Out-Takes from the Life of a Happy Man
Completed a few months before Jonas Mekas’s 90th birthday, Out-Takes from the Life of a Happy Man is both the latest installment in the series of some two dozen “film diaries” that Mekas has made since the late 1960s, and a new beginning. In other words, more of the same and radically different. Having watched it four times, I also think it is Mekas’s most essential film, although if right now, I were to look at the earlier, grander masterpieces of the film genre that Mekas made his own through 60 years of invention and perseverance—for instance, Walden (69) or Lost Lost Lost (76)—I might modify that last statement. How does one chose between the great films of a master—and why bother?
True to its title, Out-Takes is literally composed of material omitted from previous films, some of it for obvious reasons now rendered pointless by the fresh context Mekas creates for these overexposed (light-ravished) soft-focused (ephemeral) fragments of beauty. The majority of the images are centered in family life, many inside the loft where Mekas and his wife Hollis Melton raised two children, entertained friends, nurtured plants and cats, and where Mekas edited his movies late at night in a small dark room, all the better to see his sun-dappled footage on a tiny viewfinder. This new movie is framed and punctuated by digital footage of Mekas at work on shiny, red rewind table, the hard edge of the video a contrast to the 16mm film he retrieved from the proverbial cutting room floor. Glory be to 16mm—already a signifier of a vanished world.
There are also images of family, friends, animals, birds, flowers, trees, grass in Mekas’s beloved Central Park (his Walden), at the beach, and in bucolic places around the globe. Does this sound familiar? It both is and isn’t. Out-Takes is both lighter and more intense than the great films that preceded it. They were epic poems with Mekas as Ulysses, recording the journey that took him far from his homeland. Out-Takes is a lyric poem, closer in spirit and form to Mekas’s own poetry. The film is an ode to creatures and objects in motion. The flight of a white gull, right to left across the water is as rapturous an image as ever committed to celluloid.
Just when I began to try to pin down the reasons that this film is unique among Mekas’s works, he offered an explanation in voiceover. Like all of Mekas’s films, this one has an audio track composed of his ruminations spoken into a tape recorder as he edits, concrete sounds, and music (Auguste Varkalis’s impressionistic piano improvisations are the perfect counterpoint to the images). This film, Mekas explains, is not about his memories. The memories are gone. The images are all there is. They alone are “real.”
It is as if the burden of the past and of signification had to be lifted for this movie to emerge. The images are not substitutes for the lost paradise of Mekas’s childhood in Lithuania. The images dance together on the screen as things of beauty in themselves. Nothing matters except their movement, the movement of the camera that finds them, and the movement of our eyes joining the dance. And yet, as Mekas explains toward the end, it all begins in the distant past. He remembers as a 5-year-old sitting on his father’s bed at night and telling him “in detail” everything that he did, everything he saw and heard during the day. It was, he says, as if he was singing the day—that’s how intensely he felt his experiences and the words that described them. Out-Takes from the Life of a Happy Man is precisely such a song—a homecoming and a leap into the future.
(Full disclosure: I have known Jonas Mekas for 50 years. I appear briefly in many of his films including this one. He recommended me for my first journalism job, and therefore, I owe my life as a writer, for better or worse, to him. That hasn’t prevented me from occasionally writing negatively about his work.)
Out-Takes from the Life of a Happy Man plays at Anthology Film Archives through May 2.