Appropriately, Jonas Mekas’ Diaries, Notes and Sketches (Walden) opens with a dedication to Lumiere. Throughout, Mekas’ film feels like a nod to Auguste and Louis, the most famous of the first filmmakers, who had the opportunity to display the world around them in a way no one had ever seen before — captured on film.
The narrative element of mainstream film has overwhelmingly defined the medium — and rightly so — but it’s worth remembering that not all film must fit into even this most basic of boxes. Mekas, known as the godfather of American avant-garde cinema, isn’t doing something wildly experimental with Walden, although it is decidedly outside the mainstream taste. It certainly has an avant-garde flair, particularly with its juxtaposition of incongruous audio and visual elements, but most often, it’s exactly what its title describes — a diary.
Featuring footage from 1964-1968, Walden is simply a film diary of Mekas’ experiences and surroundings, assembled together chronologically. Some days, he would shoot a few minutes, some a few seconds and on other days, he wouldn’t shoot at all. The result is an inevitably personal look at the life of one man, especially in its moments of simplicity and universality — the planting of a flower garden, a walk through the park, opening Christmas gifts. It also functions as an intimate look into New York City’s underground art movement in the ‘60s. Figures like Allen Ginsberg, Andy Warhol, Nico, John Lennon and Yoko Ono all appear at points.
Divided into six 30-minute reels, Walden isn’t simply raw footage, although it certainly retains that rough quality. Film footage is accompanied by a variety of audio sources, from Chopin to organ music to ambient city noise to Mekas himself singing.
The interest level of each segment certainly varies, and Mekas recognizes this, including in his preface an encouragement to the viewer to only watch what interests him or her. A poster and a book are included with the set to aid viewers in making selections, with extremely detailed information about each section included in each. Mekas’ notes suggest a humble artist, grateful that people are partaking of this highly personal work.
Interestingly, his notes make clear that this is simply a first draft of the work. He released it as is because there is enough worth among the rough parts to be of interest to some, he says, and a fire that threatened to destroy his film cans urged him further to make the work available. Such a release is an intriguing comment on the fluid nature of film —many filmmakers have a difficult time releasing their work, having to settle for stopping somewhere rather than completing the film perfectly as they would’ve wanted it.
Walden is proudly imperfect. It doesn’t strive for singularity or meaning; it’s simply a series of observations, and visual poetry is often the result. Taken in large doses or small, viewers will find something to take away from it as they observe the world of Jonas Mekas right alongside him.
The DVD set from Microcinema International includes the 180-minute film on two discs, along with the explanatory poster and book.