The Brooklyn Rail

SEPT 2023

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SEPT 2023 Issue

K.D. Davison’s Fragments of Paradise

With the task of organizing Mekas’s disparate shards of ecstatic life, Davison does what Mekas refused to do.

Jonas Mekas with his first Sony video camera in 1987, as seen in <em>Fragments of Paradise</em>, directed by KD Davison. Courtesy the Jonas Mekas estate.
Jonas Mekas with his first Sony video camera in 1987, as seen in Fragments of Paradise, directed by KD Davison. Courtesy the Jonas Mekas estate.

Jonas Mekas never properly grew old. Until his death in 2019, the avant-garde filmmaker continued to express bafflement with how to arrange the prolific footage which he had gathered over seven decades. For his memoiristic 2000 film As I Was Moving Ahead Occasionally I Saw Brief Glimpses of Beauty, he spliced together film rolls in the sequence he found them lying around his shelf—because, as he haltingly explained in director K.D. Davison’s 2022 documentary Fragments of Paradise, “I really don’t know where any piece of my life really belongs.”

“Let it be, let it go, just by pure chance, disorder,” he said, lapsing into his characteristic self-mocking lilt. “There is some kind of order in it, order of its own, which I do not really understand, same as I never understood life around me, the real life, as they say… I still do not understand them, and I do not really want to understand them.” To the end, he preferred to see the world like a child, cherishing the singularity of moments that could not be organized in any authoritative way.

Fragments of Paradise, which explores his life and work, has the task of rendering Mekas’s work as a life, not just those disparate shards of ecstatic life he maniacally tried to capture on film with no higher order. In this way, Davison does what Mekas refused to do his whole life: follow, more or less, chronology and a clear narrative arc in examining his essential role in forming the independent filmmaking scene in New York. The documentary draws liberally from Mekas’s films as well as unreleased tapes and audio, organizing them to recount the major milestones of his life: his arrival in New York from Lithuania as a displaced person alongside his brother, his initial purchase of a 16-millimeter Bolex camera, the establishment of his film column in the Village Voice, his marriage and children, the foundation of Anthology Film Archives, and the eventual dissolution of his marriage.

Jonas Mekas with his Bolex and a young Oona Mekas in 1977, <em>Fragments of Paradise</em>, directed by KD Davison. Courtesy the Jonas Mekas estate.
Jonas Mekas with his Bolex and a young Oona Mekas in 1977, Fragments of Paradise, directed by KD Davison. Courtesy the Jonas Mekas estate.

Snippets of the most poetic shots from his films—“fragments of paradise,” Mekas called them, an allusion to William Blake—are collaged alongside interviews with people he was close to and influenced. The result is a compacted survey of his extensive oeuvre, and a portrait of his personality on the avant-garde scene. The scenes excerpted from his films provide a taste of Mekas’s penchant for self-conscious sentiment and nostalgia: a sped-up, choppy clip of his two-year-old daughter, in silhouette, jumping vigorously on a trampoline, backscattered light bubbling over; a black-and-white clip of Mekas himself, a blanket draped over his shoulders, dancing in a grassy field with his Bolex, painting in three-dimensional space; a clip of his family in Lithuania, reunited at long last, singing and dancing to old folk songs. The documentary renders Mekas’s famous antimetabole—“I make home videos, therefore I live; I live therefore I make home videos”—an obvious fact, and reinforces the truth of the aphorism, at least for Mekas, that “the camera was always running” (the title of an exhibition of his work last year at the Jewish Museum in New York). There are, also, Mekas’s signature intertitles, which contain such beautiful phrases as: “The beauty of the moment overtook him and he did not remember anything that preceded that moment.”

Another set of fragments, less plaintively concerned with “paradise not yet lost” (as he titled a film whose subject was his daughter in 1977), exhibits Mekas in the thick of a banal, existential confusion. Many of these shots were taken in the last two decades of his life, when Mekas separated from his wife and moved out of his iconic SoHo loft, where he had raised his children and which for decades was a meeting spot for prominent artists and filmmakers. “Somewhere around this time, our protagonist’s life collapsed,” Mekas narrates on the eve of his departure from SoHo. He has a drink in his hand, and he paces down the corridor of his loft. Later, he walks down that same path, but the apartment is barren, their combined possessions all gone now. “Ho ho ho,” he shouts, as if facing a canyon. “Here I am in this empty space,” he asserts, “impregnated with thirty years of life.”

