation of places and times, pointing out the uncertainty of Mekas’s voice, of whether he meant ’1957 or ’58’, the deviation from ‘the early fall’ to ‘a snow-filled landscape’ at ‘what appears to be Central Park’.[24]Specifically, she points out that the close up of the frayed rope hanging from a tree branch pushes the metaphor that Mekas is ‘escaping the boundaries imposed by living in a given time and place’ (‘I escaped the ropes of time’). Deren would perhaps agree with Turim here, in refuting the act of spontaneous filmmaking because the film is ‘consciously recombined into the relationship of the reality itself’, to bring the illusion of spontaneity, of intimacy and real-time observation.[25]But Turim’s analysis – while helpful – would be more so if she further developed her statement that Mekas ‘controls time’, and explored the way the image is heavily linked by the strong feeling of discovering a new home away from one’s original home. That is, a home without place, made up of people, earth, trees, feelings. On my first time watching the film, the rope hanging from the tree was a passing image to me, but the second time watching I had read Deren’s theory on poetry as the vertical axis, and suddenly the image was illuminated by this theory, matching the verticality of the rope. This would further follow Deren’s theory of the visible image giving way to invisible as the indication of the presence of the poetic image. As Mekas has mentioned in Lost, Lost, Lost, all his films create ‘imaginary worlds’, but to him these ‘imaginary worlds’ are as real as ‘everything under the sun’.

I have established that there is a consistency between the atmosphere Mekas creates in Reminiscences and Maya Deren’s theorising of a ‘vertical’ dimension of poetic cinema, obtained through the locational inconsistency between his emotionally-linked images, namely the stranding in time of such images. It would be misleading to suggest that this forms an entire sense of observational poetics that I refer to, however, or that this comparison could stand completely on its own. Rather, the concept acts as a springboard, diverting from the traditional Romanticism of observing the landscape, into Meka’s focus on creating new ways of seeing the world and seeing film. But Mekas importantly incorporated faces and figures – often nameless – into his landscapes. So just as the rope becomes an esoteric object suggesting the breaking of temporal barriers, linking place to place, feeling to object, Mekas adopts the same approach to the human face in observation. Rather than a literally expanding the eye- disorientating the spectator as Brakhage and Deren do, I argue that we should not discard what is already shown on the image, and how the camera can reveal truths that the eye fails to. The camera, in this way, becomes an ontological extension of the eye.

AMBIVALENT HUMANITY

Christian Metz argues in The Imaginary Signifierthat the reason for our attachment to the cinematic image is tied closely to Lacan’s ‘mirror stage’ as the basis of the psychological construction of the ‘imaginary’.[26]This is, however, complicated by the presence of the non-acting face on the screen, the nameless – or rather, unidentifiable – people, within, as Metz states, a ‘hyper-perceptive state’.[27]In the final, colourised segment of Lost, Lost, Lost, we return with Mekas to Stony Brook, the place from the sequence I mentioned in my introduction. In the segment ‘a) Ken’s footage’, the camera ‘eye’ drifts between washed up cans and the silhouettes – ‘Barbara’ and ‘Debbie’ – in the water. The camera looks to the sky, the pebbles, the water flowing over the pebbles, pubbles under the water, Mekas crouching with his camera, children, otherwise nameless people. Within these moments, there is a constant grappling between what was happening – as in, the exact moment in time as it played out and was recorded – and what is perceived to be happening – how the spectator watches the scene. This ‘mirror’, as Metz points out, ‘returns us everything but ourselves’,[28]which is true insofar as the general spectator has no place within the film. This takes new meaning, however, when these unidentifiable people from Mekas’s life are placed in front of the camera. We know they have some connection to the artist, to ‘the person behindthe camera’[29]as Turim notes, but it is difficult to reach a state of detachment without attempting to think on the faces from one’s own life. These people, shots of them occasionally flickering into the sequence, can be felt as if we, as spectators, were there, with those bodies, with the people in a very physical sense because the shot never lingers for long on their faces. Without the ability to pause and rewind, their images would become after-images, transitioning from the individual to, simply, the human. Questions arise on where they go, what they do, who they are. But these are questions that remain unanswered and unanswerable. In turn, the emphasis turns to the perceptionof these people rather than their actual selves. How one turns to look out the car window at something just before the shot cuts, the glimpses of light in the car revealing more faces, smiling, or blank, or embarrassed. The tension between image and presence inhabits the loss of some previously non-existent happy memory, a bringing of the viewer into a kind of circle of home. Walter Benjamin mentions that ‘the art would be to feel homesick, even though one is at home.’[30]This is what the observation of the screen when looking at Mekas’s films adds when observed intently, the access to a vision of privatenesscut off from narrativity. A privatenessthat is filmed in such a way as to embrace the intimacy of those we do not know, of faces that may remind us of someone we once knew in the past, perhaps. As Metz states, then, ‘the screen is not a mirror’,[31]but in many ways it is, for it provides access to the human truth of intimacy that is the closeness of bodies in happiness leads to a feeling of home, a feeling of poetry in the sense of life and positive experience.

