Monday 21 August 2023

On demand: "Fragments of Paradise"

An overview of the remarkable life and work of Jonas Mekas - WW2 troublemaker, concentration camp survivor, migrant, critic, distributor, filmmaker, archivist, poet, philosopher and diarist -
Fragments of Paradise can only ever be secondary to its subject's restless, relentless documenting. I suspect even its director, KD Davison, would be humble enough to acknowledge that a 98-minute digest such as this, by its very nature, could never be as full-strength Mekas as 1968's Walden or 2000's As I Was Moving Ahead Occasionally I Saw Brief Glimpses of Beauty or the recently republished The New York Diaries. Yet Davison benefits considerably from everything her subject continued to shoot, on a daily basis, right up until his death aged 96 in January 2019; she reframes Mekas's images with sensitivity and skill; and she adds context in the form of friends, family and other prominent cinephile voices. These latter are a mostly shrewd selection, folks from whom you're only too happy to hear and learn: Scorsese (of course, as the newly elected grand poobah of cinephilia), Peter Bogdanovich (in one of his final public appearances before his death last year), John Waters (on Mekas's gifts as a programmer, his openness to new voices and ideas) and Jim Jarmusch (offering typically wry description of Mekas's joy at discovering a dusty consignment of Soviet industrial films). Best of all: the queen bee of New York critics, Amy Taubin, who surely herself merits a documentary on everything she's seen and done, is honest enough to confess she doesn't much care for Mekas's features on an aesthetic level, and raises the intriguing idea that filming everything that passed before him might just have been the generally buoyant Mekas's coping mechanism.

Looked at from this perspective, the work seems more than ever tied up with Mekas's refugee status, and some existential need for freedom of movement and gesture that was by all accounts there long before the death camps. (The film was completed before an argument broke out in New York intellectual circles over the precise nature of Mekas's activity during WW2, but it casts new light on the matter - or more fuel on the fire.) Mekas's former wife Hollis Melton describes him, with a measure of fondness and regret, as "a free spirit"; after he moved out of the family home in the first years of the new century and into a vast, echoing loft, we hear Mekas consoling himself with the thought he is surrounded by the atoms of his loved ones. His foundation of the Anthology Archives in 1970 is here couched as central to a wider commitment to the circulation of images and ideas, a credo borne out in his own filmmaking. His everyday images of New York now seem like postcards, hastily composed to show the folks back home he was alive and thriving; his images of his former home, most memorably compiled in 1972's Reminiscences of a Journey to Lithuania, were illustrations of where he'd come from, and an attempt to better introduce himself to the New World. Some of these fragments may strike the eye and ear as less than entirely paradisical: there's a lot of hanging out with Ginsberg, for starters, and Davison bookends the film with a vaguely distressing clip of the elderly Mekas caught in a moment of profound self-doubt. Yet having all this footage together in the same place confirms the idea that Mekas took up his Bolex camera to see more of the world as it was and as it is. That's what the cinema does: a mechanised liberating force, it frees moments from the tyrannies of time and place and allows them to float through the ether, hopefully carrying the viewer with them as they go. Moving images are migrants, too. Mekas's archival work, meanwhile, suggests a deep-rooted understanding of film as largely composed of other people's memories - and thus something that, whether lofty essay-film or workaday industrial relic, demands to be preserved and handled with care.

Davison certainly does that with the raw material her subject bequeathed her (and us), but she also expands her study outwards beyond mere cinephilia, towards a quietly touching encapsulation of the Mekas worldview. It's clear that, in the main, this was a good life, well lived in the service of a grand cinematic passion; that having been handed a second chance upon liberation from the camps, Mekas spent the rest of his existence annotating the abundant everyday beauty of this world; and that much as he himself was spared the worst, so too he endeavoured to rescue the work (and memories) of others from annihilation. His own images, curious and fumbling though they first appear, look in this context like proofs of love; while Mekas's recognisably staccato narration sounds like that of a hesitant admirer, attempting to convey his affections in an ever-shifting second language. If it hardly seems that Mekas has left us, that's partly because he left another lifetime - perhaps several lifetimes - of footage behind him, and partly because his influence and passion spread far and wide. You can see his spirit metabolised not just in the loved ones Davison interviews here, but in such extant public figures as the critic Richard Brody, digging assiduously around the fringes of the American film scene, and the cult imagemaker John Wilson, taking his camera to scenes of piquantly banal New York life. Few will ever again (have to) cover as much ground as Mekas himself did, however, and while retracing her subject's steps, Davison arrives at one of the best definitions yet of a certain critical mindset: upon being arrested for screening Jack Smith's scandalous underground fantasia Flaming Creatures, Mekas reportedly told close associates "well, OK, now I'll make even more trouble". We can be stubborn sods, we film lovers, which may be one reason Jonas Mekas's own, ever-restless atoms continue to bounce and vibrate among us.

Fragments of Paradise is currently streaming via Channel 4, and available to rent via Prime Video, the BFI Player, YouTube and Dogwoof on Demand.

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