A filmmaker's diary

Could Jonas Mekas have been aware when he was filming Notes, Diaries, and Sketches (a.k.a. Walden, 1969) that he was effectively creating a time capsule of the American avant-garde as it existed in the late 1960s?  The three-hour film, which consists of footage shot more or less at random on Mekas’ Bolex in the years between 1966 and 1969, offers fleeting glimpses of everyone from Andy Warhol and Stan Brakhage to John Lennon and Yoko Ono.  They appear not as key figures within a movement but rather as people in the background of Mekas’ own life, glittering threads in a moving tapestry. 

Mekas’ philosophy as an artist has always been to find poetry in the everyday, a kind of transcendentalism that links to such Romantic writers as Whitman and Thoreau (whose own diary provides Mekas with his film’s subtitle).  Where Thoreau found solace and inspiration in the seclusion of the forest, Whitman (and Mekas) find it in the crowded space of the city, and in the company of others.  Over footage of the sun rising over the city skyline—shot from the window of a night train from Buffalo—Mekas recalls being filled with happiness every time he returned to New York. 

The promiscuity of his attention also rivals that of Whitman.  For Mekas, everything becomes a subject for cinema, and the eye of the camera may fall just as easily on a flower bud, an insect on a lawn chair, or some rabbit droppings in the snow as on a wedding, a cityscape, or an eminent public figure.  His Walden is suffused with a quiet wonder at whatever happens to surround him at a given moment.  The film is an exuberant and dense collage of memories and impressions. 

Scholars and fans of avant-garde cinema will no doubt enjoy identifying the faces that casually and understatedly populate this film.  Jack Smith, P. Adams Sitney, Amy Taubin, and Shirley Clarke are introduced in Mekas’ intertitles as “Jack,” “Sitney,” “Amy,” “Shirley.”  There is a long sequence in which Mekas visits the Brakhages (“Stan and Jane”) and their children at their cabin in the mountains, and he takes a turn riding their pet donkey Roscoe through the snow.  We see an early performance by The Velvet Underground and footage of the office of the Village Voice as it existed circa 1968, a confusion of desks and typewriters and rotary phones.  John Lennon and Yoko Ono, looking placid and high, hold court from under the covers of their bed.  Edie Sedgwick appears fleetingly, looking not like a star but rather like the prettiest girl at a party.  The domestic nature of Mekas’s filmmaking—his interest in capturing people eating and talking, sitting around tables, with children and animals—casts all of his subjects with a poignant innocence.  As Mekas soldiers on into his nineties (the filmmaker turned 93 this past Christmas) the world of Walden’s New York looks more and more like a vanished paradise.

Jonas Mekas astride the Brakhages' donkey, Roscoe, in Notes, Diaries, Sketches (Walden).

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