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November 21, 2009

SDFF 2009 - Visionaries: Jonas Mekas And The (Mostly) American Avant-Garde Cinema

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The Charles Theater, 193 Avenue B, NYC.

Chuck Workman - 2009
Calliope Films

For some viewers, Visionaries might serve as an introduction to the film that has been labeled underground, avant-garde, and briefly, New American Cinema. For myself, the film was a kind of trip down memory lane. I had seen several films in the Anthology Film Archives "invisible cinema" designed by Peter Kubelka, where the audience watched movies in chairs, partitioned in such a way that was designed to minimize distraction of other people and force one's attention to the theater screen. The films shown at that time were primarily part of a rotating selection of films ranging from Eisenstein and Dziga Vertov, to Joseph Cornell, Stan Brakhage, and Andy Warhol. I think some would have found it heretical that almost thirty-five years later, Anthology Film Archives would program a retrospective of films directed by Jerry Lewis. The relationship between experimental filmmakers and Hollywood has been wildly conflicting, dependent mostly on the filmmaker's own point of view, but without Hollywood, we would never have had Joseph Cornell's Rose Hobart made from excerpts from the film,East of Borneo, or Bruce Connor's hilarious A Movie, a movie mostly made up of numbers counted backwards for synchronization purposes. For myself, the Anthology Film Archives and Jonas Mekas are tied up with film studies with Anthology co-founder P. Adams Sitney, discussing films and exchanging letters with Stan Brakhage, and in general, my time in New York City in the early and mid 1970s.

The film is very loosely constructed as partial biography of Jonas Mekas and history of the American underground film movement. Mekas tells his own story of Lithuanian immigrant, filmmaker and film journalist, through footage shot by Chuck Workman as well as excerpts from his own film and video diaries. Mekas is primarily known for his constant campaign for recognition of other filmmakers, be they his contemporaries, or the older generation such as Carl Dreyer, Hans Richter, or Man Ray. Mekas talks about creating the magazine "Film Culture" in order to fulfill a need to discuss these films and bring the films of people like Kenneth Anger and Maya Deren to the attention of others. Mekas also talks about his own filmmaking habits and his shift from film to video as technology changed and the way filmmaking as it has been defined and shared has changed.

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P. Adams Sitney, Jonas Mekas and Peter Kubelka in the 'invisible cinema".

Other filmmakers speak about Mekas and the filmmaking scene at the time, including Anger, Ken Jacobs and Robert Downey, Sr. (a prince). Also excepted is footage of Stan Brakhage taken at various times, and an audio interview with Maya Deren played against part of her Meshes in the Afternoon. Michael Snow's Wavelength, a film consisting of a forty-five minute zoom shot, is condensed here. One of the excerpts included is a student film by David Lynch that quickly announces predilections that would be noticed from Eraserhead on. Critics Amy Taubin and Fred Camper are among the writers and teachers who voice their opinions on the influence of Mekas as well as thoughts on some of the films.

Workman even allows for some humor at the expense of the avant-garde with an excerpt from the Ernest Pintoff and Mel Brooks cartoon, The Critic, where the off screen voice of Brooks expresses the opinions of a viewer thoughts on film aspiring to be art. In the same of year, 1969, Brooks also had a small role in Robert Downey, Sr.'s Putney Swope, one of three films by Downey excepted. There is a very brief excerpt from one of Mekas's few narrative films, The Brig, as well as documentary footage of John Lennon and Yoko Ono. Adolfas Mekas, the younger brother of Jonas, is quickly glimpsed and sometimes mentioned, though I was surprised that his celebrated, at the time, Hallelujah the Hills, from 1963, was not among the film clips.

As the version I saw was a work print, I don't know how much different the final version of Visionaries might be. One small problem is that many of the excerpts are shown without mention of what films they are from, which may not be concern those who may have seen and studied many of the films in question, but may prove frustrating for those with little or no familiarity with the various works. Workman, in one of his own overtitles, expresses thanks to the filmmakers for allowing him to use the excerpts, encouraging the viewer to see the films, if possible, on a movie screen. A possible telling moment is when a group of young people gathered to participate in the 48 Hour Film Project, inform Workman that they are unfamiliar with the name of Jonas Mekas, with one young man describing Stan Brakhage as a "video artist". Film schools in general are more about learning the tools of the trade than history and theory, so I'd cut the kids some slack here. But Visionaries is worth watching not only for its lessons in film history but as an introduction for some to some films that help redefine what it means to make a movie.

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Posted by Peter Nellhaus at November 21, 2009 12:32 AM