I should point out that Mekas mentions in a reflection on Maya Deren that every film he makes is ‘basically about myself’. When he is filmed as himself, he says, he begins to act. He assumes another persona, someone else, ‘a role I never really was but many times wanted to be’.[32]This does, of course, bring into question the argument I have put forward that observing his films provides a gateway into the general feeling of intimacy, of close familiarity while retaining a detachment to the screen. But in acknowledging the performance that Mekas speaks of, indeed, he is often smiling in the footage we see of him, in both Lost, Lost, Lostand Reminiscences, I begin to wonder if I should re-evaluate the shots of his face, his performance. It is unfortunate he did not expand or develop his ideas in this sense, but it is perhaps something that his later (and last) 16mm film, As I Was Walking Ahead Occasionally I Saw Brief Glimpses Of Beauty(2000), can tell us. It is helpful to also point out that these connections have been present in cinema since its beginnings – the Lumière brothers’ Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat(1896), for example – or the rustling of the leaves in Baby’s Meal(1895), or the Workers Leaving the Lumière Factory(1895). The train arrives, the workers leave the factory, the leaves rustle in the background, yet the images are fleeting. Of course, Mekas also embodies the legacy of Dziga Vertov’s ‘kino-eye’ from Man With A Movie Camera(1929), in that Mekas is a literal man with a movie camera, and follows a similar format that is simply more personal to him as the individual. Yet he does so with an Eisensteinian energy of moving forward without a sustained image of himself as a centre-point of his vision. 

Figure 2. The voiceover pauses as Mekas cooks in Glimpses

TOWARDS PERSONAL OBSERVATION

Glimpses, then, can be situated in a more general theory of the reception of experience, and of voice. In one scene, there is a voiceover that appears different to Mekas’s ‘halting, idiosyncratic, unplaceable voice’, as Vyt Bakaitis states.[33]It is monotone, continuous like a stream of consciousness, only pausing at the end of such a trail of thought. The voice says ‘but I have come close to the end now, it’s the question will I make it or will I not. My life has become too painful and I keep asking myself, what am I doing to get out of where I am, what am I doing with my life.’ As the voiceover speaks we are presented with seemingly inconsequential scenes – a slightly older Mekas cooking for his family, a close-up of the rain pattering on asphalt, images of flowers (again) – images with their tone altered by voice. The voice halts now and then, pausing to emphasise the silence of the image, notably when Mekas is silently cooking and avoiding eye contact with the camera. The thought of his earlier comment, of acting in his earlier films, suggests a more sober outlook as times continued, ‘that terrible loneliness and happiness’. In the way that André Bazin likened photographic image to embalming the dead,[34]somehow at the age of ninety-five Mekas is still very much alive, but it is also a reminder of the seeming permanence of now-digital film, and the gradual deterioration of our own human bodies.