My favorite sequences in Mekas’s work belong to this latter category and reveal an exquisite beauty. One is included toward the end of the documentary, when Mekas focuses his attention on a ladybug that is making circles around the rim of his wine glass. “Hey, what are you doing there?” he asks. The camera begins to shake as Mekas becomes uproarious at the absurdity of the insect’s Sisyphean predicament. “It thinks it’s going somewhere, but it’s going nowhere! That symbolizes our own human happiness—when we think we’re going somewhere, but we’re going nowhere.” I have great affection for Mekas when he adopts this exaggerated tone, when he is at once philosophical and making fun of his own philosophical tendencies.

Mekas’s films are modest, and, were it not for the eminence of some of the people who appear in them (Allen Ginsberg here, Yoko Ono there; Andy Warhol here, Salvador Dalí there), it could be easy, watching them standalone, to overlook the profound influence he had on postwar American film culture. The centripetal pull he exerted on filmmakers and artists has been well-documented for at least half a century, when Calvin Tomkins crowned him a “standard-bearer for the New American Cinema” in the New Yorker. “Whatever their feelings about the underground,” Tomkins wrote, “critics and filmmakers agree that its development and spectacular growth since 1960 are due in large part to the efforts of Jonas Mekas.” The documentary evangelizes on behalf of his significance, the way Mekas took it upon himself to evangelize on behalf of experimental, non-narrative film—first as the founder of the publication Film Culture, then as a critic at the Village Voice, then as a founder of the distribution organization the Film-Makers’ Cooperative, and then as a founder of Anthology Film Archives.

His dedication to these pursuits revolved around a fastidious schedule. Beginning in the seventies, a typical day for him involved going to Anthology, taking care of international correspondence, spending time with his family in the evening, and finally going into his editing room at midnight, where he labored until he couldn’t stay awake—usually for four hours. The Proustian obsession of his life—to capture beauty before it evaporated, to preserve film that, as he said, was constantly “falling to dust”—required this kind of madness daily. A ninety-eight-minute documentary about a man engaged in so much activity, who left behind hundreds of hours of film, necessarily glosses over so much. His poetry, much of it written in Lithuanian, made him very famous in his home country, for instance, but it only gets a passing mention in the documentary.

Fragments opens with—and replays towards its conclusion—a recording Mekas made on February 6, 2005, which he never included in any of his films. The lens is vertiginously zoomed-in on his face and the shot is typically unstable, flitting anxiously. “Here I am. Here is me, by myself,” he announces. “Here is my hand. Here is my face, my hair, my heart,” he says with flair, lifting his shirt to display his chest. “Here I am, me… Where is me? What is me?” He is gesturing wildly, the camera, with each frame, closed in on just a patch of his face. “What was my life all about?” The camera shakes and skips wildly. Mekas is crying. “Do I still have time to do something with my life? I really don’t know.”

Normally, I balk when people post confessional photos of themselves crying on the internet, though the theatricality of Mekas’s desolation makes him no less sympathetic to me. Perhaps it costs less for me to assume that the winsome old man is guileless with his on-camera performance; perhaps the misery of an artist really is less trite. The dramatic irony in viewing this scene lies in our knowledge of the facts of the rest of his life. Mekas lived for almost another decade-and-a-half, and in that time, he found new ways of showing his work, new audiences, new accolades. Still, life accomplishments are pedestrian comforts for a disorientation that knows no bounds.

In an interview with the Brooklyn Rail, Mekas characterized Lithuania as paradise, his displacement an expulsion from it. At the height of Mekas’s artistry he was simply capturing naïve pleasures and naïve confusions—both of which I believe he understood to be equally fragments of paradise. I compare Mekas with my next-door neighbor Mary, who possesses an insightfulness I have come to associate with the wisdom of old age, and who recognizes in me an irrepressible quality of inner chaos. She is generous with warm embraces, unearned congratulations, and hearty reassurances that one day I will understand how the events of my life fit together. She comforts me by saying that confusion is the province of youth. With time, she suggests, the nebulae will dissipate, revealing a hidden structure. Maybe—though if I follow in Mekas’s footsteps, maybe not.


Jasmine Liu

Jasmine Liu is a writer from the San Francisco Bay Area currently based in New York.


The Brooklyn Rail

SEPT 2023

All Issues