As I Was Moving Ahead Occasionally I Saw Brief Glimpses of Beauty (2000)

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Second time with Jonas Mekas after Lost, Lost, Lost. I have learned, by comparison of the two, that there is a limit to the watchability of only loosely thematised tranche-de-vie home movie footage, and also that it is possible for me to review a film after only 60% of its runtime in good conscience.

Again organised into chapters, though Mekas confesses at the beginning that he tried and abandoned a project to order the streams of amateur recordings chronologically, opting eventually for a random distribution, ‘as he found them on the shelf’. Mekas’ explanatory narration actually pops up at the beginning of each chapter, constructing a kind of periodic apologia for the piece. ‘This is a political film’ and ‘Nothing happens in this film’, we are told by recurrent intertitles, while Mekas reinforces this defensive stance with commentary on the film’s lack of content, his compulsion to film any and everything, his status as a ‘filmer’ rather than a legitimate filmmaker, his general and total lack of knowledge about life and his place in it.

Except it’s either disingenuous or tactical to describe the content of the film as ‘nothing’. Mekas’ subjects over the decades here (largely between the 60s and 80s, largely in New York City) show a considerable degree of consistency. He balances the urban (architecture, pedestrians, weather) with the natural, favouring flowers, trees, birds, cats, moving water, and wild landscapes in particular locations. Family is a central and predominant presence, broad enough to include close friends but focusing especially on children (playing, reciting, rehearsing, eating) and babies (usually just looking at the camera). Most notably, I think, there are plenty of moments of actually considerable significance: holidays, reunions, births, baptisms, weddings, anniversaries.

The dominant theme is leisure. Mekas is a true amateur and his filming is hobbyistic: a regular enough part of his life not to disrupt his subjects, but leaving space for him to live around it and actually participate in the scenes he captures. But labour is conspicuously absent, save in idle peoplewatching. Anger, distress, and even ennui are also suppressed. The subject of the film is therefore – perhaps unsurprisingly – moments of beauty, unthinking and unencumbered living around life’s obligations (other plans), where the only reflective awareness usually comes through Mekas’ camera. It’s a fine topic for a film but it isn’t ‘nothing’, and it’s therefore freighted with sentimentalism (Mekas admits he is a romantic living within his own imagined world, as each of us live in our own).

In one of his verbal prologues (delivered haltingly, returning to resonant phrases for emphasis) Mekas advertises the film’s lack of tension. I’m sad to say I think calling attention to this isn’t sufficient to deflect the problem (I watched Von Trier’s The Idiots yesterday). What we see is a beautiful parade of scenes which cover times and places but still exhibit fundamental similarity. Again, that’s fine, but it invites questions about the runtime of almost five hours (which incidentally would have made it the fourth* longest film I’ve seen to date).

Hence my lack of qualms about calling it a day after three. Mekas’ projects are interesting** and exude a devotion to film, people and good living which is humbling. But the pitch of this one is too consistent and perhaps too sentimental to keep me hooked (I found it a lot easier to sink my teeth into Lost, Lost, Lost until the tedious experimental coda). I would have preferred to watch it loud and projected; perhaps that would have helped me immerse myself in it.

6

 

*At number three is Homeland, another honestly observational documentary about family environments, but one which locks you into emotional grooves rather than washing past you like a weightless stream of light. Other stuff As I Was Moving reminded me of were Varda’s Daguerrotypes and Gavin Bryars’ ‘The Sinking Of The Titanic’.

**To what extent are these snippets accurate depictions of memory (leaving aside whether or not that’s what they’re intended to be, for a second)? I like the way he plays with the speed of the footage, lingering on details and accelerating interstitial action (reminds me of Barthes’ codes). The use of visual overlays is also affective as well as endearingly analogue. But I think the development of these episodes is too linear (chronological, non-repetitive, self-contained) to accurately emulate recollection.

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