Jonas Mekas’s films attest to the significance of personal history and invite a reconsideration of cinema as observation, a view of life otherwise unseen in cinema. My essay has set out to explore the marriage of poetic observation to the film-image by analysing his films as textual evidence of a lived past made aware to the world through its existence on film. I have reasserted the need for Mekas to be considered as a driving creative force in the cinema of observation as he emphasises what formed the genesis of the moving image – the ability to look and see occurrences as another eye. In this sense, Mekas’s ‘film-poems’ mobilise the contemplative image, never having to be a conventional long-shot but composed of intimate fragments and minutiae, the closeness of bodies together and in interaction with each other. While Mekas perhaps did not intend for the films to be widely distributed or seen, they also offer the means through which to consider not only Mekas’s life but the life of the spectator, or individual, watching the films. In doing so, the study of his films raises a set of questions about the confrontations of the present: the pressure to live in a world where attention to detail in the everyday has the potential to be consumed by the perpetual newness of technology, the need for the screen to be accurate in form rather than atmosphere, the scholarly writing on film to be detached and distant rather than personal and intimate. Mekas’s films highlight the various peaceful moments of life that make it worth living. These are moments that humans as well as cinema often ignores, weighted by the knowledge that all of this will one day be gone. Mekas, however, picks up that cinema will stay, if only for a while longer.

 

[1]Jonas Mekas, Scrapbook of The Sixties: Writings 1954-2010, (Leipzig: Spector Books, 2015) 100

[2]ibid, 100

[3]Ibid, 100

[4]Stan Brakhage, Metaphors On Vision (New York: Anthology Film Archives, 2017), 29

[5]Mekas, Scrapbook, 102

[6]Gregory Markopoulos, Poems(Berkeley: University of California Press, 1964), 7

[7]Jonas Mekas, Movie Journal: The Rise of New American Cinema, 1959-1971(New York: Columbia University Press, 2016) 286

[8]Jonas Mekas, Semeniškiųidilės (Kassel: Žvilgsniai, 1948), 1

[9]Jonas Mekas, Gėlių kalbėjimas (Chicago: Santara, 1961) 1.1

[10]Gregory Smulewicz-Zucker, Introduction to Movie Journal: The Rise of New American Cinema, 1959-1971(New York: Columbia University Press, 2016) xiv

[11]William Wordsworth, ‘Tintern Abbey’ in The Pedlar, Tintern Abbey, The Two Part Prelude(Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1985), 33

[12]P. Adams Sitney, The Cinema of Poetry (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015), 1

[13]Brakhage, Letters, 76

[14]Sitney, Cinema of Poetry, 15

[15]Pier Paolo Pasolini, ‘il cinema di poesia’ in Movies and Methods Vol. 1(Berkeley: University of California Press, 1976), 543

[16]Daniel Kane, We Saw the Light: Conversations Between the New American Cinema and Poetry(Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 2009), 211

[17]Kane, We Saw the Light, 124

[18]Ibid, 84

[19]Sitney, Cinema of Poetry, 197

[20]Maya Deren, with Arthur Miller, Dylan Thomas, Parker Tyler, Chairman Willard Maas, organized by Amos Vogel, Poetry and Film (New York: Gotham Book Mart and Gallery Inc. 1972), 4

[21]Ibid, 4

[22]Mekas, Scrapbooks, 372

[23]Maureen Turim, ‘Reminiscences, Subjectivities, Truths’ in To Free The Cinema: Jonas Mekas and the New York Undergrounded. David E. James (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1992), 193

[24]Turim, ‘Reminiscences’, 204

[25]Maya Deren, ‘An Anagram of Ideas on Art, Form and Film’ in Essential Deren: Collected Writings on Film by Maya Derened. Bruce R. McPherson (New York: McPherson & Company, 2005), 35

[26]Christian Metz, The Imaginary Signifier: Psychoanalysis and the Cinema (Indiana University Press, 1982), 42

[27]Metz, Imaginary Signifier, 49

[28]Ibid, 48

[29]Turin, ‘Reminiscences’, 202

[30]Walter Benjamin, The Arcades Project, (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1999), 218

[31]Metz, Imaginary Signifier, 49

[32]Mekas, Scrapbooks, 372

[33]Vyt Bakaitis, ‘Notes on Displacement: The Poems and Diary Films of Jonas Mekas’ in To Free The Cinemaed. David E. James (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1992), 122

[34]Andre Bazin, What is Cinema? Volume 1(London: University of California Press, 2005), 9